Kiron Skinner: 2003 Was Like 1983 ... A Year We Saw Pay-Offs for Being Strong

Roundup: Historians' Take

Kiron K. Skinner, assistant prof. at Carnegie Mellon University and co-editor of Reagan: A Life in Letters, writing in the NYT:

Historical analogies are always fraught with incongruities. Yet we make them anyway, perhaps to reassure ourselves that even though the present seems grim, the past either predicts that things will improve or at least reminds us that things aren't as bad now as they once were. So looking back at the international scene in 1983, the height of what became known as the"renewed cold war," might help us come to terms with the war we fought in 2003. And looking back at 1984, the year in which marked improvements on the most deadly issues in Soviet-American relations became manifest, might give us hope for a better New Year.

In the fog of war, be it cold or hot, we sometimes forget that atmospherics, headlines and punditry typically belie a more fundamental reality. That is the lesson of 1983. It was a year in which America's position in the world seemed most precarious, but it was also a time in which remarkable international cooperation was beginning to take hold. Although not visible to the public, turning points in the cold war were occurring. And despite vigorous protests against American foreign policy on both sides of the Atlantic, the Western alliance was becoming stronger and more durable. Sounds familiar.

As in 2003, the American president was widely blamed in 1983 for risking his country's security and future. President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy was called into question when American military forces were killed in Lebanon and invaded Grenada in October. And President Reagan was dubbed a warmonger when, within a span of little more than two weeks in March, he called the Soviet Union an"evil empire" and then announced that he was authorizing research and development for strategic defense.

Many in the United States and the Soviet Union thought that the Strategic Defense Initiative undermined the spirit and the letter of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972. Furthermore, President Reagan was seen as not committed to arms control because he firmly held to the position that unless a bilateral agreement on intermediate-range nuclear missiles could be reached, he would deploy such weapons on Western European soil by the end of the year to counter Russian missiles behind the Iron Curtain.

In the United States and in Europe, demonstrations calling for a nuclear freeze (some instigated by the Soviet Union) were mounting. There was lingering rancor among Western European leaders over Mr. Reagan's 1982 decision — partly in response to the Soviet crackdown on the political liberalization in Poland — to punish licensees and subsidiaries of American companies in Europe working on the Siberia-to-Western Europe natural gas pipeline.

Still, despite this friction in allied relations, the leading Western industrial nations concurred on a security communiqué at their annual summit meeting in May 1983. The document essentially endorsed Mr. Reagan's stance at the intermediate nuclear arms talks in Geneva. The French, Germans and Japanese came on board, and it didn't stop there.

Much to the chagrin of the Soviet leadership and the protesters, 1983 lived up to its sobriquet as"the year of the missiles." In a stunning set of votes in the fall of 1983, Western European Parliaments approved the deployment of American cruise and Pershing II missiles on their soil. Tomahawk cruise missiles arrived in Great Britain on Nov. 14; two days later, Italian legislators voted in favor of deployment; on Nov. 22, the West German Parliament approved allowing the missiles; the next day, the Soviets walked out of the talks on intermediate range nuclear forces.

Shortly thereafter, Moscow declined to set a date for resuming talks on strategic arms reduction and on conventional armaments. Looking stern and with their backs turned to each other, President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, appeared on the cover of Time as"Men of the Year." Apocalyptic predictions were everywhere.

Yet amid this doom and gloom, several crucial diplomatic events were taking place. After the opening of a back-channel dialogue between President Reagan and Soviet leaders in early 1983, two Soviet Pentecostal families who had taken refuge in the American Embassy in Moscow nearly five years earlier were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. As Secretary of State George P. Shultz noted,"this `special issue' was the first successful negotiation with the Soviets in the Reagan administration."

Quiet diplomacy was gaining momentum. In an exchange of letters in the summer of 1983, Mr. Reagan and Mr. Andropov wrote of their shared desire to reduce the nuclear threat. Though not publicly visible at the time, these cold-war"escape routes" were being put into place.

And in 1984, the improvements in Soviet-American relations became visible to the public — and they were striking. On Jan. 16, President Reagan gave a comprehensive speech about peace and cooperation. Having established military and political resolve, he argued, America was now prepared to engage in negotiations with the Soviet Union and work toward reducing nuclear arsenals. On Sept. 28, he had his first meeting with a member of the Soviet Politburo, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, and the two undertook a comprehensive review of the state of bilateral relations....

As with Mr. Reagan's speech on negotiation with the Soviet Union in 1984, some have characterized these recent events as part of a grand scheme to ensure President Bush's re-election. Well, as much as we might want to think so, American domestic politics isn't the prime motivating factor for all that happens in the world.

It was the strategy of strength and resolve in 1983 that marked the final turning point of cold war. A similar strategy might be at work again. If so, 2004 won't just be an election year, but a year in which the world could change. There is such a thing as history redux.


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Harold Brackman - 1/9/2004

Albeit addicted to blood-and-gore and historical anachronism, Mel Gibson, maker of the soon-to-be-released Passion of Christ, is a much more accomplished filmmaker than David Klinghoffer is a reliable historian. The title of Klinghoffer’s forthcoming book—Why the Jews Rejected Jesus—is sufficient reason to consign it preemptively to the trash bin. The Jews didn’t “reject Jesus”; they essentially ignored him. Instead, the (Pauline) Christians rejected Judaism, initiating a lethal sibling rivalry.

Regarding the description of Jesus’ Passion in the Christian scriptures and the rabbinic literature including Maimonides, this much can be said. First, the four gospels give conflicting accounts of whether or not Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, what the charges and verdict (if any) may have been, and how the subsequent Roman trial proceedings (assuming there were any) may have unfolded. Possibly, the Sadduceean priestly aristocracy colluded with the Romans against Jesus, but chronology and details in the gospel narratives vary greatly and are subject to heated debate and radically different interpretations. The most prudent verdict concerning all the varied claims and theories of Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion is: “not proven.”

Second, there is no agreement among historians that the Midrash, Talmud, and Maimonides have any independent historical value in determining what actually happened to Jesus. There is no mention of Jesus by name in any Tannaitic literature, produced during the first to third centuries by Palestinian rabbis who were closest in geography and time to Jesus’ crucifixion. The halakhic Midrashim also do not contain any information on Jesus. What we have instead are fragmentary references from the Talmud, compiled by the Amorim during the fourth and fifth centuries. One problem with these is that they may be parasitic reworkings for polemical purposes of the rabbis’ exposure to the Christian scriptures and therefore lack independent historicity. The second problem is that they are inconsistent about the biography of Jesus of Nazareth. Sometimes, he seems to be confused with other Jesuses or Yeshuas; other times, to be conflated with figures named Ben Stada and Ben Pandira; and the rabbis also seem a bit uncertain about whether he was stoned in Lodz or hanged in Jerusalem. Perhaps these Talmudic stories derive from oral traditions dating back to the first century that earlier were ignored or suppressed, and perhaps they contain nuggets of historical truth—but that is supposing too much.

Klinghoffer accurately quotes Maimonides, though he fails to point out that—while contemptuous of Jesus—he respected monotheistic Christianity for civilizing the heathen. Klinghoffer’s reverence for Maimonides (whom other medieval rabbis anathemized as a heretic) is touching, but irrelevant to evaluating the worth of what Maimonides wrote about the crucifixion 1,000 years after the event. We might just as well credit the opinion of today’s Talmudic translator, Adin Steinsaltz, who doubts that references such as Sanhedrin 43a really refer to the historical Jesus of Nazareth (“of Nazareth”—according only to one manuscript). The prolific Jacob Neusner, as a general proposition, also questions mining the Talmud as if it were a biographical encyclopedia. And J. Meier’s Jesus von Nazareth in talmudischer Überlieferung (Darmstadt, 1978), probably the most important recent scholarly treatment of the subject, is highly skeptical about the Talmud as an accurate historical source concerning Jesus and his times.

The cliché has it: “read the book—don’t see the movie.” In this case, if you are interested in historical accuracy, do neither.