11/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Lesson From History

This past weekend I had the honor of participating in a series of lectures and discussions surrounding a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Premier Khrushchev's visit to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to meet with President Eisenhower. Of course any visit to Gettysburg is a sobering experience, its rolling hills steeped in historical relevance almost beyond mortal description. The significance of the battle there has received, and legitimately so, a prominent place in our history, both its teaching and learning.

However, the occasion that brought us together at this past weekend involved an event that has garnered much less attention, even to those of us who consider ourselves students of American History. In fact, astonishingly enough, I cannot recall any political science or history class in which attention was given to the Khrushchev-Eisenhower meeting during my academic career. Hopefully, I am the exception, not the norm.

In light of the enormity of the nuclear challenge facing the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in 1959, particularly as it helped shaped the Cold War, the ability of these two military veterans, both familiar with and involved in war, to engage in personal talks in an effort to help ease tensions between the two superpowers is an abject lesson in diplomacy that I believe will hold the Obama administration in good stead. It is unfortunate that the chicken hawks who directed our defense posture during the previous eight years did not learned from this historical experience, especially given that they were of the age to witness and absorb it.

The appeal of face to face meetings, the incalculable goodwill and trust that can be generated from personal interaction and the power of personality simply cannot be overstated. Of course, it needs to be fortified with solid substantive and well-thought out policy objectives, but the fact that the leaders of nations that were sworn enemies such as Eisenhower and Khrushchev could meet and share ideas, thoughts, concepts, and personal stories speaks volumes to the need to reach out to the world community to solve what sometimes seem to be intractable problems. I am particularly thinking here in terms of the upcoming meeting in Copenhagen regarding a global solution to climate change, but it applies to the world's economic and financial crisis, or any other issue that threatens our ability to peaceably coexist.

The two star attractions of the weekend confab shared the same last names as the stars of the initial meeting: namely, Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the former President, and Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Premier, who accompanied him on his two-week sojourn across America half a century ago. The stories, as told by these two relatives, showed a personal and human nature of the individuals to which so much was entrusted.

The ageless maxim that those who do not learn from their mistakes are bound to repeat them is instructive here. I was inspired enough to reach back into my own memory and reread a copy of Eisenhower's farewell address. For those who have not read it, it is seemingly timeless and contains wisdom that should help guide us today. What makes his words even more credible or incredible is the fact that they came from a professional military man.

I would like at this point to quote a few passages from the speech, delivered in January, 1961, just three days before turning the keys of the White House over to his successor.

America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment." He goes on further to add that "in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

And finally:

Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose...that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.

When I look around and see the venomous vitriol spewed by the conservative opposition to progressive thought and policy today I wonder from where it derives its political justification. Certainly, it is not embedded in the conservative Republican ideology of the 1950's, as represented by Eisenhower. I also wonder at what point these self-described conservatives deviated from the rational model of political discourse.

When I see tea-baggers proselytizing on the merits of secession or administration opponents publicly challenging the veracity of the president on policy differences, or right wing pundits questioning the legitimacy of a democratically elected leader and suggesting that either his failure or demise would benefit the nation, I cannot help but think that rational discourse has abandoned our political system.

I would heartily suggest that maybe a history lesson is very much in order here. In fact, it would probably benefit us all to hark back to the wisdom of this moving address in hopes that it might help improve the state of public discourse and foster greater cooperation instead of conflagration. And in the process it just might contribute to a greater level of trust and confidence in our institutions and elected officials, further marginalizing those who have captured an inordinate share of public babble that passes for rational debate.

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