The non-linear nature of history

The name Charles Guiteau is probably not the best known name in American history.  Over at Wikipedia, there’s one category that his entry belongs to, which contains exactly three other names, including Leon Czolgosz (another not exactly well known name to people who aren’t students of American history).   

But Guiteau ought to be more than just a footnote to history.   He was definitely delusional and probably a textbook example of a psychopath.   In 1880, he gave an impassioned speech at the republican national convention in favor of the man who would go on to win the general election, James Garfield.   

And he felt that Garfield won because of that speech.  As a result of more than a half century of patronage, first introduced by Andrew Jackson in the election of 1828, Guiteau felt he was entitled to a position within the cabinet of President Garfield.   When he didn’t get the ambassadorship he wanted, he decided to assassinate the president.   

I often use the case of Charles Guiteau as an example of how you can never tell when some decisions might have horrible, unforeseen consequences.   In hindsight, we can probably argue that there’s a degree of luck that Garfield was the only victim of a disappointed office seeker during the era of the “spoils system”.

There are countless other examples.  I’m torn about whether whether the blame for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 belongs more on decisions made by Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan.  Probably a little bit of both.   It was on Truman’s watch that we had our failed incursion into Korea under the notion of the “domino theory” that if one country became communist, then other countries would fall.   This, in turn, was Reagan’s justification for funding the mujaheddin in Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets in the 1980s.   And who got a lot of American money for that war?   Osama bin Laden.   Without that money, he wouldn’t have had the resources or the knowledge to train his followers…

Some decisions have consequences that don’t make themselves known for a long time, without regard to whether we might agonize over them for a long time or whether they seemed like no-brainers at the time.  Bill Clinton’s impeachment was only made possible after the Supreme Court rejected his argument that a civil lawsuit would detract from his ability to perform the duties of the president.   The court ruled (correctly) that there was no historical precedent for a civil lawsuit having the net result of harm to the presidency.   Well, that precedent surely is there now…..

You can draw an almost direct line from both Presidents Bush to the recent Russian incursion into Ukraine.   Bush 41 set the stage by not intervening when Saddam Hussein, his country harmed by a nearly decade long war with neighboring Iran, asked for help when Kuwait made oil sales even harder.   So Hussein invaded Kuwait and Bush intervened to drive the Iraqi army back.  Then Bush 43, hoping to salvage his father’s legacy, waged an ill-advised war to depose Hussein after he had gained some political capital in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.  Vladimir Putin, watching this aspect of history can make a valid argument that if Bush could do that, why can’t he do pretty much the same thing in Ukraine, where a fair amount of the local population might prefer to be subjects of Moscow rather than Kyiv….

It’s too soon to know what the consequences of some of the tumult of 2016 will be.   Between Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what will happen next, much less the longer term impacts.   Time will certainly tell on that one, but whatever it is, that’ll only mean that future leaders will have to deal with it when it does finally happen.