The Real Eisenhower
Eisenhower was always a confirmed cold warrior. In the years just after World War II, while he was publicly promoting cooperation with the Soviet Union, he wrote in his diary: “Russia is definitely out to communize the world.…Now we face a battle to extinction. … Our form of government is under deadly, persistent, and constant attack.” Peacetime, in his view, was only “the period extending from the present until the assumed ideological war begins.” On the home front, he warned friends about liberals who “would merely advance us one more step toward total socialism, just beyond which lies total dictatorship.” It was time, he proclaimed, to “combat remorselessly all those paternalistic and collectivistic ideas" that would eventually cause "the collapse of self-government.”
For Eisenhower, the battle was ultimately between religious faith and atheistic materialism. The U.S. would win only if “each of us gets out his spiritual armor, shines it up, and goes out to fight until victory is attained,” he wrote to actor Douglas Fairbanks. But material weapons would be needed too. As Army Chief of Staff, he urged that atomic bombing be part of any U.S. war plans. When he circulated a memo from General Leslie Groves, the hawkish military chief of the Manhattan Project, he underlined these words: “The entire nation must be disciplined to withstand cataclysmic destruction of key cities at home and still be able to win the war.”
In 1953, Eisenhower brought all these views with him into the White House. His first inaugural address set the tone: “Forces of good and evil are massed and armed and opposed as rarely before in history.…Freedom is pitted against slavery; lightness against the dark.” To the end of his presidency, his basic message never changed. Midway through his second term, he was still warning that “the menace of communist imperialism” had “almost unlimited power.” “Peace, national safety—survival itself—demand of America strength in its every aspect.”
“The threat we face is not sporadic or dated: It is continuous,” he proclaimed in his next-to-last State of the Union address, endorsing “the never-ending replacement of older weapons with new ones.” And in his Farewell Address the warning about the military-industrial complex, which is quoted everywhere, was immediately followed by words that are typically ignored: “We recognize the imperative need for this development [of the MIC]. … Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action,” because the danger of the communist foe, “a community of dreadful fear and hate[,] … promises to be of indefinite duration.”
This was not merely rhetoric for public consumption. The Soviets were “implacably hostile and seeking our destruction,” the president wrote to Winston Churchill. He was determined to prevent “the Kremlin’s control of the entire earth,” he told another correspondent. His strategy was to “develop a more unified and stronger purpose among free peoples to yield no single inch or advantage to atheistic communism.”When he watched the French go down to defeat in Indochina, he told his National Security Council (NSC) that this was the place where the Soviet Union “leans against [the] dike" of the “free world” most dangerously, promoting “unrest and anarchy.” He wanted to “put a finger in” this “leaky dike,” rather than “let the whole structure be washed away.” “The situation looked very grim,” he complained to Congressional leaders. “Where in the hell can you let the Communists chip away any more? We just can’t stand it.”
Eisenhower never saw any hope of real rapprochement with the Soviets. (“You can’t trust them when they are talking nice, and you can’t trust them when they are talking tough,” he complained to an aide.) He hoped that the cold war would go on indefinitely, because the only alternative he could see was one he wanted to avoid: war. And his desire to avoid war did make him something of a moderate at a time when substantial numbers of Americans -- including some in powerful government positions -- were more willing to run the risk of starting World War III. But the president did not want to avoid war at all costs. He made that clear in one of his first NSC meetings: “If the Soviets attempt to overrun Europe, said the President, we should have no recourse but to go to war.”
During his second term, Eisenhower watched the size and lethal power of the nation’s nuclear arsenal spiral out of control. Many historians suggest that his fear of global destruction made him soften his anticommunist policies and strive harder for peace, because war was now unthinkable. But the once secret, now declassified, documents tell a different story. (Almost all the quotes that follow are from those documents.)
The only real change during the second term was that he spelled out his views, in private, more explicitly. Discussing spiritual values with the Queen of Greece, Eisenhower explained: “To accept the Communist doctrine and try to live with it” would be “too big a price to be alive. He said he would not want to live, nor would he want his children or grandchildren to live, in a world where we were slaves of a Moscow Power.” If World War III erupted during his term in office, he told Congressional leaders, “he might be the last person alive, but there wouldn’t be any surrender.” In a private conference with the British ambassador, he summed up his basic premise most concisely: “The President said that speaking for himself he would rather be atomized than communized.”
When Secretary of State John Foster Dulles boasted that the administration had mastered “the necessary art … the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war,” Eisenhower told aides that he agreed: “It would be unthinkable to be guilty of a Munich. It is likely that you do come to a place uncomfortably close to war, but you cannot retreat and retreat.” Historians long ago debunked the popular image of Dulles as the hard-line cold warrior who was really in charge and undermined a peace-seeking president. Dulles himself acknowledged that Eisenhower called the shots. And it was Dulles who argued for a policy committing the U.S. to "quid pro quo" and compromise with the Soviets: "We could not reduce tensions with the USSR if in each case we expected to gain all the advantage and the Soviets none. Such settlements, he repeated, must be mutually acceptable." It was the president who disagreed and overruled him. Eisenhower surely would have agreed, though, when the Secretary of State said that “the will and ability to fight for vital things is really indispensable to maintenance of peace."
Eisenhower never doubted that the next war would be a nuclear war. The U.S. must be “willing to ‘push its whole stack of chips into the pot’ when such becomes necessary,” he told Congressional leaders. The prospect of nuclear war “should not throw us off balance and render us hysterical,” he added. “We are going to live with this type of crisis for years.”
Early on, he noted in his diary what he later said in public: nuclear weapons would now be “treated just as another weapon in the arsenal.” “We have got to be in a position to use that weapon,” he insisted to Dulles. That became official policy in NSC 5810/1, which declared the U.S. intention to treat nuclear weapons “as conventional weapons; and to use them whenever required to achieve national objectives.” By early 1957, Eisenhower told the NSC that there could be no conventional battles any more: “The only sensible thing for us to do was to put all our resources into our SAC capability and into hydrogen bombs.” He found it “frustrating not to have plans to use nuclear weapons generally accepted.”
Even before he became president, he told an audience that there was no reason to “hide from the horror of the H-bomb. … Every invention of mankind has been capable of two uses, good and evil. It is up to the moral fiber of mankind to decide to which use an invention is put.” From the White House, he repeated the point: “The H-bomb—the H-bomb and the Atomic Age—they are not in themselves a great threat to us.” Privately, “the President said that people are wrong [to fear nuclear weapons], and that perhaps the opinion must be changed.” He and Dulles were “in complete agreement that somehow or other the taboos which surround the use of atomic weapons would have to be destroyed."
This exchange came during an NSC discussion about using atomic bombs in Korea. When the Korean War began, Eisenhower indicated in his diary a willingness to use atomic weapons there. When he returned from his pre-inaugural trip to Korea, he told reporters that the enemy there would be impressed “only by deeds—executed under circumstances of our own choosing,” a phrase he borrowed from an article by Dulles. A year later, Eisenhower himself wrote the words that Dulles would speak in his famous “massive retaliation” speech: “The basic decision was to depend primarily on a great capacity to retaliate, instantly, by means and at places of our choosing.” “Maximum massive retaliation remains the crux of our defense,” the president affirmed late in 1957.
For Eisenhower, the point of amassing a huge nuclear arsenal was not to deter war but to win it. This was enshrined as official policy in NSC 5810/1: “The United States must make clear its determination to prevail if general war occurs.” The only meaningful war aim, the president told the NSC, was “to achieve a victory.” He expressed to Congressional leaders his “absolute conviction” that the only possible plan was "to hit the Russians where and how it would hurt most.…Hit the guy fast with all you’ve got if he jumps on you.” When the Soviets signaled an intention to get involved in the Suez crisis, he warned his advisors, “We would of course be in a major war.” “If those fellows start something, we may have to hit ‘em—and, if necessary, with everything in the bucket.”
Suez was only one place where Eisenhower thought a limited conflict might trigger all-out war. In 1958, he told the NSC that the U.S. should be prepared to use nuclear weapons in South Vietnam and elsewhere in East Asia. A year later, he indicated that he would use nuclear weapons to defend South Korea, although it probably “would cause all-out war.” He speculated about fending off a hypothetical military attack from Yugoslavia, saying “2 bombs make the country helpless.” And if the shelling of Quemoy and Matsu led to war with China, he would have used nuclear weapons to fight to the finish. "He was firmly opposed to any holding back like we did in Korea," he explained to the NSC, even though he knew that “what we mean is general war with the USSR also. … If we are to have general war, he would prefer to have it with Russia, not China…he would 'want to go to the head of the snake.' If we get our prestige involved anywhere then we can't get out."
By 1957, the president was applying the same thinking to all limited wars. He announced publicly that he would use SAC’s strategic nuclear forces in some “future small war.” Many private comments showed that he meant it. “We must now plan to fight peripheral wars on the same basis as we would fight a general war,” he said to the NSC.“If we have to fight, we will fight in Moscow in order not to have to fight in Washington.” NSC 5810/1 made it official policy to use nuclear weapons to “deter limited aggression” as well as a full-scale Soviet attack. “We would certainly have to take the consequences,” he acknowledged at an NSC meeting. But “he was strongly opposed to abandoning our objectives under Soviet pressure. He was afraid of a war in which we would be sticking our toe in the water and if we found the water cold would pull it out again.” At the end of his presidency, when he was most aware of the destructive power of nuclear weapons, he still insisted “that the only practical move would be to start using them from the beginning without any distinction whatever between them and conventional weapons.”
How did Eisenhower think he could win a nuclear war? The crux of his strategy was to strike first. To the Joint Chiefs of Staff he “indicated his firm intention to launch a strategic air force immediately in case of alert of actual attack.” He repeated the point to many others, in private, throughout his presidency: “SAC must not allow the enemy to strike the first blow.” “We should get off our striking power as quickly as possible.” “You try to shoot your enemy before he shoots you.” “We might get information about impending Russian attack which would cause us to fire our missiles.” “Ultimately some President might have to decide that it was his duty to strike the first blow against the USSR.” “The initial strike must be worked out in detail to make sure that all blows were struck simultaneously.” This became official, albeit implicit, policy in NSC 5904/1, “U.S. Policy in the Event of War,” which assumed the possibility of a preemptive response to an impending Soviet attack. In a “real” emergency, Eisenhower expected to launch an “all-out” nuclear war without consulting Congress first. Indeed, he once mused to his Secretary of State that, were he a dictator, he would “launch an attack on Russia.”
There were at least two problems with this strategy of preemption, as Eisenhower recognized. He did not know how to figure out when it was time to start World War III. It needed “the most careful studies on our part,” he told Churchill, “to decide upon the conditions under which we would find it necessary to react explosively.” So he set up a committee to study the problem. Moreover, he could not be sure that he himself would have the power to make the decision. He did not even know the precise rules governing pre-authorization to use nuclear weapons. But he knew that he had authorized some field commanders to use nuclear weapons without his prior approval. And he did not always know who had them; during the Suez Crisis he had to ask whether U.S. forces in the Mediterranean were equipped with nuclear bombs.
Whoever launched the first strike, Eisenhower wanted to plan for what would happen next. His thinking evolved as the power of the weapons grew. In 1954, he told the NSC that the U.S. should plan to ward off an initial attack “and as quickly as possible ourselves to be able to destroy the war potential of the enemy.…The United States might have to contemplate a 12-year mobilization program to achieve final victory.” In the first two to four weeks of the war, “the initial attack and counterattack,” the goal would be “the aversion of disaster; in phase two we would go on to win the war.” Phase one, leaving perhaps “15 [U.S.] cities in ruin,” would be “a period when all we can do is to avert disaster. If we have time to do that job and hit back hard, then we can do the rest in time. But unless we can do this, gentlemen, take my word for it we are going to be shot to pieces.”
By 1958, planning for prolonged war seemed unrealistic. So Eisenhower wanted the U.S. to use its nuclear weapons to “economically paralyze the Russian nation … to destroy the will of the Soviet Union to fight.” A war could never end with a negotiated settlement, he explained to the NSC, because no Soviet promises could ever be trusted. “Once we become involved in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, we could not stop until we had finished off the enemy.” His entire policy, therefore, was simply to “hit the Russians as hard as possible,” “hitting the big industrial and control complexes” in and around Soviet cities. “They, the Russians, will have started the war, we will finish it. That is all the policy the President said he had.” But in case the war continued, he wanted his nuclear-armed Polaris submarines to reload after firing all their missiles. “The President [said he] believed the restrike capability was not a deterrent. Nevertheless he thought it would be very desirable.”
Eisenhower's plans always assumed that the U.S. would be prepared to survive the war. “It would literally be a business of digging ourselves out of ashes, starting again,” he told the NSC. Nevertheless “the U.S. would have to pick itself up from the floor and try to win through to a successful end.” “We are simply going to have to be prepared to operate with people who are ‘nuts,’” he told his Cabinet, to “preserve some common sense in a situation in which everybody is going crazy.”
In 1959, when he was well aware that a nuclear war would kill 100 million or more Americans, he still approved NSC 5904/1, the official U.S. policy for global war, which made the nation’s first objective “to prevail, and survive as a nation capable of controlling its own destiny” by planning for a “quick recovery.” But he was never sure how to do it. “He was searching desperately,” he told the NSC, “to find the best thing for us to do at the present time in order to minimize the terrible results of a nuclear attack on the United States.”
As always, Eisenhower intertwined the material and the spiritual. He applauded a commission that urged a program to teach Americans to be “resolute survivors…a concerted national effort at patriotic renewal and spiritual advance.” The president told the panel “that this was just the kind of thing he had been looking for.…The problem is how you get people to face such a possibility without getting hysterical.” The commission suggested bomb shelters as a symbolic way to make ordinary citizens feel “involved.” When the NSC was briefed on the plan, though, the president’s only question was far from symbolic: How would air coming into shelters be screened to eliminate radioactive particles? A few months later, he told his Cabinet that he wanted to “get private industry active on many of the little ‘practical’ problems as perhaps designing a small air purifier for use by individuals.”
When he realized that the “little ‘practical’ problems” of shelters could not be solved, the president turned to the evacuation of cities as the key to survival. “If it were practiced sufficiently,” he told his Cabinet, “the populace would become conditioned to orderly evacuation.” He called for “a much larger program for the protection of the population,” expressing satisfaction that “our thinking had now progressed to a point that he had been stressing for a long time, namely, how can we recover from a massive nuclear attack.” Eisenhower wanted simulated evacuations to continue “until they became a regular part of our lives.”
His whole reason for fighting was to prevent the communists from imposing a totalitarian state in America. He had long recognized the irony that nuclear war would lead to the very totalitarianism he abhorred. But he confessed to the Cabinet that he saw no way to avoid it: “He was coming more and more to the conclusion that … we would have to run this country as one big camp—severely regimented.” After reading plans for placing the nation under martial law, giving the president power to “requisition all of the nation’s resources–human and material,” he pronounced them “sound.”
Eisenhower wanted to spell out the specific rules that the government would impose after the war. When Secretary of HEW Arthur Flemming “pointed out that the problem was: What would happen to the credit structure of the country?” the president took the question quite seriously. Eisenhower and Secretary of the Treasury Humphrey discussed how to print and sell war bonds to finance the next war if Washington were destroyed.
To the NSC, he raised another concern just as seriously:
The President, referring to the wartime problem of assuring the continuity of essential functions, expressed the view that the Vice President should never be allowed within ten miles of the President during wartime. He noted that if the President and the Vice President were “knocked off,” the “damnable” law of succession would result in the Speaker of the House (or, in the event of his death, the Speaker [sic] Pro Tempore of the Senate) succeeding to the presidency. The President observed that this would result in “the other team” getting into office and, to assure against that happening, the President thought the Vice President should be put in cotton batting.
Eisenhower suggested to his favorite psychological warfare advisor, C.D. Jackson, that war plans might be useful for propaganda work. Though Jackson was himself a hard-boiled cold warrior, he retorted that he "simply wouldn't know what to do" with such "dream stuff." It was indeed dream stuff, detached from reality, and the president knew it, because he ordered it that way. He encouraged government relocation during a general war, and he spent a lot of time with the NSC discussing plans for relocation, but only in the case of "possibly 25 or 30 cities being shellacked.…If we got to the stage of scientific destruction envisaged by intercontinental ballistic missiles, we would be beyond the point of keeping the nation together," and there was no point in talking about relocation or anything else.
Eisenhower stuck to this principle. Since there was no point in planning for the scale of destruction that was likely, he ordered that the estimates of the destruction be changed. He wanted “a basis for further planning which is in the range of something reasonable… manageable or useable.”
The President observed that he had asserted many times that if we assumed too much damage there would be little point in planning, since everything would be in ashes. An earlier presentation had estimated that some areas would not be useable for 30 years after an attack; of course planning on this basis is impossible. While we don’t get off scot free in case of an attack, we should make assumptions which describe a realm in which humans can operate.
So Eisenhower officially directed the NSC to keep “assumptions as to the extent of damage within limits which provide a basis for feasible planning.”
This was hardly the only way that Eisenhower substituted fantasy for reality when it came to nuclear weapons. He ordered the Joint Chiefs that “targeting should avoid unnecessarily high population losses.” He wanted to “avoid non-military destruction and casualties” in the Soviet satellites in World War III, so that the surviving population would rise up and form governments friendly to U.S. interests. He told press conferences: “The H-bomb in proportion to its size is probably one of the cleanest [weapons]”; “The whole policy of the United States is to have cleaner ones, ones that will not be so horrible in their capacity for mass destruction”; he hoped that the U.S. would soon have totally “clean” weapons with no fallout.
According to Dulles, the president wanted him to say publicly “that we would use atomic weapons as interchangeable with the conventional weapons. This did not, of course, mean weapons of mass destruction.” The two discussed “the importance of education with reference to the distinction between atomic missiles for tactical purposes and the big bomb with huge radioactive fall-outs. The President mentioned that our own troops were maneuvering very close to areas where atomic missiles were used.” Perhaps Eisenhower saw these maneuvers as useful practice for war; he discussed detailed plans for “adapting the [Army] Division to the atomic battlefield,” where “small divisions—largely self-contained—would be needed which could weave between contaminated areas.”
How could this other Eisenhower, who planned to fight and win a nuclear war, be the same man who spoke so often and so quotably about the imperative need to pursue nuclear disarmament and lead the world away from war? His private expressions of anxiety about the nuclear danger, which were relatively rare, may have been quite genuine. The consequences of a nuclear war did frighten him -- not so much the unprecedented death and suffering (which he rarely mentioned with much concern), but the need to choose between chaos and totalitarianism, which seemed to be the only postwar alternatives. That kept him awake at night.
But these worries never had much impact on policy. Eisenhower went on approving most of the new weapons programs that anyone in the Pentagon could invent. His personal secretary, Ann Whitman, summed up his whole approach to the issue in a precious moment: “More serious talk of possible war,” she noted in her diary during the 1958 Berlin crisis. “The president at one point said ‘you might as well go out and shoot everyone you see and then shoot yourself’-- which indicates a remarkably depressed view for him to take. But this mood does not last, and routine matters go on pretty much as usual. The President first greeted representatives of the Investment Bankers Association of America.”
In public, it was a different matter. Of all the words that made Eisenhower seem like a “man of peace” (as Time magazine described him after the 1955 Geneva summit), the vast majority were spoken in public and crafted for public effect. When the president pleaded to the NSC, “We are trying to lead the world back from the brink of disaster.…We have simply got to find something that will work in this field,” he said little about the dangers of war. Rather, he based his argument on “the enormous importance of the psychological and public relations aspect of the disarmament proposal.” At another meeting, he expressed “with great emphasis the necessity we were under to gain some significant psychological advantages in the world. Everybody seems to think that we’re skunks, saber-rattlers and warmongers. We ought not to miss any chance to make clear our peaceful objectives.”
For Eisenhower “everybody” meant, above all, the public in the NATO nations of western Europe. He worried obsessively that antinuclear sentiment there would force allied governments to resist U.S. cold war plans and perhaps even turn to neutralism. He also worried about public opinion in neutral nations. Only rarely did he show concern for public opinion in the U.S.
To the world, he never did miss a chance to voice America’s desire for peace. He offered the “Atoms for Peace” plan to dramatize a U.S. desire for peace: both sides would give a fixed proportion of their nuclear materials to an international pool for peaceful use. But he told aides at the outset the secret of the plan: “The amount X could be fixed at a figure which we could handle from our stockpile, but which it would be difficult for the Soviets to match."
Eisenhower appointed Harold Stassen as a so-called Secretary of Peace, saying privately that if Stassen “could do something to dramatize our interest in ‘peace’ to counteract the Soviet peace offensives that might be good.” Stassen helped draft another dramatic gesture: the “Open Skies” proposal. Eisenhower admitted that he met the Soviet leaders at Geneva and made the proposal mainly as a propaganda move, “to correct the false picture of the U.S. which many people had come to accept.” “We knew the Soviets wouldn’t accept it,” he later told an interviewer. “We were sure of that.” “The results of the Conference mean that you can’t let down an inch,” he told his top aides after the Geneva summit meeting. “In certain ways we will probably have to step up our precautions because there seems to be no idea on the part of the Soviet leaders that such matters as justice and decency exist in Europe and in the world. … We have no change in our policy of peace through strength.”
“Atoms for Peace,” “Open Skies,” and all of Eisenhower's words of peace were widely praised, but they produced few lasting results. “Our public relations problem almost defies solution,” he complained to Dulles. The problem was indeed insoluble. He was trying to persuade the world that he wanted to reduce nuclear weapons while every day he built more of them and resisted efforts for disarmament. The president complained that “we of the West are at present in the position of refusing everything brought up. This presents a poor image to the world.” But as he himself admitted to the Joint Chiefs, U.S. disarmament offers were usually designed to make it “very unlikely that the Soviets would accept our proposal, and if they were to accept, it is very unlikely that we would suffer disadvantage.” It was his official policy that “the United States should continue to refuse to accept nuclear disarmament except as part of general disarmament,” which would surely never happen. But the U.S. would continue to negotiate disarmament in order to gain “the maximum psychological advantage.”
Toward the end of his second term, the pressure for a ban on nuclear testing seemed almost irresistible. “Testing is not evil,” the president told Dulles. “But the fact is that people have been brought to believe it is. … World opinion, even if not well founded, is a fact.” Yet even if the U.S. were forced to a total test ban, he assured Edward Teller, nuclear researchers should continue “with their current vigor and devotion. … It will be necessary that we maintain our weapons development progress during the period and with no less urgency than in the past.” When he agreed to pursue a test ban independent of disarmament, bowing to world opinion, he noted that “he could not see why we could not conduct experiments underground.”
By the end of his second term, he informed the NSC that the U.S. expected to get militarily useful results from the Plowshares tests, while publicly insisting that they were for peaceful uses only: “The President commented that the only real hazard is that the Soviets test and we do not. But the fact is that we have been doing some experimenting.” “If we could keep the secret from the press, he would authorize small clandestine shots.”
Cheating, lying, and dissimulation were morally permissible in Eisenhower's cold war code. So was the wholesale slaughter of nuclear war. In a letter to a friend he explained that “some of our traditional ideas of international sportsmanship are scarcely applicable” in the fight against communism. The United States was fighting for truth, justice, and liberty, but (he emphasized) “we must not confuse these values with mereprocedures.” If the “mere procedures” offered cold war advantage, no matter how many died, it made no sense to reject them just because “they would have been considered, in Victorian times, completely outside the pale.”
It is hard to give up the “man of peace” that peace activists have come to admire. And perhaps it’s not fair to give him up. After all, we can never know what another person truly believes. But the record of the other Eisenhower is so consistent and so extensive (I’ve offered only a sampling here) that it is hard to ignore. More importantly, it is dangerous to ignore, because the other Eisenhower was the one who made actual policy. It was a policy that put anticommunist ideology above human life, made by a man who would “push [his] whole stack of chips into the pot” and “hit ‘em … with everything in the bucket”; a man who would “shoot your enemy before he shoots you” and “hit the guy fast with all you’ve got”; a man who believed that the U.S. could “pick itself up from the floor” and win the war, even though “everybody is going crazy,” as long as only 25 or 30 American cities got “shellacked” and nobody got too “hysterical.”
That’s how one president talked about nuclear war, a president who is now especially widely admired across the political spectrum. It should make us wonder how less admirable presidents talked, and thought. And it should remind us how easily presidents can create images that mask profoundly important truths.
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