Go to content Go to navigation Go to search

George Bush, Stalin, Mao and “history” reading leaders · 24 November 2010

According to a recent article by Ben MacIntyre in The Times, George Bush’s memoir indicates that “in the course of a single year, 2006, in competition with his adviser Karl Rove, he read 95 books, totalling 37,343 pages”. “That is more than one book every four days, and more than 100 pages every day. Bush liked to get eight hours’ sleep a night. So if he reads at the average rate of 60 pages an hour, we arrive at a startling conclusion: roughly one-tenth of the time Bush spent awake as president he was buried in a book. Most of the president’s books were about history, predominantly historical biography”.

The Times article continued: “During that single year he read biographies of Abraham Lincoln (two of the 14 he read in office), Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, King Leopold, William Jennings Bryan, Genghis Khan, Lyndon Johnson, Andrew Carnegie and Huey Long. He read Andrew Roberts’ 800-page History of the English-Speaking Peoples and histories of the Mayflower voyage and the Lincoln assassination. ... References to history pepper the memoir.”

Now, I seriously doubt that Bush read every word – or was “buried” – in all 37,343 pages as most history books contain large amounts of “facts” that are not essential to the core message (this will especially be the case if the reader is on the second or third, or 14th , biography). Nevertheless, the pace at which Bush claims to have read suggests as absence of pauses to significantly reflect on the relationship between what he had just read and what he had read in other books and the relationship to then current events. And, in my view, this absence of pause negates much of the purpose and value of reading history.

The Times quotes Bush (who “majored” at history at university), as saying that he “drew strength from my faith, and from history.” According to the article: “Bush clearly sees the past in didactic terms, as a series of salutary examples, inspirations, turning points and touchstones: ‘I know a lot of history. I know how lessons work. I hope people come to understand how history works.’” “This is the view encapsulated by the philosopher-poet George Santayana: those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it. It assumes that the past offers a moral map, if only we can read it correctly.”

Bush is not the first “leader” to attempt to read history “correctly” in search of a “moral map”. In 1946 Josef Stalin criticized a new movie, Ivan the Terrible, Part Two, telling the director that changes must be made: “Ivan the Terrible was very cruel. You can show he was cruel. But you must show why he needed to be cruel.” The Yugoslavian politician, Milovan Djilas, who had close dealings with Stalin and his lieutenants from 1944, noted that in Stalin, “certain great and final ideals lay hidden – his ideals, which he could approach by molding and twisting the reality and the living men who comprised it”.

So, Stalin had his own version of “understand how history works” and reading it “correctly”; and his own version of a “moral map” – it was alright to be cruel if the end-result was good in the way that he understood such “ideals”!

Zhisui Li, Mao Zedong’s doctor, wrote that Mao “turned to the past for instruction on how to rule”. He “identified with China’s emperors” and “his greatest admiration was reserved for the most ruthless and cruel”. While Li wrote that “morality had no place in Mao’s politics”, he was talking about Mao’s means to an end. Mao – like Stalin – had his own sense of “understand how history works” and his own “ideals”. According to Li, Mao insisted “on policies that no one else had ever imagined, dangerous, risky policies like the Great Leap Forward, the people’s communes, and the Cultural Revolution, all of which were designed to transform China” – presumably to an “ideal” end!

The Times article continued: “There is a tendency, particularly in American political life, to seize on the past as if it offered clear and unequivocal guidance, simple instructions on ethics, leadership and personal behaviour.”

But, this is how Stalin and Mao also viewed history. Stalin wrote in the margin of a biography of Ivan the Terrible: “teacher teacher”. Like Bush, Stalin and Mao chose to read history that tended to reinforce their existing views and predilections. They rarely read history that bolstered their understanding of other view-points.

The Times article continued: “This (American) approach (to the past) tends to ignore the complexity and messiness of history and the intricate individuals that people the past in favour of heroes and villains, right and wrong, black and white. When asked to cite his historical influences, Bush cites Lincoln or Jesus Christ. ... These are not so much historical references as badges of goodness.” “History is seldom neat and never simple. Its moral lessons are often obscure and even its most lauded figures flawed and contradictory. ... If history teaches anything, it is that the past and the affairs of man are complex, uncertain and unpredictable.”

Stalin and Mao also fell for the trap if glossing over the complexity of the past at the cost of not fully understanding the present. As Dr. Li wrote: “Immersed as he was in Chinese history, and thus in the power struggles and political intrigues that were part of every court, Mao expected political intrigue within his own imperial court, and he played the same games himself. Even if aspirants to power told Mao the objective truth, he could not accept it because he saw conspiracies everywhere.”

I once tried to interest an Australian political analyst in my book, “Dictatorial CEOs & their Lieutenants: Inside the Executive Suites of Napoleon, Stalin, Ataturk, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao”. His response was, “Hitler was bad man, and that is all I need to know”. It was the end of the discussion! Hitler indeed turned out to be “bad’, but this does not explain why millions followed him. They followed him because they thought he was “good”. The reality is that Hitler was more than simply a “bad man”, and to view him in this way almost guarantees the present being “condemned to repeat” the past.

The Times article continued: “In the history that Bush tells, his story is clear-cut: a Manichean battle between good and evil, fought with history on his side. ‘I admired Lincoln’s moral clarity,’ he writes.”

Unfortunately, many admired Adolf Hitler for the same reason! Such “moral clarity” was also shared by the likes of Stalin and Mao.

Tudor Rickards has suggested that many people have a negative pre-conception of my book because they suspect that I am supporting, or promoting, the management practices of “dictators”. But, as Tudor understood, my intent was exactly the opposite – I wanted to warn people about how easily it is to fall under dictatorial power! My book is about everything – except “moral clarity”. My book is about reality! And the best way to avoid abuse of power is to avoid extreme “moral clarity”.

If people do not read a balanced account of the lives of such people as Napoleon, Stalin, Ataturk, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao, they will find it difficult to understand their attractions and thus avoid those attractions in the future. Then history is indeed “condemned” to be repeated.

Back to Articles page