Historians

Oliver Stone’s untold history of the United States (and the Soviet Union)

Posted on April 10, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Politics, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Part 3 of our series on Stone’s “Untold History of the United States”, currently running in 10 one-hour episodes on Showtime. So far in our review of Episode 1—World War II, we have not encountered a lot of U.S. history; it has mostly been a retelling of world events with a loving focus on Stalin and the Soviet Union as lone crusaders against Hitler. More, unfortunately, on that below.

But at about 19.00 Stone introduces Henry Wallace, FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture, as our first unsung hero of U.S. history. Wallace directed the soil conservation program that helped reverse the Dust Bowl, and was an outspoken opponent of racism against black Americans and Jewish people worldwide. When FDR chose Wallace as his running mate in 1940, the Democratic party protested, leading the president to write a letter to the delegates at the Democratic National Convention saying he would not accept their nomination if they did not accept Wallace’s. Stone edits the letter, of course, to make a sound bite; there’s nothing wrong with that. But oddly, he changes the end of the letter fairly substantially. The actual text is:

“The party must go wholly one way or wholly the other. It cannot face in both directions at the same time. By declining the honor of the nomination for the presidency, I can restore that opportunity to the convention. I so do.”

Stone gives it as:

“The party cannot face in both directions at the same time. Therefore I decline the honor of the nomination for the presidency.”

The meaning is changed, from “I will refuse to run unless you let me unify the party on morally right terms” to “I’m not running.”  This level of editing makes one wonder about the accuracy of all the other quotes given in the episode, and whether the goal of making a more dramatic soundbite led Stone and the editors to substantially change the content of other quotes.

Another basic law of documentary film-making is broken here, as Stone uses footage of Roosevelt delivering a radio address as a voiceover artist reads the letter text, seemingly saying to viewers that this is footage of Roosevelt actually reading from the letter. The lips don’t match the words well until the very end, where whatever Roosevelt was actually saying matches “the presidency” very closely. You don’t pretend to have footage of something you don’t have footage of.

FDR’s tough stance paid off, and Wallace was accepted as the vice-presidential nominee. So far in the episode, FDR is coming off pretty well, as someone who would have liked to aid the Spanish Republic, and forced his party into braving conservative pressure. The only real negative so far is the U.S.’s perversely small quota allowed for Jewish immigration from 1933-1945, for which FDR must take some blame.

At 27.40, Stone at last acknowledges Stalin’s paranoia by saying it would not allow him to believe that Germany would attack its new Soviet ally in 1941. But we veer back into Stalin-boosting at 29.28, when Stone says that after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was launched, “Stalin begged Britain for military material and to land immediately in Europe and engage Hitler on a second front. And for the west, it was now crucial to keep the Soviet Union in the war to absorb the main thrust of the Nazi war machine.” To say that the Allies wanted the Soviet Union in the war simply to let someone else be destroyed in their place is inaccurate, to put it mildly, and Stone himself contradicts this cynical view immediately before this clip, at 29.15, when he says the west feared that the Soviets would fall to the Nazis, and conclude a separate peace.  The prospect of the Nazis controlling the Soviet Union and its massive resources of farmland and oil was so dire that Churchill, an entrenched anti-communist, “pledged support for the Soviet Union.” So the real reason it was crucial to keep the Soviet Union in the war was not so it could be destroyed by the Nazis while the west looked on laughing, but to keep it in the war so that its crucial resources would not be used to fuel the Nazi war effort. If the Soviet Union fell, the odds of defeating the Nazis shrank considerably.

But Stone continues to present the west as anxious to support a Nazi victory over the Soviet Union, explaining the reluctance of U.S. military leaders to send war materiel to the USSR, and the reluctance of the British to divert that war materiel from their own war effort to the eastern front, this way: “There were still many in the west who frankly were glad to see the Soviet Union finally on her knees.” It’s true that many American leaders would have been glad to see the Soviet Union fall. It’s not true to say that that is the reason why they did not want to provide war supplies to Stalin. American leaders hesitated to get involved in a war the U.S. was not part of—in the summer of 1941 the U.S. was officially neutral, and getting involved in the war might invite an attack on the U.S. British leaders hesitated to redirect war supplies from Britain to the Soviet Union because Britain was still fighting for its life at that point. They did not know, as we do now, that Germany would not attempt another invasion of Great Britain. Britain was the only western European nation still fighting the Nazis, and it’s reasonable that its leaders would not want their only outside supply line from the U.S. sent to the eastern front. Stone has just said Churchill pledged to support the Soviet Union because he needed them in the war. So how can he then say Britain was “frankly” glad to see the Soviet Union fall?

The real issue in 1941 was one that would persist for three more years: the Allies wanted to open up a western front but were unable to get the foothold in Europe to do so, and needed considerable firepower in the west to create that opportunity. There was no conspiracy to let the Nazis destroy the Soviet Union. If the USSR fell, then the Nazis could return their full focus to the west, and then the odds of carrying out the D-Day invasion would have shrunk dramatically.

Stone then moves on to FDR’s secret meeting with Churchill in Newfoundland in August 1941, and notes that FDR was reluctant to help Churchill protect and extend its empire; the Atlantic Charter that came out of the meeting that set the Allied goals for a post-war world specifically ruled out  “territorial aggrandizement”  as a goal. Stone then has audio of FDR explaining the “Four Freedoms” (freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear), and ends it by saying “These were big words, but the Atlantic Charter was a truly visionary document.” (34.03) The Four Freedoms, however, were not in the Atlantic Charter; they were introduced in a speech by FDR 7 months earlier, in January 1941. Yes, the principles of the Freedoms are upheld by the Atlantic Charter, but the articulation of the Freedoms is not in the Charter, and it’s sloppy history to say they were. And just another red flag about the accuracy of the series as a whole…

…as we see when we move on to the origins of the  Manhattan Project. Stone describes how it was turned over to the U.S. military and the oversight of Major General Leslie Groves. He says that Vice President Wallace “had a low opinion of Groves, believing him ‘a slightly pathological, anti-semitic Roosevelt-hater, and outright fascist.'” (42.54) Then Stone moves on to the team Groves created. Wallace may well have believed Groves was all those things, but the responsible historian cannot simply present Wallace’s opinion as the objective truth about Groves, as Stone does here. What if a history of the U.S. 50 years from now introduces President Obama by quoting a neo-conservative politician claiming that Obama was a Kenyan citizen posing illegally as a U.S. citizen, and then just moved on, letting that stand as the only description of the president, tacitly saying it is true? What if a history of the U.S. 50 years from now introduced President George W. Bush by quoting an activist claiming that Bush was in on the September 11th attacks and then moved on, letting it stand as true? If you present incendiary charges in what is supposed to be a documentary, you have to prove them. Stone does not.

On to another go-around at 44.22 about Stalin “pleading” for a second front, and here at least gives a few accurate reasons why this didn’t happen, from Eisenhower’s estimation that it would take much longer than the U.S. had thought to create the opportunity for a landing in western Europe to Churchill’s concerns about holding North Africa, in part hoping that the second front could be opened up in southern Europe from British North Africa.

We are almost done; next time will be the last time, but it will be an enormous dose of truth v. myth, so be ready.

Next time: “historians agree”

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Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States—Episode 1

Posted on April 8, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

On we go in part 2 of our review of director Oliver Stone’s TV series “Untold History of the United States”, now airing on Showtime. We’re analyzing it for its historical accuracy and reliability. Why do this? Because Stone asks us to, in the intro to episode 1, “World War II”, in which he says rather than make another narrative movie, he thought the important topic of “real” U.S. history deserved something more—a documentary series informed by real historians. So we are taking him at his word and watching the show as historians, and as we made clear in our first post, finding it lacking. No one is more dedicated to Truth v. Myth  than the HP, so it’s not that we don’t like myth-busting, one of the promised activities of Stone’s series. It’s just that myth must be busted by truth, and not the other way around, and in Episode 1, at least, there’s a lot of myth posing as truth.

So we left off last time about 12 minutes into “World War II” and now we pick up at 12.35, where Stone, narrating, says that western non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War convinced Stalin by 1939 that “the western powers had no real interest in a collective action to slow the Nazi advance. For years, the Soviet dictator had implored the west to unite against Hitler and Mussolini, even joining the League of Nations in 1934. But Soviet pleas were repeatedly ignored. And then in 1937, full-scale war erupted in China as the powerful Japanese army captured city after city.”

Like a good dissertation advisor, let’s mark this up: First we are in 1939, with Stalin trying in vain to get the west to fight the Nazis. Coming where this claim does, after a wrap-up of the U.S.’s refusal to intervene in the Spanish Civil War and FDR’s statement that the refusal would come back to haunt the nation, one has to assume that Stone means Stalin was the only major leader who fought the Nazis in Spain and the only leader who was willing to keep fighting them afterward. Stone gets this, apparently, from the fact that the Soviet Union provided war materiel to the Republicans in Spain. But cursory study of the Soviet role in the SCW shows that Stalin intervened only in an attempt to convert the civil war into a communist revolution that would create a Soviet satellite nation in Spain. Stalin’s man in Spain, Alexander Orlov, had the socialist prime minister deposed and installed a communist who could be a puppet leader, and carried out arrests and execution of Republican leaders who did not sympathize with communism. In exchange for military support, Stalin demanded that the Republic pay in gold; about $500 million in gold left Spain for the Soviet Union during the war.

To say that Stalin was “fighting the Nazis” in Spain is disingenuous: he was in a fight to control Spain and had no interest in the stated goals of the Spanish Republicans. He supplied arms to the communist revolutionaries in Spain and directed most of his efforts to using those weapons to rid the revolution of its non-communist participants. Stemming the Nazi menace was fairly far from his mind. Stalin did hate European fascism, because it was not Communist, but his heart did not bleed for Hitler’s victims in Europe. Stalin was only ever concerned with his own security. Spain served his purposes only for as long as he thought he might control it, and begin to build his own empire in Europe.

Next, we have the statement that Stalin had been “imploring” the west “for years” to fight Hitler, and even had the USSR join the League of Nations to get his urgent message heard. First, Stalin never implored the west to fight Hitler, as we have seen. Second, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations after Germany and Japan withdrew their memberships; Stalin hoped to develop some tactical alliances with western nations alarmed by Hitler’s actions so that if Hitler supported a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union in the east, or Germany attacked in the west, the Soviet Union would be able to call on its new allies to come to its aid. Stalin also wanted to give temporary support to anti-fascist movements in Europe, again to protect his own territory from invasion. No one can argue with the necessity of protecting one’s country from invasion. But to say that the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations primarily as a gesture of goodwill to try to get fighting the Nazis on the agenda is plainly wrong.

Finally, we jump backward in time from 1939 to 1937 to the Japanese invasion of China, which, presented in this way, is seen as an inevitable consequence of the west’s refusal to help Stalin fight Hitler. In reality, Hitler was not interested in really allying with Japan, a racially inferior nation in his view, and there was no cooperation between Germany and Japan before the invasion. So these are unrelated.

We recall at this point that the website for the series claims that we will discover unsung heroes of U.S. history and “explore the demonization of the Soviets”. This agenda is never actually stated in the episode. That is a red flag for the historian, who knows that you must always make your biases and agenda clear in anything you write or produce. When we practice Truth v. Myth here at the HP, it is clearly tagged as such and identified as such within the post. The second problem is that, while revisionist history is valuable, you have to do good history. You can’t take facts (the Soviet Union sending aid to the Republicans, the Soviet Union joining the League of Nations) and simply make up fictional narratives about why they happened. You have to stick to the real facts throughout, and suffer the times when they don’t support your thesis just as you celebrate the times that they do.

That’s a lot of ink to spill on 10 seconds of video. But those 10 seconds are so misleading, they have to be fully unpacked.

We move on, but only to another Stalin example: at 14.45, Stone says that after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia “Stalin recognized the truth: his country was facing its most deadly enemy alone. He needed to buy time, and fearing a German-Polish alliance to attack the USSR, he shocked the west when he signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.”

The Soviet Union had made an alliance with Czechoslovakia in 1935 as a by-product of its new alliance with France (which was a Czech ally itself). These alliances were the fruits of and the reason for the Soviets’ joining the League of Nations. When Hitler took the Sudetenland nothing happened. When he took the rest of Czechoslovakia, France signed the Munich Agreement, accepting the new status quo and abandoning the Czechs. Churchill looked to Stalin to stand by his alliance; Churchill saw early on both the threat Hitler posed and the necessity of involving the Soviet Union in a war against Hitler. Churchill pushed incessantly for a British alliance with the Soviet Union, but British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was not interested in an alliance that he believed Hitler would find aggressive. When Stalin terminated its alliance with Czechoslovakia, Churchill was shaken, but continued to believe that the virulently anti-fascist Stalin would come around. When Stalin signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany in August 1939, just five months after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Churchill was stunned.

After Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, the USSR immediately dropped its alliance with that nation and then did absolutely nothing to stop Hitler. And when Stalin was approached by Joachim von Ribbentrop for an alliance with Germany, he accepted with alacrity, not because he feared a Polish-German alliance but for two reasons: first, he saw the Munich Agreement as evidence that France and Britain would not stop a German invasion of the Soviet Union, and second because Ribbentrop agreed to Stalin’s demand for half of Poland in return for an alliance. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was perfect for Stalin because it protected him, he thought, from a western invasion. Germany would not invade, and occupying eastern Poland and part of the Balkans would give the Soviets a buffer zone against any British-French invasion. The Soviet Union also agreed not to get involved in any European war—that is, when Germany launched World War II, the Soviets would not interfere or intervene to protect France, Britain, or any other nation from German invasion.

The idea that Stalin feared a German-Polish alliance strains credulity to the breaking point. Poland had its own non-aggression pacts with Germany and the Soviet Union, but these seemed so flimsy to the Poles that they gratefully accepted British and French guarantees of military protection at the end of March 1939 in case of an attack by Hitler or Stalin. Only the paranoid mind of Stalin could have conjured up the threat of a joint German-Polish invasion of the Soviet Union; for Stone to accept it is baffling.

Stone says that Stalin had proposed to join the Franco-British alliance to protect Poland, but “neither [France nor Britain] would accept Soviet troops on Polish soil as a way of blocking the Germans.” This is astounding. France and Britain knew, as most European nations knew, that Stalin had been angling for years to find a way to annex Poland. That’s why they did not accept Stalin’s offer to occupy Poland “to block the Germans”—they knew it had nothing to do with Germany and everything to do with annexing Poland. Once Soviet troops entered that nation, they would never leave.

We have only covered about 5 minutes of film here. That’s the danger of it. A full hour episode presents stretches of conventional history that lull you into confidence and then slips in 5 minutes here and there of complete malarkey that you might be fooled into accepting.

We hope to make better time in part 3, where we move on to the actual war and more Stalin-burnishing.

Next time: finally a bit of the U.S. in this secret U.S. history 

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A review of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States

Posted on April 4, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Director Oliver Stone claims that “there is a classified America we were never meant to see”, comprised of “events that at the time went under reported but crucially shaped America’s unique and complex history.” Rather than write off this effort as part of Stone’s work in conspiracy-theory proliferation without investigating, we took a look at episode 1, “World War II”, watching it on the series’ website. The copy on the episode home page says, in part, “Through examination of key decisions during World War II, discover unsung heroes such as American Henry Wallace and explore the demonization of the Soviets.”

The odd thing about this premiere episode of a series on secret U.S. history is that about 70% of it was not about the U.S., but a pretty standard overview of the run-up to the war and how it was fought. With some odd exceptions.

The lead-in shows Stone telling us that as a boy he thought he knew America—he learned in his “extensive” studies of history at school that “we were the good guys.” But as he traveled the world and served in Vietnam and made movies, “some of them about history,” he has learned otherwise. Seeing his children learn the same dishonest history provoked him to create something that “looks beyond what I call the tyranny of now” to the “really important subconscious stuff” that is going on under the surface. He wanted “to tell the American story in a way that it has never been told before”, mostly by debunking accepted heroes and presenting those who were unsung heroes. We will learn about “the meaning of this country, and what so radically changed after World War II.”

Somehow it’s not surprising that he starts mid-20th century; so few people are interested in our earlier history, with the exception of the Civil War.

The episode then begins with footage from a government documentary (after the fact) about the Manhattan Project, and uses celebratory classical music over scenes of an atomic explosion—a bit of sarcasm that is not only cruelly overused but immediately makes one wonder if the episode as a whole will take the easy way out of showing something negative in cartoon form rather than forcing the viewer to take in its full context. As the film rolls, Stone, who narrates throughout, says that the bomb “turned the refuge of the Founding Fathers into a militarized state.”

Stone makes the first of his debunking claims [at 6.22]: “Generations of Americans have been taught that the United States reluctantly dropped atomic bombs at the end of World War II to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men poised to die in an invasion of Japan. But the story is really more complicated, more interesting, and much more disturbing.”

The problem with both the claim about a militarized state and the “real” story of the bomb here is that neither is addressed in this episode. Granted this is the first in a long series, but if you raise dramatically striking issues at the beginning of an episode, you have to at least touch on them at some point in that episode. But it seems one will have to watch episode 2 (at least) to get any more data on these claims. For now, we are dealing strictly with the rollout of WWII.

Americans remember WWII as a good war but, Stone says, the rest of the world, “not so blessed,” remembers it as the bloodiest war in human history. This is specious in a few ways. First, Americans remember it as a “good war”, in quotes, because it was fought for a good cause (stopping fascism), not because it was a good time. Second, Americans certainly honor the bloodshed of the war. Third, Stone never describes what makes the U.S. “so blessed”; one has to assume it’s the fact that no battles were fought on U.S. soil (aside from the Pearl Harbor attack) and that war production built our economy. But to imply that because we fought the war in other lands, Americans love WWII and tacitly wish it would happen again while all other nations somberly recognize it for what it was is beyond ridiculous.

In his chronology of what is usually seen as the run-up to the war (Stone says the war began in 1931; that unlike other wars, it began  “slowly and incrementally” with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria), Stone devotes time to the Spanish Civil War. He claims that the Second Spanish Republic had made enemies of big business in the U.S. because of its “progressive policies and tight regulation of business.” This led Firestone, Ford, GM, and “others” to provide Franco’s fascists with “trucks, tires, and machine tools”, and Texaco, headed by pro-fascist Torkild Rieber, promised Franco unlimited oil on credit.

There are two problems here: first, it’s true that Rieber was pro-fascist. But you can’t fall back on the catch-all “others” in this way.If you name four companies, you have to name them all—why should the four be called out publicly while the “others” get to remain anonymous? If it’s important to name some, why isn’t it important to name all? One gets the feeling that Stone wants to call out the biggest companies because they are the ones we know, and will be shocked at, while the others are less well-known and won’t be as effective. That is something historians do not do because it’s misleading and unprofessional; the other names would at least appear in a footnote.

Second, Stone clearly means to shame the U.S. government and people with this information, although FDR (as Stone mentions) was furious and the American people likely knew little about it.

It’s true that the Republican government of Spain was not popular with U.S. big business, in large part because it promoted socialism and nationalized the railways and banking, anathema to American free enterprise. But to equate nationalization with regulation is inaccurate, since they are two very different things; so is describing socialism as “progressive policies,” especially in the context of U.S. history in the early 20th century, when the Progressive movement was still an active if waning force in our country and was decidedly not socialist. This insidious favoring of the Spanish Republican government, presenting it as all good when the reality was complex, is disingenuous at best. This kind of twisting of the facts will recur in descriptions of Stalin and the Soviet Union later in the episode.

At this point, one has to start wondering which historians advised the series. Only one is named: Peter Kuznick, who specializes in atomic- and nuclear-era U.S. history. Clearly Dr. Kuznick’s expertise will be critical in later episodes that focus on the Cold War, but in this WWII overview episode, it can have been put to minimal use at best. Who else informed this episode? The closing credits list three “researchers” without Ph.D.s (at least they are not credited as such) or affiliation. When you are hired by a company called “Secret History LLC”, how much autonomy can you expect to have as you research? The sinking feeling that we will not quite be getting fully accurate history in this series setsin at this point and does not go away. As you’ll see in our own multi-episode “series” on this single episode and the ax it grinds, this episode likes to use real history to tell lies, mostly by taking quotes out of context, using leading language to color events, and drawing conclusions unsupported by facts.

To return to the Spanish Civil war segment, documentary footage is suddenly dropped, at 11.20, to use footage from a Hollywood movie to describe the heroic actions of Americans fighting in Spain against Franco. The movie—“For Whom the Bell Tolls”—was made in 1943, during WWII, and puts a strong spin on the motives of Americans fighting in the Spanish Civil War to make them jibe with the motives of Americans fighting in World War II. Gary Cooper plays the American hero who says he must fight in Spain to keep the war from coming to his own country: “It’s not only Spain fighting here, is it? …The Nazis are using your country as a proving ground for their new war machine, their tanks and dive bombers, and stuff like that, so they can get the jump on the democracies and knock off England and France and my country before we get armed and ready to fight.” These are clearly the sentiments of an American in 1943, not 1936; precious few Americans went to Spain in the 30s to fight the Nazis, with a prescient eye to what Germany was planning in the future—maybe none did. The episode, to its credit, uses a large lower-third to identify the switch to a Hollywood movie; it doesn’t try to pass Cooper off as a real volunteer. But to its discredit, the episode does present the 1943 spin as representative of 1936, a violation of basic history-writing. If Stone wants to be taken seriously by historians and the public, he can’t blur that line.

We’ll continue on in our own episode two where we get our first oddly revisionist presentation of Stalin.

Next time—Stalin stands alone against Hitler? 

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The Three-Fifths Compromise—a shining example?

Posted on February 26, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians | Tags: , , |

James Wagner, President of Emory University, made a startling claim in his President’s Letter in this month’s edition of Emory Magazine: that the Three-Fifths Compromise is a model of putting aside petty differences to work for the common good.

As you recall, the 3/5 compromise made at the 1787 Constitutional Convention counted an enslaved person in the southern states as 60% of a person. The compromise came about when southern delegates to the convention wanted their enslaved population counted in the general population so that their states could have more representatives in the House. Northern delegates said this was ridiculous: enslaved black people could not vote, so how could they be counted amongst the population sending representatives to the House? Enslaved people had no rights, so how could someone serve in the House claiming to represent their wishes and rights as citizens? The debate was one during which southern delegates threatened to pull out of the convention and the Union if they were thwarted, and the result was a compromise: each enslaved person would be counted as 3/5 of a person, allowing the south to benefit from a large portion of its enslaved population but not the entire population.

President Wagner described the 3/5 this way in his letter: “”Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator — for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared — the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.”

Wagner was using the compromise as part of his discussion about the tension between those at the university who want to push ever higher in their service to students and the ideal of the liberal arts university and those who point out the dwindling funds available to do so, and want to reign in or cut some programs. If only these two sides could put the common good of Emory ahead of their own desires and work for the common good, said Wagner, like the delegates who came up with the 3/5 by putting aside “ideology”—ideology being, in this case, having an opinion about enslaving people.

After the uproar over his letter, Wagner issued an “apology” in which he said slavery was repugnant and that the ends don’t justify the means, but, as observers have pointed out, his original letter did very much suggest that the ends do justify the means, and that he never expressed any horror or regret over the 3/5 compromise and what it meant for enslaved people in the United States in his original letter.

It’s embarrassing for the president of a university to be so historically uninformed; it’s particularly surprising at Emory, which has been very upfront about admitting its ties to slavery in the antebellum period, has faced up to its involvement in and benefit from slavery, and even hosted a conference in 2011 on “Slavery and the University”. Seeing the 3/5 only in terms of an example of willingness to compromise and reach across the aisle in Washington is symptomatic of what happens when people know a little history—just enough to draw exactly the wrong conclusions from our past.

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Election 2012 and the white minority (and Bill O’Reilly)

Posted on November 14, 2012. Filed under: American history, Historians, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , |

In many ways, elections are in the same vein as census results for the historian: they are snapshots of the U.S. population taken at regular intervals whose results lend themselves to nearly infinite analysis and extrapolation. The 2012 election is particularly rich, as it seems to show—

—women voting for Democrats and men voting for Republicans

—such sex-based voting trumping other demographic factors (race, income, immigration status, rural/urban, religion, education level, etc.)

—the older vote (45 and over) going Republican (as it has trended for about three decades) and,

—white votes becoming a smaller bloc

That is the way it’s being presented, at least: whites are becoming the minority population, and so the “white vote” is no longer critical to those running for office. But it’s more complicated than that; race is actually not the primary characteristic to count votes by. The best case to be made from the 2012 results, it seems, is that your sex matters most, as the majority of women of all races, incomes, etc., voted Democratic and the majority of men voted Republican. Age might come second, as people 18-45 vote Democratic and those 45-over vote Republican. Your job is up there, too, as union members voted pretty solidly Democratic.

It is true that White Americans will be in the Minority by 2019, and that our youngest populations in the U.S. are already minority white. But more important is that as our national population becomes more racially mixed, race is less of a card to play either way for a candidate—appealing to a certain race does not yield big rewards. Those who felt sure whites would vote for Romney were wrong when it came to women and the young, and right when it came to men and the elderly. Those who felt sure that blacks would vote for Obama were more right, but he is our first black president, and that’s a factor (he won 70% of the Latino vote as well). In 50 years, after (one hopes) a few more black and a couple of female presidents, a non-white presidential candidate will not be so new, and will have to fight for non-white votes.

The interesting point here is that race is just one factor, and “the white vote” does not mean “white people” but “white, older men”, the small group for whom race may be the primary factor in an election. But race is just one in a string of adjectives candidates need to pay attention to now, along with age, income, education, location, religion, sexuality, and others.

And so Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News analyst, is wrong when he pins the election on race. In his instantly infamous stream of consciousness monologue on election night, he stated:

“It’s a changing country. The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America any more. And there are 50% of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it and he ran on it. And, whereby twenty years ago, President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney. The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”

In our next post we’ll do a close reading of this text, as historians do, to get at the heart of its inaccuracies. For now, we leave feeling some relief, perhaps, that race is no longer the be-all and end-all of election politics, and our diverse society is reflected more completely in its diversity of makeup than in previous elections.

Next time:  here’s your stuff

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Debating the causes of the Civil War

Posted on November 7, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , |

The last post in our consideration of Michael Woods’ article, “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature”, in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians), takes us to a conclusion of sorts about Civil War scholarship in this century. (Read it quickly; very soon it will be displaced by election result analysis!)

It seems the story of almost every historical field in the past few decades is one of adding complexity to the existing analysis. For the topic of causes of the Civil War, this means complicating our understanding of northern and southern attitudes toward slavery, and rehabilitating the idea that slavery was, indeed, the cause of the war. Slavery was behind the tariff debates, the westward expansion debates, the states’ rights debates, and the debates over industrializing the economy, immigration, monetary policy, and just about everything else one can think of.

This does not mean that abolition, the morality of slavery, or the rights of black people were always discussed in these debates. Slavery was not always discussed in its own context—that is, in the context of an argument about whether it was morally right or morally wrong to enslave human beings.  Slavery was often discussed as an economic, social, or political concept; a system that influenced other systems. Its human face, the actual condition of enslaved people, would not take center stage on a regular basis until the 1850s, and even on the eve of the war over slavery the situation of slaves was not as popular a topic for many Americans as the situations of white people living with black enslavement.

But that minority of Americans who focused on the  moral wrong of slavery grew to become the majority population during the war, and even after the failure/sabotaging of Reconstruction, it was never acceptable to question whether slavery had been right or wrong; the stance that slavery was a moral good, once a safe stance to take in public, became the last resort of racists who hid behind white sheets and terror societies.

Looking into recent scholarship on the Civil War is rewarding, as it shows that new understandings can come into view even for the most exhaustively studied topics.

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Slavery: tough on white Americans

Posted on October 30, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 5 of our series on Michael Woods’ article  “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature”, in the latest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians). Here we look at ways today’s historians are approaching the convoluted politics of race and slavery in the U.S. before the Civil War, and the insights into the many reasons why white antislaveryites opposed slavery—many of which were about protecting their own interests.

How was slavery a threat to white Americans, as they saw it? Here are the bullets:

  • Slavery as a threat to white jobs: Remember our distinction between abolitionists, who believed slavery was a moral wrong, and antislaveryites, whose problem with slavery was that it took jobs from white Americans and threatened our democratic political system. Antislaveryites did not want slave labor spreading through the country, taking jobs away from the white laboring classes and giving a fractional minority of white slaveholders far more power than they were due in Washington. This takes us to point 2—
  • Slavery as a threat to republicanism: If a handful of plutocrat southern slaveholders controlled most of the U.S. economy through the labor of their enslaved people, they would become “too big to fail” in Congress, and their demands would dictate U.S. policy. This was a threat to republican liberty that was not fantasy, as the south, though the smaller section, lost very few battles in Washington, and often had the federal government bending over backward to placate it. So slavery was a threat to the poor white worker and the white nation as a whole. Sectional conflicts like Bleeding Kansas can be read as “a struggle to secure the political liberties of whites” —the whites who voted to make Kansas a free state, who were threatened literally and figuratively by proslaveryites who killed settlers and overrode the antislavery constitution of the territory to present their proslavery constitution to the proslavery president James Buchanan, who accepted it. [Woods 432]
  • Slavery as a threat to white liberty: the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest and latest move of the slave power to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to encroach on white liberty itself. Whites were forced by the law to help slavecatchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. If the Fugitive Slave Law was all about black slaves, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as much as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.
  • Slavery as a perverting force on white nature: northerners who read about the inhuman abuses slaveholders inflicted on black Americans, and read proslavery politicians’ own forceful defenses of violence against the enslaved, and read about or saw for themselves the aristocratic lifestyle of major slaveholders, were disgusted at what slaveholding seemed to do to white nature. Slaveholders were not tough, hardworking, honest men, as whites were supposed to be, but lazy and corrupted by power, living lives of ease that made them effeminate and shallow. Slavery had led to the development of a chivalric code that emphasized violence in defense of one’s honor, but no exertions of body or spirit in any other direction. And, as we’ve seen, slaveholding had led wealthy slaveholders to pervert American democracy itself to protect and extend their twisted way of life. Antislavery emotion in the north often called on its followers to counter this perversion of whiteness, and the free soil, free labor ideology (of free, honest, hardworking, muscular farmers) was a direct counterpart to the depraved planter.
  • Slavery as a wedge into the white race: this is directly related to the point above. Rich white slaveholders had long prevented poor southern whites from rising up against their oligarchy by focusing on race instead of class. Don’t focus on how unequal you are to us in every respect, they told poor whites; focus on how superior we all are to blacks. Even the poorest, least educated white man is better than a black man. Focusing the poor white majority on racial solidarity rather than class inequality preserved the unequal social and political system in the south and shored up slavery. Since the vast majority of white southerners did not hold slaves, and had nothing in common with slaveholders, how was it that they were willing to fight a war for slavery? This question has been asked by Confederate apologists for over a century, and had a featured role in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. The answer, that poor white southerners wouldn’t have fought to defend slavery, is used to “prove” the point that the war was not fought over slavery and that southerners were fighting for states’ rights. But the real answer is that poor whites fought the war for many reasons, but one was because rich whites asked them to, and fought alongside them, in a living illustration of the bond of race. Poor southerners, like any human beings, were not about to allow “foreigners” from the north invade their homes and farms without raising a finger to stop them simply because those poor southerners didn’t hold slaves. Poor southerners fought to protect their lands and families. But during and especially after the war, rich southerners put a gloss on that that made the war about whites joining together to fight for white superiority. The horrid backlash against southern blacks after the war sprang in large part from poor whites’ fury at having their racial superiority taken from them, and to prevent blacks from achieving true equality with them. So the white racial “bonding” over slavery was seen by northern whites as another perversion of white identity brought on by slaveholders.

We see from this survey one of the main points of recent scholarship: bringing slavery back to its central role in provoking the Civil War. In the latter part of the 20th century, slavery was de-emphasized as a cause of war, in part because studies focusing on northern racism came to the fore at that time, and the logic ran that if everyone was racist then slavery couldn’t have started the war. This point of view had been popular with southerners since 1865, as they went about the business of recasting the war as a noble fight for states’ rights that had nothing to do with slavery. It caught on with a new generation of non-white scholars who felt white historians gave the north too much credit in saying it fought the war over slavery. This was a necessary correction to the super-noble representation of northern feeling popular in the north since 1863. But as research continues, we begin to see a more complete and complex picture of the truth: slavery was the only issue leading to war, but not just because of its immorality—as Woods points out, “Some forty years ago, Larry Gara urged historians to make a ‘crucial distinction’ between self-interested opposition to slaveholder power and moral opposition to slavery as an oppressive institution.” [Woods 431] But whether you were against slavery because it was cruel or because you felt it robbed you of a job, slavery was your issue going into the war, and, as Woods points out, few people were so black-and-white about the issue. People felt a range of sometimes contradictory emotions about slavery, and those feeling grew and changed during the war. Recognizing human complexity in any field is crucial to truly understanding it.

Next time: still fighting over slavery

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Northern Sectionalism before the Civil War

Posted on October 18, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

In part 4 of our look at trends in 21st-century Civil War scholarship, we look at the new attention being paid to northern sectionalism. This post, like the others in this series, are informed by Michael Woods’ very interesting article in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.”

We tend to learn that in the years before the Civil War, the south became increasingly divided from the rest of the nation, and that southern sectionalism was basically defined by proslavery politics and devotion to a chivalric social ideal and an agrarian economy. This is presented in contrast to the north, which was simply the United States as it had always been, unchanged before the war, unchanging during the war, and triumphantly reimposed on the south after the war. “The North” and “the Union” are used interchangeably by most texts.

But recent scholarship has focused on the north’s own sectionalism—its departure from traditional United States ideas and practices, which was prompted in large part by and was a reaction to southern sectionalism. As the south defined itself as a region, so the north began to define itself as a region, one that was morally and economically superior to the south [Woods 427]

Here are some facets of northern sectionalism:

Free labor, free soil sentiment: As the south pressed a proslavery agenda, the north began to develop a free labor agenda. Neither agenda was original to the founding of the U.S. or its politics and economy until the rise of sectionalism. The U.S. was founded on a mix of free and slave labor. But the north responded to southern proslavery by developing a cult around free labor—the image of the independent, strong, self-sufficient yeoman laborer, be he farmer or industrial worker, who supports his family by the honest labor of his body. Free labor, the north opined, was wholesome and manly, and invigorated the entire nation. This went beyond opposing slavery; many people who opposed slavery did not buy into this romanticized vision of labor, realizing that factory workers had little control over their wages, worked in unsafe conditions for far too many hours, and were actually made up of women and children as well as men. They also knew that farming did not always repay honest labor, being at the mercy of the weather, and, later, railroad shipping costs. But the romance of free labor was a defining feature of northern sectionalism, opposed as it was to slave labor, of course, but also to lazy, weak, effeminate slaveholders who profited from the labor of others.

Manufacturing: The U.S. was not founded on manufacturing. Like all nations at that time, its economy was predominately agricultural. But in the decades leading up to the Civil War, the north identified itself as a manufacturing economy—a modern, exciting, powerful economy of the future that provided a living for unskilled workers and uneducated immigrants and grew the wealth of society as a whole. Again, the reality of dangerous working conditions, exploitive hours, women and child laborers, and no rights for workers was overlooked by those pushing manufacturing as modern and uniquely northern. Southerners who argued that factory workers were basically slaves were ignored.

Disunionism: Like the south, the north had populations calling for civil war. Radical abolitionists declared that the United States was founded on the sin of slavery and could not be salvaged. It would have to be destroyed, and a new nation started from scratch. Like radical proslaveryites in the south, these northerners believed it was their region alone that could do this important work.

Recasting patriotism in its own image: Southern proslaveryites used U.S. founding documents, the Revolution, and hero-Founders like Jefferson to support their proslavery position, using all three to find quotes that supported their position. Thus proslavery southerners could claim to be the real Americans, fighting malevolent attempts to pervert the Constitution by ending slavery. This we learn early and often. But the north followed the same path, using the same three sources to prove that they were the real Americans. Antislavery northerners crafted a position that balancing slave with free states, and not extending slavery into the west, was the dream and purpose of the founders. Abolitionist northerners said that the War was meant to end slavery forever. Free labor northerners claimed that the south was perverting the principles of the nation by tying the economy to old-fashioned, agriculatural labor and halting the Manifest-Destiny possessing of the west. Whichever group you belonged to, you as a citizen of the northern section were the real American.

Woods sums this up well: “Together, recent studies of northern sectionalism and southern nationalism make a compelling case for why the Civil War broke out when it did. If the South was always a separatist minority, and if the North always defended the American way, secession might well have come long before 1861. It is more helpful to view the sectional conflict as one between equally authentic (not morally equivalent) strands of American nationalism grappling for the power to govern the entire country according to sectionally specific values.” [430]

Next time: slavery hurt white people the most   ?

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Disunion: the battle over slavery before the Civil War

Posted on October 1, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians |

There’s a great article by Michael Woods in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians) called “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature.” It is, as it says, a review of current scholarship on disunion and why it happened—why the southern states seceded in 1860-1. We’ll parse what’s in here over a few posts, because this is a topic of evergreen interest to all Americans. All of the quotes in this short series are from Woods’ article (it’s only available online if you’re a member of the OAH so we can’t link you to it).

As Woods says, most scholars agree that slavery caused secession and war, but, as Elizabeth Varon says, “there is still much to be said about why slavery proved so divisive and why sectional compromise ultimately proved elusive.” (Varon’s own book Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 is a valuable read that proves definitively that from ratification of the Constitution to the eve of war there was never a time that slavery was not a difficult, divisive, fiery issue that required constant mediation and provoked constant threats and accusations of disunion.) 

The first trend in scholarship since 2000 has been to extend the period under discussion—“antebellum” can now begin in 1789, 1776, or with the arrival of the first slave ship in Virginia in 1619—and to relate the U.S. experience with slavery and war to those of its neighbors: emancipation in the British West Indies, most particularly Haiti’s revolution (1791-1804) impacted the terms of the slavery debate in the U.S. We usually learn that division over slavery did not really begin in the U.S. until the 1850s, after the Mexican War gave us all that new territory in the west to create as free or slave states, but by the 1850s the nation was already well-seasoned in sectional debate, threats of disunion, an attempt at secession by South Carolina, and a major compromise over slavery (the Missouri Compromise of 1820). As Matthew Mason points out, “there was never a time between the Revolution and the Civil War in which slavery went unchallenged.” The Compromise of 1820 was bitterly fought because, as John Craig Hammond points out, “[of the slavery dispute’s] contentious prehistory, not from its novelty.”

Taking this long view of the slavery debate helps us to see that debate as its contemporaries did; Americans who argued antislavy, abolition, or proslavery knew that they were taking up well-established lines of argument and they knew well what had been said and done before them. Both sides, North and South, blamed each other for causing the war with their activism for or against slavery since the Revolution, since the first Congress, since ratification of the Constitution. And they were right.

In our next post we’ll examine the ways the term “disunion” was used over this long time period—the four-score and six years between the Revolution and the outbreak of the war—by the many different sides involved in the slavery debate.

Next time: disunion as prophecy, threat, accusation, and process

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“The Puritan Experience” on YouTube

Posted on July 28, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America, Historians, Truth v. Myth | Tags: |

Here is another video about the Puritans that I found by typing “New England Puritans” into YouTube. It is called “The Puritan Experience: Making of a New World” and it is an episode in a continuing story:

It is an interesting mixture of truth and myth. Apparently the protagonists are a family with an 18 year-old daughter who is deemed rebellious. In this episode, her parents are confronted by their minister because their daughter hasn’t married yet. But the Puritans did not generally marry in their teens; the average man was 26 at his marriage, the average woman 22. So the unnamed daughter is not pushing any limits here.

The minister rebukes the father for saying he will trust his own judgment on the issue; God will judge, the minister reminds him, and this is an accurate depiction of the Puritan attitude. Having too much confidence in your own judgment was a sign of pride.

Next, the father is confronted by a friend who says his daughter should have officially joined the church by now. “She is past the age,” he says. The father responds that the girl is not sure she is ready to join yet, to which the friend replies they must make “a truce upon their doubts” because they can’t build a civilization in the wilderness unless they are all united in their religious practice.

This is all inaccurate. It was very rare for a teenager to become a full member of a Puritan church; you could only do that once you had spent many hard years searching your soul, studying the Bible, and generally going through the complicated and thorough discernment process of the Puritan faith. Most adults never became full members of their church. They were never certain that they had received God’s grace. Indeed, many times when someone did try to become a full member they were rejected because the congregation felt they were not yet ready. So an 18 year-old is not nearly too old to become a full member of her church.

There also could be nothing further from the Puritan mind than to “make a truce with our doubts.” They relished religious debate and gave every questioning voice a full hearing. To doubt oneself, one’s faith and goodness, was to realize that one could never earn God’s grace. Those who were certain of their virtue were dangerously deluded, led by pride to deny their complete reliance on God’s grace. Building a new civilization was based on this kind of doubt, not threatened by it.

The friend closes this episode by reminding the father that loving a child too much, taking too much delight in her, is dangerous, and this is a true depiction of Puritan thinking. They were always worried about loving someone too much, more than they loved God; such love could lead one to do things for the loved one regardless of the spiritual consequences. It could also keep a child from realizing her precarious state; her parents’ unconditional love might lead her to think she was fine as she was, and to question God’s possible damning of her soul. Puritans tried to temper their love with objective correction as often as they could, but you get the feeling they preached it more than they could practice it.

So while this video is wrong on some key issues, it’s still intriguing. It does nail the lack of privacy amongst Puritans when it came to one’s spiritual life. Your friends, congregation, and neighbors were duty-bound to instruct you and to receive your instruction on matters large and small. It was a kind of neighborhood watch of the soul. If your neighbor was in error and you did not try to help, he might die in his sin and then how would that look for you? Rather than resenting it as intrusion, most Puritans seem to have welcomed constant meddling, as it kept them on the straight and narrow.

Just a note–the minister is called Mr. Endecott; is he perhaps meant to be the famous John Endecott of Salem?

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