The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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History, Journalism and the Repetition of Error
Published on March 30, 2012

There is an old adage which states that history is written by the winners. No doubt this is generally true, and the unstated premise of this adage certainly makes logical sense: Those who die in a failed military campaign, after all, are not going to be writing anything. But sometimes history is not even written by the winners, only by journalists whose collective, serial repetition of error pollutes the historical record in such a way that nothing can pluck the error out. Once established as fact, mere innocent acts of random but voluminous repetition over time further insulate the error from notice, let alone correction. This is how “common knowledge” that isn’t knowledge at all gets generated. This is sad, but that’s life.

Case in point: In this Washington Post obituary of Roger C. Molander, one of the founders of an organization called Ground Zero and a leader of the nuclear freeze movement of the mid-1980s.  I don’t want to talk about Molander now, because it’s not nice to speak ill of the dead, but I do want to take note of a breezy statement in passing made by the author of the obituary, Emily Langer.  At one point, down around the tenth paragraph, Ms. Langer writes:

But shortly after the SALT II negotiations were successfully completed, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Relations between Washington and Moscow deteriorated, and the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty.

The clear intimation here is that the Treaty would have passed muster with the Senate had the Soviet Union not invaded Afghanistan. While now fixed, like a constellation, in the firmament of common knowledge (I have seen it in supposedly serious scholarly books as well as in journalists’ work), this “fact” is simply and demonstrably wrong.

First of all, the SALT II negotiations were essentially completed at least six months before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Maybe six months qualifies as “shortly” to some people, but a lot can happen in six months. In this case, “a lot” included very extensive hearings concerning the SALT II Treaty conducted both by the Senate Armed Services Committee and by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Those hearings and a parallel national debate illustrated deep division over the implications and wisdom of the treaty as the Carter Administration negotiated it.  By the end of September 1979, by which time the bulk of the hearings had been completed, it was clear to those involved in the process that the Treaty lacked the necessary two-thirds Senate majority for ratification. There were not 67 votes for passage in prospect; there were probably not even sixty. (This should have come as no surprise even at the time, because the chief negotiator of the Treaty, Paul Warnke, was confirmed, after a heated Senate debate, by a vote of only 54-40 some two years earlier.) So reported California Senator Alan Cranston—the Administration’s appointed headcounter and manager for the purpose of getting the Treaty ratified—to his superiors in the Executive Branch.

So it is true that the Senate refused to ratify the treaty, but it did not refuse because the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Senate was determined in its refusal before the invasion took place (whether for good reason or bad isn’t the point just now). When the invasion happened, the Carter Administration wisely decided to save face by withdrawing the treaty from consideration. The Administration depicted its withdrawal of the Treaty, along with its boycott of the summer 1980 Moscow Olympics and several other symbolic acts, as evidence of its strong resolution to oppose Soviet action. (Little did we know at the time, but some very serious opposition was actually in the works, thanks to the efforts of National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.) No one who mattered in Moscow was fooled, but a lot of Americans seem to have been fooled ever since. Ms. Langer is hardly alone and, in all fairness, the error is really not her fault. She never had a chance, enveloped as she is in this particular cloud of false certainty. And note: The Senate never voted on the SALT II Treaty, which is something a reader also would never know from the obit.

How do I know all this? I was there. I was in the Senate Caucus room for most of the hearings. I was an adjunct Senate staffer at the time, and everyone around me understood exactly what was going on.

I was at the time only 28 years old, and this constituted my first experience of being intimate with a political process that was described the next day in the newspaper in a way that resembled barely at all what had actually happened. Lessons this powerful are not easily forgotten. This was the first of many such experiences that have shaped the way I read history––any history. Hindsight is not 20/20, folks, not by a long shot.

It is not necessary to be present at the creation of a discrepancy between fact and historical account to appreciate the phenomenon. One can experience the same thing more or less from close acquaintance with archives. There are many accounts of key historical episodes and periods that have become accepted common knowledge but that are either fundamentally wrong or strewn with incidental error. What most people think they know about the formative period of the modern Middle East state system during and after World War I furnishes some stellar examples. (Here’s one as a kind of tease: If you are not familiar with the phrase “Arabian Chapter problem”, then you cannot really know how the territorial aspects of the British Mandates for Palestine and Mesopotamia came into being.)

Archives-based enlightenment takes a lot of hard work and time, and in some ways it is more satisfying than enlightenment produced by personal experience strangely depicted. Still, it doesn’t vibrate as powerfully. Archival enlightenment and personal experience do have one important thing in common, however: Neither stands the slightest chance at correcting errors pounded deeply into so-called common knowledge. The SALT II Treaty will always be defeated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, even though it wasn’t. And there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest.