The Attempt to Hijack History at the 9/11 ServiceNation Forum

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Mr. Jackson is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Columbia University.

In front of Columbia University’s Low Library last Thursday night, thousands of us watched Senators McCain and Obama as they attempted to answer or evade often difficult questions about the past, present and future of national service. Unsurprisingly, like most politicians throughout the annals of history, during the ServiceNation forum both senators selectively appropriated commonly accepted representations of the past that were not only questionable in their inaccuracy; they were misleading and obfuscating, if we want to understand what has happened so that we may better determine what should happen.

In 1961, one of the most insightful American historians of the twentieth century, William Appleman Williams, saw that Americans – the older, still satisfied with the moral superiority of America’s virtuous war against tyranny in Europe and Asia, the younger bred, in at least modest comfort, within a prosperous, mass consumer society secured by America’s military and economic hegemony over much of the world – were highly susceptible to the manipulation of history through a politics of platitudes. “Instead of being treated as the study of the past and present in which thinking, reasoning, and reflection might lead to insights and perception,” wrote Williams, “history appeared more often to be viewed as a grab bag from which to snatch footnotes for an a priori opinion.” 1

Reasonable observers of American politics will agree that we might do ourselves and the nation a great service if we prepare ourselves against the selective hijacking of history. In this spirit, and in following Williams’s hope that we can engage with history as its critical students and as citizens, not as passive consumers of only half-true historical sound bites, this user’s guide to the ServiceNation Presidential Candidates’ Forum on September 11 scrutinizes the statements of both candidates in light of the historical record:

American Exceptionalism: McCain said he believed in American exceptionalism. This concept, which has animated so much of our history and political thought and culture, has its origins in debates within the American Communist Party in the 1920s and 1930s regarding the absence of a radical working-class movement in the U.S. compared to Europe. The “founding fathers,” on the other hand, did not believe America was exceptional in this modern sense, so much as they believed it was (or should be more) different from Europe by representing a republican form of government, a state without a monarchy. While elites disagreed about how democratic the new American republic should be, many destitute farmers believed the social inequalities of the post-revolutionary period were recreating the hierarchies of Europe; the Shays and Whiskey Rebellions provoked George Washington, John Adams and others into forming a constitution and a national army capable of suppressing internal dissent. In fact, Thomas Jefferson and other republican thinkers were often quite pessimistic about the nation’s potential trajectories of development, and worried that the new America would become as hierarchical, autocratic and despotic as the old European societies.

According to McCain, only the U.S. adheres “to the principle that all of us are created equal and endowed by our creators with certain rights,” and it has spread this principle mostly by economics, not military force. Westward expansion animated by ideas of “Manifest Destiny” expanded slavery, decimated indigenous populations, and forcibly annexed Spanish territories and portions of Mexico. At the same time an equally, if not more, republican France spread its empire of liberty and equality via Napoleon and other imperial ventures in North Africa and Asia. That is just the nineteenth century. McCain says that Americans have “shed our blood in all four corners of the earth many times in defense of someone else's freedom and have tried to further the principles of freedom and democracy everywhere in the world.” It would be more accurate to say that the U.S. shed a little of its blood and much more blood of other peoples in all four corners of the earth, mostly (with some exceptions) in defense of “our” freedoms to secure markets, resources, and preponderant strategic power.

“Neighborhood Watches”: McCain argued that if he had been president after 9/11, he would have enhanced national security by creating citizens’ organizations to conduct neighborhood watches and guard nuclear power plants. Both McCain and Obama praised 9/11 as an example of the way Americans come together in tragedies. In times of war and tragedy, some Americans have come together. But they have also often repressed people they regarded as political enemies and ethnic outsiders. The vigilante violence against Germans, Russians, socialists and anarchists instigated in part by the pronouncements of federal and state officials and employers, and policies like the Alien and Sedition Acts during and after World War I, come to mind. So does the seizure of Japanese Americans and their land after Pearl Harbor, which preceded their internment in concentration camps for the duration of World War II. National crisis has mobilized citizens for the common good, but it has often intentionally (and unintentionally) eroded civil liberties that are supposed to make America exceptional.

GI Bill: Obama praised the GI bill that rewarded World War II veterans for their service by paying their college tuition and granting Federal Housing Authority loans. While the GI bill allowed millions of veterans to get an education and own homes that would have been out of their reach otherwise, the GI bill, like the Social Security and Fair Labor Standards Act (minimum wages, maximum hours) before it, was racially skewed according to the whims of a critical block of anti-black, anti-labor Dixie Democrats in Congress. As Columbia University Professor Ira Katznelson and others have shown, the administration of GI bill benefits was purposefully devolved to the states. This allowed state and local benefits administrators to discriminate in housing loans, and made education for African-American veterans in southern segregated higher education systems virtually impossible.

Vietnam: When asked about his family’s military lineage and his service as an Air Force bomber pilot and prisoner of war in North Vietnam, McCain said (literally and figuratively) that his country had saved him. In fact, when McCain was shot down in 1967 on his twenty-third bombing run, trying to hit a Hanoi power plant, an angry crowd of North Vietnamese peasants beat him until a woman finally persuaded the crowd to stop and an army truck ferried him to the Hanoi Hilton. They may have been upset by the massive devastation inflicted on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia by U.S. bombing (using eight million tons of bombs, more than three times dropped in World War II), or the use of Agent Orange, which defoliated jungles and poisoned fields and people (including American GIs). Because the male population of Vietnam was mostly mobilized for the armies of South and North Vietnam, civilian casualties, which all estimates indicate outnumbered military deaths (Vietnam’s government says 2 million civilians died), were mostly old men, women and children.

The Draft: McCain was right about one thing. When asked why there is no draft – even though military enlistments are declining, qualifications have been lowered, and the highest percentage ever of recruits without high school diplomas (30%) have been accepted into the ranks – McCain reminded viewers that the Vietnam-era draft was unfair. But he also contended that wealthier Americans “found ways of avoiding the draft.” It is true that many middle and upper-class men did avoid the draft – mostly because Selective Service was structured that way. Military manpower experts in the 1940s and 1950s designed conscription to “channel” men into higher education or the military by using, in historian Chris Appy’s words, “the club of induction and the carrot of student deferments (along with a host of special exemptions).” 2 When draftee numbers dropped, Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, instituted “Project 100,000” to introduce many cognitively unqualified recruits, with predictably disastrous results.

The Peace Corps and the Cold War: McCain not only endorsed sending the Peace Corps to countries “that don’t like us”; he wants more people to come to the U.S. for education and training to return to their countries and become leaders. There is nothing wrong with that, but the historical record shows that the Peace Corps was designed and implemented by the Kennedy and subsequent administrations primarily as a tool of an anti-communist foreign policy of development and modernization, intended to keep or bring countries into the American orbit. Sometimes these exchanges democratized and modernized polities and societies abroad – but they also fostered right-wing dictatorships that eviscerated democratic institutions and human rights in some countries, and skewed development in favor of increasing income inequality and structural adjustment programs that privatized government functions as conditions of loans from international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. In some ways, Kennedy’s New Frontier represented the moving border of a new post-World War II American military and economic empire.

Parties, Movements and Voting: The ServiceNation Forum was heralded as a 9/11 anniversary festival of citizenship and anti-partisanship, and the moderators reminded McCain that Washington and his fellow framers disdained parties as factions unnatural to government. This is true, even though the language of republicanism inherently obscured “natural” party-formation according to different interests in the young republic, and was later employed by Federalists and Jeffersonians to cover partisan agendas. But this period, and the Jacksonian period of intense partisanship which followed, was one of the most democratic eras in American history, with unsurpassed rates of voter participation and activism – despite the limitations of the franchise to mostly white males (with property in a few states until the 1840s). The Progressives whom Senators Obama and McCain praised when they applauded Theodore Roosevelt for mobilizing citizens and fighting corruption actually helped to dismantle the imperfect but vibrant party structures which under-girded democracy’s golden age. Furthermore, while Obama was certainly right to identify the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as the product of government, he should have wedded that acknowledgment to his understanding that “change happens from the bottom up. It doesn't happen from the top down.” Obama’s campaign itself reaffirms the pattern that significant shifts in America’s politics and political development occur as a result of social movements linking up with energized parties. If President Lyndon Johnson was able to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, it was to a large degree due to the considerable pressures placed on him and Congress by the civil rights activisms of the late 1950s and early 1960s – often carried out against the indifference or outright opposition of federal agencies.

As William Appleman Williams warned us in 1961, our capacities to participate meaningfully in American society and the world depends to a great degree on our ability to critically receive and interrogate the statements of those who hold, or wish to hold, power over our lives and our common future. “History,” Williams warned us, “is one of the most misleading – and hence dangerous – approaches to knowledge if viewed, or practiced, as a process of reaching back into the past for answers sufficient unto the present and the future. For although historical consciousness can be a powerful tool with which to improve our lives and our world, it is little more than a demonic sorcerer’s apprentice unless the history of which we become conscious is something more than a brief in defense of some particular proposal.” 3

The historical record, approached with the caution and critical mind it deserves, defies gross generalization and is not so easily reduced to convenient platitudes. For perceptive minds primed for intellectual self-defense, history will not so easily be prostituted to the pre-conceived opinions of any politician. No matter your opinion of their respective platforms, arm yourselves.

SOURCES: Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from all Sides (New York, 2003); Victoria de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance Through 20th Century Europe (Cambridge, 2005); Eric Foner, Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York, 2002); David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York, 1980); Charles S. Maier, Among Empires: American Ascendancy and its Predecessors (Cambridge, 2006); Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (New York, 1980); David F. Schmitz, Thank God They’re on our Side: The United States & Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965 (Chapel Hill, 1999); David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (Chapel Hill, 1997); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of Americann Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York, 2005); William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History (New York, 1961); idem, Empire as a Way of Life (Oxford, 1980).

1 William Appleman Williams, The Contours of American History (New York, 1961), 19.

2 Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from all Sides (New York, 2003), 163.

3 Williams, ibid.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/20/2008

The Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania happened to be under Washington's administration, not before the Constitution was ratified. The concept of "American exceptionalism" dates to the Pilgims, and to de Tocqueille, and many others--not to some vile communist cells of the 1920s and 1930s.

History is a series of facts. To select some facts and ignore others is not to "hijack history." It is, instead, the sine qua non of historical writing, lecturing or teaching, because one cannot possibly adduce all the facts which apply to many events, especially over long periods of time. And yet, one should always be doubly sure of the facts he does include, lest his principal idea be dismissed as half-baked work.