As President Obama’s speech from the Oval Office after the San Bernardino terrorist massacre limped to its close, he attempted to reassure a shaken nation by declaring “I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.” This is one of the President’s favorite formulations, a rhetorical comfort blanket, if you will. In his inaugural address he told us “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history.” He followed that, of course, by offering to “extend a hand” to and cut a deal with Iran, which, to the Supreme Leader’s relief, he has. Later, on February 14, 2011, he insisted “at every juncture in the situation in Egypt, […] we were on the right side of history.” A month later, “Gaddafi is on the wrong side of history” (true: he ended up stickily dead not long after), and two months after that, on July 31, 2011, President Assad’s “use of torture, corruption and terror puts him on the wrong side of history.” At the moment, Assad is doing just fine, unfortunately. In March 2014 the inhabitants of the Crimea and Ukraine were glad to learn from the President that “Russia is on the wrong side of history.” Presumably Putin went even further wrong by deploying thermobaric weapons and S-400 missiles to Syria, but as yet the President has not pronounced upon it.
President Obama has taken this cant phrase and worked it to its limit, but he is not the first. In a 1998 speech to the National Geographic Society, President Clinton was quite definite in saying that when it came to human rights, “China remains on the wrong side of history.” Arguably, civil liberties in China have deteriorated since then. A month earlier, the Indians had gotten on the wrong side of history, according to the President, by lighting off five nuclear bombs. This has not bothered multiple Administrations, including Clinton’s, which have pushed for ever closer relations with New Delhi. George W. Bush got into a spat with Governor Bill Clinton in October 1992 about whether history was on the side of the Democrats or the Republicans (judging by the results of the election a month later, the Democrats had it). Later, as President himself, Bush told soldiers at Fort Hood that the terrorists were on the wrong side of history. So there was at least some agreement between our 43rd and 44th presidents.
According to Google’s Ngram analytics tool, which surveys all printed words in the Google Scholar library, invocations of “the wrong side of history” began to increase in the mid-1960’s, rising by something like 1,000 percent from 1975 to 2005. That statistic does not mean a whole lot (like most attempts to resolve arguments by counting things) but is interesting even so. The use of the term says something not only about the decline of rhetoric—it is a tired, hackneyed phrase—but about a deeper misconception of politics.
History does not take sides. My colleague here at The American Interest, Francis Fukuyama, may have famously claimed that it was over, but he has pulled back a bit from that audacious and highly questionable proposition. More seriously, as Tocqueville once observed, a belief in general causes is the usual resort of lesser politicians. If you really think history is going one way or another, you do not have to do very much, after all. History—capitalized, of course—will take care of matters for you.
Where does it come from, this falling back on History to rescue us from our predicaments? Great statesmen do not turn to this form of consolation. In the peroration to one of his most glorious World War II speeches, Churchill explicitly acknowledged the possibility that matters could go very ill: “But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” Nor was this a pose for the public. At the end of May 1940, when Germany was crushing France, Churchill rallied Britain’s anxious politicians with these grim words: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” He did not say, “Don’t worry, chaps. History is on our side.”
We live in an era when Big Data is supposed to remove elements of uncertainty from political life, and when slipshod and lazy thinking substitutes for statecraft. The study of history, on the other hand, reaffirms the power of contingency, fortune, and personality. Had John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln in 1862, would Hannibal Hamlin have steered the Union to eventual victory? If, conversely, he had been wrestled to the ground on that fateful night at Ford’s Theater three years later, would Reconstruction have been the same tragedy it became?
Invoking History is a way of avoiding hard truths. It is a hollow phrase because it is supposed to soothe, not arouse, rally or inform. More importantly, it is simply not true. It presumes that the good guys win. Not always—just ask Rwandans, Cambodians, or surviving family members of Mao’s seventy million victims. Furthermore, the bad guys think the same thing, particularly Marxists, who shortly before their doctrines imploded were supremely confident that they knew in which direction History was marching. In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev famously said to Western ambassadors at a reception in Moscow, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side.” What he said next, depending on which translation you prefer, was “We will bury you.” Less than 35 years later, the Soviet empire collapsed into ruin. It was a useful warning for lazy politicians: Believe too strongly that your country has a destiny guaranteed by History, and you may ensure that it doesn’t have much of a future. A public that hears the phrase has a right to be skeptical—and nervous.