Back to the Future?

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Henry Kissinger, arguably the one of the world’s greatest living statesmen, writes in his memoir White House Years, ‘When I entered office, I brought with me a philosophy formed by two decades of the study of history’. Of course, Henry Kissinger is a polarising man; nonetheless, he was one of the most significant figures in our recent history. Kissinger’s actions guided the foreign policy of the Nixon and Ford administrations, being a key instigator in the 1972 SALT agreement, Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, for which he contentiously won a coveted Nobel Peace Prize. Therefore, love or loathe Henry Kissinger, he undeniably shaped the era we live in now. Consequently, surely there is a sinew within you that makes you wonder how he achieved such things during his tenure in office? Well, Kissinger seems to have answered that question himself: history.

I am a keen historian and, on an all too regular basis, I am challenged with the rather monotonous and overstated question: what is the point of history? It was not too long ago that someone told me that although history may be interesting to study, it is a rather myopic subject because it will not help me later in life. This point could not be further from the truth.

There is the cliché: we make mistakes to learn from them. However, no matter how repulsive you may find such clichés, they are often repeated because they are fundamentally true. Naturally, this is one way to utilise history, learn from past mistakes to avoid repeating them. After all, it is in little doubt that the current farcical Brexit negotiations will be appearing in textbooks soon across the world as an example of how not to negotiate. Nevertheless, I wonder if the true learning to be taken from Brexit is this: a stable equilibrium is a blessing which occurs all too irregularly; therefore, should we really disturb the status quo? I would argue no. If an ecosystem is functioning effectively, why disturb it? However, the problem seems to be that we forget how we managed to maintain such a balance.

The trouble is, we like to remember the disasters of history because they seem to be more interesting than the obscure and uneventful periods. One need look no further than the recent armistice day celebrations commemorating the six million who died in the trenches during World War One, along with those who have died defending our country since, to prove that catastrophe is more enduring than continuity. Undeniably, this war was a tragedy of the utmost scale, so we rightly remember it. Nonetheless, it seems to be that in the midst of remembrance of past wars, we forget the wars that could have occurred had it not been for the policy and intervention of others.

My favourite example of such an intervention is that of President Eisenhower and his contribution to the development of the theory titled ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’. This is a doctrine of military strategy and national defence policy in which the full-scale use of nuclear weapons would result in complete annihilation of both sides; henceforth making the initiation of such a war unlikely. Eisenhower was a military man, and, as a result, he had studied the works of the relatively unknown Claus von Clausewitz and knew of Clausewitzian Theory which states how war is pointless if the initial political objective is destroyed in the war’s process. Consequently, to ensure that complete destruction would occur, Eisenhower allowed America’s atomic weapon supply to increase from 1,000 warheads in 1953, the year he took office, to 18,000 warheads in 1961, the year he left office. The significance of Eisenhower’s learnings from Claus von Clausewitz are this: by refusing to ignore a largely forgotten part of history, Eisenhower arguably managed to prevent a hugely damaging World War Three.

Therefore, as Berkeley Squares begins to include articles with a historical orientation, it is important to realise that it will not be a place to recall past pieces of history just for fun. Rather, it will follow in the footsteps of the likes of Eisenhower and Kissinger by taking parts of perhaps forgotten history and remembering them with a modern relevance. By applying the lessons of our sometimes forgotten past, we aim to create a more informed narrative for our future.