9-11: Don’t Overreach

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Mr. Boulton is Assistant Professor of History at Villa Julie College, Stevenson, Maryland.

The Athenian ambassador gave the citizens of Melos a stark choice, become an ally with Athens in their war against Sparta, or be eliminated. It was already an old story, as old as civilization itself.

Two great civilizations faced each other. Democratic Athens was already cosmopolitan and economically diverse, while their enemy Sparta clung to old ways. The conflict between old and new, between economic expansion and local conservatism has repeated itself a thousand times. During the nineteenth century in the United States, it was the North and the South. Now at the beginning of the twenty-first century we face the same conflict.

In the fifth century BC, Athenian ships traded with their neighbors throughout the Mediterranean. As their wealth increased and their empire expanded, they learned new ideas and ultimately invented the foundations of modern philosophy, politics, art, and literature.

Sparta, meanwhile, was politically and socially backward. They depended upon their slaves to grow their crops, and their young men spent their lives training for war. They saw the freedoms of Athens as license, and Athenian philosophies as a rejection of their traditional gods. The very word"spartan" still evokes their rejection of physical comforts, their emotional self-control, their courage, and their dedication to their cause.

In 415 BC, during the middle of the conflict known in the history books as the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), Athens sent an expedition against Melos, a colony of Sparta. In the face of the overwhelming power of the Athenians, the Melians pleaded for mercy. They asked the Athenian emissaries only to remain neutral in the conflict.

Following an aggressive war policy advocated by Cleon the leader of the war party in Athens, the Athenians rejected the Melians' request. To accept the Melians' terms, they said, would make them appear weak, and give aid to her enemies. When the Melians refused to submit, the Athenians laid seige to the city and when the Melians at last surrendered, the Athenians killed all the grown men and sold their wives and children into slavery.

Despite these policies the Athenians ultimately lost the Peloponnesian war, and the city-states of Greece suffered under a series of shifting alliances and wars for the next sixty years, until they were all brought under the domination of the Macedonian conquerors, Philip and his son, Alexander.

This essential story was played out again over 2,000 years later as the North faced the South in the U.S.'s Civil War. Again, a cosmopolitan, economically diverse society, which celebrated individual freedoms, was confronted with a local, economically backward, society, which was frightened by all of the appendages of modern progress.

Abraham Lincoln's war policy, however, was dramatically different from that of Cleon and the ancient Athenians. Lincoln's first war goal was to retain the loyalty of the"border states" of Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Delaware. Beyond this, to avoid alienating neutrals and moderates, he continually courted friends and foes even in the enemy camp.

Lincoln's primary goal as a military leader was to bring the war to a conclusion as quickly as possible by waging an aggressive war. He did so, however, because he believed that the longer the war lasted, the greater the possibility of changes in our political system and our national character. Unique among leaders of a nation at war, Lincoln realized that this was a war of brother against brother. He knew that after the war was over, the two great enemies would still have to find a way to live together peacefully, for economic reasons if for no others. The great industrial strength of the North, perhaps, made a Northern victory inevitable. Lincoln's policy of"malice toward none, and charity for all," however, and not the North's industrial and military might, ultimately paved the way for a united and prosperous nation that has withstood all of its numerous trials ever since.

Lincoln, of course, was not completely successful in binding up the nation's wounds. The United States still suffers from perhaps the greatest failure of the Civil War - - the failure to bring full justice to all of our citizens. Racial and ethnic inequality and injustices, perhaps exacerbated during the Civil War era, still haunt the nation. Let us hope that during the present crises these old prejudices do not keep us now from winning a lasting peace.

Lincoln was able to envision the shape of a peace after the war was over. His vision of a United States succeeded in large part because he realized that a lasting peace ultimately depended not only on arms but on our ability to reach out, and built trust and respect with those whom many saw only as our enemies.

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h.h. mccool - 3/12/2002

this is really a very parochial, simplistic and juvenile bit of comparative history. no mention is made of athens overbearing and underhanded attempts to turn the delian league into an athenian empire, or of athens exploitation of her clients and neighbors.

the description of the south on the eve of the civil war is, of course, very simplistic and does not take into account much recent scholarship that shows that the region was not economically backward. it also fails to point out that the notions of freedom and liberty that the author praises as characteristic of the north were formulated and instituted by southerners, or that northerners, in general, were notoriously racist and had no use for black people (most northern states refused to grant them citizenship and some, like indiana, made it illegal for blacks to enter the state).

in like manner, the author glosses over the facts of recent terrorism, failing to acknowledge that the economic backwardness and conservatism of much of the world results from the ruthless exploitation of these areas by the u s and other european countries that have divested them of their resources without paying proper remneration.

this stuff doesn't even qualify as suitable history for grade schoolers. why don't you guys get some noted historians to write some accurate history for you?

h h mccool