Cult of Personality: Then and Now

Trying to explain history is no small task. You have to try. Part of being human is the search for understanding; the search for meaning. In the mid-90's, journalists Ron Rosenbaum set out to explain Hitler or rather he set out to explain the explainers in his extraordinary work of scholarship (aptly titled) Explaining Hitler. In the book, Rosenbaum looks at the historians and scholars who have spent a lifetime trying to explain what makes a person like Adolph Hitler. It boils down to the question 'Does evil know it's evil?'. Also, 'Are you born with evil or is it a learned behavior?'. Not surprisingly, no one has definitively cracked the case, but not for lack of trying.

After the fall of Hitler came the Cold War as the USA and USSR took their positions at loggerheads for the next 46 years. A fairly new book, Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War by Frank Costigliola, seeks to explain just how the Cold War started and how it might have been avoided. Unfortunately, Costigliola, like many scholars, is blinded by a cult of personality for the now fabled FDR as a savior of mankind. A reading of history that is all too familiar in this age of Barack Obama.

In his review of the book, Stuart Reid at the New Republic writes that Costigliola's main argument is that the sheer winning personality of FDR might have prevented the Cold War:

The more glaring problem with Costigliola’s argument, however, is that it places far too much stock in Roosevelt’s personal touch. Costigliola gives Roosevelt credit for “cultivating personal ties, playing to emotional dispositions, minimizing ideological and cultural differences, and restraining explosive emotions” and argues that “the Truman administration might have gotten further with Stalin had it addressed the dictator’s apparent emotional needs.” Although Roosevelt may have picked up more manners at Hyde Park than Truman did in Missouri, the book never explains just how greater sensitivity would have changed Stalin’s geopolitical calculus.

To put it bluntly, Costigliola believes that given more time, FDR might have been able to convince Stalin to not be, well, Stalin. With his "personal touch" Roosevelt could have prevented the Soviets from ravaging Eastern Europe.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Idol worship of political figures is a very dangerous thing. I hope it's not too late to reject this most recent cult of personality.