The Spirit of Appomattox . . . Redux

Washington Times  1.07.97
Balint Vazsonyi

"Woe to the vanquished," warned Livy, historian of Rome, two thousand years ago. Sooner or later, all peoples of the world got a taste of the full - and bitter - consequences compressed in that terse line. Comes now Igor Rodionov, Russia's defense minister, denouncing America's support for NATO expansion, calling the victors of the Cold War "radicals," and advocating systems of deterrents against a U.S. "seeking to dominate the world." A few weeks ago, foreign minister Primakov showed up at the NATO conference to throw his weight about. As his worshipful audience listened, he let it be known which actions Russia would and would not consider acceptable.

How did we get here?

Perhaps it began with what I call the Spirit of Appomattox. There, in April 1865, commander of the victors Ulysses S. Grant met Robert E. Lee, general of the vanquished, to end the war which had pitted American against American. Uppermost on the minds of both generals was the fate of the soldiers on the losing side. In the next 24 hours, a make-shift, hand-operated printer churned out some twenty-eight thousand(!) passes to ensure immediate and safe return home of the men, together with their belongings.

The conclusion of World War I was a different story. France, to whom America had entrusted the reins of peacemaking, savored the humiliation and economic destruction of the vanquished. The map of Europe was turned into an arbitrary patchwork of countries - some of which weren't, and others which couldn't be. In Bosnia and elsewhere, the world has yet to finish paying for peacemaking, French style.

Thus, with World War II, the United States decided to demonstrate not only how to conduct war, but also how to secure peace. In approximately the same time it took the Germans to bring about the destruction of Europe, America's unprecedented generosity moved in to rebuild it - at least the areas where the permanent darkness of Russian occupation did not perpetuate war-like conditions. In West Germany and Japan, the introduction of American-style political institutions firmly placed those societies on the road to lasting success that had eluded them in the past.

Europeans like to poke fun at Americans who, they believe, do not read enough books, have difficulty pronouncing foreign words, and generally tend to be "uncivilized." Well, it is one thing to produce prose and poetry about civilized conduct. Certainly, Europeans wrote eloquently and read extensively about virtues such as magnanimity and humanity in the treatment of other nations. Americans, on the other hand, practiced them.

But, with the exception of the French - who once again acted as if they had been victorious - after World War II, it was understood who won, who lost, and whose skin was saved. Gratitude and appropriate behavior by nations in the latter categories has been the norm. Now, the so-called Cold War was no less a world war. Again, it was initiated by America's opponent. Again, it was clearly won and lost. But here, America's generosity in avoiding any possible humiliation of the vanquished, and in providing all manner of assistance, may have gone too far. As a result, Russian officials - some appointed under Stalin, yet currently serving - will boldly assert that "Russia has nothing whatsoever to do with the Soviet Union," history's longest-lasting, biggest and bloodiest terrorist organization.

Of course, they could not issue such a denial unaided. Most of our history scholars and assorted academics - in other words, Americans typically on the public payrolls - have been at pains to pin at least equal blame for the Cold War on America. These efforts form part of a general frenzy to preach about "all the horrible things America has done to everybody." Russians, accustomed to obedience, would find it inconceivable that the Academic Establishment of this country has gone off the deep end and, in the process, detached itself from the body of the nation, the integrity of scholarship, and truth. Consequently, the historically poor assessment of reality most Russians share receives reinforcement from our own elite, distorting the relationship between the two countries and undermining the commendable efforts of Russia's few clear thinkers.

For ordinary Americans, whether native-born or naturalized, this country's gallantry is a source of great pride, a practice to be continued. But certain conditions ought to apply. A recipient nation should be expected to face squarely its own past; to assess realistically its present position; to show itself capable of appreciating good deeds; to comprehend that victorious powers have neither reason nor obligation to obtain permission from the vanquished as they contemplate their future endeavors.

On the whole, Russia has yet to qualify.