Tag Archives: Society

History: More than a Story

Broad based or narrow focused, history is not merely a collection of data, rather it is a story. At times, the story may seem dull, at other times captivating. The study of history can introduce us to the challenges and triumphs of the past. It can help us see patterns in the ‘action and reaction’ cycle of human relations.  It can help us learn from the past events which have paved the way for present actions. However, it can only teach us if we are willing to learn. Simply hearing the story is not enough. Regardless of how enthralling, action-packed, or awe-inspiring, history is not simply a story to be heard. It is a story to be understood.

Whether we look at the rise of Hitler, the arms race of the Cold War, or the growth of empire through colonialization, history can teach us about how groups of humans react when they feel threatened by other groups of humans. During the inter-war period in Germany, the people felt sorely abused by the rest of Europe. They sought a change and a savior from the economic oppression they felt was unjust. During the Cold War, citizens on both sides sought powerful military might as a means of protection from a threat often ideological more than physical. They didn’t simply want a powerful government, they wanted an all-powerful government that could protect them from phantoms as well as from armies. In both of these historical stories, if we take the time study them rather than simply hear them, we can learn that people are willing to give up basic human and civil rights in order to feel protected from outside threats. Additionally, if we go beyond the simple narrative often taught in history primers, we can see cases where people were easily persuaded to put aside their moral compass in order to achieve group affiliation and protection. While the story of Hitler and his atrocious reign of power might more easily provide examples of how people can become swayed by nationalism and nativism, the story of the Cold War also provides examples. Foreign relations, the relations between nations rather than individuals, often times reflect the very nature of human relations. Just as human and civil rights were often trampled upon in both the United States and the Soviet Union by their own respective citizenry, national sovereignty and the right to self-determination were often trampled upon by the superpowers as they spread their economic, political, and military influence. The notion that ‘might makes right’ was not constrained.

The notion of ‘might makes right’ is clearly depicted in the colonization period leading up to the twentieth century. Peoples who seemed to be less civilized in comparison to the social and political norms of Europe were to be suppressed and subjugated, or eradicated if they would not accept their place in the more ‘civilized’ society. Moral qualms were assuaged by dehumanizing those who did not fit the norm and who did not hold the power. This was not the first time the process of dehumanizing the ‘other’ for social or political gain occurred in history, but it did normalize it as culturally acceptable. Even as slavery lost support, colonial conquest and rule, including the westward expansion of the United States, reinforced the idea that certain peoples were more valuable than others. The mighty western nations viewed their culture to be better than the rest, and believed that forced assimilation was right and justified.

To the victor goes the spoils and also the chance to write the story, but history is more than just one person or nation’s account. It is a compilation of stories from many different perspectives. Like the heroic sagas of old, history can inspire and teach lessons to the listeners, but the study of history can do more. It can dispel notions that any one group of people is more perfect or more sinful than the others. It highlights the shared humanity of man; a humanity that is full of valor and full of vice.

Prosperity through Diplomacy

As a young nation, the United States found itself in a conundrum. The desire to avoid the entanglements of European politics clashed with the desire for economic prosperity. Some early leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, believed that the plentiful natural resources of the Americas would remain in high demand by Europeans and would ensure that a predominately agrarian society would continue to prosper for decades, even centuries to come. Others were more doubtful and recognized that trade would mandate political interaction. While idealists would cleave to the notion that the demand for U.S. raw materials would force the nations of Europe to treat the new nation with respect and dignity, others rightfully worried that it would take strength to bring about international respect.

The United States would spend much of its first one hundred and fifty years debating how to be taken seriously as a world power while at the same time remaining distant from the conflicts of Europe. However, isolation was never the viable option that many envisioned it to be. By the end of the Second World War, the United States fully understood that international respect came both from military strength and from economic influence. Political finesse was also vital for peaceful coexistence, but it was too often overlooked or dismissed in the eyes of the general public. Even though the United States had produced a few outstanding diplomats during its youth and adolescence, too often the role of diplomacy was overshadowed by the feeling that military and economic strength could get the job done without diplomatic pageantry. Like a few of the early founding fathers, many in the twentieth century believed that the peoples of the world would wish to purchase U.S. products and thereby highly value peaceful relations with the United States. On the other hand, there were many who derived lessons from the decades when a strong navy equaled security at home, and encouraged prosperity through protected shipping routes and foreign markets. In the years following the end of the Second World War, U.S. economic and military might certainly seemed to be the key to prosperity, and not just to the prosperity of the United States, but prosperity for Europe as well. Unfortunately, what many failed to foresee was a day in which the rebuilding of Europe would be completed. Furthermore, many failed to anticipate a day when Europe might wish to free itself from the protection and economic influence of the United States.

Prosperous international relations, whether they are economic, military, or political, are dependent on diplomacy. At different times, the idea of isolation has appealed to policy makers and the public alike. At other times, policy makers and the public support aggressive relations and even war with the other nations of the world. In either case, diplomacy is underrated by those who hold to the notion that prosperity is something that can be controlled by one nation at the expense of others. History shows that such beliefs are founded on a limited understanding of the vital role of diplomacy during periods of strife and in times of prosperity.

 

Further Reading:

Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Lind, Michael. The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.

When Chaos Threatens, Diplomacy Struggles

Chaos breeds fear much like an insidious virus; everyone becomes fearful that they will be next to catch it. Segregation is then seen as a positive means of prevention; a measure taken before eradication can commence. Calls for calm and cooperation become drown out by vitriolic shouts for action. It seems that when chaos threatens human cooperation, tact and finesse are the first casualties. Within the world of international cooperation, chaos creates a force against which diplomacy struggles to survive. By the end of World War II, chaos had taken a terrible toll on humanity. Devastating war, multiple pandemics, and a severe economic depression all contributed to a general fatigue which left many seeking strong leadership rather than diplomatic dialogue. The rise of authoritarian leadership should not have surprised many, nor should there have been surprise that some desired isolation. Like in the case of the insidious virus, many felt that segregation from the problem was the logical solution. Others placed their faith in military strength and vitriolic rhetoric. World War II demonstrated that neither segregation nor authoritarian leadership would stop chaos. A terrible truth became evident; the world was too interconnected to ever truly support isolationist policies or prevent the chaos which can derive from authoritarian regimes. However, even as the interconnectedness of the world became an undisputed fact and the vital role of international diplomacy became apparent to those who had once questioned its value, the chaos of a post-WWII world threatened the very cooperation that had brought the war to an end.

World War II had ceased but the suffering caused by war had not. Additionally, the process of decolonization was creating renewed competition for areas of the world which had previously been controlled by foreign powers. A post-colonial world was ripe for chaos, particularly political chaos. The great powers of the day did not wish to see the return of any form of chaos, particularly chaos located in their own back yard. While, the Cold War has been characterized as a war between ideologies, it can also be viewed as a war to eradicate regional chaos. The United States and the Soviet Union both developed international policies which were authoritarian in nature. The nations of the world felt distinct pressure to choose a side. Traditional diplomacy suffered even as the United Nations worked to promote peace through diplomatic means. At the end of the day, pressure in the forms of military posturing and economic support or sanction often dictated international relations more than traditional diplomacy. For nearly fifty years, the United States and Soviet Union managed to keep the chaos from spreading within their own borders. Like with a virus, small outbreaks were to be expected, but the big pandemic was avoided. If chaos was a virus, then the Cold War cure was death to the host if segregation was ineffective. Diplomacy might seem a slow and imperfect treatment for the conflicts that threaten to unleash chaos, but is there truly wisdom in containing chaos through the threat or creation of greater chaos? Some will argue yes while others shudder no, but both should agree that when chaos threatens, diplomacy struggles.

 

Further Reading:

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Lind, Michael. The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.

Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War; a History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973.

Zubok, Vladislav M. A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Not Naive

In January 1789, the newly elected President George Washington wrote to his dear friend, Marquis de Lafayette, the following words.

While you are quarreling among yourselves in Europe – while one King is running mad – and other acting as if they were already so, but cutting the throats of the subjects of their neighbours; I think you need not doubt, My Dear Marquis we shall continue in tranquility here – And that population will be progressive so long as there shall continue to be so many easy means for obtaining a subsistence, and so ample a field for the exertion of talents and industry.

Washington, like so many of his countrymen, saw the American abundance of land and resources as a way to ensure the avoidance of foreign chaos, specifically the chaos that derives from overcrowding and the ills such chaos inspires. He wrote, “I see a path, as clear and as direct as a ray of light…Nothing but harmony, honesty, industry, and frugality are necessary to make us a great and happy people.”[1]

Men like Washington felt strongly that certain key moral principles would flourish in a land as abundantly blessed as America. As a leader of men for most of his adult life, he would not have been blind to the tendencies of human nature, but clearly he believed that those men dedicated to “industry and frugality” would prevail over those who sought slothful pursuits.  The United States was predominantly agrarian during those early years. Commerce, especially the trade of raw materials for finished goods, may have dominated the sea side areas of the new nation, but industrialization had not yet lured workers from the fields and into cities. Subsistence farming was still both the predominant occupation and an occupation that did not tolerate slothful pursuits. Washington was able to envision generations of “tranquility” rather than the chaos that derived from congested cities and limited resources. However, he was not naive to the realities of human nature; he simply could not foresee how quickly the world would change once industrialization took hold.

[1] George Washington, George Washington: Writings, vol. 91, Library of America (New York: Library of America, 1997), 717 – 718.

Rumors and Rhetoric

In 1783 at the army camp located in Newburgh, New York rumors of revolt were quelled when General George Washington addressed his men. The rhetoric, which had grown from frustration with Congress over back pay, was effectively countered when Washington spoke, “…let me entreat you, Gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained…”[1] Scholars have argued over whether the crisis in Newburgh was one of rhetoric only, or if an actual conspiracy existed which threatened the stability and future of the United States.[2] Regardless, the Newburgh Affair highlights how political rhetoric can lead to crisis, and how calm leadership rather than dramatic action can be the solution.

Conspiracy theorists and politically motivated historians have inferred that orchestrated nationalist machinations were the cause of the rumors and implied threats that swirled around Newburgh in the fall and winter of 1782-83. Others argue that frustration at the lack of pay, and the worry of a post-conflict future, organically inspired the rhetoric Washington felt needed addressed on March 15, 1783. Pamphlets, newspapers, public meetings, and personal correspondence were the main vehicles for the spreading of news and the airing of grievances prior to the technological age. The years leading up to the outbreak of war proved that these were effective tools in rousing public opinion in order to force change. It stood to reason then that these same tools would be used when Congress ground to a standstill on the issue of military pay and veteran benefits.

Even in the days before technology transformed the ways in which the world communicated, rumors once started were difficult to suppress. Enflamed rhetoric was even harder to manage for often it was printed and preserved for posterity. Fortunately for the young republic, General Washington was a man who had learned that brash language and rash actions were counter-productive to stability and prosperity. While he understood the frustration[3] of his men, he also understood that a liberty so newly achieved could not withstand civil discord.[4] A nation built from the fire of revolution would have to learn how to handle and even embrace civil discord.; however, Washington was wise in objecting to discord created by “insidious design” and spread by rumor and extreme rhetoric.

 

Endnotes

[1] George Washington, George Washington: Writings, vol. 91, Library of America (New York: Library of America, 1997), 499.

[2] Edward C. Skeen, and Richard H. Kohn, “The Newburgh Conspiracy Reconsidered,” The William and Mary Quarterly 31, no. 2 (1974): 273–298.

[3] Mary Stockwell, “Newburgh Address,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/newburgh-address/.

[4] Washington, 500.

Historiography: How the Story is Written

In the modern world of minute-by-minute news coverage, it is easy to assume that history is being recorded both comprehensively and accurately. One may even think that the role of the historian is passé and all that is needed for the modern world is the analyst who will try to make sense out of current events. Even in a world where the events of the day are documented, and where social media can turn our most mundane activities into a historical sketch that we can share with all of our cyber friends, the role of the historian is crucial. It may even be more crucial than ever before because of the sheer volume of data that must now be shifted through in order to create a comprehensive, yet pertinent, story.

Accuracy in historical record has always been important to historians, but it has not been nearly as important as the story. In the days in which history was borrowed from others in order to bolster a rising nation’s image, accuracy was often less important than fostering the image that a new empire was ancient and eternal in origin. A good example of this is found with the Roman Empire, which having risen in power desired an historical record that would magnify its greatness rather than highlight its youth. Throughout history, political entities as well as powerful individuals have sought to bolster their images by creating histories that connect them to other prestigious historical events, periods, and reigns. By likening themselves to others who were dynamic, successful, dominant, and strong, they create an image of grandeur that is only partially based on the events of their own time and of their own making.

As technology and the availability of the written record evolved over the centuries, it became harder to use the history of others as a means in which one’s own history could be created. Even before the printing press, some historians began comparing their own region’s historical journey with that of their neighbors. In some cases, as with the historian Tacitus, the neighbor was heralded for its purity and simplicity in contrast to the corruption at home. In other cases, the neighbor was villainized in an attempt to deflect attention away from unpopular home-state policy. In either situation, the history of others was borrowed, no longer as a means to explain where a political state had come from, but rather to explain how the home-state compared to others. This trend created an interesting phenomenon in the writing of history. No longer was it simply good enough to extoll the greatness of one’s own past, but now it was acceptable, and even expected to criticize the neighbor as a means of exhausting oneself. By making the neighbor seem less noble or even villainous, the historian could create an even more illustrious history of the home-state.

In the not so distant past, historians were at the whim and will of powerful men who could finance the historical pursuit of the scholar. Modern technology has changed this to some extent. Scholarly history may still be contingent on research grants made possible by powerful institutions and individuals, but technology has made everyone who uses the internet a historian, or at least a historical participant. No longer is it only the famous, powerful, or well-connected who get recorded. Some individuals may only be contributors of data, whereas others may add more significantly to the record of daily events. In this world of high speed technology and vast data collection, history is being recorded more thoroughly than ever before, but that doesn’t mean that the record is any more accurate. Often, history is being recorded in very inaccurate ways and by people with little to no understanding of the ramifications this has on both the people of today as well as the historians of tomorrow. In the race to beat the ‘other guys’ to the best story, accuracy, once again, is secondary to the story being told.

Modern historians bound by ethical parameters of historical accuracy, try to share a story that is comprehensive, and as unbiased as possible. They are taught to question sources and present a full picture of an event, a person, or a period of time. In some cases, they are even taught to use good writing skills in order to make the story enjoyable to read. They are taught to recognize that history is not always pleasant, but it can always be of value, if even to only a few. At times, history can be a story of valor, bravery, and patriotic glory. At other times, history can be just the opposite. The modern historian may write a tale that makes some readers uncomfortable, but the job of the historian is to write a comprehensive and pertinent story rather than the myths and propaganda so many others are determined to write.

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.

 

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.

Change Came Quickly

In 1918, Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. World War I delayed the presentation of the award because Haber was a German scientist, one who had gained the name ‘the father of chemical warfare’. Haber was a patriotic German committed to the German cause, however, less than fifteen years after he was celebrated as a great scientist, he fled his homeland fearing for his life. Fritz Haber was a Jew. He was also an intellectual who too closely associated with a war that had been lost rather than won. Like many other German citizens, Haber discovered that under the right set of circumstances hate could replace friendship with great rapidity. Those circumstances included an economic recession, a turbulent political climate, an abundance persuasive rhetoric, and a highly effective propaganda campaign. In less than two decades, a population who once celebrated Haber’s achievements turned their backs on the evidence that their government had implemented a policy of incarceration and extermination. Race, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and intellectual interests were more than enough justification for the public to look the other way, or worse join the Nazi agenda. Change came quickly while the public clung to the notion that they were justified in their actions.

U.S. Compulsory Education: Teaching Exceptionalism

During the mid-nineteenth century, states began passing compulsory education laws, and although all states had these laws in place by the time the United States entered World War I, there was still quite a disparity between levels of basic education received by the soldiers. Mobilization efforts during WWI highlighted the need for greater emphasis on education in the United States, but it also highlighted the need to emphasize a common nationality among its citizenry. The war had created a stigma on citizens and immigrants who were too closely related or associated with the enemy. It was felt that the ‘old country’ culture, still held by many, needed to be replaced by a commitment to a less definable, but more patriotic American culture. The desire to eliminate overt connections with European culture, a culture that seemed to instigate war rather than peace, led to strong measures designed to force change in the U.S. population. One measure included the effort to eliminate parochial schools which were viewed as being too closely tied to European culture. When Oregon amended its compulsory education laws in 1922 with the intent to eliminate parochial schools, they faced opposition including a Supreme Court case that ended up ruling against them. It was hoped that public education would transform the population into a more cohesive culture, and while states couldn’t force public school attendance versus private school attendance, over time many states were able to dictate curriculum requirements and achieve the underlying goals sought by legislators during the post-war period.

Many in the United States believed that the nation had a vital responsibility to encourage and spread notions of republican democracy. A growing belief in ‘American exceptionalism’ developed in the post-war years, due in part to wartime propaganda. If the United States was to be exceptional then it needed to guarantee that its public understood what made it exceptional. Accomplishing this task meant that its citizenry needed to understand history, and not just the history of the United States beginning with colonization or independence, but a citizen needed to understand the connection between the United States and ancient history where the foundations of democracy resided. Compulsory education, classes in American History and Western Civilization, and an emphasis on U.S. exceptionalism became the foundation for unifying a nation during the twentieth century.