This Department features reviews and summaries of new books that link history and current events. From time to time we also feature essays that highlight publishing trends in various fields related to history.
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Why do Americans have such a seemingly insatiable appetite for biographies about Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and other Founding Fathers?
One reason, perhaps, is that many of us seek to understand which religious values and secular principles united us in the first place. The nastier our cultural wars, the more we try to recover the political ideals that shaped our young republic. The more imperial our foreign policy, the more we ponder our first president's warning to avoid foreign entanglements. The more secretive our government becomes, the more we strive to comprehend the Founding Fathers' commitment to freedom and civil liberties.
But what about the Founding Mothers? Do they have anything to teach us about the dreams of those who fought for independence and, by extension, about our political era? Absolutely, but women were not in a position to write the documents that gave birth to a new nation. Still, their participation in the American Revolution and the founding of the nation was critical to the creation of a democratic republic.
Carol Berkin, who has written distinguished scholarly studies of the Revolutionary War era, is the ideal historian to offer the general reader a concise and accessible story with "Revolutionary Mothers." Using a novelist's eye for detail, plot and character, Berkin vividly recounts Colonial women's struggles for independence for their nation and, sometimes, for themselves.
Berkin largely focuses on ordinary women who endured what was a home-front war, a civil war and a military occupation. Every choice women made had political consequences. By boycotting British goods and spinning their own cloth, they helped the Colonies survive an eight-year war. With their men away in combat, they kept their families alive by managing the farms and businesses. They also helped to finance a fledgling government, wrote propaganda broadsides, sewed shirts for soldiers, infiltrated enemy lines as spies, joined the army dressed as men and suffered deprivation when British troops seized all their livestock and looted their household possessions.
Countless women also were the victims of gang rapes, but most hid their shameful secret from public view. Like so many soldiers throughout history, British troops viewed Colonial women as the spoils of war. "The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation," wrote Lord Rawdon, a British officer stationed on Staten Island, "as the fresh meat our men have got here has made them as riotous as satyrs. A girl cannot step into the bushes without running the most imminent risk of being ravished, and they are so little accustomed to these vigorous methods that they don't bear them with proper resignation." He then praised one woman for her sophistication "in not complaining after 7 men raped her."
The American Revolution, as Berkin reminds us, left in its wake "widows and mourning mothers, disabled veterans, African Americans separated from their families, Indians in danger of losing their lands, a colossal war debt, pockets of economic depression, and a host of political problems that would not be addressed until the constitution convention of 1787."
That was not its only legacy. Most revolutions or civil wars have inspired a small group of educated women to scrutinize their former lives with new eyes and, as part of creating a new society, to enhance the status and lives of women. The American Revolution was no exception.
In a letter to her husband on March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams famously wrote, "I desire you would remember the ladies…. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could…. We are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."
Noel Malcolm, in the Sunday Telegraph (3-13-05):
IN 1838 THE American novelist James Fenimore Cooper published a caustic little book about the vulgarisation of public life. The new tendency, he wrote, was for interested parties "to simulate the existence of a general feeling in favor of, or against, any particular man or measure; so great being the deference paid to publick opinion, that men actually yield their own sentiments to that which they believe to be the sentiment of the majority".
In other words, "public opinion" was something that could be manufactured, and the minority that created it could then hide behind the moral authority of the majority that accepted it. In the eyes of some commentators, this aperGu makes Cooper one of the most prophetic writers on the nature of modern democracy, someone to be ranked alongside, or even above, his contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville.
The real reasons for Cooper's complaint were, in fact, more to do with ordinary self-interest than with extraordinary prophetic vision. A rich landowner, he had tried to ban the public from using one of his lakeside properties as a picnicking site, and had become the object of a hostile campaign in the local newspapers. Here was a person who understood something about the power of publicity, but little, alas, about the conduct of public relations.
Cooper's words are cited (though the reasons for them are not) by John Lukacs in his new book, Democracy and Populism. In Lukacs's eyes, Cooper had described one of the key phases in the corruption of democracy: the shift from democratic politics based on genuine debate among the responsible members of a political class or electorate, towards a kind of politics that panders to, and manipulates, popular sentiment.
Lukacs believes that this shift - the descent into "populism" - has already taken place. The signs of "the new barbarism" are, he says, all around us; the tone of his book is one of almost unrelieved gloom. But that is partly because he feels that his job, as a historian, is not to answer the question "where do we go from here?", but to describe how we got here in the first place.
This book is a compilation of ideas that have occurred to John Lukacs during a long, distinguished career as a writer on such topics as Hitler, Churchill, the Cold War and modern American political history. A collection of brief explorations of huge subjects, it is pithy and thought-provoking and wide-ranging; but it is also sententious, fragmentary and frustrating, hopping as it does from theme to theme and relying more on assertion than on evidence.
The basic argument (or assertion) goes roughly as follows. Once upon a time, politics was a contest between conservatives and liberals; democracy was gradually accepted by the former, and it worked when it was conducted on the principles of the latter. But in the late 19th century a new kind of politics emerged: nationalism. This was illiberal and aggressive, being motivated primarily by hate.
Liberal progressivism, meanwhile, generated socialism, which gave us the modern welfare state. But a fateful mutation then occurred: the nationalists latched on to socialism and learned how to exploit its mass-democratic credentials. The result was national-socialist politics, a category that includes Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and PerSn.
Communism, as an ideology, was largely insignificant; what mattered was the Russian nationalism of the leaders of the Soviet Union. And the "anti-Communism" of Cold War America was itself just a way of expressing American nationalism. Modern politics is founded on nationalism, with varying degrees of socialism (the welfare state) mixed in; nationalism is a phenomenon of the Right, but this is a Right which believes in change and progress and mobilising the people through populist campaigns. The Left (which was always based on fear, not hate) is increasingly impotent, and the populist Right can be challenged now only by the remnants of a different, more responsible Right that still adheres to liberal values.
Confused? You will be. This is an account of modern history in which some key terms, such as "liberalism", are hardly defined at all, and others are stretched to paradoxical extremes (as when Lukacs suggests that we are all national-socialists now). Facts, too, are neglected when they fail to fit the theory: Lukacs's claim that Communism ceased to be expansionist in the 1950s turns a blind eye to decades of geopolitical manoeuvrings in Africa and Asia, and his assertion that no 20th-century nationalist could be a liberal ignores the position of nationalist Poles under Brezhnev as well as nationalist Catalans under Franco....
Michael Pearlman, in Military Review (March 2005):
Show me where someone stood on the nuclear-freeze movement in 1985, and 9 times out of 10, I will show you where they stand on the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Robert P. Newman, professor emeritus of political communication, is a noted exception. He was an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons during the Cold War and a fierce critic of the fierce critics of President Harry S. Truman's use of the atomic bomb. Newman is one of the select people who want to learn about the past to simply learn about the past, not to distort it for political ammunition. In 1995, Newman published Truman and the Hiroshima Cult (Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, 1995), a book that devastated the contention that Japan was already prepared to surrender but that Washington had hidden agendas, such as scaring the Soviet Union by flexing its atomic muscle against this third party.
Newman reiterates why Truman was correct--that he had to use the bomb or face perhaps a million American casualties during the invasion and the subsequent ground war to be waged in Japan. The six subsequent chapters are a history of the critique of Truman from its origins in the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) in 1945 to its culmination in an exhibit at the Smith-sonian's National Air and Space Museum in 1994 of the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb.
The chief villain in the narrative is the chairman of the USSBS, Paul Nitze, a man Newman seems to loathe from the left or from the right. He says that subsequent to 1945, Nitze inflated the Soviet military threat in an irrational pursuit of nuclear overkill. His summary report in the USSBS was equally fallacious, but this time for holding that Japan would surrender before the prospective American invasion in November, subject or not to the atomic bomb.
Nitze certainly did not hold, as others would, that Truman was striking a blow against the Kremlin. Indeed, Nitze compiled a record criticizing government policy as being too soft on the Soviet Union. While investigating the bombing of Germany, before the bombing of Japan, Nitze concluded that leveling cities was virtually useless as opposed to taking out transportation networks, a tactic that could compel surrender. He applied this European Theater paradigm to the Pacific, where he concluded conventional bombing and a naval blockade was sufficient to win the war. For data, Nitze cited purported testimony from Japanese officials, something Newman has never been able to find in the records and the archives of the USSBS.
Whether Nitze's conclusions stood on fact or what Newman calls "fraud," it had the imprimatur of an official report. It hence became argumentative gold for people who normally would dismiss any government publication as a coverup, prima facia. In the 1960s and 1970s, New Left history cites the USSBS as definitive proof, another case where contemporary "peace movement" politics slanted views on events regarding Hiroshima. The USSBS was to have made up much of the story line in captions for the Enola Gay at the National Air and Space Museum. Because the Smithsonian Institution is semi-government, conservatives in Congress aborted the exhibit. One of Truman's critics wrote, "It was a humiliating spectacle, scholars being forced to recant the truth." Newman replies (although he was no political fan of the conservative bloc): "Scholars who confuse the fraudulent Nitze narrative with truth deserve humiliation."
Newman and company might have won the battle of the Smithsonian, but time does not seem on their side. According to the Gallup Poll, 10 percent of Americans disapproved of Truman's decision in 1945, 35 percent in 1995; young adults were divided 46 percent in favor, 49 percent opposed. One can only hope the citizenry reads Newman to discover the origins and the development of the fallacious thesis many now hold.
Curious that, though we have all been children, we scarcely know what childhood “is”. A biological condition? A span of years? A social construct? An ever-evolving compendium of myths that represent society’s projections of its ideals and anxieties onto its youngest, most vulnerable members? As our personal recollections of childhood are likely to be highly unreliable, taken as much from family albums and photographs, family tales and obfuscations as from direct memory, so our collective history of childhood is likely to be sentimental and simplified, a kind of cartoon nostalgia for an idealized past that never was. As Steven Mintz argues in this often fascinating and massively documented exploration of four centuries of American childhood, “there has never been a time when the overwhelming majority of American children were well cared for and their experience idyllic. Nor has childhood ever been an age of innocence, for most children”.
Huck’s Raft is an inspired title for a book that deconstructs images, prejudices, “wisdom”. On the jacket is what appears to be an illustration of Huckleberry Finn alone and blissfully carefree on his raft on the fabled Mississippi, some time in the mid-nineteenth century; in fact, the photograph is of Charles Lindbergh as a boy rafting on the Mississippi c1912. It is Professor Mintz’s argument that American fantasies about childhood are most succinctly (and erroneously) bound up with such idyllic images: the romance of a neverland in which children and young adolescents enjoyed unlimited freedom and were not exploited and abused by their elders. It may have been that Mark Twain shared something of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idealization of childhood, as he valued nature over the hypocrisy of society, yet the painful evidence of Huckleberry Finn is that its boy-hero is “an abused child, whose father, the town drunk, beat him for going to school and learning to read”. In Hannibal, Missouri, in Huck’s time, before the Civil War destroyed Southern slavery, life for many Americans was likely to be nasty, brutish and short: even among the middle class, approximately one child in four died in infancy, and one individual in two before his or her twenty-first birthday. The notion of a lengthy childhood, “devoted to education and free from adult responsibilities, is a very recent invention, and one that became a reality for a majority of children only after World War II”.
The chimera of “family values” was an adroitly manipulated issue in the 2004 Presidential election, and nostalgia for a lost Eden remains an obsessive American theme. Each generation is convinced that life was better, and certainly more “moral”, in the past, no matter what the actual conditions of the past. Contemporary diatribes such as the best-selling Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American children feel good about themselves but can’t read, write or add sound alarms previously sounded in such 1950s best-sellers as Why Johnny Can’t Read, whose author Rudolf Flesch, an “authority on literacy”, argued that the failure on the part of public school teachers to teach phonics was “gradually destroying democracy” in the United States. Adult anxiety about youthful literacy is the social conservative’s favoured mode of anxiety about other, more alarming predilections of youth, as “A Letter to the Rising Generation” by Cornelia Comer, which originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, makes clear:
“The younger generation, she grumbled, couldn’t spell, and its English was “slipshod.” Today’s youth were selfish, discourteous, lazy, and self-indulgent. Lacking respect for their elders or for common decency, the young were hedonistic, “shallow, amusement-seeking creatures” whose tastes had been “formed by the colored supplements of the Sunday paper” and “the moving-picture shows.” The boys were feeble, flippant, and “soft” intellectually, spiritually, and physically. Even worse were the girls, who were brash, loud, and promiscuous with young men.”
All this, in 1911!
Except for its length and the density of its documentation – drawn abundantly from letters, journals, speeches, reports, publications – Huck’s Raft reads like a textbook, moving forward through the decades (from 1704 to 2004) like a very large, sometimes unwieldly but unfailingly earnest marching band. Mintz’s point is perhaps not original, but it is altogether plausible:
“Childhood and adolescence as biological phases of human development have always existed. But the ways in which childhood and adolescence are conceptualized and experienced are social and cultural constructions that have changed dramatically over time.”...
Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen’s The Bonus Army arrives at a propitious moment, given the inordinate sacrifices now being demanded of soldiers and marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sooner or later, a large number of new veterans, both whole and wounded in body and mind, will return home demanding benefits from an administration loaded with policymakers who never served in the military. (Disclosure: I knew Dickson years ago when he published an article in a magazine I edited.) Dickson is the author of books on Washington’s fledgling think tanks and on electronic warfare and Allen’s subjects have included Pearl Harbor and Admiral Hyman Rickover. Together they have produced an impressive, important, and extremely well researched account of what happened when the U.S. reneged on its pledge.
Dickson and Allen credit a young scholar, Cielo Marie Dorado Lutino, whose study of the Bonus Army wondered why historians consider the Bonus protests “an insignificant event” and “why they ignored the impact of the largest and most sustained public demonstration of the Great Depression.” It is difficult to say whether or not the protest was a central event in our past but it probably helped Franklin D. Roosevelt defeat Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election.
Not long before, in May 1932, amidst the bleakness of the Great Depression, Pelham Glassford, the Washington, D.C. police chief and a West Point graduate, one of the authors’ heroes in this book (the other is Wright Patman, the Texas congressman who sponsored and fought for a bonus), spied two men, one carrying the flag and another a banner reading, “Bonus or a Job.” They too were on their way to the nation’s capital, where in a brief period of time, veterans and their women and children set up scores of shacks called Hoovervilles. Many WWI veterans felt abandoned and betrayed by their government.
A fundamental question posed by Dickson and Allen is why the government reneged on the WWI Veterans Act, which had granted ex-servicemen an “adjusted universal compensation” bonus certificate redeemable in 1945 or in the event of their death. They argue that racism and the prevailing and widespread anti-Communist hysteria played crucial roles. Black soldiers had been segregated during the war and surprisingly, “America’s 404,000 black soldiers, barred from all-white units, had fought under a French flag.” The BEF, however, was integrated and Roy Wilkins, a reporter for the NAACP’s publication Crisis, dreamed it might be a model for a new America. But Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur’s “most trusted subordinate” Brigadier General Van Horn Moseley viewed the BEF’s racially mixed protesters as evidence that “Negro and Jewish” Communists were plotting to overthrow the government.
Even so, the veteran’s agitation continued until they were forcibly expelled. President Herbert Hoover, Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley and MacArthur were all convinced that the Communists had taken over the protest; Hoover in his memoir claimed that 900 Bonus veterans “were ex-convicts and Communists,” which all proved to be nonsense though opportunistic Communists falsely claimed a far larger role than they ever had. Hoover was reluctant to use force, however, and claimed he merely wanted to surround the camps to find out the number of Communists present. He issued an order through Hurley to avoid the use of force. But the imperious MacArthur -– who Harry Truman rightfully fired for insubordination during the Korean War -— deliberately chose to attack, with bayonets, tanks and gas. Two vets died. The Hoovervilles were burned. As military units stood by with machine guns, Glassford, who denied that the BEF was communist dominated, said that he witnessed “brutality” not by the military but by “the Hoover administration’s attempt to make political capital out of hunger, misery and despair.” The sight of the American army attacking American veterans was so appalling that public sympathy shifted in favor of the BEF; FDR later told his friends that it made his election a certainty.
Presidents from Wilson to FDR opposed granting a bonus for varying reasons. Wilson, who never cared much for black people, had lost his superficial appetite for progressive reforms early on. Better to battle Mexicans and the Germans and jail Eugene V. Debs and other dissenters. Even if he had not fallen ill, there is no reason to believe he would have taken the side of the integrated Bonus veterans. Calvin Coolidge and Hoover were concerned about the impact a bonus might have on the economy yet they spent money protecting corporate interests in the so-called Banana Wars in the Caribbean and Central America. Franklin D. Roosevelt balked at awarding bonuses because he insisted the Depression’s victims had a higher priority.
Finally, Congress overrode Roosevelt’s veto in 1936 and 3,518,000 WWI veterans received bonuses totaling $1.9 billion. Eight years later, as WWII was slowly beginning to draw to an end, over the objection of the arch-demagogue Rep. John Rankin of Mississippi, who argued that any veteran benefit bill which proposed to grant $20 for 52 weeks to black veterans would, write the authors, be “a frontal assault on white supremacy and the so-called two-tier economic system in Mississippi and in much of the old South," Roosevelt signed the very popular GI Bill on June 22, 1944, one of the most effective and rewarding pieces of legislation ever enacted.
It changed the nation economically, socially and politically and enlarged the educated middle class tenfold. This was the bonus marchers’ true legacy to future veterans of America’s constant wars, even the unjust ones. There were others, though, as when thousands of angry Vietnam veterans paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in April 1971 to protest the war they had been forced to fight. The Bonus Army was not forgotten. In one of the famous Nixon tapes unearthed by Dickson and Allen, John Mitchell asked Richard Nixon what to do about the demonstrating veterans. “Leave them there,” answered Nixon. “I don’t wanna, uh, like the Bonus March ‘n; all that stuff. You recall poor old Hoover and MacArthur, you know."
Israeli political psychologist and historian and author of three biographies as well as A Psychoanalytic History of the Jews, points to a dearth of material on irrational forces and personalities in the historic Middle East conflict, and seeks to address it. Writing clearly, with impressive historical and cultural insight, he analyzes both Ariel Sharon and Yassir Arafat as destructive yet charismatic leaders. Besides biographical studies of the two antagonists, Falk has informative chapters on the Arab mind and the Israeli mind, nationalism, and war. The central focus includes unconscious factors and mechanisms such as denial, externalization, projection, splitting and "the problem of empathy, the inability to mourn, large-group psychodynamics, the psychology of suicidal terrorism…the need for enemies." The result, writes reviewer E. James Lieberman, professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of Medicine, is a rich combination of history, culture, religion, and psychology—especially in relation to empathy, mourning, and projection. At times Falk slips into jargon: "Oedipal" and "narcissistic" become shibboleths of an armchair sleuth using speculative Freudian logic rather than real evidence. Still, he effectively challenges historians and political "scientists" who tend to ignore the psyche. General readers will enjoy a mostly engaging, articulate and sensible overview that is remarkably nonpartisan.
Library Journal, January 2005
In company with Benedict Arnold, Greene ranks as George Washington’s most talented lieutenant. Nevertheless, unlike the more notorious Arnold, he has not generated substantial biographical commentary (despite the preservation of so many of his papers). This is not to say that Greene has been ignored to the extent of being “lost to history,” as the publisher proclaims in its promotional copy, only to be apparently rescued by “this bold new book” that “returns him to his proper place in the Revolutionary Era’s pantheon.” Indeed, a more scholarly biography may be found in Theodore Thayer’s Nathanael Greene: Strategist of the American Revolution (1960), and another, more popular, but much less readable compendium, Lee Patrick Anderson’s Forgotten Patriot: The Life & Times of Major-General Nathanael Greene, appeared in 2002. In addition, Greene remains a focal point of numerous investigations of strategy and tactics employed during the Revolutionary War, especially in the South, as well as studies of the issues and problems of supplying the Continental army (Greene reluctantly served in the thankless post of quartermaster general from 1778 to 1780).
If Greene is well-known to scholars and students of the American Revolution and military history more generally, what, then, does Golway contribute? There can be no dispute that he has composed an easy to read (unlike Thayer and Anderson) and somewhat informative study that portrays the private life and public career of Nathanael Greene. Further, as a trade book intended for general audiences, this volume succeeds in conveying an overall impression of Greene and his importance to his era. Yet, like so many popular histories prepared for a general readership, the author puts greater emphasis on story telling than on a thoroughly researched reconstruction of his subject’s life presented in actual historical context. Stated differently, Golway writes without a complete sense of the political, social, and cultural values that characterized the world in which Greene lived and made his contributions.
Golway, for example, treats Greene’s father as an anti-intellectual whose Quaker faith caused him to dismiss academic pursuits as a waste of time. More correctly, Greene’s father, very much a person of Quaker piety, did not want his son pursuing purposeless knowledge. What Golway fails to mention is that when young Nathanael proclaimed his desire to learn Latin and advanced mathematics as part of obtaining a more liberal education, his father hired the local schoolmaster to tutor his son in these subjects. The lessons only lasted a few months because Nathanael himself, not his father, lost interest. Greene’s formal schooling, furthermore, was fairly characteristic of other well-to-do males of the era who did not go onto college. To conclude, then, that Greene felt overly insecure and thwarted about his education, or lack thereof, is to confuse the heftier demands of modern education with what was normal schooling for his times. Greene was able to cultivate his curiosity about many subjects, not including Latin, and his capacity for intellectual growth allowed him to become one of the most innovative military leaders of his times.
On at least two occasions (pp. 85, 161), Golway assumes that the Revolution was about a democracy fighting to sustain itself into the future. An abundance of scholarship, however, has made the obverse point that pre-Revolutionary colonial American society was anything but democratic in its social and political organization. One proof of this less-than-democratic reality was the sudden elevation in 1775 of the well-connected Greene from a local militia private to the rank of brigadier general in charge of Rhode Island’s rebel military force. Greene secured this amazing advancement with no military experience beyond drilling with the local militia. The pull of patronage and political connections, not democracy, carried the day for Greene. In this case, however, so inexplicable an elevation of an asthmatic, limping non-pacificist Quaker worked out brilliantly for the Revolution.
Golway, too, views Greene as overly sensitive about his reputation, a person who engaged in “periodic” bouts of “self-pity” (p. 167) when feeling snubbed about his martial assignments or matters relating to promotion. The author interprets this demeanor, which is at times verbally truculent toward such bodies as the Continental Congress, as proof of Greene’s insecurities, reflecting such factors as his limp, rapid rise in command, and alleged thwarted education. What Golway does not do is contextualize Greene’s concern about his reputation in our rapidly expanding knowledge about the gentleman’s code and the role of personal honor in Revolutionary era culture (and, in this case, in relation to Washington’s officers). For gentlemen of that era, any slight in regard to their good names demanded a response, since any loss of reputation was tantamount to forfeiting their standing as respected members of society. The codes and values of Greene’s era, much more than modern psychological paradigms, would have served the author more ably in evaluating his subject’s apparent bouts of petulance over matters of personal honor and reputation.
Golway thus weakens his presentation by not framing Greene’s life as much as possible in the context of its times. On the other hand, readers will find an engaging narrative about a life that really mattered in terms of securing American independence. Since Golway’s book is a pleasure to read and also conveys a significant story, even if at times out of historical context, this reviewer feels compelled to recommend this biography to persons wanting to find out more about the short-lived but invaluable Revolutionary era hero Nathanael Greene.