Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

As part of its professed commitment to “complete the unfinished business of the Second World War,” the Clinton Administration last year released its second and final report on “Nazi Gold.” Drafted by a team of government historians working under the supervision of Undersecretary of State Stuart E. Eizenstat, this document evaluates the economic and commercial relations between Germany and several nations that remained neutral in World War II.

In many respects, the Eizenstat report qualifies as an impressive achievement. It is comprehensive, richly documented, and encrusted with scholarly paraphernalia. The tone is evenhanded, the language measured, consistent with Eizenstat’s stated intention of rendering a report “dispassionate in its analysis and unflinching in its determination to discern all the dimensions of the facts.”

Eizenstat insists that the result is “not intended to be nor is it an accusation or indictment of any country.” That assurance may soften but cannot disguise the report’s central finding, sharply censuring Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey for their wartime behavior. Although formally neutral, these nations, Eizenstat concludes, pursued policies that in their impact were decidedly not neutral. At times, those policies advanced the Allied cause. More frequently, they worked to benefit Adolf Hitler. This was notably the case regarding trade. According to Eizenstat, the sale to the Third Reich of strategic materials and industrial products—often paid for with gold looted from occupied Europe or stolen from Holocaust victims—was crucial to sustaining the German war machine. Although “acceptable by the standards of the time” and understandable as long as the Wehrmacht remained formidable, trade continued “well past the point where, from the Allied perspective at the time, there was a genuine threat of German attack.” As the report notes with barely suppressed disapproval, the neutrals justified this trade according to “their own strictly legal interpretations of what was permissible under existing international law, as distinct from moral considerations of what was right or wrong.” As a determinant of policy, the evil represented by Nazism seemingly figured not at all. Eizenstat—and by extension the United States government—effectively convicts the neutrals of moral indifference.

Why did the Clinton Administration feel obliged to undertake this project, reviving distant controversies, inviting charges of American arrogance, and perhaps alienating nations that are, after all, in the 1990s valued friends and responsible democracies? Eizenstat takes pains to emphasize that the inquiry was no mere academic exercise in setting the record straight. On the contrary, he believes that the policy implications of the report are profound. “By completing the unfinished business of the middle of this century,” Eizenstat writes, “we can enter the new millennium having attempted a moral accounting of this lingering ledger of grief.” Reverting to a metaphor much favored by the President himself, he explains that such efforts at moral accounting are “meant to be bridges: between searing history and enduring memory; between brutality and humanity; and between a bitter past and a better future.”

Given the present Administration’s otherwise shaky moral credentials, it is tempting to dismiss such flourishes as fatuous and contrived, but that would be wrong. As an attempt by this Administration to pass judgment on the past, the Eizenstat report is much more than an exercise in public relations. Indeed, it forms part of a larger enterprise, especially evident in Mr. Clinton’s second term, to adjudicate history. Even as he gestures towards the new millennium, this President is intensely preoccupied with tying up the loose ends of ages past.

The motivation for this preoccupation is not antiquarian; history provides the Administration with a means to legitimize its political vision. Hillary Rodham Clinton made this link explicit at the White House Millennium event in calling Americans to “honor the past and imagine the future.” The sentiment may be banal, but to dismiss it as such is to do Mrs. Clinton, by all reports someone not given to frivolity, an injustice. She and other members of her husband’s Administration intend to be taken seriously.

Indeed, taking seriously efforts such as the Eizenstat report to close the books on the twentieth century offers insight into the larger endeavor upon which the President and his lieutenants have embarked. And it is a large endeavor indeed.

The inspiration for this exercise in settling historical accounts derives from the 1960s. The passions that gave that decade its distinctive character also gave rise to a peculiar mythology. The constituent parts of this mythology were not empirically true; yet neither were they without foundation. Together, however, they transcended truth to constitute—at least for some—a new political creed supplanting the nervous consensus of the immediate postwar era.

Foremost among those myths was the assertion that in the twentieth century survival itself had become problematic. Human ingenuity and recklessness posed a danger to human existence. Providing Exhibit A for this view was the atomic bomb, developed and employed by the United States and subsequently adopted as the centerpiece of U.S. national security policy. But the looming prospect of nuclear armageddon also lent credibility to purveyors of doom touting other threats of ostensibly comparable danger: overpopulation, the exhaustion of the world’s resources, ecological collapse, and global warming.

A second and related element of this mythology was a deep-seated skepticism about the nation’s founding ideals. On the one hand, an obsessive and dispiriting materialism provoked doubts about the meaning of American freedom. On the other, the pervasiveness of racism belied the nation’s professed commitment to justice and equality. The plight of African Americans, in turn, galvanized others to see their own grievances as evidence of discrimination and systematic oppression. Native Americans, ethnics, homosexuals, the aged, Vietnam vets, the disabled, and, above all, women discovered that they were all victims.

The third element was a corresponding skepticism about America’s role in world affairs. According to the official line espoused by Washington, the overarching goal of postwar U.S. foreign policy was to promote peace and democracy. The actions of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon—evidenced in the 1960s above all by the endless and brutal Vietnam War—suggested an alternative explanation: that the United States was an imperial power bent on further expansion. Not high ideals but the selfish interests of a militarized ruling class motivated American behavior abroad. A related concern, hotly debated, rejected orthodox interpretations of the Cold War and assigned principal responsibility for its origins—and consequences—to Washington rather than to the Kremlin.

These myths constituted the intellectual birthright of the generation that came of age in the 1960s, the talented and idealistic baby boomers who like the Clintons studied at elite universities, flouted convention, mocked their elders, marched and demonstrated, and then with exquisite timing abandoned protest in favor of high-flying careers. Three decades ago the leading members of this generation disparaged American affluence as shallow and corrupting and American power as dangerous and repressive. Today, with the country wealthier and more powerful still, they preside over its principal institutions.

Along the way, they made an important discovery: as a blueprint for governance, the mythology of the 1960s is next to useless. Specifically, the old articles of faith are irrelevant to what National Security Advisor Sandy Berger describes as the Clinton “strategy for harnessing the forces of globalization.” With its connotations of technological triumphalism, limitless opportunities for generating wealth, and the inexorable advance of democratic capitalism, “globalization” has long since supplanted “Power to the People” as this generation’s favored cliché. As depicted by the Clinton Administration, globalization is a force of nature, a tsunami transforming politics and economics alike.

In the new age of globalization that beckons, according to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a speech at Tennessee State University, the United States provides the “organizing principal” [sic]. America’s place is at “the center of this emerging international system.” Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott has gone a step further, declaring that the United States is “hegemon and proud of it.” For those who share such heady notions, the received mythology, leery of privilege and power, especially if wielded by the United States government, is altogether an impediment.

From his vantage point in the Bully Pulpit, Bill Clinton serves as chief evangelist for the gospel of globalization. For a child of the 1960s, assuming this role has required considerable finesse. The President must celebrate the wonders of the global market, yet do so in a way that deflects charges of crassness or of abandoning high ideals. He must promote and even increase American preeminence, yet without seeming to renounce the wariness of power underlying his generation’s original claim to moral authority. To this end, nothing has been more useful for the President than citing the “lessons” of history; creatively reinterpreting the past “teaches” us how to divine the future. It is all a matter, as Mr. Clinton has explained with the certainty of an old Marxist-Leninist ideologue, of being on “the right side of history.”

The American claim to being the “organizing principal” of the new age rests on the certainty that the United States embodies that right side, and that Americans, especially senior government officials, are uniquely equipped to discern the direction of world affairs. After all, as Secretary Albright has explained, “We stand tall, and therefore we can see further into the future.” The mission of the United States on the eve of the new millennium is to coax others into acknowledging the direction in which historical forces tend, to commend those nations that are moving in concert with history, and to chide the reluctant to get with the program.

Thus, during President Jiang Zemin’s 1997 visit to the United States, Mr. Clinton publicly rebuked the Chinese government for being on “the wrong side of history.” A year later, explaining the rationale for his own trip to China, the President told reporters that “one of the things I have to do is... to create for them a new and different historical reality.” Altering China’s view of the past would enable the government in Beijing to “feel more confident in doing what I believe is the morally right thing to do.”

Alas, as we know, history—not least of all U.S. history—is by no means a satisfying tale of continuous moral improvement and material progress. On the contrary: troubling errors occurred and remain unacknowledged. Wrongs have yet to be made good. And so the Clinton Administration has taken upon itself the task of clearing away the accumulated debris of the past. The effort to settle the controversies surrounding “Nazi Gold” provides one example; others include Administration efforts to redress racism, slavery, genocide, the nuclear arms race, and the Cold War.

The resulting Clinton school of historical analysis has three distinguishing characteristics, amply displayed in the Eizenstat report: narrative simplicity, moral assertiveness, and a self-proclaimed mandate to assign historical culpability. This last is essential to the Administration’s purposes. Identifying victims and those guilty of wrongdoing establishes the basis for repentance, restitution, and reconciliation—and for moving expeditiously ahead.

Americans have become most familiar with this approach as it has been applied to race. Few would question the depth or sincerity of the President’s determination to confront the legacy of slavery and racism. Mr. Clinton has publicly apologized for the federal government’s involvement decades ago in the shameful Tuskegee study of syphilis among black men, accurately characterizing that study as “deeply, profoundly, morally wrong.” (Having offered that apology to a handful of survivors and their families, he announced that “We have put the curse behind us.”) He has celebrated the courage of the children who in 1957 integrated Little Rock’s Central High School. He has instituted a “national dialogue” on the subject of race, hosting town hall meetings and other events in a much publicized campaign to conclude “the unfinished work of our time, to lift the burden of race and redeem the promise of America.”

The President’s trip to Africa provided the occasion to venture even further into the history of racial injustice. Speaking not only on behalf of his own countrymen but also for the West as a whole, he expressed his deep personal regret for the slave trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. With regard to U.S. policy toward Africa in more recent decades, he also found much to lament, confessing that Americans during the Cold War had committed “the sin of neglect and ignorance.”

During a brief stop in Rwanda, the President focused on an event of even more recent vintage: the explosive violence that had occurred there during Clinton’s own tenure in the White House. Here too he expressed regret, albeit obliquely, for mistakes—errors of omission. Characterizing the events in Rwanda as “the most intensive slaughter in this blood-filled century we are about to leave,” the President acknowledged that the entire international community “must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy.” “We did not act quickly enough after the killing began,” he admitted. “We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.”

These presidential acts of contrition, offered with evident emotion and sincerity, evoked a predictable response from his critics. The temerity of presuming to reproach the nation, the West, and even “the entire international community” for past failings has not gone unremarked. Even Administration supporters are hard—pressed to argue that Mr. Clinton’s apologies have had discernible substantive consequences. Raison d’état, not remorse for past offenses, continues to determine U.S. policy toward Africa, as American inaction in response to conflicts erupting in Africa since Mr. Clinton’s trip makes clear. Are the war—ravaged peoples of Sierra Leone or Congo better off knowing that an American President feels their pain?

Yet there is more here than photo ops, sound bites, and political theater. Once the President has acknowledged these various historical lapses, they need no longer detain us; after all, as the First Lady reminds us, we honor the past to evoke the future, that glittering prospect of globalization to which Mr. Clinton summons us. As Attorney General Janet Reno demonstrated following the unpleasantness at Waco in 1993, nothing serves like “accepting responsibility” to wipe the slate clean.

Apology, explicit or implied, provides the preferred mode of rectifying thorny matters such as race and slavery. When it comes to international affairs, however, history-as-parable serves. Gauging world affairs from their fin de siècle perspective, Administration officials describe a past that is amazingly simple to decipher and a future that is as dauntingly complex as it is exciting. There is, moreover, little connection between the two. The end of the Cold War was a watershed, signaling that the big questions had now been satisfactorily answered. The ideological rivalries and bloody conflicts that marred the twentieth century are irrelevant to the new age that is now upon us. The record of that unlamented century has little to offer—except, that is, as warning. Mr. Clinton and his lieutenants derive from that century a scant handful of lessons that Americans and others disregard at their peril.

Weapons of mass destruction, for example, have no place in the global order over which the United States intends to preside. Thus, during the spring of 1998, the sudden prospect of a nuclear arms race in South Asia provoked sweeping presidential denunciations—not simply of India and Pakistan, but of all nuclear weapons. Hastening to suppress the idea that nuclear weapons might bestow national prestige or offer political leverage after the Cold War, Mr. Clinton declared that nuclear weapons had been from the outset a historical blunder. “I cannot believe that we are about to start the twenty-first century,” he remarked in dismay, “by having the Indian subcontinent repeat the worst mistakes of the twentieth century.” Thus did he pitch overboard all the old theories of deterrence—while presiding over the world’s most capable nuclear arsenal.

As a precursor to that new global order, the entire Cold War era—a subject of considerable controversy from the 1960s on—reduces to a sterile and not especially interesting fable. Secretary Albright entertains college audiences by recalling that she “grew up in an era when the world was pretty simple.... There were the Communists, run out of the Soviet Union, and there were us; the good guys and the bad guys.... It was fairly easy to understand.” The Cold War controversies that seemed to be of great moment have today largely lost their relevance. Texts from even a decade ago that purported to analyze world affairs are now “about as useful as archeology.”

The Cold War provides definitive proof of one lesson and one lesson only: like it or not, the United States has an obligation to establish and enforce the norms of international behavior. According to Albright, “Until World War II, we didn’t really think that most of the world was truly part of our world.”

Only after the contest with the Soviets was joined did Americans learn that “our way of life depends on having other countries that are democracies and free-market systems that we can trade with and feel comfortable with, and also make sure that they follow the same kind of rules we do.” She worries that the United States might now “forget the fundamental lesson of this century, which is that problems abroad, if left unattended, will all too often come home to America.” With this in mind, Albright warns that “the single greatest danger our nation faces” at present is that it might “succumb to the temptation of isolation.” In Albright’s view, the nation is poised at a great crossroads: it “must choose whether to turn inward and betray the lessons of history, or to seize the opportunity before us to shape history.”

There are those, on both the left and the right, who will find much to applaud in the prospect of the United States exerting itself to “shape history.” There are others, again across the political spectrum, who will judge such an endeavor to be suffused with arrogance and doomed to fail.

On one point at least Mrs. Albright and the other would-be historians of the Clinton Administration are undoubtedly correct: correcting and revising the narrative of past events can boost American willingness to undertake such a project. Yet this is true only so long as Americans accede to official efforts to hijack the past.

The historian Bruce Cumings reminds us that “the state never has any use for the truth as such, but only for truth that is useful to it.” The aim of the Clinton Administration in closing the books on the twentieth century is not to reveal truth but to impose a new historical orthodoxy that validates its own political agenda.

Others have noted that the historical interpretations offered by the President and his associates are frequently questionable—in glossing over, for example, the extent that Africans themselves facilitated the slave trade or blithely depicting the postwar era as “pretty simple.” Certainly, the Administration’s approach is conveniently selective: Eizenstat’s moral accounting of World War II chastises those who cut deals with the Nazis, but avoids mentioning that the United States forged its own marriage of convenience with Joseph Stalin, a totalitarian dictator as evil and as bloodthirsty as Adolf Hitler himself.

Then there are those historical issues that somehow do not qualify for revisionism. Thus, when it comes to Vietnam, for Clinton something of a third rail, flag-waving smothers historical controversy. The President prefers to describe the war years as simply “those complicated times.” On a Memorial Day visit to the Vietnam War Memorial early in his presidency, he offered this to an unfriendly audience: “Let us continue to disagree, if we must, about the war. But let us no longer let it divide us as a people any longer.” Citing Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, he urged Americans to take from their memories of the war “a renewed sense of our national unity and purpose.”

Yet it is Abraham Lincoln, a far better historian than Bill Clinton, who alerts us to the true folly of the Clinton school. Governing in years of plenty, Mr. Clinton and those around him seem genuinely to believe that they can identify and even dictate the course of history. Governing at a moment of supreme crisis, Lincoln knew better.

Unlike Clinton, Lincoln was wise enough to accept that man does not inhabit the center of the universe. For all his determination to preserve the Union, Lincoln did not presume to fathom the historical processes at work in the Civil War. In the end, history remained the domain of Providence.

In September 1862, contemplating the discouraging course of the war, Lincoln consoled himself by affirming his belief that “the will of God prevails.” Rather than assigning himself the prerogative of divining the course of history, Lincoln conceded that “it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” The role of the combatants on both sides was “to effect his purpose,” even if that purpose eluded human understanding.

Lincoln’s conception of history was rooted in his appreciation of human fallibility. The view of history espoused by President Clinton—and the vast aspirations that he and his lieutenants have concocted—appear by comparison naive and pretentious. For this Administration, the true object of the exercise is not understanding or wisdom. Rather, it is to package the past into nice inoffensive bundles, neatly lined up on the near side of the President’s bridge to the new millennium. As we step off into the twenty-first century, Mr. Clinton would have us leave that history behind. But we had best step lively. For the contents of those bundles remain toxic and Mr. Clinton’s packaging is imperfect. Indeed, the bundle marked Kosovo just sprang a leak.

Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations at Boston University.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift