Iraq: Lessons from Reconstruction

Roundup: Historians' Take

Sanford V. Levinson, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

[What Book Most Richly Deserves Greater Attention?] For me this is an easy question. The answer is The Great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871-1872, by Lou Falkner Williams. Published in 1996 by the University of Georgia Press, it is already out of print, perhaps because readers think it a narrow book interesting only to specialists. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is, in fact, essential reading, especially at the present time.

Its topic is the difficulties of Reconstruction in South Carolina and how, basically, the terrorist Ku Klux Klan was able to defeat the well-motivated efforts of state and federal officials to bring about a new day in that state. Given the U.S. Supreme Court's almost willful amnesia about the realities of Reconstruction, it would be helpful if all lawyers and judges brushed up on this facet of our history. But the reason I find it so important at this very instant is for the light it casts on what is involved if one is serious about "regime change." To put it mildly, such change is difficult and expensive. Even if one has defeated an enemy on the field of battle and attained unconditional surrender, one will still have to invest immense time, political energy, and money in changing the society that has ostensibly been defeated.

This doesn't mean that "regime change" should never be tried; the United States would have been far better off had Reconstruction worked (though it would have required far, far more than the North was ever willing to spend in order to achieve that victory). But one ought never undertake a process of regime change while being almost willfully ignorant of its likely costs. This 147-page book by a professor of history on an ostensibly narrow topic provides far more food for thought about both past and present than many far-longer tomes written by the most famous of professors. I do feel very strongly that -- in the words of 7th graders everywhere when delivering book reports -- "everyone should read this book!"

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