History's role in the Kissinger report

IN a seminar organized by the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt referred to the lack of historical perspective with which, in his opinion, the United States approaches policy toward the Soviet Union. Henry Kissinger introduced Mr. Schmidt with warm words of praise but did not take any position on the chancellor's statement that Soviet policymaking was to a far greater extent Russian than Communist and that to understand it required a profound empathy with Russian history and culture.

I thought of this episode while reading the report of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America headed by Dr. Kissinger. In asserting that the region is gripped today by a crisis deep in history, the authors have undoubtedly tried to put things and problems into the broadest possible context. In so doing they have not hesitated to go back in time to explore those roots, without the knowledge of which no solution to the present crisis could possibly be devised. Might Schmidt's objection also be raised against them? I think so.

As every historian knows, the apportionment of responsibility in disentangling the causes of complex historical processes is not an easy task. The Kissinger commission was not conducting scholarly research but a policy-oriented undertaking.

The central question in effect is: How are the contours of that history defined? For the historian, particularly if he or she is Spanish, the references of the report to the legacy of Spanish colonial rule in Central America seem rather hollow. One would expect that more than a century and a half of independent political development, in a concrete external environment, would have distilled some deep explanation of the roots of today's crisis. However, three previous centuries of Spanish colonial rule, sketched in rather somber tones, provide the background out of which the commission's major variables emerge for dealing with the region's turbulent present. The interplay apparent several centuries ago between landowning elites and broad masses of exploited and subjugated Indians is in fact projected to account for almost all failures in the political and social evolution of independent Central America. In this reasoning the conquista is held responsible for originating most of the malheurs , or misfortunes, which afflict the area today.

US direct interventions in Central America, being a matter of historical record, are not forgotten. They are, however, misinterpreted. Their true nature is conveniently explained away.

For example: That the US Marines returned to Nicaragua in 1912 and, with a brief interruption, stayed until 1933 is mentioned. No reason is given for this rather long sojourn. Nor are any conclusions drawn.

US official policies appear in the report as a historically truly benevolent factor, bent on introducing stability in a region torn by its legacy. In fact, no criticism whatsoever is leveled against past US actions, except for their timidity or lack of concern for the area.

One is free to play with history. At a risk. Ethnocentric perceptions and intellectual snobbery are, however, not the best bases on which to conduct rational policies. Dr. Kissinger should have known better.

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