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In Confronting the Bomb, historian Lawrence S. Wittner provides an abridgement of his massive, award-winning Struggle against the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement trilogy (1993-2003). An encyclopedic project on a vast transnational scale, Struggle entailed seventeen years of research and writing and made landmark contributions to peace history, international history, diplomatic history, and the history of social reform movements. Reviewers hailed it as a model of international and transnational history, with exhaustive research in archives on five continents. Based on the records of disarmament organizations, previously secret government documents, interviews with antinuclear activists and government officials, peace movement periodicals, and memoirs, Struggle examines both top down government policies and bottom up citizen activism. It chronicles scores of antinuclear organizations and individuals over six decades of global antinuclear activism.
At 225 pages, Confronting the Bomb offers a cogent summary of the trilogy’s powerful arguments and supporting evidence, without its extensive detail, notes, and bibliography. (By my count, the trilogy totals nearly 1,800 pages, including 1,300 pages of text, 280 pages of reference matter containing nearly 3,500 notes, and nearly 100 pages of bibliography.) This well-written, persuasively-argued book is a pleasure to read. By making his research and arguments assessable in a short, single volume, Wittner has performed a valuable service—one that promotes HNN’s mission of encouraging professional historians to write for a popular, though serious, audience. This book will appeal to general readers and experts alike—and will work well in courses on peace studies, diplomatic history, international relations, and social movements, as well as courses on modern history and politics.
Wittner opens with a central question: “How should we account for the fact that, since 1945, the world had avoided nuclear war?” Furthermore, why have nuclear nations adopted nuclear arms control and disarmament measures? He rejects the conventional interpretation that holds that nuclear weapons have “deterred” nations from waging war. Instead, he argues that a mass nuclear disarmament movement has mobilized millions of people worldwide and has pressured governments to adopt nuclear disarmament agreements. In short, Wittner contends that the antinuclear movement—not “peace through strength”—has saved the world from nuclear Armageddon.
In addition, Wittner challenges U.S. Cold War “triumphalism”—the notion that
American political will and military might, in particular Reagan’s enormous arms buildup and military spending, precipitated the Soviet collapse and enabled the United States to win the Cold War. Rejecting this view, Wittner credits Gorbachev, along with the antinuclear movement that influenced him, for taking the steps that ended the Cold War. Moreover, he contends that Reagan’s military buildup actually encouraged—not discouraged—Soviet militarism.
Wittner argues that the nuclear disarmament movement—“the largest grassroots struggle in the modern world”—was divided into competing non-aligned and communist-led wings. Aligned with Soviet foreign policy, the communist-led wing, organized around the World Peace Council, had little credibility outside the communist bloc. Conversely, the nonaligned wing, which included pacifists, atomic scientists, world federalists, ordinary citizens, and local, national, and transnational organizations, had a greater impact.
According to Wittner, the movement followed recurring cycles of activism and retreat. When the nuclear menace has been most dangerous, the movement has grown into a more powerful force, curbing the nuclear arms race and deterring nuclear war. When the nuclear threat has subsided, the movement has declined and national security officials have renewed their nuclear plans. Most government officials, he contends, adopted nuclear arms control and disarmament reluctantly—and only in response to popular pressure and resistance. Thus, in Wittner’s account, the global antinuclear movement has been the primary agent in nuclear disarmament.
What triggered these cycles of activism and retreat? The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sparked the rise of the antinuclear movement (1945-53). However, the escalating Cold War undermined the movement, which retreated in the early 1950s.
The hydrogen bomb and atmospheric nuclear tests kindled a “second wave” of antinuclear activism (1954-58). Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, and Albert Schweitzer issued antinuclear statements. The first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs was held. Numerous organizations were formed, including SANE in the United States, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Britain, and Hibakusha associations in Japan. In response to this “movement renaissance,” the Soviet Union and United States announced testing moratoriums in 1958.
After a lull, the movement revived—in response to the ill-fated 1960 Paris summit between John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, stalled arms control negotiations in Geneva, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the unraveling of the 1958 testing moratoriums. Responding to movement pressure, the United States and Soviet Union signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963), the world’s first nuclear arms treaty. Exhilarated by the treaty and preoccupied with the Vietnam War, the movement faded.
Then, in the latter 1970s, the end of the Vietnam War, the debate over nuclear power, the UN Special Session on Disarmament, and a nuclear buildup led to a “third wave” of antinuclear activism (1971-80). The Soviets targeted Europe with SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles (INF), NATO prepared to install its own INF cruise and Pershing II in Western Europe, and the United States moved forward with the neutron bomb and MX missile. The antinuclear movement mobilized. The Dutch Interchurch Peace Council and British CND were revitalized, European activists demanded the “zero option” (the removal of all U.S. and Soviet missiles from Europe—a position later adopted by the Reagan administration), and the American activists launched the nuclear Freeze campaign. Making concessions to movement pressure, Carter canceled the B-1 bomber and canceled the neutron bomb. In 1979, the SALT II treaty was signed and NATO adopted its “two-track” policy: installing cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe (track one), while negotiating with the Soviets to reduce or eliminate all nuclear missiles in Europe (tract two). Because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. Senate never ratified SALT II.
About the same time, conservative governments were elected in Britain (Margaret Thatcher) and the United States (Ronald Reagan). In response to their hawkish nuclear policies, the movement mobilized, peaked, and triumphed (1985-92). In several cities, antinuclear rallies and marches were the largest political protest in that nation’s history. Thousands of British women set up a women’s peace camp at Greenham Common airbase. New Zealand’s Labour government banned nuclear weapons from its territory and refused entry to a U.S. nuclear-capable warship.
In response to this antinuclear pressure, NATO nations refused to accept cruise and Pershing II missiles. Likewise, they refused to accept the Reagan-resurrected neutron bomb—and production was halted. As an alternative to both a nuclear buildup and Freeze, Reagan championed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI); although “star wars” was considered a hawkish measure, Reagan claimed SDI would make nuclear weapons obsolete and used it to counter Freeze in the battle for public opinion.
Wittner also examines the antinuclear movement's impact on Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. He emphasizes the importance of Gorbachev and his “new thinking,” which held that, in the nuclear age, European security could not be ensured by military means. Gorbachev reduced SS-20 missiles, passed on a Soviet SDI program, and proclaimed a moratorium on Soviet nuclear testing. Acknowledging that both Reagan and Gorbachev contributed to the 1987 INF Treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear weapons, Wittner gives most credit to the Soviet leader, who engineered a breakthrough by agreeing to separate INF from SDI. (SDI had proved a key obstacle to an agreement.) In making this decision and others, Gorbachev was influenced by the antinuclear movement—particularly Western scientists—who argued that an arms deal might keep SDI from being built. With nuclear disarmament treaties signed and the Cold War over, the movement relaxed.
By the mid-1990s, the “waning movement” (1993-present) confronted new challenges. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996) would be the movement’s last major victory. George W. Bush abandoned nuclear restraints, Britain and France considered new nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan became nuclear powers, Iran and pre-2003 Iraq sought to develop nuclear weapons, and North Korea tested long-range ballistic missiles.
In a thoughtful conclusion, Wittner turns to the political implications of his scholarly work. Like many of the antinuclear activists that he has studied, he advocates nuclear abolition and the transformation of the international system. He attributes the continued existence of nuclear weapons to “the pathology of the nation-state system” that relies on the “national security” paradigm and seeks peace through military strength. This traditional approach, Wittner warns, will eventually lead to nuclear war and human destruction. To avoid nuclear Armageddon, Wittner calls for short term and long term goals. In the short term, we must pursue nuclear arms control and disarmament—and the abolition of nuclear weapons. In the long term, we must transform both the nation-state system and international security system by transferring some power from the national to the international level. These goals could be achieved, he asserts, through citizens’ movements on the grassroots level and a strengthened United Nations on the global level.
Despite the book’s optimistic tone, Wittner closes on an unsettling note. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has reset its doomsday clock at 5 minutes to midnight—2 minutes closer to humanity’s catastrophic destruction than at the clock’s inception in 1947. This ticking clock imbues Wittner’s proscriptions with added urgency, instills the world nuclear disarmament movement with continued relevance, and makes this book essential reading.
In 1927, two revolutionary anarchists of Italian ancestry, Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were executed outside of Boston, Massachusetts six years after their conviction on murder charges in one of the most controversial criminal cases in American history. Critics have long claimed that Sacco and Vanzetti were framed because of their radical political convictions. It has been widely acknowledged that they did not receive a fair trial because of widespread prejudice, fueled in part by the jingoistic and anti-immigrant climate of the first Red Scare. Moshik Temkin’s book, The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial provides new insights on the socio-political resonance of the case and its broader historical implications. He argues that the heated passions that were invoked dispel the myth promoted by many historians that the 1920s were apolitical and the decision to go through with the execution further exemplified the provincialism of many political elites of the era, who rejected a broad international consensus supporting the right of Sacco and Vanzetti to a fair trial.
An Assistant Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Temkin devotes the first few chapters to exploring how the case became a political cause celèbre. He chronicles the dissent of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and labor activists who viewed the case as a reflection of class warfare and structural inequalities in American society. He also analyzes how liberal intellectuals who had predominantly defended the Palmer raids came to support Sacco and Vanzetti’s right to a fair trial, which he sees as a turning point in the growth of the popular front, or alliance between liberals and radicals during the 1930s. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a particularly influential piece in the Atlantic Monthly pointing to legal inconsistencies and the bias of Judge Webster Thayer. Internationally, the Sacco and Vanzetti case emerged as a symbol of the shortcomings of the American criminal justice system. Across Latin America and Europe, people sympathized with the defendants either in solidarity with their political beliefs or out of moral outrage. In France, the case was viewed as equivalent to the Dreyfuss Affair and fostered the growth of an incipient anti-Americanism. Intellectuals who had welcomed America aid during World War I came to see the U.S. in a hypocritical light.
Because of increasing popular protest and pressure, the Coolidge administration appointed a commission headed by Harvard University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell to reevaluate the evidence. After a short inquiry, Lowell upheld the original decision, which was especially disappointing to Sacco and Vanzetti’s supporters because Lowell had previously defended the right to free speech of several socialist professors at Harvard whom alumni had demanded be fired. Temkin paints Lowell’s decision as the product of his conservative political orientation and his stubborn disregard for domestic and international opinion, which is a dangerous tendency among American leaders. As with the population on the whole, elites were generally divided over the case on political and philosophical grounds as well as in their attitude towards America’s place in the world. Many pushed for the U.S. to adopt a flexible and pragmatic position accepting of diversity and the need to consider a wide variety of perspectives. Those who wielded ultimate power, however, clung to a more parochial and narrow-minded vision, with tragic consequences.
On the whole, Temkin has written an engaging book on the political impact and debates spawned by the Sacco and Vanzetti-affair. In a novel way, he uses them to illuminate the deep socio-political and cultural fissures in American life, which have remained enduring over time. The battle for the nation’s soul continues, as exemplified by the election in 2008, Temkin notes, of a “multicultural, intellectually curious man whose extraordinary popularity overseas was matched only by the global unpopularity of his parochial, proudly incurious predecessor.” A predecessor who had much in common with Abbott Lowell, Judge Thayer and the others responsible for Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution; one of the graver injustices of the 1920s.
George B. Kirsch, a historian at Manhattan College, intends his “Golf in America” to be a “concise narrative and social history of the sport in America from the 1880s to the present” that pays particular attention to the “surprising growth of golf as a popular, mainstream sport in the United States.” His book, the latest volume in the Illinois History of Sports series, is written in a clear but textbookish style, has more breadth than depth, and will leave readers not already immersed in the game wondering about why its devotees find it so appealing. But overall it achieves its author’s goals, providing a brief, reliable overview of American golf from the 1888 founding of St. Andrews (in Yonkers) to the age of Tiger Woods.
Each step of the way, Kirsch alternates between calling the roll of familiar, influential players (Francis Ouimet, Bob Jones, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Arnold Palmer, Nancy Lopez, and the like) and painstakingly documenting golf’s growing appeal to middle class and working class players, too. Duffers (at least as a group) in his overall scheme of history are just as important as scratch players, and public courses such as New York City’s Van Cortlandt Park (the first municipal golf course) and Bethpage get equal billing with the likes of Augusta National and Congressional.
Readers encountering the stories of great players and memorable tournaments for the first time will find that part of Kirsch’s narrative the equivalent of trying to understand Ted Williams’s career by reading the back of his baseball card: you get the general idea in a sketchy sort of way, but not the color or the flavor. But even readers who are familiar with such tales (and so resort to skimming) will surely find some new and revealing information and observations in Kirsch’s social history. He has a particularly good eye for the telling statistic, so readers will come away knowing, for instance, that public courses first outnumbered private ones in 1962; that the price of a set of irons rose between 1940 and 1960 from $68 to $140, but the number of hours of labor needed to buy them dropped from 103 to less than 62; and that by 1997 almost 80% of American golfers played most of their rounds on public courses. And Kirsch is a reliable guide when explaining the social and economic forces at work behind those statistics.
Still, although Kirsch celebrates the democratization of American golf and makes a point of describing golf’s gains among minorities (especially African-Americans) and women, he does not lose sight of the fact that even at the end of the 20th century “social class still shaped the overall golfing experience for public links players.” And, although somewhat reduced by the appearance of expensive, “high-end” daily-fee courses, the differences between golf on a public course and at a private country club persist.
Even before the current recession began, the golf business was in some economic trouble. Kirsch occasionally acknowledges the downturn, but nevertheless ends his book on a triumphal note: “Just over a century after the Scottish game invaded America, it had conquered the land.” Readers who love the game but worry about finding time to play or paying for $300 titanium drivers and $80 greens fees can only hope he is right.
“Making it matter” is an equally worthy and essential goal. When teachers present students with historical problems, questions, and answers, the latter are likely--and right--to ask, “So what? Why should I care?” Teachers need to respond, not necessarily by linking the past to obvious and immediate concerns about policy or politics, but by addressing larger questions of meaning and significance important to all of us. Questions such as, “How does the experience of war affect the lives of those who fight it, their families, their friends, and their society?”
The same mandates apply to historical narrative, and Thomas Childers, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, more than meets them. “Soldier from the War Returning” (a quotation adapted from A.E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad”) is the third book that Childers has written to, in his words, “illuminate the events, emotions, and experiences of the Second World War through the lives of the human beings caught up in them, to allow readers not only to observe and analyze but also to feel something of the turmoil—the exultation, the fear, the agony—of those epochal years.” His first book, “Wings of Morning” (1995) was, as the words of its subtitle indicate, “The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II.” His second, “In the Shadows of War” (2004), was about (again, the informative subtitle), “An American Pilot’s Odyssey Through Occupied France and the Camps of Nazi Germany.”
In all three, Childers focuses on a few “ordinary” people swept into the chaos of World War II and takes full advantage of the fact that, although readers know how the war turns out, they don’t know just what happened to these particular people. He is a master storyteller, with an artist’s eye for detail and a historian’s regard for evidence. If he sometimes relies on plausibility—how sure can we be of what was going through a man’s mind at a critical moment?—he never relies on it too much.
“Wings of Morning” was, among other things, a mystery story about the author’s search to find out what how his Uncle Howard (whom he never met) had died when his B-24 was shot down in the spring of 1945. Childers’ ability to recreate the world of his uncle and the other crew members, from basic training to the final, fatal mission, was extraordinary; his writing was deeply felt, vivid, precise, and controlled. In “Soldier from the War Returning,” he manages much the same feat, despite the fact that his narrative has a much longer arc—extending to the present day—and that he has a personal connection to two of the three men he writes about. One of them, indeed, is his late father.
Childers also wants to “make it matter.” He wants to correct the impression, by now commonplace, that the GIs of World War II generally “readjusted” quickly, that their return to civilian life, unlike that of veterans of more recent wars, was virtually seamless. He quotes at length from Tom Brokaw’s best-selling “The Greatest Generation”: “When the war was over, the men and women who had been involved…joined in joyous and short-lived celebrations, then immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted…[They were] battle-scarred and exhausted, but oh so happy and relieved to be home. The war had taught them what mattered most in the lives they wanted now to settle down and live.”
Not exactly. Childers’s survey of postwar society shows that immediately after the war, people neither expected nor saw quick “readjustment.” Postwar popular culture—whether represented by crude tabloid headlines such as “Will Your Boy Be a Killer When He Returns?” or relatively sophisticated movies such as the ironically-titled “The Best Years of Our Lives”—showed, as Childers says, “more shades of mood and meaning, more sorrow and strain and anger added to the mix of relief and celebration” than Brokaw and other celebrants of “the Greatest Generation” depict.
There was reason for concern. Childers notes that “by July 1943 the U.S. Army was discharging ten thousand men each month for psychiatric reasons, and the numbers increased as the war dragged on.” If people spoke of such things at all, they spoke of “shell shock” or “battle fatigue”; military medicos spoke of “psychoneurosis”; today we would call it “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Whatever it was called, it involved “depression, recurring nightmares, survivor guilt, outbursts of rage (most frequently directed at family members), ‘exaggerated startle responses,’ and anxiety reactions.” The most common advice about “treatment,” both from others and themselves: try to forget the war, move beyond it, put it in the past. The typical war vet didn’t want to talk about it. But that didn’t make it go away.
Of Childers’s three soldiers, Willis Allen suffered the most grievous physical wounds: the “lucky” survivor of an artillery barrage in Italy that wiped out the rest of his companions, he lost both legs, but, after strenuous physical rehabilitation and some false starts, he seemed to have built a stable civilian life, complete with job and family. Michael Gold, a navigator whose B-17 was shot down, spent 15 freezing, starving months as a POW in Stalag Luft I, but apparently put his privations behind him and became a successful obstetrician-gynecologist. Tom Childers helped provide ground support for the air war at a base in England. Like most men in the military, he wasn’t in combat. But he saw “his share of the war’s daily horrors: tattered planes staggering back, Plexiglas shattered and streaked with blood, scraps of tissue, and fragments of bone; headless bodies taken from flak-riddled planes, men fried to a cinder or frozen or suffocated, blue with anoxia when their oxygen masks froze. ‘I’ve seen things over here that I hope never to see again and I wish I could forget,’ he wrote in August 1944. ‘I think being here has aged me five years.’” Certainly being there changed him. At his funeral in 1994, his widow, Mildred, sounded a familiar refrain: “You know, he was never the same after the war.”
By then, of course, the war was a half-century in the past. One might argue that during that time other things, other events, must have had equally crucial impact. But Childers has the evidence he needs to identify the war as the defining trauma that shaped the rest of their lives. When Michael Gold eats his meals so aggressively that his children don’t want to sit next to him, we know why. Childers recalls the familiar line from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
The last third of the book, in which Childers describes how experiences long repressed bobbed explosively to the surface of each man’s life, is less consistently gripping than the earlier parts, mainly because the details of its domestic dramas and breakups are familiar from a million other narratives. That it succeeds as well as it does is tribute to Childers’s ability to make the reader care about his subjects—to make their lives real. In doing so, he restores a third dimension to “the greatest generation.” By giving them back their vulnerability, frailty, fears, and failures, and honoring the bravery of their long struggles against their personal demons, he mercifully removes them from the pedestal where they were placed a few decades ago. It turns out they have more in common with the soldiers of Vietnam and Iraq and other wars than we knew. And that’s a good thing to know. Welcome home.
Energizing this 500-page book is Thomas Sugrue’s driving curiosity to understand the racial geography of the 30-plus American states loosely referred to as “the North.” He wants to share widely the stories of unheralded heroes and heroines of the northern freedom struggle. He wants to know how and why power-brokers in U.S. cities and suburbs created and then supported unequal access to education, housing, jobs, and “the good life.”
Along the way, we learn quite a bit about white power, northern-style: how leaders used tax policy, government subsidies to real-estate developers and banks, federal grants, zoning boards, and even the 14th Amendment to make sure that between the years 1945 and 2006, “whites -–whatever they personally thought of blacks-- returned home to white neighborhoods, continued to send their children to segregated schools, and fought to maintain local control over taxation, education and land use in ways that were far more damaging to the cause of racial equality than any negative feelings they might harbor toward black people.”
Sweet Land of Liberty inverts the theme of invisibility long-explored by black writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Paule Marshall, and most famously Ralph Ellison. Rather than focus on the ways whites ignored blacks, making the latter feel largely invisible, Sugrue shows how whites consciously and relentlessly pursued racial demarcations in their workplaces, housing, and hearts. Initially, he states, “the lack of state-sponsored racial discrimination had the ironic effect of blinding northern whites to the Negro problem” in their midst. But forced to confront black demands for fair employment practices, northern white Republicans who had supported southern civil rights legislation suddenly experienced a “double consciousness” when major constituents like the National Association of Manufacturers and local chambers of commerce opposed Fair Employment laws.
While signs for “colored” and “whites” might not be publicly displayed, “northern cities were invisibly divided by race. There were colored hotels and white hotels, Negro bars and white bars, black restaurants and white restaurants.” Chicago’s NAACP branch head, Carl Fuqua, noted that “nobody pays any attention to the laws against discrimination if they don’t want to.” Whites consistently used “the market” as an excuse for northern Jim Crow. “Regardless of our personal feelings…we have to cater to the majority,” explained one Pittsburgh pool manager. Whites often claimed support for integrated housing, but moved out in droves when blacks arrived, fearing “loss of market value” if they stayed. Parents who mobilized against busing and integrated education claimed “white” and “black” schools weren’t Jim Crow’ed, but were instead “the result of the inexorable workings of the [real-estate] market.” Any attempt to desegregate housing, accommodations, or schools, these people claimed, violated whites’ “freedom of choice.”
But Sugrue snatches away the veil of “innocence” the vast majority of whites attempted to wear. “The term ‘choice’ obscured more than it revealed. For the vast majority of African Americans in the postwar city, the right to choose schools or neighborhoods was nonexistent. That whites, even those with modest incomes, could choose to send their children to well-provisioned schools in white suburbs or in white-dominated neighborhoods was the consequence of racial privilege. The language of choice masked white privilege: It rested on the false assumption that blacks and whites were equal players in a market that was deeply structured by race.” Today, anyone listening to Fox News’ commentators or right-wing radio will recognize that TV and radio hosts continue to portray civil rights’ gains as major threats to “choice” and the “free market.” Sugrue’s work puts such ostensibly race-neutral pronouncements in historical context, unmasking their racist, northern origins. Its greatest strength is its brilliant illumination of the conscious intent undergirding allegedly “invisible” and “unintentional” structural white supremacy.
Sugrue also largely succeeds in stitching together a fresh narrative for the culture as a whole in giving voice to the mostly forgotten struggle for civil rights in the North. This alone makes his book a valuable resource for people in the North today (like himself), who continue “as community activists trying to better the neighborhood’s schools, to challenge slumlords, and to spark community development.” Stark statistics in the first decade of the twenty-first century highlight how far the nation still must travel: The black middle class is larger than ever, but median household income is still only 62% of whites and 25% of blacks live below the poverty line. While this is true for only 10% of whites. 80% of Black children attend schools that are nearly or all black & Latino, while 90% of white children attend schools that are overwhelmingly white. Statistics for wealth accumulation tell the most damning story. White households’ median net worth was $74,900 at the time of the last census, while black households’ median net worth came in at $7,500. Such disparities will continue into future generations, since as a result of these wealth disparities, “many whites can expect financial support at crucial junctures in their lives (going to college, getting married, buying a home) and inheritance as the result of their parents’ accumulated wealth, few blacks can expect such good fortune.”
For people interested in why so many neighborhoods and schools still resist integration, Sugrue’s first chapter on housing (“No Right More Elemental”), and his final chapter on schools (“It’s Not the Bus, It’s Us”) are simply essential reading. By placing his work, and that of other pioneering scholars of the northern freedom struggle like Komozi Woodard, Jeanne Theoharis, Ronald Takaki and Roger Daniels alongside the new crop of histories of local civil rights’ struggles in the South and West, we are able to see new connections among activists, patterns in government response that resonate to our own day, and an obvious set of similarities emerge among white reactionaries across regions. Sugrue’s work makes comparisons between regions richer and more nuanced. Facile assumptions about northern blacks or whites are now as untenable as those many historians held a generation ago about southerners.
Sugrue’s narrative ambitions are considerably broader because he wants to reorder our collective timeline, storyline, and map of the civil rights movement writ large. In this task, he is less persuasive. He argues up front that in order to understand why racial hostility and inequality persist today, “we must give as much attention to the unheralded struggles for civil rights in the factories, churches and neighborhoods of Philadelphia, New York, and Detroit, the schools of Harlem and New Rochelle and Gary and Chicago, and the movie theaters of Cincinnati as we have to the now-epic events of Greensboro, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma.”
It’s a high bar to raise for a single book, and Sugrue has his hands full synthesizing the Northern story. But to truly reorder our understanding of the larger civil rights/black power movements, such a book would need to compare and contrast northern activism to the southern-based struggle, examine more closely the impact and interaction between northern and southern movement cultures, activists and activist networks, and examine the emerging organizing traditions in these different regional settings.
This book does not. However, Sugrue successfully traces the timeline back to the 1920s and 30s up through the 1980s and 1990s, following recent scholarly trends in examining the “long civil rights movement.” By doing so, he challenges “the tired clichés of recent books that fixate on the 1960s as the fundamental turning point in the history of race in modern America.”
In power struggles, who tells the story always matters: The father or the son? The worker or the boss? The king or the people? Sugrue tackles this narrative challenge by selecting a wide range of northern black activists, and chapter by chapter, introducing one or two of these people as guides to the multitude of strategies northern civil rights and black power activists used in reaching for “liberty and justice for all.” Some are well known (A. Philip Randolph and the Reverend Albert Cleage), but most are unheralded organizers with unique visions: Roxanne Jones, Herman Ferguson, and Henry Lee Moon. Rather than pigeon-holing these activists as having fixed belief systems, Sugrue artfully shows their philosophies emerging over time. Many of his central protagonists layer new beliefs atop strongly-held convictions. He also situates their activism within the domestic politics, intellectual trends, economic settings, and international events of the day. It’s a complicated set of interconnected storylines, and one that at times appears fragmented, not unlike the movement itself.
While such a strategy has obvious advantages in conveying breadth and depth, when individuals stand in for political and intellectual tendencies, the reader has very little sense of how and why people work together. How do people come together to challenge the racial status quo? How do they form networks? It is extremely difficult – if not impossible- to understand social movements without this piece of the story. To put it boldly: In the face of the extraordinary power of organized money, only organized people can succeed. As was the case in the South, the central task for activists, and particularly for civil rights activists, is to recruit and organize. They need people coming together, and for a time staying together. Without it, there will be no movement. Nothing changes.
The strength of Sweet Land’s movement story is its range and in-depth focus on powerful individuals. Its challenge is seeing how these individuals organized, interacted, learned, grouped and re-grouped, and collectively succeeded (or failed) in pushing their agenda forward.
In other words, we still await the story of northern movement cultures. Nonetheless, the end result is an impressive accomplishment useful for scholars and the general public. This is no small feat. My eighth grade son saw the book and asked about its content. Raised in the South, and fresh from a year-long U.S. history course, he seemed a bit incredulous: “Civil rights in the North?” he said. “Was there really that much to talk about?” Sugrue’s work deserves the wide readership that will make such a question illogical, even absurd, among the next generation.
The story of the Cold War has been told countless times in countless publications including the electronic media and cyberspace. Generally, it is a saga of nuclear arms, betrayal of trust and paranoia mixed with innocent (or not so innocent) human fears and misjudgments by a set of players that on several occasions led the world to the brink of nuclear destruction from the end of World War II to the early 90’s. With that in mind, and with that much out there already repeating the same story, one wonders aloud (or in a book review) why someone would add still more to an already chokingly overcrowded field.
Didn’t somebody already get it right by now? Collectively, yes.
But one could argue that there are always missing pieces to fill in, great new revelations to reveal, and a better way to demystify an interesting piece of recent history that has barely had time to settle in history’s boiling cauldron. If that is the reason Gordon Barrass has chosen to write this book, his intentions were, unfortunately, not realized.
The text is dry and scholarly. It reads like a Doctoral dissertation draft, the kind that’s half written and still at the typists’ office, available as the pages come one by one out of the laser printer. With each page comes the new hope that something truly unique or previously unreported will emerge, leading only to further disappointments. There are few, if any revelations here that haven’t already come to light – many times over and already in books that would fill the shelves of some very large libraries.
If there is good news here, and there is some, it rests in the fact that Barrass was an insider in the British Government, and has apparently had access to many primary sources of information. This helps establish the credibility of the long narrative text, which is heavily footnoted and logically ordered.
For readers who are unfamiliar with twentieth century world history, this is book an excellent place to begin. The reader learns about Stalin and Churchill and Roosevelt and Truman and then the Cold War leaders that followed Stalin and Truman. There is good detail here, with some excellent anecdotal passages on Russian/Soviet history and how it influenced interactions with Britain, Germany and the United States before, during and then after World War II., providing good background reference material. There is also an insightful analysis of the Reagan/ Gorbachev relationship, and why mutual trust between these two men was so important in bringing the Cold War to an end.
In short, readers looking for a good, substantial narrative about the Cold War and the history leading up to it will find this a solid, scholarly account.Still, those in search of new revelations in the “hall of mirrors” might want to look elsewhere.
Syrett’s larger point, demonstrated quite effectively in the first five chapters of his book, is that, as he says, “fraternities—even the ones that have made shocking headlines—have not always behaved in this manner, and that the misogynist culture that leads to incidents [such as a 1982 sexual abuse case at Duke University] are a relatively recent development in the life of Greek culture.” Since the first fraternity, Kappa Alpha, was founded in 1825 at Union College in Schenectady, New York, fraternities have been exclusive, status-obsessed, and dedicated to acting out their own particular definitions of masculinity. But, Syrett insists, “fraternity men’s behavior is a product of various historical phenomena that are specific to time and place,” and fraternities have been around long enough now that their members’ behavior has evolved, frequently in ways that make one doubt that evolution is necessarily progress.
Like the early 19th-century literary societies they supplemented and then supplanted, fraternities were intended to provide “camaraderie and resistance” to the often overbearing, claustrophobic regimes that presided over the antebellum colleges, most of which had fewer than 150 students under the more-or-less watchful eyes of half a dozen professors. The classical curriculum, presented in an endless series of drills and recitations, demanded little and inspired less, so students set up their own literary, dramatic, and oratorical organizations. Some students, however, particularly the well-to-do ones, preferred less inclusive arrangements. Out of this desire for exclusivity and status, the fraternity was born.
College presidents and faculties abhorred fraternities and attempted to ban them, partly because they were secret (and, of course, they were secret partly because they were prohibited). Brown’s Francis Wayland said, “I would incomparably rather resign my place than allow young men the right to meet in secret when they choose without the knowledge of the Faculty.” Naturally, such prohibitions only made fraternities more popular. As the 19th century moved into its second half, the strictures generally disappeared. Syrett speculates sensibly: “For all of fraternities’ propensity for rule breaking, and despite the fact that they certainly created factions on campus based on social class, it may well be that fraternities actually led to a decreased propensity toward outright acts of violent rebellion.” An increasingly professionalized faculty took more interest in research and less in their roles in loco parentis; a philosophy of live-and-let-live seemed more attractive to all parties involved.
As the system grew, fraternities increasingly competed with one another for campus honors and offices. “Brothers” wanted to be proud of the company they kept, and having members who excelled in academics and, especially, extracurricular activities—increasingly, this meant athletics—brought honor and distinction to the entire fraternity. As Syrett points out, this competition was theoretically unnecessary, but in the context of the 19th century it is entirely understandable: “The competition of college life, much more than the training in piety that these men were rejecting, was preparation for entrance into a capitalist market economy. This was, however, an economy in which young men could not be certain of their place…College men were coming to terms with the fact of the competition they faced as individuals and with each other. Fraternities were their reassuring answer to this anxiety-provoking situation.”
Syrett explored numerous archives (from Stanford and Berkeley to Princeton and Yale to Duke and North Carolina) to assemble the material that he makes into a convincing, fine-grained rendition of this late 19th and early-20th century obsession with status on campus. Sons of the wealthy wanted to protect their privileged position; ambitious sons of the upper-middle class, products of a newly democratic age, wanted to solidify and guarantee their own futures by associating with those already at the top and others who would soon be there. With industrial capitalism rampant, the fraternity system reached its full flower, and its members became more and more obsessed with “manliness.” Resistance to authority, that continuing theme, led to more and more anti-intellectualism, an emphasis on activities rather than academics, and high regard for the “Gentleman’s C.” Then “manliness,” says Syrett, gave way to “masculinity”: “While manliness carried connotations of loyalty, honor, and responsibility, masculinity was much more bound up in aggression, physicality, and virility. Sports, and football especially, were a means for men to prove their masculinity—and not just on campus.” Exactly why this transition took place, he doesn’t really explain.
Also in this period, fraternities, like other organizations from corporations to professional societies, established national offices and networks, and alumni took increasingly active roles in their activities. On individual campuses, they frequently financed elaborate fraternity houses, which “allowed fraternity men to segregate themselves from others on campus [and] do so on the basis of wealth.” They routinely employed staffs of janitors, maids, cooks, and the like, and put on elaborate social events.
As college attendance became more common for the members of the middle class, including women, and those who aspired to the middle class, fraternity men increasingly identified themselves in opposition to the new arrivals. Syrett summarizes the trajectory of the trend: “in the earliest days [the excluded were] fraternity men’s poor and pious classmates training for the ministry; later, [it was], simply, the less wealthy; and toward the end of the century, newly arrived second-generation immigrant classmates.” Well into the 20th century, they ruled the college roost.
Overall, Syrett’s portrayal of how fraternities evolved before World War II is as sound and vivid an evocation of college student life as we have. “The Company He Keeps” is careful, convincing, and well grounded in primary sources. His use of secondary sources, such as books by Anthony Rotundo, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, and Beth Bailey, is wide-ranging and judicious. And, happily, his narrative is highly readable.
Unfortunately, the last part of the book—the part so far receiving the most attention from commentators—is less persuasive. Portraying the past 60 years, Syrett paints with an excessively broad brush: “In the postwar period,” he says, “fraternity men cultivated an image of conservative, anti-intellectual defenders of the status quo by day and vandalizing, vomiting wild men by night.” That seems a bit overboard—it explains both too much and too little. For instance, although Syrett suggests how and why WASP fraternity members felt threatened by the civil rights and sexual revolutions, he is less clear about why some responses to those revolutions so often took (and still take) extreme forms that might fairly be described as pathological. There’s a difference between a snob (or a slob) and a sociopath. The denizens of various “Animal Houses” described in Syrett’s last chapter who engage in drunkenness, mayhem, rape, and other unhealthy, unethical, or criminal activities cross the line, willfully and enthusiastically.
Significantly, such excessive behaviors are taking place at a time when fraternities occupy a smaller place in campus life than ever, and the fraternity scene itself is more diverse than ever. The beginnings of this diversity go back further than we might suppose: the first Catholic fraternity was founded at Brown in 1889; the first Jewish fraternity, at Yale in 1895; the first black fraternity, at Cornell in 1906. Syrett does not touch upon them, nor upon “Jewish, Catholic, African American, Asian American, Latino, multi-cultural, or gay fraternities.” So whom, exactly, are the somewhat sensationalistic final pages about? It’s not entirely clear. When it comes to the contemporary scene, Syrett has no real explanation for why some individual fraternity members (and some fraternities as a whole) cross the line while others do not.
Still, although fraternities are less important than they used to be, for over 150 years they have played a formative role in campus life. The bulk of Nicholas Syrett’s accessible book is a significant contribution to our understanding of what that role was, and how and why it changed.
Since the onset of WWII and its aftermath, tens of millions have been massacred by governments and assorted religious and secular fanatics. In that time, too, the U.S., the world’s most powerful military force, has quietly expelled indigenous populations on the too-little contested argument that the world’s “indispensable nation” possessing several thousand nuclear bombs has a moral duty to do as it wishes to defend its national interest, however ambiguously and broadly defined. Undeterred by Milton Eisenhower’s prophetic phrase in 1953 about a rising “military industrial complex” about which his presidential brother tried unsuccessfully to warn us, why, then, should anyone care about Chagossians?
David Vine, an anthropologist at American University hired by attorneys representing the Chagossians to tell their sad story, does care and with a heavy dose of revealing documentation, convincingly argues their case. His Island of Shame is filled with rage at how the British and U.S. governments stole a people’s home, sent them into foreign slums and then forgot about them. The purpose of this forced dislocation was to control the Indian Ocean, Central Asian oil fields, and help carry out American wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Today, Chagossian-free, isolated Diego Garcia is “the single most important military facility we’ve got,” at least according to the military analyst John Pike.
Between 1968 and 1973, in an act hidden from the world, ignored by the press and TV and Congress and Parliament (the British retain nominal control of Diego Garcia, but granted a long-term lease to the U.S.) the two countries threw out the dark-skinned Chagossians to develop a major U.S. air and naval base.
David Vine was never allowed to visit the island—very few are granted this privilege—but he did translate relevant documents and materials from the French, Mauritian Kreol, and Seselwa (Seychelles Kreol). His rage at what he rightly considers an injustice solely to service the American war machine is apparent in every chapter, perhaps best revealed in a striking and squalid but telling incident that occurred just before the final ejection of the remaining Chagossians.
“British agents and U. S. troops on Diego Garcia herded the Chagossians’ pet dogs into sealed sheds and gassed and burned them in front of their traumatized owners awaiting deportation” –yet another example of how imperial invaders exhibit their values.
Off-limits to all but a few very special visitors, Diego Garcia so top secret (more so than Guantanamo and Bagram Air Force Base) Vine suggests that, in addition to serving as a launching pad for bombing raids in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has been used for “rendition” of prisoners, citing, for example, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s admission to Parliament in February 2008 that the island has been used as a way station for shipping suspected terrorists to friendly nations (paid handsomely by U.S. and British taxpayers to treat prisoners as they wish) plus a Council of Europe report that the island has been used to lock away suspects. Verifiable details remain highly classified since the Bush administration said nothing and the Obama administration, eager to prove its toughness in national security, has thus far been silent about rendition, secret prisons, and Diego Garcia.
The displacement of local people is hardly new and Vine catalogs many defenseless people such as Greenland’s Inughuit of Greenland, the Bikini Atoll islanders, and 3000 0kinawans dispatched to Bolivia because of continuing American military expansion. Nowadays, U.S. military personnel are stationed in approximately 1,000 military bases outside continental U.S. at a cost estimated at more than $100 billion annually. In Hugh Gusterson’s wonderfully descriptive words, “The U.S. is to military bases as Heinz is to ketchup” (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 3/10-09). Said one critic in 2007 --who happens to be the leftist Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa unwilling to renew a U.S. base -- when asked if he would renew an American base’s lease in his nation answered, only if “they let us put a base in Miami—an Ecuadorian base.”
And finally there is the plaintive voice of the exiled Olivier Bancoult of the Chagos Refugees Group, its survivors still trying to return home: “We are the descendants of slaves. Our skin is black We don’t have blue eyes…Whether we are black, whether we are white, whether we are yellow, we must all have the same treatment, …Stop all the injustices that have been committed against us.”
It won’t happen, of course. The American Empire stands in their way. Vine’s seminal Island of Shame reveals just one of the multitude of injustices and cruelties always committed in the name of war and preparation for more war.
For many years now, a Civil War course has been a staple of my pedagogic repertoire, and every time I teach it I struggle to figure out what to do about Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell’s novel is much too long to be assigned reading (though I have taught a summer course devoted exclusively to it). Even the 1939 movie presents serious scheduling/logistical challenges; it takes about a week’s worth of classes to get through it, and I’ve never had much luck assigning any movie as homework –- too hard for everyone to get and watch in advance. So I’ve typically made a reluctant decision to consign it to the margins as a possible essay topic. I always get a few takers.
I somehow couldn’t bear to do that again this year. So I cleared the deck and showed the movie in its entirety over a stretch of classes, much in the way I do a major chunk of the 11-hour Ken Burns Civil War documentary (running the risk of inducing serious video fatigue). But the GWTW screening was a great success. I was deeply struck by the enthusiasm of some of the boys who saw it, including a pair of African American boys. The kind of racism in the film seemed sufficiently far from their lives to permit them to appreciate other dimensions of the story, though I had a third African American boy who wrote a very good essay on how the film was more dangerous than the obviously racist Birth of a Nation (I showed excerpts) precisely because its bigotry was thus even more insidious.
But perhaps the most striking thing about my experience in showing and discussing the film was its receding status in American life. A 1976 poll showed that 90% of the American public had seen the movie at least once; anecdotally speaking, I’d say 90% of the students I teach have not seen it prior to taking my class. Gone with the Wind, movie or film, isn’t going anywhere. But it clearly has receded from its central place in American life, much in the way of Catcher in the Rye, another once-pivotal generational tale whose appeal, the New York Times recently reported, is also waning even as its status as a classic becomes more secure.
It is in this context that I read Molly Haskell’s Frankly My Dear, a reappraisal of both book and film (and their relationship to each other) as we approach the three-quarter century mark. It is one of those books you can say its author was born to write. Haskell, same age as the film, is a child of the South -– she grew up in Virginia –- and became a notable feminist film scholar. Her 1973 book From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies has become a minor classic through two editions. (GWTW is treated in passing in that book, in a relatively detached, neutral way.) This convergence of regionalism, ideology, and media studies has felicitous results in a compact, evocative piece of old-fashioned cultural criticism, part of the “Icons of America” series published by Yale University Press.
Frankly My Dear is organized as a suite of five essays. The first discusses GWTW, book and film, as “the American Bible,” asserting its ongoing centrality in U.S. life -– a claim that’s plausible, particularly given recent sequels and parodies, but one, as I’m indicating, that also appears to have generational boundaries. The second focuses on the role of producer David Selznick, and actor Vivian Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara, in realizing the movie; the third is on Mitchell’s role. These two chapters –- in effect a trilogy honoring the three people as the pivotal players in what Haskell also affirms as very much a group enterprise -– represent her key analytic contribution to the discourse surrounding GWTW. A fourth chapter surveys some of the other players, among them the underappreciated production designer William Cameron Menzies, who brought the story to life. The final chapter situates the GWTW saga in the broader context of American history, from the antebellum politics to the films of Judd Apatow.
Haskell wears her learning lightly –- maybe a little too lightly; it would have been nice to have footnotes in what is, after all, a university press book –- and this gives the volume a pleasingly fluid, yet resonant quality. She’s completely at ease in discussing other Civil War novels and movies of the interwar years as she is Mitchell’s work, and writes about Southern life with a sense of earned authority (which sometimes takes the form of wry asides, like an off-hand reference to an old Southern joke that Southern girls don’t go to orgies because it will mean too many thank-you notes to write). Having wrestled with her own ambivalence about GWTW for generations, she seems to have finally come out on the side of appreciation, candid about its racial shortcomings but insistent that the story can’t finally be reduced to them. So it is, for example, that she spends a fair amount of time analyzing the Mammy-Rhett Butler relationship, as well as insisting on a specifically Southern, intra-racial amity in race relations that Northern whites have never really understood (I heard a black scholar make a similar argument at a panel on right-wing politics at this year’s Organization of American Historians conference in Seattle earlier this year).
Perhaps not surprisingly, she’s most deft in writing about gender issues, as in this comparison of the stubborn Scarlett, the saintly Melanie, and their respective, albeit very different, relationships with the dashing Rhett: “The male ego needs a certain amount of flattery, and we need the male ego. If all Southern women had been ego-quashers like Scarlett instead of ego-strokers like Melanie, Southern manhood might have been knocked back on its heels, never to rise again.” Nevertheless, for all Scarlett’s obvious personal shortcomings Haskell does see her as a proto-feminist character whose challenge to traditional male authority remains thrilling and relevant in the 21st century.
Gender issues were also on my mind when I watched GWTW again this spring. The scene that really leaped out at me this time came early in the movie, when Scarlett rushes to meet her father, who is returning to Tara, his plantation, so that she can clarify the upsetting report that her beloved Ashley is about to marry Melanie. Gerald O’Hara does confirm the bad news, and goes on to scold Scarlett for her inappropriate interest in Ashley. What she really should love, he tells her, is the land itself, and to the swelling of Max Steiner’s marvelous score, the camera pulls back to show a loving and durably bonded father and daughter surveying Tara in the shadows of a magnificent Georgia sunset. As the father of a daughter myself, I could not help but be moved, even as I knew that bond was forged from real estate speculation, slave labor, and other interlocking evils. In that regard, GWTW remains uncomfortably relevant; as much as we might like to think we have overcome the injustices that marked American life before 1860 (and, for that matter, 1960), we are kidding ourselves if we doubt that love and sin remain inseparably twined. This, if nothing else, is a good reason to keep showing GWTW, and reading books like this one.