Americans have had a long love-affair with revolutions. Perhaps this is because our own revolution was so successful and has been somewhat romanticized. In romantic terms, the scenario of a ragtag army of colonial irregulars holding off the mighty British Empire for six years, and even inflicting some defeats on it, was pretty improbable – due partly to the primitive transportation and weapons of the time, and partly to the vastness of the land. Some historians say the British didn’t try very hard to crush the rebellion, as they considered Americans to be their fellow-countrymen – subjects of the Crown, like themselves, even if a bit misguided. All that might be more or less true, but there is no doubt that it was a real struggle and at times a real war with real guns, real bullets, and real bloodshed.
The success of our revolution was neither “romantic” nor accidental. By “success,” I mean the relatively smooth, peaceful progression into an effective new form of government, under the guidance of principled men who were grounded in goodness, morality and justice. It also didn’t hurt that the founders included some of the world’s first-class minds of that time. Men like Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton and Madison took the revolution to an intellectual and moral plane not enjoyed by most revolutions before or since.
Revisionist historians like to claim that those 18th-century intellectuals were “deists,” not conventional Christians – thereby inferring that they believed in a kind of impersonal “God of the universe,” not Judeo-Christianity’s personal God. But the deist-idea – which other historians have found unsupported by the evidence – is at variance with the undeniable fact that the founders identified a personal God as the source of the “natural rights” they claimed for every human being. The idea of an impersonal deity conferring human rights on individuals is an essential contradiction. The Christian underpinnings of the American Revolution are what kept it on the rails, while other revolutions (French, Russian, German, Cuban, Iranian) ran off into violent spasms of betrayal, bloodshed, war and societal ruin.
Our revolution went through three distinct stages: (1) overthrow; (2) political vacuum; (3) new government. Most revolutions follow that pattern. The second stage is where the trouble usually starts – even if the first stage was not very bloody. The vacuum left by sweeping the old regime from power is unnatural. It wants to be filled. Often the people are restive, making it easier for disciplined and prepared political elements to rush into that vacuum and seize power. This usually sends the revolution off in a direction that the people who originally revolted didn’t foresee and don’t really want.
The American Revolution’s “vacuum” stage occurred after the fighting was done, while the Articles of Confederation were the guiding framework of the new country. When the Articles were found to be flawed and unworkable, the founders convened a convention, in which they hammered out a new form of government over a span of two years. By the greatest good luck – or else by the mercies of a benevolent Providence – no malignant power or faction was poised to rush into the power-vacuum and take over during that era. This allowed an entirely peaceful transition into new, effective government. We are much blessed – down to the present day – that this transition occurred as it did.
Other notable revolutions on the world stage fared less well. The French Revolution swept out the hated monarchy and aristocracy, but malignant forces rushed in and brought about the Reign of Terror and its terrible excesses. Napoleon was the ultimate result. Some historians believe the country was permanently damaged by those events.
The Russian Revolution endured the same dreary progression. The much-despised Tsar and his court were deposed in the early phase. The overthrow was virtually violence-free. The Social Democrats’ Kerensky government took over and tried to run the vast country, while continuing the ruinous, hated war against Germany. Soldiers were still falling in the thousands; people were still hungry; the new Duma (parliament) was conflicted and ineffectual. There was a perceptible vacuum.
At precisely the right moment – mid-November 1917, in the dark of the Russian winter – Lenin and his Bolsheviks struck. With very little armed action they seized communication and transportation centers, plus various offices of government. In a matter of days, Russia was theirs. The Bolsheviks were too disciplined and too ruthless for the Social Democrats to withstand. The Bolshies implemented a communist government that withstood counter-revolutionary attempts, as well as a massive invasion by German armed forces in the early 1940s. Communism was not what most Russians wanted or had in mind. They just wanted the Tsar and the war to be gone; they wanted to eat. They got communism because there was a vacuum into which fierce, wicked men rushed with great purpose.
The Nazi revolution in 1930s Germany also brought a result people didn’t want or foresee. Times were hard; people were out of work; and it was easy to believe that malevolent influences were at work. Hitler declaimed against the communists and the Jews. He denounced the “November criminals,” the Versailles treaty and the weak, ineffective government of the Weimar Republic. The 14-year Weimar government was Germany’s revolutionary vacuum. After President Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor, in January 1933, Hitler had the toehold of power he needed to take over. The ruthless, disciplined Nazi Party rushed in to fill the vacuum. Only a few Germans were prescient enough to see what was coming.
The model is clear: a restive people demand change; a well-intentioned revolution evicts a hatred regime; a power-vacuum is created; and ruthless, disciplined, prepared forces rush in to seize power. The result is typically far worse than the original perceived evil that was deposed. More recent revolutions, like Cuba (1959) and Iran (1979), are additional cases in point. Neither produced governments that were anticipated or wanted by the original rebels who pushed out Batista and the Shah.
Castro led the Cuban rebels in a long march lasting years, but he always hid his true colors – posing as an honest reformer and champion of the people. Only after he had seized power did he reveal his communist leanings and his despotic methods. The uprising against the Shah had popular support. People wanted freedom and democracy. President Carter – our first champion of Muslim interests – stood by as the Shah got booted out. Instead of democracy, Iranians got rule by violent Muslim clerics. Today, their dictator, Ahmadinejad – a certifiable lunatic as ever was – plans to make Iran the nuclear-armed cornerstone of a new Muslim power-base. He makes the Shah of the deposed Peacock Throne look like a reformer. Not the best trade we ever made.
I present this review of revolutions, past and present, because another one is brewing in the nation of Egypt, where massive popular demonstrations are pushing Dictator Mubarak toward the brink. The excesses of his 30-year tenure are well known. The Egyptian people want him out. And the wise old men of the west agree that he must go. What is not known – but only dimly perceived by other, more realistic wise men – is who will fill the power-vacuum and take over, once Mubarak is gone. This is the great gamble of standing by and watching things happen, as President Obama seems inclined to do.
In the great cauldron that the Middle East is today, one can certainly assume that this revolution will go awry, as others have done. The Muslim Brotherhood is known to be involved in the popular uprisings that are inexorably pushing Mubarak out. When he goes, radical Muslim elements will almost certainly rush in to seize power – much as they did in Iran. What the people hope for will go a-glimmering.
Mubarak is not a savory figure. Certainly there is much to dislike about him. But Egypt has been our staunch ally for 30 years. The Israeli-Egyptian treaty has stabilized that region. A new, radical-Islamic Egypt – heavily armed with modern weapons and probably hostile to both Israel and the USA – would almost certainly destabilize it. That prospect cannot be viewed as salutary.
Thus, we are presented with Dirty Harry’s classic question: Do we feel lucky? The momentous issue of world war might hang on it. Non-involvement on our part is not an option. Clear-eyed thinking is required. When you’re a world power, whistling past the graveyard won’t do it.