Why Americans Are Satisfied with Simple Explanations of Foreign Wars





Mr. Evans is at Cal Poly, Pomona.

The Civil War is the only war in American history in which it was primarily the losers who were allowed to tell the story. North and South, it was the "Lost Cause" that captured the popular imagination. For a full century, the tragic romance of the South's "Lost Cause" was unfolded in the most popular novels, in the most popular play of the late nineteenth century, Shenandoah, and in motion pictures, from Hollywood's first extravaganza, the wildly acclaimed Birth of a Nation, idealizing the Ku Klux Klan, to the greatest box office success, Gone with the Wind.

This way of interpreting the Civil War stands in stark contrast to the way all other American wars have been interpreted. Wars require the sacrifice of human life, the highest of human values. Wars are therefore customarily justified by other high values. Even the shabbiest military adventures are often explained by some version of "these died so that the nation might live free."

It might appear that, of all American wars, the Union cause would have the best claim to such high ground. The Union victory put back together a broken nation and freed four million slaves. But the most popular heroes of literature and film fought for a slave society and to make permanent the broken nation. And the conflict is remembered as a tragic misunderstanding between the "North" and the "South." Why this anomaly?

The victorious Republicans found it less awkward to allow the defeated Southerners to tell about the cause that they lost than it was for the winners to tell about the cause that they betrayed. After the war the Republicans and their financial backers became less interested in full freedom for blacks and democratic institutions in the South than in restoring the flow of plantation mortgage payments to northern banks and the flow of raw materials, produced by cheap southern labor, to northern industry. As a result, the GOP, with the acquiescence of the Democrats, came to an understanding with the ex-Confederates and abandoned their Southern black and white Unionist allies to the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. Behind the heroic legend of the "Lost Cause" stands the dark secret of how the principle issues of the Civil War were settled.

The legacy of the Civil War is different from that of other American wars in another respect: historians have looked more closely at its causes and at the issues that were at stake. And these have been the subject of on-going debate. The causes and issues of the nation's other wars have stirred far less controversy, less scrutiny. For the nation's foreign wars, historians have shown a greater willingness to accept as definitive whatever reason a president may give for leading Americans into war.

The Mexican War, for example, was publicly justified by the announcement of President Polk that there had been an unprovoked attack on American forces. This "cause" of the war was challenged on the floor of the House by Representative Abraham Lincoln. But he suffered a severe political battering.

Few historians have been as bold as Lincoln, either in challenging a president's justification for a war or telling the truth about it later. To be sure, historians, especially in works intended chiefly for other scholars, have considered the controversies and the political pressures surrounding a president deciding for war. But the approach is still one-sided. How much has been said, for example, about the discussions of Japanese leaders prior to their attack on Pearl Harbor or those of North Korean leaders before their invasion of South Korea?

As for history textbooks, what they offer for the coming of foreign wars is even more ethnocentric than that offered in scholarly works. The writers of history textbooks are typically far more generously rewarded than those writing scholarly works, but they are more closely monitored by state and local authorities. The economics and politics of textbook adoption thus inspire writing in which "patriotism" limits critical rigor. Such official history has persuaded many in each rising generation that foreign wars are caused by foreigners.

But there is no way that historians of the Civil War, whether writing scholarly monographs or textbooks, could view that conflict through the narrow lens of ethnocentric "patriotism." Responsibility is necessarily focused on things that we know best, American politics and American institutions. Debates about the causes and issues of the war have never ceased.

For a hundred years the historians of the "Lost Cause" held the field. As they saw it, for Southerners the issues of slavery and preserving the Union were incidental. What Southerners really fought for was the integrity of the sovereign states and the Constitution as they understood it. Closely related was the idea that the war had been caused by "extremists" on both sides. But it was antislavery "extremists" who were most responsible. This "Southern" view became national. And like the "Lost Cause" novels, dramas and films, it camouflaged a scandal: while Lincoln had become a national icon, the party of Lincoln had now become the party of John D. Rockefeller and had recanted full citizenship and civil rights for blacks.

In the 1950s, the eruption of the Black Freedom Movement turned around Civil War scholarship. Heretofore few historians had defended the cause of black Americans, or their white abolitionists and Radical allies. And the views of even these writers had been largely excluded from mainstream scholarship. Now, "Lost Cause" history gave way to civil rights history. A new generation of scholars saw the Civil War and Radical Reconstruction as a struggle between those who stood for a free labor society and for equal legal rights for whites and blacks against those who stood for slavery and a "white man's country."

The Civil War stands alone in the sophistication of its historiography. No educated American would take seriously a person who said the war came because the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. And it is the only American war in which we now hear the story of both sides. All the principle actors have been investigated, prosecuted and defended. If we knew as much about the nation's other wars there might be fewer of them.


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Oscar Chamberlain - 4/15/2004

For a long time now it has seemed to me that public perception of American foreign policy can best be understood through the movies of Howard Hawks, and in particular, "To Have and Have Not."

Near the end of the movie, the reluctant but instinctively heroic American--Humphrey Bogart--has thrown in his lot with the local French resistance, led by the subtly nicknamed "Frenchie."

Frenchie asks his new comrade why he has done so. He replies. "I don't know. Maybe because I like you. Maybe because I don't like them."

And there you have it. American policy is sold (and sometimes formulated, if one believes are current president) on the basis of who one likes.

Which leads to a question about Iraq. Why hasn't the administration been introducing Americans to Iraqis they would like? I'm serious. Why not?


Andrew D. Todd - 4/13/2004

I think it is useful to compare the American "'lost cause" of the civil war with the British "lost cause," of the Jacobite rebellions, as portrayed by Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, inter alia. Both occurred in the context of a pattern of long-term migration from the region which rebelled to the government's core territory. Of course the losers of a war are more likely to care passionately about it. The fact of having lost the war renders their beliefs counterfactual-- that is, they have the mental luxury of believing that if they had won the war, things would be different, eg. that they would not have to deal with their own internal class conflicts. If they are joined in the same country with the victors, their "lost cause" myth will eventually predominate.

Officially, the closing of the American Frontier was in 1890, but if one reckons by water supplies rather than mere land, the frontier closed rather earlier. Hamlin Garland (_Main-Traveled Roads_), for example, describes the emergence of tenant-farming in 1870's Iowa. To the south, what ultimately doomed the filibustering expeditions of men like William Walker was that they were penetrating into the tropics-- the domain of the mosquito. Instead, the viable escape route from a decaying and encumbered farm usually led to a city.

The American Revolution was a somewhat different case. It occurred during and preceding a phase of outward migration. A substantial number of the losers simply went north to Nova Scotia and Ontario, where they formed the nucleus of Anglophone Canada. Their story was therefore outside of the American mythic narrative. A possible limited exception might be Kenneth Roberts' novel _Oliver Wiswell_, written at the time of the Second World War.


Jesse David Lamovsky - 4/13/2004

"The Union victory put back together a broken nation and freed four million slaves. But the most popular heroes of literature and film fought for a slave society and to make permanent the broken nation... Why this anomaly?"

There are a number of reasonable explanations. Most people can instinctively identify with a group that fights bravely and honorably against very long odds, and certainly the Confederates can go into that category, along with the defenders of the Alamo, the Finns against the Soviets in 1939, the ’85 Villanova basketball team, et al. Who doesn't root for an underdog?

And there were a lot of really magnetic, charismatic figures on the Southern side. Men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are larger-than-life figures, much more so than the long line of pedestrian men (Burnside, Pope, Hooker, etc.) that headed Union armies before Grant and Sherman (who are interesting men in themselves, but are simply not open to hagiography the way Lee and Jackson are). And should Mr. Evans be reminded that Abraham Lincoln, a Northern figure, is pretty much a secular god in the United States? We may revere Southern heroes, but nobody is on the same pedestal as Honest Abe.

Anyway, the subject of something like the Civil War cries for an analysis that’s a lot more nuanced than the one put forth by Mr. Evans. The South was not the embodiment of evil, and the North was not the embodiment of good. Most Southerners fought against what they saw (in my view, correctly) as an anti-Constitutional, tyrannical Federal invasion, and that "preserving a slave society" (per se), and "mak(ing) permanent the broken nation" wasn't necessarily at the top of the reasons why they fought. Indeed, one could make the argument that it was the Lincoln Administration that was breaking up the traditional Union, and the Confederates were the ones fighting to preserve it

“The victorious Republicans found it less awkward to allow the defeated Southerners to tell about the cause that they lost than it was for the winners to tell about the cause that they betrayed. After the war the Republicans and their financial backers became less interested in full freedom for blacks and democratic institutions in the South than in restoring the flow of plantation mortgage payments to northern banks and the flow of raw materials, produced by cheap southern labor, to northern industry”

Most Northerners of the period would have denied that they were fighting the war to bestow freedom on the slaves, or for anything other than the stated reason- to preserve the Union. And could it be that the Republicans, and their big-money backers, were fighting the war precisely so that they could restore… the flow of plantation mortgage payments to northern banks and the flow of raw materials, produced by cheap southern labor, to northern industry? Among other reasons, most of them pecuniary, such as the continued collection of customs duties from Southern ports? Reasons that had nothing to do with equality, or social justice, or democracy? Also, in the spirit of “restoring the Union”, historians of the period probably didn’t want to spend too much time dwelling upon the sins of the Old Confederacy; after all, these men were Americans again. According to Clyde Wilson, a sort of de facto bargain was struck- Southerners would be loyal Americans, paying their fealty to the central authority in Washington, and in return they would be allowed to have their heroes, their monuments, their Lost Cause. It didn’t have anything to do with covering up for the dishonor of “prematurely” ending Reconstruction: for the average Northerner of 1877 and after, no cover-up was needed. Because by 1877, most Northerners were tired of Reconstruction, tired of the military occupation of the South, and tired of supplying the money and the sweat for the social engineering schemes of the Radicals, who were a small minority anyway (kind of the neo-cons of their time).

I’d be interested in hearing exactly why Mr. Evans thinks Reconstruction, which involved a military dictatorship and the disenfranchisement of the bulk of the South’s white male population of voting age, had anything to do with building “democratic institutions” in the South.

“This "Southern" view became national. And like the "Lost Cause" novels, dramas and films, it camouflaged a scandal: while Lincoln had become a national icon, the party of Lincoln had now become the party of John D. Rockefeller and had recanted full citizenship and civil rights for blacks.”

Couple of problems here. First of all, the Republican Party was always a heavily corporate-backed entity, and had been when John D. Rockefeller was still a teenager. Lincoln himself was a corporation lawyer, a railroad lawyer, before being elected President. And Mr. Evans seems to be contradicting himself: does he frown on a singular, unifying narrative that explains historical events, or is he in favor of such a thing? Because at the same time that he’s arguing that traditional explanations of America’s foreign wars are incomplete, “ethnocentric”, and not adequate as history (a position that has a certain amount of merit, to be sure), he’s giving short shrift to the multiple interpretations of the States War, explaining away the Southern view as a posture of unregenerate white supremacists and Republicans eager to spread dirt over their supposed historical sins. Mr. Evans certainly has a right to his view of the Civil War, but deriding an opposing view as a plaything of racists with a negligible basis in historical truth doesn’t seem a good way to convince us of the validity of his overall argument, which, again, has some merit.