U.S. History postsSunday November 11, 2018
Armistice Day + 100: 'I do not believe that any of us loves a blustering nationality'
More kismet with Jill Lepore. I'm up to WWI in her book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” and read the following this morning—on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I:
The scale of death in the American Civil War, so staggering at the time—750,000 dead, in four years of fighting—looked, by comparison, minuscule. Within the first eight weeks of the war alone, nearly 400,000 Germans were killed, wounded, sick, or missing. In 1916, over a matter of mere months, there were 800,000 military casualties in Verdun and 1.1 million at the Somme. But civilians were slaughtered, too. The Ottoman government massacred as many as 1.5 million Armenians. For the first time, war was waged by airplane, bombs dropped from a great height, as if by the gods themselves. Cathedrals were shelled, libraries bombed, hospitals blasted. Before the war was over, nearly 40 million people had been killed and another 20 million wounded. What sane person could believe in progress in an age of mass slaughter?
U.S. involvement by way of the Zimmerman telegram—a German promise to Mexico that it would regain the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona if it fought us—also led to our first federal propaganda department, the Committee on Public Information, which was “headed by a baby-faced, forty-one-year-old muckraker from Missouri named George Creel, best-known for an exposé on child labor called Children in Bondage. Creel applied the methods of Progressive Era muckraking to the work of whipping up a frenzy for fighting.”
Lepore reminds us of the backlash against civil rights during the era. After Congress passed the 1918 Sedition Act, the Justice Department charged more than 2,000 Americans with that crime—particularly socialists. The leader of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Bill Haywood, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Former presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 for delivering a speech, Lepore writes, in which he'd told his listeners that they were “fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.”
As for now? Yesterday, our current president traveled to France to participate in 100th anniversary ceremonies to honor the war dead; but then he decided not to. The White House said bad weather was the reason but didn't extrapolate, leaving everyone guessing. From the Washington Post: “The cemetery is 50 miles from Paris. Perhaps the president was planning to travel on Marine One, which is occasionally grounded by the military.” Today, other world leaders rebuked Trump's nationalism. Pres. Macron: “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism by saying, ‘our interest first, who cares about the others?’”
Which brings us back to “These Truths.” Wilson's 1916 re-election campaign slogan was, of course, “He kept us out of war,” which Teddy Roosevelt, still fomenting, called an “ignoble shirking of responsibility.” Wilson's repsonse: “I am an American, but I do not believe that any of us loves a blustering nationality.”
I'll let Paul Simon take us out.
“Since the Middle Ages, Muslim traders from North Africa had traded in Africans from below the Sahara, where slavery was widespread. In much of Africa, labor, not land, constituted the sole form of property recognized by law, a form of consolidating wealth and generating revenue, which meant that African states tended to be small and that, while European wars were fought for land, African wars were fought for labor. People captured in African wars were bought and sold in large markets by merchants and local officials and kings and, beginning in the 1450s, by Portuguese sea captains. Columbus, a veteran of that trade, reported to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 that it would be the work of a moment to enslave the people of Haiti, since ‘with 50 men all of them could be held in subjection and can be made to do whatever one might wish.’ In sugar mines and gold mines, the Spanish worked their native slaves to death while many more died of disease. Soon, they turned to another source of forced labor, Africans traded by the Portuguese.”
from Jill Lepore's much-recommended “These Truths: A History of the United States.” I was actually hoping for some redemption for Columbus here but didn't find much. Ms. Lepore will be speaking in Seattle this Friday at Benaroya Hall. The Columbus quote about “50 men” comes from the “Diaro of Christopher Columbus,” which isn't the original (that's lost) but something transcribed by Bartolome de Las Casas in the 1530s.
A Rather Softspoken Man
Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 38.
The image below doesn't relate to that. It's earlier—the first time King was profiled in The New York Times, on March 21, 1956, a few months into the year-long Montgomery bus boycott that turned him into a national and international figure. It's worth reading for the historical perspective alone. The Times describes him as “a rather softspoken man with a learning and maturity far beyond his twenty- seven years.” The cutline under his photo is a quote from him: “All men are basically good.” Cf., Anne Frank's “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Cf., their endings.
Another line from the article, “He sees the current bus boycott as just one aspect of a world-wide revolt of oppressed peoples,” dovetails nicely with one of the lead newspaper stories that day: “U.S. Backs France in Liberal Plans for North Africa.” We were choosing the wrong side even then. So was the Times. Its first sentence is all about France's search for solutions to her North African problems. That's an interesting problem to have: How to hold onto something that isn't yours.
Other headlines that day. A strike at Westinghouse was settled after 156 days. There was a spring thaw. Sen. Estes Kefauver upset Sen. Adlai Stevenson to win the Democratic primary in Minnesota. King was on page. 28.
Imagine telling a Times reader back then that someone in the paper that day would have a national holiday in their honor in less than 30 years. Would be interesting to see how many guesses it took.
Irony & Wine
Mark Felt with reporters in 1980.
I recently watched the movie “Mark Felt” (don't ask), and while doing some research for my review, I came across this ironic snippet of history.
On April 30, 1981, The New York Times reported that two former FBI agents, who had recently been pardoned by Pres. Reagan, each received a bottle of champagne in celebration.
One of the two men was Mark Felt, the No. 2 man under J. Edgar Hoover, who, in 2005, revealed that he had been “Deep Throat,” the inside man on deep background for The Washington Post's Bob Woodward during the Watergate investigation. Felt is basically the man who ended Nixon's corrupt administration.
So of course the bottles of champagne celebrating his pardon came from Richard Nixonalong with a note: “Justice ultimately prevails.”
Celebrating Jeff Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson. Who could object?
I remember the first time I saw Stone Mountain in Georgia. My sister lived in Atlanta in the late 1990s, I was visiting, and I'd already gone to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center (which disappointed), the Ebenezer Baptist Church (cool), and MLK's childhood home (intriguing for imagining a young MLK running around). I'd walked the walk along Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue, and had seen—hadn't I?—the old SCLC office, next to some liquor store in a rundown section of town. I'd shaken my head over that. Shouldn't there be upkeep? Shouldn't that be preserved?
All of that I did on my own. Then one day, as a group, we did Stone Mountain, 20 miles outside Atlanta and referenced in MLK's “I Have a Dream” speech. From the get-go, I felt like I'd landed in an alternate reality or enemy territory. I suppose I had. There was this big bas-relief sculpture carved into the mountain of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. “It's a Confederate Mount Rushmore,” I thought. But it was the walkway in the park that really got me. Different slabs indicated, as if they were points of pride, when each Confederate state seceded from the union. Here went South Carolina, there went North Carolina. This is when Virginia took up arms. And Georgia.
Civil War history? Not exactly. The relief sculpture was first conceived by Mrs. C. Helen Plane, charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in 1916, 50 years after the end of the Civil War, during the excitement following the release of D.W. Griffith's “The Birth of a Nation” and the subsequent rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. All that rewriting going on. At the time, the mountain was owned by the Venable brothers, William and Samuel, the latter of whom was involved in the KKK, and they leased the north face of the mountain for the sculpture. Work started in the 1920s, stopped, stuttered. Decades went by. It gained momentum again during the civil rights movement but it wasn't officially completed until 1973, by which time the state of Georgia owned Stone Mountain. Not sure when the secessionist walkway was built. Either way, the thing is recent history.
I've always wondered over almost any kind of memoralization or romanticization of the Confederacy. “The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down”? Isn't that really about the end of slavery? So why does The Band make it seem sad? Why the Confederate flag on the Gen. Robert E. Lee for the good ol' boys of “Dukes of Hazard”? Isn't this a symbol of ... defection? Treason? It felt like a disconnect. It felt like the true meaning of the thing was always passed over, swept aside, handled with a wink.
Not anymore. Maybe we can thank Trump and the white nationalists for this. Maybe it's the one thing in this long awful year we can thank them for.