Dennis C. Jett wants to be taken seriously.
He should be.
Mr. Jett, the Dean of International Studies at the University of Florida, is also a former career diplomat with service in Argentina, Israel, Malawi, and Liberia. Before departing the Foreign Service he also served as the United States Ambassador to Peru and Mozambique.
Dean Jett is in the news cycle recently because the Gainesville Sun published the Dean’s op-ed, a piece that in turn was read by James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal‘s “Best of the Web Today” online feature. (For the record, while I do not know Mr. Taranto, he edited a long-ago article of mine for the WSJ; as it happens, a recent article of mine for this site was run the other day on the WSJ‘s Online edition as a result of TAS‘s involvement in the “Opinion Federation” series.)
Taranto ran an excerpt of Dean Jett’s op-ed, “The Nation’s Values, Not Survival, at Risk,” dutifully providing a link to the original. Taranto also ran a heated objection from Dean Jett afterwards. The essence of Mr. Jett’s point was that Taranto had distorted Jett’s views by only publishing 200 words of 800 (he ignored the fact of the link), and that had readers seen Jett’s entire piece they would realize “the stupidity” of the questions posed by Taranto. TAS readers can link up and read both articles for themselves, and certainly Mr. Taranto needs no help defending himself.
But while Dean Jett seems to suffer from the modern liberal disease of humorlessness, he nonetheless has a point in asking to be taken seriously. So, Dean Jett, allow me.
First of all, let me start by thanking you for your service to our country. The Foreign Service is filled with dedicated men and women serving around the globe in situations that can be as dangerous as they are unglamorous. You stepped up to the plate and I applaud you for that.
Alas, however, experience in the Foreign Service, other branches of the government or — yes — even the military does not necessarily gift anyone with the ability to get it right when it comes to understanding the essence of a serious threat to our national security. The list is long of men and women with distinguished records in diplomacy, war, or government who utterly failed to comprehend serious national security threats until it was too late, or who wanted to call a halt to a war and simply retreat in defeat. This is a commonplace not only in American history but in the history of other nations and cultures as well.
In our own country a short list would include names like General George McClellan of Civil War fame (who insisted the war was a failure in his 1864 campaign to unseat Lincoln), Senators William Borah of Idaho, Gerald Nye of North Dakota and Burton Wheeler of Montana, all three of whom insisted the U.S. should not involve itself in trying to stop Hitler in the 1930s. Ditto World War I flying ace General Eddie Rickenbacker and Colonel Charles Lindbergh, both men of spectacular courage yet blind as a bat to Hitler. In our time there was World War II hero Senator George McGovern who blithely declared “the war against Communism is over” in 1972 with all of Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain and the invasions or take-over through surrogates of places like Afghanistan and Nicaragua still in the future. Not yet a senator, John Kerry, dressed in his battle fatigues, famously assured the American people in 1971 that “we cannot fight Communism all over the world and I think we should have learned that lesson by now.”
This doesn’t even touch the experienced officials of Great Britain and France in the 1930s, the Baldwins, Chamberlains, Lavals and many more.
In other words, appeasement and the inability to see a serious threat to national security is a sentiment that knows no generational, educational or professional bounds. Dean Jett is obviously a patriotic and well-educated, very experienced man. In contrast, the mechanic who fixed the family car the other day is not even close to the Dean’s level of schooling or professional experience. Nonetheless, out of the blue he lectured me at length about the danger of not dealing with bullies whether they were in the schoolyard or the international arena. He had lived a life, and he knew something about mankind and human beings.
LET’S TAKE A FEW OF Dean Jett’s points.
The Dean says that the deaths of three thousand on 9/11 simply do not compare with the deaths of sixty million who died in World War II. “Comparing the threat of terrorism to that of Communism or the original Axis of evil is not simply historical ignorance or hubris. It is sheer political opportunism. Do those in power really think the nation’s very survival is at risk because of a handful of fanatics? Or do they know that their political survival depends on convincing 51 percent of the people of that?”
The striking thing about this line of reasoning is that it does in fact come from a Dean of International Studies at a major university who has such considerable experience in the Foreign Service.
Surely one would think that Dean Jett would know that in the 1930s, when his philosophical ancestors held sway in America, Britain and Europe, there was no such thing as the Axis powers nor were there sixty million dead. There were, however, “a handful of fanatics” that had been clambering around the bowels of German politics for over a decade. Ironically, CBS journalist William Shirer, in his award-winning The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich uses an almost identical phrase when describing Adolf Hitler and his cronies before their rise. They were, Shirer writes, a “little band of fanatical, ruthless men.”
Unfortunately, America listened to the Dean Jetts of the day back then. One of the most prominent was North Dakota’s Republican Progressive Senator Gerald P. Nye. As Dean Jett sees no serious threat from Islamic fascists, Nye and many others saw no threat from Hitler and his followers. Indeed, Jett echoes Nye’s charges against the president of Nye’s day — Franklin D. Roosevelt. As Jett accuses the Bush administration of using terrorism simply to get political support of “51 percent of the people,” Nye flatly accused President Franklin Roosevelt of using fear to whip Americans into a frenzy of “emotion and hysteria, without a real basis of either fact or realistic appreciation of world affairs.”
While Senator Nye and so many of his like-minded fellow Americans were busy carrying the day, there was no body count of sixty million. To the contrary. As historian Lucy Dawidowicz (and many others) detail, the road to sixty million began in the tens and the hundreds and the low thousands. Orders were issued from the once “fanatical band” that now had gotten control of an entire government to round up “at least two hundred” Jews. Later that would become 1,300. Then ten or more concentration camps were set up inside Germany, expanded to hold not a couple hundred or 1,300 but 25,000. And on it went, slowly but steadily rising to become a horrific six million.
One is particularly taken by the Dean’s reading of the administration’s efforts to collect intelligence, its insistence that the war be fought as a war and not as a loose collection of criminal offenses. That is certainly a legitimate difference of opinion — but it is a difference. George W. Bush is not the only American who believes, to cite one aspect of this argument, that it is insanity to show classified information to terrorists under the guise of a “fair trial.” It is particularly disingenuous for a scholar to puff up the so-called horrors of the Bush approach to terror while presumably believing Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt are two of the greatest American presidents in history. The first famously suspended habeas corpus, the second imprisoned Americans of Japanese descent for no other reason than that they were of Japanese heritage. The last I looked there are no concentration camps in, say, the heavily Arab-American precincts of Dearborn, Michigan.
BUT THERE IS SOMETHING ELSE of significance in Dennis Jett’s article, and in his response to James Taranto. It is not his reference to his experience with terrorism in Peru, where the Tupac Amaru rebels, terrorists indeed, were decidedly not Islamic fascists with global ambitions. The difference between the two groups is stark, and surely Jett understands this.
No, the significance here is Dennis Jett’s age. It is precisely that significance that says the good Dean cares not a whit for history. Dennis Jett is, like myself, a baby-boomer. One does not even have to Google the Dean as he requested in his reply to Taranto to realize this instantly, although I certainly did so. As with all those in a particular generational cohort, baby boomers can tell their own. After all, we were raised with the same cultural and moral assumptions, anchored by some approximation of the same intellectual moorings that come with a liberal arts education from the 1960s and early 1970s (Jett’s came via the University of New Mexico). A fairly cohesive if massive unit, particularly if we went through the higher education system, the unspoken assumption among baby boomers was that our political beliefs — liberal beliefs — would remain the same as well.
For those of us who did not “keep the faith” — think George W. Bush — no amount of scorn will do. Even if good old Dennis, class of ’68, were not making regular appearances on the Bush-hating “Smirking Chimp” website venting his fury, a fellow baby boomer could see him coming a mile away. Take his closer in his op-ed: America under Bush has become: “A nation of sheep led by liars, fools and cowards.” A bit of an eye-opener as to the attitude of some career Foreign Service officers towards those elected by their fellow citizens, no?
Perhaps only a baby boomer would recognize this kind of venom as the standard fare of anti-war zealots that was hurled with regularity back there in our own generational Jurassic Park against the likes of the hated LBJ, the hapless Hubert Humphrey and the despised Nixon. What really infuriates the Jetts of the world is that so many of us who marched in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at 18, 19, or 20 have — ahhhh — lived a life since then and, well, evolved. (Like Dennis Jett I too headed for government service, working on both Capitol Hill and in the White House.) We realized, fortunately not too late, that it was time to grow up — and that maybe, just maybe, all the misty, water colored memories of the way we were should remind us we were — gasp!!! — wrong!
Quoting Colin Powell is not good enough to carry the day for the old liberal baby boomer belief that “the rest of the world” somehow has some special key to wisdom of the ages. There are plenty of baby boomers with government service like Dennis Jett who understand full well that “the rest of the world” includes entire nations and significant chunks of generations who supported everyone from Hitler to Stalin to Mao, Ho Chi Minh and the antics of Danny the Red. Perhaps most importantly, even the guy who fixed the family Chevy gets this.
So Dean Dennis Jett, again I will say that I respect your service to our country. You are most assuredly entitled to your views and the freedom to express them. You are certainly taken seriously. But don’t for a second think that those of us who have perused your writings believe you spent your life living and working around the world.
We’re on to you, man.
You live in 1968. And you are still working there.