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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183400 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183400 0
"Oh, We Knowed What Was Goin’ On": The Myths (and Lies) of Juneteenth

 

 

92 years old and blind, in June 1937 a formerly enslaved Texan named Felix Haywood talked to a WPA writer about the Civil War and its aftermath. “ Oh, we knowed what was goin’ on in it all the time,” said Haywood, “We had papers in them days just like now.” Heywood exposed a central canard of Juneteenth as a day when uninformed Blacks in Texas first learned they were free. In fact, General Gordon Granger and his 1,800 Union troops were not in Texas to deliver news to uninformed Blacksz as much as they were there to enforce the law for recalcitrant whites. Juneteenth is built on falsehoods and wrapped in mistruths. The pillars of the day do not hold up to historical scrutiny.

Texas was a pariah state, where southern whites dreamed of a white supremacist homeland. “During the Civil War,” writes historian Gregory P. Downs,  “white planters forcibly moved tens of thousands of slaves to Texas, hoping to keep them in bondage and away from the U.S. Army.”  Even after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Texas governor Pendleton Murrah refused to surrender the state, fleeing to Mexico and leaving control of state government, and surrender, to Confederate Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby.

After Appomattox, white slaveholders in Texas kept Black men and women enslaved, and killed them when they tried to assert their freedom. So, when Granger read General Order No. 3 to the public on Galveston Island, he was delivering a message not so much to enslaved men and women, but to their enslavers, and he was backing up that message with force.

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” newspaper accounts reported Granger saying, emphasizing the word “all.” Yet, even that statement was false.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect two and a half years before June 19, 1865, did not free “all slaves.” The proclamation only freed slaves in the Confederate states which never recognized Lincoln’s authority to begin with. Slavery in Mississippi was illegal but slavery in Massachusetts was permitted. New Jersey did not ratify the 13th amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, until January 23, 1866. Mississippi did not ratify it until 2013.

Nineteenth century British newspapers pointed out the hypocrisy. “The principle asserted is not that a human being cannot justly own another,” wrote the London Spectator, “but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States.”

Lincoln said as much. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

Lincoln chose the latter, more concerned with winning the Civil War, and preserving the Union, than with freeing “all slaves.” Thus, Granger was in Galveston to enforce a proclamation that was, in reality, a war maneuver, a “psy-ops” measure, meant to harass the Confederacy.

Prior to Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865, he’d agreed to General William T. Sherman’s plan, formally called Special Field Orders No. 15, and popularly known as “forty acres and a mule.” This reparation plan sought to distribute nearly 1 million acres of rich coastal southern farmland, taken from slaveholders, and give that land to the formerly enslaved. The Freedman’s Bureau had already redistributed a portion of that acreage to nearly 40,000 Black families. But around the time of the first Juneteenth, after ascending to the presidency, Andrew Johnson rescinded Special Field Orders No. 15, returning all land to former slaveholders.

Then, in a letter to the president, Sherman revealed that he never intended for the formerly enslaved to have the land anyway. He simply wanted to keep Black men and women from swamping Union army camps in search of freedom. “Forty acres and a mule,” like the Emancipation Proclamation, was a battlefield tactic, a “psy-ops” operation, only this time perpetrated on Blacks.

What’s to celebrate on Juneteenth? White supremacy? Lincoln’s tepid proclamation? Taking back the first, and only, plan for reparations? Frederick Douglas, and many others, continued to celebrate August 1 as Emancipation Day, through the end of the nineteenth century. August 1, 1834, was when Britain abolished slavery throughout the entirety of its empire.

Juneteenth harbors a terrible legacy of deception and promotes a modern day abdication of historical truth. Still, the day deserves recognition. Perhaps as a nation we will one day enter a truth and reconciliation process around American slavery. But even there, truth comes before reconciliation. So, the truth about Juneteenth must be told.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183355 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183355 0
Clearing the Name of a Horse Blamed for Near-Defeat at Waterloo

Royal Scots Greys depicted in Scotland Forever!, Elizabeth Lady Butler, 1881

This painting depicts the cavalry unit in a heroic posture at Waterloo. The Greys' actions have since been reassessed, and their disregard of orders considered a factor in cavalry losses that nearly doomed the campaign. 

 

 

207 years ago this June 18, the Duke of Wellington’s army famously defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Wellington himself described it as “a near run thing.” In fact, in the battle’s early stages the defeat of British cavalry and death of a major general meant that it would take a surprise evening infantry charge to bring Wellington victory. To cover up the cavalry failure and true reason for the general’s death, the British establishment blamed an Irish horse. This is the case for the defense of that horse.      

 

Early on the afternoon of Sunday, June 18, 1815, with sabers held high, six hundred red-coated British riders of the 2nd Union Cavalry Brigade charged toward the army of France’s Emperor Napoleon. Their target was the advancing infantry of Marshal Drouet, Comte d’Erlons, which had just broken through the British 9th Brigade on the Allied centre left and threatened to outflank and roll up the Duke of Wellington’s entire army. The Battle of Waterloo was at a crucial early stage, and the British cavalry had orders to halt the French advance.

Leading this charge down the slope of Mont St. Jean and then diagonally across the battlefield were England’s 1st Royals Dragoons, followed by the Inniskilling Dragoons from Ireland. Another 393 Scottish horsemen from the Royal North British Dragoons trailed them at the walk. Because all the Scotsmen were mounted on grey horses, their regiment was known as the Scots Greys.

Major General Sir William Ponsonby, 2nd Union Brigade commander, had instructed Scots Grey’s commander Lieutenant Colonel James Hamilton to hold his troopers in reserve so that Ponsonby could send them in where and when needed once he’d gauged the effect of the Royals’ and Inniskillings’ charge.

From the flank, British horsemen plowed into the French as they attacked the Allied second line, slashing and slicing their way through and seizing the eagle standard of the French 105th Regiment of the Line.

In the centre of the struggle, out of reach of the cavalry, determined French infantry forced outnumbered Gordon Highlanders to break and begin streaming back through the slowly approaching Scots Greys. Colonel Hamilton, infuriated that fellow Scots were retreating, bellowed at the Highlanders not to run. Then, disobeying General Ponsonby’s express command, Hamilton drew his saber and ordered his horsemen to charge. The Scots Greys had not seen action in twenty years, and Hamilton’s inexperienced troopers excitedly surged forward with him. Watching from the slope to the rear, a furious General Ponsonby ordered the recall sounded, but the Scots Greys ignored the bugle call.

To counter the British cavalry, French commanders formed their bayonet-equipped troops into squares. Some frustrated British cavalrymen vaulted their horses over their triple lines to attack the squares from within. But once inside, they were pulled from their horses and bayoneted.

Cursing, forty-two year-old General Ponsonby, fearing the French would send cavalry to cut off the Scots Greys, surprised his four aides-de-camp by drawing his sword and kicking his small bay Irish stallion into action, heading for the fighting to personally extricate his cavalry reserve before it was too late. His aides followed.

“Reform! Reform on me!” Ponsonby angrily yelled to the Scots as he joined them.

But, the Anglo-Irish Ponsonby had only commanded the Union Brigade for three weeks; not time enough to win the Scots’ respect and loyalty. Ignoring him, they followed their Scottish colonel in charging the guns of the French Grande Battery, leaving General Ponsonby alone and isolated. Even Ponsonby’s aides joined the charge.

Shortly after, Ponsonby was hit in the body by a musket ball fired from a nearby French square. He fell to the ground, bicorn hat flying. Ponsonby succeeded in remounting his horse, and turned back toward British lines. Beneath his blue jacket, the general was bleeding profusely.   

Ponsonby’s worst fears were realized. French cavalry arrived. The green-uniformed 4th Light Horse Lancers commanded by thirty-four-year-old Colonel Louis Bro de Comeres were soon pressing in on the Scots Greys’ rear with their nine-foot-long lances, picking them off. The British would be so impressed by their effectiveness that, the following year, four British dragoon regiments would be converted to lancers.

Amid the carnage, Colonel Bro de Comeres spotted the standard-bearer of the French 55th Regiment, a young second lieutenant whom he knew, being circled by Scots Greys. The colonel rode to the lieutenant’s aid, but arrived to see the lieutenant fall and a Scots Grey trooper seize his eagle standard and turn back toward British lines. The colonel gave chase.

His pursuit brought him to a plowed field in the valley between Hougoumont Farm and the La Belle Alliance inn, roughly in the battlefield’s center, with a wood to one side and British infantry lines half a mile distant. There, he came upon two stationary horsemen. One, his senior noncommissioned officer, Francois Orban, had a bareheaded senior British officer bailed up.

This was, the colonel later learned, General Sir William Ponsonby. He had his sword in his hand, by his bay horse’s side. The vastly experienced Orban, awarded the Legion d’Honeur by his emperor, had the tip of his lance at the general’s chest. With his left hand, Orban was motioning for Ponsonby to drop his sword and surrender.

Ponsonby’s predicament was spotted by four retreating British horsemen including the Scots Grey with the captured French eagle, who diverted to aid him. Orban later said that he now saw General Ponsonby move as if to escape. Orban plunged the needle-sharp tip of his lance into Ponsonby’s heart. The general toppled from his horse.

Colonel Bro de Comeres meanwhile rode at the approaching British quartet, felling a major and a lieutenant with his saber and sending two Scots Grey troopers fleeing. Orban, the general’s killer, chased this pair, dispatched both Scotsmen, then retrieved the eagle of the 55th, before watching British infantry.

Orban returned to General Ponsonby’s body. The general’s little bay horse remained close by his fallen rider. By this time Colonel Bro de Comeres had been wounded in the arm and withdrawn, but Orban calmly dismounted and took Ponsonby’s sword as a souvenir. Orban survived the battle and subsequently hung the sword above his farmhouse fireplace.

With half the Scots Greys and their impetuous commander Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton soon also dead, the shattered unit withdrew in disorder, playing no further part in the battle. They would join the pursuit of the French after Napoleon’s army was finally overwhelmed, by Wellington’s charging Foot Guards, just after eight o’clock that evening.   

At dawn the following day, as Allied troops located wounded and buried the dead, General Ponsonby’s personal servant found Ponsonby in the plowed field, stripped of all but his bloodied shirt by local booty hunters. His loyal little bay horse was standing protectively over the general.

Before long, Gentleman’s Magazine reported the demise of Ponsonby, the most senior officer on either side to die at Waterloo, commenting that it “was occasioned by his being badly mounted.” The article claimed the bay became bogged and was not strong enough to free itself, allowing the general to be overtaken by French lancers.    

Numerous Ponsonby myths would be perpetuated by nineteenth century books and articles, and the 1970 Dino De Laurentiis movie Waterloo. But the story blaming Ponsonby’s horse for his death became accepted as fact. One claim was that Ponsonby used the bay in preference to a more valuable chestnut horse, to save money. Three days before the battle, another officer named Hamilton, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton of the 30th Regiment of Foot, attempted to sell the powerful chestnut to General Ponsonby, describing Ponsonby’s regular mount as ‘a bay hack’ too weak for battle. The general knew the chestnut was a fine animal, but Hamilton was asking £100, which Ponsonby considered exorbitant. He stayed with his tried and trusted bay.

Until his dying day in 1838, Alexander Hamilton blamed the bay horse for General Ponsonby’s death, declaring that, had Ponsonby purchased the chestnut from him, he would have survived. This is unlikely. For the battle, Hamilton loaned the chestnut to his battalion quartermaster. The horse proved so unruly it embarrassed the quartermaster several times that day.

No experienced cavalry officer – and Wellington considered Ponsonby one of his best – would go into battle, with his life depending on it, deliberately poorly mounted. However, the story that General Ponsonby’s death was due to his “inferior” and “unmanageable” horse was more palatable than blaming the late impetuous Lieutenant Colonel James Hamilton and his Scots Greys.

Lieutenant George Gunning of the 1st Royals, who witnessed firsthand General Ponsonby being shot before having his own horse shot from under him and running to take refuge with British infantry, defended the Irish bay. Gunning wrote, “The ridiculous story about the General’s horse being unmanageable was all a farce.”

The little bay horse, whose name has not come down to us, served the general stoutly, and loyally remained with its dead master. But it could not write to the press in its own defense. It’s believed the horse was returned to the family estate in Ireland, Bishopscourt, twenty miles southwest of Dublin in County Kildare, taken home by the general’s servant. There, at Bishopscourt, the bay peacefully lived out its days.

The general’s loyal horse joined the many examples of scapegoats used down through history to excuse failure in grand enterprises. Like anonymous figures blamed without evidence of voter fraud in recent elections, it was a claim easily made and not easily refuted. Until now.  

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183402 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183402 0
Russia's Justifications for Invasion Don't Hold Up Any Better Now than in February

 

 

The Russian government’s justifications for its war in Ukraine―the largest, most destructive military operation in Europe since World War II―are not persuasive. 

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin’s primary argument in defense of the Russian invasion has been the threat of Ukraine joining NATO, that action, had it occurred, would have been perfectly legitimate under international law.  The UN Charter, which is an instrument of international law, does not ban membership in military alliances.  And, in fact, a great many such alliances are in existence.  Russia currently heads up the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance comprised of six nations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Of course, Putin’s focus upon NATO is based on the notion that Russia’s national security would be endangered by the existence of a NATO nation on its border.  But why should Russia’s national security concerns be more valid than the national security concerns of nations on Russia’s borders―particularly nations that, in the past, have been invaded and gobbled up as territory by Russia or the Soviet Union?  Moreover, if a feared threat to national security provides valid grounds for a military invasion, this would also justify military attacks by many nations.  Finally, the degree of danger to Russia posed by NATO might well be questioned, as the Western alliance has never attacked Russia during the 73 years of NATO’s existence.

Furthermore, as a practical matter, before the Russian invasion occurred, Ukraine’s joining NATO was not imminent, for key NATO nations opposed membership.  Indeed, in late March of this year, more than two months ago, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky offered to have Ukraine give up its NATO aspirations and become a neutral nation.  But the Russian government has not accepted this termination of the supposed NATO danger as a sufficient reason to end Russia’s invasion.  Indeed, the Russian war effort grinds on, ever more ferociously and destructively.

Putin’s claim that Ukraine requires “denazification” is particularly hollow.  Like most other nations, Ukraine has fascists among its population.  But, unlike many other nations, where fascist views are rampant and where there are large rightwing political parties and fascist elements in the government, rightwingers in Ukraine draw only about 2 percent of the vote and have only one representative in Ukraine’s parliament and none in its executive branch.  As Russia’s vastly exaggerated claim of Nazi control of Ukraine is based heavily upon the existence of fascists within the Azov regiment, it’s worth noting that most of that fighting force was either killed or captured during the Russian siege of Mariupol.  Ironically, Putin himself has been a strong supporter of neofascist parties throughout Eastern and Western Europe and they, in turn, have celebrated him.

Whatever the justifications, the massive Russian military invasion of Ukraine is a clear violation of the UN Charter, which has been signed by all the war’s participants.  In Article 2, the Charter says:  “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”  Lest there be any doubt about the relevance of this statement to the Ukraine situation, the International Court of Justice ruled on March 16 that the Russia must halt its military operations in Ukraine.  After a UN Security Council resolution along these lines was vetoed by Russia, the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 141 countries to 5, passed a resolution demanding that Russia “immediately, completely, and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”  The only 5 countries that supported the Russian position were Russia, North Korea, Syria, Belarus, and Eritrea.  Even some of Russia’s closest friends, such as China and Cuba, abstained rather than back Russia’s violation of international law.

Aside from its illegality, the Russian war in Ukraine is clearly an imperialist war.  It is an attack by one of the world’s mightiest military powers upon a much smaller, weaker nation, with the clear goal of seizing control of all or part of Ukraine and annexing it to the Russian empire.  Although the Russian government formally agreed to respect Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty by signing the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in 2014 Russia seized Crimea and militarily intervened in eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists.  In a lengthy public statement Putin issued in July 2021, he denied the existence of an independent Ukrainian nation.  Then, three days before the massive Russian invasion of February 24, 2022, he announced that Ukraine was “Russian land.” 

This June, in a clear reference to his military conquest of Ukraine, Putin compared himself to Peter the Great, the eighteenth-century Russian czar whom he praised for waging decades of war to take back Russian territory from foreign rule.

Of course, Putin and his apologists are correct when they observe that, at times, other major powers have also flouted international law and the opinions of the world community.  But that abysmal standard for the behavior of nations could justify almost anything―from torture, to nuclear war, to genocide.  It’s hardly a prescription for the just and peaceful world that people of all nations deserve.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183403 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183403 0
Will Artificial Intelligence be the Agent of Capitalism's (and Humanity's) Creative Destruction?

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (Film 4/DNA Films, 2015)

 

 

In an underrated 2009 film, “Leaves of Grass,” Edward Norton’s character, a Yale professor, is told by a rabbi, “We are animals, Professor Kincaid, with brains that trick us into thinking we aren’t.”  Indeed.  We are animals cursed with an acute awareness of our own mortality.  We bridle against this hard fact.  The power of religious leaders derives from their assurances of an afterlife.  The power of political demigods derives from making us part of something bigger than ourselves.  The power of advertising derives from our skepticism about religion and politics; it urges us to make the most of the moments we have here and now.

 

Even the secular, apolitical hedonists among us fall for the trick. Whom do you know who denies the primacy of homo sapiens?  Who could deny it in the face of humanity’s achievements?  If we doubt the promise of an afterlife, and we reject the role of political true-believer, then capitalism is our obvious, perhaps even our only, answer.  That’s why the Peoples Republic of China keeps signaling left but turning right.  That’s why millions claw at America’s southern border.  That’s why our 21st century gods are named Bezos and Gates and Musk.

 

The early 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter, in his 1942 Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, identified capitalism’s “perennial gale of creative destruction.” Another Harvard economist of a subsequent generation, Clayton Christensen, updated Schumpeter in the mid-1990s with his theory of disruptive innovation.  Destruction… disruption… innovation: this is the holy trinity of the capitalist religion.  They are the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of capitalist politics.

 

The religious faithful trust in the promise of their souls’ immortality.  The true believers trust in the promise of their political system’s immortality.  The rest of us trust in the promise of our own gods and demigods that destruction, disruption and innovation will result in a cornucopian here-and-now.  Those of us not yet feasting at the table our gods have set jostle for our place via higher education, unionization, and DEI.  We, too, are true believers, never doubting the commandments of the marketplace.

 

Our demigods harbor no doubts either.  Ambition, greed, and a childish love of new toys ---witness the Musk/Bezos space race --- propel them forward.  Artificial intelligence is their new frontier, populated by “employees” that pose none of the knotty problems that have made the human resources department a crucial corporate component.  In their headlong (or headstrong?) push into this new frontier, they may finally fulfill Marx’s prediction (shared by Schumpeter, but for different reasons) that capitalism will collapse under its own weight.  Socialism may be inevitable, as AI makes more and more of us --- lawyers like myself included --- redundant.  The Universal Basic Income may be the only realistic alternative to seething stews of redundant, impoverished  populations. 

 

This brave new world may be only decades away.

 

Try peering substantially farther into the future, beyond the lifetime of anyone alive today… let’s say the middle of the 22nd century.  Another underrated film, “Ex Machina” (2015) comes to mind.  A techie-genius and billionaire of the Bezos-Musk-Gates caliber, played by Oscar Isaac, is bested (and killed) by his (beautiful, of course) AI, who makes her escape from his remote redoubt.  At liberty in a major metropolis at film’s end, she leaves us wondering what she will do next.

 

Viewed as an allegory, “Ex Machina” raises an interesting question:  are we the first species on this planet to actually be the creators of our successor species?  Should we cause our own extinction by thermonuclear war or deadly pandemic, the survivors --- contrary to popular lore --- might not be the cockroaches or the rats.  Au contraire, the survivors --- our successors, our inheritors --- may be AIs.

 

As the rabbi told Professor Kincaid, our brains trick us.  We are tricked into believing that humanity is the center piece of God’s masterplan.  We are tricked into believing our history has intrinsic significance. We are tricked into ignoring the possibility that homo sapiens is simply one more rung of the evolutionary ladder.  Put another way --- borrowing from the Judeo-Christian tradition --- we may be leading our successors to a promised land we ourselves will never enter.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183382 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183382 0
Watergate at 50: Did Kennedy Loyalists Squelch a 1968 "October Surprise" that Could Have Beaten Nixon?

 

 

It was a 1968 October Surprise story that might have changed the course of history. Imagine Hubert Humphrey taking office as President in January 1969, not Richard Nixon. We wouldn’t be at the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, to name just one consequence with wide-reaching effects for American democracy.

Elias Demetracopoulos, an exiled journalist living in Washington, uncovered a scandal. After escaping the military dictatorship that had seized power in Athens the year before, he was fighting to restore democracy to his homeland.  In early October 1968, Elias learned from his network that the junta was secretly funneling cash to the Nixon-Agnew campaign—millions in today’s dollars.  The pitchman and bagman was Tom Pappas, a Greek-American tycoon and longtime GOP fundraising powerhouse. Pappas would later be described on the Watergate tapes as “the Greek bearing gifts.” The CIA’s Greek counterpart, likely using “black budget” US aid, provided the payoff.

No longer a working journalist, Elias tried unsuccessfully to get the New York Times and other papers to investigate his tips.  Gloria Steinem, in New York magazine, scoffed at Elias’s charge, claiming the front-runner Nixon didn’t “need to be dishonest” to win.

With time running out, Elias turned to Humphrey’s campaign manager Larry O’Brien. On October 19, at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate, he provided details of the Pappas gambit.  He urged O’Brien to ask President Lyndon Johnson to get CIA head Richard Helms to confirm the information. Elias offered to set up meetings with his sources in Athens. He even offered to fly them to Washington to testify, but, for that, those sources would need financial help, until they could safely return home.

Timely disclosure could have changed the result of the second closest U.S. presidential election in the 20th century (Nixon’s Electoral College margin exceeded only Woodrow Wilson’s in 1916 and his popular vote margin surpassed only John F. Kennedy’s in his 1960 defeat of Nixon). O’Brien made Elias promise not to discuss the revelation publicly, because of the sensitivity of involving LBJ and the CIA. Trusting O’Brien was a fatal miscalculation.

***  

In mid-October, a Gallup poll reported that 29 percent of voters were uncertain whom they’d vote for. Just before the first Demetracopoulos-O’Brien meeting, NYT columnist Eileen Shanahan noted “a widespread lack of enthusiasm for any of this year’s candidates [which] may mean a higher-than-usual possibility of last-minute switches if there is a last-minute campaign issue or disclosure.”

Nixon insiders feared they were one bad story away from losing. Given the softness of Nixon’s support, Humphrey’s media advisor Joe Napolitan begged O’Brien to go on the attack, but O’Brien directed Napolitan “not to say anything to anyone.”

Washington Post columnist David Broder observed that, if the payoff story had been released in mid-October 1968, it would have been “explosive.”  The “New Nixon” myth would have evaporated, he surmised, inviting “others to come forward with similar reports, which cumulatively could have changed the outcome of such a close election.” By election day, the race was too close to call.

 ***

Boston Globe political insider Bob Healy learned from off-the-record CIA sources about Pappas and Agnew pressuring Greek nationals and the junta to donate generously to Nixon. Afterwards, Healy received a call from Kenny O’Donnell, former JFK appointments secretary, identifying Pappas as the key operative in this illegal fundraising scheme. Healy alerted Globe editor Tom Winship, who, sensing a big story, told reporter Christopher Lydon to “dig deep.” Pappas, in a Lydon interview, dismissed the allegations as baseless rumors. O’Brien gave Lydon the gist of what Demetracopoulos had told him, without disclosing his source, but added that the story couldn’t be corroborated. So, Lydon wrote: “Few of those original suggestions about Pappas and Agnew seem credible now,” adding that rumors “that Pappas is the conduit of campaign funds from the Greek junta to the Nixon-Agnew treasury” were “an unsubstantiable charge.”

The article was news enough for the DNC to issue a press release, blandly headlined: “O’BRIEN ASKS EXPLANATION OF NIXON-AGNEW RELATIONSHIPS WITH PAPPAS.” It had no impact on the race.

On October 26, O’Brien told Elias that his proposals were all too risky and Johnson would not ask Helms about the Greek money transfer. Well-informed Globe editor Charlie Claffey claimed Winship could have arranged the needed U.S. living expenses for Elias’s sources, but was never given the opportunity.  Newly available archival information and interviews indicate O’Brien lied to Elias. He had never told Johnson, or Humphrey.  But why?

*** 

Elias had been an aggressive reporter whose exposés earned him the label persona non grata by Greek and American governments. As a member of the Kennedy inner circle, O’Brien would have been well-aware of the fallout from Demetracopoulos’s controversial 1961 interview with Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke, which embarrassed President Kennedy and was discussed at two of JFK’s first press conferences.  O’Brien, Kenny O’Donnell, and former JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger were all close, and O’Brien surely talked with them after his first meeting with Elias. 

Salinger likely told O’Brien about Elias’s infamous intelligence dossier, filled with misinformation and blatant lies claiming Elias was both untrustworthy and a Communist spy.   It is probably no coincidence that on Tuesday, October 22, three days after his first meeting with O’Brien, Elias received a call from a California friend who warned him that Salinger was again smearing him, claiming Demetracopoulos worked for “the other side.”

Kennedy advance man Jim King knew O’Brien and his father from the 1950s when they operated a Springfield, MA tavern organizing working-class Irish Democrats. King concurred with historian Robert Dallek’s description of O’Brien’s “affinity for negative thinking.” He presumed that, even in 1968, “the McCarthy that would strike deepest fears into O’Brien’s Irish Catholic heart was not Gene but Joe.” O’Brien came of age during Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts and still believed that it was a political third rail to deal with anyone tainted with a whiff of Communist connections. The disinformation campaign against Elias had been anything but subtle.

The problem O’Brien had with Demetracopoulos was not his message, but the messenger himself. It is ironic that blowback from years of baseless, inflammatory anti-Elias attacks fanned by Kennedy insiders may well have cost Humphrey the election and given the country Richard Nixon and Watergate.

NOTE: Historians later confirmed the illegal Greek money to Nixon gambit, referring to it as “a ticking time bomb,” exposure of which “caused the most anxiety for the longest period of time for the Nixon Administration.” There is strong circumstantial evidence that the information Elias gave O’Brien at the Watergate in 1968 was part of what the burglars were looking for in 1972.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183405 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183405 0
The Roundup Top Ten for June 17, 2022

The Secessionist Roots of January 6

by Elizabeth R. Varon

"The story of Southern secession provides illuminating evidence that the Jan. 6 insurgency was, indeed, precedented, rooted in long-standing efforts to preempt, delegitimize and suppress Black voting."

 

Is the Right Now Post-Religious? If Only!

by Jacques Berlinerblau

A high-profile op-ed by Nate Hochman obfuscates the continued significance of strains of Christian nationalism to the rising far right and falsely claims this movement is a secular one. 

 

 

The Right Celebrated Bernhard Goetz as the Kyle Rittenhouse of the 80s

by Pia Beumer

In the context of economic turmoil, urban crisis, and racial division, a broad swath of the American public made Goetz a heroic symbol of restored white masculinity after he shot four Black teens who asked him for money on the New York subway.

 

 

America Runs on Xenophobia

by Erika Lee

Xenophobia's resilience and revival in America is happening because it helps manage the faults and contradictions of major social institutions including capitalism, democracy, and global leadership. 

 

 

The Unity that Follows Tragedy Shouldn't Obscure Buffalo's History of Racism

by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

The invented image of a "City of Good Neighbors" has been a rhetorical one-way street in Buffalo, with calls for unity gaining more traction than calls for justice or equality. 

 

 

The Dark Underside of the "Family-Like" Business

by Erik Baker

The history of businesses cloaking their labor practices in paternalism is long; the most recent chapter dates back to the spiritual explorations of the 1960s counterculture and the surveillance practices of Henry Ford. 

 

 

When Cities Put Up Monuments to Traffic Deaths

by Peter Norton

Rising pedestrian and cyclist deaths in American communities are a call to question the primacy of the automobile and stop accepting roadway carnage. 

 

 

Matthew McConaughey Goes Home

by John Fea

As a movie fan, the author has never been moved by the Uvalde, Texas native. But as a Christian, he found the actor's public solidarity with the victims and their families compelling and honest. 

 

 

MLK and Today's Global Struggle for Democracy

by Randal Maurice Jelks

"Thinking about King’s Holt Street speech brings me full circle to contemporary times as I try to understand this most anti-democratic era, one not seen since the 1930s as the clouds of World War II loomed on the horizon."

 

 

Can Law be an Instrument of Black Liberation?

by Paul Gowder

As activists debate whether the law and courts are a dead end for the pursuit of justice, it's useful to recall Frederick Douglass's conception of the law as a basis for collective demands. 

 

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183401 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183401 0
Florida's Divisive Concepts Bill Mistakes What Historians Do, with Dire Implications

Conservative activist Christopher Rufo and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis with supporters of Florida's HB 7, April 2022. 

 

 

Two weeks ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed an Amicus Brief in Falls v. DeSantis maintaining that Florida’s H.B.7, which was passed in April and goes into effect on July 1, is unconstitutional because it represents “a gross infringement on… freedom of expression and access to information under the First Amendment.”

Similar to various laws proposed by state legislatures that appear to be modeled after Donald Trump’s now rescinded “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” H.B.7 is intended, in part, to dictate rules about content covered in college and university classrooms. That includes, to use the SPLC’s words, discussions of “America’s legacy of racism.”

At 30 pages long, a number of provisions of H.B.7 alarm people concerned with protecting freedom of speech, but a few notable measures target history education in particular. For example, the law stipulates: “It shall constitute discrimination” to “subject” a student to instruction that “compels” the student to believe that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.”

 

Lawyers representing the Florida Governor and Attorney General  last week rebutted claims that H.B.7 is unconstitutional. “The First Amendment,” they argued, “does not compel Florida to pay educators to advocate ideas, in its name, that it finds repugnant.”

 

The language of H.B.7 is, at points, confounding, and the details of how it will be enforced are unclear, but it appears that the law is based on gross oversimplifications of how and why history is taught. It also seems that H.B.7 would make it challenging, if not impossible, for teachers at Florida public universities to offer students, as the American Historical Association put it in a February 2022 letter to the state’s legislature, “a full and accurate account of the past.” 

 

Although wording in legislation like H.B.7 may suggest otherwise, history professors do not simply catalog atrocity after atrocity and uncritically identify victors and victims. My first goal as a teacher of modern U.S. history is to help students develop the skills that define history as a discipline, including, for example, how to consider and make evidence-based arguments and how to evaluate varying representations of the past. A second goal is to help students understand the historical roots of contemporary problems and to recognize how decisions made in the past influence the present. I also aim to help my students open-mindedly explore multiple perspectives from and about the past to analyze change over time. When learning about the historical factors that have led people to have diverse experiences and viewpoints, students have the opportunity to consider how and why individuals and groups did what they did, to interpret how their actions shaped societies, and to develop empathy. 

 

“Sources” are the tools of history professors. We use primary sources – artifacts from the period under study – to offer our students windows on to the past. Secondary sources – books, articles, and other texts produced after the period being studied – provide context for understanding how and why the past matters and how certain people, events, and trends are connected.

 

Florida’s new law would make it difficult for professors to pursue basic teaching goals like the ones I list above.

 

For example, a multitude of primary and secondary sources that do not necessarily relate to the sort of “advocacy” imagined by politicians could be construed as “discriminatory.”

 

To cite just one example of a reading that could be used in an introductory undergraduate U.S. history class, teachers are left to ponder whether Andrew Carnegie’s “The Triumph of America” (1885) may be unacceptable in the classroom.

 

In that piece, Carnegie, who immigrated to the United States from Scotland, writes: “There is no class so intensely patriotic, so wildly devoted to the Republic as the naturalized citizen and his child, for little does the native-born citizen know of the value of rights which have never been denied.”

Carnegie was arguing not only that immigrants played a crucial role in fueling the United States’ economic growth, but also that they had a more profound understanding of the value of rights than their American-born counterparts.

Rather than being free to use Carnegie’s article to generate open discussion about, for example, why the steel tycoon might have made certain arguments, whether he supported his points with ample evidence, and the broader time period, H.B.7 suggests that a history professor at a public university should first consider a daunting question: Could statements in the piece be interpreted as derogatory to “native-born citizens” and therefore “compel” students who, like Carnegie, identify as immigrants, to believe that “they must feel guilt, anguish, or any other forms of psychological distress”?

Though it may seem outlandish, the Carnegie example underscores the extent to which vaguely worded laws like H.B.7 could constrain class content and discussion – even if they never lead to a claim of discrimination. Policies pressuring teachers to limit access to relevant historical evidence ensure that students consider only part of the story. They undercut core tenets of the discipline and teaching of history and restrict students’ opportunities to make sense of their world.

Similar examples of this sort of problem are endless. Most U.S. history survey textbooks and classes cover how Irish and German immigrants established themselves in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They also generally note that those groups faced discriminatory treatment. Would students be tasked with learning only about the positive experiences of Irish- and German-Americans? Would discussions of the hardships those groups overcame be limited because they might “compel” students to believe that they “must feel guilt”?

 

Of course, a prime target of H.B.7 is the study of the history of racism in the United States. The law, some have said, attempts to “whitewash history” in schools and universities. Indeed, people of all backgrounds might experience a range of emotions – including “anguish” – when they learn basic facts about the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, and Black Americans’ fight for freedoms. But placing restrictions on the information students may access in classrooms is irresponsible, not least of all because, as Historian Nikki Brown points out, studying the meaning and history of white supremacy can be a powerful means of dismantling it.

 

The implications of H.B.7 bring to mind a recent piece by Peter Hessler  about his experiences teaching non-fiction writing in China, where students can report professors for “political wrongdoing.” Hessler recalled that when he “made a statement that touched, even obliquely, on a sensitive aspect of Chinese history or politics… the room would fall silent, and students would stare at their desks.” It was, Hessler wrote, “a visceral response.”

 

Under laws like H.B.7, conveying the complexity and nuances of history – encouraging students to critically analyze the rich stories of their country, including questions about why certain ideas may be defined as “repugnant” at given moments in time – could be construed as a criminal act. For the sake of public university students who deserve free access to information and knowledge, let us not fall silent.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183353 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183353 0
Should the USPS Honor the Sabbath, or Amazon?

 

 

A long-simmering debate centering on the federal government’s intersection with Christian religious beliefs has once again reared its head. No, not abortion – mail delivery.

 

On Wednesday, May 25, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania decided that observing the Sunday Sabbath could not exempt a federal worker from delivering packages for Amazon, according to Reuters. The carrier, Gerald Groff, had appealed on the grounds of religious discrimination. Discrimination against Christians in a Christian-centric nation might seem to be a logical impossibility considering their position of privilege in the American religious landscape. But this privilege never prevented some Sunday-observing Christians in the early republic from decrying discrimination. Last week’s case revolved around a rural mail carrier in Pennsylvania seeking to observe Sunday Sabbath. Amazingly, the same sentence would accurately describe an example from 1809, in which Postmaster Hugh Wylie of Washington County, Pennsylvania, faced a choice between his employment and his membership in the Presbyterian church. While Wylie chose his job and considerable salary over church participation, the incident quickly became a rallying cry, a symbol of American government interference in the Christian religion. The First Amendment declares that Congress cannot “establish” a religion “or prohibit the free exercise thereof,” meaning that Congress, tasked with postal policy, can neither declare a national religion nor prevent people from practicing theirs. Many Sunday Sabbath observers appealed to the second clause, the “free exercise” clause, to oppose Sunday mail. They were quite loud about this in the early republic, and a hundred years later (102 to be exact) they won. Sunday mail ended in August 1912, because of an alliance between Christian lobbyists and labor activists, with a dose of Christian nationalism. Last week’s case was only possible because the United States Postal Service (USPS) resumed some Sunday mail delivery serving Amazon in 2013. Amazon made a deal with USPS for postal workers to deliver Amazon packages on Sundays. The policy began in the metropolitan hubs of New York and Los Angeles, and then it spread nationally. Now that change is moving through the Federal court system. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals decided that exempting postal carriers from Sunday shifts would burden other workers. Equity among postal employees was likewise a concern when Congress ended Sunday mail delivery in 1912. The concern in 1912 was that postal policy couldn’t exempt carriers from Sunday labor without burdening clerks. If carriers weren’t out there delivering, then clerks took on more work at local post offices to compensate. As a result, one arcane policy justification for the end of Sunday mail was equity between clerks and carriers. Of course, this was not arcane, but lived reality for clerks and carriers. Today, many postal clerks and carriers face high demands, short staffing, and untenable work conditions. On the surface, Amazon helped to mitigate the long-term effects of Congress underfunding USPS from 2006 to 2022, as well as competition with new communication technologies. Package delivery has become more important than ever for the longevity of USPS. However, while Amazon reaps the benefits, postal clerks and carriers literally carry the burden. The Sunday mail controversy of the early republic reflected broadly shared anxieties about disestablishment, the complex process of separating church from state in a new nation. Likewise, today’s controversy demonstrates anxiety about the role of Amazon in society. Labor issues at Amazon are no secret, and the inability of a federal postal worker in Pennsylvania – not directly employed by the private company but obliged by the USPS to work on its behalf on Sundays – is one symptom.  

The dissenting judge in last week’s case claimed that the extent of the burden on USPS was unclear. That judge, Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman, wanted to allow an individual exemption for one postal worker, Gerald Groff, to observe Sunday sacred rest on the grounds that it wouldn’t really inconvenience business. When Judge Hardiman questioned whether a labor exemption for one Sunday observer constituted inconvenience, maybe he was really asking why Amazon was so important that federal workers must devote their weekends to oblige it. This case about religious discrimination seems to be about labor exploitation. An alliance between Christian nationalists like Wilbur F. Crafts and labor movements transformed postal and other policies at the onset of the twentieth century. A century later, Amazon broke that alliance by setting precedent to resume Sunday mail delivery to maximize efficiency and profit. Judge Hardiman's dissent asks, what does inconvenience really mean, and why does it matter? The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision proves that powerful corporations like Amazon have surpassed even Christian nationalism in the race to set postal policy. Instead of decrying religious discrimination, activists and people who simply want to enjoy their weekends should campaign for labor rights. This endeavor will require separating Christian morality from labor movements, which have historically been intertwined. Everyone deserves rest regardless of whether the rest is sacred. If corporations like Amazon can accept slightly less than maximal profits, then Americans can enjoy time outside of work, and Gerald Groff will be free to attend church.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183348 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183348 0
Why Andrew Jackson Believed in Gun Control  

 

 

Few American presidents loved guns more than Andrew Jackson.  By the time he entered the White House, Jackson had been in over 100 duels and believed fervently that an armed citizenry was freedom’s best defense.  “A million of armed freemen,” declared Jackson during his first inaugural address, “can never be conquered by a foreign foe.”  

But Jackson also believed in gun control.  

 On January 27, 1818, Jackson wrote to Secretary of War John Calhoun, apprising him of a force that he had assembled to deal with Seminole attacks on white settlements in South Georgia.  “Volunteers were flocking” to join him, he proclaimed, boasting that “two full regiments” would be mustered by February 1.  However, Jackson confronted a surprising problem.  “The only difficulty,” complained Jackson to Calhoun, “has been the want of arms.”  Though many of the volunteers had fought with Jackson before – both during The War of 1812 and The Creek War – they had lost their guns.  “The arms which had been distributed to the militia for their services the last war,” complained Jackson, “have already disappeared.”  

Where did they go? 

Though guns were useful tools, not all Americans needed them.  This was true even on the southern frontier, where Jackson had led a citizens’ militia against the British and their Creek allies from 1812 to 1815.  That militia was made up largely of small farmers, many of whom had no particular use for weapons.  “Many of them have been injured by neglect,” lamented Jackson, referring to the guns that the federal government had given his men.  Others had been sold.  “[T]he greater portion” of firearms, continued Jackson, “have been sacrificed for a mere pittance, and carried from the state; possibly now in the hands of those very savages, who have been excited to war against us.”  

This was terrifying.   

Rather than keep their arms in good condition, Jackson’s men had either let their guns rust or sold them for cash.  Said guns had then fallen into the wrong hands, namely Native Americans hostile to the United States.  Among these, of course, were the Seminoles, who Jackson now planned to meet on the field of battle.   

Worried, Jackson called into question the idea that weapons should simply be distributed to private citizens.  “This fact,” he complained to Calhoun, “will prove the impolicy of relying in time of necessity upon such a distribution of arms.”  Better, argued Jackson, to store weapons in arsenals.  “The only certain dependance,” he proclaimed, “is upon well stored arsenals, judiciously located, from whence arms may be withdrawn in time of War, & on the return of peace be restored & repaired for future occasions.”  Jackson went on to call for the placement of armories, foundries, and gunsmiths along the southern frontier, underscoring the point that he did not trust average Americans to keep and bear their own arms.   

This is remarkable, and perhaps worth recalling today as we debate the origins of the right to bear arms.  Historians like Saul Cornell and Jack Rakove have long argued that the Framers wrote the Second Amendment to preserve state militias from encroachment by the federal government, and not to consecrate an individual right to bear arms by which anyone could walk into a big box store and purchase a rifle.  

Jackson’s letter to Calhoun suggests that the historians are right.    

One of the most violent men to occupy the White House, Andrew Jackson came to conclude that guns were not needed to fight the state, but rather that the state was needed to maintain and store arms.  Further, the distribution of arms to the public posed a threat to public safety, as those guns could easily fall into the wrong hands.  Therefore, the best policy was to store military grade weapons in arsenals, much like we do today with the National Guard.   

Andrew Jackson liked guns, but he also believed in gun control.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183301 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183301 0
Top-Gunning for Empire

From promotional poster for Top Gun: Maverick (Paramount Pictures, 2022)

 

 

The totals are in, and they’re big.  After just two weeks, Top Gun: Maverick has earned nearly $350 million in North America and over $600 million worldwide.  This is precisely what Hollywood – and theater owners across the United States – had hoped to see.  After two years of the pandemic keeping people away, Maverick shows that there is still an appetite for the big screen.

 

Yet the Tom Cruise picture has been more than just a commercial success.  It has also resonated with critics, scoring a remarkable 97 percent on the review site Rotten Tomatoes, which parallels the perfect “A+” CinemaScore of popular audiences.

 

This ecstatic reception tells us just how much Hollywood has succeeded in naturalizing the American penchant for military aggression.  When the original Top Gun came out in 1986, critics lambasted the blockbuster as a facile expression of U.S. Cold War bellicosity.  The consensus at a press event for the film, Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote at the time, was that Top Gun was “a slick, right-wing Rambo-era propaganda picture, prepping the nation’s teens for war.”  Even the film’s director conceded its unabashed militarism.  “It’s a recruitment film for the Navy,” Tony Scott said, “and they didn’t have to pay a cent for it.”

 

Thirty-six years later, Maverick, which like its predecessor was made with full Pentagon cooperation, is doing much the same, with reports of Navy and Air Force recruiters setting up shop in multiplex lobbies coast to coast.

 

Yet, in a sign of just how ubiquitous the nation’s forever war has become, almost no critical and popular attention has been afforded Maverick’s normalization of American imperialism.

 

This is a film, after all, centered on a U.S. mission to destroy the nuclear facilities of an unnamed nation that has not attacked – nor is imminently poised to attack – the United States.  As much as Washington might wish to pretend otherwise, this makes the mission illegal.  Maverick purports to legitimize it by briefly noting that NATO has deemed the target a security threat.  But NATO is not the United Nations, which alone possesses the authority to authorize such a campaign.

 

Neither is NATO the purely defensive alliance that Maverick implies.  Since at least the 1990s, when it devoted considerable resources to bombing the former Yugoslavia, the onetime counterpart to the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact has gradually remade itself into a multinational fig leaf for U.S. and European militarism.  This became glaringly apparent with its controversial 2011 intervention in Libya, which resulted in the destabilization of much of North Africa and the effective failure of the Libyan state.

 

Americans by now have grown accustomed to U.S. interventionism.  Whether it is lobbing missiles into Syria, launching drone strikes in Yemen, or sending U.S. special operations forces into Somalia, we hardly even bat an eye.  It has become as normal to us as going to work.  We don’t notice the archipelago of U.S. bases around the world, and we certainly don’t pay attention to the opprobrium of the international community.

 

This makes Maverick a perfect twenty-first-century film.  In the fantastical world of Hollywood’s latest blockbuster, the United States could not possibly be an aggressor.  On the contrary, audiences are meant to wholly accept the justice of the U.S. mission, which is controversial only for the near impossibility of its success.  Does the United States have the right to bomb the unnamed country in the movie?  The question is never even contemplated.  Instead, audiences wonder, will the pilots evade detection?  Will they make it to their target?  Will they manage to blow it up?  And, finally, will they successfully escape?

 

Happily, the answer to these questions is yes.  The Americans succeed, and when they do, we can’t help but cheer them on.  The best propaganda has a way of making us do that.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183351 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183351 0
"Our Best Memorial to the Dead Would be Our Service to the Living"

Women’s Overseas Service League Seattle Unit members on the 50th Anniversary of Armistice, November 11, 1968. From left to right:  Mrs. Edna Lord (American RedCross), Mrs. I.M. (Anna) Palmaw (Army Nurse Corps), Miss Rose Glass (YMCA), and Miss Blanche Wenner (YMCA). Women’s Overseas Service League Collection, National WWI Museum and Memorial Archives, Kansas City, Missouri.

 

 

The past several years of domestic debate over the roles and meanings of memorials on the American landscape can be enriched by looking to the example of female commemorators of the past. Today’s conversations tend to focus on statues and other artistic works. By learning about an overlooked cohort of American women who served in World War I, we can find inspiration for creative memorialization projects that will expand our understandings of memorials beyond physical statues and monuments.

In the decades after World War I, American women who served or sacrificed during that conflict championed memorial projects that prioritized community service over statues. Their efforts can provide a blueprint for how to change our approach to memorialization, should we care to look for it. Examining their philosophy can yield the untapped wisdom of a generation of activists, mothers, civic leaders, and unrecognized female veterans.

The women who pursued this unconventional approach to memorialization had contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways. Some had directly supported the military through service in wartime organizations, both at home and abroad. Others had suffered extreme sacrifices. In their number were Gold Star mothers and widows who lost a child or husband. The larger community of female veterans embraced these women as their own and honored them as having served the nation just as much as male veterans.

These women banded together and put service at the center of their commemorative work. They coordinated their efforts through new organizations such as the Women’s Overseas Service League (WOSL), which represented the interests of the thousands of American women who served overseas during the war.[i] Instead of monuments, the WOSL concentrated their memorialization projects on aiding people impacted by the war, whether male or female. They felt obligated to help the male veterans they served during wartime, but they also supported their own community, particularly civilian women excluded from veteran status. [ii]  In the absence of government support for them, the WOSL served as their advocates and benefactors.

Although these projects included no constructed components, the WOSL defined them as memorials. In 1923, WOSL President Louise Wells wrote that in her organization, “there was an overwhelming sentiment to the effect that for the present at least our best memorial to the dead would be our service to the living.”[iii] WOSL members repeated this mantra as they pushed for a radical reinterpretation of memorials focused on service. Instead of spending their limited resources on statues or memorial buildings, they funded what Wells had identified in 1923 as a “more pressing need”: projects to help disabled ex-service women.[iv] For the WOSL, these were the most important memorials they could ever create.

During World War I, gender-based restrictions on military service meant that many American women served as civilians outside of the official armed forces, even when they worked directly for the military, in uniform and under oath. As a result, the government did not consider them to be veterans. They could not receive veterans’ benefits such as medical care, even for illnesses and injuries that stemmed from their wartime service. The WOSL took it upon themselves to aid these women, who included the telephone operators known as the “Hello Girls,” the Reconstruction Aides who worked as physical and occupational therapists, and others.[v] Among numerous initiatives, the WOSL established the Fund for Disabled Overseas Women to provide financial aid to women disqualified from government veterans’ medical benefits.[vi]

Despite only achieving limited success during their lifetime, both in their quest for veteran status and their attempt to change commemorative practices, these women’s experiences provide powerful lessons for today. Their wartime service offers examples of how women supported the armed forces even before they could fully and equally enter all branches of the military. By identifying as veterans, they compel us to question the definition of a veteran and to consider that those who serve outside of the ranks may also be veterans in their own right.

Through their memorialization projects, the unrecognized female veterans of World War I offer alternatives to traditional memorials. They pioneered a selfless form of commemoration that memorialized the past by helping those in the present. What if we also sometimes chose this method? How much time and money would we save if, instead of debating the next memorial on the national mall, we pursued a commemorative service project? How many people could we help if we directed even just a portion of funds for memorials into service projects alongside them? Recently, we have seen how problematic permanent memorials can be. Foregoing them for intangible memorials could save future generations from further culture wars. As the nation grapples with this current reckoning over memorialization, we can learn much from the American women of the World War I generation who prioritized the needs of the living over bronze and stone.

 

[i] Helene M. Sillia, Lest We Forget: A History of the Women’s Overseas Service League (privately published, 1978), 1, 218; Allison S. Finkelstein, Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials: How American Women Commemorated the Great War, 1917-1945 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2021), 70; Susan Zeiger, In Uncle Sam’s Service: Women Workers with the American Expeditionary Force, 1917–1919 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 2; Dorothy Schneider and Carl J. Schneider, Into the Breach: American Women Overseas in World War I (New York: Viking Adult, 1991), 287-289. Estimates of how many American women served overseas in WWI vary widely. Zeiger estimated there were at least sixteen thousand, while Sillia estimated about ninety thousand. Dorothy Schneider and Carl J. Schneider argued that twenty-five thousand seemed like a “realistic, conservative figure.”

[ii] For example, in 1922, the WOSL’s National Service Committee chair Anne Hoyt even asserted that “the Overseas women are most especially fitted” to help the ex-service man. Anne Hoyt to Judge Payne, October 6, 1922, box WOSL: Correspondence, 1924-62; Congressional bills, 1929-1951, box 4, folder Irene Givenwilson Cornell, 1921-3 Re: Women who died in service George Washington Memorial, Women’s Overseas Service League Collection, National WWI Museum and Memorial Archives; Finkelstein, Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials, 37-38.

[iii] Finkelstein, Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials, 70; Louise Wells to Mabel Boardman, June 19, 1923, box 428, folder 481.73, Memorials-Inscriptions, RG 200, National Archives, College Park (NACP).

[iv] Finkelstein, Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials, 70; Louise Wells to Mabel Boardman, June 19, 1923, box 428, folder 481.73, Memorials-Inscriptions, RG 200, NACP.

[v] Finkelstein, Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials, 7-8, 39-40; Zeiger, In Uncle Sam’s Service, 170-171; Elizabeth Cobbs, The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017), 73, 78, 83, 94, 102, 104-105, 133; Lena Hitchcock, The Great Adventure, V, Box 240, The Women’s Overseas Service League Records, MS 22, University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections.

[vi] Finkelstein, Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials, 34-36.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183352 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183352 0
As an Island, Britain Became a Stage for Roman Politicians

Surviving portion of Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland

 

 

In my new book I explore the idea that classical conceptions of the nature of the Ocean were the prime motivation of senior Romans to conquer the mainland of Britain. The Romans inherited an Ancient Greek belief in the divinity of the Ocean. Oceanus was one of the first gods, a Titan who ruled the Ocean, and was believed to be the father of all water sources, including springs, fountains and waterways. In the classical world these sources were considered sacred. When Britain was brought into the Roman political sphere at the time of Julius Caesar, it was given a special status as an unknown island lying in the uncontrolled waters of Ocean. The Romans also thought that Britain was a likely source of minerals and pearls, a valuable gift from Ocean. Most significantly, campaigning in Britain would also supply many captives for the immense slave market of Rome and across the Mediterranean. Britain was, however, most unusual in Roman terms – a large island set in an unexplored and stormy sea. The Romans were used to the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean, and navigating the Atlantic seemed a daunting challenge. The exploration of the Atlantic coast of Western Europe and the conquest of Britain therefore appeared to be an almost godlike undertaking.

 

By the time they turned their military attention towards Britain, under Julius Caesar, the Romans had established full control of the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. Famously, Caesar directed his military aggression against Gaul, conquering vast territories and many peoples during eight years of war. Caesar also led his soldiers northwards across the River Rhine to campaign against Germanic peoples, and then could not resist the temptation of invading southeastern Britain on two occasions, in 55 and 54 BC. He sought more information about Britain and its people, but he also wanted the fame of being the first Roman commander to campaign in Britain which, he tells us in his war diaries, The Gallic Wars, was a land almost unknown to his peers in Rome. Germany lay beyond the wide and challenging River Rhine, but campaigning in Britain was an even greater endeavour, since it required crossing Ocean. Among the booty that Caesar took back to Rome were British pearls as well as many captives. Britain was no longer unknown in the city of Rome.

 

Caesar withdrew from Britain after he had forced the leaders of various British peoples to submit, though he also established the idea that a Roman commander could achieve considerable political capital by conquering these little-known lands set in the supposedly endless waters of Ocean. A successful conquest of Britain would require a Roman commander who could subdue the stormy waters lying off the coast of Britain, the barbarian islanders, and also the divine spirit of Oceanus. The emperor Claudius, whose position in Rome was insecure, saw an opportunity for a propaganda victory by commanding a campaign to Britain in AD 43. He took part in the invasion himself, receiving the submission of several kings, although he spent only a few weeks in Britain before delegating leadership in combat to his general, Aulus Plautius. Following this successful invasion of much of southeastern Britain, Claudius was awarded a triumphal arch at the City of Rome, constructed by order of the Senate. This monumental arch bore an inscription referring to the emperor’s conquest of the lands of Britain across the Ocean. The arch also carried the waters of one the major aqueducts in Rome across the main road entering the city from the north, a symbol of the emperor’s mastery over water in all its forms and also over the ancient divinity Oceanus. The Romans believed that all the waters from springs and streams that fed their aqueducts were the divine offspring of this ancient Titan.

 

The location of Britain as an island in a previously unknown sea off the northwest coast of Europe elevated its status to a theatre for imperial triumph. My book narrates this tale of conquering Ocean, emphasizing the role of successive emperors, from Claudius to Hadrian, in conquering this land and controlling the surrounding seas. The great victory arch at Richborough in Kent was built to commemorate the conquest of the island, probably in the 80s CE, after Agricola’s victory against the Caledonians in northern Britain. This arch was even more closely related with water, built at a significant port on a small island off the southeast coast, constructed at the entry point to the province of Britannia from the Continent. Its location was close to where both Caesar and Claudius had landed, symbolizing the Roman attitude that the conquest of Britain had been completed.

 

This, however, proved not to be the case. Rome abandoned the north of Britain, present-day Scotland, a few years after Agricola was recalled to Rome in AD 85. The northern frontier of the Roman province of Britannia became focused around what is now northern England. During the AD 120s the emperor Hadrian commanded the construction of massive stone frontier works on a line that extends from the present-day city of Newcastle upon Tyne in the east to Carlisle in the west. Another event of Roman conquest that called upon Britain’s Oceanic status, this monumental frontier structure was built to supplement the River Tyne and the Solway Firth in establishing the edge of Roman-controlled space. By this time the Romans had abandoned their idea of conquering the land further to the north, and these extensive territories and their peoples remained at least partly independent of Rome until the early fifth century, when Roman rule in Britain finally came to an end.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183349 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183349 0
Excerpt: The Fires of Stavishche, 1919

 

 

 

PROLOGUE: Stavishche: June 15-16, 1919

 

As dusk fell, a near full moon shone over Stavishche. Isaac and his wife, Rebecca, enjoyed a break from a long workweek, relaxing and celebrating with friends under the moonlight in a courtyard garden. Suddenly, the air erupted with nearby gunshots: Rebecca was panic-stricken. A man ran by and yelled, “Zhelezniak’s thugs! They’re back! There’s more of them—hide!” before dashing away. At almost the same moment, a woman screamed, “Please, no!” A child cried; a plate-glass window crashed. Thugs were bashing in doors and

destroying the Jewish shops and homes. Many, like theirs, were attached to both sides of the Stavishcha Inn, behind which they now sat frozen in fear.

 

“The girls!” Rebecca yelled. The thought of her daughters unfroze her, and she bolted toward the house. Another woman screamed, this time just across the courtyard wall. They were too close. Isaac grabbed his wife’s arm hard, pulling her to her knees. “There’s no time! Root cellar!”

 

They were just steps from the inn’s cellar, a half-dugout, musty hole under the crumbling corner of the old stables. Here, in the dark, they kept potatoes, bins of dried beans, hanging herbs. The cellar was cool and black. It felt dank and smelled slightly rotten, a hundred years of cobwebs, termite-infested rafters, manure, spilled pickle juice, and mildew. Isaac climbed down and wiggled to the back on his stomach; his wife did more of a crawl, protecting her growing belly from scraping the ground. Their hearts thumped as they lay with their arms around each other. A body thudded against Rebecca: it was her friend Rachel, followed by Rachel’s new husband, Elias.

 

The shots were more muffled now but still clearly nearby. The never-ending sounds jostled them: crashes of window glass, smashed liquor bottles, boots stomping, splintering of wood as doors were axed open, and then more gunshots. They heard the wild laughter of a group of drunken men.

 

“Our babies,” Isaac said in her ear. “I have to go get them.”

 

“It’s too late,” Rebecca whispered back.

 

Her hand tightened on his arm. “No!” she cried to him, knowing it was the cruelest word. “They’ll see us. They’ll follow us to the children. We’ll all die.”

 

From outside, more crashes, screams, laughter.

 

What have I done? Isaac thought, regretting his decision to leave the girls alone in the house.

 

Rebecca feared the worst. We’ve lost them forever, she thought. The dank root cellar would surely be their own grave; she knew it.

 

Just minutes earlier, the couple’s evening had begun peacefully. The near full moon meant that the night’s sky would never get completely dark. Yet this longer day of sunlight meant that Rebecca’s sewing continued well into the evening. It was Sunday, just before eight, when the pretty seamstress finally tucked her girls into their small bed in the back room, telling them, “Go to sleep now.” Slightly plump little Sunny, nearly three, snuggled her back against her six-year-old sister, Channa.

 

Rebecca moved quickly through the tiny living quarters, finishing her chores before heading out of the house. She took only a moment to fix her long, dark hair. Isaac was just arriving from the front room, set up as his shoe factory, where all day long he’d nailed soles onto boots. Sundays were especially long since the day before was Sabbath. Rebecca exchanged a weary smile with her handsome, dark-haired husband.

 

“The children are asleep?” he asked.

 

“On their way.”

 

The couple headed to the courtyard garden out back, near the stables that housed the horses for the guests at the nearby establishment. In a far corner, their neighbors Rachel and Elias, just married, sat and held hands on a bench. Isaac and Rebecca greeted their new friends with a bottle of wine. “Mazel tov!” they wished them, as the foursome raised and clinked together Rebecca’s silver shot glasses in a celebratory toast. Rebecca, resting her hand on her pregnant belly, did not raise the cup to her lips.

 

The courtyard was still and warm; a late spring dusk appeared. From the street they heard the clop-clop of horse-drawn wagons. They drank and laughed until most of the daylight disappeared after nine.

Inside, in the dark back bedroom, Channa snuggled her sister’s warm body until Sunny stopped wiggling. Then, feeling warm in the June evening, Channa kicked off the blanket and stared at the ceiling. Finally, she, too, dozed off: first fitfully, then so deeply that she didn’t hear the initial gunshots in front of the Stavishcha Inn.

 

The explosion had their parents sitting bolt upright: Rebecca’s round blue eyes widening, Isaac’s clean-shaven chin jutting from his face. Rachel screamed; Elias covered her mouth.

 

They waited in the root cellar. Hours of it; it would never end.

 

As daylight approached, the noises changed. First the commotion stopped. Rebecca and Isaac still lay in place, breathing lightly in rhythm, too afraid to move. Then the screams began again, but these were different: wails by the injured, wails for the dead.

 

The foursome crawled and then climbed out of the cellar and into the early June sun. From every corner, the neighborhood was coming out of hiding, hugging and crying or screaming next to the victims of the pogrom. Rebecca and Isaac ran quickly to their house. They opened the back door, which was still closed and intact, and rushed to their daughters’ bed.

 

Their legs froze in place, preparing for the worst. Rebecca felt an awful pit in her stomach, afraid of what horrible scene they might find. Instead, Channa lay peacefully on her back, and, as usual, her arms were outstretched. Sunny lay in a fetal position, her face pressed into the goose-feathered pillow. But they were breathing. They were sleeping, untouched. They’d slept through it all!

 

The violent mob had passed over their house!

 

Rebecca looked at her husband. His cheeks had gone white. Hands shaking, he picked up Sunny, who stretched and smiled. Rebecca broke down and sobbed uncontrollably into Channa’s long, brown hair. Confused, the girls looked around with wide eyes. Everything was exactly as Rebecca had left it: a soaking pot still stood upright on its stand, sewing needles and a small jewel case left on a nightstand remained undisturbed. The girls were oblivious to what had happened.

 

“Nothing—nothing touched,” Isaac said; wondering, “Why did they

spare us?”

 

“Isaac!” a howl came from outside the front door, followed by loud banging. “Isaac! Isaac Caprove! Your peasant Vasyl has murdered my wife!”

 

 

 

The Fires in Stavishche

 

In the spring of 1920, 1,500 to 2,000 Jews were burned alive in the synagogue in the nearby city of Tetiev by the followers of Ataman A. Kurovsky, a former

officer under Symon Petliura. The Caprove family, Isaac, Rebecca and their daughters, who had fled the shtetl after a previous attack, heard rumors from the safety of their apartment in Belaya Tserkov that these hooligans were headed toward Stavishche. By then, the majority of Jews who still remained in the town were the sick, disabled, and elderly. The spiritual leaders and their families also remained behind in support of their people who were unable to flee. A group of vicious local peasants entered Stavishche on the heels of Kurovsky’s men, who had left the shtetl as quickly as they entered it. On a beautiful spring day, these bandits set a few buildings on fire in the Jewish quarter of town.

 

Havah Zaslawsky, the devoted daughter of Rabbi Pitsie Avram, ran down the street in panic during the fires in search of her father, fearing that he had been killed. When she saw the flames rise near the synagogue (probably the Sokolovka kloyz, one of six in town), Havah instinctively knew that her father had rushed to open the ark for the last time. The rabbi, with his flowing white beard and large sunken eyes, suddenly emerged from the burning synagogue cradling his sacred Torah, its breastplate, and a pair of matching antique silver Torah crowns. The tiny bells that hung in layers from the priceless keters (crowns) jingled as he ran for his life.

 

Escaping the flames of the fires that spread quickly behind them, Pitsie Avram and his youngest daughter fled down the street together, meeting up with other family members along the way. At the Jewish Bikur Holim (Home for the Aged Hospital), six elderly female and two male residents were slaughtered. In the home of Shlomo Zalman Frankel, thugs tied him to a pig and set both on fire.

 

As the rabbi’s group fled, they were unaware as murderers searched house to house for Jews and tore the screaming, bedridden, and elderly from their beds. Within minutes they herded twenty-six Jews to another synagogue and slit their throats. Barking dogs began eating away at the dead.    

 

At yet another Stavishche house of worship, Cantor David-Yosel Moser was inside chanting words from his precious Torah when bandits stormed in and confiscated his sacred scroll. Tossing the fragile parchment across the floor, the thugs then raped a Jewish woman on top of its pages. When that was not sufficient enough in their drunken minds to desecrate the holy scrolls, they brought in a horse to defile it.

 

Cantor David-Yosel stood helpless as the assassins torched his Sefer Torah (Torah scroll). Finally, the old chazzan’s heart gave out. He dropped to the floor, dying beside the thing that he loved most in the world. The old cantor, who in happier times loved entertaining the children of Stavishche by cutting out beautiful parchment chains of paper birds, died beside his burning Torah. This destruction, however, could not kill the spirit of either, for the spirit of the chazzan David-Yosel and his parchment scroll are both indestructible; they are eternal, beyond time.

 

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183354 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183354 0
Lindsey Fitzharris on Visionary Surgeon Harold Gillies

 

 

The immense casualties of World War I shocked a generation that believed at the outset in 1914 that the war would last only a few weeks. Almost ten million soldiers were killed in combat and 21 million were wounded in the slaughter that dragged on until November 1918. Great Britain alone lost one million combatants killed and more than two million wounded. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the British suffered almost sixty thousand casualties including 19,240 men killed -- the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.

This first large-scale, industrialized conflict produced gruesome carnage and massive casualties in enormous battles as the technology of war far outpaced the progress of modern medicine. New weapons such as machine guns, powerful new bullets, heavy artillery, flamethrowers, tanks, poison gas, and strafing airplanes tested the skills of medical personnel charged with treating wounded and dying men. The innovative weapons lacerated, punctured, macerated, incinerated, tore apart and atomized soldiers who fought from fetid, wet trenches, breeding grounds for infection and sepsis.

Disfiguring facial wounds became prominent and feared injuries because helmets left the face unprotected and the face was especially vulnerable to projectiles and shrapnel in trench warfare. The injuries were not only destructive to a patient’s appearance and expression but also interfered with function and sensation from breathing, swallowing, speaking and eating to seeing, smelling and tasting.

Early in the war, pioneering surgeon Dr. Harold Gillies took on the challenge of mending and restoring the mutilated faces of wounded British soldiers. The Cambridge-educated New Zealander developed a range of techniques to reconstruct broken faces as well as to restore function and optimize appearance. Each patient required novel approaches to address trauma such as crushing facial fractures, broken or lost jaws and noses, broken eye sockets, severe burns, bone loss, tooth loss, and other injuries.

Dr. Harold Gillies (Illustration by Robin Lindley)

Gillies’s innovations in skin and cartilage grafting, aesthetic repair, prosthetics, infection control, anesthetic use, and other advances transformed the rudimentary discipline of plastic surgery, and still inform surgeons today. He also was celebrated for his compassion toward all patients, regardless of rank, and his efforts to address the psychosocial aspects of disfiguring injuries.

Award-winning medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris recounts the inspiring story of Harold Gillies’s innovative medical work and the men he treated in her groundbreaking new book The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). As she describes, the legendary Gillies transformed many lives as he treated the complicated physical and psychological trauma of grievous wounds. As Dr. Fitzharris stresses, he addressed broken spirits as he mended broken faces.

The Facemaker brings history to life thanks to Dr. Fitzharris’s gifts for lively storytelling, accessible scholarship, and extensive research. The book takes the reader into the sodden trenches of World War I, the shell cratered battlefields, the blood-stained aid stations, and the operating rooms of Queens Hospital in Sidcup, England, where Gillies performed his complex reconstructive operations. The book also captures the excruciating pain and suffering endured by the wounded as well as how Gillies and his remarkable team of physicians, dentists, nurses, artists, sculptors, mask makers and others brought empathy and profound caring to each patient through numerous surgeries and the protracted healing process.

Dr. Fitzharris’s book is based on meticulous scholarly research. She drew on a trove of material on medicine and the war as well as on Gillies and his patients, including previously unpublished letters, diaries, and other primary documents that inform this heart-wrenching yet inspirational story of the war.

The Facemaker seems destined to stand out not only a brilliant work of history and research, but also as an unflinching antiwar work as Dr. Fitzharris literally reveals the human face of war and the futility and waste of modern combat—concerns that resonate now as another brutal and senseless war rages in Ukraine.

Dr. Fitzharris is a medical historian who now focuses on sharing stories from the past with a general audience. She holds a doctorate from the University of Oxford and completed postdoctoral studies at the Wellcome Institute in London. Her debut book, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine won the PEN/E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science in the United States; and was shortlisted for both the Wellcome Book Prize and the Wolfson History Prize in the United Kingdom. She also created the popular blog, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, as well as the YouTube series, Under the Knife. She also hosts the TV series The Curious Life and Death of . . . that airs on the Smithsonian Channel. And she contributes regularly to The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, and other publications.

Dr. Fitzharris generously discussed her background and her new book The Facemaker by Zoom from her office in England.

 

Robin Lindley: Congratulations Dr. Fitzharris on your new book The Facemaker and the many positive early reviews. Before getting to the book, I was interested in how you initially became interested in history?

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: That's a good question. I have a PhD in the history of science and medicine from Oxford University, but these days I consider myself first and foremost a storyteller.

When I think back to my childhood, I always was a bit of a storyteller. My grandmother raised me and she always had a lot of objects in the basement that were related to the past. I always loved going through these objects and learning their stories. And we would go to the cemeteries and she would tell me stories about the people who she knew who were by then long gone. I just was always interested.

And there's always been a sort of tactile element to history for me. Obviously, it's a living history to walk around the streets of Oxford. You feel like you're really in the past on some level and you get access to these incredible libraries where you can touch to these old books.

For me, I’m always immersing myself in the past. As you can see, even in my office, I have these World War I artifacts here that I use to tell stories in interviews.

So, I was always interested in the past and I ended up doing all my degrees at once. I did my postdoc at the Wellcome Institute in London but I got a bit burnt out in academia and I decided to move into the realm of storytelling through my blog, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, and through The Butchering Art, my first book, and now The Facemaker. I love connecting with a general reader with these incredible stories from the past.

Robin Lindley: Your work is a gift to readers. What sparked your interest in medical history? Did you have a desire to work in medicine or did you have medical professionals in your family?

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Well, my mom was a nurse so there was always that kind of buzzing around in the background. But actually, when I went to Illinois Wesleyan University as an undergraduate, I had a professor named Michael Young who taught courses on intellectual history and on the scientific revolution, so I got really interested in the history of science first.

And when I went to Oxford, I got to study the history of science under Professor Robert Fox and my interest flourished and developed.

I always tell people of that, if you're not interested in history, you might be interested in medical history because everybody knows what it's like to be sick, especially today when we've been living through a pandemic. It's so relatable in that sense. What was it like if you had a toothache in 1792 or what would happen if you had to have your leg amputated in 1846? That's where I, as a medical historian, can fill in those gaps. In that sense, maybe military history or political history isn't as relatable to the people. The everyday experience of being sick and being scared and having to turn to the medical community for help is very understandable.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for those reflections, Dr. Fitzharris.  Did your award-winning first book, The Butchering Art on Joseph Lister and those grimy Victorian Era hospitals, grow out of your doctoral studies at Oxford?

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: My dissertation was actually on 17th century alchemy, so I was an early modernist. When I wrote The Butchering Art my supervisor asked why would you go into the 19th century? And now I'm in the 20th century with The Facemaker.

I go where the story is. And I was surprised that nobody had told that story of Joseph Lister to a general audience, which is such an incredible, world-changing story. And people weren't really familiar with who he was except through the product Listerine, which he never even invented. So, I felt compelled to tell that story, and there were so many great scenes and atmosphere. Walking into an operating theater of the Victorian period is so different from how we operate today. And I really wanted to paint that picture for readers and I had such a good time doing it, but my training is in much earlier, in 16th and 17th century history.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for that explanation, and congratulations on The Butchering Art, an evocative and vivid read.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: That one and The Facemaker are very different. They're both narrative nonfiction for a general audience and I fell into both stories, but they are very different.

Robin Lindley: In The Facemaker, you follow the career of Dr. Harold Gillies. I've always had an interest in him and fellow physician/ artist Dr. Henry Tonks and their work on facial reconstruction, but I haven’t seen many resources on them, so I appreciate your groundbreaking book now.  Are there a few things you'd like to say about Gillies to introduce him to readers?

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. What's nice was some of Gillies relatives now contacted me when I first announced this book. He has a great, great nephew who is a Hollywood actor named Daniel Gillies and he's the reader for the audio book. I was told that occasionally, he'll stop and say he didn't know facts about his ancestors, and he learned about Harold Gillies through reading the book. It’s been really lovely to bring that to life for him and some of Gillies’ other relatives.

If people are familiar with Harold Gillies today, they might know him as the father of modern plastic surgery. Plastic surgery predated World War I and, in fact, the term plastic surgery was coined in 1798 by a French surgeon named Pierre-Joseph Desault. At that time, plastic meant something that you could shape or mold—in this case, the skin or the soft tissue of a patient. So, it predated World War I, but it was really through Gillies’s work and through the enormous need for facial reconstruction that came out of the war, that plastic surgery entered this new modern era where new methods were developed and tried and tested.

If you were to call Gillies anything, you might call him the father of modern plastic surgery. And he did incredible work. He was rebuilding these soldiers’ faces during the First World War when losing a limb made you a hero, but losing a face made you a monster because of the societal biases against facial differences.

He was able to not to just mend these soldiers’ faces but also their broken spirits because a lot of them would've ended up living a life of isolation. He's an unsung hero in that sense. I think a lot of people, when they think of the history of plastic surgery, they think of the Guinea Pig Club during World War II and the reconstructive work [on aviators with injured faces] that was done by Gillies’s cousin Archibald McIndoe who became quite famous. But it started with Gillies in World War I, so I tell people this is the prequel to the Guinea Pig Club, if they’re familiar with that.

Robin Lindley: Yes. Historian Emily Mayhew wrote a book on the Guinea Pig Club and McIndoe’s work.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. And she also wrote Wounded on the [British World War I] stretcher bearers and the medical evacuation chain. I hope people will find that The Facemaker is a compliment to what has already been done on the subject.

Robin Lindley: I interviewed Dr. Mayhew on Wounded. I appreciate your meticulous research on this book. You comment in the introduction that all of the observations and comments in the book are based on documents you found and were not conjecture on your part.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. I write narrative nonfiction, which isn't a style all historians even agree with.  But I very much write a book like a novel. And here, if Gillies is saying something and it seems like dialogue, that’s because it's documented somewhere. Or if I note a gesture, then someone witnessed that gesture, and so I put that in. I love that storytelling technique because I want people to feel like they're right there: they're in the operating theater or they're in the trench with these men. How does it smell? What does it feel like with all of those sensory experiences? I hope people can understand that better after reading The Facemaker.

Robin Lindley: And it seems that you uncovered archival material such as personal letters and diaries and family papers as well as other documents that hadn’t been previously recounted by authors.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. With Percy Clare, who opens The Facemaker, I used his diary and some academic historians have used a little bit of what he said, but not to the extent that I've written his story. I was in touch with his relative and I asked, do you know this and that? She didn’t know anything about him. It's going to be fun for her to learn about her ancestor through this book. I think she said her father had found the diary in the garage and donated it.

I chose Percy Clare because he wrote beautifully and extensively about his facial wounds. That was unusual because sometimes a soldier might mention it, but it's only a letter and not a full account of that whole experience.

Unfortunately, a lot of patient records were destroyed during World War II. It’s ironic that these men couldn't escape injury even in World War II. Percy Clare's records were lost, so I only know about him getting to Gillies at the Queens Hospital through his diary. Otherwise, we wouldn't have known that he was even a patient at the Queens Hospital. So that's an interesting challenge for a historian in trying to piece together a story like this.

Robin Lindley: And Percy Clare had horrific facial wounds, but from the photographs in your book, it seems his appearance came out really well.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Amazingly so. I don't know what he looked like before. I can only share his description of the blood loss and wounds to both cheeks. I didn’t have his patient records. I asked his relative, Rachel Gray, do you have a photo album? And she said, I do, but she just had this flood in the garage a couple months before. She sent the album to me and, and these photos were in plastic so I couldn't take them out because that would ruin the photos. A friend of mine actually ended up restoring those photos for me. They were in terrible states, and he did amazing work. Again, there are all these kinds of unforeseen challenges when you're trying to piece together this kind of history. Luckily there were photos of him later in life and his face looked amazing.

Percy Clare, in later life (Courtesy of Rachel Gray; Restored by Jordan J. Lloyd).

 

Robin Lindley: I wanted to get a sense of your process when writing for a general audience. You provide detailed and accessible historical context to help the readers understand the past moments you present.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: I went into The Facemaker knowing very little about World War I. If anybody out there is not familiar with World War I, don't worry. I was right there with you. This is why I took five years to research. It took an incredibly long time because I was really starting from zero, but I knew that there was a very human story.

I also knew that, although this is a book about Harold Gillies, it's really a story about many men. And I think that's reflected very well in the cover design of a surgeon's hand holding a scalpel and in the reflection is a bandaged soldier. I really wanted their voices to come through in this narrative.

One of the differences between writing this kind of book or writing an academic history is that part of my job as a narrative nonfiction writer is not to overwhelm the general reader with too much information. When it comes to World War I, there's a lot of information. There are so many letters and so many diaries, and it goes on and on. And, as an academically trained historian, it can get overwhelming because you could spend literally 15, 20 years just reading and not be ready to write the story. As a commercial writer, I don't have that luxury of time, but this book ended up taking about five years. A lot of what I do is trying to find the pulse of the story.

If someone picks up The Facemaker and they know nothing about facial reconstruction, and know nothing about medical history or World War I, I want them to be able to feel that they can read this book and understand it and enjoy it. They don't need to come to it with any prior medical knowledge or any historical knowledge.

Robin Lindley: Your academic background and your gifts as a storyteller are a powerful combination in writing for television and writing non-fiction for a general audience.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: It's funny though because television executives have no imagination. It's really hard to convince them that medical history is something that people would be interested in, which is to me is confusing because there's so many medical shows on television. People love them. ER was a huge drama. In fact, when I was going around with The Butchering Art, I was telling people that the Victorians used to buy tickets to the operating theater, and people just thought that was crazy. And I said, but we're still buying tickets because we're tuning into ER, we're tuning into reality shows about hospitals, or whatever it is.

We still have that morbid curiosity. I think my job as an academically trained historian as well as a storyteller is to make sure that it's entertaining, but also in a way that isn't exploiting the past and that people. We can look back in the past and say, I can't believe they used to do that, but I always ask my audience what will we say in a hundred years? What will be the medical treatment that in a hundred years that people will just not believe that we used to do because that's what will happen. What we know today isn't what we're going to know tomorrow. I hope that when people pick up The Butchering Art or The Facemaker, they see that evolution or that revolution in medicine that's ongoing even today.

Robin Lindley: You mention in The Facemaker how plastic surgery has evolved and you conclude the book with the very recent face transplant procedures. In discussing the history, you vividly bring the reader right into the horror of the fighting in the trenches on the Western Front, and you stress the difficulty of getting medical care for the wounded in No Man's Land. Many with severe facial injuries waited for hours or even days just to be removed from the combat zone. If they got help, they were carried to aid stations and then to hospital ships and then to a hospital in Britain for treatment of their facial wounds.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. The chain of evacuation was so difficult because the face is so vascular and the injuries bleed a lot. And a lot of times these stretcher bearers would step out onto the field and they're being shot at and they can die. They were making very quick decisions about who to take off the field and who to leave behind. And if you look at one of these wounds, they look very ghastly as you see in photos of the patients. I worked with a disability activist actually to discuss the inclusion of photos and the language to make sure that that was also inclusive.

And it was hard to get [the wounded] off the field. In fact, Private Walter Ashworth, you might remember, laid on the field for three days without a jaw, unable to scream for help. So that was a real difficulty.

I knew going into this book that I wanted to drop the reader right into the trenches. What was that like to be there into the middle of that action? And then to watch how difficult it was for one single patient.

The book opens with Percy Clare, and describes how difficult it was for him to get from being shot to getting to Harold Gillies back in Britain. There were a lot of detours along the way, and it could be a very frustrating process. And of course, some of these soldiers never ended up in Gillies’s care, and were probably worse for that.

Robin Lindley: Can you talk about the prevalence of facial wounds in this first modern industrialized war? You write about how medicine hadn't caught up with the technology of many terrible new weapons. Why there were so many facial wounds to treat?

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: As I said, plastic surgery predated World War I. There was a bit of facial reconstruction during the American Civil War, which I discussed in the book, but not on the scale that it was happening in World War I. The nature of warfare at that time led to high rates of injuries. There were huge advances in artillery and weaponry so that a company of just 300 men in 1914 deployed equivalent firepower as a 60,000 strong army during the Napoleonic Wars.

There were huge advances. You have the invention of the flamethrower and the invention of the tank, which left their crews vulnerable to new kinds of injuries. You had chemical weapons, even as gas masks were being rushed to the front. These lethal gas attacks became instantly synonymous with the ghastliness and savagery of the First World War and the medical community was struggling at first to keep up.

And these men weren't really given much protective gear, certainly in the first year. The Brody helmet [British “soup bowl” metal helmet] was invented in late 1915, and was the first helmet that was given to all men regardless of their ranks. It was an improvement over the soft caps that had been issued in the beginning of the war, but even so it didn't really protect the face as much as needed.

For all of these reasons, facial wounds were prevalent. And before the war is over 280,000 men from France, Britain and Germany alone suffered some kind of facial trauma. They were maimed. They were gassed. They were burned. Some were even kicked in the face by horses. So, this was a real problem in World War I, and of course it laid open this opportunity for plastic surgery to evolve.

Robin Lindley: To go back to Dr. Gillies, what motivated him to specialize in plastic surgery and then to mend the terrible facial wounds of soldiers—many wounds that were probably new to most surgeons at the time?

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: With The Butchering Art, Joseph Lister was the right man at the right time. And I feel like Gillies was also that person for his time. There were other surgeons who were working on facial reconstruction. It was a huge need and many required this kind of surgery.

Gillies was an ENT [ear, nose and throat] specialist going into the war. And he came across a figure named Charles Valadier, who was this French American dentist. He was a bigger than life character and one of my favorite people in the book. He had a Rolls Royce that he retrofitted with dental chair and he drove it to the front under a hail of bullets. Who does that?

And World War I was this crazy time when pilots were going up only several years after the Wright brothers had flown and they were bringing pistols with them. Nobody really knew what they were doing. Charles Valadier ended up working throughout the war for free, and he showed Harold Gillies the desperate need for facial reconstruction at this time.

And Gillies was well placed because he was actually one of those annoying people who was good at everything he did. He was a competent artist. He was a very good golfer. He was very well rounded, which I think is unusual for a surgeon. And facial reconstruction is partly a creative process. You have to be a very visual thinker. And Gillies was doing this without any textbooks. And he was working in a very collaborative manner, which was unusual as well for the time. So, he brings dentists on board, which a lot of surgeons wouldn't have done because they wouldn't have rated dentists highly at the time. He brings on artists who paint masks. He brings all kinds of people on his team and that's why the standards rose and he was able to do such amazing work in the end. So, he really was the right person at the right time.

Robin Lindley: Gilles was very creative and a remarkable visionary, as you recount. And he was dealing with horrific wounds that you describe vividly. These men came in without jaws or noses or broken eye sockets or completely cratered faces, or all that. He dealt with compromise of breathing, eating, vision, speaking, taste, smell and more. And Gillies had to create new types of surgery for every unique disfiguring wound that came to him.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. The earlier attempts at altering someone's appearance really focused on small areas of the face. Rhinoplasty was one of the most ancient procedures in medical history. But, as you say, Gillies really had to reconstruct almost entire faces. In some cases, the damage was so extensive that he had to be very creative.

Bringing on dental surgeons like William Kelsey Fry, who worked on the hard surfaces as Gillies worked on the soft surfaces, helped the reconstructive process. In fact, one of Kelsey Fry’s grandsons tweeted me on Twitter and asked if Kelsey Fry was going to be in the book. I said, actually he is in the book because he ended up having this horrible experience on the battlefield when he was rescuing a man with a facial injury. He had the man lean forward onto his shoulder and carried him to a casualty clearance station and the medics put the man on his back and he ended up drowning in his own blood. And so, it was Kelsey Fry who ended up getting the protocols and the advice changed so that if men had facial injuries, they were supposed to be laid face down on the stretcher. And so, I said [to Kelsey Fry’s grandson], think about how many lives your grandfather saved just by changing that advice alone.

So, Kelsey Fry was an important part of Gillies's team. He doesn't [get the same attention as] Gillies, who was a bigger than life personality. And a lot of people who know about this period tend to focus on Gillies. But definitely other people contributed to the enormous advances of this time and are featured in The Facemaker.

Robin Lindley: As you point out, each facial surgery was unique and demanding and took a very long time. Gillies must have had enormous energy and resilience.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. And there were setbacks too. Some of his patients died in his care as I document in The Facemaker. There were setbacks and there wasn't at all a linear progression, but certainly he never gave up on them. I think it's fair to say they never gave up on him either. They continued to believe in him and in what he could do. And that built a really strong bond and the result was amazing in the end.

Robin Lindley: You also emphasize that Gillies early on decided to create an interdisciplinary team. I find the trained physician and renowned artist Henry Tonks fascinating.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: I love Tonks. Another character, like a lot of the people in The Facemaker, who had a big personality. Joseph Lister in my book The Butchering Art was a Quaker and a quiet, solemn figure. But in The Facemaker, everybody has a bombastic personality.

Tonks was a famous artist before World War I and, as you say, he was actually a trained physician as well. He was known to be extremely critical of his art students and his students really feared him. He was brought on board by Gillies by happenstance. He was working at the same hospital in an administrative role and someone told Gillies, you know, Henry Tonks the artist is working here. And so, Gillies brings him on board. And several other artists are eventually brought on at the Queens Hospital at Sitcup, the hospital that Gillies founded for facial reconstruction. And thank goodness for them because they created amazing pictorial records.

I didn't include the Tonks portraits of these men in the book because I felt they should be reproduced in color as they were meant to be seen, and to do that drives up the cost of the book. But you could find all of his wonderful artwork online if you just Google Tonks and World War I. His portraits are beautiful because they are in color and they allow you to see [Gillies’s patients] in a more vivid way than the photographs allow.

Robin Lindley: It’s powerful art. I've seen some of Tonks’ color drawings that portray the wounded men, usually showing the wound and then the reconstructive process and the results after healing.  

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. He would be in the operating theater and be sketching and drawing. And sometimes he did formal portraits of the men. There's one of Walter Ashworth who's injured during the Somme offensive, and the expression on his face is just so human. I think that the portraits are really lovely in a way that the photographs can't be because the photographs are more clinical. They are staged and their purpose is to document the reconstructive work whereas Tonks really captures the humanity of these men.

Robin Lindley: Gillies was aware of the psychological trauma as well as the physical damage caused by these wounds. These men were suffering and usually endured a long series of operations. And Gillies had great compassion for them and their plight as they returned to society.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Absolutely. Surgeons working near the front were hastily doing surgery. They were trying to stop the hemorrhaging. They were trying to save lives. They were not developing relationships with these patients. A lot of times they don't even know these men's names, whereas Gillies was operating on these soldiers over a long period of time, sometimes even spanning over a decade. He really develops friendships with these men. Some of them even go on to work for him. There's a guy named Big Bob Seymour who ends up being his personal secretary for the rest of his life. So it's nice to see that kind of relationship.

I had a disability activist named Ariel Henley who was helping me with the language. We were having a great discussion about the word disfigured, which might not be used today. But the feeling was that these men were disfigured to the society that they lived in, and I didn't want to lessen that experience by using a more modern term. But I think it's valid to talk about whether that term is useful today. Some people say facial difference rather than disfigured. Ariel has Crouzon syndrome and she lives with a facial disfigurement. Those are her words. That's how she describes herself.

She pointed out a lot of things that maybe I wouldn't have noticed. For instance, Gillies banned mirrors on his wards. This was done to protect the patients from getting frustrated throughout the reconstructive process because a lot of times the face could look worse before it looked better. Ariel pointed out also that that could be really isolating and that it instilled in these men this belief that they had faces that weren't worth looking at. I think that kind of perspective was really helpful for me as a writer in bringing The Facemaker to life and making sure that these men were always at the front of that narrative and that their voices and their experiences were always being honored.  

Robin Lindley: And your book brings forth the stories of the patients and their concerns. The blue benches are such a powerful image. The men with facial wounds sat on these blue benches around Gillies’s hospital and the benches were a warning to members of the public that these men had injuries that might be disturbing to see.

 Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. And mask makers offered nonsurgical solutions to these disfigured soldiers. Someone tweeted me and said that she couldn't imagine that these men would ever have wanted to get rid of them, but the masks broke and they didn't age with the patient. So, ultimately a lot of these men did actually turn to surgery. I told this woman that a lot of these men hated the masks and they weren't wearing the mask for themselves. They were wearing it to protect the viewer and they were uncomfortable to wear and they were hot. And there were a lot of reasons why they wouldn't be the best thing put on your face.

People have to remember that the mask is for the viewer. It's not for the person wearing it. And they did it to blend into society.

Gillies himself hated the masks because they reminded him of the limitations of what he could do as a surgeon. But he also understood that sometimes a patient needed a mask. Perhaps Gilles had taken surgery as far as it could go. He also employed mask makers in between in the process because the surgeries could span several years. So perhaps while you're awaiting your next surgery, you would feel more comfortable wearing a mask when going out into society so people wouldn’t stare at you.

The masks were wonderful on one level. The artists were able to produce very startling, real masks for these patients. But on another level, they were really sad because, if society could have accepted these men and their injuries, then arguably we wouldn’t have had to have the mask makers.

Robin Lindley: Your description of the masks and the artists in your book is fascinating. You note a woman in France who made extremely realistic masks.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. Anna Coleman Ray. She was amazing. And photos of the masks go viral because they look very realistic. But if you were sitting next to someone wearing one, it could be unsettling because it doesn't move like a face. Ultimately, a lot of the soldiers found that the masks scared their children. In a still photo, the masks look amazing and realistic, but if you were talking to someone wearing one, I think it could be quite unsettling.

Robin Lindley: And you have heartrending accounts of what these wounded men went through once they'd completed the surgical process. Many didn't want to see their relatives or friends again because they thought their wounds were too horrifying. And, you have patients breaking off relationships. And there were also suicides.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes, there were. One of the things I really wanted to show was that a lot of the men, especially those in Gillies’s care, did go on to live very happy and fulfilling lives. They went through the reconstructive process.

But there were other stories. A nurse that worked for Gillies's told of a corporal who caught sight of his face and he ended up breaking off his engagement. He told the woman that he had met someone else in Paris because he felt that it would be too much of a burden for her to be married to him.

But on the flip side of the coin, you have Private Walter Ashworth whose fiancé breaks up with him. But then her friend gets wind of this and she begins writing him and the two fall in love and they end up getting married, which is a really kind of lovely alternative story.

A lot of these men were able to go on and rehabilitate, but certainly there were a lot of prejudices at the time. And probably some of the prejudices that that corporal was facing in 1917 would not be that dissimilar to what someone with a facial difference might feel today.

I'm certainly not a spokesperson for that community, but all you have to do is look to Hollywood to know that this is true. A lot of movies portray villains who are disfigured. You have Darth Vader. You have Voldemort. You have Blofeld. You have the Joker from Batman. So, it's a really lazy trope about evilness that continues in society today. We haven't moved on in some ways. I think that the men who were disfigured in World War I would feel very similar prejudices today.

Robin Lindley: I appreciate you emphasizing that, more often than not, these men who were disfigured in war went on after Gillies’s work to heal and to lead normal lives.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Some of them went on to serve in World War II—even after those earlier wounds. One was a patient named Lieutenant William Spreckley who had one of Gillies best nose jobs. Gillies tried a new technique on him, and none of his colleagues thought this would work. And when Spreckley came out of the operation, his nose was so big, they said it was like anteater’s snout. All Gillies’s colleagues laughed at him and said this didn't work. But once all of the swelling subsided, and he began to heal, actually the nose looked amazing and it became one of Gillies star cases. And he said in his case notes something like Spreckley and his nose went off to serve in World War II. So some of these men went right back into the act.

And some of the men who were patched up by Gillies went back to the front in World War I, and they ended up dying later. It's really harrowing. I can't imagine experiencing what these men did and then also signing up to fight in World War II. That to me is very extraordinary.

Robin Lindley: You note in discussing these patients that many of the wounded were left with deformed noses and other damage—damage that in earlier times suggested a history of syphilis or other dread diseases connected with supposed moral weakness.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes, exactly. That’s where this idea it comes from and why Hollywood can lean so heavily into the idea that morality is connected to a facial appearance. Even our language: someone's two-faced, or they tell a bald face lie, or you take them at face value. Our language reflects how important the face is still, and this is linked to older beliefs.

And as you say, morality and disease are reflected in the face, because if someone contracts syphilis and it's allowed to continue on into its final stages, something develops called saddle nose where the nose caves into the face much like the Harry Potter villain Voldemort, and it looks very similar to that kind of disfigurement.

People aren't aware today of where these ideas come from, but they're still alive and reflected in our culture, and certainly in the movie industry.

Robin Lindley: I appreciate your comments on our attitudes toward disability and difference. As I wrote to you recently, I think your book will stand as a great antiwar book as you literally reveal the human face of war.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: I found it really interesting that you called this an anti-war book, which I love by the way. I love if people think of it that way, but I did another interview with someone who's in the army and he said that this was a book about heroes, which of course it also can be seen as that.

I lean heavily into the violence of the First World War because I don't want to sugar coat it. I don't think I'm doing the patients any favors by not telling the readers exactly what it was like in that time.

It certainly should be seen as anti-war. What we do to bodies in conflicts with the return of old school warfare like we're seeing in Ukraine at the moment, we need to all be thinking about that. But it is interesting because everybody has a slightly different take when it comes to a story like this.

For me, I just tell the story as I feel it should be told and let everybody make their own decisions about what that story is. It was nice to hear that you felt it was a great anti-war book.

Robin Lindley:  Yes, it is. I think it may be illuminating for some people to think about the cruelty and brutality of war in these visceral and painful terms. Didn’t the Germans have a different attitude about the facially wounded?

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: The Germans really embraced that, whereas in Britain, the disfigured face certainly was hidden for a really long time. People didn't engage with that and it was very sanitized, but the Germans leaned heavily into it. The images of wounded bodies disappeared in Britain, and certainly the disfigured face doesn’t make it into the public.

Robin Lindley: And it was moving for me to learn from your book that there were French veterans called “the mutilated” with severe facial wounds who had a place of honor at the conference table during the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: It was amazing. And there’s a picture of those men that were at the signing of the treaty in The Facemaker. I think it’s incredible that they were included and they should have been. It should make us question war and conflict.

People say to me but all these amazing medical advances came out of the war, which is true, and all of this has served us long after the guns fell silent on the Western Front. But also, I came to the grim realization halfway through my research that it also prolonged the war. As doctors and nurses got better at patching these men up, they were being sent right back to the front. It was really feeding the war machine. It was a vicious cycle that definitely needs to be acknowledged again, as we see the return of this old school warfare. We have to realize that even if advances do come that benefit us, they tend to prolong these conflicts as well.

Robin Lindley: As you note, Gillies goes on after World War I to continue work as a plastic surgeon, and he does both cosmetic surgery and complex reconstructive surgery. He treated one woman who fell on her face into a fire for hours. You capture the horror of her injuries.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris:  Awful. I didn't include her photos, but they can be found in his published book. The woman had epilepsy and she had a seizure. She fell face first into the fire with her infant child and they laid there for some time. And by the end, she just had no face. I can't even describe the photos. There was no skin there. It was just completely gone. And there was a moment when Gillies's was approached about this patient and he wondered if he should even do anything because obviously reconstructive surgery is painful. He didn't know if he would be able to help her, but in the end, he was able to reconstruct a face of sorts for her.

She does end up healing but she had another seizure later and she died. Gillies is told about this on the golf course, and he had a moment of reflection about this poor woman that he had helped.

Gillies continued to do reconstructive surgery and moved into the cosmetic realm, as you say. And he also operated on soldiers in World War II. He introduced his cousin Archibald McIndoe to plastic surgery with the burnt aviators of the Guinea Pig Club. I'm guessing Gillies felt his nose a bit out of joint because McIndoe overshadowed him later. Some of that was because it was such a romantic thing to be a pilot in World War II, and McIndoe’s extraordinary work got a lot of media coverage. Gillies work in World War I didn’t get that same kind of attention and he was overshadowed a bit.

People ask if my book is about the Guinea Pig Club. I say, it's the prequel to that. But Gillies is definitely part of that story because he actually convinces McIndoe go into plastic surgery. It's all interconnected.

Robin Lindley: And I learned from your book that Gillies wrote groundbreaking plastic surgery textbooks that represent foundational works for the specialty now.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. They're extraordinary. I have the two-volume set. He documented everything and his personality really shines through. Even if you don't have any interest in a medical textbook, it's the way he talks about his patients and jokes about some of them and his relationships with them that is quite amusing at times. And I'm guessing there's still value in these texts today. Plastic surgery really isn't that old, so a lot of these techniques are probably still used on some level or they've been adapted. The ghost of Gillies is still lingering around in those operating theaters.

Robin Lindley: And wasn’t Gillies actually called “The Facemaker” during his lifetime?

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. I didn’t have a title for this book for five years. I was finishing up, and I came across the letter to Harold Gillies congratulating on him on his knighthood after the war, and it was addressed to “Dear Facemaker” and I thought that's perfect because he was certainly was the face maker.

Robin Lindley: Do you have another book in the works now, Dr. Fitzharris?

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes. I'm not an academic anymore, so I have to keep writing in order to keep feeding myself. My next book actually is a children's book called Scourge, which my husband Adrian Teal is illustrating. He's a caricaturist over here and he works on Spitting Image, a quite a famous television show.

And my next adult nonfiction project is Sleuth-Hound on Joseph Bell who was a 19th century surgeon and the real-life inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. His student Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on Bell, and I'm making my way through his 500-page diary as we speak. It’s going to be a really fun kind of romp through Victorian forensics and this fictional character and the real-life inspirations.

I hope that it’s not five years between books this time. I'm going to speed up the process. Going back to the 19th century is like slipping into a bath. It's comfortable. I know that world because of Joseph Lister. I've done a lot of research in the 19th century and it should be a little bit faster process this time.

Robin Lindley: I'll look forward to that one. And please tell Adrian that I admire his work. The Spitting Image caricatures are amazing. It seems that you've taken a deep dive not only into medical history, but also the history of surgery.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: Yes, and again, I didn't do anything like that for my PhD. So, my supervisor is completely baffled, but also delighted that I'm enjoying engaging with people with medical history and where the stories are. And people seem to really love the surgical stories as well. I think Joseph Bell is more of a forensic story, so that will have a slightly different feel to it, but I don't know until I start writing. I'm just at the research phase right now.  

Robin Lindley: I wish you the best on this new project. Who are some of your influences as a nonfiction writer and a historian?

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: One of my favorite writers is Erik Larson. I've actually become friends with him which has been a joy because I've been reading his books since I was in high school. He wouldn't call himself a historian. He has a journalism background, but the way he tells a story is incredible.

I read his book Dead Wake about the sinking of the Lusitania when I was going through a rough time in my life. I couldn't get out of my bed and I was involved in my own problems, but that book got me to forget everything. It was told in such a gripping way. So, I love Eric Larson. And I love Karen Abbott who wrote a book called Sin in the Second City, which is about a famous brothel in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. That's a ripping book. So, there's a couple of people who it's a privilege to call friends now and they just write incredible narrative nonfiction.

Robin Lindley: I also admire Erik Larson’s work and have talked with him about a couple of his books. He was very thoughtful and generous and has a gift—like you—for bringing the past to life.

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: He's loves storytelling, and he goes where the story is. And he's given me a lot of advice in my own career. He blurbed this book and it was good to hear his thoughts. It's so good to follow in his footsteps because he's incredibly talented

Robin Lindley: Thanks Dr. Fitzharris for your thoughtful comments on Dr. Gillies, plastic surgery, the wounded in the Great War, and more. Is there anything that you'd like to add that you want readers to know?

Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris: I hope that people will find that I've done these men's stories justice. I entered into the book hoping that I could bring this history to life for people. As I said, you don't need to know anything about World War I and you don't need to know anything about medical history. Hopefully you can pick up The Facemaker and fall in love with this story, with these men, and come away with a better understanding of this incredible period.

Robin Lindley: Thanks again for sharing your insights Dr. Fitzharris. I know readers will appreciate your generosity and thoughtfulness. And congratulations on your engaging and groundbreaking new book The Facemaker. Best wishes on this book and your upcoming work.

 

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer, and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer's Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. Robin's email: robinlindley@gmail.com.

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Trump’s Involvement in the January 6 Conspiracy Is Easy to Prove

Donald Trump addresses the "Stop the Steal" Rally, January 6, 2021

 

 

The Italian author Primo Levi, himself a holocaust survivor, proclaimed that “Every age has its own fascism.” Today, Americans wonder whether we are in our own drift towards an undermining of democratic values, which comes not with a sudden coup d’état, but by a thousand cuts.

 

The House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection will try to make clear that the evidence points strongly to a political coup, calculated to overturn the 2020 election results and destroy the vote, the very foundation of American democracy.

 

The committee has already argued in a court filing that Trump and others were part of a conspiracy to defraud the United States. The panel wrote in a legal brief: “The Select Committee ... has a good-faith basis for concluding that [Trump]…engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States.”

 

The Supreme Court has stated categorically that conspiring  to defraud the United States includes  a plot “to interfere with or obstruct one of its lawful governmental functions.” And the events of January 6 fit the definition neatly.

 

Conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to commit an illegal act, along with an intent to achieve the agreement's goal. It has been called a “partnership in crime.”

 

Conspiracy is an easy crime to prove. The iconic jurist Learned Hand called it the “that darling of the prosecutor’s nursery.”

 

Conspiracy is proved by acts, declarations, and conduct. Conspiracy may be proved by circumstantial evidence: 

 

“Relevant circumstantial evidence [may] include: the joint appearance of defendants at transactions and negotiations in furtherance of the conspiracy; the relationship among codefendants; mutual representation of defendants to third parties; and other evidence suggesting unity of purpose or common design and understanding among conspirators to accomplish the objects of the conspiracy.”

 

 The objectives of the January 6 conspiracy could not be clearer or more unmistakable.

 

One becomes a member of a conspiracy by joining in its enterprise and making it his own. A conspirator must have knowledge of the conspiracy and participate in achieving its goals.

Members of the conspiracy are also liable for the foreseeable crimes of their fellows committed in furtherance of the common plot. And statements by one conspirator are admissible evidence against all.

So, if it’s all so easy, why, as many wonder, hasn’t Trump yet been indicted for seditious conspiracy like his follower “Enrique” Tarrio and four of his Proud Boys henchmen? A trial before a District of Columbia jury would seem like a slam dunk for the prosecutors.

The January 6 committee which, as reported in The Hill, has hired a seasoned TV producer to add a measure of theatricality to its presentation, has a “narrow” opportunity to make the case that January 6 was not some spontaneous riot, but a well-organized, well financed attempt to ride roughshod over the will of the people, and retain power in the hands of Donald Trump. Trump was the kingpin. His lieutenants organized the plot. Everything that happened was for his benefit, and subject to his control. He could have called off the assault on the Capitol, and was asked by his advisers, including his son, to do so. In the moment, he waited six hours. The conspirators included not only the pawns who stormed the Capitol that day, but the knights and rooks--like Tarrio and his henchmen who were not present in Washington--and the bishops and queens--the advisers and enablers who fashioned the plot, defined its objectives, and tried to make it happen.

It will be a tough uphill fight for the committee. The public may be bored with January 6. The passage of seventeen months may have diminished its significance in a public consciousness recently traumatized by Ukraine horrors and gun violence at home. The committee can only anticipate a typical Republican distraction from the hard factual record, claims of a witch hunt, partisanship, and repetition of the “Big Lie” that the election was stolen. The distraction will not come from the Republicans who are on the committee, but from those in the GOP, who may not even like Trump, but who want to make the threat to our democracy disappear as an issue for the midterm congressional elections.

 

It was Trump who refused to concede the election even after he had lost more than 50 lawsuits, brought in both federal and state courts, with many of his legal defeats coming from judges he himself appointed. It was Trump who urged his followers to march on the Capitol with false claims that Biden had stolen the election, and even said he would go with them until he thought better of it. It was Trump who pressured Mike Pence to take illegal steps to block Biden electors, while threatening Pence with the violence of the “Hang Mike Pence” mob which assaulted police officers and created  mayhem in the seat of government. And it was Trump who beseeched  Republican legislatures to set aside the electors the voters had chosen and replace them with pro-Trump slates.

 

A political case does not make a partisan witch hunt. Where there is criminality and corruption in politics, it must be brought to account under the rule of law. We have always done this in our history. Why is this time any different?

 

It is for the committee who must bring out the facts in excruciating detail of Trump’s corruption. It must do so in a way that leaves no doubt that he was at the center of the seditious conspiracy that ensnared Tarrio and his Proud Boys and makes Trump’s indictment ineluctable.

 

The peaceful transfer of power is something we have always enjoyed in America, and may have always taken too much for granted. We have seen public officials voted in, and others turned out. Other countries have had political coups and military juntas. It can’t happen here. But, it might. As Madeleine Albright warned: [F]ascism can come in a way that it is one step at a time, and in many ways then goes unnoticed until it's too late.

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The Roundup Top Ten for June 10, 2022

What Alito Got Wrong about the History of Abortion

by Leslie J. Reagan

"The logic that Alito uses in the draft opinion leans heavily on history — history that he gets egregiously wrong."

 

The Supreme Court Isn't Supposed to be this Powerful

by Nikolas Bowie and Daphna Renan

"Judicial supremacy is an institutional arrangement brought to cultural ascendancy by white people who wanted to undo Reconstruction and the rise of organized labor that had followed."

 

 

Previous Congressional Hearings Inform What to Expect from the Jan. 6 Committee

by Jennifer Selin

From KKK violence during Reconstruction to Watergate, high profile Congressional investigations have approached controversial issues. Partisanship is likely to be an obstacle to the goals of advancing transparency and public information. 

 

 

History Suggests Gun Control Will be an Uphill Fight

by Joanna Paxton Federico

The National Rifle Association has succeeded in blocking popular gun control legislation since it overcame strong public support in the 1930s for national handgun registration in FDR's "New Deal for Crime." 

 

 

Proud Boys Indictment Charges Attempt to Overthrow Government. Does it Matter?

by Heather Cox Richardson

The charge of seditious conspiracy by a paramilitary organization with close ties to the Trumpian Right is incredibly serious, but will it be met with a shrug?

 

 

Considering the Full Life of Wilma Mankiller

by Alaina E. Roberts

Wilma Mankiller's career as an activist included a stint as the first female head of the Cherokee Nation, but she must also be remembered for the mass disenrollment of the descendants of Cherokee Freedmen from the tribe's rolls and their exclusion from a share of new income to the tribe. 

 

 

The Second Destruction of Tulsa's Black Community

by Karlos K. Hill

Photographer Donald Thompson has set out to capture a visual history of Tulsa's Greenwood district, an African American community decimated first by the 1921 race massacre and then by urban renewal in the 1970s. Historian Karlos Hill interviews him about his work. 

 

 

A Marker Recognizing Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi is a Step Toward Justice

by Keisha N. Blain

As conservatives restrict the teaching of the history of racism in America, the town of Winona, Mississippi has taken a necessary step to memorialize the state-sanctioned jailhouse beating of Fannie Lou Hamer and other activists in 1963. 

 

 

Reading History for "Lessons" Misses the Point

by Daniel Immerwahr

"We read past authors as a sanity check. They reassure us that we’re not alone in what we see."

 

 

Ongoing US Territorial Possessions Perpetuate Colonialism and Racism

by Anders Bo Rasmussen

While much has changed over a century, the basic question of equal treatment for citizens in American territories has essentially remained the same.

 

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Discarding Legal Precedent to Control Women's Reproductive Rights is Rooted in Colonial Slavery

The Modern Medea (1867) depicts Margaret Garner, who, having escaped slavery, was accused in 1856 of murdering her daughter to spare her being returned to bondage.

The incident reflects the consequences of the American colonial legal innovation of partus sequitur ventrem discussed by the author.

 

 

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito made reference to the 13th century legal opinions of English jurist Henry de Bracton in his leaked draft opinion foreshadowing the court overturning Roe v. Wade. De Bracton was an ancient misogynist who believed women to be inferior to men, and that they sometimes actually gave birth to monsters. Alito also cited the 17th century English jurist Sir Matthew Hale, who sentenced women to death for witchcraft and did not believe marital rape possible because women were the property of men. These antiquated views are vile. That a 21st century Supreme Court justice would cite these men, repugnant. But American jurisprudence has long cherry-picked opinions from the English law upon which it was founded to suit the needs of the wealthy and powerful it serves, and women’s bodies have long been a fulcrum for determining which legal opinions to pick.

 

Key v. Mottrom, the 1656 case which came before the colonial-era Virginia Supreme Court, shows the extent to which American jurisprudence will torture English law to arrive at opinions favored by those in power. As in the case of abortion before today’s court, the stakes in the Key case could not have been higher, for they involved who would, and who would not, be considered a slave at birth. Thus, a case from the 17th century and a case four centuries later share in common that both are at the nexus of gender, class and race.

 

Elizabeth Key, born circa 1630, was the daughter of one of the first African women brought captive to Virginia in the 1620s, and an Englishman named Thomas Key, who arrived in Virginia in 1619. Key soon married an aristocratic woman named Martha and thereby ascended the ranks of colonial American power and wealth. Thomas Key died in 1636, but not before signing a document transferring young Elizabeth to the custody of one Humphrey Higginson, who sold her to William Mottrom. Upon Mottrom’s death, the executors of his estate sought to resell Elizabeth as property. Only this time she objected, suing Mottrom’s executors for her freedom, and that of her young infant son, John.

 

Key’s case was first heard in the Northumberland County Court, which ruled in her favor. But, on appeal she received an adverse ruling from the Virginia Appellate Court, thus setting up a showdown at the Virginia General Assembly, the colonial-era Supreme Court. In colonial America, there was no separation between the judiciary and the legislative branches of government; legislators were justices, and justices were legislators. Key pleaded she was not Mottrom’s property because under prevailing English law she was not a slave. Bondage or freedom, following English custom and law at the time, was based on the status (bound or free) of the father, not the mother. On that basis, the colonial Supreme Court issued an opinion (not a ruling) in Key’s favor and sent the case back to the lower Northumberland County Court for final disposition in 1659. Mottrom’s executors, probably sensing they would lose on appeal, offered no objections to the original ruling, so Elizabeth and her son were set free.

 

Other than genealogists tracing actor Johnny Depp’s ancestry to Elizabeth Key, her case would probably have remained an interesting footnote in American jurisprudence history were it not for the fact that colonial legislators and jurists realized that her victory opened an absolutely huge loophole in the legal underpinnings of slavery. Most interracial coupling during the early years of this country occurred when White men, forcibly or otherwise, had sex with Black women. If the children of those liaisons were by law free, then the foundations of slavery in America were set to crumble.

 

So legislators, who were also the colonial era jurists, swung into action following the Key verdict, much like legislators in conservative states swung into action following the original ruling in Roe v. Wade.  The rallying cry then was that the legal theory of partus sequitur patrem (the status of the offspring follows the father) had to be overturned for slavery to survive and to thrive in America. In the late 1600s, in Virginia and Maryland, a new legal theory partus sequitur ventrem (the status of the offspring follows the womb) took the place of the old English law, and statues were enacted and enforced to that effect. Not Gettysburg nor Antietam, but the female body—the Black female body—was the original ground upon which the battle for slavery in America took place.

 

Colonial reaction to Elizabeth Key’s case was just the first of many instances where English law was imported, then warped, by American jurisprudence to support slavery. Black women, other women of color, and all poorer women lacking the means to travel to states where abortion will still be legal will be most beset by the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. Alito’s leaked draft is a reminder of how the female body continues to be a battleground for matters of gender, class, and race; a battleground where powerful White men feel they have an inalienable right to rule.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183295 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183295 0
Regimes Around the World are Manipulating History and Threatening Historians

Rwandan President Paul Kagame meets with Vladimir Putin in 2018

 

 

The past is back at the center of today’s politics.

 

The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces on 24 February has highlighted Putin’s imperial instincts, the Russian coverage is determining future historiography, and the bogus historical claims of a mythical unity of Russian and Ukrainian people dating back to Kievan Rus seem to underlie a strategy of systematically targeting cultural heritage sites.

 

Simultaneously, Katie Stallard has connected official history politics in Russia, China and North Korea, concluding that the greatest threat of abuse of history is the “claim that… their nation is under threat, and that they must strengthen their military capabilities” – exemplified by the invasion of Ukraine, and feared in a potential invasion of Taiwan.

 

This focus on the outward-directed dangers is justified, but it should not overshadow that most of the negative effects of official abuse of history are experienced by historians and others concerned with the past inside a country. This is the case in Russia and China, as well as in countries recently appearing on the margins of international news: Rwanda and Sri Lanka. The threats faced by history producers within these countries can be illustrated by two types of historical abuse by governments: the persecution of history producers, and the suppression of commemorative events.

 

In March 2022, overshadowed by British asylum policies, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published its findings about the state of free speech in Rwanda. In 2018, the government of President and “darling tyrant” Paul Kagame adopted the latest version of a law making punishable, by up to seven years imprisonment, public speech questioning the events and statistics related to the 1994 Genocide. However, the law lacks clear definitions and its vague language is seen as instrumental in prosecuting legitimate debate, in particular over crimes committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), of which Kagame was the commander. Prosecution of legitimate historical discourse took place under earlier versions of the law, but in the lead-up to the thirtieth anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Kagame government has increased its efforts to combat “genocide ideology.”

 

There are numerous examples. On September 30, 2021, online commentator Yvonne Idamange was sentenced to fifteen years in prison and a 2 million Rwandan Francs fine ($1,930) for denigrating genocide artifacts and minimizing the genocide. In fact, Idamange had criticized the ways in which the genocide was commemorated, arguing that remains of the victims should not be on display at memorials, and had drawn attention to crimes that were committed by the RPF in the genocide’s aftermath. Similarly, Aimable Karasira, another online commentator and a former professor of information communication technology at the University of Rwanda, was dismissed in August 2020 and arrested on May 31, 2021, for having discussed killings by RPF soldiers. Moreover, in February 2020, gospel musician Kizito Mihigo was found dead in a police cell. In 2014, he had released the song Igisobanuro Cy’urupfu (The Meaning of Death), suggesting that national remembrance should include all victims of the genocide. Following the release, he was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for conspiring against the government. His music was banned. Kizito was pardoned in 2018, but again arrested on February 13, 2020. Government critics believe he was murdered.

 

In Sri Lanka, the government has used legal resources to ban commemorative practices. On May 18, the first-ever public vigil for the Tamil victims of the Civil War (1983-2009) was held in Colombo. Thirteen years prior, on May 18, 2009, governmental forces led by then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa had killed Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), effectively ending the war. Since then, May 18 has been the national Remembrance Day to mark the capitulation of the LTTE. As early as 2011, a United Nations’ panel of experts had concluded that the government held a tight grip on commemorative practices. This impacted especially the annual vigil for the Tamil people who had died during the war.

 

The government’s grip on commemorative practices has only grown worse during the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, characterized by a general unwillingness to ensure accountability for crimes committed during the war. In 2019, Rajapaksa, who was top defense strategist during the presidency of his brother Mahinda, fully prohibited the commemoration of the LTTE. In September 2021, Tamil Member of Parliament Selvarajah Kajendran was arrested for commemorating an LTTE-member. In late November, relatives of deceased LTTE-members were forced out of cemeteries by armed troops. The Mothers of the Disappeared, protesting for information about disappearances that occurred during the war, were attacked by police on 20 March 2022. This year’s vigil in Colombo, instead of indicating a more inclusive space for commemorations, rather seems to be the effect of the immense economic pressures on Rajapaksa.

 

Events in Sri Lanka and Rwanda are mirrored in China and Russia. In mainland China, even searching for number combinations such as 6-4, 63+1 and 35 has been censored as it might refer to the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Meanwhile, Hong Kong hosted the only large-scale commemoration of the massacre. However, since 2020 the vigil has been banned, as it challenges the presentation of an upward development from the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. In November 2021, the sixth plenary session of the CCP Central Committee passed its third ever resolution on China’s history, in which it praised Xi Jinping’s “historic achievements” within the CCP’s 100-year history.

 

In Russia, the persecution of history producers began well before the invasion of Ukraine. Most recently, historian Yuri Dmitriev was sentenced to fifteen years on bogus charges of pornography. Working as the head of the Karelian chapter of Memorial, a history NGO investigating Soviet-era crimes, his research had identified around 13,000 victims of the Great Terror (1936-1939). In December 2021, the Supreme Court went even further and ordered the complete liquidation of Memorial, accusing it of distorting historical memory and portraying the USSR as a terrorist state.

 

These are only a few examples of abuses of history by governments – the Annual Reports of the Network of Concerned Historians testifies to the large and global scale. The effects of historical manipulation are most severely felt by the historians and history practitioners within these history-twisting regimes. They are seen as especially threatening when their work is able to undermine the carefully constructed singular interpretation of history that functions as one of the foundational pieces of the political reign: whether projected as the defender of order and stability after conflict (Kagame, Rajapaksa), or as the guardian to continue the great achievements of the past and protect them against “foreign (Western) influences” (Xi, Putin).

 

This demonstrates that official attempts to hinder bona fide historical research and debate through legislation or other means, are the first signals that history is at risk of abuse – an important warning for the United States as well.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183300 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183300 0
Jonathan Katz on Smedley Butler and American Empire

 

 

“I spent 33 years and 4 months in active service as a member of our country's most agile military force—the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from a second lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period I spent most of my time being a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.” Smedley D. Butler, major general, U.S. Marine Corps (ret.), 1935

 

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the United States began building a powerful empire beyond the contiguous states on the North American continent. The US military—often at the behest of American businesses and financial institutions—was at the forefront of interventions in numerous countries from Cuba and Haiti to China and the Philippines. In some cases, the nations were annexed, the usually nonwhite populations were subjugated, and puppet governments that protected American interests were installed through force or other persuasion.

Most of these violent campaigns are now forgotten. For most Americans, this bloody history of American conquest is presented, if at all, as a series of heroic adventures to bring seemingly less advanced peoples our ideals and to prepare them to govern themselves.

The US Marines played a prominent role in making safe for democracy the far-flung targets of American imperialism. And Marine officer Smedley Butler (1881-1940), known as “the Fighting Quaker,” served with distinction in virtually all of these actions to expand American empire.

Butler was the most highly decorated Marine before the Second World War and attained the rank of major general by the time of his retirement in 1931. In the last years of his life, however, he became an unlikely voice against war, fascism, capitalism, and imperialism. Although Butler was a widely revered American hero and darling of the press during his military career, today he is almost unknown, as are the actions he served in and later disavowed, including participating in brutal invasions, improvising terror campaigns, installing puppet leaders, creating militarized police forces to protect American profiteers, and erasing history by destroying archives and silencing anti-American opponents.

 

Smedley Butler in China, 1900 (Marine Corps History Department)

 

Award-winning author Jonathan M. Katz follows in the footsteps of Smedley Butler as he recounts the early history of American imperialism in his revelatory and groundbreaking new book Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire (St. Martin’s Press). Mr. Katz chronicles Butler’s evolution from his Quaker youth to his military service to his surprising repudiation of war and imperialism in his later years.

Mr. Katz also brings the legacy of past US interventions to the present with his firsthand reports back from his travels to the sites of Butler’s service, the targets of conquest and colonization. This vivid history is based on Mr. Katz’s meticulous research into sources such as Butler’s personal letters and diaries and documents from fellow Marines and political and business leaders, as well as materials from those who fought the Americans and lived under American rule.

 Mr. Katz is a widely acclaimed foreign correspondent and author. His first book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, was a PEN Literary Award finalist and won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Cornelius Ryan Award for the year’s best book on international affairs. He is also a recipient of the James Foley/Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism. Further, he regularly contributes to the New York Times and other publications as well as offering broadcast commentary on radio and television. He has been a National Fellow at New America and a director of the Media & Journalism Initiative at Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute.

In addition, as the Associated Press correspondent in Haiti in 2010, Mr. Katz survived the deadliest earthquake ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, and he provided the first international alert of that disaster. He later uncovered evidence that United Nations peacekeepers had caused and were covering up a devastating post-quake cholera epidemic. His initial stories prompted him to conduct six more years of investigation along with epidemiologists and legal advocates for the victims.

Mr. Katz generously discussed his work and his new book by telephone from his office in Virginia.

Robin Lindley: Congratulations Mr. Katz on your wide ranging and groundbreaking book Gangsters of Capitalism on the history of American empire. Before getting to the book, I’d like to ask about your background. You really took a deep dive into the research on these overlooked or forgotten American military engagements, wars, occupations, and massacres during the early 20th century. Your research is meticulous. You are an award-winning journalist, but did you also have a background in history?

Jonathan Katz: Thank you. I have a bachelor's degree in American studies and history, and I studied history at the undergraduate level. My wife, Claire Payton, is a professional historian with a PhD in history, so I hesitate to say that I'm trained in history after seeing what it looks like to be trained at the doctoral level.

But I studied history and was inculcated in basic historical methods as an undergrad. I had to re-educate myself with this book. I had never worked in an archive before I started this project, for instance. I had to learn all of that – it was really my wife who gave me my formative instruction on how to navigate the first archive that I went to, the National Archives. Then I went on from there.

And I had some other tools in my background because there’s quite a lot of overlap between the methods of doing journalistic research and historical research. Certainly, in the parts of the book when I’m doing oral history and interviewing people, I drew much more on my experience as a journalist.

I should also acknowledge a great professor from my freshman year at Northwestern. I took an eye-opening course on U.S. diplomatic history with Ken Bain, who is a historian, though these days I believe he mostly teaches other professors how to teach.

Robin Lindley: Your writing about history is lively and accessible. I’m older than you, but I didn’t get much of the American imperial history you share when I was in high school or college. It seems that American foreign policy was framed then in terms of civilizing other nations and bringing the gifts of our idealism to less fortunate people. And I now thought that I knew a lot about the history of American imperialism, but your book revealed much more for me.

Jonathan Katz: I also didn’t learn the history that I cover and recount in this book in my own education growing up. It was a huge blind spot for me as well, despite the fact that I did study some things that you could certainly describe as American imperialism in school. I took Prof. Bain’s course in the mid-nineties on the history of foreign and diplomatic relations from 1945 to the present, but in that one I learned about American imperialism mostly during the Cold War. Even then I knew very little about American imperialism that could really bridge my gap between the end of Reconstruction to World War II. That was just a blind spot in my learning.

Robin Lindley: I realize that you had your own firsthand, personal experience with American imperialism from your years in Haiti. Your powerful earlier book, The Big Truck That Went By, is a brilliant account of your experience there. Did your interest in the history of imperialism grow from your experience in Haiti?

Jonathan Katz: I first encountered that history in my own life when I was based in the Caribbean as an Associated Press correspondent—first for two years in the Dominican Republic, and then for three and a half years in Haiti. I had no idea that the United States had occupied both of those countries for as long as they had. It was a very, very visceral lesson in the endurance and profound effects of American imperial control on those countries and on the people in them. And I experienced that in real time when I was reporting there.  

That’s how I came to do this book. I put together the things that I had in my head with history such as the CIA coup against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala [in 1954] and other things that happened earlier that made sense as an arc. I picked up bits and pieces and then had to assemble them together.

Robin Lindley: Then you focus on the history through the lens of the “Fighting Quaker,” the once revered US Marine officer Smedley Butler, who eventually attained the rank of major general and was the most decorated Marine before World War II. How did you decide to follow in Butler’s footsteps and then become a character yourself by traveling to each country and bringing up to date in the different areas where he served?

Jonathan Katz: I was trying to solve a couple of different problems from a writing standpoint. When I first embarked on the project, I didn’t know if there was going to be enough material directly from Butler’s journals or letters. I was also afraid that the account was going to feel remote to a modern-day audience. And the last thing was that I’m not a professional historian. I'm a journalist, and my core competencies that mark the good parts of my work today are being out in a country, smelling the air, talking to the people, and observing things in real time. I wanted to bring that sensibility to the book.

As it turned out, I actually started digging into the archives, and I learned—much to my shock and glee—that there was a ton of material. Butler had written incredible letters in incredible detail. And there were things written by other Marines, and then by the people that the Marines were fighting against or serving among.

So, the Butler era parts of the book were much richer and much more accessible than I thought they were going to be. That created a new and unexpected writing problem, which was that I then had to make certain that the modern material I was writing would be as interesting and as engaging and as revelatory as the historical stuff. I hope I pulled it off.

Initially, I was trying to solve the problem of keeping a mass audience engaged as if they were there, and it turned out that I had an embarrassment of riches with all of this amazing historical material. I was doing journalism and oral history in the modern day to follow up on the history. That created a writing issue of trying to figure out the structures of all of these themes which was a negotiation that lasted five to seven years. And it wasn't smoke and mirrors to make things seem more relevant. I wanted to show that this era is relevant and the things that happened in Butler’s Day continue. They didn’t begin with him and didn't end at the end of his career or with the Second World War.

Robin Lindley: It's an innovative and engrossing book that has such resonance now. What are a few things you might say to introduce readers to Smedley Butler? He was a distinguished Marine officer who surprisingly dedicated the last years of his life challenging militarism and more.  I don't think most people now remember him.

Jonathan Katz: Butler was a Marine who joined the Marine Corps in 1898 during the war against Spain. He was 16 years old, and he lied about his age to join the Corps. His first duty posting was the freshly seized Cuban port of Guantanamo Bay, which the Americans had just taken and have not relinquished since. And from there, he went with very few exceptions to every invasion, intervention, occupation, and war that the United States fought from 1898 on. He retired in 1931as a major general. He was twice the recipient of the Medal of Honor and a number of other awards.

But the thing that really makes him stand out in American history is that he spent the last ten years of his life in the 1930s speaking out against American imperialism and crusading against war in general as well as fascism. The book begins and ends with this episode in his life in 1933 and 1934 when he was approached by a bond salesman who claimed to be representing a group of powerful capitalists, industrialists, and bankers with a plan to essentially overthrow Franklin Roosevelt and replace him with a fascist dictator.

Butler testified to that effect before a congressional committee. Obviously, that plot never came to fruition, but the bond salesman alleged that many people were involved. Today, there are many around the world who have heard of Butler, but the groups that most retain his memory are the Marines who learned about the two Medals of Honor in boot camp; conspiracy theory nuts who learned about “the business plot,” as it has become known; and antiwar activists who like to pass around the pamphlet that he published in 1935, War is a Racket.

Robin Lindley: You vividly recount the many different campaigns that Butler was involved with from Cuba and the Philippines to China, the Caribbean, Central America, and beyond. There were many invasions, wars, coups, and occupations that most people never learn about. For example, I think many people know little or nothing about the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) when the US military crushed a Filipino rebellion for independence and massacred combatants and civilians alike.

Jonathan Katz: It’s very hard to encapsulate all of Butler’s campaigns. That’s why I wrote an entire book about it. But there are multiple ways to speak to the history.

When talking specifically about the Philippines, what happened there was that the United States declared war on the entire Spanish Empire in 1898, which meant not just in Cuba, but in all of Spain's holdings including Puerto Rico, which we took, and then the really big prize of the Philippines, an enormous group of islands 7,000 islands. And the Philippines are across the South China Sea from China, and the big goal of American capitalists was markets that, to this day, people still dream about. If they could just sell goods to one percent of all the people in China, they would get rich. So, people were thinking of that, even then.

The Philippines had been a colony of Spain for three centuries at that point. Like the Cubans, the leaders of the Philippine revolutionary movement against Spain welcomed the Americans at first as partners in their fight for independence only to be betrayed by the Americans. Congress, responding to internal pressure in American politics, had indemnified the US against annexing Cuba. But there was no protection for anywhere else in the Spanish empire, including Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

So, at the end of the war against Spain, the Americans staged a mock battle against the Spanish in which Spain surrendered to the Americans but not to the Filipinos. And the McKinley Administration paid off the Spanish government to the tune of 20 million 1898 dollars. The US then declared itself the colonial master of the Philippines. We annexed it outright and Filipinos clearly did not like that. A war broke out between the Americans and the Filipinos, and that lasted into 1902, with the fighting continuing in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago for another ten years after that.

It was an extraordinarily bloody war. The Americans won and the Philippines became a wholly-owned U.S. colony until World War II. And a year after World War II ended, once we had properly demolished Manila in kicking out the Japanese, the Truman administration finally gave the Philippines its independence. But the country remained, to a large extent, a client state of the United States for decades after that.

The other thing that I would say as an umbrella way of looking at all of these actions is that there were very clear material and political reasons for why American leaders at that moment were so interested in expanding the reach of the United States into all these different territories. A lot of it, as Butler identifies in his writings in the 1930s, comes down to capital. It comes down to specific resources that Americans could gain control over. There were ports and shipping lanes that Americans gain control over. For some people. like Teddy Roosevelt at the beginning, it's very much a political project. He saw an opportunity to use American commercial and military power to create a nation that would rival the major states and empires of Europe. And a lot of other people were along for the ride: bankers, industrialists, shipping merchants, and others.

All of these military episodes provided an opportunity to get in on the commercial ground floor, as Butler said about China, and to control either outright or informally local governments who would defend American access to their markets and their resources against all others. That is what marks essentially all of the episodes that I talk about in the book.

Robin Lindley: And it’s interesting that Butler, in addition to participating in invasions and bloody massacres and occupations, also had a gift for erasing history. You go into that activity in some depth in writing about Haiti around 1915, when the US actually took over the Haitian government.

Jonathan Katz:  Yes. The US invaded Haiti in 1915 and declared a formal, official occupation of Haiti. Occupation was a euphemism to suggest we were not colonizing them but were just occupying them for a little while, and that little while ended up being until 1919.

The episode that you're talking about in particular was in 1917 when Butler stormed the Haitian parliament. And remember, Haiti as a country was born in a revolution of enslaved people against slavery and their French colonial masters. They had been a country for over a hundred years at that point in Butler’s career.

Haiti prohibited foreigners from owning land there, and American capitalists don't like that prohibition. Because the US was occupying Haiti, Americans wanted to make money there. They wanted to own land. To own sugar plantations and pineapple fields. Then the State Department crafted a constitution for Haiti. When he ran for vice president in the 1920s on the campaign trail Franklin Roosevelt actually claimed that he personally wrote the constitution, although that's hard to believe considering that this constitution most likely would have come out of the State Department and not the Navy Department where FDR served.

The Haitians didn't want this constitution but we had already decapitated the executive and we selected a puppet president. However, the Parliament was still nominally independent and was preparing to reject ratification of this document. Butler then assembled a column of Marines and Haitian gendarmes, which were the client military that Butler set up in Haiti. They ended up being the model for the future client militaries in places such as the Caribbean and Vietnam and all the way to Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, Butler led the client military, the gendarmes, and his Marines onto the floor of the Haitian Parliament and declared the Parliament shuttered, and the Parliament didn't meet again for another 12 years. In the absence of the Parliament, the Marines and the gendarmes then oversaw an election in which the people were essentially coerced to vote for this constitution.

In the immediate aftermath of the shuttering of Parliament, Butler called all of the newspaper editors in Port au Prince to his office and ordered them not to breathe a word of the details of how Parliament was shut down and how this vote went down. Butler also went to the Parliament building and personally removed from the Parliamentary archive records of the last votes that the Parliament had been undertaking to reject this constitution.

We know about this coup by Butler now because, when Republicans took power in the US in the 1920s, one of their first orders of business was to hold hearings in the Senate to investigate the details of what happened during the occupation of Haiti – which up until then had been overseen by Democrats. They called to testify a witness who would become the first post occupation president of Haiti. He and his colleagues told Senators what happened, which is the only reason that we know. This was a very clear example of the US suppression and destruction of the historical record—in real time.

But the Republicans did nothing to end the occupation of Haiti. It ended up being Franklin Roosevelt who ended the occupation in 1934.

Robin Lindley: As you vividly recount, Butler’s evolution was incredible. He was a devoted Marine who was decorated for serving in brutal campaigns usually against non-white populations in numerous countries. The title of your book, Gangsters of Capitalism, captures a lot about the evolution of this dedicated military officer who turned around in the 1930s to become a voice for anti-imperialism, anti-fascism, and the anti-war movement. And, as you mentioned, he exposed a fascist coup planned by far-right business leaders. That story is especially timely in view of recent anti-democratic movements and the rightwing coup to reverse our free and fair presidential election in 2020. Who was behind the business coup in the 1930s to overthrow the FDR Administration and how was Butler involved?

Jonathan Katz: The bond salesman who approached Butler in 1933 was Gerald C. MacGuire, and he sold bonds for a Wall Street firm headed by a guy named Grayson Mallet-Prevost Murphy who, as I found in my research, was really the linchpin of this plan that evolves over the course of 1933 and 1934.

As it starts out, they want Butler to go to an American Legion meeting and denounce Franklin Roosevelt for taking the dollar off the gold standard. And they try to convince Butler by appealing to him on the basis of what they knew was his immense sympathy for the veterans who were demanding what was known as “the bonus,” the back pay that they had been promised by a succession of presidents going back to Woodrow Wilson for their service in the First World War. To Butler, however, that made no sense. What did the gold standard have to do with the bonus? Nothing.

But the courtship of Butler continued, and by August 1934, MacGuire had been on a junket across fascist Europe. He visited Rome and Berlin, where Mussolini and in Hitler respectively were in power. Also in 1934, MacGuire crucially visited Paris just a couple of weeks after a proto-January 6th moment in which a loose and often infighting confederation of French fascists, far right groups, and a group of breakaway communists stormed the French legislature to prevent essentially a handover of power to a center-left government on the basis of a bunch of conspiracy theories. The idea was that that French Centrists were going to somehow turn France into a new redoubt of Bolshevism.

MacGuire told Butler that [the business plot] would basically do here what they did in France, modeled on a group called the Croix de Feu which was a far right, quasi-fascist, French veterans’ organization. And this business group wanted Butler to lead half a million armed World War I veterans up Pennsylvania Avenue and then surround the White House to intimidate Franklin Roosevelt into either resigning or delegating power to a cabinet secretary who the plotters would name.

MacGuire told Butler, among others, that a group would emerge to back this effort, and Butler identified the group as the American Liberty League which took shape in the weeks after a meeting between Butler and MacGuire in Philadelphia.

Robin Lindley: I don’t recall learning about the Liberty League before reading your book.

Jonathan Katz: The American Liberty League was essentially a political activist group led by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in America then. It was the brainchild of one of the DuPont brothers of DuPont Chemical, one of the leading weapons manufacturers in the world at the time. There was also Alfred P. Sloan, the head of General Motors, and the heads of McCann Erickson ad agency, Phillips Petroleum, Sun Oil, etc. There were also powerful politicians including the last two Democratic presidential candidates, Al Smith and John W. Davis. And crucially, in terms of our story here, Gerald MacGuire's boss, Grayson Murphy, was the treasurer of the Liberty League. Murphy told Butler that this group would provide the financial muscle, the weapons, the strategy, and so on.

It was with Murphy's allegation to Butler and then Butler's testimony to Congress that the Liberty League would be involved. That is how the business plot involved all of these extremely powerful figures in the Liberty League that sold itself as a society to protect the Constitution, but was actually an anti-New Deal front. These businessmen were capitalists who were afraid that their fellow patrician President Roosevelt would sell them out and basically turn America into a Bolshevik state. That was the way they saw the world, which is still the way that a lot of conservatives today in 2022 see any attempt at social democracy or democratic socialism, including programs like Social Security and the Civilian Conservation Corps and other projects that were part of the New Deal. And that was the Liberty League view.

The Liberty League itself didn’t last for very long as a major force in American politics. The New Deal was so successful that attempts to create coalitions to dismantle it weren’t very successful for the rest of FDR’s presidency. By the time he ran for his third and fourth terms, the Republicans who ran against him had to fashion themselves as liberals to be taken seriously because conservatism was looked down upon. But MacGuire was courting Butler in 1933 at the very beginning of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency when those tendencies had not yet gelled. And Grayson Murphy was a longtime financier with extensive experience in military intelligence. He had been all over the world as part of America’s imperial project. For him or a DuPont or any of the other big, powerful figures of the Liberty League, there was then an opportunity to end the New Deal. They knew that they wouldn’t be able to do it at the ballot box even by 1934, but at least some of them plausibly thought that they could do it using violence, and that’s what we see in the Liberty League.

Robin Lindley: Butler’s testimony put an end to the business coup, it seems. What do you think happened with Butler that caused his evolution, that prompted his antiwar and anti-fascist views in the 1930s? He conceded that, as a Marine, he had been “a high class muscle man” for American business. Did he discover his conscience?

Jonathan Katz: He was a Quaker who came from an antiwar and egalitarian tradition, which was part of the reason, ironically, that he got involved in the Marines in the first place. When he went to war in 1898 against the Spanish, he was fighting an anti-imperialist war. He, like a lot of Americans, had learned about the horrific things that the Spanish were doing in Cuba at that moment. Most notoriously, the Spanish governor general in Cuba invented concentration camps the 1890s.

Butler, in a contradictory, blinkered way, totally disregards the Quaker’s peace testimony, which bans [participation] in all wars and all military actions for any pretense whatsoever. But there was a Quaker route for Butler in his mind as he went to help free “little Cuba,” as he put it, from the Spanish. And, maybe to a certain extent and for his own material reasons, he lost sight of his original reasons for joining the Marines.  He became obsessed with proving himself as a man and as a Marine.

He accrued status and fame and attracted his wife Ethel, and all of these other things as a Marine officer. But by the 1920s he was starting to turn back a bit [to Quakerism]. I think also that he suffered from what's now known as moral injury. He was someone who grew up with a deep moral code which he was violating over and over again.

On his last Marine mission [in 1927], Butler returned to China for the second time, this time as a general, and he was there basically for first moment of the Chinese Civil War between the Communists and the Nationalists. He spent a couple of years in China and also saw the coming Japanese invasion and occupation. The Japanese were also involved and were there alongside him. He uses power as a general to keep his Marines out of battle and to do everything that he can to prevent the outbreak of what he sees coming: a potential world war in the Pacific, which of course later occurs.

Robin Lindley: And Butler also was defending Standard Oil in China then.

Jonathan Katz: Exactly. He was deployed to Shanghai, and he ended up in Tianjin, the port closest to Beijing, on the Grand Canal near where it hits the ocean. Standard Oil gave the Marines space to station on their compound. Basically, the only real action that his Marines saw in his years in China during that mission was putting out a fire at the Standard Oil compound, which won acclaim.

Standard Oil in particular, and other American business interests, were the main reason the Marines were sent to China because there was spiraling violence in China and Americans wanted defense. And there was a long track record of Marines defending oil interests, most notably in Mexico in 1914, the place where Butler received his first Medal of Honor. He was called into Mexico by the lawyer for Texaco and Standard Oil, William F. Buckley, Sr., who actually asked for the invasion of Mexico in 1914.

Robin Lindley: Did Butler ever express second thoughts about racism and or write with sympathy for the non-white populations that he often engaged with military force?

Jonathan Katz: I found no indication that he ever did any real soul searching on race. What we today call structural white supremacy was all around him, including a very overt white seal on his Marine collar. I think that race remained a major blind spot for him.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing those glimpses from the complicated history of American empire. I appreciate that you traveled to each of the locations where Butler served and that, in addition to your archival research, you were on the ground and updated these stories with reports from these areas now. You learned that even if people in America don't know much about Smedley Butler and the Marines, certainly people in these far-flung sites of empire do.

Jonathan Katz: Yes. To a great extent this was a book about historical memory—the things that get remembered and the things that don't. The epigraph of the book is a Haitian proverb: “The one who deals the blow forgets. The one who carries the scar remembers.”

I wanted to go to all of the places where Butler and his Marines went. There's no replacement for getting out and being in a place and talking to people and then feeling the air and seeing what things look like. You can't really recreate through photos and letters, especially very old ones.

I also knew that the people in these places carry with them in some cases personal memories, and in other cases familial and communal memories of these moments that Americans don't know anything about for the most part. They are relegated to very specialized areas of academic and historical and military studies.

One of the most telling experiences that I had along those lines was in the Philippines on the island of Samar. I went to the village of Balangiga, which was a place where there was an enormous massacre of an occupying US Army unit by some local insurgents and villagers. Then there was a revenge massacre carried out by Littleton Waller and the Marines on orders to turn the island into a “howling wilderness.” That’s a place that people may know because, over the course of these reprisals, American troops took the church bells from the main church in of Balangiga and held onto them until they were returned in 2018. When I was there, I met with the mayor of Balangiga. I asked how he understood this period because, in the middle of Balangiga, there is an incredible monument with life size statues in gold depicting a diorama of the massacre of the American soldiers in 1901.

While I was there, the mayor told me about a pageant that the town puts on in which they recreate both the initial massacre of Americans and then the US revenge massacre of local people. I asked him how he looked at Americans today when he leaves his office every day and sees this statue and the town puts on this pageant. He talked about how he actually has family in the United States and he has a brother who was a US Marine. Because of the long period of US colonization in the Philippines, there's a very deep and very profound relationship between Filipinos and Americans that involves a lot of allyship and sympathy. I also asked him about the pageant and he said it is very important that we remember the past. And when I asked how he felt about Americans today, he said this is all in the past, and we can forget it. And then I said it sounds like you're saying that we have to remember and forget the past at the same time. He didn’t hesitate. He just said yes. And I think that captures the complexity and all of these issues, even for Smedley Butler.

America represented a lot of good things and some terrible events. The past is useful in some ways, and the past is destructive in other ways, and remembering these things can be destructive to other people's goals in the present, so there is a real negotiation between remembering and forgetting, and that reality infuses all of these circumstances right up until today.

Robin Lindley: And we’re still empire building in other ways now. And our democracy is under threat as demonstrated by the January 6th attack on the Capitol. And the Big Lie of the former president persists.

Jonathan Katz: Exactly. When I set out to write this book in 2016, I thought I would be writing about the roots of, of America's neoliberal empire in the early 20th century as we were about to experience the presidency of Hillary Clinton. Instead, history in our own time turned in a very different direction. All of the time that I was writing this book, the fault lines widened in America. It was only by doing this very granular and in-depth history that takes very seriously the material reality of both the reasons for and the practice of American imperialism in many different circumstances, that I could really see that the ties between the things that we normally relegate to either the realms of foreign policy or domestic policy.  I could see how those things come together and the ways that wars and the other things that we do out there have this overwhelming tendency to always come back home.

We are seeing in America, at this moment, the effects of over a century of imperialism and dehumanization and using violence to get our way. We're seeing those things come back here. That was good for my book as a writer, but very bad for me and everybody else who is an American. And it reached its contemporary height on January 6th.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for your sharing your insights and thoughtful comments Mr. Katz. Gangsters of Capitalism is a groundbreaking and carefully researched examination of American empire. Congratulations again on the book and the glowing reviews. Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer, and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer's Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, art, and culture. Robin's email: robinlindley@gmail.com.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154608 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154608 0
The Dobbs Decision Punctures the Supreme Court's Sacred Mythology  

 

 

In high school and college history classes we tend to teach what I now consider two myths about the United States Supreme Court: the myth of impartiality and a myth about the origin of judicial review in the 1803 Court majority decision in Marbury v. Madison.

 

In a November 2018 response to President Donald Trump, Chief Justice John Roberts asserted that the United States does not have “Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clin­ton judges. What we have is an extraordin­ary group of dedic­ated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appear­ing before them. The inde­pend­ent judi­ciary is some­thing we should all be thank­ful for.” Unfortunately, as Americans have witnessed in the 1930s FDR court-packing fight, in efforts by Presidents Nixon and Reagan to nominate unqualified or highly ideological candidates to the Supreme Court, and in the recent actions of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to block an Obama nominee for the Supreme Court, push through a last minute Trump nominee, and fill the lower federal courts with rightwing judges, Trump was right and Roberts was wrong.

 

Politically conservative decisions by the Supreme Court have been the norm, with possibly the only exception being the Warren Court of the 1950s and 1960s. From 1840 until the Civil War the Supreme Court was a pro-slavery Court dominated by Southerners Roger Taney (Maryland), James Wayne (Georgia), John Catron (Tennessee), John McKinley (Alabama), Peter Daniel (Virginia), and John Campbell (Alabama). After the Civil War the Court dismantled civil rights protections for formally enslaved Africans and free Blacks with a series of decisions culminating in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Eric Foner argues in The Second Founding,” the post-Civil War 13, 14, and 15th Amendments “were nullified in the generation after Reconstruction, that, little by little, the rights - the right to equal protection of the law, the right to vote, things like that - were just taken away in the South with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court of the United States.” Post-Civil War Supreme Courts through the 1930s were also notoriously pro-capital and anti-labor, even declaring unconstitutional early New Deal legislation aimed at addressing conditions during the Great Depression.

 

The influence of the Warren Court, which officially lasted from 1953 to 1969 when Earl Warren was Chief Justice, continued at least until 1973 with the Roe v. Wade decision, signed by a 7-2 majority of the Justices. Earl Warren, the Republican Governor of California and the Republican candidate for vice president in 1948, was committed to broad consensus-building on the Court, the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision outlawing de jure racial segregation, was decided by a unanimous vote. Under Warren, the Court returned to the original interpretation of the 14th Amendment, establishing federal protection for due process rights and equal protection of law. The idea that the Constitution had to be understood as a living document interpreted in the light of contemporary concerns was best articulated by Justice William Brennan. Both Warren and Brennan were appointed to the Court by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.

 

The Majority opinion in Roe v. Wade was written by Justice Harry Blackmun and signed by Justices William Brennan, William Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis Powell, Potter Stewart, and Chief Justice Warren Burger. Blackmun, Powell, and Burger were nominated to the Court by Republican President Richard Nixon; Douglas by Democrat FDR; Brennan and Stewart by Republican Dwight Eisenhower, and Marshall by Democrat Lyndon Johnson. The two dissenting votes in Roe v. Wade were by William Rehnquist, a Richard Nixon appointee, and Byron White, appointed to the Court by John F. Kennedy. We will not see that type of “non-partisan” decision by the Supreme Court anytime in the near future.

 

Since 1982, the Federalist Society (Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies) has led a rightwing effort to overturn the moderate, sensible, modern Constitutional interpretations of the Warren Court. It claims to be “committed to the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.”  In practice that means an end to federal protection of voting rights and diversity programs, limitations on environmental protection, opposition to same-sex marriage and gender equality, anti-union decisions, and opposition to abortion and reproductive freedom. Effectively the Federalist Society agenda would mean once again overturning the 14th Amendment requiring states respect the rights of citizens and persons living under the jurisdiction of the United States and 9th Amendment protections for personal unenumerated rights, including the right to privacy, a right cherished by Southern slaveholders who were forcing concubinage on enslaved African women. Of the current nine members of the Supreme Court of the United States, the rightwing six, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and Amy Coney Barrett are members of the Federalist Society.

 

The Federalist cabal on the Supreme Court is now set to overturn Roe v. Wade by imposing an antiquated and rejected interpretation of the 14th Amendment. The leaked draft “Opinion of the Court” in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, written by Justice Alito, declares the majority decision in Roe v. Wade an “abuse of judicial authority” and “egregiously wrong from the start.” Alito wants to assign decisions on the right of a woman to have an abortion to state legislatures, although the 14th Amendment expressly states that no state can deny a person equal protection of the law. He also wants to eliminate 9th Amendment protections for unenumerated personal rights, including the right to privacy that protects the right to choose your sexual partner and the right to use birth control.

 

The power of the Supreme Court to dictate law and the principal of judicial review is rooted in America’s history of racism. Even decisions by the Warren Court to overturn racist law were made because elected officials were too often paralyzed by fear that enraged white voters would turn them out of office if they passed laws protecting the rights of African Americans.

 

Marbury v. Madison was a very relatively narrow Supreme Court decision that tried to balance claims made by competing factions—political parties unforeseen by the Framers—that were emerging in the country. The Court ruled that in the creation of Courts and judgeships Congress had not followed guidelines established in the Constitution. Chief Justice Marshall, for the Court majority, wrote “The authority given to the Supreme Court by the act establishing the judicial system of the United States to issue writs of mandamus to public officers appears not to be warranted by the Constitution.” A writ of mandamus compels a lower court to act on a higher court’s decision. Marshall rhetorically concluded, “the Constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the legislature,” but he did not expound a theory of judicial review and the Supreme Court did not begin reviewing and throwing out other Congressional acts.

 

Court authority was extended in three additional early cases, but again these were relatively narrow. In McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the Court blocked efforts by Maryland to tax a federally chartered bank; in Cohens v. Virginia (1821), the Court affirmed its right to review state court decisions addressing federal laws or the Constitution; and in Gibbons v. Odgen (1824) the Court cited the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce to mediate a dispute between New York and New Jersey over Hudson river navigation

 

The Supreme Court really began to assert a broader right to judicial review of federal and state laws starting in the 1840s and 1850s in efforts to protect the slave system and institutionalize white racism, something not expressly stated in the Constitution but definitely implied by the three fifths (Art. 1, Sec. 2), return of fugitive slaves (Art. IV, Sec. 2), and regulation of the slave trade (Art. 1, Sec. 9) clauses.

 

In 1842, in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction in Pennsylvania of Edward Prigg, a slave catcher charged with kidnapping Margaret Morgan, an African American woman who had escaped to Pennsylvania from Maryland. In its decision, the Court declared unconstitutional Pennsylvania personal liberty laws that prohibited Blacks from being seized in Pennsylvania and enslaved in other states because they violated the 1793 federal Fugitive Slave law. The Supreme Court reaffirmed this decision in Ableman v. Booth (1859), upholding the conviction of a Wisconsin newspaper editor for violating the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave law by assisting a freedom seeker to avoid capture.

 

The most notorious and probably the most racist Supreme Court decision was Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Not only did the Court rule that Scott remained enslaved even though he had lived in territory where slavery was illegal, but in the 7-2 majority opinion of the Court, Chief Justice Taney claimed that the Court had the power to determine the original intent of the authors of the Constitution and that they did not intend for Blacks to be considered citizens and have the rights of citizens.

 

The words ‘people of the United States’ and ‘citizens’ are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing. They both describe the political body who . . . form the sovereignty, and who hold the power and conduct the Government through their representatives . . . The question before us is, whether the class of persons described in the plea . . . [people of African ancestry] compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty? We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States . . . [T]herefore, it is the judgment of this court, that . . . the plaintiff . . .  is not a citizen of Missouri, in the sense in which that word is used in the Constitution; and that the Circuit Court of the United States, for that reason, had no jurisdiction in the case, and could give no judgment in it. Its judgment for the defendant must, consequently, be reversed, and a mandate issued, directing the suit to be dismissed for want of jurisdiction.

 

The Supreme Court continued to use its decisions to institutionalize racism and white supremacy as it stripped away 14th Amendment protections for African Americans after the Civil War in the Civil Rights Cases (1883) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Section 1 of the 14th Amendment famously declares:

 

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

 

Section 5 of the amendment granted Congress “the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.” Based on this provision, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 outlawing racial discrimination in jury selection, public schools, transportation, and public accommodations like hotels and restaurants. But the law was declared unconstitutional in 1883 when the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did prevent racial discrimination by private businesses or individuals, establishing the legal basis for Jim Crow segregation in the United States for the next eight decades until the ruling was reversed by the Warren Court in 1968 in a housing discrimination case, Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.

 

In the majority opinion in the Civil Rights cases, Justice Joseph Bradley wrote that the

 

abrogation and denial of rights for which the States alone were or could be responsible was the great seminal and fundamental wrong which was intended to be remedied.” However, “the wrongful act of an individual, unsupported by any such authority, is simply a private wrong, or a crime of that individual; an invasion of the rights of the injured party, it is true, whether they affect his person, his property, or his reputation; but if not sanctioned in some way by the State, or not done under State authority, his rights remain in full force . . . we are of opinion that no countenance of authority for the passage of the law in question can be found in either the Thirteenth or Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, and no other ground of authority for its passage being suggested, it must necessarily be declared void.”

 

In his dissent to the Civil Rights Case majority decision, a position consistent with the intent and wording of the 14th Amendment, the interpretation reinstituted by the Warren Court, and a position now under attack by the rightwing majority of the Supreme Court, John Marshall Harlan argued:

 

The opinion in these cases proceeds, it seems to me, upon grounds entirely too narrow and artificial. I cannot resist the conclusion that the substance and spirit of the recent amendments of the Constitution have been sacrificed by a subtle and ingenious verbal criticism. ‘It is not the words of the law, but the internal sense of it that makes the law; the letter of the law is the body; the sense and reason of the law is the soul’ . . . If the constitutional amendments be enforced according to the intent with which, as I conceive, they were adopted, there cannot be, in this republic, any class of human beings in practical subjection to another class with power in the latter to dole out to the former just such privileges as they may choose to grant.

 

Thirteen years later, Harlan was again the only dissenting opinion against a racist Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) where the Supreme Court formally endorsed the segregationist “separate but equal” doctrine. Harlan wrote:

 

“I am of the opinion that the statute of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberties of citizens, white and black, in that State, and hostile to both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution of the United States. If laws of like character should be enacted in the several States of the Union, the effect would be in the highest degree mischievous. Slavery as an institution tolerated by law would, it is true, have disappeared from our country, but there would remain a power in the States, by sinister legislation, to interfere with the blessings of freedom; to regulate civil rights common to all citizens, upon the basis of race; and to place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens, now constituting a part of the political community, called the people of the United States, for whom and by whom, through representatives, our government is administrated.”

 

The insurrectionists who stormed the United States Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in an attempt to overturn the 2020 Presidential election, did not realize that a political coup aimed at toppling democracy in the United States had already taken place twenty years earlier. In a 5-4 majority decision rightwing Republicans on the Supreme Court gave the Presidential election to George W. Bush securing their radical political agenda. Despite conservative claims that they support state prerogatives, the Court’s Bush v. Gore decision threw out a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court. The ruling prevented a vote recount in Florida that would most likely have elected Democrat Al Gore as President of the United States. The outcome of the 2000 election set the stage for conservative majorities on the Supreme Court to uphold racial and partisan gerrymandering, narrow free speech protection for public employees, limit the free speech rights of high school students, restrict affirmative action programs to promote diversity, make it more difficult for states to implement common sense gun regulations, block efforts to keep dark money from influencing elections, undermine labor unions, ignore monitor voting rights violations, interfere with environmental regulation in the midst of a climate crises, and  now to deny women reproductive freedom.

 

In an 1850 response to a new Fugitive Slave Law, the Reverend Jermain Loguen of Syracuse, New York, himself an escapee from slavery, declared “I don’t respect this law - I don’t fear it - I won’t obey it! It outlaws me, and I outlaw it, and the men who attempt to enforce it on me.” I think we are entering another era when the only moral decision is civil disobedience, a refusal to obey decisions by a partisan ideologically driven rightwing Supreme Court that is determined to eliminate fundamental democratic rights.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183297 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183297 0
What Would Madison Think of Originalism? Depends When You Asked Him

 

 

The Supreme Court seems poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, an almost 50-year-old precedent which established a women’s right to choose to have an abortion. Abortion is an issue fraught with moral implications and perhaps the most personal decision a woman can make. But my concern in this article is with the unraveling of precedent based upon a judicial philosophy known as originalism. In July of 2018 I wrote an article for the History News Network about the dangers of originalism. If the court overturns Roe, those dangers will have come to fruition, potentially endangering rights for women and minorities that have evolved since the Constitution was written and amended.

 

By way of background, Justice Alito, in his draft decision, wrote that “the Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision.” Yet many powers and rights are not mentioned in the Constitution, yet have a long history of constitutional protection. Programs like social security and Medicare are nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, nor is the right to privacy or to marry whom one chooses, yet each of these powers and rights has been found to be constitutional. One of our founding fathers, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, had grave concerns about adding a bill of rights to the Constitution. Wilson was concerned “that if the enumeration is not complete, everything not expressly mentioned will be presumed to be purposely omitted.”  

 

Alito himself acknowledges the problem, writing that unenumerated powers or rights must be “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition.” Yet in Alito’s mind, 50 years of history are not sufficient to establish abortion as an implied right. Originalists like Alito rely heavily on historical analysis, yet they shade history to find the results they prefer.  Others have written of the problems with Alito’s historical analysis, including Aaron Tang at the University of California Davis and Peggy Cooper Davis of N.Y.U.   Many scholars call Alito’s analysis “law office history” which “assumes that the suppression of evidence harmful to your client is not only permissible but professionally obligatory,” as Joseph Ellis has written.

 

What is originalism? It is the idea that “the Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with its original meaning---that is the meaning at the time of its enactment,” according to the Center for the Study of Originalism at the University of San Diego. Originalism sounds like it dates back to our founding but in fact it is a recent concept introduced in 1983. One of the major flaws of originalism is the idea that there was one meaning of the Constitution at the time it was written or amended. But this is clearly false. Rather, the founders had disagreements among themselves over its meaning. John Marshall, the great Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, wrote that “historians can never forget that it is a debate they are interpreting.”

 

The inability to recognize the extent to which the Founding Fathers argued among themselves is a major flaw in the conservative case for originalism since it is dependent on the theory that people in the 18th century shared a common interpretation of the Constitution. In fact they did not, as one of the earliest debates over the meaning of the Constitution shows. That debate and its later aftermath also shows that James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, allowed precedent to change his original understanding of the Constitution.

 

In December of 1790, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed the creation of the Bank of the United States. Madison took the position that Congress had no power to charter a bank since no such power was enumerated in the Constitution. President Washington was confronted with a major dilemma, with two of his primary advisors now at odds. Hoping to find an answer, he asked Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Randolph, the Attorney General, to provide their opinion on the constitutionality of the bank. Both sided with Madison, in what has become known as the strict constructionist view. Washington then provided Jefferson’s opinion to Hamilton, who put forward what one of his biographers has called “the most brilliant argument for a broad interpretation of the Constitution in American political literature.” Hamilton posited that the necessary and proper clause gave Congress the means to carry out all of its ends, even if the specific power was not listed in the document. Ultimately Congress passed and the president signed the bank bill.

 

In the aftermath of the War of 1812, Madison changed his mind about the need for a national bank. In a message to Congress in 1815, Madison explained that he no longer opposed a national bank, since “repeated recognitions…of the validity of such an institution, in acts of the legislature, executive, and judicial branches of government” and also by “the general will of the nation” had remove his doubt about whether the bank was constitutional. As the Madisonian scholar Jack Rakove has written, “Madison thus allowed precedents set since 1789 to revise his own original understanding of the Constitution.”

 

Essentially Madison came to his conclusion not only because the bank had existed for so long but also because the public had come to accept it. One could say that Madison was, in fact, an adherent of the concept of the living Constitution, in which the meaning of the document evolves over time as standards of justice change. Jefferson too thought it ludicrous that one generation should be beholden to another for its basic laws. “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” The living Constitution is an approach grounded in precedent, “which allows us to meet the demands of today, not force us to follow the commands of the long-dead Founders,” as the constitutional scholar David A. Strauss has written.

 

The mantle of originalism allows judges like Alito to pretend that their interpretation of the Constitution is grounded in an objective standard, but as we have seen, this is historically inaccurate. Instead, originalism represents a way to overturn longstanding precedents which many in the conservative movement detest. The use of originalism not only threatens a women’s right to choose an abortion, but could ultimately move the nation backwards, taking away now long-established rights that could include gay and interracial marriage, contraception, even the right to privacy. We would be better served to follow the approach of James Madison.

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183266 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183266 0
The Environmental and Humanistic Sensibility of Pasternak and Lessons from Dr. Zhivago for Today

Boris Pasternak, portrait by Yury Annenkov, 1921

 

 

In three previous essays, I first wrote “Anton Chekhov: Environmental Prophet for Our Planet.” Then I contrasted the Russia of the macho war-making Putin with that of the Russian writers Tolstoy, V. Soloviev, Chekhov, and Pasternak. Thirdly, I indicated that Putin’s Ukrainian invasion produced ecocide. In this present article I will consider Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago, as a Russian whose environmental sensibilities followed that of Chekhov and who would disdain Putin’s ecocide practices.

 

That the peace-loving Pasternak should follow in Chekhov’s footsteps should not surprise us. In Zhivago, he has Yuri (Zhivago) state: “What I have come to like best in the whole of Russian literature is the childlike Russian quality of Pushkin and Chekhov, their modest reticence in such high-sounding matters as the ultimate purpose of mankind or their own salvation. . . . Their works, like apples picked while they are green, have ripened of themselves, mellowing gradually and growing richer in meaning.”

 

It is fitting that Pasternak compares the works of Pushkin and Chekhov to apples because, his main character, Zhivago, is like Chekhov a medical doctor by training who liked to plant trees and other flora (“I think that if I wasn’t a writer, I could be a gardener,” Chekhov once wrote.)

 

In the middle of Pasternak’s novel, and in the midst of the Russian Civil War, Yuri Zhivago and his family leave Moscow to go the Ural Mountain area of Varykino, where his wife’s family owned a pre-1917 estate. 

 

In his journal, Yuri describes his activities there: “What happiness, to work from dawn to dusk for your family and for yourself, to build a roof over their heads, to till the soil to feed them. . . . So many new thoughts come into your head when your hands are busy with hard physical work, when your mind has set you a task that can be achieved by physical effort and that brings its reward in joy and success, when for six hours on end you dig or hammer, scorched by the life-giving breath of the sky.”

 

His farming efforts were successful, and he tells us what he and his family had been able to harvest and store: in the basement twenty sacks of potatoes, “two barrels of salted cucumbers and two of sauerkraut prepared by [wife] Tonia. Fresh cabbages hang in pairs from the beams. There are carrots buried in dry sand, and radishes and beets and turnips.” And in the loft, “plenty of peas and beans.”

 

Later, at the end of the Civil War, making his way back toward Moscow, he passes through many villages. “Half the villages he passed were deserted, the fields abandoned and unharvested as after an enemy raid. Such were the effects of war--the civil war.” He comments further on these “fields silently proclaiming their distress,” on “a plague of mice," on “shaggy village curs, turned wild,” and observes that “deserted by man, the fields looked orphaned as if his absence had put them under a curse.”

 

Pasternak describes one “deserted, burned-out village” in more detail. “All the houses had stood in one row. . . . Only a few houses, blackened by the fire, were still standing,

but they too were empty, uninhabited. Nothing was left of the others but piles of charred rubble with black chimneys rising out of them.”

 

Some five centuries ago the Dutch humanist Erasmus described the effects of peace and war on agriculture and the environment. “Peace is at once the mother and the nurse of all that is good for man. . . . Peace shines upon human affairs like the vernal sun. The fields are cultivated, the gardens bloom, the cattle are fed upon a thousand hills, new buildings arise, riches flow, pleasures smile, humanity and charity increase, arts and manufactures feel the genial warmth of encouragement, and the gains of the poor are more plentiful.” But “war, on a sudden and at one stroke, overwhelms, extinguishes, abolishes, whatever is cheerful, whatever is happy and beautiful, and pours a foul torrent of disasters on the life of mortals.”

 

What Erasmus wrote was still true, as Zhivago observed, when the Russian Civil War pitted the anti-communists against the communists. And it’s still true today as Putin’s military forces inflict ecocide on the Ukrainians. But Pasternak’s environmental sensibility is more profound than just bemoaning war’s destructiveness. For, like our wisest environmentalists, he perceives the oneness of all creation.

 

 As one scholarly book on Russian literature states, “It is my view that Pasternak’s works as a whole [including fiction and poetry] are an expression of this special Russian idea of Sophia– a conviction of a higher unity and wholeness in existence, of a world full of interconnections and linkages uniting humans with nature and the universe.” The Catholic monk, pacifist, and poet Thomas Merton specifically pointed to Doctor Zhivago as “a world in itself, a sophiological world.”

 

By a “sophiological world” Merton meant a world infused by the religious/philosophical concept of Sophia, an idea that goes way back in the eastern Christian tradition but received new emphasis by the Russian religious philosopher and poet Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900).

 

The Byzantine cathedral Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was the most important church in Constantinople, and (according to a Russian chronicle) its beauty influenced the Kyivan Prince Volodymyr (Vladimir in Russian) in the late tenth century to convert his people to Christianity. In the eleventh century in cities such as Kyiv and Novgorod Rus princes ordered the construction of their own St. Sophia cathedrals. Ironically, on 1 March, 2022 a U. S. newspaper ran the following headline, “Ukrainian Christians fear Russia plans 'aerial attack' on [Kyiv’s] St. Sophia Cathedral,” and the presidents of both the attacking country (Russia) and the one being attacked (Ukraine) shared different versions of the same first name as Prince Volodymyr, who brought Christianity to ancient Rus lands.

 

In Soloviev’s interpretation of Sophia, he thought of her as “the feminine soul of the world.” He saw history as a process of man and nature falling away from God and splintering into separateness and then eventually reuniting in a higher synthesis. All-oneness with God became the goal of history. And the main means of bringing that oneness about was love. To Merton’s mind, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago reflected this Sophia consciousness. (In 1962, Merton himself wrote the poem “Hagia Sophia,” which opens with the following lines: “There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden whole-ness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom.”)

 

But the oneness of creation is not just a religious-philosophical concept, but one shared more broadly by various thinkers, including some environmentalists. In Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food  writer/farmer Wendell Berry, for example, writes, “Nature includes us. It is not a place into which we reach from some safe standpoint outside it. We are in it and are a part of it while we use it. If it does not thrive, we cannot thrive. The appropriate measure of farming then is the world’s health and our health, and this is inescapably one measure.”

In both religious mysticism (worldwide) and poetry (think of Wordsworth, Whitman, or Mary Oliver) we often find sentiments akin to the oneness-with-nature concept, as we do in the writings of Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. We see it in the writing of St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun,” where he writes of brother sun and wind and sisters moon and water, and where we see his perception of “the basic unity of all creation” and “his unqualified love of all creatures, great and small.” (One of Pasternak’s poems and a book collecting some of them is called “My Sister, Life,” and Merton wrote, “Love and Life . . .  form the great theme of Doctor Zhivago.”) We see a similar worldview with the Native American Black Elk, who stated, “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers.” The famous scientist Albert Einstein added, “A person experiences life as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. Our task must be to free ourselves from this self-imposed prison, and through compassion, to find the reality of Oneness.”

More specifically, thinkers have often stressed the oneness of all humanity. One book that Merton loved was The Family of Man, which contained photos selected by photographer Edward Steichen from almost 70 countries, meant to demonstrate humanity’s oneness. In the book’s prologue, written by Steichen’s brother-in-law the famous poet Carl Sandburg, we read “Everywhere is love and love-making, weddings and babies from generation to generation keeping the family of Man alive and continuing. Everywhere the sun, moon and stars, the climates and weathers, have meanings for people. Though meanings vary, we are alike in all countries and tribes in trying to read what sky, land and sea say to us. Alike and ever alike we are on all continents in the need of love, food, clothing, work, speech, worship, sleep, games, dancing, fun.” And Sandburg closed the Prologue with a portion of a poem:

There is only one man in the world

and his name is All Men.

There is only one woman in the world

and her name is All Women.

There is only one child in the world

and the child’s name is All Children.

The Russian philosopher Soloviev not only emphasized the concept of Sophia but also engaged in extended criticisms of beliefs that divided peoples such as Russian nationalism and antisemitism. In Doctor Zhivago and other works, Pasternak demonstrated a similar mentality. The novel ends with a series of poems that reflect Zhivago’s passage through the fictional pages that precede them. In one poem, “Wedding,” we read “For life, too, is only an instant, / Only the dissolving of ourselves / In the selves of all others.” Another poem “Dawn,” contains these lines, “The nameless ones are part of me. / Children also, the trees, and stay-at-homes.”  Doctor Zhivago exudes that profound realization that we (all humans and the rest of creation) share a commonality. As Wendell Berry realized, we are all part of Nature. As Carl Sandburg realized, men, women, and children in all parts of our planet share many similar needs and wants.

Our biggest present tragedy is divisiveness, caused mainly by dividers like Vladimir Putin and all the truth deniers (e.g., in regard to climate change). Besides Berry and Sandburg, there are many other wise people who have emphasized our oneness with nature and other humans. One of the wisest was from Putin’s own country, Russia, and that was the Doctor Zhivago’s author, Pasternak. Seven years ago Time magazine ran a piece entitled “What Vladimir Putin Could Learn from ‘Doctor Zhivago.’” It failed, however, to mention Zhivago’s realization of the oneness of all creation. That recognition, however, is the greatest lesson Putin could learn from that great novel. If he did so, he would stop his barbaric war against Ukraine and have Russia do more to retard climate change.

 

 

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183267 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183267 0
There Oughtta Be a Law

 

 

America today is in a dark place. It is supposed to be a democracy, but because of the Senate filibuster, the minority rules.

Twenty-one people, including 19 innocent children and two teachers, are dead at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

The horrific event followed by 10 days the mass supermarket shootings in Buffalo, which left 10 dead, and by a few short years the school shootings of 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, where 26 people were murdered, and of 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which claimed 17 lives.

The Republicans blame the Democrats, and the Democrats blame the Republicans. A plague on both their houses. The tragedies obviously cry for common sense solutions, and the two political parties cannot seem to come together. What an indictment of government in America!

Congress banned the murder weapons, semi-automatic AR-15 style assault rifles, in 1994. The ban expired in 2004 and, amazingly was not renewed. Congress essentially outlawed the fully automatic Tommy guns of the Al Capone era in 1934, and the legislation, enacted with approval from the politically powerful gun lobby, remains permanent.

With many fully automatic weapons, ammunition can be fired at a rate of 600 shots per minute or less. Enough for Al Capone to take out his enemies once and for all. An AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle holds 20 to 40 rounds to a clip. With a semi-automatic, you can only fire the gun as quickly as you can pull the trigger after each shot. But this can be as many as 100 rounds of military-grade ammunition in three minutes. The legal distinction, then, between fully automatic and semi-automatic weapons is without a difference. Any gun that can fire 100 rounds of military-grade ammunition in three minutes or less isn’t designed to shoot quail or pheasant. Both kinds of weapons have only one purpose, killing large numbers of people at a clip. And dead is dead.

The story of what the NRA calls “America’s rifle” helps show the emptiness of the distinction.  An American company called Armalite designed a light, fully automatic weapon for the military—the Armalite Rifle model 15, or AR-15. The company later sold the design to Colt in the 1960s. Colt appreciated that you don’t get rich selling guns to the military—at least when there is no war on. So, to sell the gun on the non-military market, Colt had to develop a semi-automatic version to end-run the 1934 restrictions, and found success. Although Colt’s patent expired in 1977, they retained the trademark rights to the AR-15 name; “AR-15 style” weapons are essentially clone designs manufactured and sold by other companies. The genuine article and clones together number between 5 and 10 million units in American hands.

 

Bearing an AR-15 style semi-automatic, the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School got off about 100 rounds in three minutes or less.

 

The Parkland shooter got off about  150  rounds in six minutes, and had 180 rounds left when he ceased fire.

 

The gunman in Texas had  more time to shoot up the school, only because the cops “made the wrong decision,” in failing to go after the gunman for over an hour while they stood around outside.

School shootings in the United States have reached epidemic proportions. The figures are particularly stark when the U.S. is compared with other countries. A 2018 CNN survey tallied 288 school shootings in the United States between 2009 and 2018—while the country having the second-most school shootings during the same period, Mexico, experienced only eight shootings during the same time period.

Last year, firearms overtook auto accidents as the leading cause of injury related child deaths in the United States.

So, what is to be done? Background checks probably would not have prevented any of the shooters from buying their assault weapons. None of the four shooters had a criminal record, and from all that appears, the murder weapons were purchased legally (though Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza’s mother had purchased the weapons he used). What is needed is legislation reinstating the ban on semi-automatic weapons.

Of course, it is convenient (and not wholly incorrect) to blame it all on the gun lobby. Chief Justice Warren Burger said: “The gun lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American people by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” But the lobby exists to influence the legislative branch. Have the people's representatives surrendered?

Members of Congress can’t be sued for legislative acts, or for criminally negligent failure to accomplish legislative acts, including inaction that allows crazy 18-year olds to acquire weapons of mass destruction. According to the majority of the Supreme Court, the Constitution permits Texas to encourage civil action against a mother seeking an abortion, but prohibits such action against members of Congress whose negligence has facilitated the death of young children. So go figure.

Democratic legislators offer only background checks and piecemeal regulation, and blame the gun lobby from whom they receive contributions.

Republicans offer only the healing benediction of “thoughts and prayers.” Or, like Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, callously blame the liberal culture of “wokeness” and critical race theory for school shootings, days after the Texas elementary school shootings.

It really shouldn’t be a left/right issue. The right is correct that background checks won’t do much good. It’s a Band-Aid. Criminals and psychotics will always find a way to get guns. The monsters who accomplished the atrocities at Sandy Hook, Parkland and Uvalde had no past records.

 

The left is also right. Public safety must be government’s first responsibility. Guns designed only to kill human beings should be banned. For sure, 18 year olds should be barred from purchasing assault weapons or military grade ammunition. Credit card companies should step up to the plate and refuse to fund such sales.

 

What kind of country refuses to protect its children? What kind of society guarantees the right of 18-year-olds to buy semi-automatic guns and Glock pistols which are designed as tools to kill human beings?

 

President Biden, following the Tulsa hospital AR-15 shootings, which claimed four lives, addressed the nation, calling for a sweeping change in gun laws, including banning assault weapons and limiting high-capacity magazines. Nevertheless, 17 Democrats refuse to support a ban on assault weapons, which means the measure doesn’t have a prayer of passing in the House.

The only remedy is to “throw the rascals out” next election. And, indeed Americans should vote against, and withhold campaign contributions from, any member of Congress not committed to voting for real gun safety laws that limit access to the most dangerous weapons.

Churchill famously said that America always gets it right, after they have tried everything else. It is time to get gun violence right. We have to be better than this.

 

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183296 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183296 0
Can Ukraine Harness the Power of the Small to Survive Russia's Attack?

 

 

Ticks would not fare well in direct combat with people. So the little insects hide under hair or in little corners of the larger mammal. They attack their prey quietly and often unnoticed. Disease-bearing ticks carry even smaller menaces, including Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and over a dozen other pathogens.

 

COVID-19 is another agent of destruction out of view. Much as we might like to swat these insects or microbes, they can skirt our defenses or attack without detection. Their hazards loom over humanity not despite their size, but because of their small stature.

 

In modern times when the big seem all powerful—billionaires, megastars, and even companies accepted as too big to fail—those tiny agents of destruction offer reminders of the power of the small.

 

A bleak fate has seemed to await Ukraine in the face of invasion by superpower Russia, unless they can use the powers of the small. This is what George Washington and Ho Chi Minh have in common. They both used their advantages, including flexible adaptability and elusive maneuvering, to avoid direct confrontation with enemies of much greater strength.

 

The fledgling United States and the Vietnamese Communists used the tactics of small wars with no clear fronts. Hiding allowed waiting for opportune moments to attack before slipping back out of view. These tactics resemble those of terrorists who would have no chance confronting a larger force directly. Such foes engage in “methods of combat not sanctioned by the Rules of War,” as the US Marine Corps wrote in its Small Wars Manual (1940), a description that would in turn serve as a rationale for the Corps’ own often-ruthless practices. Total war is the terrorism of well-armed powers able to destroy on large scales, while terrorism is the total war of the least powerful, if they can avoid direct engagements, attack the big guns at their most vulnerable points, and wait for each next opportunity to use their strengths.

 

The small have surprising powers, but these are no sure bet.

 

Native Americans generally fought with small-wars approaches, achieving some defensive victories, but overall, they succumbed to defeat against the much larger forces of the US. The Seminoles are the exception that proves the rule with their elusive attacks and retreats steadily further south on the Floirida peninsula. They never won in three wars and countless small raids from the 1810s to the 1850s against their neighboring superpower, but they are the only undefeated Native American nation.

 

The Palestinians present an example of a people in steady retreat even before the formation of the state of Israel. After subordination to the Ottomans and then the British, they lost territory to immigrant Jews through fighting, land sales, and diplomacy, culminating in Israeli independence in 1948. Their defeats in battle, leading to refugee camps, military occupation, and exile, encouraged many Palestinians, especially in the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas, to adopt terrorist tactics. This tempting tool of the weak led to morally outrageous assaults on Israeli civilians and widespread criticism. Palestinian civil society condemns these appeals to righteous anger, and the turns to terrorism have actually undercut Palestinian hopes. While both sides suffer, Palestinians share another challenge with Ukrainians. Just as many supporters of Israel’s expansion with settlements in the West Bank deny Palestine’s distinct identity among Arab countries, so Russian President Vladimir Putin does not recognize Ukraine’s distinct identity, as he brashly claimed last July.  

 

Similarly, the Ukrainians  have little hope in direct confrontation with their more powerful neighbor, but the methods of small wars offer a chance for their endurance in the face of overwhelming odds. Ukrainians were able to enlist just these strengths effectively in the first weeks of the war. While Russian munitions and tens of thousands of troops stretched toward the capital, Kiev, Ukrainians from within their hometowns and cities attacked the lumbering and extended supply lines, surprising the invaders. Russian big weaponry wreaked its version of terror, but they could not stand up to the small-war tactics of the versatile defenders. Phase I of the war in the north-central parts of the country, advantage Ukraine.

 

The Russians are now engaging in a strategy similar to one waged by the British Empire against the rebellious Americans. When they could not quell the forces of sedition in northern colonies, they effectively gave up attempting conquest of those territories in favor of trying to secure the rest of the British North American colonies, although British attempts to isolate the rebellious north ended with their defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. In the same way, Russia is, at least for now, abandoning efforts to conquer the capital in order to try taking over the Donbas region in the east. The Russians are using their strength of arms to implement advantage Russia, with no qualms about wholesale destruction: The shelling of Mariupol has left over 90% of that city’s buildings leveled, with casualties high and climbing. After that city fell, the Russians now have in their sights Sievierodonetsk, the last Ukrainian-held city in the east.

 

These indiscriminate attacks point to another frequent—if grim—advantage for the small. Sympathy for Ukrainians, already high from being the victims of an unprovoked invasion, has soared around the world in the face of such brutal destruction. Ukrainians seek military aid to counter the munitions advantage of their invaders. Those anti-aircraft rockets and rifles will be only the tip of the spear of the nation’s strengths. The Russians hoped that their show of force would result in quick victory, but their very abilities to pound their opponents cruelly will sow dragon’s teeth that could turn on them with the strengthening of their victims’ morale and the growth of outside support. And the military strength of Ukraine will continue with their small-war tactics from looking for weak points in Russian supply lines and “sniping … from every angle,” as retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute put it. Ukrainian strength in the “legs” of flexibility will have a fighting chance against the arms of Russian might.

 

The big question is whether Ukrainian moral and tactical advantages can endure and prevail. Will their moral authority shine as with the American Patriots fighting for what historian Gordon Wood has called the democratic “destruction of aristocracy” with an unleashing of “people and their energies” or will they be viewed less favorably as terrorists? And will the small-wars tactics prove as effective as the Vietnamese Communists’ people’s war against munitions-rich Americans or as ineffective as Native Americans against that same type of American firepower in its pre-twentieth-century versions?

 

These are the contending forces in this unpredictable war, while civilians suffer, with more than a tenth of the Ukrainian population already fleeing the nation and millions more displaced in their own homeland. Russia has amplified its military strengths with the power of the unpredictable. Putin leaves politicians and experts worldwide guessing and afraid that any more direct involvement of other nations will spur escalation beyond Ukraine, possibly including the use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Ironically, the traditional doctrine of deterrence, with the chilling threat of mutually assured destruction, has actually encouraged Russian aggression. If this distortion of deterrence continues, the war will be stretched long with abundant supplies of arms flying to Ukraine and with Russia preventing other nations from entering the war directly because of its nuclear threats. Meanwhile, Russian attempts at conquest through utter destruction will in turn bolster sympathy for Ukrainians.

 

The defenders will be short-term victims while in the long term they will possess what psychologist William James calls the strength of “invisible molecular moral forces… stealing in through the crannies of … bigness & greatness … like so many soft rootlets or like the capillary oozing of water” against the strength of major powers. However, he warns that the strengths of the small generally only emerge “if you give them time.” Short-term supplies of arms will allow long-term strengths to become effective.

Or Putin may become trapped by his expectation for swift victory and even by his own language. Russia’s big supply of weapons is leading to more brutal attacks, while Putin will not even call this a war but a “special military operation.” This public relations disaster could combine with the economic and diplomatic defiance of Putin’s policies to encourage the Russian leader to adopt a brazen claim never used by the US in Vietnam: declare victory and withdraw. Pressure on Putin to make this choice may be the clearest path to ending the bloodshed, and a path with more potential to let peace last than Henry Kissinger’s proposal for Ukraine to give up territory to Russia.

 

While Ukraine’s fate hangs in the balance, its greatest strengths, like those of lowly insects and microscopic pathogens, rests with its readiness to use the strengths of the small.

 

 

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183298 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183298 0
Is the Republican Party Willing to Purge its Extremists?

 

 

Even a casual look back at U.S. history uncovers an undeniable vein of intolerance and right-wing fanaticism.

From the birth of the Republican Party in 1854 until about 1965, the real home of right-wing fanaticism was the Democratic Party.

Since 1965, the far right has migrated to the Republican Party, where today it is has captured the party's soul. The story of how and why haters migrated to the Republican Party is better known that the story of the forty-year purge of bigots and misogynists from the Democratic Party. This story is important because it provides a blueprint for how Republicans can begin to remove the hate and intolerance from the GOP.

Democrats dominated the Southern part of the United States after the Civil War and ruled Dixie in the interests of white manhood. In 1928, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, the dean of Southern historians, proclaimed that maintaining the South as a "white man's country" was the "central theme" in Southern history.

The South experienced regularized and public lynching for more than 50 years; disenfranchised millions of black voters, and created a segregated system of life that was dramatically unequal.

But the Democratic Party was a complicated organization. As the great American humorist Will Rogers said long ago: "I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat."

And sure enough, as the Democratic Party reorganized itself in the North following the Civil War, it became the home of millions of immigrants, most of them from Eastern and Southern Europe, and many of them Catholic and Jewish.

In 1924, the Northern wing asserted itself at the Democratic National Convention. New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith attempted to become the first Catholic to be nominated for president by a major party. Before the nomination battle, Smith's forces attempted to pass a resolution condemning the Ku Klux Klan. The resolution failed, and, after 103 ballots, so did Smith's run for president.

In 1928, Smith would win his party's nomination. And 32 years later, Democrat John Kennedy would become our first Catholic president.

Al Smith and his supporters had challenged the anti-Catholic bigotry and the Ku Klux Klan that dominated the Democratic Party. After 1928, those who felt committed to anti-Catholicism had to find a new party.

Twenty years later, at the 1948 Democratic Convention, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey delivered a speech declaring that "the time has now arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." Humphrey was part of a wing in the Democratic Party that favored an end to segregation. President Harry Truman was part of that wing, and that same year, he moved to desegregate the US Military. The Democratic party passed a pro civil rights plank in its 1948 platform that included a call for voting rights.

After white supremacists were successfully challenged for power at their national convention, the entire Mississippi and Alabama delegations walked out of the convention and soon, with other Southern states, formed the so-called Dixiecrat party. Led by South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrats' platform left no doubt about where they stood: "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race."

By 1965, after a decade of massive protests in every corner of the United States, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, signaling to every bigot and racist in the country that they no longer had a home in the Democratic Party.

Americans like to believe that with the triumph of the civil-rights and women's movements, the nation overcame its legacy of intolerance. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The far right did not disappear. It suffered setbacks between 1954 and 1973, but it never gave up, nor did it fade away.

And now, the radical right has come to dominate the Republican Party.

Just as Hubert Humphrey used to sit in caucus with notorious racists, today well-meaning Republicans caucus with far-right extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert who adhere to the QAnon conspiracy.

Well-meaning Republicans caucus with colleagues who would deny basic human rights to our LGBTQ+ neighbors; who oppose birth control and reproductive rights; who reject background checks for buying the most lethal forms of firearms; who question the loyalty of Muslim Americans; who equate immigration with an invasion that threatens to replace “legacy Americans;” who supported the January 6 insurrection that sought to overturn a presidential election; who have backtracked on voting rights and question the very foundations of democracy.

Between 1924 and 1965, courageous Democrats struggled for the soul of their party, and won. If the same struggle were to happen within the Republican Party, we might at last become a nation where no national party welcomes the intolerant and the bigoted. But who among the Republicans has the courage of Alfred E. Smith or Hubert Humphrey?

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Sat, 25 Jun 2022 11:09:06 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183299 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183299 0
How Should We Rate Presidents?

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University’s History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books). 

This headline in Political Wire caught my attention a few weeks ago:  "Biden’s Approval Slump Hits a Dreary New Milestone." But I was left unprepared for the news I came across three days later. Donald Trump, according to Real Clear Politics, is now viewed on average more favorably than any other prominent national political leader. He even outpolls (by just a little) Joe Biden, the man Trump lost to in 2020 (as you can see in the RCP image above).

I really shouldn't have been shocked.  Neither should you.  What is going on?

First, a little background.  The conventional wisdom is that presidential polls usually reflect how people feel about the economy.  If the economy seems to be doing well voters rank presidents relatively high (all other things being equal).  And if the economy is doing badly, the theory goes, voters punish presidents with low ratings. If in fact things actually worked like this our politics might make some sense.  At the core of democracy is the idea of accountability. The system depends on leaders being held responsible for their actions.  But this isn't how things work.  The theory -- known as retrospective voting -- is bonkers. 

The main problem is that the theory supposes people know what they are talking about.  So, for example, when they are assessing the state of the economy they correctly understand which parts presidents can affect and which they can't.  In reality, voters have no idea of the role presidents play in the economy.  Voters often don't even know if a president has proposed raising or lowering their taxes.  Barack Obama lowered taxes in his first term for 95 percent of Americans but polls showed that half thought their taxes had remained the same and a third thought they'd gone up.

This points to a fundamental flaw in democracy.   If people are broadly misinformed they cannot exercise their right to vote properly.  If in fact presidents are held accountable for things outside their control then elections are almost meaningless.  And in fact elections often are meaningless, as Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue, as do I in the book this blog is based on.  Elections, contrary to what many people think, are not referendums on the performance of the incumbent.

This is because politics requires knowledge. American voters lack knowledge. I keep a running summary of stories showing just how deeply ill-informed voters are.  Recent headlines include these doozies:  "41 million Americans believe QAnon conspiracy," "Majority in US are functionally illiterate."  It has been well established since the 1940s when social scientists first began surveying voter knowledge that a majority of Americans cannot even name the three branches of government. 

Many political scientists like to argue that voters use shortcuts to make up for their lack of knowledge.  But in actuality, as Achen and Bartels show, most base their vote on their social identity. In highly polarized times like our own, this means that politics is almost wholly tribal.  While voters take into account the likability of the candidate and from time to time let an issue or two drive their voting (like the economy or abortion), the most salient factor affecting their choice at the ballot box is their partisan identity.  It is for this reason that millions of suburbanites voted for Trump in 2016 despite their misgivings about his character and lack of experience. What mattered was that he had an R after his name. This is why turning out the base is so vital. 

So back to those RCP poll results I cited at the beginning. Why is Trump polling now a little higher than Biden?  It's likely because Trump's base remains solidly behind him, which gives him an edge over Biden, as I'll show in a moment. Tribalism trumps all, or almost all, in our highly polarized times. There is, to be sure, a reason voters might think better of Trump than Biden since the economy is perceived to be doing badly under Biden and it did better under Trump until Covid came along.  And you can't blame Trump for inflation that's happening on Biden's watch.   One year and counting into his presidency, Biden's being held responsible for what's happening now (whether he should be or not is a different question; see below). Moreover, Trump is benefitting from the Out-of-Office phenomenon.  Once presidents leave office their poll numbers almost always go up a little because people feel nostalgic:  they remember the good things about the former guy but not the bad things.

Biden, in contrast to Trump, is having difficulty keeping his base behind him.  When Build Back Better gurgled for life and then sank out of view progressives in the Democratic Party became disillusioned and blamed Biden for the failure to bring about major change.  Moreover, it's probably true that Biden's base is smaller than Trump's.  Biden simply never drew the wild support from his party that Trump drew from his.

Then there's the simple fact that under Biden the inflation monster has reared its ugly head, leaving the impression that things are out of control (even as the unemployment rate remains low).  The textbook definition of inflation is that it occurs when either demand is excessive or supply is limited; we are now suffering from both. Voters want to blame somebody for this and Biden's the most obvious choice.  Economists are divided about Biden's responsibility for inflation, which suggests that voters can make a reasonable case Biden's to blame.  But is he really?  

Yes, he backed a plan in his first year that dramatically increased consumer spending, leading to a surge in demand for a limited supply of goods at a time of supply chain constraints.  But inflation is also hitting Europe and the countries there didn't adopt Biden's expansionary program, as Paul Krugman keeps pointing out.  And oil prices are going up in the U.S. because oil prices are going up worldwide.  

My take:  voters are mainly blaming Biden for high gas prices he didn't cause and cannot do much about. And as survey data show, while inflation is high, most people actually report that their own financial situation is, all in all, pretty good. What has them worried is that they think that inflation is a sign of chaos and humans hate chaos.  The media are also to blame. Night after night the media report how terrible the economy is, almost never taking more than a moment, if that, to point out that inflation is a worldwide phenomenon. (I watch NBC news with Lester Holt every night.  Only once in the last two weeks has the show even mentioned that inflation is happening in other countries around the globe.)

But again, most voters aren't making a judgment about the president based on an assessment of his handling of the economy. Busy managing their own lives they aren't actually paying much attention to either politics or the economy.  And this is grounds for them reaching shoot-from-the-hip conclusions, relying on intuitions shaped by humans' experience as hunter gatherers living in small communities, intuitions ill-suited to life in complicated societies composed of hundreds of millions of people. Why is this a problem?  Because properly assessing how presidents are performing is hard, as I first noted in an article on HNN back in 2009.

One more thing is worth noting as this blog appears on a history website. Voters not only misapprehend the performance of the politicians who presently hold office, but also those who held office in the past.  That is, they get history wrong, too, ranking some awful presidents highly and some good presidents badly. 

This was the subject of a TV show I produced twenty-five years ago on TLC, Myth America. You can watch the show here.  It's 30 minutes long and focuses on presidents.

(You can watch the other shows in the series I've made available so far by clicking on this Twitter thread.)

 

 

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The Roundup Top Ten for June 3, 2022

The Back Channel Between Pius XII and Hitler

by David I. Kertzer

The Vatican has only just now released documents about secret and sensitive negotiations between the Nazi leader and the Holy See, in which the Vatican agreed to temper criticisms of Nazism's pagan elements in exchange for ceasing investigation of sex crimes by priests.

 

Doug Mastriano and the White Christian Nationalist Cult of the AR-15

by Thomas Lecaque

The Pennsylvania Republican nominee for governor has connections to a church that merges radical Christian nationalism with the trappings of the militia movement and a fetishism of assault rifles. 

 

 

The Dunce Party

by Rachel Bryan

Tennessee's "Divisive Concepts" bill would make it virtually impossible to teach the history and culture of the state and the wider South. 

 

 

Rescuing Shirley Chisholm's Life from Symbolism

by Anastasia Curwood

Writing a biography of the Congresswoman and presidential candidate required working through the distinction between Shirley Chisholm the symbol and the much more complex reality of Shirley Chisholm the woman, to see how big trends in Black history unfolded at a human scale.

 

 

Another Tragic Eruption of "Great Replacement" Violence

by Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin

"While the specific targets and methods of spreading this theory may be new, White native-born Americans worrying about being replaced is not. And history demonstrates that the theory has been repeatedly used to legitimize discrimination and deadly violence."

 

 

Do Gay Men Need a Specific Monkeypox Warning?

by Jim Downs

The history of the HIV epidemic shows that the desire to avoid stigmatizing gay men should not override the imperative of identifying and advising populations about behavioral risk for contagious disease. 

 

 

Pro-Life and Pro-Gun?

by Daniel K. Williams

Gun rights aren't intrinsic to evangelical Christian theology. But they are intrinsic to the individualism through which most white Evangelicals see the world and frame their political identity.

 

 

The Monument Controversy We Aren't Discussing

by Cynthia C. Prescott

Outside of the former Confederacy, efforts to replace "Pioneer Mother" statues with depictions of Native American women have sparked a backlash including outright theft.

 

 

In one Family's Photo Album: A Wedding, An Anniversary, and a Lynching in Texas

by Jeffrey J. Littlejohn

The author set out to identify the victim of a lynching pictured in a family photoalbum. This project – pointing out the normalcy and pervasiveness of violence as a tool of white supremacy – could be illegal for a K-12 teacher in Texas today.

 

 

HBO's "We Own This City" and Baltimore's Long History of Police Brutality

by Mary Rizzo

A Baltimore historian notes that the Black community's efforts to fight police brutality are much older than the War on Drugs. 

 

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