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Beazley and Fullilove as fools · 16 January 2014

Australian Ambassador to the US, Kim Beazley, has reportedly (“The Australian”, 15 January, 2014) endorsed comments apparently made some years ago by John Howard when asked to describe Australia: “Like California, only more supportive of the US government”.

Beazley seems to share with Michael Fullilove, of the Lowy Institute, an excessive loyalty to the past and present governments of the US; indeed, their loyalties to the US may be equal to or even exceed those to Australia.

Fullilove has wriiten a book, “Rendezvous With Destiny—How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World”, which has been praised by a pantheon of well-known analysts and former policy makers. Henry Kissinger describes it as a “well-written account”; Paul Keating describes it as a “fascinating account”; Francis Fukuyama describes it as a “revealing account”; Joesph S. Nye describes it as an “important history” etc.

But is it really an accurate historical account?

Prof. David Nasaw, from the City University of New York, who specializes “early 20th Century America”, has written about “the artificiality of Fullilove’s ‘personal envoys’ category”. “Welles was sent overseas in 1940 not simply as Roosevelt’s envoy, but because, as under secretary of state, he was the logical choice for this particular diplomatic mission. Donovan was dispatched not by Roosevelt, but by the secretary of the Navy. Wendell Willkie went on his own. Harriman did not report to Roosevelt, but to Harry Hopkins. The only true personal envoy, the only man whom the president fully trusted to speak for him, was Hopkins.”

So, what is going on here? Could it be that the people recommending his book do not know as much history as Nasaw, and have a rather simplistic understanding of that period?

Gillian Tett, in a Financial Times article last year, wrote that “a few years ago David Lefer, a high school and college history teacher in Brooklyn, was asked by a student for a good book on John Dickinson, an 18th-century American Revolutionary political figure … Lefer duly scoured the libraries and discovered a striking fact: although America’s academic world is brimming with accounts of the Founding Fathers, there was almost nothing at all written on Dickinson. That struck Lefer as odd. Dickinson was important in that 18th-century independence movement, since he (in)famously penned the tracts known as Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which eloquently defended the idea of liberty and freedom. Indeed, that writing was so influential that during Dickinson’s own lifetime he was considered “the most trusted man in America and second most famous American in the world, after Benjamin Franklin” and credited with “single-handedly rallying the colonies in the fight against British oppression”, as Lefer notes. And yet, by the 21st century, Dickinson’s name had slipped out of view. So Lefer started digging into this curious silence, and earlier this month he published the fruits of this research in a book entitled “The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution”. … Lefer argues that the lack of books about Dickinson is not just an oversight, but reflects a wider distortion in how modern Americans perceive their revolution. More specifically, in recent decades, schools have tended to teach that the revolt against the British was organised by a fairly united band of noble freedom fighters with shared, egalitarian views. However, Lefer argues, this is wrong. In reality, the revolutionaries were racked by bitter infighting between a group that might be dubbed “liberals” … and “conservatives”. Dickinson … fell into this latter camp. … Yet in the period after the second world war – when many modern history books were written – historians did not want to focus on this split.” “With the United States facing an existential and ideological threat from Soviet Communism, the ‘consensus’ school … deliberately emphasized Americans’ underlying unity during the revolution … and believed that American history was fundamentally liberal.” So those Founding Fathers were presented as a happily unified group and Dickinson slipped from view.”

Tett then comments on the “the slippery nature of historical ‘truth’”. “As I have noted in a recent column, history occupies a strikingly large place in school curriculums in America, compared with a country such as the UK. It is also prominent in the publishing world: books about the Founding Fathers and other American leaders dominate book stores to a degree unknown in Britain. The reason for this is not hard to spot: as anthropologists often point out, most societies have a ‘creation myth’ that acts as social glue. And America has a particularly strong need for a common narrative – a founding mythology – since it has fused a nation from diverse immigrants in a short space of time. But, as anthropologists also like to point out, creation myths are never entirely factual; in any society – be that the UK, US or anywhere else – history is usually presented to suit some wider, albeit half-stated, ideological goal. In the postwar years, this goal was anti-Soviet ‘consensus’ … the next time you hear an American politician cite ‘history’, or those Founding Fathers, just remember Dickinson. The question of what – or who – is left out of historical accounts is often as interesting as what is included. Especially when those omissions are barely noticed at all.”

Is this what has happened with Fullilove’s book?

Has Fullilove been “slippery” with history because he has an “ideological goal”? Are the famous names that praise his book really knowledgeable about US history? Did they actually read the book, or did Beazley – with his own “ideological goal” of “support for the US government” – embark on a book marketing campaign for Fullilove?

Enamored with mythical views of the US, Australians such as Beazley, Fullilove and John Howard all too easily overlook the nasty side of that country and society, or justify as an aberration such things as slavery (see my piece on “Obama, Jefferson, slaves, murder, Nobel Prizes” in the left hand column).

And, because these Australians cannot – or do not want to – nuance, they will have difficulty logically considering many contemporary issues such as Iran and China (and figures such as Putin).

This simplicity is potentially very dangerous for Australia in the changing world.

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