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Great Mistakes and Great Men

August 23, 2001

Some years 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 couldn’t 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 South’s 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.

[Breaker quote: History's 
irreversible errors]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 wouldn’t 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 can’t turn back the clock!”

It’s 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 that’s 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?

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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