Perhaps more than any member of Congress, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is preoccupied with fear. And the South Carolina Republican regularly paints a terrifying picture for Americans – “The world is literally about to blow up” – apparently because Graham wants you to be preoccupied with fear, too.
Take the senator’s message today, for example:
“We have never seen more threats against our nation and its citizens than we do today.”
Ahistorical nonsense like this is a little too common, particular from his wing of the party. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) loves to tell anyone who’ll listen that there’s “greater turmoil” in the world now than at any time “in my lifetime.”
McCain’s lifetime includes the entirety of World War II, Vietnam, and the Cold War.
And perhaps that’s the root of the problem. I don’t think Graham and McCain are being disingenuous – their state of near-panic about national security seems sincere – but I do think their understanding of history is alarmingly poor.
The United States has always faced security threats – remember 200 years ago when the British literally set fire to the White House? – and today is no different. But to believe we’ve “never seen more threats” is to think all of American history began in 2014.
Look, we don’t have to dig too deeply into the historical weeds to evaluate Graham’s argument on the merits. The nation fought a civil war, for example, and it left roughly 620,000 Americans dead – similar to the combined total of every other war the U.S. has ever fought. Are the threats to our safety worse now? No, actually they’re not.
In the 1940s, the United States fought a global war on two fronts. Is ISIS scary? Sure. Is it as scary as Nazis and the axis powers? No.
There was also a little something called the Cold War, in which a global superpower aimed a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons at American soil.
I’m reminded of a good piece from Fareed Zakaria from last summer, noting conditions in 1973, the year McCain was released from a Vietnamese prison. That year, Zakaria noted, several hundred thousand people died as a result of the war in Vietnam, tens of thousands died in the Yom Kippur War, OPEC imposed an oil embargo, and Cold War tensions pushed the United States literally to DEFCON 3.
Today’s world is unpredictable, but it doesn’t compare with the kinds of geopolitical dangers that existed for decades during the Cold War, not to mention before that period. […]For all the problems, let’s keep in mind that we live today in a world with considerably fewer dangers. Nuclear war is unimaginable. The Russian-American nuclear arsenals are down to one-fifth their size in 1973 and at a much lower level of readiness. In 1973, Freedom House published its first annual account of political rights around the world. At the time, countries listed as “not free” outnumbered “free” countries. Today that is inverted, with the number of “free” countries having doubled. Open markets, trade and travel have boomed, allowing hundreds of millions to escape poverty and live better lives.Of course there are crises, problems and tensions around the world. But no one with any sense of history would want to go back in time in search of less turmoil.
President Obama talks regularly to White House interns at the end of their six-month internship, and he tends to always tell them the same thing: “[D]espite how hard sometimes the world seems to be, and all you see on television is war and conflict and poverty and violence, the truth is that if you had to choose when to be born, not knowing where or who you would be, in all of human history, now would be the time. Because the world is less violent, it is healthier, it is wealthier, it is more tolerant and it offers more opportunity than any time in human history for more people than any time in human history.”
This is demonstrably true, and one need not have Obama’s sense of optimism to believe it. Someone really ought to let Lindsey Graham know; it might help him feel better.