The virtue of patience
A few months back, I did a MoneyIllusion post that discussed a fantastical airport project mentioned in an old Life magazine. The same issue (from March 18, 1946), has a few other articles worth thinking about. Here’s one example:
The phrase “iron curtain” brought back a lot of memories. It was a term one often heard back in the 1960s.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, I recall being mildly surprised to learn that it had gone up as recently as 1961. I suppose that as a young person in the 1960s I thought in concrete terms, and mentally conflated the (metaphorical) “Iron Curtain” of 1946 and the (physical) Berlin Wall built in 1961. If you’ll allow me to indulge in a few meandering observations about time, I’ll eventually derive a few policy implications.
In 1989, I was 34 years old. It seemed like the Berlin Wall had been there forever, and I never expected to see it come down. I was too young to follow world affairs in 1961, and thus had no memory of the 16-year period after WWII when there was an “Iron Curtain” but East Germans were still free to travel to the West.
As one gets older, time seems to pass more rapidly. Today, the Berlin Wall has already been down for longer than it was up. My 96-year old mother probably doesn’t recall the wall as lasting as long as I perceived it to last, as she was already 35 years old when it went up. And to my daughter, it’s just a footnote in the boring history of the 1900s: Berlin Wall (1961-89). For me, it was a formative experience.
Back in 1965, I was a ten-year old boy playing WWII games, at a time when WWII seemed like ancient history. The Vietnam War was already underway, and WWII wasn’t even the previous war (recall Korea). Today, the Iraq War doesn’t seem so long ago to me. Time is subjective.
Policy problems that seem insolvable to one generation, are just a footnote to the next. I recall when there was a long struggle to contain Soviet expansionism in the third world. Then there wasn’t. This was immediately followed by worry over Japan’s increasing economic power. That concern faded just as quickly. Later there was expected to be a long struggle against Islamic terrorism, a struggle that was mostly over (in America) long before we realized that it had ended. I’m not quite sure what we worry about today. The left seems worried about right wing militias trying to overturn elections, while the right worries that woke schools will indoctrinate our children. And almost everyone worries about China and Russia.
Because of the way that we perceive time, when we are in the midst of a problem we don’t tend to perceive it as a blip in history, which will soon be replaced by another set of concerns. For this reason, there can be real benefit to foreign policies that “kick the can down the road,” if we are able to avoid outright war. Today, it seems as though places like Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela will never become free. But who knows what the world will look like in another 30 years.
The same issue of Life magazine also has a long article by Joe Kennedy (JFK’s dad) discussing foreign policy. Some of his takes haven’t held up well:
Others have held up extremely well:
Replace “Communism” with “fascism” and that almost perfectly describes Putin’s Russia. As does this:
We avoided war with the Soviet Union through a policy of containment, and I hope that we can avoid war with Russia in a similar way. Let’s hope that at some point in the future, Kennedy’s description of Russia seems just as out of date as his 1946 comments on China.
P.S. For my generation, the Berlin Wall discredited communism. Yes, America has a wall on its southern border, but (although counterproductive) it’s not there to keep people from escaping a flawed system in America. It’s to keep people from escaping to America. Some democratic countries had (misguided) policies that banned foreign travel during COVID, but these “walls” were seen as temporary. The Berlin Wall was different. Back when I was young, the Berlin Wall was seen as permanent, in much the way that the division of Korea seems permanent to the millennial generation.
When the Churchill made his speech in 1946, it was not obvious to every thinking person that the Soviet Union was an evil empire. Just a year earlier they were our ally, playing a major role in defeating Nazi Germany (and to a lesser extent Japan.) The Berlin Wall was such a perfect expression of failed tyranny that even poorly informed Americans understood the true nature of the Soviet Empire. In retrospect, 1961 was the beginning of the end for communism, the point at which it became obvious that it was failed regime.
Reading old magazines and newspapers is an interesting way of learning about history. By reading the NYT from 1929-1938, I gained a great deal of insight into the US during the Great Depression, an insight I never would have gained from history books.
P.S. I originally wrote this post in January. In February, The Economist made a similar observation:
Those still feeling dour should take courage from recent experience. For all the considerable difficulties of the past decade or so, global trade as a share of GDP has only retreated a little from the peak it reached in 2008. Recent history demonstrates, moreover, that nothing in geopolitics is for ever—and trends which look inexorable come to an end. The cold war divided the world and then, suddenly, it did not. Supreme confidence in the inevitable spread of democracy was displaced by the worry that an authoritarian China would dominate the globe, which is now barely a worry at all. The stalemate between America and China will one day be old news, perhaps sooner than most currently think.
Mistakes led the world to its current uncertain state, it is true. And more mistakes will certainly be made. But the past shows only what has gone wrong, not what will. It is by remembering this that we find the wisdom to do better.
Apr 30 2023 at 3:51am
To be fair to Joe Kennedy, in 1946 the Communists hadn’t taken over China yet. So, the “China” he referred to was actually the Republic of China, not the People’s Republic of China. He also prefaces his prediction with the conditional, “Assuming the development of a stable and effective government, with no insoluble problems concerning Russia,…” I’m not sure whether he means a stable and effective government in Russia with no insoluble problems or a stable and effective government in China that has no insoluble problems with Russia. If the latter, then obviously the toppling of a regime by a Communist revolution would not constitute a stable and effective government.
Obviously, the idea that we needed China, Communist or not, “to control Japan” has not held up well. (Even there, the Treaty of San Francisco, which formally ended WW2 wasn’t signed until 1951. So, in 1946, there was an issue about how the Allies should occupy Japan in the interim.) But, the notion that a non-Communist China would have had good relations with Great Britain and France and their interest in the Far East (Hong Kong?) doesn’t seem far fetched even in hindsight. In fact, the dramatic difference between Joe Kennedy’s prediction and current reality highlights just how much what happens nominally within the borders of one country — Communist revolution in this case — can effect geopolitics everywhere. Of course, that doesn’t justify foreign intervention by itself, but it does highlight the isolationist fallacy that we have no vital interests in what happens in other countries.
Apr 30 2023 at 12:36pm
Yes, that supports my point about prediction being difficult. Things change, and hence patterns that we expect to persist often do not persist.
Apr 30 2023 at 10:29am
This is (one of) the ideas I was trying to convey on my comment to Kevin’s post a couple of weeks ago.
Apr 30 2023 at 12:39pm
Yes, that was a very good observation. Both perspectives on Vietnam are useful—in different ways.
Apr 30 2023 at 1:43pm
These were comments I wrote on Marginal Revolution in January 2022, including a comment on Mikhail Gorbachev. (Note: Gorbachev died seven months later.) I was responding to a comment that said:
Here was my response:
My family and I traveled from Wiesbaden, West Germany, through East Germany by train, and to Berlin to visit one of my dad’s former bosses. We traveled to the Berlin Wall. On the train and at the wall, my sense overwhelmingly was of foreboding and evil. The difference between West Berlin and East Berlin just barely over the wall was incredibly striking. Color and life on the West side and bleak awfulness on the East side. (And few people, as I recall. Just guards.)
Apr 30 2023 at 4:47pm
I visited East Berlin in 1990, just after the wall opened up. It still seemed very grey and depressing.
Apr 30 2023 at 3:11pm
If we hadn’t managed the Soviet Union, they would have taken over the Middle East and still be selling us oil.
If people hadn’t opposed Trump’s election steal, democracy would have ended in the US.
It would be an interesting counterfactual if the first Gulf War hadn’t been fought. Would Saddam have the entire Middle East now?
Sometimes you can’t just kick the can down the road.
Apr 30 2023 at 3:29pm
I think the euphemism for can-kicking in International Relations Speak is “strategic ambiguity”. It’s often denigrated as cowardly or vague, but maybe what you’re pointing out here is it can be simply the humble recognition that things often work themselves out in ways we can’t foresee.
Apr 30 2023 at 4:44pm
Replace “Communism” with “fascism” and that almost perfectly describes Putin’s Russia.
No, because there are no fascist states anymore. Russia itself is a multiethnic state with ethnic minorities in high positions of its government/military, and uses violence for reasons Putin deems pragmatic rather than because violence is viewed as a positive good in itself. Communist states actually called (or still call) themselves communist, but there is no state claiming ot be fascist today.
Apr 30 2023 at 4:50pm
No states call themselves fascist because the term is in disrepute. But Russia is certainly fascist under Putin.
May 1 2023 at 3:41pm
Replace “Communism” with “fascism”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The difference is semantics.
May 1 2023 at 11:11pm
Fascism itself (not merely the term) being in disrepute is related to why there are no fascist states today. But communist states persisted in calling themselves communist even after the Soviet Union collapsed and Francis Fukuyama declared the “End of History”.
Apr 30 2023 at 5:54pm
There have been multiethic fascist states in the past (eg Italy and Spain). Putin is the nationalist form of fascist.
Yup, that is pretty much the definition of fascist.
May 1 2023 at 11:16pm
Italy is mountainous enough to have lots of Italian dialects, but it’s nothing compared to Russia, a multilingual empire forged by the Tsars. Spain had Basques and Catalans seeking autonomy, but they were crushed by the nationalists, who were disinclined to put such people in the upper reaches of their government.
May 1 2023 at 11:30pm
Using violence pragmatically is not the “definition of fascist”, that’s part of realpolitik, which Clausewitz wrote about before fascism existed. Vox asked a bunch of academics whether Trump fit the definition of fascist prior to his election, and here are some quotes on the fascist attitude towards violence:
“romanticize violence itself as a vital cleansing agent of society”
“Every expert I spoke to identified support for the revolutionary overthrow — ideally through violence — of the state’s entire system of government as a necessary characteristic of fascism.” I will note that Putin didn’t do that, he’s the successor to Boris Yeltsin, and tends to regard the political change that happened over his life of working in government as unfortunate.
“pursues with redemptive violence”
“Fascism emphasizes violence for its own sake”
“the pro-violence philosophy at the heart of fascism”
“prepared to equate [violence] with life, creativity, and virtue.”
“Fascism, Payne says, requires “a philosophical valuing of violence, of Sorelian violence. [Fascists believe] that violence is really good for you, that it’s the sort of thing that makes you a vital, alive, dedicated person, that it creates commitment. You make violence not just a political strategy but a philosophical principle. That’s unique to fascism.””
“War alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it.”
May 2 2023 at 10:45am
One of the world’s leading experts on fascism says Russia is fascist:
May 3 2023 at 10:13pm
Regarding Timothy Snyder, I recently reviewed Bloodlands, but I don’t remember all that much about Mussolini in it. Looking at his other books, he seems like an expert on eastern European history, but not fascism (no books on Romania’s Iron Guard specifically either). My impression is that Snyder is in the minority on this subject, because while most view Putin as bad, few view him as fascist.
Jon Murphy, I reject the notion that Putin “quacks like a duck”. He did not attempt any kind of revolutionary overthrow of his government, he did not form a political party for that purpose either (instead political parties have formed around him after he attained power via succeeding Yeltsin). He’s been in power since 1999, and he wasn’t regarded as a fascist for all that time because he just seemed like a bog standard non-ideological authoritarian. Like former EconLog blogger Bryan Caplan I think focus on the news is overrated and to really understand a subject you should look over a broader time period. I believe that if you think Putin launched this war because, as fascists do, he regards war as a positive good, I think you will make wrong predictions about his actions in the future.
May 2 2023 at 11:01am
Yeah I’m with Scott. I mean, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
If you want to split hairs about “realpolitik,” that’s fine. Everything you’ve written seems like a distiction without a difference, but what do I know?
May 1 2023 at 5:44pm
I’m quite old and lived in Berlin from 1949 to 1956. We travelled across the four zones easily. The subways (two systems) ran without problems. We lived in the American sector but bought groceries in the eastern sector without problems; there was a large multistory store on Potsdamer Platz just within the eastern border that clearly marketed to westsiders. I think the DDR was more militant than the USSR and pushed for the wall. Pre-wall, people used the open border as an easy route for defection, and the DDR hated that.
May 29 2023 at 10:56am
It all sounds like a perfectly good idea when you are on the outside – who cares what is happening thousands of miles away. In the meantime, those on the inside (i.e., in the case of the Soviet Union, East Europeans, Baltic states etc.) suffer for generations, lose their identity, lose hope. Would you rather have a war and save the future of these people or a peace? We seem to agree that Ukraine has the right to make its own choice and we should support it – despite the death and destruction of the war. How is this different? I don’t have the answer.
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