Great Mistakes and Great Men
August 23, 2001
ago a Catholic historian took stock of the Second Vatican Council, held in
the early Sixties. He noted that the condition of the Church since the Council had
far surpassed the darkest predictions and worst fears of the reactionaries.
Prophets of doom are commonly
held in derision, but they are often right. In fact they sometimes understate the
worst possibilities, and events show not that they were correct, but that history
held grim surprises even for those who were trying to imagine what could go
wrong. Time may make a Cassandra look like a cockeyed optimist.
Opponents of the U.S. Constitution feared that
it would result in big government. They couldnt dream how big the federal
government would actually become, far exceeding in size, scope, and power what
had been called the tyranny of George III. Nor did they foresee such
collateral results as the Civil War and U.S. involvement in two world wars.
If those pessimists said to us now,
Well, we tried to warn you, defenders of the Constitution might
reply that these things happened because the Constitution was abandoned or
perverted. The pessimists might fairly argue: But you said it was a
foolproof plan! You said its built-in safeguards would prevent the centralization of
power! Evidently you were wrong.
Again, both sides in the Civil War expected a
short contest. A few months of skirmishing, and everything would be settled. One
pessimist warned that it might last three years and take tens of thousands of
lives; it lasted four years and claimed 620,000 lives.
One Southern senator nearly called it right.
Alexander Stephens of Georgia warned that if the South seceded, it would mean a
war the South could only lose. And in that case, the North would be able to do
everything the South accused it of wanting to do. He was correct. Secession
backfired, bringing on the Souths worst fears and then some.
Today the isolationists
the patriots who wanted the United States to stay out of World War II are
spoken of as if they were obviously wrong. But they were only wrong in failing to
see just how bad the consequences of the war would be.
Japan and Germany were
defeated, but they were replaced by a far more terrifying enemy: the Soviet Union,
which, shortly after the war, posed a threat to this country that Japan and
Germany never did. Apart from seizing ten countries in Central Europe, the Soviets
acquired a nuclear arsenal with which they could annihilate American cities.
Before the war, nobody had imagined this even as a remote possibility. It was our
alliance with the Soviet Union that enabled its spies and sympathizers to lay their
hands on American nuclear secrets.
In the Sixties, a few prescient people warned
that escalating the war in Vietnam might result in a conflict as serious as the
Korean War. Actually, more Americans finally died in Vietnam than in Korea.
At about the same time, Lyndon Johnson
declared war on poverty. He pledged that if his new programs failed
to eliminate poverty, they would be abandoned. Conservative
skeptics warned that the programs wouldnt work, which was true enough;
but none foresaw how devastating the welfare system would be to the cities and
black family life. Yet even when the damage was obvious, the programs proved
politically hard to reverse.
One of the odd things about our mistakes is
that after we commit ourselves to them, it becomes difficult even to perceive
them as mistakes. We adapt to them, justify them, become dependent on them, and
forget the alternatives to them, until we no longer have the mental detachment we
had before we made them. They become almost impossible to disown, and we
sacrifice our judgment to them.
And over time, our wrong turns are normalized
and exalted as steps in the epic of progress. Anyone who proposes to correct them
is given the standard homily: We cant turn back the clock!
Its amazing how seldom societies ask
themselves, before making a fateful decision, some simple questions: What if this
turns out to be a disastrous mistake? Will we be able to undo it?
Maybe thats why history sometimes
looks like a tragic trail of irreversible blunders, and why those who made them are
commemorated as our greatest men. After all, who wants to build monuments in
honor of pessimists?