World War I broke out last night. That is, I finished Christopher Clark's truly monumental The Sleepwalkers, one of the best--and most depressing--books I've read in some years, about the origins of World War I. Everyone in government--especially anyone aspiring to be President--should read it. It captures the importance of distorted perceptions, pettiness, bureaucratic infighting, sheer contingency, and the like, in bringing about what really does seem to be an unmitigated catastrophe (unlike the "mitigated catastrophe" of the American Civil War, which at least had the virtue of formally ending chattel slavery). Anyone who continues to believe that the War was "caused" by rapacious German imperialists is simply mistaken, even if, like everyone else, the Germans did their share to bring about the catastrophe.
Perhaps the single most chilling passage in the entire book comes from a letter that Winston Churchill wrote to his life on July 28, 1914, as Britain made the decision to support France and Russia and therefore guarantee unequivocally that it would be a continental war. "Everything tends toward catastrophe, & collapse. I am interested, geared-up and happy." Churchill might have been one of the great figures of the 20th century because he was so monumentally right about Hitler and gave such great speeches reminiscent of Henry V at Agincourt. That being said, he also had a truly disastrous record of misjudgments in both domestic and foreign policy, including his enthusiastic support for British entry into the war. It strikes me that he may have had traits of Teddy Roosevelt, who, I am confident, would also have been "interested, geared-up and happy" had be been President during World War I (as he so desperately wanted to be). Whether this would have been good for the United States is certainly debatable. I am genuinely torn on whether I think Woodrow Wilson was right to take us to war in 1917, the main consequence of which was setting the stage for the even more catastrophic World War II because of Versailles.
I cannot imagine Barack Obama writing similar sentences to Michelle, and for me that remains a big plus, whatever my disappointments in his presidency. One of the worst legacies of Churchill may be his "setting example" of grandiosity for, especially, George W. Bush, who, one suspects, was thrilled to fly onto the aircraft carrier and declare "Mission Accomplished." (And, for what it is worth, Churchill the imperialist played his own role in supporting British colonialist practices that helped contribute to the 1947 disaster on the Indian subcontinent and throughout the Middle Ease unto this very day.)