The American Future: A History
The American Future: A History

The American Future: A History

Jun 1, 2009

In a dazzling display of learning and verbal virtuosity, Simon Schama takes us from Arlington Cemetery to the contrasts between the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian worldview; to China and Afghanistan; and to many points in between.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome our members and guests. Thank you for joining us.

It's quite obvious by the large turnout and from the number of people turned away that the reputation of our speaker has preceded him. I know you would not have gotten up so early this morning if you do not appreciate the idiosyncratic genius that is Simon Schama.

Today he is here to discuss his most recent work, The American Future: A History, in which his incredible ability as a storyteller comes through, setting a standard that many would like to follow but so few do. This book was a four-part series for the BBC and shown on PBS earlier this year.

In researching this televised series and book, Professor Schama spent months traveling across America. He collected a vast amount of information that provides a nuanced perspective on the 2008 presidential election and the candidate who reached back into American history to help us believe in our country and ourselves again. As he writes, "Everything contemporary seemed impregnated with history."

As Professor Schama takes a look at the multiple crises facing our country, such as the financial crisis, ongoing wars, immigration, and energy shortages, he understands what is at stake right now. He poignantly asks how these problems and others look in the mirror of time and whether we can discern any patterns for what is forthcoming.

To find the answer Professor Schama cleverly uses four timeless themes as a launching pad from which to investigate our identity as a nation. These are our military might, religious fervor, immigration, and our abundance of natural resources. He sees in each a thread that is woven into the fabric of our nation's past, to the time of the Founding Fathers and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

That Professor Schama weaves the past into the present is not unusual for a historian. But what is exceptional and sets this narrative apart from others are not only his skills as a reporter, but his artistic sensitivity to people and situations. These qualities ensure that voices from the past will be heard again.

In addition, in the same way that he juxtaposes stories of contemporary Americans whom he encountered from his travels during the campaign with a consideration of those who have come before, he pairs each theme with an opposite reaction. For example, when talking about war, he presents the ideas of a militarist like Theodore Roosevelt and contrasts him with the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, whose weariness of military pursuits is well known. Or take the religiosity of Americans, an idea that he pairs with the notion of separation of church and state.

Now, some of you may be wondering if events from the past can really help us to see more clearly into the future. Well, if your name is Simon Schama, the answer would be emphatically "Yes." But even so, if you listen carefully and read this book, I am confident that you too will be able to draw on our great past in order to find reasons to be confident about our future.

At this time I ask that you join me in giving a very warm welcome to our very special guest as he takes us on an exhilarating journey back into the future.

Simon Schama, we are so glad you are here. Thank you so much.


SIMON SCHAMA: Thank you, Joanne. That's not only the kindest introduction I've had to a number of talks I'm giving but the most accurate as well, with one exception. I don't want this to be put churlishly, and I wouldn't mention it—despite all my years growing up in England, I am still, I hope, a gent—but it wasn't shown on PBS. And actually, as I said, I wouldn't mention it, but it was shown on BBC America.

Therein lies an interesting tale. Anybody from PBS here? I would still go ahead and tell you the story, or perhaps I'd especially go ahead.

It was to be shown on PBS, yes. They couldn't wait to commission it. They couldn't wait to co-produce it. And then it turned out they could wait, and the reason they could wait is interesting, because it goes to the heart of the premise of the book. The reasons given were generally about your historians. What they were worried about, and what actually I think some other people are worried about, is the marriage between the past and present going on in this book and that went on in this series.

The series was indeed—we followed the campaign, not talking to politicians, but talking to regular people—Veterans for Obama, Evangelical Pastors for Huckabee, and so on—as well as following those back stories through the centuries, all the way back to the Founding Fathers. There was something about the mixing of genre that actually—I don't know—I think knocked those who make these decisions off their stride down in Washington.

But I'm fairly unrepentant about that, because you can take two views about history. It can be a kind of consolatory antique furniture polish, a sort of decoration for the callow contemporaneity of our lives. Or it can be, as I think the second Founding Father in the Western tradition, Thucydides, wished it to be, an instruction. The pater historiae [father of history], the historian who preceded Thucydides—you didn't think you were going to get Greeks this morning, did you, and there will be an exam before we let you out of here—Herodotus, in the very first line, says, "I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, have set this down."

He uses the word "historia." Hands up who knows what the translation from Greek of "historia" is the first time it is uttered in our tradition? Come on, class. It may be early. It means "an inquiry." It doesn't mean "a story." Those of us who actually do like to wallow around in storytelling might wish that, especially for an old gossip like Herodotus, that it would actually simply mean "story." But it doesn't.

From the beginning, history, as Thucydides would make it, asks tough questions. History, in other words, shouldn't simply be the genealogy, of feeling wonderful about the way we do now. It should actually keep us awake at night, not send us to sleep. It is definitely not in the thumb-sucking business.

What distinguishes the Western historical tradition from, let's say, totalitarian traditions or mythic traditions, which do simply want to describe the glory of kings past and present in order to establish that connection, is precisely that in Thucydides, in particular History of the Peloponnesian Wars, the point of writing it was a disaster, was a problem, was an anxiety, the expedition to Syracuse. It is not a book in the end about that Periclean speech about why it is worthy to die for democracy. Although the speech, always ripped out of context and given to our children for their core curriculum study, as important though that is, it is ultimately an inquiry into catastrophe, into what befell hubristically the overextended empire of Athens, which may be why Senator Byrd chose to read large chunks of it, not actually as a matter of fact at the beginning of the last Iraq war, but at the beginning of the Gulf War.

But it is really, I would suggest to you, another reason why one feels really the chilly shadow of the stern Greeks on one's shoulder—one should, really—as one writes contemporary history or a mixture of contemporary history and recent history. That is that one thing we can congratulate ourselves about in the Western tradition, and why I hope our children will go on reading history and why non-children will too, is that its integrity lies in its honesty, its embrace of self-criticism.

History began in the West as a tragic muse, a cautionary muse, something really not very far away from the line of Scripture quoted by the present president, bravely I felt, on the day of his inauguration, when he said, "It is time to put away childish things."

Barack Obama then followed that admonition against smiley faces—and I don't know about you, but I thought the real enemy of the temper of that interesting inaugural speech was not actually the departing administration so much as Ronald Reagan's insistence that it would always be, or certainly was as soon as he was inaugurated, morning in America. It was the sort of sunshiny, Pollyanna-ish sense that we can actually recover American energy simply by wishing it would be so, a sort of Wizard of Oz-ish expression really of the American can-do spirit.

What Obama was saying, I thought, again bravely but gloomily—there was a lot of the Victorian headmaster about that speech—if I had any criticism of it, I thought that those of us, millions of us, out there freezing our keesters off in sub-Arctic temperatures wanted a bit of a national cuddle, and that he would not give us. That he felt the time had gone by for. What he wanted instead was a cold shower.

Hence, we had a recitation, an historical recitation, because, God help us, we now have not just a writer in the White House—ahhh!—but we have a historian in the White House, as you know. What we got was an account of American history as adversity. We had a reference to those of his ancestors who lived under the lash in slavery, those who had braved steerage under the nightmare journeys at the end of the 19th century to become immigrants, leave the ship in Ellis Island, those who had lived in terrifying desolation out on the waterless prairies.

We ended the speech, just in case we weren't sufficiently admonished, over-Thucydides'ed to death possibly, of course with the not particularly cheerful moment of Washington staring gloomily at the ice floes on the Delaware. However, he was about to cross it and, so Obama promised, might we. Well, we should cover that kind of history, which somehow negotiated American optimism with what he wished to be and what he clearly wishes is equally a part of the American tradition, American realism.

So a rather remarkable moment, not such a moment perhaps since Theodore Roosevelt, to have an historian in the White House. Of the two versions of history, I know which one I'd rather vote for actually, remarkable as Teddy Roosevelt was in some—not all—ways.

So this project, both as television and indeed as writing, as history, was conceived in a shameless sense as the possibility of an address between the past to the present, as you heard from Joanne's kind introduction.

It reminds me of someone I knew in a Welsh history department a long time ago, before many of you were born I think. The chairman of the department always used to pick up the phone wonderfully and simply say, "History calling." It called to me on November the 11, 2007—I'm just going to read you a tiny bit—of the way it called to me Veterans Day in 2007, before the campaign began:

"'America has never been a warrior culture.' Just because it was Dick Cheney saying this didn't automatically make it untrue, even on Veterans Day in Arlington National Cemetery a year before the election. Patriotic chest-thumping from an inpenitent vice-president was not what anyone, least of all veterans themselves, wanted to hear. Bodies of young American men and women were showing up regularly at Section 60"—they still are, of course. "At the foot of the grassy hill, mustard-colored backhoes stood parked in a row, steel claws raised ready to dig. Every so often on the hour a soft clop of horses' hooves could be heard coming over the dips and rises of the cemetery path before a reversed gun carriage rolled into view.

"Most weekdays, every hour or so, these small, sad parades do the funerary honors as tourist buses are diverted to alternative routes heading for the Unknown Soldiers or JFK. But if you walk the green vales of Arlington, you can catch young soldiers of the Third Infantry getting ready for their next duty, operating the forklifts that hoist the coffins onto the carriages.

"Others grab a quiet smoke beneath the plane trees before dressing the horses and getting on their ceremonials. Out in Samarra and Helmand and Mosul and Kandahar a great many more mutilated and eviscerated bodies not American are being tended to as best as possible without benefit of flag or drums. Only the keening sounds the same.

"But in Arlington on Veterans Day 2007 in Memorial Amphitheater there was no howling except from small children squirming against the captivity of their mothers' laps. Cheney would utter the consolatory pieties with studied quietness, his voice falling at the end of the sentence, as if the avoidance of vocal histrionics were itself a symptom of truth telling. Perhaps he has Theodore Roosevelt's injunction to 'speak softly and carry a big stick' framed over the vice-presidential desk.

"When every so often an infant would let rip with an aaah, the note bouncing off the columns, Cheney would look up from the teleprompter, sight line briefly changed, and then move impassively to the next homily, like a tank rolling over a cat."

We carried on filming that day. It was interesting, really, how genuinely and movingly genial the morning was actually, touchingly so, as they are on Veterans Day. But later we had a little filming break. I looked back up towards—

How many of you have been there? Many of you have been there, I'm sure, to the National Cemetery.

What you see at the top of the hill, of course, is Arlington House. How many of you know who owned Arlington House? Nobody? You're kidding.

VOICE: Robert E. Lee.

SIMON SCHAMA: Yes, Robert E. Lee, exactly so. I knew that.

But what I didn't know, and you cleverer people probably do, is why actually the first great national cemetery—those of you who don't know about the cemetery, about the rituals of the burials of the dead in the Civil War, must read Drew Faust's wonderful book, called This Republic of Suffering.

But the man who actually created that particular cemetery—and I say this to you because it was such a shocking and illuminating instance of the past speaking to the present, and indeed to the American future—was a man called Montgomery Meigs, who was the quartermaster general of the Union Army. He was the man really, as much as Ulysses Grant or Abraham Lincoln, in my view, who won the war for the Union. He was the man who provided food, shelter, guns, clothes, uniforms, transport. And, as you historians all know, the Union basically out-endured, rather than out-battlefield-fought, the South.

So Montgomery Meigs was a powerful figure.

One of his duties was to think about the way in which battlefield burial grounds, indeed like the one next to Gettysburg, filled up quickly. Meigs, who lost his own son in the Shenandoah campaign in 1864, wanted a kind of national monument to the slaughter and the sacrifice. The reason he wanted it so badly and why he felt so angrily—and he was not temperamentally an angry man at all—was the following.

He and Robert E. Lee had been friends. They had both been West Point graduates. Their first job has been as civil engineers widening the Mississippi to prevent flooding just in front of St. Louis. They had spent a long time surveying the river. They were close, as West Point graduates in those early generations tended to be. Meigs had gone on to be a civil engineer. He had also built forts around the country, Fort Wayne for example.

But when that critical moment came when Lee had been offered command of both the Confederate and Union armies and had chosen the Confederate Army, because he felt he had to respond to what he called "my countrymen," Meigs was so incredulous and so shocked and so aghast that iron entered his soul.

Later in the Civil War, he, in contrast to President Lincoln, was absolutely unsparing. And should West Pointers, like Jeff Davis for example, as well as Robert E. Lee, be caught, he wanted them more or less summarily tried and hanged.

But what he decided to do in the early autumn of 1863 was to bury the first Union soldiers in basically Mrs. Lee's rose garden, to expropriate his ex-friend's house. "They will never go home," said Meigs in a letter to his wife. What he meant was really that Lee had really contaminated his true home, the Union, so that his physical architectural home would not be left to him.

Now, Meigs was really someone who fought the war. By the way, those of you who know Washington, he was a considerable architect. He completed, really designed in the end, the dome to the Capitol. He created Washington's first decent hydraulic fresh water system outside Philadelphia. And also, he built what is how the National Building Museum, an extraordinary Romanesque, quasi-Byzantine, amazingly beautiful building.

Initially, and very significantly, it was built by Meigs and still has his extraordinary frieze of soldiers, including black soldiers, around its façade. It was the Pension Building. It was really the Army building, built in the 1860s and 1870s, which Meigs wanted to respond physically to the fate of those who had survived actually on both sides of the war.

But Meigs, as I say, was not someone who thought of himself as a born warrior, oddly enough. You were either two things in the Meigs family, and you almost still are. There's a General Montgomery Meigs now, who led the NATO force in Bosnia. At Carnegie, many of you probably know him. He now teaches at Georgetown a course called "Why presidents go to war when they don't actually have to."

It's interesting that Monty, who is just the most wonderful person, does actually give such a course, because the Meigses have always been, as they think of themselves, in terms of foreign policy—and this is something that the quartermaster general's father said—

I was going to say the other half of the family are doctors. So there you have that dilemma.

Montgomery Meigs, the quartermaster general's father, said, "We are all staunch Jeffersonians," by which he meant the following: that in Jefferson's view—not in Hamilton's view, to which I will come in just a second—in Jefferson's view, America would only remain America if it turned its back on the kind of blood-soaked, Machiavellian maneuvers of the Old World. America's only duty was to preserve its own democratic identity.

The Atlantic Ocean—and the Pacific Ocean indeed, but the Atlantic Ocean immediately for Jefferson's purposes—helped with that. But it was of absolutely the most paramount importance that America heeded his own radical reading of the remarks made by George Washington in his Farewell Address, to avoid foreign entanglements. In other words, it was of the essence for the fate of American democracy to be able to differentiate between wars of choice and wars of necessity.

He said that, as in many other respects, Jefferson often violated his own [inaudible] principles about America, because he was the first to go to war, as you know, against the Barbary pirates. He didn't actually start the war, it started in John Adams' presidency, but Jefferson pursued it eagerly to a conclusion. Nonetheless, that Jeffersonian principle remained very important to him.

The sense in which the point of being America was, indeed, this tired, old, ragged word we now call "exceptionalism," was to preserve and protect and uphold and sustain and nourish the American difference. Therefore, in some sense, Dick Cheney's truism—which is why I said just because he was saying it didn't mean it was untrue—was profoundly true and profoundly faithful.

Living here for 30 years, I still believe—I have given the odd talk at West Point, and a more decent, intelligent, spirited, and brave set of young men and women you couldn't conceivably find anywhere in the world, I think—I don't think America is a warrior nation. You all know these painful, upsetting ceremonies in high school gymnasia when the bodies of young men and women are brought home and the kind of grieving of local communities for the fallen. That's an entirely authentic part of American national DNA in my view.

But there is an alternative view, and there always was. This is the sort of pattern set out in the book for the past speaking to the present. The alternative view was, of course, Hamilton's. Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton was a soldier. He fought alongside Washington, sometimes literally. Incredibly brave, very brave, as you know, at the Battle of Yorktown, a giant storm, what was left of the British redoutes.

Hamilton grew up, of course, in the West Indies. He is someone who felt very ambivalently about the Brits. He thought they were indeed—well, he knew they were the enemy. But in a peculiar sense, which was profoundly untrue of Jefferson, whose lodestar was France of course, Hamilton felt the British had got the right idea. For all their corruption and tyranny and the monstrosity from which America had indeed necessarily to escape, the notion of a strong central government, which we don't often hear about actually about 18th-century Britain, but that was at the heart of its identity and its imperial power, a very, very strong revenue-gathering force—there was nothing you wanted to see less if you lived, let's say, in Wiltshire or Kent, than a bunch of revenue officers riding towards you. This is almost the only utterance I share in common with Rush Limbaugh, I think, actually.

Hamilton also thought that it was a very good idea—this will not surprise you—that the Bank of England, both selling what we now call bonds, Treasury bills, to fund the national debt, enabled the British Empire, for example, to replenish the Royal Navy, the actual heart and soul and force and center of its ability to throw its power across the oceans of the world. So Hamilton, even as he was devoted to the overthrow of the British Empire in North America, was rather an admirer of his enemy.

Above all, he felt about America—I guess if he had been in the room with Jefferson, which he occasionally was, he would have said something to the effect of, "For God's sake, wise up," or 18th-century words to that effect. America, in Hamilton's view, the point was not to be something fresh and virginal and innocent in the world. It was to be a great power. Democracy would only survive if it embraced its greatness: commercial, industrial, financial, and indeed military.

Why, Hamilton inquired, would America be the only power in the world to try and protect itself with one hand tied behind its back? By which he meant why would America not want to create a professional military corps at an institution of the kind that became West Point, a war school of the kind represented by the Woolwich Arsenal in London, or by the Prussian military schools, or the French schools at Saint-Cyr, the cavalry school, or the Ecole Polytechnique? It made no sense to Hamilton. It was part of the kind of childish, empty, enlightenment, utopian piety, which he particularly held against Jefferson.

So you have, movingly, and if really you want to—here's a tiny digression. You're saying to yourself, "What, hasn't everything he has been saying so far been that?" No, it hasn't.

A tiny digression. We have now reason to celebrate the fact we have a historian in the White House—not to be sardonically rueful about it, in my view, though of course I have an interest in saying this—is the following point. We are at an historic moment. Of course that word is a horrible kind of cliché. But the reason why it is not just a cliché, the reason why we are at a crossroads in American fortune, is that the manifold crises and severities and perplexities with which we are faced in the United States, economic and military and environmental and all the rest, represent one of those moments, like 1932, like 1860, and like the election of 1800 fought between ostensibly John Adams and Jefferson but really between Hamiltonian federalism and Jefferson, to reflect on the meaning of our country.

In other words, when Obama said, as he did in the speech at Denver accepting the nomination, that it was time for America, rather beautifully put, to "seize the arc of time," he knew whereof he spake. We actually are at a point where we have to transition somehow from Henry Luce's American Century, from the assumption of omnipotence, from the indubitable quality of our throw power, to a different kind of America, a different kind of place for America in the world, which is still nonetheless unrepentantly American, adamantly American, unapologetically American.

But whether we look at what America does with natural resources or whether we look at what military power we can command or what wars we choose to fight and how we choose to fight them, the steepest incline of Obama's presidential hill will somehow be to act—when I said he was headmasterly, I didn't mean that facetiously really. I think he does have the most fearsome tutorial to give to the American people, to make them understand that it is indeed still possible for us actually to live in a distinctive, if not unique, American democratic community, but not on the same assumptions that we have had during Luce's American Century. Hence, the authentic, historically pausing, Thucydidean, self-critical, honest self-interrogating quality of this particular moment.

Now, just going back to the way this played out in one small instance which I make a part of the sequence of the first chapter—and, as Joanne very, very kindly said, and I don't have to deal with, this dialogue between the possibilities of what it is to be an American in these four issues—I don't actually talk about the financial crisis, partly because only recently I've learned how to balance my checkbook; it would be unseemly really if I presumed to talk about credit default swaps, so don't ask me about them. But also the other reason— I'm just about to go on radio with my friend Niall Ferguson, who knows really all about that, or claims to, but then so did our friends at Lehman Brothers.

But I do talk about these four issues, which do seem to me to go to the heart not only of the way America thinks about the relationship between people and governance, but all sorts of issues—the issue of a moral community, the issue of what we do about natural resources, and so on.

These are issues that—the chapter on immigration, for example—will not go away. Once Dow Jones has got up off its knees, painfully totters to a relatively erect position, and goes gamboling like a spring lamb off into the jolly future, these issues will still remain. It is to Obama's great credit that he is prepared. Has there ever been a more enthusiastic nettle-grasper than the 44th president, who really needn't have said "I will map out a piece of immigration legislation," but has promised to do so?

So these are issues which really will remain at this crossroads moment in America.

I'll finish just by, as I promised, saying one particular thing that connects the Meigs story I was telling you with both the ancestry of Meigs among the Founding Fathers and now.

It came to, then, the 1800 election, that extraordinarily formative election, a fundamental debate about what the American democratic community could be. Would it have to be an America with minimal government, as Jefferson wished, a society of virtuous, simple, frugal farmers, true democratics? Or would it be pragmatic citizens in the Hamiltonian style, fully prepared in the spirit of a candid understanding of what makes human beings, even Americans, tick—power, money, interest, and so on?

It was fought in an atmosphere, a whirlwind, of character assassination. That wasn't invented by Lee Atwater or Roger Ailes. John Adams put out a flyer which said "The election, in effect, comes down to this: God, or Jefferson and no god." Jefferson, of course, did believe in God; he just didn't happen to believe in the divinity of Jesus or the Virgin birth. Imagine running on that kind of platform right now?

And it was, of course, won by Jefferson.

But involved was the issue, as I said earlier on, of whether or not American democracy could support the War College. Hamilton's view, as I already said, was that America could not afford not to have one. Jefferson's view was that to create such a body of military officers, military education, in the body of a democracy was to doom it to democratic suicide.

He was thinking, of course, of his own experience in France. He was thinking of the fate of the French Revolution, which I have to say he slightly idealized, in the hands of Napoleonic despotism. For Jefferson, not surprisingly, the possibility of what we now call coups d'état were everywhere; the world would bristle with military ambition, men with guns, whiffs of grapeshots, ready to trample on the hard-fought and hard-won freedoms of citizens.

So what Jefferson did when he became president was not, however, to veto the notion of the War College that became West Point, but to found it. It had been in the pipeline, but it was Jefferson in 1802, surprisingly, whose portrait you barely find at West Point, tucked away, who in fact is the commander in chief who actually signed an executive order, and who cared a lot, and who produced the first tiny population of students.

But Jefferson's point was the following: That West Point ought to be a nursery of civil engineering. Its officers should be in the business of training militia officers, wherein the strength of American freedom he believed lay, what we would now call, I guess, the National Guard. That was the point of the Second Amendment, by the way, of course. The Second Amendment was essentially to sort of de-militarize America, rather than the opposite.

So Jefferson called in professors of mathematics and so on. Not that he was against military engineering. He wanted his young soldiers to know—how could he not—about munitions and artillery and fortifications. But they also ought to be able to go out into the country and make the continent, about to be a very much larger continent than before the Louisiana Purchase, safe for civilians. They would be a kind of Platonic Athenian, as in the Plato sense, guardian class for the country. That was the education which young Montgomery makes in the 1820s and 1830s, and indeed Robert E. Lee was brought up in.

Jefferson was also concerned that if he didn't found West Point it might be left to people like Hamilton, who would simply staff it with dependably political federalists. Jefferson, needless to say, started it with dependably political Republican Democrats.

But here's the thing about how you really want the American future. If only they were here—actually my life wouldn't be worth that [snaps fingers]—but I was going to say if only Hamilton and Jefferson were having breakfast with us, I think by the end of the time, if we talked about Afghanistan, they would be having a real conversation, rather than a shouting match.

Because the thing we didn't do in Iraq was civil engineering, not quickly enough. I said to General Sanchez, he on whose watch Abu Ghraib came, but whom I discovered to be a kind of thoughtful and very interesting man. He was already retired. I met him at the Drop Zone Café when we were filming, by accident, in San Antonio.

He began by saying, "Well, that's not what the military do"—in other words, schools and roads and bridges. But before five minutes had gone past, he was expressing his admiration for George Marshall, for example, and General Eisenhower, but particularly for Marshall, as the kind of general in the spirit of the Jeffersonian West Point, who thought war was—he wouldn't have said this—the easy bit, but war was what you could actually measure out in terms—you could never measure our suffering and casualties and so on. What you had to think was the hard part, was the piece of how to actually break the society that war shattered. That was part of your job too. So Sanchez really in some sense went from a Hamiltonian view to a Jeffersonian view even as he was eating his eggs Benedict over breakfast.

You know, what we have to think about now in Afghanistan, and what I'm quite sure that the president and Secretary Gates and General McChrystal and General Petraeus are thinking about, is how much actually can we present American war in the Jeffersonian sense, how much can we deliver—it has to be micro-nation building, given what Afghanistan is like, region by region, district by district—as a way actually of making our claims to protect Afghanistan for liberty and toleration against tyranny and theocracy by actually helping the people themselves to do what Lee and Meigs were doing on the banks of the Mississippi, by actually being good soldiers in the sense of being responsive to local conditions? How much is it a soldier's responsibility to fight a war that must necessarily pay attention to that, at the very least as a counterweight to the necessity of air strikes on the Taliban? This is the fundamental dilemma. It haunted us in Vietnam. It continues to haunt us. I don't claim to have an answer.

I only know, as ever—thank you, Thucydides and thank you all, ladies and gentlemen, for listening to me—that thinking hard, honestly, clearly, self-critically is part of American history and it has to be part of the American future.

Thank you.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Barack Obama has spoken about achieving Jeffersonian goals by Hamiltonian means. Is that a feasible goal today?

SIMON SCHAMA: No. I suppose, actually, I made a sort of glib answer to a very interesting question. I didn't know he'd said that. Wow, we really do have a first historian in the White House.

I suppose what he means—I can see the Hamiltonian means, in other words, the acceptance that we are stuck with the machinery of, if not big, then substantial, government, that we must sort of embrace executive will. There was no choice but to embrace it as banks were in threat of collapsing.

I suppose what he means by Jeffersonian ideals is the sense of being unapologetic about the presence of liberal democracy in the world. I guess that's what he means.

But do you have any sense—tell me what the context was.

QUESTIONER: When he was running, before he really seemed to have a crack at it. This was two years ago, so he was fulminating rather than—


I'll tell you what I think he wants, because actually he, of course, invokes obsessively Abraham Lincoln and slightly less obsessively Roosevelt and extremely excessively Martin Luther King. I do think what he wants out of America, which was the point of my slight sense of conundrum about actually his invoking Jefferson, is he wants moral community back in American life. He often invokes the simple scriptural principles of "do unto others as you would be done by," the sense of mutuality.

He's not just thinking of high-minded collectivist political theory. He's thinking of what he had to do to strip asbestos out of tenement apartments in South Chicago. He's thinking of church bake sales. He's thinking of the voluntarist tradition in American life. He's thinking of all those things which have been marginalized by those who insist that the American way is rugged individualism, that anything which is associative is essentially somehow clammily, if not threateningly, European and quasi-socialist.

What Obama has often wanted to say in his speeches is "Think again. In America there has been this deep, rich tradition, especially manifest in its church life actually, of brotherhood and sisterhood. You can't be connected to the civil rights movement, black and white commitment to that, without believing that."

I don't quite think of that as Jeffersonian. Jefferson really felt there was something about the garden, the farm, farmed by a family or a very small group of families. Of course, you know, Thomas Jefferson wasn't someone who strolled around Monticello with a spike of corn sticking out of his wig. It was the slaves who were doing the schlepping, of course, actually at Monticello. So in some sense he had this fantastic 18th-century gentleman's view of the joys of farming, the kind I have when I look out at my back garden and tell my son, "Okay, weed."

QUESTIONER: Maybe what Obama meant was—the implication or the context was morality with competence.

SIMON SCHAMA: You put it very well. I wish you had added that to his speech, Dan. Yes, I think that's probably true. When I said if Hamilton and Jefferson were in this room and thinking about Afghanistan and the relationship of military action to social action, they would come to some common understanding about that as well, I believe.

QUESTION: The concept that you are talking about, Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian and so on, has sometimes played out in American history as isolationism and internationalism. Right now, however, we have the specific problems that come to mind of the application of some of these concepts to dealing with situations.

So from the standpoint of a historian, as you look back now, let's say 20 years from now, and facing the question of Afghanistan and Pakistan that you brought up, it seems that both sides, the advocates of soft power and hard power, the advocates of involvement and the advocates of noninvolvement, liberals and Neoconservatives, are all united to say, "Well, we've got to do something there."

From the standpoint of American nationalism, American self-interest, and the like, what really is the American interest as you see it in that area? What happens? What conceivable rationality or reason can we have for getting ourselves fully involved, as both sides seem to want, in that area?

Yes, that's the big one, isn't it?

My view, for what it's worth—and honestly, I'm not an analyst really, that scary word—is it is a Hamiltonian moment, I think, actually. Again, not only do I occasionally seem to be echoing—only once—Rush Limbaugh, but I am echoing now Robert Kagan, with whom I disagree on a lot. But I do think he's right in Dangerous Nation that America has actually quite seldom been isolationist. Kagan wanted to overthrow the alternation, said much more often America has been fully and deeply involved, whether for its own security or whether for the pursuit of grandiose Wilsonian ideals. However, that of course, sidesteps around your question.

My view is, first of all, I do think Barack Obama has always made no secret of the fact that he is an Afghanistan hawk. During the campaign, however much he denounced the Iraq war, it was to say there was one war that was a "dumb" war, and I said so, and one war that was entirely justifiable. That is somewhat my view as well, I'm afraid.

I don't think we have any alternative actually but to be involved, if you think about what the alternative is, and I think even Jefferson would have felt that way. The alternative is really to cede this enormous arc of theocratic militancy stretching from west Pakistan, northwest Pakistan, right through Afghanistan and then becoming part of a kind of Shia empire really, going from Iran right through to the seat of Hezbollah power in Beirut. And we've got two nuclear-armed states in that particular arc of fundamentalist power. That is something it would be myopic to ignore, I think.

The issue, of course, the delicate, most incredibly difficult issue, in the first instance is really how we ensure that the Pakistani state doesn't fail, and therefore how the Pakistani army can itself reclaim sovereignty. The current struggle as I see it over Swat and areas like that is really a kind of litmus test actually of how we can do it indirectly.

I'm sure Obama doesn't want—I don't think anyone in this room would really want—a direct military intervention in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. But it can't afford really to cede the possibility that Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan, really is sovereign Taliban territory, with all that implies for us.

So, in principle, I do think it is a sort of Hamiltonian—or if you like, Harry Truman—kind of moment for us. But actually how the president sells that to the country is very tough, because I think it is a tough case to make. It's much easier, because it's true, to connect 9/11 to al Qaeda and to the Taliban and to the commitment in that part of the world, as it was not true in the case of Iraq. But we are left with Iraq nonetheless.

To move to that and what history can teach us, we have a problem there, as you all will be aware. Notice that the president has said "all combat troops will be removed from Iraq" by the end of 2011. But of course, that leaves the dread word "advisors." Those of us old enough to remember the 1960s remember what multitude of sins can be covered by the term "advisor."

The problem in Iraq now, day after day—it has not yet quite resolved itself into a story, has it yet, in The New York Times sense, there have been little stories—is the unraveling of the Awakening. What is happening is that, in my amateur view again, the Shia government, and indeed the Shia militias, are anticipating the end of the checks going out to the sheiks in western Iraq, and that the reasons why the militias controlled by the Sunni sheiks went to our side rather than carried on with the insurgency will then disappear. They are worried about the kind of neo-Bath local militancy reappearing, which is why the Shia militias are becoming preemptively tough actually.

And so the sectarian issue, which you thought had been solved by the surge, seems—again from my being quite presumptuous talking to you, but just really from my amateurish reading—to be unraveling in a slightly terrifying way, which might pose the problem of fighting a war on at least two fronts as we get deeper, as we shall, into Afghanistan.

Sorry to be so cheerless over breakfast.

QUESTION: I must say at the beginning that your academic friend in Wales had a kindred spirit in the Irish Foreign Ministry years ago. After hours the switchboard would click off and the calls coming through to the Foreign Ministry would go to the chief porter's desk at the front door of the ministry. He would cheerfully answer the phone most evenings with "front door speaking." So if history was calling the front door was listening.

But I wanted to ask you about China and what your analysis suggests to you as to how America, as it transitions from what you described as the Luce Century, will accommodate itself and manage the emergence of a colossus on the other side of the Pacific. The last time we had a colossus on each end of the Pacific—

SIMON SCHAMA: It didn't work out well.

QUESTIONER:—it ended badly, and it ended badly not for the fault of the United States, but it was the United States who had to get most of us out of the mess and who made the sacrifices to do that.

But there would be many here in this country who would find great difficulty in viewing an emerging China as anything other than an adversary or a potential adversary. But yet, there is an imperative that the relationship be managed in the interests of the United States and China, and the rest of us frankly. It's the thing that gives rise to a lot of talk and analysis elsewhere.

Would it be, as it seems to me, a reversal or a change on anything we've seen in history to expect an economy like China's, that is going to emerge as perhaps the largest economy in the world in my lifetime, not develop the means to defend the interests of that economy globally? If China inevitably, just like every other dominant economic power, is going to do that, how do you see the United States, the preeminently Western country, preeminently the Western community, managing that, and managing that together with China?

Thank you very much. Sorry for being so long.

SIMON SCHAMA: That's all right.

I was in China a couple of months ago, actually. It's amazing how often you hear them say, "You know, the Americans and the Chinese, or America and China, are much more like each other than either of them are like the Japanese." Have you heard that? They said that to me a lot.

The extraordinary thing is, I would say right away, one reason I think is that they don't think of themselves—and I think actually there is a truth to this—as a militarist state. It's bloody enormous, and there is Tibet and so on, but that's a different issue. That is sort of the fringe frontier, which they felt in some way, however disingenuously, to be theirs.

But of course, the whole tradition again of the Middle Kingdom has been peculiarly inward looking. In the great period, the Ming Empire and before it really, it was not a place—it's really island economic dynamos of a rugged and brutal time, like the Japanese and the British, very often—I'm not saying we haven't had our brutal moments in the United States too—but are particularly prone to relating the far-flung throw of military power to economic success.

The Chinese are in a very funny way. You'd think they'd be in fantastic gloat mode, that schadenfreude would really have their place on the Central Committee. But they're not actually. It's very interesting they're not. They love a bit of tasty humiliation on our part, since they hold so many bonds, and a sense that we tremble with the possibility really that they will create an independent reserve currency, in which they really don't yet believe themselves. Maybe a long time in the future.

So the first issue is, I think, actually that the inevitable change in their relationship, the economic power relationship, does not actually pose, I would say, a security threat to us in the kind of traditional military sense. Does it pose a threat to our own institutions? Well, they would say, "It's your own effing fault because of this gigantic mountain of debt you built up. Put your own house in order and then you don't have to worry about that."

But the other extraordinary reality about the Chinese-American relationship is that there are two things. One, it was also said to me by people in Shanghai they have no interest in the "America model," the term you use, failing in some sense. Partly, it's embarrassing for them, because they feel they've been following it actually for so long, even though their state capitalism is a far cry from the paradise of Milton Friedman. That it is not.

But nonetheless, there is a certain, oddly enough, paradoxically, kind of dynamic, buccaneering, go-for-it industrial dynamism, which they have honored and actually admired, and it sort of got them out of central planning and so on. That's what was expressed to me.

And the facts, of course, are that wherever you look at the bond market, they actually sort of can't dump us, because if it results in a massive economic freefall, their export market, which matters tremendously, not just because it's 25-30 percent, whatever, of the gross economic machinery, the gross economic product—but also because they have a serious problem with something like 30 million unemployed migrant workers right now, many of them in west China, displaced actually at large, loose from the great state machinery of local, regional, and district control, who represent precisely the unemployed force. There is also a kind of Muslim problem on the western frontier.

Put all those things together and a China-engineered American economic meltdown is utterly, utterly not in their interest. So it is in an extraordinary way. The president is going to China, is said to be, although I don't know whether it has been announced, and there is this tiny problem for the Historian-in-Chief of 20 years after Tiananmen Square. So I think that was kind of an "oops" moment in the planning. So we're not quite sure when he is going. If anybody knows, tell me, because we're trying to be there with cameras.

But you see what I mean. The view in China is that fate has made us raveled up together. And it is unclear whether China will be—they didn't think in terms of "we are now the superior power or we're destined to be, and you the inferior power." They feel in a weird way that it's the titanic version of "The Odd Couple" that have been brought together for as long as any of us will be around, Felix and Oscar. I think they're Felix.

QUESTION: In the very, very north of Sweden, if persons would like to ask questions and get answers about very unknown parts of past and present in their own history, most of them would not go to the vicar of a village. They would go to a person which they call a Shaman.

Thank you very much for a spellbinding talk. It was very, very good.

I would like to expand a little bit on my Irish colleague's question [about China]. The Cold War was referred to in the discussion here. We must not forget that it was a world war there, it was an orderly system. And of course, the Soviet Union and the United States were adversaries, and the order was assured by mutual assured destruction. But it functioned, it was an order.

After the implosion of the Soviet empire, we have no world order. We are still in search for that order. It is a rather volatile system.

China is just one factor. But I couldn't possibly see a system where China and the United States would run the world together, like the Soviets and the Americans did in a way.

And of course, out of this crisis, as you said, a new America of sorts will emerge, which will be transformational for the country, but perhaps also for the world. So my simple question to you: Could you say a few words on how you see a new world order?

SIMON SCHAMA: That most popular of phrases.

I really take on-board exactly what you've said. The dangers are even more serious that those you have characterized, because actually one of the problems, I guess, in the Iraq war was really thinking we were dealing with a state power, not understanding actually how much more dangerous even it could be once—rather like taking a hammer to a bead of mercury and producing fly-away beadlets really, but each of those beadlets was potentially immensely dangerous, if you have a kind of low-grade nuclear weapon on the back of a truck. We are dealing with what the French used to call groupuscules. I mean we're dealing with a very, very difficult situation.

Now, I would say, coming back to—I think it is in a way in vain to think of—you're absolutely right—a bipolar world where there will be two policemen rather than one. On the other hand, the issue is whether or not the kind of multilateralism that Barack Obama seems to have in mind is just a kind of cozy ideal to which we could all give lip service, rather like approving of nice weather, like today's—who wouldn't?—or whether actually there can be teeth in it in some ways.

The thing that Barack Obama has going for it is that he's the president of the world seemingly—not all of it, but a very large part of it—and not just because of where he comes from, Hawaii and Kenya and Kansas and so on, but because, as we know, he has this extraordinary presence. The world is kind of craving some sort of moral honesty and leadership delivered in a candid but articulate way.

And of course, he has exactly that moment coming up, if he wishes to seize it, the first week of June. Is this not an historically colored agenda? We have the speech in Cairo coming up, followed a visit to Dresden, significant, speaking as someone who was born on the night of Slaughterhouse Five. It wasn't all one way. The two buildings on either side of the building I was born in were knocked out by German V2 rockets, but the buggers didn't get me. He finishes on June the 6th with the 65th anniversary of D-Day on Omaha Beach. There, if he can't actually make an interesting speech for the rest of the world to hear, then he's not the 44th president we think he is.

But I will say the following, and this is very unpopular, I guess a Wilsonian/FDR/Rooseveltean kind of view, and it is, I guess, a Jeffersonian view as well. We can do two things in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I invoke them because it's a NATO war after all, isn't it? It purports to be a NATO war, and it must do more than purport to be a NATO war I feel. If he is there on Omaha Beach or at the American Cemetery, he has the possibility—I'm not predicting this will happen at all—to talk about wars that are actually morally worth committing yourself to. That may sound sort of extreme really.

But if exactly the conflict in Afghanistan is represented as something which is essentially just really about revenge for or prophylactic protection against a repetition of 9/11, the rest of the world will, if not tune out, it will be in my view less arrested by the moral importance of it than if he said something like the following, which does seem to me a D-Day American speech: "What we're fighting in Afghanistan is not simply actually a security threat; it's a disgusting, repellant, theocratic tyranny that is brutal to women, that denies its own citizens the possibility actually of their own liberty, that America has always—Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—been tolerant about its embrace of religion."

Jefferson took the American bet that if you let 1000 flowers of religion bloom, but always, invariably, refuse to criminalize religious belief, Jefferson said, 'What matters it to me whether a man has one god or three gods or no gods?' That has been the American way, the rejection of the prosecution of heterodoxy. That is not the Taliban way. And it is not actually the way, we know from opinion polls, of the vast majority of the people of Pakistan. If we actually plant our flag more forthrightly for principles, rather than for pragmatic security, the world will listen.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you.

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