An important part of statecraft is learning from the past, and in my first podcast I ask General David Petraeus, who commanded the US-led coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan and was director of the CIA, what he learned about the Vietnam War from his PhD studies at Princeton that helped him in the war against terror.
To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:
Andrew Roberts: Ladies and gentlemen, hello. I'm Andrew Roberts, the Roger and Martha Mertz Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. And, I'd like to welcome you to my new podcast, Secrets of Statecraft. The title derives from Sir Winston Churchill's reply to a young American who asked him for some life advice as Churchill was walking through Westminster hall on the day of the Queens coronation in 1953. "Study history, study history," Churchill said, "for therein lies all the secrets of statecraft."
Andrew Roberts: I've been a historian for 30 years and have written or edited 18 books. And, in this podcast series, I'll be talking to prominent people about the role that history has played in their careers and their decision making. And also, to fellow historians about how the past influenced the people they've written about. In the course of it, I hope to eke out some of the timeless secrets of statecraft. We start the series off today with General David Petraeus. As Commander of American led coalition forces in Iraq, he was the person who executed the successful surge there in 2007, before going on to who take command in Afghanistan in 2010 and becoming CIA director in 2011. David, who taught you history? I'd be very interested to hear about whether or not there were any charismatic history teachers in your past.
David Petraeus: Well, there were, and it's a great question, Andrew, but first it is great to be with you again and a real privilege to walk point for you or with you on your new and exciting endeavor. The answer to your question, who taught me history, is really a substantial number of individuals over the years. Not all of whom were teachers or professors at the time. I did have some inspirational professors of history at West Point. One of whom John Wagglestein. I think a Major Lieutenant Colonel at the time went, on to be the Commander of the special forces group focused on Latin America and the Military Group Commander for the US effort in El Salvador, which I later studied.
David Petraeus: Of course, he was a true soldier and scholar with infectious enthusiasm for history and someone who made a bit of history himself. There was a similar individual in the staff college who added fuel to the interest already ignited me for exploring Vietnam. My greatest mentor in graduate school, Professor Dick Ullman was a great student of diplomatic history, passing contemporary, and he sparked a keen interest in me to do further reading on the memoirs and biographies of American presidents, Secretaries of State and Defense, the most prominent generals of the 20th century and leaders of other countries in militaries too, not the least of whom was of course in recent years, the subject of your exceptional biography, Churchill, who truly was walking with destiny as your title, so aptly captured his life.
David Petraeus: But, my father-in-law General Bill Knowlton was a true soldier, scholar, statesman, and a true lover of history. He encouraged wide reading of World War II in Vietnam, in particular, both of which he served in with distinction. But, he also loved historical fiction and he advised me to read, for example, Cecil Woodham Smith's wonderful book on the British and crime, The Reason Why. John Masters wonderful, Bugles and a tiger, Anton Myrer's Once an Eagle, and even the Flashman series. I can only take one or so of those every other week.
David Petraeus: But, again, all of these had helped you accumulate to build intellectual capital, I think, on which you could draw later. And in truth, as I think about this, my own parents really we're a huge feature in all of this. They really introduced me to history. They surrounded me with history books growing up. My mother was a part-time librarian, they were always reading them themselves. And, at least several weeks, each summer that'd take me around historical sites in the Northeastern and Eastern US as a kid. My dad was a former Dutch sea captain. He also loved historical fiction, such as C.S. Forester's, Hornblower series, and Forester's other real classic in my eyes, the very slim volume, The General. Such a powerful and instructive book of fiction to be sure, but one that captures the tragic failed leadership of World War I.
David Petraeus: I've repeatedly recommended it to young officers as the real essence of it is often elusive. It requires discussion. They have to dig into it to recognize that this otherwise quite admirable figure, not a Chateau General, doesn't get it about the nature of combat and has failed in the most basic task of a senior leader, which is to get the big ideas right. Finally, I liked to think that I taught myself history to a degree at least. I did a lot of research into various aspects for my academic and professional endeavor, seeking to learn not just what transpired according to a particular author, of course. And of course, sometimes they wrote their own history as Churchill certainly did very effectively. But, also to learn what lessons I should take from what I was reading in terms of leadership, professional insights, and so forth.
David Petraeus: And I studied particularly assiduously, the prominent combat leaders, all the greats. Napoleon on whom you wrote so brilliantly as well, Wellington, Grant, Pershing, MacArthur, Slim, Eisenhower, Ridgeway, Marshall, and so forth. And, I did enjoy historical fiction. Again also, including the wonderful Sharp series, which I've just been revisiting, in fact. So I look in truth, I think studying, reading and learning from history is particularly important for soldiers because our most important task, fighting wars, is not generally what we spend most of our time on while in uniform, except maybe for the decade following the 9/11 attacks. Generally, you are preparing for, you're getting ready for, you are exercising, training and so forth, you're not actually doing. And if you can't expect to learn from actually being in war, then I think you need to learn from the experiences of others in war and I certainly sought to do that.
Andrew Roberts: And, that very much brings us on to your PhD dissertation, doesn't it? When you were in a Princeton in 1987, you wrote this dissertation, the American Military and the Lessons of the Vietnam: A Study on Military Influence and Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era. It was about the impact obviously of the Vietnam War in America's senior military, and the way that they gave advice in the future to presidents. It really ought to be published because it's a real page-turner which is not always the case, I can tell you, with PhD dissertations.
David Petraeus: I'm not sure anyone has actually described it in that way, but thank you very much.
Andrew Roberts: A lot of them are dry as dust, but this one could be published tomorrow. But, what would you say were your most important conclusions from that thesis?
David Petraeus: Well, the big takeaway was that, I think, certainly at that at the time of the 1980s, contrary to popular perceptions of senior military leaders, as the individuals who were chomping on cigars and pushing their civilian leaders to use force in a crisis, the generals were actually much less hawkish than the most aggressive of the civilian policymakers. Sometimes to the point of frustration with some of those cabinet secretaries and others.
David Petraeus: I remember there was a question one time from a Secretary of State during the deliberation and the possible use of force in Bosnia to the effect of what's the purpose of having this magnificent military, if you never use it? And, the reluctance to recommend the use of force was particularly pronounced in the wake of Vietnam. Certainly, there was a no more Korea school of thought that influenced military thinking and advice for some time, which-
Andrew Roberts: You called the never again club. That's-
David Petraeus: Well, the never again club, that's really the never again on Vietnam. Certainly Korea, there was a perception by some in the military that would had to fight that war with one arm tied behind our back. Later on, there was even a tiny bit of a no more Beirut school to come back to that unhappy excursion in the early 1980s, there was a no more Somalia school to a degree in the 1990s. But, far and away, the most prominent of these was the no more Vietnam school of thinking that gave rise to such principles and the use of force as those known as the Powell and Weinberger doctrines.
David Petraeus: I saw a good bit of this firsthand as the executive officer to a chairman of the joint chiefs for two years in the late 1990s, in some years earlier as a special assistant to the NATO commander and also aid to the Chief of Staff of the army in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, it was the 1990s, that early period, that a lot of this was very much in play. And indeed, General Powell was the chairman of the joint chiefs and we did carry out interventions in Panama and in the Gulf War, in the Arabian Peninsula.
David Petraeus: But of course, always overshadowing this was this inclination to be very reluctant about the use of force, but then to advise that if you are going to use force, Mr. President, after ensuring that you have domestic political support, you've established attainable objectives, you have a clear exit strategy and so forth if you decide to do this, don't hold back, use all that is needed in more, use overwhelming force in fact was the term so that you can swiftly accomplish your objectives, which again, should be clear and attainable. And also, a clear exit strategy that's executed after a modest amount of time.
David Petraeus: Now, this is only applicable really to a very small subset of the contingencies that one might envision. And yet, it was seen as sort of these are the guiding principles. Again, all of this was largely a reaction to the searing experience that more than a generation of military leaders had as young and mid-grade officers in Vietnam, a generation to which the soaring rhetoric of the early 1960s, such as the bear any burden, pay any price phrases in John Kennedy's inauguration address rang pretty hollow in the 1970s and for several subsequent decades, frankly.
Andrew Roberts: This podcast is been called Secrets of Statesmanship. It's coming from a Churchill quote. At the time of the coronation in 1953, Churchill was crossing Westminster Hall and a young American came up to him and asked him for some life advice and Churchill replied, "Study history, study history for therein lies all the secrets of statecraft." And, in your dissertation, you state, I'm going to just quote a sentence, "Historical analogies are particularly compelling during crises when the tendency to supplement in complete information with past experience is especially marked." Can you tell us why that is?
David Petraeus: Sure. Crisis decision making almost inevitably invariably involves very pressing problems, crises, that are evolving very rapidly and often quite alarmingly resulting in situations where one has less than all the information you'd like to have, there's need for urgent decisions, the pace of meetings and demands becomes grinding, the participants get tired, and I guess, understandably decision makers grasp for historical analogies to guide them.
David Petraeus: In fact, there's quite a body of scholarship on decision making during crises and among the findings is that the tendency to seek lessons from past crises and to do that in particular, if one personally experiences especially memorable and painful episodes, such as of course, Vietnam was for an entire generation of military leaders. And, one of the conclusions is that the greater the crisis, the greater the propensity to draw in the past and particularly on that comprised by past personal experiences.
Andrew Roberts: Well, and that brings me on to my next question, because in that PhD, you also wrote history can mislead and obfuscate as well as guide and illuminate. You make this point more than once. So, in your view, with your own career, which were the greatest misleading features of history that you had to face when you were looking for past analogies, especially in crises?
David Petraeus: That kind of examination was something that I certainly tried to pursue, but as I think about the analogies that really did hang over the shoulders of leaders, say, in the 20th century, I think one of the most prominent examples was the so-called Munich analogy in illusion, of course, to the historical episode, in which British Prime Minister Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler at Munich, which of course famously failed and resulted in further German and Italian aggression, the fall of the Chamberlain government and the parliamentary selection of Churchill to be the prime minister helped many leaders.
Andrew Roberts: Yeah, there's now a revisionist thing. There's a new movie going to be coming out that argues... by Robert Harris, a movie of based on his book that actually says that it was a great triumph and that Munich was wonderful because it allowed Britain an extra year to re-arm and so on. So, this debate sort of goes on and on, but what you are saying is that the original belief about Munich, which was it was a disaster has been misleading in other crises. The classic one, I suppose, being the Suez crisis, for example,
David Petraeus: That's certainly one of those, but I think there were many other cases throughout the Cold War in particular, because of course what you were doing, the west was dealing with this very assertive Soviet union, again yet another authoritarian regime and so forth, I think it actually did color decision making or influence decision making at critical job in Southeast Asia. Certainly, perhaps the Berlin blockade, maybe the Cuban missile crisis. Again, a number of Cold War episodes, you could argue that it's actually something that people are drawing on right now as the effort to deal with the very aggressive posturing of Russian forces by Vladimir Putin is provoking a crisis at the present time. Again, I think the Munich analogy is one of the more significant historical episodes from which individuals do try to draw illumination for the crises, with which they're dealing at the time.
Andrew Roberts: Do you think it's-
David Petraeus: The same with Munich, Chamberlain and Munich has really become synonymous with failed efforts to appease an aggressive authoritarian leaders.
Andrew Roberts: That's right. But, I wonder whether or not isn't it just, the ones you've mentioned, the Berlin airlift, and of course the Cuban missile crisis, both of those, the decision makers were people who remembered Munich personally, didn't they? JFK was the son of the ambassador to London. So, I wonder whether or not-
David Petraeus: They had experienced the result. They experienced World War II.
Andrew Roberts: Precisely
David Petraeus: Which again, at least arguably could have been prevented or halted.
Andrew Roberts: Yeah if Munich had gone differently, exactly.
David Petraeus: Exactly.
Andrew Roberts: But, do you think still today people are affected by... if a statesman was accused of pulling off a Munich or being a chamber of might figure, do you think they would care that much? Do you think that the history is well-known enough for that to hurt?
David Petraeus: Well, of course it depends on the decision maker. Is the individual someone who dipped back into history? Is the individual familiar with, again, the effort to appease Hitler at Munich and how it so famously failed? Again, as always, this depends on the actual individuals who are engaged in the process in the conduct of crisis decision making. And, were there other experiences that they had or other historical episodes on which they draw in a particular case?
David Petraeus: You could also say that the red line is Syria that was not a red line is actually something that individuals in this US administration remember because, of course, they experienced it as members of the Obama administration. And now they're trying to ensure that is not something that might influence. Indeed, you can argue that Afghanistan has called into question the US dependability as a partner and-
Andrew Roberts: Oh, certainly. Yeah, don't worry-
David Petraeus: The awareness of that actually might color some of the decision making and the recommendations made by those advising policy makers.
Andrew Roberts: You wrote it that Robert Jervis who wrote, "The only thing that's important for a nation as its revolution as its last major war," which seems even more true today than for the US when he wrote it back in 1976. You also quote Ernest May who said that, "Policy makers ordinarily use history badly." So how could we encourage policy makers to use history better? Is it just a question of reading better history and thinking about it in a different way? How can it be used as a resource more successfully than it is at the moment in your view?
David Petraeus: Well, I think that the very short answer before giving the somewhat longer one is to really understand the history, to understand all aspects of a particular situation, every element of it, the context, the different features, and then how are they relevant to the case at hand? But first, I should just note, I think that Bob Jervis was exactly right. In fact, I think he is one of the truly exceptional pathbreaking academics in the study of crisis decision making, as well as in misperception in international politics, which is actually a title of one of his great books.
David Petraeus: He was also by the way, a wonderful human being and generous mentor to his students and someone who sadly passed away just recently. The late Harvard professor Ernie May who wrote the classic work, Lessons of the Past, was a towering figure in the field of so-called applied history and a hugely thoughtful writer on these subjects. I studied the works of both back in the day in my academic period when doing that dissertation and I believe they are still among the classic thinkers in the field.
David Petraeus: But, to answer the question again, specifically, the key is to truly understand in great detail, the context, the circumstances, the various aspects of a particular historical situation to enable a truly deep understanding of each particular case, to understand the same about the situation at hand, the crisis at hand, and then to appreciate the similarities and the differences, et cetera, between the historical case and the case at hand so that decision makers and advisors can truly determine whether the historical case can help illuminate or may actually be irrelevant or misleading.
Andrew Roberts: Yeah, the-
David Petraeus: By the way, if I could, I also should add, in all of this decision makers also have to be aware as is absolutely possible of their own preconceived notions and inclinations in order to ensure that they don't try unwittingly to employ history to buttress their particular argument or recommendation again, or inclination in a matter that's not fully founded or justified. That's [crosstalk] challenge.
Andrew Roberts: You get that from the Paul Kattenburg observation, don't you, who said in 1980, "That hardly anything is more important in international affairs than the historical images and perception that men carry in their own heads." Which actually brings me on to a great question, I think, for you, what do you think your own preconceptions have been? If everyone has preconceptions, when you were drafting the counterinsurgency field manual and obviously planning the surge in Iraq, what historical precedence did you have in mind and what did you learn from them?
David Petraeus: Well, it's another wonderful question because I worked very hard while preparing for the invasion of Iraq and then winning in Iraq as a two and three star general to draw on historical and also personal experiences to craft the right strategy at my levels. Again, I wasn't trying to craft the entire strategy for all of Iraq, I was trying to do it as a division commander for, say, Northern Iraq. In my case, I drew on my study of previous counterinsurgencies and my own experience during the summer in Central America which included trips to El Salvador, which had a superb national counterinsurgency plan, the chief of operations for the UN force in Haiti, a true [inaudible] not an US dual had it.
David Petraeus: So the experience of contingency operations and so forth, the Chief of Operations for the NATO stabilization force in Bosnia for a year when I was dual headed as the deputy commander of an US special operations task force conducting the war criminal hunt, and then counter terrorism in the wake of 9/11 attacks.
David Petraeus: In fact, in the absence early on in Northern Iraq, after we'd done the invasion, the regime had collapsed, we toppled it and we were moved north with the hundred first airborne division, in the absence of substantive guidance from above where the leadership was changing, I sought to use the civil military campaign plan that I'd help develop or refine in Bosnia as an example of what we should do, noting the very considerable differences in the situations, but it still proved of considerable value, even if we had to perform all of the civilian as well as military tasks at that time, to the absence of any really substantial US or international civilian elements.
Andrew Roberts: Yeah. If you had previous-
David Petraeus: If I could, because then really comes the big time, I'm back in the states after my three star tour in Iraq, it's clear that we need a counterinsurgency field manual, and then we scoured counterinsurgency campaigns. Those in Indochine, Indochina during the French time, and then the US in Vietnam. The counter-insurgency campaigns in Algeria, Oman, I love that one. And also, that wonderful book, We Won a War by the British general who was there as a Colonel or a Brigadier, Malay, the Philippines and so forth.
David Petraeus: We sought to distill our own lessons from our initial years in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, I was in a position where I could encourage, I controlled military review, the doctrine, all of the education courses for our commissioned/non-commissioned warrant officer leaders throughout the army, and on and on. I actually oversaw the conduct of counter-insurgency writing contests. I did my own writing and reflection and publishing, tried to set the example. And then, there was considerable discussion on all of this as the manual was being drafted.
David Petraeus: In some cases, they were resolved by my brilliant and very thoughtful West Point classmate, Dr. [Concrane] of the army work college student of history and counter-insurgency whom I had classmated or Shanghai'd into being the Editor in Chief of the effort. But frankly, at a certain point, I had to resolve some of the most heated of the debates and I personally did as many as 20 to 30 drafts of some of the early chapter is that established the foundation for the entire manual, where, by the way-
Andrew Roberts: 20 or 30 drafts.
David Petraeus: One of the emphasis that we made was on the importance of constantly learning, of being a learning organization for, as I wrote in the preface or the forward, the side that learns the fastest typically prevails. And, we tried to do that when I returned to Iraq to command the surge for which this was the intellectual foundation.
Andrew Roberts: Those are the preconceptions that you have, what do you think in the future, people who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan will have terms of their preconceptions, say 10, 20, 30 years down the line?
David Petraeus: Well, again, I think it will depend on how well those drawing on those experiences have come to grips with the context, the facts, the circumstances, the situations, and so forth. And of course, how applicable those may be to a crisis or situation at hand. Early on, I felt there were some pretty profound lessons that we should have learned from the early years of the invasion of Iraq. And, I'll just give you those quickly and then we can go on to the greater lessons from the overall engagements.
David Petraeus: But, quickly, I thought the lesson should learn is, you really should have a deep understanding of a country and all aspects of it before you invade it. The truth is, we really didn't have that kind of understanding. And I think our actions betrayed that. We fired the entire Iraq army without telling them what their future was. Not understanding this is the one national institution in the country. And, then fire the entire bath party down to level four without an agreed reconciliation mechanism. Again, these were catastrophic decisions that again, reflected a lack of understanding of the country. Second, you-
Andrew Roberts: Do you think that's true of Afghanistan as well? Do you think there was [crosstalk]-
David Petraeus: It was. And, in fact, there are many differences between Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, I laid these out for Secretary Rumsfeld when he asked me to do an assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, coming home from a three star tour in Iraq. And, I did that in the very first slide. The title was, Afghanistan does not equal Iraq, and I laid out all the differences and essentially Afghanistan being vastly more difficult. One of the differences over time though, was that we at least in Iraq because of the sheer number of forces that we had, we actually developed experience pretty rapidly. By the time we conducted the surge, we had a huge advantage. Almost every commander on the ground had done at least one or in some cases, two full year tours. I'd already been on the ground for nearly two and a half years by the time I went back for that third tour as the commander of the surge.
David Petraeus: So again, over time, we got that. Afghanistan, it took us much longer because we didn't even get the inputs right. The inputs in Afghanistan until nine years into that particular effort. But, to come back to what we might have learned from the early days in Iraq, the second is, that you shouldn't carry out operations in a campaign with pickup teams. Creating the coalition provisional authority several weeks into the occupation of Iraq and all the elements that it created. Instead, we should have just established an embassy. We should have used existing organizations. It would've been much smoother.
David Petraeus: And then, constantly asking the big question, will this policy or operation create more bad guys than it takes off the street? And if the answer to that is no, you're supposed to go sit under a tree until the thought passes. And again, clearly, firing the Iraqi army without telling them their future and deification without reconciliation violated this enormously and created hundreds of thousands of enemies of the new Iraq, rather than individuals who were incentivized to support it.
David Petraeus: But, beyond that if I could, Andrew, there are the really big lessons and those are the imperative of developing what I have termed a sustainable sustained approach to a situation like Afghanistan, which sustainability is measured in terms of the expenditure of blood and treasure. And, my thinking is that such approaches can be crafted. And, I'd actually argue, we actually had reached that point in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, two presidents were so frustrated that they decided to withdraw.
David Petraeus: But, if you can achieve that kind of approach, our population is likely to be relatively unconcerned or even aware that we're still engaged in an endeavor like Afghanistan and others. So I think going forward, the key is this sustainable sustained commitment, which I think is very possible to achieve.
Andrew Roberts: Yeah, but hasn't Biden just ripped that up completely by not sustaining it and essentially withdrawing.
David Petraeus: He certainly did not observe that particular lesson if you will.
Andrew Roberts: You can say that again.
David Petraeus: That said, I actually think that our action there has actually magnified the importance of that particular lesson. And, you will not see this administration withdraw from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, West Africa, North, and all these other locations in which we're engaged in keeping an eye and pressure on Islamist extremists because I think-
Andrew Roberts: You feel, they've learned their lesson over the catastrophe at Kabul.
David Petraeus: In a sense, relearned the lesson because again, a number of individuals were part of the red line that was not a red line in Syria as well. But again, I think that actually... and by the way, they're aware that in doing what we did in Afghanistan... and by the way, I think it's fair to recall that when I heard of the decision to withdraw, I said publicly that I feared that we would regret that decision. And sadly, I think that events have validated that particular observation. But, what the withdrawal also did is it called into question our determination, our dependability as a partner, frankly, our very competence in carrying out military operations and all of that is of crucial importance because of the need to deter activities around the world, arguably to deter Putin right now.
Andrew Roberts: Well, actually that was my next-
David Petraeus: I would caution him-
Andrew Roberts: That was going to be my next question about the way in which the past actuates the assumptions and the actions of people like Putin because he very much does see himself, doesn't he, in a long Russian past, which includes Peter The Great and actually probably Ivan the Terrible, but certainly including Stalin, too, who, he seems to have a much higher regard for than any other previous Russian leader has for Stalin over the last 50 years, anyhow. So what do you think and we'll come on to the rest, the Muellers and the Taliban and so on and the Chinese, because I'm very interested to hear your views on how historically cognizant are our enemies and protagonists.
David Petraeus: Again, it depends from decision maker to decision maker. This always comes down to individuals, their appreciation of the circumstances, facts, features, elements of the particular historical episode. And in this case, actually I would caution those who might draw from the decision on Afghanistan, a conclusion that the US is not willing, or it is not determined, it's not dependable. They will do that at their own peril.
David Petraeus: I think in many respects, this was a decision that was taken by one individual who was quite determined to do what he did, founded on a number of years of frustration with the situation in Afghanistan about which he was very vocal and advisors recognized that. And, even though there were other recommendations offered, that included a sustainable sustained approach, but nonetheless the decision was taken. But, that, I think, is, and I hope a one-off and is not one that should be seen as indicating a lack of will.
David Petraeus: If anything, again, I think the administration recognizes the need to shore up its reputation, to shore up its image, to shore up the perceptions of potential adversaries about our will. Because if you think about deterrence of actions we don't want to see happen, there are two components to deterrents. There is the adversaries perception of capabilities and is the adversaries perception of your will to employ those capabilities. And, we cannot allow that to be seen as lacking.
David Petraeus: And I think this administration, a lot of very bright folks recognize that imperative. And, as a result of Afghanistan, they'll be even more conscious of it [crosstalk] determined.
Andrew Roberts: Don't you think that President Biden fits in very well with your PhD thesis in that. He was a Senator at the time of Vietnam, wasn't he, back in 1976? So do you think that he must have taken away preconceptions from Vietnam that still sort of are there consciously or unconsciously in his mind when he looks at Afghanistan?
David Petraeus: I think much less so than for the military leaders who actually fought and served in Vietnam and experienced the loss and the sacrifice and so forth only to see it all swept away later on. And, again, I think for them, it was an extraordinary cautionary tale. There were some in the army that arguably went so far as to try to structure our military or our army so that we actually couldn't do another operation like that without actually calling up the reserves.
David Petraeus: One of the, quote, lessons was that because we didn't call up the reserves, we didn't use everything that we had available. So make that almost a requirement. That will also in a sense, really bring it home to the policy maker that now that's a big deal, you're not just using your professional forces, now you're calling on the citizen soldiers, if you will, and communities will now feel this. And again, it will have, I don't know, a chasing or what have you, influence, on such a decision.
Andrew Roberts: Can we go back to the idea of what actuates our enemies in terms of history, because you were, of course, director of the CIA in 2011, 2012. So you've looked into the minds of these people as far as it's possible to do. Do think the Chinese, for example, Chairman Xi is historically hoping to avenge himself of 500 years of Chinese humiliation and all these other various historical myths that they've build up over the years?
David Petraeus: Well, again, occasionally it helps to read what individuals say, and certainly a theme among Chinese leaders, particularly in recent decades, has, again, harkened back to what you just described in particularly the century of shame and so forth. But, also seeking to learn from the Soviet experience. The lesson of which is, again, don't get weak knee'd. They look at Gorbachev and feel that there were alternatives at that point. Now, Putin does the same. Putin, of course, he said famously in the previous century, the worst day of the century, or history is the day that saw the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Andrew Roberts: And, that's a very worrying concept, isn't it? We should be deeply concerned by remarks like that, shouldn't we?
David Petraeus: Well, we should be cognizant of it. Again, we should be aware of it. And I think, again, to be fair, I think our decision makers are actually keenly aware of it. I think that China Watchers are keenly aware of it. And again, I think the Chinese themselves, again, very forthrightly have offered a lot of this publicly. This is not all something that had to be fared out by intelligence services. It's quite instructive to read what, again, any potential adversary says publicly. They often reveal their inner thoughts. And, that's the case, I think with Chinese leaders, it's the case with leaders really around the world, by and large.
Andrew Roberts: It was certainly definitely true of Hitler. We should have just listened to what the man was actually saying, but instead of that, constantly people tried to go one stage further or one stage deeper and think of something else, but he gave quite enough clues to what kind of a person he was for decades. I've got a few questions-
David Petraeus: If I could, Andrew, you might argue, in fact, you're the British historian... one might argue that some of the British leaders had overlearned the lessons of World War I, which was such a horrific experience.
Andrew Roberts: No, absolutely.
David Petraeus: To the point of just, we must do everything possible to avoid war. Of course, that was what gave rise to the Pacifists movement and the great universities of Great Britain at that time as well.
Andrew Roberts: Very interestingly, actually, the people who actually fought in the trenches, people like Alfred Duff Cooper and Winston Churchill himself, of course, Harold Macmillan and others were at very often, the anti-appeases. And, it was the people who didn't see active service like Sir John Simon and Neville Chamberlain, himself, and others who were the strongest of appeases. It's the exact opposite of what you'd expect and much closer to sort of interesting thesis about people's perceptions of the Germans essentially, and the danger that it posed to balance of power in Europe. Now, I'm going to-
David Petraeus: Great dissertation topic for you [crosstalk]. In spite of all of your extraordinary volumes and achievements over the years, I think there's still a PhD lacking from that list of titles.
Andrew Roberts: That's very kind of you for pointing that out at the age of... I'm 59 now. Thank you, David. I'm going to ask you a few questions, if I may, what I'm going to ask all of my guests in this podcast series. And, the first one is, if you were able to give a historian in a hundred years time, advice about a good source to use, if they were writing your biography, what would it be?
David Petraeus: That's a wonderful question, because I think my service, particularly the wartime command service bridged that period during which we still did a lot on paper and went to a period, an era, in which almost everything we did was on email or even in video conferences, global video conferences, and-
Andrew Roberts: They're all kept, are they? They're all recorded by the army, the video conferences. Historian-
David Petraeus: I don't know. The most important of these were the video conferences that Ambassador Crocker and I had with President Bush and his entire national security team that started at 7:30 in the morning, every Monday in Washington. If you want to show what's important to you in Washington, bring everybody in at 7:30 on Monday morning and begin with an hour on that particular topic. And, that's precisely what Bush did.
Andrew Roberts: Please tell me those were recorded because they'd be invaluable for any future historian.
David Petraeus: They would be invaluable. Now, at that time, in the insurgent Iraq, I still wrote weekly memos that went simultaneously to the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Commander of Central Command. Those do exist. And, a lot of those have been declassified. They're in my papers at the National Defense University. But then, it's really getting the emails because the emails are the back and forth. Some of these are pretty pointed as well.
David Petraeus: I remember sending one to my boss at one point in time that noted that a particular request for forces had sat in his electronic inbox for a number of weeks and that we were actually fighting a war out here and trying to get on with it. And if he's not going to approve it and send it on, send it forward, but, again, if he is going to approve it, if he's going to say no, please do that because I intend to raise it with the president the following Monday morning at our weekly normally scheduled video conference, which is again, a pointed response, as you might imagine.
David Petraeus: So those will be invaluable. But then also, I did a lengthy, at least 8 to 10 hours, right as I was retiring, interview at the National Defense University, it was done in fact, by a professor, Michael Hanlin, who had the security clearance for it. So an oral history, if you will, at that point in time, when all of this was quite fresh in my mind, and I think that will be very useful. So, it won't be the easy task, again, with respect that maybe you have had in the past, where you go and you look at Churchill's papers, it's all written, you have annotations on the side, it was all done by hand.
David Petraeus: Now, it's become much more complex. And, I think the challenge is very considerable. And, what's going to have to be required is that individuals who actually have to understand what was done, because if you don't even know it exists, you can't request that it be released in a Freedom of Information Act, request, or a declassification request-
Andrew Roberts: Which is why I'm positing the hundred years. The hundred year rule will apply there. Okay. Next question. What's your favorite what if counter factual history event? Everyone's got one, what's yours?
David Petraeus: Well, you know of my enormous admiration for Ulysses S. Grant as a general again. I think, unequal, without him, Lincoln literally might have lost his reelection bid in 1864 and you literally might have had McClellan win and he would've sued for peace. That's a huge counterfactual. But, it also brings to mind, remember James Thurber wrote this entertaining article in Scribner's, I think, in the late 1930s, it was titled, "If Grant had been drinking at Appomattox." In it, you may recall he describes a rather inebriated and very confused Grant, actually surrendering to Lee rather than the other way around.
David Petraeus: By the way, Scribner's delighted in this. They did a number of these essays. There were several others that I actually looked some of these up. If John Wilkes boot had missed Lincoln, when he assassinated him. Again, if Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg-
Andrew Roberts: Actually, Winston Churchill wrote one of those for a collection of what if essays edited by a British journalist called J.C. Squire, what if get Gettysburg had gone the other way? It's a classic.
David Petraeus: It's a huge question. And, really what if Lincoln hadn't found his general, if he hadn't found Grant, brought him east, made in the commander of all Union Forces and only then did you finally have a strategy for the overall war? And if that hadn't happened, if Sherman hadn't taken Atlanta in accordance with that strategy, if Sheridan hadn't taken the Valley, Lincoln again, very conceivably could have lost his bid for reelection in November, 1864 and we would not have the union that we still enjoy today.
Andrew Roberts: So when I ask you what history book you've been reading and enjoying relatively recently, I expect Chernow's, Grant would be one of them, isn't it?
David Petraeus: It is actually. And, it's interesting because I read it when it came out several years ago, I actually interviewed Ron several times on different stages in New York and at the annual Grant Monument association dinner, the same with Ron White and his wonderful biography. And interestingly, I've actually been looking at those two plus Bruce Catton's book, Grant Takes Command, which was one that I was reading of all things, just coincidentally, when I was conducting the surge. It was a book given to me by a historian at Fort Leavenworth.
David Petraeus: Before I went back to Iraq, I put in a rucksack, it ended up on a bedside table and I started reading it and I found it hugely inspirational, instructive, informative to experience through Bruce Catton's eyes, what Grant went through as he was conducting, if you will, his own surge, not trying to equate the surge in Iraq with the US Civil War. I should also note though, and this is quite forthright, I'm also reading and enjoying very much your latest biography, which you gave to me when I was in London the last time on Georges III, who of course lost America on his watch, but who also presided over the decades long struggle on land and sea with Napoleon in France. And, who really is a much more fascinating figure than the mad King George image that many of us have had of him.
Andrew Roberts: Oh, you are kind David, thank you very much, indeed. I hugely appreciate that last minute plug. I've got one more question before I say goodbye to you, which is, do you think it's possible to be on the wrong side of history?
David Petraeus: Oh absolutely, it is. I think, just think of those who vehemently oppose the abolition of slavery or universal suffrage or the concept of evolution, the possibility of men flying, heck, rock 'n roll or the fact that the world is round for that matter. There have been enumerable cases throughout history of individuals with unshakable convictions about one or another issue who subsequently have been proven completely and utterly wrong. Even our mutual hero Churchill. [crosstalk]-
Andrew Roberts: Yeah, he was certainly wrong with regards to-
David Petraeus: Ultimately, on the wrong side of history in a number of issues. His views on race, colonialism, Gandhi, strikers unions, early on at least. And, yes, they reflected the views of his class in England at that time, perhaps the Edwardian age, but ultimately he did end up being on the wrong side of history in some of these issues. And of course, it's a wonderful source of criticism and debate now in which you-
Andrew Roberts: Yeah, you don't have to stop there. He was wrong on the general strike. Sorry, not the general strike, the abdication crisis. He was wrong on the black and tans in Ireland, on the suffrage, which you mentioned earlier. The key thing, I suppose, and this is a good way to end up this conversation is, but he of course was absolutely right on the important things that mattered.
David Petraeus: And, that is the key. And, that is why he is and should remain on a pedestal. But, Andrew, if I could, before we bring it to a close, the potential of being on the wrong side of history should absolutely haunt decision makers. As frankly, it did me when I was leading huge endeavors like the surge in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan or the CIA for that matter.
David Petraeus: And, one of the ways that I sought to try to be on the right side of history ultimately was by seeking illumination from the past, helped by thoughtful historians and experts. Some, certainly you among them, seeking intellectual challenges from red teams and critics and contrarians. Preserve and protect the iconoclast and the contrarians. Don't put them in charge maybe, but keep them inside the tent, by trying to understand in a very nuanced, granular manner, the circumstances of the endeavors in which we are engaged and perhaps those in history that might again provide some insights to us.
David Petraeus: So, the key not just to understanding the present to the extent possible, but also to understanding the past and how it might inform the present is all about this deep understanding and so forth. And, maybe I can bring our conversation to a close by recalling the old adage that you have heard from me more than once before, which is that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Now, I've been said to be lucky, I have often offered that perhaps that was true, timing and so forth. But, I also did work very hard over the years to try to be prepared for what might arise in the future.
David Petraeus: And, part of that has been a pretty assiduous study of history to get that nuanced, granular appreciation of the past. And if of relevance, how they might help inform us as we grapple with contemporary challenges, crises, and so forth, fully understanding the merits and also the hazards of the use of history in helping to guide us. And, in view of that, again, I'm most appreciative of the opportunity to discuss the use and occasionally abuse of history in seeking insights and illumination, noting Andrew, that there is no one with whom I would've rather had this conversation, given that you're among the most preeminent historians and biographers of our time. Thank you, my friend.
Andrew Roberts: David, I can't think of a better way to have kicked off this podcast series than that this avalanche of praise that you given me today. It's probably the last time anyone can say anything nice to me over the next couple years, but nonetheless, thank you so much for appearing on our show.
David Petraeus: Pleasure as always and delighted to walk point.
Andrew Roberts: I'd like to thank David Petraeus for being my first guest. Thank you for listening. Join me on the next edition of Secrets of Statecraft, when I'll be speaking to Victor Davis Hanson about ancient history and what it can tell us about today. Best wishes till then.
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