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The Lessons of History | The Nation

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The Lessons of History

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There is something incongruous about the richest nation in the world ordering an international body such as the United Nations to take action, such as inspecting the status of weaponry in, say, Iraq, when that action would involve the expenditure of funds coming from dues paying countries such as Chile, Timor, Rumania, and Iceland but none from the United States. There is something quite undemocratic about advocating "regime change" in various parts of the world, in actions that bring no great credit to this country or its traditions. Only in the current crisis have we openly declared as our objective a "regime change" in Iraq in a process that is obviously undemocratic and even revolutionary. I have an eery feeling even in discussing a regime change as if it were a mere routing operation of throwing out one leader for a so-called better one to be selected by the powers that change the regime. This is a ghastly renunciation of the very principles that we claim to espouse. A country that prides itself in being democratic or even striving toward democracy should take the utmost caution in even thinking about changing the government of a country in another part of the world with a history and culture profoundly different from its own.

Historian John Hope Franklin delivered the Arthur M.
Schlesinger, Jr. Lecture at the New-York Historical Society on October 17. It is published here as part of The Nation's ongoing Moral Compass series, highlighting the spoken word.

About the Author

John Hope Franklin
John Hope Franklin is the James B. Duke professor emeritus of history at Duke University and for seven years was...

And in any relations with others, even with our so-called enemies, there are codes of conduct that so-called democratic countries cannot ever violate. A so-called democratic country cannot, must not, engage in practices repulsive to democratic policies and traditions. One of them is called "extraordinary rendition," the seizing of a person by a sovereign power, detaining him for as long as the power wishes to detain him without notifying his government or his family, and charging him with no violation of the law, and then sending him to a so-called neutral country for interrogation. The rendition is not even to a friendly power, and the interrogation is reportedly savage and brutal, including beating, starving, and threatening the victim with death. During the current crisis that practice has become all too common. One of the classic cases is the young Canadian citizen who, while passing through New York, en route to Canada from a vacation, was seized, sent off to Syria, the land of his birth, and interrogated, beaten, and tortured for more than a year, and finally returned to Canada after having received no useful information with which to accuse him of some unspeakable crime.

All of us are familiar with the notorious detention of hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba without indictments of any kind, without an opportunity to communicate with relatives or even counsel, or even learning anything about why they are detained. We are also familiar with the current practice of detaining so-called enemy combatants in several places and, in violation of international law, keeping them without making any charges against them, and denying them any rights under the Geneva Convention or any other form of international protection. The United States has engaged in these practices in connection with its objectives of spreading democracy throughout the world. Although these practices have gained no support throughout the world, this country clings to them, even in the face of judicial challenges and, in some cases, judicial condemnation.

Far back in the past, around the year 200l, all of five years ago, some Americans had hoped that the crisis could have been resolved without an all-out war. That was not to be, especially since the United States insisted without conclusive proof that Iraq had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. We, of all countries in the world, know what it is like to unleash weapons of mass destruction. As the only nation in the world to have used such weapons not once but twice, not on a lonely Pacific island to demonstrate what their use would be like, but on two of the most densely populated cities on the face of the earth, we know! We also know that it should not, must not happen again!! If that is the way to spread democracy throughout the world, perhaps we should resolve not to attempt it.

There is much good for all of us to do in the world. There are hungry mouths to be fed. There are diseased bodies to be healed. There are deranged minds to be delivered of their demons by corrective treatment. There are oceans and rivers that can bring much to mankind in terms of food and drink as well as avenues over which we can share our resources or be brought together as one family. There are deserts to which we can bring the life-giving waters for the benefit of all mankind. There are forests to be brought into use for the protection and shelter of mankind. There is mankind himself and herself, capable of self-control and also capable of lending her and his wisdom and strength in the cause of real freedom and genuine democracy.

We deserve the opportunity to pursue our goals in a peaceful manner and not pursue some goals of which we have no need or cause to pursue. If we would only pursue peace with the same vigor and enthusiasm that we pursue war, perhaps we could stumble into a period of calm that would be so constructive that we would be persuaded that we have a prize--a prize of peace of which we could all be truly proud.

I hope that the United States, having already experienced or witnessed numerous holocausts in the past century, can get through this next century with a peace that surpasses all understanding and that it can show the world that while there may be something great about winning a war, there is something much, much greater about learning to use the tools of peacemaking and peacekeeping for the building of a better world--a democratic world, if you will--in which we can all live in peace as one great human family.

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