Edward L. Ayers: What We Can Learn from Our Reconstruction that Will Help in Iraq

Roundup: Historians' Take

Edward L. Ayers, in the NYT Magazine (5-30-05):

[Edward L. Ayers is dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. This essay is adapted from his book ''What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History,'' which will be published next month by W.W. Norton.]

For more than a hundred years now the United States has been one of the great agents of social transformation in the world. From the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century to Iraq at the beginning of the 21st, this country has sought to remake other nations. The reconstructions of Japan and Germany after World War II stand as the great successes, mixed among other interventions in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

As Americans try to understand our role in the world, we seldom turn for instruction to our own history of Reconstruction of the South in the 1860's and 1870's. That is partly because the South is hardly a foreign country and partly because ''Gone With the Wind'' and other popular stories have told us that Reconstruction was a horrible mistake, a misguided, hypocritical and deluded effort by zealots to force an unnatural order on a helpless South. Modern historians have exploded that story but agree that Reconstruction failed to deliver on its promises, abandoning African-Americans to poverty, lynching and segregation.

Despite its limitations and failures, however, Reconstruction is worth our attention -- not least because it represented America's first attempt to transform a defeated society through a sustained military occupation. As such, it would foreshadow significant parts of American foreign policy over the next century and a half.

During the Civil War, the leaders of the North argued among themselves about what should be done with the South when its subjugation was complete. They were still arguing when the war came to an end and Lincoln was assassinated. The question before the United States in 1866, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass argued, was whether a postwar devotion to black freedom would redeem the war or whether the loss of more than 600,000 people would ''pass into history a miserable failure, barren of permanent results -- a scandalous and shocking waste of blood and treasure.'' America's Reconstruction would witness a desperate competition between the spread of democracy and the restoration of political, economic and racial stability based on prewar foundations.

White Southerners, unrepentant after their military defeat, treated their conquerors with contempt. They unleashed riots in Memphis and New Orleans, created the Ku Klux Klan and enacted legal codes that reinscribed as much slavery as possible. White Southern resistance, in turn, provided the fuel and the rationale for Radical Reconstruction, which began in the spring of 1867 and sought to recast the political and social order of the defeated South through direct military control, free elections and state-sponsored economic development. Those who cooperated with the Republicans found themselves denounced in the South as ''scalawags''; those who came from the North to help rebuild the South were sneered at as greedy ''carpetbaggers.''

Most white Southerners never accepted the legitimacy of Reconstruction. They crushed black voting and other freedoms through violence, terrorism and fraud. When Reconstruction was driven from the South 12 years after it began, the white Southern majority rejoiced that true law, true justice, had returned. Confederate soldiers were lionized and a culture of defiance flourished. Over the next half-century the white South waged, and won, a propaganda war over the meaning of Reconstruction.

Disdain for the South's Reconstruction continued through the isolationist years of the 1920's and 1930's, but victory in World War II changed American assumptions about the possibilities of reconstruction. The United States found itself once again an occupying power, this time in Japan. This reconstruction proved more satisfying for the American people than any that had come before or any that would follow. In the wake of unimaginable loss, the Japanese lay completely at the mercy of the occupying Americans. Japanese soldiers returned home in disgrace, and the Japanese people denounced the political leaders of the old regime. Gen. Douglas MacArthur ruled the defeated nation with wide-ranging authority. Japan became an ally of the most benign and helpful sort. Even so, American occupation stirred up animosities. In 1949, the Japanese made ''Gone With the Wind'' a best-selling novel, imagining themselves in the place of Scarlett O'Hara, living in a strange new world led by outsiders.

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