The Good Old Days

Memory is a tricky thing that tends to filter events by removing the negative aspects from our recollection. When current events are not to our liking, we look to the past and remark on how much better the past was in comparison to the present. While it is also true the positive aspects of an event or period of time can be filtered leaving us with only a bleak recollection of the time, it is more often the case with collective memory that we glorify rather than demonize the past. History, the record and study of that record, helps remove the myth that memory creates.

For many who came to maturity during the 1980s, the decade has come to represent a better time, or in other words, The Good Old Days. The decade is viewed as one where U.S. power and culture was strong and celebrated. The music and clothing were distinctive and memorable. Soft Power was used in conjunction with traditional methods of political power, and the influence of the United States was felt worldwide. The notion that the Cold War was won by forceful rhetoric and the exportation of McDonalds and MTV has resonated with those who now view the 1980s as the glorious decade of U.S. supremacy. While few will argue against the notion that the United States reached a superpower zenith as the twentieth century neared its end, historians will be quick to note that there was more to the decade than glory and power. There was fear – fear of nuclear destruction, fear of pandemic spread of disease, and fear of an ever increasing drug use in mainstream society. However in a decade where politicians could harness the media, or at least greatly influence the script, and where social media was yet unborn, it was easy for the general public to hear the strong rhetoric and believe the message. Imbedded in the rhetoric was the notion that war was the answer to all the ills that plagued the nation. Whether an ideological war with an evil enemy, a hot war often conducted in secrecy, or a war on drugs that often impinged on civil rights but had a moral justification, war was the solution. War was also the solution to a lagging economy. Investment into the machines of war burdened the nation with debt, but it also put people to work and made a select group wealthy in the process. War and power went hand in hand, and those who viewed power as the ultimate evidence of success sought to encourage and perpetuate the notion that only through the constant demonstration of strength could the fears of a nation be quelled. Decades later their efforts have caused many to look back in longing for a better time – a time of strength.

Memory is a tricky thing. Few in the public participated directly in the world changing events of their youth, and fewer still have found a need to crack open the history books to learn more about period of time in which they lived. Historians seek to delve beyond collective memory and search for the data that reveals a greater image of the people and events of a period of time. For those who seek to understand the history rather than the myth of the 1980s, The Good Old Days were days of rhetoric and war, a nation recovering from an economic recession, and a time when money equaled political power. So, in a way, those days are not so dissimilar to the present.

 

 

Further Reading

Chollet, Derek, and James Goldgeier. America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11; The Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008.

Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Cambridge, MA: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Leffler, Melvyn P., and Jeffrey W. Legro, eds. In Uncertain Times: American Foreign Policy after the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Saull, Richard. The Cold War and After: Capitalism, Revolution and Superpower Politics. London: Pluto Press, 2007.

 

Big Talk or Quiet Diplomacy

In June of 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and demanded that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev “Tear down this wall!” When just a few years later the wall was breached and then torn down by the people, many in the United States credited Reagan with a victory. While the specific role of the United States in the collapse of the Soviet Union is a hotly debated topic, what is clear to historians is that Reagan’s rhetoric was not the cause of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. However, his dedicated efforts to work diplomatically with Gorbachev, even to the point of becoming friends, can be viewed as integral to the end of the Cold War. Normalization of relations was not something that either leader took lightly, especially after the near disaster that was only narrowly avoided during the Able Archer exercises in 1983.

While some historians will argue that Reagan did not dramatically change his policy after learning of the near disaster, others believe that he became more open to diplomatic discourse in a desire to avoid nuclear war. In either case, the notion that Reagan’s big talk was key to a campaign of intimidation that directly led to the end of the Berlin Wall and the ultimate end of the Soviet Union is on the whole founded on myth rather than reality. Unfortunately, it is a myth that became firmly rooted in a generation who now view diplomacy as being weak and shouting as being effective. Big talk may have a place in foreign policy, but it is not the key to success that so many believe it to be. Quiet diplomacy on the other hand, while seldom making the news, has a more lasting impact current affairs.

 

Further Reading

Fischer, Beth A. The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1992.

Hutchings, Robert L. American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War: An Insider’s Account of US Diplomacy in Europe, 1989-1992. Washington, DC: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Sanitizing the History of War

The study of history can be a wonderful method of instilling patriotism and civic pride into a nation. During the early years of the Cold War, the study of history was viewed as a vital way to instill the notion that the home nation was virtuous and grand, but opposition to a sanitized version of history was growing even as ultra-patriotism became a propaganda tool. Certainly, the sanitization of the history of war did not begin during the Cold War, but during that half century, the sanitized version of history was considered patriotic, and history critical of the homeland was seen by many  as being subversive. Therefore, the shock was profound when footage of war was televised for all to see during the Vietnam War. A generation reared on stories of the noble victories which had defeated tyranny, slavery, totalitarian abuse, and genocide found themselves faced with the horror of war, most for the very first time. Furthermore, war was not noble as they had been told. It was not a clear cut battle between good and evil. It was ambiguous, uncertain, and many times utterly irrational.

The sanitization of history had stripped from collective memory the realities of war. The brutality, the savagery, the rape, and the hunger; all the devastating human suffering had become overshadowed by glorified patriotism. It became easy to believe that the modern rules of war were long rooted in history and only a villainess enemy would commit atrocities against prisoners and civilians. In a sanitized history, it was easy to forget the human suffering of the American Revolution and that such human suffering was generally accepted as part of war.[1] School children had been taught of noble men, of dedicated soldiers who faced frost bite and starvation as they pressed for liberty, and of rag-tagged colonists who changed the world. While it might have been acceptable to sanitize history for the very young, it was problematic to continue with a sanitized version of history for older students. In fact, it led to disillusionment and civil unrest. It also led to backlash against those who tried to rectify the problem and expose the gritty nature of U.S. history.

In 1757, the writings of Maurice de Saxe were published. In his Reveries on the Art of War, he revolutionarily suggested changes to the formation of a modern army. The modern army as we think of it today had not yet been created. Saxe’s writings and the writings of Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini would change the way nations formed and utilized armies, however change was a slow process and not universal. When World War II came to a close, the leaders of the great warring nations desired for a universal set of rules that would govern modern war. Yet, they failed to fully comprehend the difficulty of enforcing such rules. Modern war was not to include the savagery and brutality of previous wars, and while bombing citizens was still being debated as an effective means of ending a war more quickly, citizens were otherwise seen as unacceptable targets in war. Rape of civilians was certainly no longer considered an effective war tactic or even a spoil of war. Part of the early appeal of nuclear weapons was that war by technology seemed more humane, at least for the nation in possession of the technology. It was not just history that was being sanitized, but warfare as well.

Unfortunately while the Cold War dominated the news, bloody, violent, ugly war continued in many parts of the world. War had not been sanitized, human suffering had not been eradicated, and the great powers could do little but suppress the violence of war. Peacekeeping efforts managed to suppress multi-national escalation, but seldom suppressed the human suffering historically associated with war. What was often suppressed was the news coverage the realities of war. When stories emerged of horrendous human rights violations during regional or civil wars, it became easy to condemn the perpetrators as savages, ungoverned by the modern rules of war.

Had the history of war not been so sanitized for the general populace of nations like the United States, these realities of war would have been less shocking. War is and has always been horrifying. Terror has always been a part of war. Sadly, for the children reared on the sanitized history and the patriotic rhetoric used during the Cold War, children who are now adults, war became disassociated from terror and horror. War was too often seen as a solution to regional conflict rather than part of the problem.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York: Vintage, 2006), 41.

Further Reading

Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. Reprint edition. New York: Vintage, 2006.

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, 2010.

Jomini, Antoine-Henri, Baron de. The Art of War. Translated by G.H. Mendell and W.P. Craighill. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008.

Pape, Robert A. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Saxe, Maurice de. Reveries on the Art of War. Translated by Gen Thomas R. Phillips. Dover Ed. Dover Publications, 2007.

Change, Secession, and Liberty

When a traditional way of life is challenged, turbulent emotions run rampant. Fear and anger replaces reason. As 1860 neared its end, the southern states of the United States of America began to secede from a union which had been forged from the blood and sweat of forefathers, both northern and southern. Assured that the election of Abraham Lincoln would doom the institution of slavery, secession was viewed as the only option in what was believed to be a northern attempt to abolish, not only slavery, but a way of life. The governor of Texas opposed secession even though such a stance invited attack upon both his person and his reputation as defender of the state. Governor Sam Houston argued against secession and when his arguments failed to sway enough voters, he argued for a return to independence rather than a confederation with the other seceding states.

Society, particularly southern society, was changing. This change was not confined to the United States, in fact the United States lagged behind other nations in abolishing slavery. Regardless of the fact that the principle of liberty was spreading throughout the world, albeit slowly, certain sectors of the U.S. population cleaved to the societal norms of their predecessors, norms that were in direct opposition to the basic principle of liberty – individual freedom. The choice of secession, being preferred over such a change in society, declared a sad reality. Death of the union was preferable to change, even when that change expanded liberty, the very principle for which their forefathers had fought and died to establish during the American Revolution.

Idealism versus Realpolitik

Machiavelli advised, “… never in peaceful times stand idle.”[1]

The newly formed United States was idealistic in its desire to separate itself from the conflicts of Europe. Many believed that foreign nations would wish to maintain peaceful relations with the United States in order to obtain the vast raw materials provided by the new nation. The idealism of the founding fathers was challenged, both by the French and the British well before the nation had reached its fiftieth birthday. In order to secure the economic benefits of international trade, the nation had to be prepared to handle international conflict and intrigue. As the Adam’s administration quickly discovered in the late 1790s, this would mean investing in the military, particularly in the navy. The idealistic notion of ‘free trade’ among nations had turned out to be anything but free. While the United States had found a diplomatic solution with Britain, albeit a temporary one, their solution raised the ire of the French and led to what became known as the Quasi War. The United States faced the harsh reality that in order to become economically strong, it would also need to become militarily strong. In a world dominated by realpolitik, idealistic notions such as ‘freedom of the seas’ were viewed as naïve more than noble.

Endnotes

[1] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. W. K. Marriott (Superior Formatting Publishing, 2010) Kindle.

 

 

Further Reading

Grey, Edward. “Freedom of the Seas.” Foreign Affairs. Last modified April 1930. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/oceans/1930-04-01/freedom-seas.

Fehlings, Gregory E. “America’s First Limited War.” Naval War College Review 53, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 101.

 

 

Sword Rattling and Stability

Current world events have again highlighted historic tendencies, in particular the tendency of great nations to deflect attention from their own unpopular policies by bringing attention to the unpopular policies of others. Often times this action can lead to a great deal of sword rattling and a call for intervention or peacekeeping efforts. During the Cold War the United Nations was hobbled by competing spheres of interest and was prevented from taking action in areas dominated by the superpowers, particularly in the ‘backyards’ of the United States and the Soviet Union. While the Cold War has ended, the international community still finds itself constrained when conflict erupts in a powerful nation’s backyard. As current events focus attention on Russia and Ukraine, it is interesting to look back at a time when the United States placed regional stability over a nation’s sovereignty.

On June 20, 1954, the United Nations held an emergency Security Council meeting to consider an appeal made by the Guatemalan government claiming that Guatemala had received hostile treatment from exterior sources and was under threat of invasion. The Soviet Union supported an investigation, France and Great Britain believed the United Nation had authority to investigate and were supportive of an investigation, but the United States was set against any UN involvement. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., stated, “Stay out of this hemisphere and do not try to start your plans and conspiracies over here.”[1] While his words were directed to the Soviet Union, his message was received by all.

In her article “From Civil War to ‘Civil Society’: Has the End of the Cold War Brought Peace to Central America?” Jenny Pearce wrote the following statement.

“The United States’ historic lack of interest in what it dismissively referred to as its ‘backyard’, and its concern with stability first and foremost, meant that the exclusionary dynamic of the years of post-Second World War growth in Central America, at both the political and the economic level, was deemed of little importance.”[2]

Pearce was correct in her assessment that “stability” was “first and foremost” in U.S. consideration. Nationalist reform, economic growth, and political ethics were of little concern to the United States during the Cold War, at least in its ‘backyard’. Stability meant keeping the status quo, and the United States was willing to work with dictators if said dictators kept any and all vestiges of communism out of the region, or in other words, remained friendly to the United States.

The Guatemalan request made to the UN Security Council was handed off to the Organization of American States (OAS) where it received little to no actual investigation but rather generated a counter accusation that Guatemala was a regional security risk because it had permitted a communist party to formally establish. Within just a few days of the UN emergency meeting, President Arbenz of Guatemala resigned due, in large part, to the invasionary force that had crossed the border in to Guatemala; a force supplied, trained, and supported by the CIA.

In the sixty-one years since the crisis in Guatemala much has changed in the world. However when it comes to the backyard of a powerful nation, the international community is still resistant to challenge regional hegemony. Stability in a region, albeit a stability by force, often speaks louder than any sword rattling or resultant calls for intervention.

 

 

 

 

[1] Richard H. Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 171.

[2] Jenny Pearce, “From Civil War to ‘Civil Society’: Has the End of the Cold War Brought Peace to Central America?” International Affairs 74, no. 3 (July 1998): 593. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2624971 (accessed September 15, 2013).

A Return to Normalcy: The Virtuous Woman

In the years following the American Revolution, the role of wife and mother became of great importance. In a new nation founded on the principles of liberty and equality, the job of a virtuous woman was to ensure that the men who led the nation remained free from the corrupting influence of power and prestige. Women, virtuous women dedicated to the home and family, were believed to be vital in counteracting the temptations of the world and the dangers of political power. Women like Abigail Adams hoped for an equality that seemed inherent in the rhetoric of the Revolution, but had to settle for “inherent moral superiority” rather than equality for women.[1]

Women had been an integral part of the Revolution, and had provided support in capacities essential for success. After the Revolution came to an end, society wished to return them to their homes, a pattern that would be seen again and again in U.S. history. In some cases, the women of post-revolutionary America had fewer protections and rights than they did prior to the war. Property laws that protected and provided for a widow were not reestablished in the new nation and it would take time for new laws to replace what had been lost. [2]

The virtuous qualities of a woman were praised, but her desire for equality was not. Even women who had served valiantly during the war, found themselves pressured to return to the roles of virtuous wife and mother when the war ended. Those who did not graciously return to the parlor and leave the public life to the men, found life in the new nation a hardship not a blessing.[3] War may have disrupted the social norms, but in a post-war world, a return to normalcy was considered vital to stability and success. That meant women, although valued, were anything but equal.

[1] Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York: Vintage, 2006), xii.

[2] http://www.ushistory.org/us/13e.asp;  http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/womens-history/essays/legal-status-women-1776%E2%80%931830

[3] Berkin, 139.

Ideology, Revolution, and Change: A Slow Process

On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed to the people of Philadelphia, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Eleven years later, the Constitution of the United States of America was created, reaffirming the goal to “…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence(sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty…” In 1789, the congress defined twelve common rights of U.S. citizens but only 10 of these became amendments to the constitution. The Bill of Rights defined what the Declaration had not; it defined which rights could be agreed upon as the unalienable rights of man. At the heart of these rights was the belief that sanctity of thought and property were key to liberty.

Beginning in the 1760s, arguments were made that government should not impinge upon these basic rights. Property was not to be surrendered unless it was done so willingly or due to the judgement of one’s peers. It was felt that the forfeiture of property was tantamount to the loss of liberty. While the social strata of the colonies was less structured than in the Old World, property was still closely associated to one’s identity and stature. The loss of property, even from taxation, was considered highly serious in nature. Laws impinging on property rights and laws which changed the colonial judicial system led most often to non-violent protestations. In many cases the laws were repealed, but they were followed by new laws equally objectionable to the colonists. During the decade leading up to the American Revolution and throughout the years of warfare, an ideology emerged that defined political representation as a fundamental right of the citizen. This was not a new ideology, but one that became well-articulated during the numerous debates of the revolutionary period. By the time the U.S. Constitution was drafted, the notion of a government “of the people” was becoming firmly planted in the American psyche. The Preamble stated, “We the people” rather than “We the states”. The new nation was formed with the people being the highest political unit rather than the states. In 1863, during a bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in which he reiterated that the nation was a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The American Civil War tested the strength of the constitution and the union it had created. However, it also highlighted that even after more than half century, the ideology that had declared the equality of man and the right to political representation had not become a universal reality in the United States and its territories. It would not be until the twentieth century that all U.S. citizens would gain the right to vote, and the protection to vote without constraint due to the lack of property or social standing.

The American Revolution had not been fought with the intent to change the social dynamics of the people, but the ideology that was established through decades of debate both before and immediately after the Revolution would eventually lead to social change. In the United States this social change was slow, sometimes terribly slow and with human suffering the consequence, but with slow change came stability. While many revolutions would follow in the footsteps of the American Revolution, few of the political entities formed from those revolutions witnessed the longevity and stability of that the United States with its slow and never-ending process of ensuring “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” for its people.

History: Context Matters

King George III of Great Britain and James Otis, Jr. shared more in common than merely being characters in what would develop into the American Revolution.[1] In 1762, Otis argued against the legality of the writs of assistance established by George III.[2] At the time, Otis was a well-respected member of his community, and his words would go on to inspire the very men history books would refer to as the founding fathers of the United States. George III was still new to his reign as the king and, although facing some criticism in London, was not yet showing signs of the mental illness that would plague him later in life. Both men, believing themselves to be rational and empowered to act on behalf of their fellow men through either birth or through education and profession, took differing stands on the issue of the constitutionality of the king’s authority to impose restrictions on the people of the American colonies. In short, the king was certain of his authority and Otis was certain that the king was acting without full understanding of the unconstitutionality of his actions. In 1762 neither man was suffering from mental instability, but that would not be the case a few decades later. If their words and deeds were taken out of the context of the day, with the mental instabilities both suffered later in life being attributed to their earlier actions, the interpretation of those actions would be marred and history would not be served. Context matters in the study of history. Even the most praiseworthy individuals will have said or done something that, when taken out of context, will seem to contradict how history has recorded their character.

Endnotes

[1] Otis (1725-1783), George III (1738-1820).

[2] Writs of Assistance Case

Further Reading

A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, More Particularly, in the Last of the General Assembly by James Otis, Jr.

Project Gutenberg version

Scanned copy of the pamphlet (automatic download) from JamesOtis.net (link to document)

Protest Turned into War

On April 19, 1775, armed protest turned into war. After more than a decade of verbally protesting the increased restrictions placed upon what had been traditionally self-rule in the colonies of British North America, the colonists turned to a show of force as a means to convey their protest. By some accounts the militia of Lexington, MA had assembled to “exercise” in a series of military drills. Yet having been warned in advance of the British troops marching in search of a rumored arms cache, the militia clearly had assembled in a show of defiance. Upon being ordered to disperse both by the British and by one of their own, a shot was fired from an unidentified gunman and chaos erupted leaving men wounded and dying. Certainly calmer voices must have cried for peace, but history has recorded the cries for war that quickly rose up in response to the military action that began in Lexington and escalated in Concord. After meeting with greater resistance upon reaching Concord, the British troops were ordered to return to Boston. Their retreat back to Boston became both an opportunity for reprisal, and the basis for propagandists’ portrayals of victory against the hated oppressors. These British soldiers had been amassed in the colonies not with the intent of protecting the colonists from an enemy, but rather to police the colonists and put an end to smuggling, bribing of officials, and mob violence against those who tried to enforce the laws. The colonists had reason to be angry and dissatisfied with the means taken by the King and parliament to enforce laws which had been created in London but enacted an ocean away in the colonies. Yet at the same time, lawlessness, particularly in relation to the importation and exportation of goods, had been on the rise. The British subjects of North America, most who hadn’t sought to break ties with their motherland, at least not prior to that April day when the first shots of war were fired, had been living in a state where lawlessness and rebellion had been on the rise. They desired a peaceful return to the days before anger over taxation dominated the discourse, but they had entered into a spiraling cycle of action and reaction that led only to the path of war.