History News Network - Front Page History News Network - Front Page articles brought to you by History News Network. Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 (http://framework.zend.com) https://historynewsnetwork.org/site/feed H.W. Brands on Ben Barnes's "Revelation" about the Iran Hostage Crisis

Ben Barnes (l) and John Connally (c) meet with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, 1980. Barnes has recently repeated claims previously made to historian H.W. Brands (and published in Brands's biography of Ronald Reagan) that this meeting was part of Connally's effort to delay the release of American hostages held by Iran to secure Reagan's election. 



Peter Baker recently reported in the New York Times that Ben Barnes, a Texas politician and protegé of the former Texas governor John Connally, has chosen to speak out about a mission to the Middle East he and Connally took in 1980. According to Barnes, the purpose of meetings with a number of Middle East leaders was to encourage those leaders to convey to the Iranian government that it would be in their interest to delay the release of American hostages, a move damaging to the reelection effort of Jimmy Carter, and negotiate the release of the hostages with Ronald Reagan, whom Connally supported. Congressional investigations of the hostage crisis did not address Connally's trip. 

Baker also reported that Barnes's claims were mentioned in H.W. Brands's biography of Ronald Reagan, and that Brands was one of four individuals Barnes identified as having previously heard the story. 

Professor Brands agreed to answer some questions from HNN about Barnes's claims by email today, and how this "revelation" has been hiding in plain sight. 


HNN: How did you come to speak with Barnes about Governor Connally’s trip to the Middle East? 

While researching my book about Reagan, I asked Ben Barnes, whom I had known, if he had had any dealings with Reagan. In the conversation he mentioned his trip with John Connally to the Middle East in the summer of 1980. He told me that his trip with his old friend and mentor turned out to have a purpose beyond making Connally look like secretary of state material. Connally conveyed to governments and influential people in the Middle East that it would "not be helpful" - Barnes's characterization - to the Reagan campaign if the hostages were released before the election. I asked Barnes if that message came to Connally from William Casey, Reagan's campaign manager at that time; Barnes said he didn't know and didn't ask.

I followed up in some Connally papers at the LBJ Library to corroborate the journey. It checked out. There I also discovered a memo of a phone call from Nancy Reagan at the Reagan ranch to Connally on the trip. So Reagan was aware of the trip.

HNN: Did it make any waves when you wrote about Barnes’s account in your biography of Reagan? 

Very little. I was surprised.

HNN: The idea that the release of the hostages was manipulated to harm Carter’s reelection bid is part of the lore surrounding the 1980 election, so it seems odd that a revelation like this would pass by unremarked. Is this a case of people’s responses being governed by their preexisting assumptions, or is it a case where the implications about American power and political tricks are too disturbing to discuss? Why is there a collective shrug, aside from the passage of 43 years? 

The principals categorically denied any such thing. Watergate elevated the standard of evidence in such case to the "smoking gun." At the time there was no smoking gun. 

HNN: Some critics, notably the media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan, have questioned the veracity of Barnes’s account and the chain of events – specifically stating that Carter ultimately negotiated the release of the hostages, which was completed moments after Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, and that Connally’s lack of experience made him unlikely to be successful in such secret dealing. Do you think Barnes is credible about Connally’s intentions, and if so, should we think of Connally as an opportunist or a well-connected operator? 

I find it very difficult to believe that Connally was free-lancing. William Casey was too canny to allow that. Furthermore, Casey seems to have had a second-track of backdoor communications with Iran, including a September meeting in Madrid with people who presented themselves as go-betweens. In 1980 this seemed outlandish. But after the Iran-contra scandal broke, it seemed entirely plausible. By then Casey was dead, and he had covered his tracks well.

I have known Ben Barnes for thirty years. And I find it very difficult to believe he was making this up. 

HNN: Finally, how much should this cause us to rethink the 1980 election? Could this trip have changed the course of American history?

No, and here's why. By the summer of 1980, the hostages had lost their value to their captors. They were looking for a way to release them. But the last thing they wanted to do was help Carter get reelected. Carter was the reason the hostages were seized; the kidnappers thought Carter was planning to reinstall the shah (as Eisenhower had done in 1953). In effect, Connally and Casey were telling the Iranians not to do something the Iranians had no intention of doing. And far from the hostage release reflecting the Iranians' fear of Reagan, as the Reagan side spun things, the timing reflected their hatred for Carter and their preference for Reagan. 

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185271 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185271 0
Keri Leigh Merritt on the Politics of Grief and the Power of Historians' Witness to COVID



Dr. Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian, writer and activist based in Atlanta. She is the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge, 2017) and an organizer of The Civil War Documentary, "a forthcoming documentary made by a team of historians looking at the racial, class, gender, sexual, & cultural history of the war that remade millions of American lives and a new world" (follow it on Twitter).  She is also the co-editor, with Rhae Lynn Barnes and Yohuru Williams, of After Life: A Collective History of Loss and Redemption in Pandemic America (Haymarket, 2022). 

Dr. Merritt recently joined HNN editor Michan Connor by chat to discuss After Life, public engagement by historians, the role of history in making a humane society, and more. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 


HNN: We're discussing the 2022 volume After Life which you edited with Rhae Lynn Barnes and Yohuru Williams. It's March 14 today, which is approximately three years to the day when the COVID pandemic started to get real for most Americans. It's when many of us started to realize that this virus was becoming a public health crisis, and it's also when, in hindsight, it became political, in terms of the distribution of risk, disruption and loss. I wanted to start with the way that you and your co-editor Rhae Lynn Barnes describe the inspiration for After Life coming from the work produced by the WPA Federal Writers project, which sent such an eclectic group of novelists, journalists and scholars to describe the state of America under the depression. In reading, I certainly saw some parallels, particularly in the way that many of the essays in After Life situate the experience of the pandemic in place, and the way that American places reflect so much of the divergence in risk and loss during the pandemic.

Can you talk a bit about how this framework came about, and how you and your collaborators saw it as a way to make sense of America under COVID?

Keri Leigh Merritt: As my co-editors and I were picking possible contributors to the book, we decided to ask some of our favorite writers and then give them carte blanche to write about whatever they wanted. So many historians and legal scholars have to write in a very formulaic way most of the time, so we gave them complete freedom to be as creative as they desired. We have Bancroft prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, Guggenheim award winners – amazing, passionate writers. But we also very much paid attention to diversity in this book, and not just from a cultural perspective but from a geographic perspective as well (thanks for noticing!). We didn't want it to just be big coastal elite cities with writers from all Ivy League schools. We thought this topic deserved to be told by a diverse array of people from different backgrounds, living in different parts of the country. That would be the only way this could be a truly “American” story.

HNN: That's absolutely true, and I was struck by that departure from the "formula" of historiographical writing. I think it's the case, too, that what many of the WPA writers explored was the history of places before the Depression, as well as their roots in those places, to make the Depression legible; some of the essays that you gathered weren't necessarily about COVID, but about how experience in place in some way paved the way for COVID. Robert Tsai, to give one example, wrote really compellingly about a hometown that he left, but his memories touched on the ways that the town sorted "winners" and "losers"—without hitting the reader over the head, he lets them make a connection about how a very unequal mass death event could be normalized. Was that kind of writing an original goal or a fortunate surprise?

To put it a different way, did you find the project changing when your authors actually were as creative as they desired?

Keri Leigh Merritt: Robert’s was one of my favorite essays! He beautifully describes the end stages of deindustrialization, as well as deaths of despair, in almost lyrical prose. And yes, that type of intensely personal essay was a fortunate surprise. When I say we gave contributors complete freedom, I mean it. What we got back was incredibly interesting. Some pieces are pretty historical (e.g. Martha Hodes and Gwendolyn Midlo Hall)—comparing the current period to eras from the past—but most of these are extremely personal, soul-baring essays (e.g. Robin D.G. Kelley and Yohuru Williams). Many of them are histories of the writer’s family, little micro-histories. Because our collective goal was to end on a note of optimism, instead of despair, it was fascinating to see how people went back to their own histories to shore up some kind of hope to survive this ordeal; to continue on.

HNN: Your answer takes me to a next question, which relates to the politics of After Life. And, as you noted, there are historical arguments like Hall's (connecting the white supremacist terrorism of the 1873 Colfax Massacre to the ways in which deaths go unmarked) or Tera Hunter's (on the "afterlife" of racialized ideas about contagion and the exploited labor needed to sustain a society in the midst of epidemics) that are explicitly about the broader political through-lines from past to present, and some that are much more about family and micro-histories. I want to come back to the second group later, but I'd want to note that After Life is a book that makes its commitments pretty clear: we can't understand how this pandemic affected America without understanding systemic inequality (racism especially). Peniel Joseph wrote in his essay that the convergence of the pandemic and George Floyd's murder in 2020 was a clarifying moment for Black Americans (and their allies) to demand change in the deficient relationship of the state to their lives. And now, by the standards set by new legislation, After Life would be taken out of school libraries in many states. How do you see the role of historical understanding in these real-life struggles?

Keri Leigh Merritt:  Well, I think historical understanding certainly provides insight into what’s going on writ large. Meaning that all the issues we tackle in the book: COVID, the rise of Donald Trump, and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, etc., are all intertwined in the sense that the US government is not adequately rising to its basic obligations, as one of the richest nations in the history of the world, to provide fundamental human and civil rights to its citizens. There’s a direct correlation between elite control of our political system and the fact that our government continues to place profits before people, whether in health care, poverty programs, infrastructure, gun control, or even education.

To maintain their wealth, and thus, their power, the elite must continue to divide poor and working-class people – people with similar economic needs – by stoking the flames of racism, xenophobia, prejudice, and hate. They use the most punitive (so-called) “justice” system in the world to incarcerate the largest percentage of people in the world. They’ve denied basic universal healthcare to people during the deadliest time in our nation’s history, even under Democratic leadership. They are banning books and imposing censorship and firing librarians and educators. They are allowing mass shootings – mass murder – to occur multiple times a day. They’re expanding military-armed police forces, who brutalize and kill our loved ones with near impunity. They’ve closed hospitals during a pandemic, while building even more prisons.

We must deal with these issues in a revolutionary way, and soon. If we don’t, I fear what the future holds for America. Censorship and book banning have been recurrent themes throughout American history – but if history teaches us anything, we’ve got to fight this NOW, before they take things to the next level.   However, I want to emphasize again that I think knowledge and education are only part of the solution to our current problems. I think there are deeper emotional and psychological wounds that we must address, too – but that is a whole different book!

HNN: I think it's maybe a bit of a silly question to ask you, then (but I will anyway), where you stand on the recent controversy about "presentism" raised by the remarks of the former AHA president (and a recent New Yorker article)? I found Stephen Berry's phrasing in "Confederates Take the Capitol"—"Historians aren't antiquarians; we're not interested in old things because they are old. We exist to tell you when the engine of time throws a rod"—to be pretty evocative!

Keri Leigh Merritt: While a divide between what I call the “moral relativists” and “activist historians” has always existed within the profession, activist historians are suddenly starting to become involved in popular history and public scholarship in intense fashion. They are working to change the world, from Prison Reform to labor rights to immigration and racial justice issues. They're speaking to an American public who desperately and increasingly want to hear what they have to say.

Most activist historians, I would assume, believe there are certain immutable moral truths in this world. We believe that if we've been born 50 years ago or 500 years ago that we wouldn't harm or abuse other human beings. I have no qualms at all and stating clearly for the record: I do believe there are certain moral truths that are timeless.

If I’m going to be completely honest, I don’t think James Sweet’s AHA comments have anything to do with presentism. Instead, they have everything to do with old white men losing their monopolistic power over the profession. The last part of this is just simple professional jealousy. The moral relativists don’t like the fact that some younger scholars have been able to reach a broad public audience, primarily through social media. The moral relativists cannot stand the fact that some activist historians have also figured out how to monetize their work. To me, it’s all about democratizing knowledge. We are historians – the AHA is an organization for historians, not college professors – and our job is to educate the American people about history. To do this effectively, we must meet people where they are, and that increasingly means a tweet or TikTok video, not a book. Change is coming. And as always, the people in power don’t like change.

HNN: Thanks for that discussion – I think the question of meeting people where they are is increasingly urgent, and a project like After Life is a great example of that. It's noteworthy, too, of course, that the historians interviewed in that New Yorker piece were drawn from some pretty elite positions inside academe, which, as we know, is not where the people called historians are likely to be! And despite the attention given to student activists at the Ivies or Oberlin or wherever, it's not, as you say, where the people who want to hear what historians can tell them are, either.

HNN: That leads me to a last big question, and a return to talk about that category of essays in the book about the personal, the familial, and the emotional. There's another big professional (or at least professorial) norm that this book pushes back against, which is detachment. Readers are going to find scholars talking about their own confusion, fear, grief, or shame. You referred earlier to ending the volume on a tone of hope, but some of these stories, including your own, are painful and harrowing. What's the path to hope?

Keri Leigh Merritt: I think what's so comforting about the personal stories is that we fully recognize that other human beings have gone through similar types of losses and have still been able to survive, even thrive. Stories – narratives – are so incredibly powerful. It's in this way that we find strength and hope from our forefathers and foremothers. The extreme painfulness of some these stories (including mine!) also shows just how much we can endure, and I think there is some comfort in realizing that no matter how bad things get, we are not alone in our suffering.

Every living being suffers. We are one of many – and that makes us feel a sense of connection to others.

One of the main things I worry about is the isolation of people during the pandemic, continuing through today. Even the most introverted people are social creatures, who need companionship, love, human touch. The pandemic changed all of those things, irreparably. But until we actually have government or mainstream media acknowledge the immense loss this county has endured, we will never be able to emotionally and psychologically deal with our collective grief.

Back to your question, though: When I give book talks I am often asked by people how I hold on to hope, especially now as it seems the Black Lives Matter momentum has died down some. I say I find hope in two things right now. The first is the labor movement, all of the amazing pockets of labor power across the country where workers are really fighting back against huge, incredibly rich, powerful corporations. And they’re often winning! The other place I find hope is in the incredible young people of this country. They're the ones literally putting their lives on the line to fight for both human and climate justice. Young white people today are more involved in civil rights protests than they have ever been at any other time in American history.

Finally, I remind people that civil rights movements take a very long time, often decades. There are years that are filled with passionate protests, and there are years that are calmer, meant for reflection and care-taking and grassroots organizing. We may be in a calm period right now, but we should use this time to take care of ourselves – really work on self-care as we try to heal from the ravages of COVID and the last three years. We must get ourselves reestablished and reacquainted with our communities, and start building things from the ground up. We have to stop focusing on ourselves, getting lost in our own heads, in our own egos, turning our attention inwards; instead, we must focus on the external world and what we can do for people around us – what we can do to help others. I believe this is the basis of how hope is created and sustained.

HNN: That upsurge in labor organizing, as well as the activism of youth, is a cause for some optimism. And, while I can't do justice to the individual stories in this collection, I think Mary Dudziak's meditation on grief and remembrance clarifying political priorities, and Rhae Lynn Barnes's story – which rethinks the open road in that context of isolation and even suspicion of our fellow people—deserve some note on that theme. I think that HNN's readers will draw something important from this book.

I think it's particularly important, too, in light of the fact that the Biden administration intends to end the COVID emergency in May. The contraction of Medicaid is going to relegate too many people to being uninsured. It's going to be the end of free testing kits, and more "you're on your own" policy. We're going to need to be on our own together, right?

Keri Leigh Merritt: Unfortunately, yes. In one of the richest countries in the world, we are still left alone in this “DIY pandemic,” as we call it in the book. As Yohuru Williams and I write in the conclusion, “Our call to action in these borrowed years—in this after life—is quite clear: the path forward is one of uplift and radical hope. Stop being paralyzed by fear and anxiety; start being motivated by hope and passion. Stop feeling all alone within the current crisis; start connecting and organizing. Stop allowing other people and events to dictate a reaction; start being the action itself. Stop resisting; start creating. We have been given the incredible gift of life; we have survived one of the deadliest pandemics in history, and in so doing, we have realized the vast importance of every single moment we have on this earth. We have been given an after life. Use that after life to create the present you desire, and the future of your American dreams.”


Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185266 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185266 0
When World War II Pacifists "Conquered the Future"

Bayard Rustin's intake mugshot, Lewisburg Penitentiary, 1945. Rustin was incarcerated for resistance to the military draft prior to American entry into the second World War.



War by Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance by Daniel Akst (Melville House, 2022)


Nuclear war moved closer to the realm of possibility in 2019, when the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It became even more conceivable last month, when Russia stopped participating in the New START treaty, which called for Russia and the U.S. to reduce their nuclear arsenals and verify that they were honoring their commitments.

No doubt Max Kampelman would have been alarmed. An American lawyer and diplomat who died in 2013, Kampelman negotiated the first-ever nuclear arms reduction treaties between the two superpowers, in 1987 and 1991. He was also an ex-pacifist who had gone to prison during World War II for refusing to be drafted. There, he volunteered as a guinea pig in a grueling academic study of the effects of starvation.

Kampelman is one of the constellation of pacifists, anarchists, and other war resisters who we meet in Daniel Akst's fascinating new book, War by Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2022). The subtitle suggests one of the difficulties of writing such a book. The war against fascism was certainly one of the most justifiable and enduringly popular wars of all time, yet the people Akst is concerned with opposed it.

They were not admirers of Hitler and his allies; rather, they feared that the highly mechanized, technocratic warfare that was developing in the mid-20th century would turn their own country into something nearly as vile as Nazi Germany (“the adoption of Hitlerism in the name of democracy,” as the Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas said). And they made their resistance count for something: opposing the bombing of civilian targets in occupied Europe, pleading for the admission of Jewish refugees by the foot-dragging Roosevelt administration, demanding an end to internment of Japanese-Americans, documenting abuses in mental hospitals to which some were assigned, and campaigning against Jim Crow in the federal prisons that many of them found themselves in.

These pacifists were not famous at the time. While Americans knew generally that some conscientious objectors, or COs, were refusing to serve, very few were aware of the far-reaching political ferment that was going on in prisons, in CO camps established in rural parts of the country, and in the pages of pacifist newspapers and pamphlets that circulated during the war. Some would become well-known much later, however, including future civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, war resister David Dellinger, and their mentor, A.J. Muste, executive director of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOE) and apostle of nonviolence. Better known, marginally, were the Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day and the radical journalist and political theorist Dwight Macdonald.

Afterward, their influence grew, thanks in part to the tactics and arguments they developed during the war, and in part to the nuclear arms race, which confirmed their warnings about the nature and direction of modern warfare. Many former COs moved directly into the campaigns against nuclear armaments. They helped formulate the strategy of nonviolent resistance that underpinned the Civil Rights Movement and the mass demonstrations and draft resistance that galvanized the campaigns against the Vietnam War. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was founded in 1942 as an offshoot of the FOE and a product of Rustin and Muste’s conviction that ending racial segregation would be the next great struggle after the war ended. The abuse that Rustin and the anarchist poet Robert Duncan withstood owing to their homosexuality draws a through-line from wartime pacifism to the later gay rights movement. The tactics of direct action, civil disobedience, and media-savvy public protest that pacifists developed during World War II would help all of these movements, not to mention environmentalism and AIDS activism, achieve their greatest successes.

Akst’s story begins even before the U.S. entered the war, when the “Union Eight”—Dellinger and seven other students at Union Theological Seminary—refused to register for the draft. They would serve nine months in federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut, and would be in and out of prison and in trouble with the authorities for the remainder of the war. COs staged work stoppages, slowdowns, and out-and-out strikes both in federal prisons and in the rural Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps where many were sent to work on irrigation projects and the like—until they became incorrigible, that is.

Nor was resistance always strictly peaceful. COs were not paid for their work as internees. At one CPS camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, COs responded by launching a campaign of vandalism and sabotage that included clogging toilets, hiding lightbulbs and silverware, and scrawling obscenities. On leave in a local town, one group of “conchies” disabled their vehicle, got drunk at local bars, and got into a fight with a soldier. Some pacifist leaders urged COs to cooperate, at least tacitly, once they were in the camps, but in many cases found this impossible. But in federal prisons, especially, pacifists showed solidarity with other prisoners—notably African Americans—and struggled to maintain their activism behind bars.

Akst’s protagonists were complex, difficult individuals who quarreled with each other and with friends and family who wanted to keep them out of trouble. As such, their lives did not follow a strict pattern. But Akst has the gift for weaving together the stories of a group of highly distinctive activists—Dellinger, Rustin, and many less famous names—into a lucid narrative while digging deep into their personalities and beliefs.

He pinpoints some similarities: Many of his protagonists had a conversion experience of one or another sort (Muste had multiple conversions during his long life). Many were Quakers or liberal Protestants with intellectual roots that stretched back to 19th century Abolitionism. Many were inveterate dissidents, never ready to declare victory and settle down. Above all, they were seekers; for Macdonald, Akst writes, the war was “a way station on a lifelong ideological pilgrimage,” and this could apply to nearly everyone Akst re-introduces in his book.

If anything brought them all together, it was an emerging philosophy or worldview that Day called “personalism,” and which Akst characterizes as “a way of navigating between … the corpses of capitalism and communism” at a time when the Depression had discredited the one and Stalin’s tyranny had destroyed any confidence in the other. More deeply, it was a way of reconciling the “sacredness and inviolability of the individual” and the need for collective action against injustice and the death cult of war.

In their own way, each of the activists who emerged from the war—even if they no longer adhered to pacifism—believed that “each of us, driven by love, had the power to change the world simply by changing ourselves.” It was a “mushy and idealistic” notion, Akst observes, but his subjects could be quite hardheaded and sensible when it came to organizing, and it had great moral force in the decades after the war, for Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others.

In purely practical terms, the lessons the World War II resisters carried away from the war represented a break from the top-down organizing of the Old Left that is still playing itself out, Akst notes. They were “wary of authority, often including their own, and longed for direct democracy and communitarian social arrangements,” and “cherished the specific humanity of each and every person.” The result was a preference for non-hierarchical, anarchist-inspired organizing that can be traced in the movement against corporate globalization, the Occupy movement, and the Movement for Black Lives.

These inclinations have created their own problems in the years since the war. The New Left that evolved out of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements never managed to win over the increasingly rigid mainstream of the American labor movement. It had trouble, generally, sinking deeper roots into working and oppressed communities looking for immediate political solutions to their problems. And it largely failed to establish institutions of resistance that could endure without being coopted by the State.

Akst grounds his protagonists’ accomplishments as well as their failings in their individual personalities; when your activism is a part of a lifelong intellectual pilgrimage, staying pinned down to one philosophy or strategy is difficult. Nevertheless, “to a great extent Dellinger and his fellow pacifists did conquer the future,” Akst writes, and on a host of issues—racism, militarism, authoritarianism, and the looming threat of the Bomb—they broke through where others were often afraid to make a fuss. Channeling their principles into a more enduring resistance is the necessary work of their successors.


Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185270 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185270 0
Censoring History Education Goes Hand in Hand with Democratic Backsliding

Students in Brasilia take the ENEM, the national high school exam of Brazil. Former President Jair Bolsonaro had attemtped to revise the exam to promote a benign view of the country's periof of military dictatorship. 



On January 12, 2023, the Department of Education in Florida labeled a draft Advanced Placement course on African American Studies “woke indoctrination” and rejected it for including readings from, among others, historians Robin D.G. Kelly and Nell Irvin Painter. The Department's decision fit within the broader political vision of the governor (and former history teacher) Ron DeSantis, as well as a nation-wide pattern of attempts to restrict the teaching of gender and race in United States history. Florida’s policies were quickly linked to similar ones in backsliding democracies in Europe, such as Hungary, Poland and Turkey. Data from the Network of Concerned Historians for 2020–2023 suggest a correlation between attempts to censor history education and the global backsliding of democracy, with India, Brazil and the Philippines being among the most grave examples.


Since 2014, when Narendra Modi was elected Prime Minister of India, Hindutva (or radical Hindu nationalism) has again become a cornerstone of internal politics, exemplified through a surge in mob violence, discrimination against non-Hindu people, and a broad set of laws aimed at history education. Most frequently, these laws have targeted history textbooks. In March 2019, it was announced that chapters related to caste conflict would be scrapped from the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) history textbooks for class IX (the first year of high school). In July 2021 more than one hundred historians expressed concern over further changes to the NCERT history textbooks, and a year later acclaimed historian Irfan Habib criticized the textbooks for downscaling Muslim and Mughal history. Also in July 2021, the University Grants Commission released a new undergraduate history curriculum for centrally funded public universities that was widely criticized for its pro-Hindu bias, its downplaying of contributions to Indian history by Muslim and secular politicians, and the overrepresentation of Vedic and Hindu religious literature.


In addition to legislation, right-wing Hindutva groups exerted pressure on textbook publishers. In February 2020, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) demanded the immediate withdrawal of a class XI World History textbook in Goa, because it allegedly depicted the 17th century ruler Shivaji I, often depicted as an important proto-nationalist Hindu leader, too critically. The HJS had previously demanded a ban on a book containing alleged derogatory remarks about Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar (1883–1966), and requested action be taken against the book’s author and publisher.


Attempts to censor history education in India chiefly concern the inclusion of the contributions of people who do not fit an ethnocentric nationalist narrative of the past that serves as a foundational element of the government’s political ideology. In that sense, these examples mirror most  closely to what is happening in the United States.


Similarly, in Brazil former President Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly attacked the way slavery was taught, for example by supporting the far-right thesis that, since Portuguese colonizers barely entered the interior of Africa, Africans themselves should bear the most blame for the enslavement and trading of African people. Additionally, the Escola Sem Partido [loosely, “school without politics”] movement has claimed to protect children against indoctrination in schools while targeting courses on Black history and culture and proposing laws that would, among other things, institute a complaint line for parents who felt that their children were being subjected to “Cultural Marxism,” encourage children to film their teachers, and reduce the time spent on teaching Black and Native Brazilian history and culture.


Moreover, in the run-up to the National High School Exam (ENEM) on 21 November 2021, Bolsonaro was criticized for asking Education Minister Milton Ribeiro to change wording to refer to the 1964 military coup as the “Revolution.” The term aligned with the far-right revisionist history of the 1964–1985 military dictatorship. Since 2018, Bolsonaro had repeatedly criticized ENEM, leading to the disappearance of at least one question about the 1964 coup from the 2020 exam. His criticism was part of a pattern of interference and intimidation, which included attempts by the director of the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research, the agency responsible for ENEM, reportedly demanding the exclusion of more than twenty exam questions, many of which dealt with Brazil’s recent history. In November 2021 Bolsonaro stated that ENEM would start “looking more like the government,” and that it would no longer have “absurd questions as in past exams” and would instead “start history from scratch.”


In Brazil, censorship practices regarding history education have been concerned with both remote and recent history. The latter has been the focus of attempts to rewrite history in the Philippines, which have focused on the 1965–1986 rule of President Ferdinand Marcos, which was characterized by widespread human rights violations and corruption, especially during the period of martial law (1972–1986). In the lead-up to the May 9, 2022 presidential elections, campaigners for Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. proclaimed that the Marcos administration had brought glory and wealth, and that no human rights violations had taken place under martial law. Already on January 10, he had promised the revision of history textbooks.


Upon his election as President, Marcos Jr. appointed Sara Duterte as Minister of Education, increasing concerns that they would lead a campaign to rewrite history textbooks. During his presidency, Sara Duterte’s father Rodrigo Duterte had expressed admiration for the Marcos regime, referring to those years as the “golden age” of Philippine history and calling on the public to “move on” rather than dwelling on the particulars of dictatorial rule. In July 2022, public historian Ambeth Ocampo of the Ateneo de Manila University, who had been a fierce critic of the younger Marcos’s attempts at historical revisionism, was harassed online. A month later, the official Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF; Commission on Filipino Languages) tagged five books critical of the martial law period as “subversive” and their authors as “Communists,” and banned them (though the order was rescinded after a strong pushback by the literary and academic community).


In Responsible History, professor emeritus of Human Rights, Ethics and History Antoon De Baets has pointed out the intimate correlation between democracy and the freedom of historical research and teaching. The plausibility of this connection can be most clearly seen in its violations, as the four cases above forcefully demonstrate. More broadly, between 2020 and 2023, censorship of history education took place in at least fourteen countries. Of these, twelve have seen a decline in their democratic status at some point during that period. This is not only the case with the censorship of history education, but also finds its expression, for example, in state-led attempts to censor commemorative practices. The interference of states in research, teaching and commemoration of history is an important warning sign for its pending abuse, and for the erosion of democracy in general.


However, and more hopefully, state censorship can be met with resistance. In the United States, PEN America is at the forefront of opposing censorial practices, such as those in Florida. In Brazil, the National Association of Historians (ANPUH) protested repeatedly against Bolsonaro’s attacks. In India, historians like Habib and the Haryana opposition leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda have criticized, in the words of the latter, the “politicization” of education and the “saffronization” of history. And in the Philippines, more than 1700 scholars and educators signed a manifesto calling for the defense of historical truth and academic freedom, pledging to “combat all attempts at historical revisionism,” and vowing to protect historical, educational and cultural institutions and “preserve books, documents, records, artifacts, archives and other source materials pertaining to the martial law period.” Their efforts should motivate us all to continue to step up and protect history from abuse by politicians.

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185267 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185267 0
The Nixon Library's Vietnam Exhibition Obscures the Truth about the War's End



The Nixon Foundation held a 50th Anniversary commemoration for the Paris Peace Accords, signed in 1973 to end American involvement in the Vietnam War, and organized a panel emphasizing Nixon’s “grand strategy” in reaching the agreement.  One might question the strategy implemented by Nixon—it led to the disintegration of Cambodia, a war torn Laos, North Vietnamese troops below the DMZ in South Vietnam after the 1972 Easter Offensive—all hallmarks of a failed policy. While the panel consisted of acclaimed historians such as Pierre Asselin, no one on the panel suggested “grand strategy” ended the war.  Scholarship by Nixon historians Jeffrey Kimball and Carolyn Eisenberg, moreover, shows that Nixon made major concessions to China and the Soviet Union in several failed attempts to end the war.  

The Nixon Foundation’s marketing of the Paris Peace Accords as the result of “grand strategy,” made me curious about how they treat the war in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.  A joint production of the Nixon Foundation and the National Archives and Records Administration, the Vietnam exhibit is one of the first exhibits visitors to the library go through. Other scholars have criticized the exhibit for placing Nixon above the culture wars of the era, but I found Nixon’s voice was nowhere to be found.

At the front of the gallery, a sign invites visitors to come to their own conclusions about Nixon’s life and career. Was Nixon a “warmonger,” the sign asks. The gallery then proceeds into the turmoil of the 1960s and the Vietnam era, with Nixon above the fray, and continues into the war he inherited. The exhibit is heavy on American P.O.W.s, giving the impression that Nixon fought the war to win their release. While there are several placards and photographs, there are significant gaps in the presentation of Nixon’s Vietnam policy.

To begin with, there is no mention of Nixon’s Madman Strategy.  Nixon’s idea that using threats of nuclear force to scare the communist world into ending the Vietnam War.  Think this concept is false? Nixon engineered a secret nuclear alert, Operation Giant Lance, to intimidate the Soviet Union into convincing the North Vietnamese to end the war.  It failed and is not in the exhibit.

Also absent are the famous Nixon Tapes. 

This impacts the presentation of Operation Menu, the secret bombing of Cambodia; significant sources regarding the results of this operation are missing.  Perhaps most noteworthy is Nixon’s admission that the bombing led to the collapse of Cambodia.  As Nixon states in a taped conversation, 

Before we did Cambodia—this is not known to anybody—I had ordered, and we’d carried out, a series of strikes called the Menu strikes—nobody knows it—on Cambodia, on the sanctuaries, with B-52s. They were called the Menu strikes, well, because—[Kissinger attempts to interject] they were called the Breakfast strikes, and then I said, “All right, we’re going to”—so I said, “All right, that’s what—that’s what I don’t imagine the bastards out there called them.” I said, “Henry, the hell with that. A menu just isn’t breakfast; let’s have lunch and dinner, too.” So we took Breakfast, Lunch, and then we bombed the hell out of those sanctuaries. Nobody ever knew it and they didn’t say a goddamn word.

Kissinger replies, “It led to the collapse of Cambodia because it pushed the North Vietnamese deeper into Cambodia.”   

Could Nixon have brought the P.O.W.s home earlier? In one cynical tape, Nixon orders Kissinger to offer a false peace proposal for “cosmetic” purposes to deter the efforts of P.O.W. wives.

While Nixon scholar Stanley Kutler supposedly said the tapes are like the Bible, and can be used to support any theory, the idea that Nixon’s timetable for ending the war was driven by political concerns is supported by archival records and the tapes.  Fearful that another Tet Offensive would occur in 1972, and knowing that the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front Offensive forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to shelve his plans to run for reelection in 1968, Nixon kept the war going throughout 1972 to ensure his own reelection.

Did Nixon believe South Vietnam would survive? Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger offered a “decent interval”—a two year break between the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the collapse of South Vietnam-- to the Soviets and Chinese.  While the concept of the decent interval has been controversial, visitors deserve to hear this tape, from August 3, 1972, where Nixon and Kissinger discuss the timing of ending the war and the likelihood of South Vietnam’s survival:

Nixon: Let's be perfectly cold-blooded about it. If you look at it from the standpoint of our game with the Soviets and the Chinese, from the standpoint of running this country, I think we could take, in my view, almost anything, frankly, that we can force on Thieu. Almost anything. I just come down to that. You know what I mean? Because I have a feeling we would not be doing, like I feel about the Israeli, I feel that in the long run we're probably not doing them an in—uh … a disfavor due to the fact that I feel that the North Vietnamese are so badly hurt that the South Vietnamese are probably gonna do fairly well.

Nixon: Also due to the fact—because I look at the tide of history out there, South Vietnam probably is never gonna survive anyway. I'm just being perfectly candid—I—

Kissinger: In the pull-out area—

Nixon: [unclear] There's got to be—if we can get certain guarantees so that they aren't … as you know, looking at the foreign policy process, though, I mean, you've got to be—we also have to realize, Henry, that winning an election is terribly important.

Nixon: It's terribly important this year, but can we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam? That's the real question.

Kissinger: If a year or two years from now North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it's the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say in a three- to four-month period, we have pushed President Thieu over the brink—we ourselves—I think, there is going to be—even the Chinese won't like that. I mean they'll pay verbal—verbally, they'll like it—

Nixon: But it'll worry them.

Kissinger: But it will worry everybody. And domestically in the long run it won't help us all that much because our opponents will say we should've done it three years ago.

Nixon: I know.

Kissinger: So we've got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which—after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January 74 no one will give a damn.

Broadly, the history of the war is contested and divided into two schools.  The first, sometimes called the revisionist school, tends to argue that the Vietnam War was a just cause improperly executed by the United States’ political leadership. The second and most dominant, the orthodox school, argues the war itself was an immoral mistake.  Regardless of the school, the Nixon Library’s and Nixon Foundation’s claim that the Paris Peace Accords resulted from Nixon’s grand strategy does not fit into the historiography and distorts the history of the war. The exhibit itself needs to include crucial archival sources, the latest scholarly debates, and most importantly, crucial Nixon tapes as evidence.

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185268 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185268 0
The "Critical Race Theory" Controversy Continues

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/177258 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/177258 0
The Roundup Top Ten for March 17, 2023

Texas's Abortion Ban Can Never be Made Humane

by Mary Ziegler

When abortion access depends on establishing that a pregnant woman deserves an exception to a ban, the law will inevitably prevent doctors from serving patients with problem pregnancies. 


Neoliberalism: Why is the Market Involved in Your Hallway Hangout?

by John Patrick Leary

A guide for teens and others to start thinking about how the big political and economic systems we live under shape our lives. Hint: it's about the conflicts between capitalism and democracy.



"If they were White and Insured, Would they have Died?"

by Udodiri R. Okwandu

Texas's new maternal mortality report shows that historical patterns of medical racism are continuing, and the state plans to do little but blame Black women for the inadequate care they receive. 



The History and Politics of the Right to Grieve

by Erik Baker

Grief isn't a personal psychological and emotional process; we experience it through the demands a capitalist economy makes on our time, energy and attention. It's time to make bereavement a matter of right, instead of a favor doled out at the whim of your boss. 



Rearranging Deck Chairs at AHA?

by Jacob Bruggeman

"If professional history is history, it isn’t due to academic politics — it’s because of the sharp contraction and possible collapse of the job market." What are the profession's ostensible leaders going to do about it? 



Welcome Corps is the Newest Idea for Welcoming Refugees, but it Has a Long History

by Emily Frazier and Laura E. Alexander

The proposal for a new refugee resettlement agency extends the mission of many religious settlement and humanitarian groups that have operated in the United States for more than 150 years. This has the potential and the peril of bringing resettlement more in line with the characteristics of local communities. 



Florida Higher Ed Bills Don't Fight Indoctrination, they Limit Freedom

by Jessica L. Adler

Florida legislation would write into law extensive power for politicians to control the content of education. The law also takes out important parts of existing law, making it easier for partisan politicians to turn public universities to their own ends. 



Eric Adams's Involuntary Commitment Plan has a Long, Cruel History, Won't Help

by Jeremy Peschard

The history of involuntary hospitalization is one of the removal of the most marginalized and vulnerable people from society, in increasingly cruel and inhumane conditions, with treatment and reintegration to society an afterthought. It's unclear the New York mayor's plans will be different. 



Houston's Highway History Teaches Planners What Not to Do

by Kyle Shelton

Transportation planners have begun to collect the opinions of community residents affected by proposed highway projects, but they have yet to begin to meaningfully incorporate those concerns into planning. Doing so could prevent repeating the blighting effects of urban transporation projects.



What Anna May Wong's History Tells us About Oscar's Asian and Asian American Moment

by Katie Gee Salisbury

The first Asian-American film star got her break when a film company cast ethnic actors in a 1922 film made to test out the new Technicolor technology. But Hollywood's racial politics and commercial imperatives kept other Asian actors from stardom. 


Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185265 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185265 0
The Defiant Woman at the Center of New York's First Abortion Battle

Caroline Ann Trow Lohman, better known as Madame Restell



By a 6-3 vote in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade (1973) and eliminated a woman’s constitutional right to decide whether she wanted to terminate a pregnancy. Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, justified the decision in part by arguing that “an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.”


Alito’s historical argument was just wrong. Early termination of a pregnancy prior to “quickening” when a fetus’ movement could be felt by a pregnant woman, sometime between the fourth to sixth month, was both legal and common in the early years of the United States. The first state laws governing abortion date to the 1820s and 1830s and specifically addressed the use of “poison” to terminate a pregnancy after quickening. The first New York State law that criminalized abortion was enacted in 1827. It declared pre-quickening abortion a misdemeanor and post-quickening abortion a felony.


The distinction between terminating a pregnancy prior to quickening and after remained until the 1860s when male doctors and professional organizations like the American Medical Association, founded in 1847, moved to eliminate competition in caring for women from female health workers who practiced traditional folk medicine.


A major battleground in the 19th century war over abortion was New York City where Caroline Ann Trow Lohman, also known as Madame Restell, used traditional medicinal potions to help women who wanted to limit their family size or terminate an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy.


Restell was born in England in 1812 and moved to New York in 1831 with her husband and a child. When her husband died, she married Charles Lohman, a local printer, who published pamphlets on contraception and population control, and encouraged his wife to set up her traditional medical practice at 146 Greenwich Street in Lower Manhattan.  Starting with a notice in the New York Sun in March 1839, she began to widely advertise her services in the city’s daily newspapers. She offered folk remedies such as oil of tansy made from a plant and used since the European Middle Ages to terminate pregnancies and spirits of turpentine distilled from pine resin. If these remedies were unsuccessful, Restell provided surgical abortions on a sliding scale based on social class.  As her clientele expanded, Madame Restell added other services. She operated a boardinghouse where women who chose not to terminate a pregnancy could deliver in anonymity, and she arranged for adoptions. 


Classified advertisements, New York Herald and New York Sun, December 1841

TO MARRIED WOMEN. — Is it not but too well known that the families of the married often increase beyond what the happiness of those who give them birth would dictate? . . . Is it moral for parents to increase their families, regardless of consequences to themselves, or the well being of their offspring, when a simple, easy, healthy, and certain remedy is within our control? The advertiser, feeling the importance of this subject, and estimating the vast benefit resulting to thousands by the adoption of means prescribed by her, has opened an office, where married females can obtain the desired information.


From 1839 to 1877, Restell was arrested at least five times, and she spent months in jail. In 1840, Madame Restell was arrested when the husband of a 21-year old woman named Maria Purdy, who had died from tuberculosis, accused her of poisoning his wife when she sought help to end an unwanted pregnancy. The woman had insisted that she was only three months pregnant, well within the legal period for terminating the pregnancy. Restell was charged with “administering to Purdy certain noxious medicine… … procuring her a miscarriage by the use of instruments, the same not being necessary to preserve her life.” In the local press, opponents of abortion accused Restell of being a “monster in human shape.” They charged her with “one of the most hellish acts ever perpetrated in a Christian land,” threatening marriage and motherhood, promoting immoral behavior and adultery, and encouraging prostitution. In her defense, Restell placed an ad in the New York Herald offering $100 to anyone who could prove that her medicinal potions were harmful. 


The campaign against Restell was led by George Washington Dixon, publisher of the Polyanthos and Fire Department Album newspaper. At her initial trial, Restell was found guilty but the verdict was thrown out on appeal because Maria Purdy’s deathbed confession that she had aborted a fetus was ruled inadmissible. Restell was retried, but without Purdy’s statement, she was found not guilty. After her acquittal, Restell expanded her mail-order operation and opened new offices in Boston and Philadelphia. At this time, Restell was probably the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 story, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.”


In 1845, the New York State legislature changed the law. It made any assistance in terminating a pregnancy at any time illegal and punishable by a year in prison. Under the new law, women who sought abortions could be sentenced to pay a $1,000 fine and three to twelve months in jail. In 1846, Dixon instigated a riot outside Restell’s Manhattan house where rioters chanted “Hanging’s too good for her!” and “This house is built on babies’ skulls.”


In 1847, Restell was arrested again when Maria Bodine, a woman she had assisted with an abortion, had post-operative complications and a physician reported Restell to the police. Bodine testified against Restell at the trial; she was found guilty of “misdemeanor procurement,” and sentenced to a year in jail. After her release, Restell promised not to perform any further surgical abortions but continued to supply women with folk medicines that would terminate an early stage pregnancy. At this point, Restell had become a prosperous local celebrity. She lived an ostentatious life style, moved into a mansion on 52nd Street and 5th Avenue, applied for and received U.S. citizenship, and the mayor of New York City officiated at her daughter’s wedding.


Yet despite her celebrity, Madame Restell was subject to continual legal harassment. In February 1854, she was charged with a felony for illegally terminating a pregnancy and in July 1862 she was accused of arranging adoptions and being an abortionist. The 1854 case was sensationally covered on page 1 of the New York Times on February 14. A twenty-two year old young woman named Cordelia Grant charged her lover, George Shackford, with having abused her since she was sixteen. During that time Shackford alternated between identifying her publicly as either his wife or ward and he was now threatening to desert her. Grant claimed that she had become pregnant, “enciente” (sic), five times and that Shackford forced her to have an abortion each time. The “notorious RESTELL” was accused of performing three of the abortions at “No. 162 Chambers street.” On one occasion the baby may have been born alive and discarded. Restell’s husband, Charles Lohman, was named in the indictment as conducting the business end of the arrangement with Shackford. Charges against the defendants were dismissed on March 22, 1854 after Grant, who had testified under oath on February 22, fled the jurisdiction of the New York Courts under mysterious circumstances.


The 1862 case involved a woman who accused Mary Lohman alias Madam Restell of abducting her baby and demanded that the child be returned to her. Restell testified that she was a “midwife and female physician” who made arrangements for adoption of the infant at the request of the woman and that the woman “freely and voluntarily surrendered up” the infant. Eight months later the woman had Restell arrested, accusing her of abducting the child. The charges against Restell were dismissed when it became clear that the plaintiff had made several contradictory statements.


In 1872, New York revised its anti-abortion law and the penalty for performing an abortion was increased to between four and 20 years in prison. In 1878, Restell, now in her sixties, was targeted by Anthony Comstock, the founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. An 1873 federal law made it illegal to sell or advertise obscene material in mail including “any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion.” The penalty for breaking the law was six months to five years in prison and a fine of $2,000.

As part of a sting operation, Comstock purchased pills from Restell claiming they were for his wife. He had Restell arrested and in a follow-up search of her 5th Avenue office, Comstock uncovered pamphlets about birth control and instructions on how to terminate a pregnancy. Restell charged that Comstock was supported by a male medical profession that wanted to eliminate her as a competitor so the doctors could enrich themselves at the expense of women and announced that she would expose them if she were brought to trial. But there was no trial. On April 1, 1878, Restell’s naked body was discovered in her bathtub. Her throat was slit and her death was ruled a suicide by the coroner.


On April 2, 1878, The New York Times reported on page 1:


The notorious Mme. Restell is dead. Having for nearly forty years been before the public as a woman who was growing rich by the practice of a nefarious business; having once served an imprisonment for criminal malpractice; having ostentatiously flaunted her wealth before the community and made an attractive part of the finest avenue in the City odious by her constant presence, she yesterday, driven to desperation at last by public opinion she had so long defied, came to a violent end by cutting her throat from ear to ear. The news startled the whole City. At first the announcement was looked upon as a hoax, but when it became known that her death had been officially communicated to the court in which she was about to be tried on an indictment found recently, doubt was removed, and the ghastly story of the suicide became the talk of everybody.


Caroline Ann Trow Lohman, also known as Madame Restell, defied 19th century male authority to provide women of all social classes with the ability to decide if they wanted to bear and raise a child. She did this by employing traditional folk remedies to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. She brought on media condemnation and ridicule because she refused to practice in the shadows despite legal harassment. She believed in a woman’s right to choose, and she chose to end her own life rather than going to prison for defending reproductive freedom. Ironically, her death led to rumors that it was staged and that she was still helping women terminate pregnancies.


In his Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito conveniently ignored women like Madame Restell and the early history of abortion rights in the United States. Not a surprise.

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185165 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185165 0
"You Don't Belong Here": Elizabeth Becker Tells the Story of the Women Journalists of Vietnam




It’s not unusual now to see or hear or read reports from women correspondents who cover the news in combat zones and other perilous situations. They bring home the harsh and chaotic reality of fighting from war-torn places like Ukraine, Syria, the Middle East, and beyond. This new generation of reporters includes distinguished newswomen such as Clarissa Ward, Christiane Amanpour, Jane Ferguson, the late Marie Colvin, Holly Williams, and photojournalist Lynsey Addario.

But women reporters just a few decades ago during the bloody American military conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia were scarce at best and were often undermined, mocked, belittled, and even sabotaged. Only the most intrepid and resolute persevered to share the news and reshape public understanding of the cruelty and complexity of this foreign policy debacle. But these extraordinary women broke down barriers and created a new path for future generations of female reporters on the frontlines who courageously and routinely cover the terrible consequences of war.

A trailblazing war correspondent in her own right, celebrated journalist and author Elizabeth Becker pays homage to a trio of women reporters who covered the Vietnam War in her recent book You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War (Public Affairs). The book focuses on the lives of the daring French photojournalist Catherine Leroy, American intellectual and author Frances FitzGerald, and iconoclastic Australian war reporter Kate Webb. Each arrived in Vietnam without significant experience in reporting or international affairs, and each navigated the masculine world of war and loss and each suffered and sacrificed to bring their unique perspectives on the chaotic conflict to the world. They brought new approaches to covering war and its horrific human toll on combatants and civilians alike.

The book also provides a new view of the war as it blends the individual stories of these stalwart women within the historical context of the war. Ms. Becker adds her insights as a fellow reporter and veteran of the Southeast Asian wars. The riveting narrative is based on her meticulous research that included study of voluminous military and other official records as well as her special access to the personal letters, diaries, photographs, and other documents from the three heroines of the book as well as their colleagues and others.

In addition to stellar reviews, You Don’t Belong Here won Harvard’s Goldsmith Prize for the best book on politics, policy and journalism as well as the Sperber Prize for the best biography/memoir of a journalist. And Foreign Affairs named it the Best Military Book of the year.

Ms. Becker’s groundbreaking reporting from Cambodia during its war and the Khmer Rouge revolution is legendary. She covered the American bombing of Cambodia, the vicious combat there, and the genocidal violence of the Khmer Rouge revolution. She was the only western reporter to interview Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, and she escaped an assassination attempt by the Khmer Rouge.

When the War was Over, Ms. Becker’s acclaimed book on Cambodia, won the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. That book was based on her first-hand war reporting and extensive subsequent research including her historic interviews with Pol Pot and other senior Khmer leaders. Her exhaustive six-year investigation of the historical and political roots of one of the 20th Century’s worst genocides remains in print more than three decades since its first publication and is relied on by historians and others for its exhaustive and definitive research.  The New York Times called her Cambodia book “a work of the first importance;” the Financial Times said “Becker writes history as history should be written;” and the Washington Post praised it as “an impressive feat of scholarship and reporting: intelligent, measured, resourceful.”

The prosecution for the for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia recognized Ms. Becker’s unique expertise and called her as an expert witness in the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide. She testified about her experience and knowledge of Khmer Rouge atrocities and other war crimes before the tribunal in 2016, and the two defendants were convicted.

Ms. Becker began her illustrious career as a war correspondent for the Washington Post in Cambodia in 1973. She subsequently became the Senior Foreign Editor of National Public Radio, and later worked as a New York Times correspondent covering national security, foreign policy, agriculture and international economics. She has reported from Asia, Africa, South America and Europe while based in Phnom Penh, Paris and Washington.

Her honors for her journalism include an Overseas Press Club Award for her Cambodia coverage, the DuPont Columbia Award for her work as executive director for coverage of Rwanda’s genocide and South Africa, and the North American Agricultural Journalism Association Award. She also was a member of the Times staff that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for public service in covering 9/11.

Ms. Becker graduated from the University of Washington in South Asian studies, and was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and serves on the boards of Oxfam America Advocacy Fund and the Harpswell Foundation.

Ms. Becker generously responded by email to a barrage of questions about her career and her compelling book on the Vietnam War and women reporters who covered it. I am very grateful for her thoughtful remarks and insights.


Robin Lindley: Thank you Ms. Becker for discussing your work and your illuminating book on pioneering women who reported on the American wars in Southeast Asia, You Don’t Belong Here. Before getting to your book and the three women you profile, I’d like to first ask about your background. You were a trailblazing journalist in Southeast Asia and were honored for your reporting on the war in Cambodia. How did you come to pursue journalism as a career?

Elizabeth Becker:  At the University of Washington, I became enamored with classes about South Asia and petitioned the university to create a major in the field. I graduated in 1969 with a degree in South Asian studies. (It is now a major field in the UW’s Jackson School). I and then spent a year in India traveling and studying Hindi at the Kendriya Hindi Sansthaan in Agra.  I returned to the UW for graduate studies in the same field, centered on political science, with the aim of completing a PhD

Robin Lindley: And what prompted you to travel to Cambodia in 1973?

Elizabeth Becker: The answer to that question is in the preface to my book. My thesis professor rejected my Master’s thesis after I refused to have an affair with him. He insisted my rejection of him had nothing to do with his rejection of my thesis. And he then asked me to reconsider. It was clear that my academic career was over. So I cashed in my fellowship check and bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia. A friend I met in India was working for United Press International there and had been lobbying me to come and become a reporter with her.

Robin Lindley: You’re renowned for your reporting on the war in Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge revolution. Your vivid book on that experience, When the War was Over, was acclaimed by scholars and general readers alike. When you reported on the war and the genocide, you capture the often horrific and painful experience of the Cambodian people. You witnessed the US carpet bombing and the brutal fighting on the ground and atrocities of war. Your courage and resilience are remarkable. When did you arrive in Cambodia and what was happening in the war then?

Elizabeth Becker: January 1973. The US had just signed the Paris Peace Accords and more than a few reporters said I had come too late. The war was ending. In fact, Cambodia did not sign the Accords and the fighting intensified immediately. US bombing from March through mid-August was the most intense of the war. It caught the world – and news organizations – by surprise.

There were very few reporters living in Cambodia. Most staffers lived in Saigon, Hong Kong, Singapore or Bangkok. They needed someone on the ground at all times. After three months writing for the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, I was hired by the Washington Post, Newsweek and NBC radio as the local reporter or stringer. The fighting was close to constant.

Robin Lindley: What kind of support did you get when you were reporting from Cambodia? Did you have supportive colleagues or government support? 

Elizabeth Becker: Some of my colleagues who lived in Phnom Penh were superb:  James Fenton, the British poet, was there as a stringer for the New Statesman; Ishiyama Koki, of Kyoto News Service; Neil Davis, the Australian television reporter; and Steve Heder who became the greatest expert on the Khmer Rouge.

Robin Lindley: When did you leave Cambodia and what led to your departure during the brutal war with the Khmer Rouge?

Elizabeth Becker: I left in September 1974. Phnom Penh was dangerous so we would go to Saigon for R&R. Two of my friends disappeared behind Khmer Rouge lines. Every day I chronicled and witnessed how the people and country of Cambodia were being destroyed and I finally couldn’t bear it. I wrote my family back in Seattle that, if I didn’t leave soon, I would be carried out in a straitjacket or a body bag. 

Robin Lindley: You are one of the few western reporters who was invited to meet Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and you interviewed him. How did that 1978 assignment happen and what did you learn then about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot?

Elizabeth Becker: Over three years I petitioned the Khmer Rouge for a visa – sending letters to their embassy in Peking (Beijing now) and going to the UN every October to see the Khmer Rouge foreign minister, the only time he came to the US. Finally, they invited Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post Dispatch and me, for the Washington Post. Malcolm Caldwell, a British scholar sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge, rounded our group.

We were the only Western reporters to visit Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. We had no freedom while there – we only saw what they wanted us to see and spoke to people they chose and under their supervision. We were essentially under house arrest. If you don’t mind, here is a link to the best summary I wrote about what I saw and why it became so contentious.

Robin Lindley: You escaped an assassination attempt on that trip, and one of your fellow correspondents, British Professor Malcolm Caldwell, was murdered. Who were the assassins? How did you and fellow reporter Richard Dudman escape and depart from Cambodia?

Elizabeth Becker: Our last day we were given an hour’s notice to dress up for an interview with Pol Pot. Dudman and I went first. Caldwell had a separate interview after us. Back at our guest house we packed our bags for the flight out the next day, had supper and went to bed.

Around midnight I heard gunshots, ran to the main room and met a gunman who threatened me. I ran back to my ground floor bedroom while he ran up the stairs, shot at the feet of Dudman and then stormed the bedroom of Caldwell and murdered him. He escaped and we were left each in our separate bedrooms not knowing what had happened for several hours that felt like a lifetime. Finally top officials came to see us. We were taken to another guest house after viewing Caldwell’s body and then flew back on a Chinese plane to Peking the next morning.

Robin Lindley: What a harrowing experience. I’m glad you weren’t physically injured. More recently, in 2016, you testified at the war crimes trial of two surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. How did that happen and what did your testimony concern?

Elizabeth Becker: I was asked to testify at length about my book When the War was Over since it had become a classic history of the Khmer Rouge and includes exclusive interviews of Khmer Rouge officials as well as foreign officials who played key roles in the story. I also wrote an entire chapter about my reporting trip to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge that proved to be so rare.                    

Robin Lindley: Thank you for sharing that experience. The prosecution was fortunate to draw on your expertise.

And now, to You Don’t Belong Here. How did you come to write this book on trailblazing women reporters? Was there an incident or a person that sparked your interest?

Elizabeth Becker: It was in the back of my mind for years. The spark was my testimony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal when I realized our history – the women who broke through during the war – had been lost.

Robin Lindley: Your book is deeply researched and, of course, you were also a prominent woman reporter during the Southeast Asian conflicts. What was your research process and what was some of the source material you found?

Elizabeth Becker:  My goal was to write full biographies of the three women – their earliest lives, their education, what drove them to become war correspondents, and then their complete lives during the war – letters to family, friendships, horrible romances, self-doubts, etc. At the same time, I wanted to provide the reader with the story of the war. It had to be the strong spine of the book so the reader understood what these women faced and how difficult it was to cover the war.

Ultimately, you can read the book and have an intimate and deep understanding of the women, what they faced, and the war itself. I wanted to eschew what I felt was the confining, swashbuckling model where the focus is fully on the horror of war and how the reporter covered it.

Robin Lindley: Your book focuses on three women correspondents: Catherine Leroy, a fearless French photojournalist; Frances FitzGerald, an acclaimed American journalist, intellectual and author; and Kate Webb, an innovative daredevil Australian war reporter. How did you decide to share in-depth accounts of these women in your book?

Elizabeth Becker: I knew one woman couldn’t tell this story of how women reporters defied the odds and permanently broke the glass ceiling preventing women from being true correspondents. They did that by working around rules and really changing how the war was covered.

The main research was to determine who were the standouts and innovators. I did it by category – photography it was Catherine Leroy; long-form it was Frances FitzGerald; and daily reporting it was Kate Webb.

For Catherine I went to the foundation dedicated to preserving her legacy, even though it was largely forgotten. There I had free rein to go through her letters, papers, photographs, etc. I dug into the Frances FitzGerald collection at Boston University. I spent a week rifling through Kate Webb’s papers kept in plastic storage bins at the home of her sister in Sydney, Australia. I interviewed everyone in their lives, dug up books, documents and journalism from the period at the Library of Congress (which is four blocks from my home in Washington, DC) and then dug out my papers.

Robin Lindley: Weren’t these women all really outsiders lacking academic journalism training and experience reporting?

Elizabeth Becker: It’s more basic than that. Few if any women at that time (the 1960s) were staff foreign correspondents, much less a war correspondent. Women covered women’s issues usually in a separate area from the newsroom – dubbed the pink ghetto. US military rules prohibited women from covering battles on the battlefield (In WWII Martha Gellhorn was assigned to the military nurses, like other women, and had to sneak onto Normandy Beach).

So, no, these three had no real experience. FitzGerald had written freelance profiles for the New York Herald Tribune. Webb had been the equivalent of a copy boy for the Mirror in Sydney. Leroy had never taken a professional photograph.

They paid their own way to Vietnam. Had no jobs when they arrived. No place to stay and no insurance should anything happen to them. Everything they did was on spec for the first few months. It was sufficiently difficult that, over the ten years of the American war, only a few dozen women actually lived and worked in Vietnam as successful journalists.

Robin Lindley: What were the Pentagon rules for women reporters covering combat in Vietnam? Weren’t women correspondents strictly prohibited from combat in the Second World War?

Elizabeth Becker:  Since President Lyndon B. Johnson refused to officially declare war in Vietnam the rules regarding journalists were suspended. It was the first and only war where there was no US censorship, where journalists could go in and out of battlefields as they wished long as a commander approved (no embedding required). All that was needed was a US approved press card.

The Pentagon didn’t imagine that women would be among the press corps. It wasn’t until General William Westmoreland, commander of all US troops in Vietnam, stumbled across a young American woman reporter covering a unit that the top officials realized that women were breaking the rules. But the women successfully petitioned to be allowed to continue covering battles – arguably since most of the traditional rules about the media had been suspended. This was THE turning point. Ever after women reporters were allowed on the field. However the women in Vietnam kept their victory quiet and didn’t describe how they had broken that glass ceiling for thirty years. 

Robin Lindley: I was very glad that you included Catherine Leroy in your book. I’ll never forget her stunning images of war. She is known for her close-up photographs of the sorrow and the pain of war for both soldiers and civilians. Her photos for me are some of the most powerful and heart-wrenching ever on the price of war and the human condition. I’ll never forget her haunting images from a 1968 Look magazine. How do you see her innovative work?

Elizabeth Becker: I chose her because she broke all the rules. Without any training she took photographs her way, spending more time outside of Saigon – with soldiers and with villagers – than others. She said she strained to photograph the eyes of people, which meant she got closer than others on the battlefield. She became the first woman to win the George Polk award for war photography and the first to win the Robert Cappa Gold Medal Award for excellence in photography and courage.

Robin Lindley: Leroy it seems had almost no regard for her personal safety. She parachuted into combat zones with US troops and she was wounded and even briefly captured. What stands out for you about her commitment to reporting on the war at such great personal risk?

Elizabeth Becker: She didn’t take wilder risks than many of the men. She was a seasoned jumper so, while her photography while parachuting would seem impossible for most of us, it played into her strengths. She also understood that she was the only woman photographer in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968 and, the year before, Dickey Chapelle was killed covering Marines the year before—and was the first female journalist killed in combat.

Media outlets were adamant that they did not want another woman journalist hurt in Vietnam. Finally, when Leroy realized that she was mentally and physically worn out from the war she was wise enough to leave, which was not always the case with other photographers.

Robin Lindley: Despite her stunning photography, Leroy faced many obstacles from her male press colleagues and military officials. Despite threats and often lack of support, she persisted. Your extensive research speaks volumes. You found an employment file on her that revealed an attempt by male colleagues to undermine her. What did you learn?

Elizabeth Becker: I filed a freedom of information request to be shown the secret “black file” on her held in the National Archives. Behind her back, the head of Agence France Presse, other male journalists and several American military officials organized petitions to have her press credentials taken away. She was sent a letter saying she could no longer work as a journalist. She fought back, enlisting the great [photographer] Horst Faas to speak up for her, and got the ban lifted.

Robin Lindley: How did Leroy respond to the sexism and misogyny she experienced?

Elizabeth Becker: She stood up to it.

Robin Lindley: As you mention, Leroy was honored with prestigious awards for her photography but, despite her pioneering work in Vietnam and later in life, she never seemed to get the wide acclaim she deserved. You note that some documentaries and histories of the war fail to mention her exceptional, provocative visual art. Thank you for featuring her story. Did you ever meet Leroy and discuss her work with her?           

Elizabeth Becker: I met her years ago – that was all – but I knew of her while I was covering the war. I knew where to look and who to talk to. She died in 2006.  

Robin Lindley: Another reporter you profile is celebrated author Frances FitzGerald, who wrote the critically acclaimed Fire in the Lake, a groundbreaking book on the Vietnam War and US involvement in the ill-fated conflict. You take us back before that award-winning book. Many readers may not know that FitzGerald also was a correspondent on the ground in Vietnam who reported from crowded hospitals and devastated villages and violent urban neighborhoods. In view of her privileged family background and her Ivy League education, becoming a war reporter seemed an unlikely career path. What sparked her interest in journalism and then reporting from Vietnam? What are a few things you’d like readers to know about FitzGerald’s experience as a war reporter?

Elizabeth Becker: I wrote a triple biography because each woman in her own specialty was responsible for changing how war was viewed and reported.

FitzGerald wrote about Vietnam as a country, not just a war. Even though her father was a top CIA official deeply involved in the war back in Washington, she felt no allegiance to US policy. Instead, she cast a critical eye on it, largely by going out in the field and examining the effect of the war on the people. That is why she wrote about the hospitals, the growing slums in Saigon, spending time in one village to show how one side controlled the territory by day, the other by night, etc.

Robin Lindley: You vividly capture how the conditions in wartime Vietnam stunned FitzGerald. Even as early as 1966, FitzGerald was seeing that the war was misguided. What was she seeing that others seemed to miss?

Elizabeth Becker: She saw the war from the Vietnamese point of view as well as American. Most reporters only covered the battles. What she did was put the war in the Vietnamese context – its history, culture and society – whereas other reporters put the war in the context of American Cold War ideology and how Vietnam fitted in to those goals. At that time there were very few American scholars knowledgeable about Vietnam so she instinctively knew where to search for the war’s meaning.

Robin Lindley: FitzGerald’s journey involved significant personal sacrifice as well as the obvious risks of a war zone. How was she seen by male counterparts, and did she face the same obstacles as Leroy? The same “you don’t belong here” attitude?

Elizabeth Becker: The same but different. The reporters presumed that her success was due to her privileged position in American society. Nothing could be further from the truth. The American officials in Vietnam didn’t take her seriously, to her dismay. She was considered a debutante tourist by many. So, she “didn’t belong” for other reasons. 

Robin Lindley: FitzGerald also knew Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon aide in Vietnam, and Kissinger admired her. She became friends with Ellsberg. Was he helpful to her? How did she come to know him? Did she influence Ellsberg’s view of the war?

Elizabeth Becker:  Ellsberg was an intelligence officer who mingled with reporters and met FitzGerald as others did.  The difference was Ellsberg took her seriously. She was impressed by the books in his apartment. He supported his country’s mission in Vietnam and was comfortable answering her questions challenging how the US was succeeding or failing. They eventually came to agreement on the war and why the US would lose.

Robin Lindley: I think FitzGerald shares something of Martha Gellhorn’s sharp observation and moving depictions of war and those who suffer. How do you see FitzGerald’s writing and her approach to the war?

Elizabeth Becker: Her book Fire in the Lake had an extraordinary impact. The New Yorker published an unusual five-part series of excerpts from the book. It won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Bancroft Prize for history – the most honored book on the Vietnam War. She took an historic view of the war from the Vietnamese and US perspective—the only book at the time to do so.

Robin Lindley: And thanks also for sharing the account of Kate Webb’s experience in your book. I didn’t remember her story. She was from Australia, and by the time she began reporting on the war, she had already suffered significant personal losses. What inspired her work as a reporter? How did she wind up reporting on the war?

Elizabeth Becker: This is the first biography of Kate Webb as well as Frances FitzGerald and Catherine Leroy. I wanted to give their full stories to the reader could understand the remarkable courage it took just to go to Vietnam on their own. The personal as well as professional slights they endured all while learning to be journalists in the most dangerous circumstance.

Kate witnessed the suicide of her best friend while a teenager, and during her college years both of her parents died in a car accident. So she was familiar with grief. She got the idea of going to Vietnam as a “copy boy” in the Sydney pressroom of the Mirror. Australia had agreed to fight with the US in Vietnam – the only other ally to do so besides South Korea. Kate thought someone should cover the war and volunteered. She got laughed out of the editor’s office so she bought a ticket and went on her own.

Robin Lindley: Webb’s writing was innovative and moving. And she was a dynamo—often in the most dangerous areas during the war, including at the American Embassy in Saigon during the bloody 1968 Tet offensive. How do you see her writing about the war and how it stood out from what other reporters were writing?

Elizabeth Becker: She was an artist and an intellectual who read deeply and she brought those qualities to daily battlefield reporting. She reported all the details, investigated all leads and covered the South Vietnamese Army, which most reporters ignored. She wrote with humanity when that was unusual, and with an eye for detail. Here is her oft-quoted description of the US Embassy at Tet:

It was like a butcher shop in Eden. At the white walled embassy, the green lawns and white ornamental fountains were strewn with bodies. The teak door was blasted. The weary defenders were pickaxing their way warily among the dead and around live rockets.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for that powerful excerpt from her writing. Webb did not shrink from reporting combat and following military campaigns. In Cambodia, she was captured by the North Vietnamese and held prisoner for several weeks. She was presumed dead and the New York Times printed her obituary. You describe her captivity and escape. What was she doing when she was taken prisoner and what happened during captivity?

Elizabeth Becker: By then Kate was the UPI bureau chief for Cambodia – as far as I can tell, she was the first woman to ever run a bureau in a war zone. She was captured following up on a new offensive. Her three weeks of captivity were tough – she and three others captured with her had to eat what the North Vietnamese ate and only had the primitive medical care that they had. Otherwise, they were not tortured and she was not molested. She was impressed with the North Vietnamese discipline.

They were released on May 1 – possibly because she was a woman (and not American). Kate considered whether Americans would have treated a North Vietnamese journalist with the same equanimity.

Robin Lindley: After her release, Webb was praised as a hero in Australia. But didn’t she still run into the same problems with male colleagues and officials as other women reporters—the lack of support and sexism?

Elizabeth Becker: She was a full-time staff member of UPI at war’s end and promoted to run the Singapore office. But her direct boss insisted she have an affair with him. She refused. He reported her as insubordinate to New York headquarters without saying why. She quit and didn’t go back to full-time journalism for ten years.

Robin Lindley: It seems that the war haunted Leroy and Webb for the rest of their lives. They struggled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after their experience in the Southeast Asian combat zones. I imagine that you and FitzGerald also experienced difficulties adjusting to life after the war. Was there any support for women correspondents who experienced war trauma?

Elizabeth Becker: No – not for female or male journalists.

Robin Lindley: We now see many women reporting from war zones and other perilous places. How has the situation evolved for women reporters in war and disaster coverage in the past fifty years?

Elizabeth Becker: Dramatically. Women are staff members with all the support that entails. They are treated more or less equally.

Robin Lindley: What do you hope readers will take from your book on the war in Vietnam and how the US pursued this ill-fated conflict?

Elizabeth Becker: That it wasn’t so long ago that women were considered incapable of covering a war and prevented by the military, the media and even their male colleagues from doing so.

This book is a coming-of-age story that portrays in the lives of three women how difficult and rewarding it was to break through. Moreover, I placed the women in the story of the war – the backbone of this book is the history of the Vietnam War. You can’t appreciate what they accomplished without placing them in the war. In fact, several colleges are using the book as a history of Vietnam War.         

Robin Lindley: I’m glad that colleges are using the book. It deserves a wide audience. Your recent awards for You Don’t Belong Here are well deserved. And I appreciate very much your courageous work as a devoted reporter, Ms. Becker, and the risks you’ve taken to report to your readers. Congratulations on your groundbreaking book on a forgotten aspect of the history the Vietnam war: the trailblazing women who brought another dimension to the story of war to the world. Best wishes.


Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer, illustrator, and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, social justice, conflict, medicine, visual culture, and art. Robin’s email: robinlindley@gmail.com.  




Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154694 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154694 0
How The Irish Saved Wellington at Waterloo

"Closing the Gates at Hougoumont, 1815," Robert Gibb, 1903



For almost a millennium, the Irish have provided men and military expertise to the English and British crowns. From the hobelar light cavalry in the 13th century to the First World War and beyond, soldiers from Ireland have made outsized contributions. The Battle of Waterloo, June 18,1815, stands as a shining example of Ireland’s place in Britain’s military history.


Taking the King’s Shilling

The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, which had raged continuously from 1781 to 1815, would have a profound influence on the course of Irish history, fomenting bitter divisions and engendering the opposing ideologies of Republicanism and Unionism.

The economic booms and busts produced by the decades-long war with France left Ireland’s economy in a perilous state. That, coupled with the aftermath of the disastrous 1798 Rebellion, left many families destitute. For some, the only realistic option for survival lay in the enlistment of a son or a father (or both) into the British army.

Captured rebels were left with even starker choices: the hangman’s noose, transportation, or conscription into the King’s forces. Consequently, by the late 18th century one third of the British army consisted of Irish-born soldiers.

Of course, not all sons of Ireland fought for the British. The French and even German states fielded their own share of first and second-generation Irish regiments, although as many as 40 per cent of these foreign fighters ended up in red coats.

Unlike Britain, which was undergoing an industrial revolution at the turn of the 19th century, Ireland was suffering from massive unemployment. The destitute were disproportionately from the Catholic majority — victims of discrimination legalized by the harsh anti-Catholic penal laws.

Despite this, the British army at Waterloo fielded three predominantly Irish, Gaelic-speaking and predominantly Catholic regiments: The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and the 18th Kings Irish Hussars.

Following his escape from Elba and his hundred-day return to power in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte had massed an army of 73,000 battle-hardened troops, experienced veterans who were fiercely loyal to their Emperor. Facing him was an Anglo-allied army of 68,000 led by the Irish-born aristocrat Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington. Wellington led an assembly of troops from Dutch and German states along with 25,000 British regulars. A Prussian army of 50,000, led by the old warhorse Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, would eventually join the battle at Waterloo and decisively turn the tide for Wellington. Notably, Of the 25,000 British troops at Waterloo, only 7,000 had any real battle experience; most of those were infantry, and the majority were Irish.


“The Bravest Man at Waterloo”

The Battle began just after 11 a.m. with the French attacking Wellington’s right flank at Hougoumont Farm. Capturing this strategic, high-walled compound would enable Napoleon to outmaneuver Wellington. Recognizing its importance, the British commander reinforced the position with troops from the Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards. Their heroic defense of the impromptu citadel was dramatically depicted on canvas in Robert Gibb’s painting Closing The Gates at Hougoumont. The picture captures the crucial moment when opportunistic French soldiers force open the gates of the compound but are savagely repulsed by British soldiers.

“The success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont,” Wellington would write. And not surprisingly, an Irish soldier played a key role in the storied moment. Corporal James Graham of County Monaghan was most instrumental in this action, having slid the cross beam into place securing the gate once it was pushed shut. Some years later Graham received a substantial reward for his contribution: a nomination for being the “the Bravest man at Waterloo” by Wellington in recognition of his courage, and for saving the life of the Garrison Commander, Lieutenant Colonel James MacDonnell of Glengarry.


“The Regiment that Saved the Center”

The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot had occupied a key strategic position on the forward slope of a ridge in the center of Wellington’s line. For two seemingly eternal hours, the 27th, consisting of 747 infantrymen, endured continual sniping from French sharpshooters and pounding from enemy artillery. Despite this, the line still held.

As the battle progressed, the regiment formed squares to repulse the onslaught of the French cavalry. Comrades, brothers, cousins fell. But with extraordinary courage and amazing resolve, the 27th still held.

By this most remarkable display of self-sacrifice the 27th had given Wellington a most precious gift: time. Without it, the Anglo-allied line might have collapsed before the decisive arrival of Blücher’s Prussians.


“They Don’t Know When They are Beaten”

The 27th held out, blocking the road to Brussels and a likely French victory. The Inniskillings had suffered more than 50 percent casualties. Only two other regiments that day, both Scottish, would take such appalling losses.

“That regiment with the castles on their caps is composed of the most obstinate mules I ever saw,” Napoleon famously remarked about the Inniskillings. “They don’t know when they are beaten.”

But of course, help for the 27th, and the entire Anglo-allied army at Waterloo, was on the way.

On the afternoon of the June 18, Blücher was marching towards the fighting at Waterloo seeking bloody revenge for defeat at Ligny two days earlier. The Prussians’ arrival would tip the balance.

Despite Wellington infamously declaring that his redcoats were “the scum of the earth,” he would graciously concede in 1829, when the Catholic Emancipation Bill was put before the House of Lords, that “It was mainly due to the Irish Catholic that we (the British) owe our pre-eminence in our military career.” Wellington’s support for Catholic emancipation would even lead to his participation in an 1829 duel with the rabidly anti-Catholic Earl of Winchelsea.

On November 23, 1918 Irish soldiers would take to the field at Waterloo yet again.

After more than four years of unimaginable horror in the trenches of the Western front the 2nd Leinsters were the first British army regiment to march across the battlefield of Waterloo since 1815.

Leading the outfit were the pipers. My grandfather Peter Farrell of Newstone Drumconrath, County Meath was, I’m proud to say, one of them.

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185216 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185216 0
What Makes a Rebel Into a Hero?

"Queen Zenobia's Last Look Upon Palmyra," Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1888




In his 1992 book, It Doesn’t Take A Hero, America’s General Norman Schwarzkopf tells of “The Battered Helmet,” a paper he wrote while attending a course at Fort Benning, Georgia, some years before he became famous as commander of Coalition forces in the First Gulf War.

In his paper, Schwarzkopf described a general trudging to his tent following a great military victory and wearily tossing his battered helmet in the corner. Schwarzkopf then reveals that the general is Julius Caesar, and the time is immediately after the Battle of Pharsalus in Greece, in which Caesar’s army defeated the forces led by the “rebel” Pompey the Great.

Schwarzkopf’s paper, which won him a prize, went on to say that nothing has changed in thousands of years as far as battles are concerned – despite advances in technology since Caesar’s time it is the human elements of morale, preparation and audacity that still win battles. This was a valid point, but Schwarzkopf’s description of Pompey as a “rebel” was way off the mark.

It was Caesar who was officially declared a rebel and enemy of the state by the Senate when he crossed the Rubicon River with his troops to invade Italy and go to war with his own country. To defeat Caesar the rebel, the Senate conferred command of all forces of the Roman Republic on Pompey, who had once been Caesar’s son-in-law and close ally, and who had gained his title Pompey the Great at the age of just twenty-three after spectacular military successes.  

Once Caesar had defeated all senatorial forces – it took him four years – then had himself declared Dictator for life and dismantled the Republic, he only enjoyed five months of undisputed rule before his assassination, beneath a statue of Pompey, in a theater built by Pompey.

Norman Schwarzkopf’s error is just one example of how the world has remembered Caesar the rebel kindly, and made him the hero. This is because Caesar won, and his autocratic successors rewrote history to make him the hero, even naming a month of the year after him and banning public references to Pompey, defeated champion of the destroyed Republic.

Over the next four hundred years after Caesar there were plenty of examples of rebels against Rome who have been painted as heroes for their exploits. For example, British war queen Boudicca, called Boadicea by the Romans, who led the British uprising of AD 60-61. She has been immortalized by British writers, artists and sculptors since the eighteenth century as a heroic British freedom fighter who defied the invading Romans as she valiantly fought for the rights of Britons. The truth is a little different.

Go to the Embankment in London, and just across from Big Ben you will see the 1902 statue of Boudicca and her daughters. There is a lot wrong with that statue. Boudicca is given her Roman name, not her Celtic name. The chariot is Roman, whereas Boudicca used a very different-looking British chariot. It has scythes on its wheels, which neither British nor Roman chariots possessed. The horses have no reins, and the steeds depicted are 19th century cavalry mounts, not the nimble chariot ponies of the 1st century Celts.

The largest error is that the statue is in London at all. Far from liberating London, Boudicca destroyed the city, burning it to the ground. And she and her rebel horde took the thousands of Celtic Britons living in the city, tortured them, impaled then on stakes, and burned them to death – both men and women. The only crime of Boudicca’s fellow Britons was that they lived in a Roman city.

Her rebel army was defeated by a much smaller Roman force, and Boudicca took her own life. But before that, Boudicca dealt out the same cruel punishment to British residents of Colchester, and Verulamium near modern St Albans. Such a rebel leader operating today would be labeled a terrorist, with her tactics likened to that of ISIS.

Hollywood turned another rebel against Rome into a romantic hero. Spartacus was his name. A former Thracian auxiliary in the Roman army, probably an officer commanding Thracian cavalry, he ended up committing a crime and was consigned to slavery. Sold to a gladiatorial school in Capua, south of Rome, he trained as a gladiator. Breaking out with some seventy fellow gladiators, Spartacus began a rampage throughout central and southern Italy, killing Romans, looting and pillaging, and freeing and arming slaves – tens of thousands of them.

Over many months Spartacus’s army of slaves humbled one Roman army after another, until they became divided among themselves and Roman general Marcus Crassus dealt them a crushing defeat. Crassus crucified 6,000 of Spartacus’s men beside the road from Capua to Rome, and Pompey the Great, returning from defeating Sertorius, the rebel Roman governor of Spain, defeated the remaining 5,000 in the field.

In reality Spartacus wasn’t such a heroic character. He killed unarmed civilians and military prisoners, and for the entertainment of his men forced captured Roman legionaries to fight each other to the death. And, of course, like all the dozens of rebels against Rome over the centuries, he eventually lost.

At least the later British rebel Ventidius outwitted and outran the Romans for forty years, apparently dying of natural causes, a free man. Similarly, Zenobia, the rebel queen of Palmyra, had a peaceful end, dying in her own bed married to a Roman senator after her earlier defeat and capture.

Arminius, known as Hermann in his native Germany, is another example of the rebel/hero dichotomy. He was a prefect in the Roman army who betrayed his superior, the governor of Roman Germany, in a rebellion that began with the massacre of three legions in an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest east of the Rhine. Since the 19th century, Hermann has been considered a national hero in Germany. A massive statue of him, eighty-one feet tall, stands on temple-like base on a hilltop southwest of Detmold in the German district of Lippe.  And yet Hermann the rebel, like Caesar, was assassinated by his own people, who had tired of him. He was no hero to them.

So, the question of whether a rebel is a hero has a lot to do with how successful they are, who is judging them, and the times in which they are judged. Take the previously mentioned Fort Benning in Georgia. On the opening of this US Army base in 1918 it was named after Henry Benning. A Georgia native, Benning served as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, fighting against the Union Army in numerous battles of the US Civil War – or the War of the Rebellion as it was called by northerners, who referred to Confederates as “Johnny Rebs.”

Benning the rebel was an avid secessionist and slavery advocate who fought bitterly against the Union. In the eyes of northerners, he was a traitor. Yet in the South he was revered, and his name was given by the US Government to this new US Army establishment to assuage southern sensibilities at a time when the South’s men were being drafted into the US Army to fight the first world war.

Times have changed, however. It was recently announced by the US government that, as of January 2024, Fort Benning will be renamed Fort Moore, after a Vietnam-era US Army general, author of the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, which became a Hollywood movie, and his wife, who are both buried at the fort. Some would say removing the name of Benning the rebel is long overdue.

In the end, it seems, politics of the day are the final determinant when judging the difference between a rebel and a hero.

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185215 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185215 0
Irish Legend Should Inspire the Fight Against Famine Today

An Irish family enduring starvation during the Great Famine in Carraroe, County Galway. National Library of Ireland.



The hit Irish show Riverdance includes a segment titled The Countess Cathleen, which was originally a verse drama by William Butler Yeats, published in 1893. 

This legendary tale of Countess Cathleen (aka Kathleen) begins with Irish peasants starving to death during a famine. Demons have descended upon the desperate poor trying to get them to sell their souls to the Devil in exchange for gold to buy food. The wealthy Countess Cathleen tries to help the peasants by selling off her riches to buy food and end the starvation.

But the demons persist in stopping food from reaching the hungry, forcing the Countess Cathleen to offer her soul to them. The Countess Cathleen tells the demons, who are disguised as merchants, “These people starve, and therefore do they come Thronging to you. I hear a cry come from them, And it is in my ears by night and day."

Cathleen cannot ignore the suffering cries of the hungry. So she makes the deal with the Devil. Her soul is taken in exchange for food for the peasants and the return of any souls the demons had taken. The peasants are saved. The Countess Cathleen sadly dies.  

But Cathleen’s story does not end. Her soul is later saved by angels because God realized she was trying to do good to save others. The evil demons are driven away. 

While the story is fictitious, the idea of famine in Ireland was, of course, very real. Multiple famines struck Ireland during the 19th century and no doubt influenced the creation of the legend. The desperation in the story of those starving symbolizes the real life struggles people face during severe hunger emergencies.

When famine threatens a country, those starving are forced to sell precious assets, withdraw their children from school or send them into the streets to beg. Families will flee their homes in the search for food. When famine strikes, instability and chaos often follows. 

And the evil of famine symbolized in The Countess Cathleen is very real to this day. In the story the demons interrupt Cathleen’s effort to feed the hungry, before taking her soul. In some conflicts food aid is blocked by armed forces from reaching those in need, a true act of evil. 

For Ireland, preventing famine around the globe is an important mission as they know too well the horror of hunger. The Riverdance show, in keeping with this tradition, started fighting hunger at its creation. A video titled, Riverdance for Rwanda, was sold in 1994 to raise funds to feed the hungry in Rwanda. 

That same spirit of the Irish in fighting hunger we need more than ever today. As the UN World Food Program warns “the number of acutely hungry people continues to increase at a pace that funding is unlikely to match, while the cost of delivering food assistance is at an all-time high because food and fuel prices have increased.”

There are many nations on the brink of famine including drought-ravaged Somalia where people are having to walk for days in the search of food and water. In war-torn Yemen, Burkina Faso, D.R. Congo, South Sudan, and the Sahel region of Africa hunger is at frightening levels. The UN World Food Program (WFP) and other relief agencies don’t have enough funding to keep up. WFP, UNICEF, CARE, Mary's Meals, Concern Worldwide, Save the Children, Mercy Corps and many other hunger fighting charities need our support. 

The war in Ukraine has made the hunger crisis worse by causing havoc to one of the world’s breadbaskets. Food from Ukraine helps feed Somalia, Yemen and other countries in need during normal times. But this food is harder to reach since the war began and this precious supply is constantly in danger. 

The evil of famine is hanging over many nations. We all can do more to feed the hungry especially the children who are most vulnerable to malnutrition. We can save lives and prevent famine in the true spirit of the Irish and Saint Patrick’s Day. 

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185217 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185217 0
The Roundup Top Ten for March 10, 2023

At its 150th Anniversary, the Comstock Law is Relevant Again

by Jonathan Friedman and Amy Werbel

Anthony Comstock drew on elite connections to give himself near unilateral power to confiscate "obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, or immoral" materials —terms he was free to define on his own—and prosecute people for possessing them. Right-wing politicians seem to be inspired by the example. 


Fox's Handling of the "Big Lie" was Cowardly, but Not Unusual

by Kathryn J. McGarr

News organizations' standards of objectivity have long allowed public figures and politicians to proclaim lies without pushback, leaving the public to be arbiters of truth and falsity. 



The Left Should Reject an Alliance with the Far Right Against Ukraine

by Michael Kazin

The American left has always approached foreign policy with reluctance to impose America's will on the world. But that doesn't mean they should allow Russia to have its way in Ukraine. 



Why Are Dems Surprised at Eric Adams's Rant Against Church-State Separation?

by Jacques Berlinerblau

Democrats and secularists shocked by the New York mayor's declaration of religion as the heart of society need to confront facts: the church-state separation they revere has been all but entirely demolished. Secularists must now demand equal footing for their lack of belief.



How Superman Became a Christ-Figure

by Roy Schwartz

How did the comic book creation of two American Jews, whose origin story incorporates Moses, come to be understood as a stand-in for Jesus? Mostly through the movies. 



Cracking Stasi Puzzles is Key to Some Germans Finding the Truth

by Katja Hoyer

With an informant for every 90 citizens, the East German secret police left behind 16,000 sacks of shredded documents. Can information technology help reconstruct a record of what happens when a government commits to spying on its own citizens? 



Fear and Loathing in Florida

by Samuel Hoadley-Brill

"Much like 'voter fraud,' the term 'critical race theory' can mean whatever DeSantis needs it to mean to justify his anti-democratic agenda."



Ignoring International Relations Scholars is Leading the US to Mistakes on Ukraine

by Max Abrahms

Punditry on the Ukraine-Russia war ignores a host of scholarship on international relations that suggests Russian apprehension about NATO is a legitimate influence on Putin's actions, and not just an excuse for aggression. 



Why is the Right Obsessed with Gramsci?

by Alberto Toscano

A lack of familiarity with the actual writings of the Italian Marxist hasn't stopped the right, including Christopher Rufo and Nate Hochmann, from placing Antonio Gramsci at the center of a conspiracy theory about leftists seeking to conquer social institutions to undermine American society. 



Jimmy Carter Made Me a Better American; Did He Help Make America Worse?

by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Carter's call for a "moral revival" aimed at replacing materialism with collective purpose. His successors easily twisted that to make materialism into a collective purpose. 


Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185214 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185214 0
Kermit Roosevelt III on the Founding and Re-Founding of America




We are in the middle of a metamorphosis here, a metamorphosis which will, it is devoutly to be hoped, rob us of our myths and give us our history.—James Baldwin


Acclaimed professor of law and author Kermit Roosevelt III calls for a reexamination of America’s past and our myths in his provocative and illuminating recent book The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story (University of Chicago Press).

The book challenges the “standard story” that most of us learn in school: that our nation’s Founders stood for ideals, reflected in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, such as the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Yet, based on careful textual analysis of those documents and their historical context, Professor Roosevelt contends that this “standard story” is not only exaggerated, but patently false. The Founders, many of whom enslaved other human beings, did not envision equality for all—or even a majority of inhabitants of the new nation. Indeed, as Professor Roosevelt’s incisive analysis reveals, the founding documents enshrine white supremacy and protect the institution of slavery. Only white males are equal, under the Declaration, and segregation, enslavement and denying Black people the vote are consistent with that document.

For a more hopeful story of America that makes real the values of justice and equality regardless of race or color, Professor Roosevelt looks beyond the Founders to President Abraham Lincoln’s words on equality from his Gettysburg Address and other remarks, and to the post Civil War Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution that ended slavery, protected individuals from abuse of state power, and assured the right to vote for all (males), including Black citizens.

In effect, we are not the heirs of the Founders, but instead the heirs of those who threw off the beliefs of the Founders and dismantled that old order with a new Constitution, argues Professor Roosevelt. And he celebrates this proud past rooted in the war to end slavery and the postwar Amendments that provide a foundation today for a country that embodies the principles of justice and equality—for all.

Professor Roosevelt’s book is especially timely and urgent as some right-wing political leaders advocate for censoring or whitewashing or erasing history and defeating “wokeness,” a vague concept which seems to embody the values that frighten the right such as historical truth, justice, tolerance, democracy, knowledge, equality, and more. The Nation That Never Was suggests, I believe, that we can advance as a nation only with full knowledge of our history, including the harsh reality of human enslavement, the treasonous Confederate secession, the legacy of white supremacy, emancipation and Reconstruction, lynching and mass white racial violence, Jim Crow segregation, the lethal myth of Confederate Lost Cause, the Civil Rights Movement, and ongoing racist violence as well as discrimination and inequality.

Professor Roosevelt’s innovative study has been praised by legal scholars, historians and political commentators alike as a historical corrective with a more nuanced and accurate view of our past, as well as a possible blueprint for a more just future. His thought-provoking book is based on extensive research, rigorous analysis of historic documents, and a passionate commitment to social justice.    

As the David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Professor Roosevelt’s teaching focuses on constitutional law and conflict of laws. He has written several scholarly books, including The Myth of Judicial Activism: Making Sense of Supreme Court Decisions, as well as numerous law review articles, and two acclaimed novels, In the Shadow of the Law and Allegiance (on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII). He is also a member of the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court, and he frequently comments in print and broadcast media on the Court and current affairs. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, TIME, Newsweek, and The Hill, among many other publications. After law school at Yale, he clerked for the Honorable Stephen F. Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and then for the Honorable Justice David Souter of the U.S. Supreme Court. He is the great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Professor Roosevelt graciously responded by email to a barrage of questions on his career and on his new book The Nation That Never Was. Many thanks Professor Roosevelt.


Robin Lindley: Congratulations Professor Roosevelt on your engaging new book The Nation that Never Was, a revelatory exploration of the beginnings of our republic and how the vision of equality of all Americans arose in our history. Before getting to the book, I wanted to ask about your background. How did being a member of the distinguished Roosevelt family influence your interest in history and law? It seems you were almost be predestined for a career in law or politics.

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, to be honest. On the one hand, I think TR and FDR were great presidents, and they’re inspirational figures, and it’s nice to feel connected to them. And certainly, I never looked at politics and thought "Someone like me couldn’t do that.” On the other hand, I did look at politics and think “I could never do that as well as they did,” and I got into law, and constitutional law, in a slightly roundabout way.

My first love was creative writing, really, and I wanted to be a writer. But that’s a risky and speculative career, so I was pursuing it on the side, while also following a more conventional track. I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and I decided I wanted to teach, so then my choice was between law school and philosophy graduate school as a way into academia. I chose law, and then actually I was thinking I’d become a tax professor, because people had told me there was always demand for tax professors. I ended up in constitutional law mostly because of my Supreme Court clerkship.

Robin Lindley: Yes. After law school, you had a prestigious position as a clerk for admired Supreme Court Justice David Souter. What are some things you learned from that work and from Justice Souter? Did that work inspire you to seek work as a professor—or did you practice before you began your teaching career?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I learned an enormous amount from Justice Souter—about what it takes to be a good judge, and a good lawyer, and a good person. I admire Justice Souter more than anyone else I’ve worked for or with. In terms of judging, he taught me to be aware of the practicalities of a decision. Law clerks are smart young lawyers, and we often like to come up with complex and sophisticated theories, and Justice Souter reminded me that what the Supreme Court says has to work in the real world. As a lawyer, he taught me the importance of clarity and candor. And as a person, he treated everyone with kindness and respect and a constant focus on how they, not he, could benefit from the relationship. The way he treated his clerks is what I keep in mind as a model for how I should treat my students.

The clerkship led to me teaching constitutional law, because it was my time working at the Supreme Court that made schools take me seriously as a potential constitutional law professor. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Justice Souter encouraged me to teach. He did send a very high percentage of his clerks into academia, I think because he hired people with an academic temperament. But he actually advised me to spend a couple of years in practice first, which I did. I practiced appellate litigation with the Chicago office of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw.

Robin Lindley: How did you come to teach at the University of Pennsylvania Law School?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: Some schools sent members of their hiring committees to the Supreme Court to talk to clerks who were interested in teaching, and the people from Penn said that they thought I was ready to come and give a talk and be considered for an appointment. I thought that was a great opportunity to get a position at an elite law school without going through the normal process, which can be pretty arduous. I talked about conflict of laws, which was what I had focused my scholarship on, but they also needed someone to teach constitutional law and I had been working on constitutional issues at the Court, so they also hired me for that.

Robin Lindley: You’re a multitalented writer and deft storyteller, as evidenced by The Nation that Never Was. In addition to books on law and history, you’ve written two novels. What sparked your interest in creative writing?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: As I said, fiction was really my first love. I was writing novels through college and law school, but I couldn’t get them published—probably because I didn’t really have stories that were interesting to a lot of people. (My early novels were heavily autobiographical.) After law school, I realized that I had developed an understanding of a world that people were interested in but that most of them didn’t really understand—the legal world. So, I started writing about law—first about ethical issues in big firm practice, in In The Shadow of the Law, and then about the conflicting duties of government lawyers during World War II in Allegiance.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for mentioning those acclaimed novels. What inspired The Nation that Never Was? I wondered if there was an incident or event that prompted your innovative look at our history and law at a time when the country is deeply polarized and some leaders appear to embrace a kind of neo-Confederate thinking.

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I don’t know if I can identify a particular event. I tend to look back to a book review that the Texas Law Review asked me to write, of two books by Jack Balkin, who’d been a professor of mine at Yale. Writing that review started me thinking more about the Declaration of Independence, and what it actually meant to the people who wrote and read it in 1776, and how its meaning has changed over time. For a while I thought this was just sort of an academic point—isn’t it interesting that we’ve read into the Declaration a lot of values that weren’t really there at the beginning? And then I started thinking that it’s actually very important—and very harmful—that we locate our fundamental values in the Founding and the America of 1776 rather than Reconstruction and the America of 1868.

Robin Lindley: You stress that the value of unity has taken precedence over justice throughout our history. What are some ways this tension plays out in our past?  Is that the major theme of your book?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I think it’s the major theme of American history—that at crucial moments we have to choose between unity and justice, and too often we choose unity. I think the early examples of this choice are understandable, because the alternative is no America. With the Declaration of Independence, for instance, there’s a passage in an early draft that criticizes the international slave trade. But the Continental Congress takes it out, because that won’t help unify the colonists. A complaint about the British freeing enslaved people and encouraging slave rebellions, by contrast, does help unify the colonists, because they all feel threatened by these dangerous outsiders, so that stays in.

Much the same thing happens with the Constitution written in 1787. There are both pro- and anti-slavery drafters, but the pro-slavery people are willing to sacrifice unity to protect slavery—the Southern delegates keep threatening to walk out if they don’t get what they want. The anti-slavery people are willing to accept slavery to get unity, so they make several compromises that favor slavery. And again, it’s understandable, because the alternative is no America.

Then, during the Civil War and Reconstruction, America briefly chooses justice over unity. We’re willing to tolerate conflict among white Americans to promote equality. But that ends with Redemption, when we abandon the integrated governments of the South to white supremacist terrorism. White America comes back together; Black America is left behind. That wasn’t necessary to save the American nation, so I consider it a significantly greater failing than the Declaration or the 1787 Constitution.

And then later we see racial inequality being promoted almost for its own sake, because heightening the salience of race is a way to bring whites together and win elections. That’s the Republican Party’s infamous Southern Strategy. So, we see unity—and I call it a false and partial unity, unity of just enough people to take and hold power—being built on inequality.

Robin Lindley: You also note two visions of America: one of inclusive equality and one of exclusive individualism. How do you see these competing perspectives in viewing our history?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: Exclusive individualism, to take that one first, says that there’s a sharp line between insiders and outsiders—between the people who count, whose rights the government must protect, and the people who don’t, who are different and dangerous. And it says that the government must consider people as individuals—it can’t think about the welfare of the community in general. More specifically, what that means is that redistribution is generally considered a bad thing, in particular if it’s done to promote equality. Taking from one person because they have a lot and giving to another person because they have little is bad according to this vision because it’s violating individual rights.

Inclusive equality says that outsiders aren’t necessarily that different or dangerous, and they can become insiders. Maybe automatically, even if some people want to exclude them—maybe they become insiders just by being born here. And it says that promoting equality, even by redistribution, is a legitimate and even important thing for the government to do.

These visions, I say, are fundamentally the ideologies of the Founding (exclusive individualism) and Reconstruction (inclusive equality). You can see this in the fundamental documents from each period, and in the political debates, too. The Declaration of Independence talks about the purpose of government as securing the rights of individuals, and it shows outsiders as threats to the colonists’ lives: rebellious enslaved people, Hessian mercenaries, and Natives.

In the Founding era, there was a lot of debate about whether the federal government could fund infrastructure projects or provide disaster relief, because people thought it was redistribution that violated individual rights. By contrast, the Fourteenth Amendment gives us birthright citizenship, which makes outsiders into insiders against the will of some states. And it’s about equality, and so is the Gettysburg Address, and Lincoln talks repeatedly about how important equality is as a goal for the government to promote.

Robin Lindley: You write of a standard story about America that most of us learn in school. To simplify, isn’t that the idea that the Founders in the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal” and that the Founders Constitution embodies that value, and we grow up thinking that the Founders envisioned equality for all. What would you like readers to know about the standard story?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I’d like them to know that Founding America really was not dedicated to equality for all people. The Declaration of Independence was primarily concerned with the independence of the colonies, not the equality of people. “All men are created equal” was a shorthand invocation of the social contract theory of John Locke, and it was basically a rejection of the divine right of kings. It plays a role in the argument for independence, but it doesn’t mean much about how society should be structured. In particular, it doesn’t condemn slavery.

The Founders were opposed to the idea of a superior class of insiders—they didn’t like hereditary privilege, and you can see this in the Founders’ Constitution, which prohibits titles of nobility. But they were okay with the idea of an inferior class of outsiders—most obviously, the people they enslaved.

Robin Lindley: How does the standard story protect “insiders” from “outsiders.”

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I think once you start looking for this distinction, you see it over and over again. The basic political theory of the Declaration of Independence is that people start out equal—no one has authority over anyone else. But some people might use force to violate the rights of other people. So people form governments to protect their rights from other people, and that’s what government is supposed to do: protect the rights of the people who formed it. The insiders. And if you look at what people said about slavery at the time of the Declaration and later, this is it. Enslaved people didn’t agree to form the government. They aren’t part of the social compact. They’re outsiders. So the government has no duty to respect their rights. This is why the colonists could complain that King George was trying to make them into slaves while they enslaved half a million people—the colonists were subjects of the British Empire, but enslaved people were outsiders.

So the colonists were hypocrites here in a way—they thought that their liberty was important and the liberty of black people wasn’t—but their argument wasn’t self-contradictory. Fast forward eighty years, and what is the big conflict over the Fourteenth Amendment about? Why does John Wilkes Booth say he’s going to kill Abraham Lincoln? Black citizenship—making the outsiders insiders. Fast forward another hundred years, and what’s the basic neo-Confederate complaint? What did interviewers find motivating Trump voters? The idea that the government is taking things that belong to the real Americans, the insiders, and giving them to undeserving others—immigrants, who are outsiders, or black people, who are technically insiders but not fully accepted.

Robin Lindley: And of course, you debunk the standard story. Indeed, as you write, the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, stated that “all men are created equal” but he saw Black people as inferior and he and many signatories of the Declaration were enslavers of Black people. You offer an extensive analysis of the Declaration. Rather than a statement on equality, what did this document really mean?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: So, it is a little technical, and people who read the Declaration in 1776 were more familiar with Enlightenment social contract theory than people are today, which is why the Declaration could give as compressed a version as it did. But the way to understand the Declaration, I think, is just to walk through the argument. Jefferson is trying to establish that the colonists are justified in declaring their independence. That’s the purpose of the Declaration—not to make bold new statements about moral principles like equality, but to make an argument, within a framework that was generally accepted at the time, about independence.

To do this, he needs to do three things. First, explain where legitimate political authority comes from. Second, explain when it can be rejected. And third, show that the colonists’ situation fits that description. And this is exactly what the Declaration does.

“All men are created equal” doesn’t tell you where authority does come from; it tells you where it doesn’t come from. It’s not the case, this says, that some people are chosen by God to rule over other. If you imagine a world with no government and no laws—and this is the “state of nature” thought experiment that Enlightenment social contract theory generally started with—no one would have legitimate authority over anyone else. It’s a rejection of the divine right of kings. And basically, that’s all it is in 1776. (I’m confident in saying that it’s not an antislavery principle because an antislavery principle doesn’t help the argument for independence—it actually weakens it by showing that the colonists are acting wrongfully—and because we know that the Continental Congress deleted a passage that criticized the international slave trade.)

So then we get the theory that people form governments to protect their rights, and governments get their just authority from the consent of the governed. And it follows relatively easily that if the government strays from its purpose and starts oppressing people rather than protecting their rights, then they have a right to alter or abolish that government and make a new one that will do its job.

That’s what the Preamble says. What remains is to show that the British government has become oppressive, and that’s what the list of grievances against King George does. So it’s pretty easy to reconstruct the argument for independence, and once you do that, you see that the issue of how the government should treat outsiders—whether it can enslave them, for instance—just isn’t in there. And obviously this makes sense, because a broad antislavery principle would undermine the argument and also divide the colonists.

Robin Lindley: You also describe how the Founders Constitution is, in many respects, a pro-slavery and white supremacist document. What are a few things you learned about the protection of slavery in our founding documents? Weren’t the drafters sly in not literally mentioning slavery?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I think in retrospect it’s unfortunate that the Constitution didn’t use the word “slave.” The pro-slavery people didn’t care about this: they wanted legal protections for slavery, and they got them. The anti-slavery people were able to feel better about what they were doing, or not admit it, and that made it easier for them to make these deals with the devil.

There are several pro-slavery provisions, but the most important one is the three-fifths compromise, which gave slave states extra representatives in congress based on people they enslaved. That gave them extra influence over the federal legislature, directly, and then because a state’s number of electors is determined in part by its number of representatives, it gave them extra influence over the executive, the president. And then because the president appoints judges, it gave them extra influence over the judiciary. So the whole federal government tilted in favor of slavery.

Because the constitution didn’t use the word “slave,” some people argued that it was in fact an anti-slavery document. I think it’s important to understand that anti-slavery constitutionalism, while it was growing in influence, was still not doing very well right up until the Civil War. Dred Scott, which is an aggressively pro-slavery interpretation of the Constitution, was a 7-2 decision in 1858, and afterwards one of the dissenters resigned in disgust and President James Buchanan appointed a pro-slavery replacement. So reversing Dred Scott was going to be a heavy lift, and of course what ended slavery was not the Founders’ Constitution but the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Thinking about the Founders’ Constitution and slavery highlights another choice that recurs in American history: make the best of what you have, or tear it down and make something new. My big point is that we did in fact tear down the legal structure of Founding America and make something new with Reconstruction. But because we had spent eighty years trying to make the best of what we had, we had trouble admitting that we had destroyed it.

Seeing the past clearly lets us understand whether we are the heirs of Founding America, as the standard story tells us, or the heirs of the people who destroyed it, which is my claim. And that’s why we’d be better off if the Founders’ Constitution had used the word “slave.” If it said what it meant, we would realize that we have rejected it.

Robin Lindley: Can constitutional provisions such as establishment of the Electoral College and the Second Amendment right to bear arms (in a well-regulated militia) be seen as efforts to protect slavery and exclude Black people from government protection and rights?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: Absolutely. The Electoral College is a structural feature that tilts the national government in favor of slavery, because the states’ electors are determined in part by their number of representatives, and the three-fifths compromise gives slave states more representatives than they should have. States are supposed to have more representatives when there are more people that they represent. But the extra slave state representatives didn’t represent enslaved people; they represented enslavers. And the Second Amendment is supposed to protect state militias so that they can, among other things, suppress slave rebellions.

Robin Lindley: How do you see the role of abolitionists and others before the Civil War in addressing the work of the Founders? How did they view the Declaration of Independence and its apparent promise of equality and the Constitution?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: Abolitionists actually took two different tacks, which I alluded to before. Some of them said, let’s take what we have and read it in the best light and see how far we can get. That’s the antislavery constitutionalism of the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln. But others said that the system was fundamentally corrupt, and they weren’t willing to compromise with slavery, and they actually wanted free states to leave the Union. That would be someone like William Lloyd Garrison, who burned a copy of the Constitution and called it “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.”

Frederick Douglass, interestingly, started out on the Garrison burn-it-down side and then shifted closer to Lincoln. Also interestingly, all the abolitionists read the Declaration as anti-slavery. It’s abolitionists who are chiefly responsible for our modern reading, who took the phrase “all men are created equal” and started reading it to mean something about how the government should treat outsiders. I view this as mostly the product of necessity. Before the Civil War, if you reject the Founders’ Constitution and the Declaration, there’s really nothing left of America. So you can’t do that and then argue that America is devoted to equality. But now, of course, we can do that—because instead of the Declaration and the Founders’ Constitution, we can base our American identity on the Gettysburg Address and the Reconstruction Constitution.

Robin Lindley: You analyze the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision and stress how Chief Justice Roger Taney and six other justices found that Black people were not included in the Declaration and also that the Declaration prohibited abolition of slavery. How did the decision use our founding documents to support the majority’s white supremacist perspective?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: Dred Scott says two things. First, black people cannot become citizens of the United States. Second, Congress cannot ban slavery in territories controlled by the federal government—places that haven’t yet become states.

There’s one explicit discussion of the Declaration in the context of the first issue, where Taney says that black people weren’t included in its promise because, if they had been, the Founders would have been hypocrites for enslaving them. I think that’s mostly true, although Taney didn’t get the argument quite right. I think that the Declaration is about the rights of insiders, not outsiders, and enslaved people were outsiders. Making that a racial line, the way Taney did, is a little harder, because there were some free blacks who participated in the ratification of the Constitution, so they were insiders. But I think Taney wasn’t clearly wrong that there was some racial limit on national citizenship, because I think it’s true that the slave states wouldn’t have accepted a Constitution that meant that black citizens from Massachusetts could go to South Carolina and have the rights of citizens there—like the right to bear arms. The Founders’ Constitution didn’t answer that question clearly, but Taney went with what was probably the implicit Southern understanding.

What most people don’t know, even law professors who’ve studied this, is that the Declaration plays a role—and a more significant one—with the second issue. Why can’t Congress ban slavery in the territories? Because, Taney says, that’s an arbitrary interference with the right to own property. You can’t say that someone loses their property just because they bring it to a particular place.

Now, I think that’s wrong—I think that making a compromise about where slavery will be permitted and where it will be banned is exactly the kind of thing the federal government was supposed to do under the Founders’ Constitution. But what’s important to understand is where that argument comes from. An arbitrary interference with people’s rights is unconstitutional—it’s no law at all, Taney says. Why is that? Because the purpose of government is to protect people’s rights, so they wouldn’t give it the power to restrict those rights in arbitrary ways. And that’s the theory of the Declaration of Independence—that government exists to protect the rights of the people who create it, and loses its legitimacy if it goes against those rights.

Robin Lindley: Slavery ended only with the horrific violence of the Civil War. You note that President Lincoln initially was more interested in re-uniting the nation during the war than in ending slavery. How did his views evolve as the war continued?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: Lincoln’s views change in two very important ways. First, he shifts from the goal of union to the goal of justice, meaning the end of slavery. Before the war, he said he had neither the power nor the intention to interfere with slavery where it existed. He wrote a famous letter to Horace Greeley in August, 1862, in which he said that if he could save the union by freeing all the slaves, he would do it, and if he could save it by freeing none, he would do that. But sometime around the end of 1862 and the beginning of 1863, that changes. The end of slavery—the new birth of freedom Lincoln mentions in the Gettysburg Address—becomes a war goal.

And that raises another question: what will be the place of the formerly enslaved in the new America? This is an issue on which Lincoln also changed his mind, and it’s maybe even a more important issue in terms of what kind of a nation we became. One possibility was to end slavery but not include black people in the American political community—not make them citizens. Lincoln for quite a while believed that it was impossible for blacks and whites to live together, and he notoriously supported colonization. The preliminary emancipation proclamation talked about colonization. But the final emancipation proclamation said that black people would be received into the armed services of the United States, which was a traditional path to citizenship, and by the end of his life Lincoln was talking about black citizenship.

Ending slavery took a war, of course, but by the end of the Civil War everyone knew it was pretty much inevitable. Black citizenship was another step, and it was intensely controversial, too. I would say, it took a revolution, because I understand Reconstruction as a revolution.

Robin Lindley: You find Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address transformative—the beginning of a new understanding of America. How did Lincoln depart from the Founders? Why was this speech honoring the American military dead so important? Is this when Lincoln began to see “a nation” rather than “the Union”?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: It is around the time of the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation that we see this shift in the nature of the war. One of the markers of the shift is that Lincoln stops talking about “the union” so much and starts talking more about “the nation.”

The United States is a plural phrase in the Founders’ Constitution; it’s a union of states and not a single nation. But the Gettysburg Address tells us it is a nation, and a nation dedicated to the ideal of equality, and that ideal is what Lincoln’s side is fighting for.

Lincoln, he attributes that ideal to the Declaration and the Founding, which I think is inaccurate. And even he admits that realizing it requires change. The Gettysburg Address promises a new birth of freedom. Not a rebirth, but a new birth, which I think is the right way to put it. The Founders really didn’t think that protecting individual rights was the job of the national government—but the Reconstruction Congress did.

Robin Lindley: You stress the importance of the Reconstruction Amendments—Amendments XIII, XIV, and XV—in truly embodying the value of equality. Of course, the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery and the Fifteenth Amendment protected the right to vote for citizens including Black people. How does the Fourteenth Amendment protect citizens beyond the provisions of the Founders’ Constitution?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: The Fourteenth Amendment does two incredibly important things, both of which are stark breaks with the vision of the Founders. First, it says that states can’t decide who their citizens are. Everyone born in the United States is a citizen of the United States, and then also a citizen of whatever state they decide to live in. This rejects one of the ideas of the Declaration, which is that political societies are formed by mutual agreement and can exclude who they want. The Fourteenth Amendment tells states that their political communities are defined from above—not horizontal agreements among the state citizens but direction from the national government.

And then the second thing is to say that there are federal constitutional rules about how the states must treat their citizens. The Founders were aware that states might mistreat the citizens of other states, and so the Founders’ Constitution has some provisions that protect against this danger. But they really did not imagine that the federal government would tell states how to treat their own citizens, and there are almost no provisions in the Founders’ Constitution regulating that relationship.

But after the Civil War, and after Congress has declared that the formerly enslaved are citizens of the former Confederate states, this is obviously an extremely pressing issue. The former confederate states resisted black citizenship, and they resist black equality, and that’s what the Reconstruction Amendments are meant to overcome. Black people will be full and equal citizens of the new American nation, and the national government and the U.S. Army will protect their rights. But of course, the former Confederates didn’t accept that, and their resistance outlasted the national will to fight for equality.

Robin Lindley: Despite the Reconstruction Amendments, Southern states violently defeated Reconstruction and soon successfully implemented Jim Crow segregation and denied Black people the right to vote. How do you see this defeat that white southerners called “the Redemption?” And Reconstruction ended despite the “new Constitution” with the Reconstruction amendments.

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I see Redemption as a counter-revolution to Reconstruction. It’s an attempt to restore the political regime that Reconstruction destroyed, the regime of white supremacy. And it’s an interesting question whether we should identify that regime as the Confederacy or the Founding. My view is that there’s much greater similarity between the Confederacy and the Founding than we like to admit. When the Confederates wrote their constitution, for instance, they basically copied the Founding Constitution. They made explicit a few of the things that they had argued were implicit in that constitution. But they did not see themselves as rejecting the U.S. Constitution—they claimed that the free states and the Republicans were distorting it.

And there’s one terminological point that I think has some broader significance. People are often surprised when I refer to the overthrow of Reconstruction as Redemption. They’re surprised because redemption is supposed to be a good thing, but the overthrow of Reconstruction was bad. I use that label because that’s how historians refer to it. But historians refer to it that way because that’s how the people who did it described it. And I think it says something about our approach to history that we have accepted the label used by white supremacist terrorists—it shows how much we accepted their perspective. For most of the twentieth century, mainstream historians would tell you that Reconstruction was an oppressive overreach and Redemption restored the natural and appropriate order.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for explaining the term Redemption in this account. You take the story of America into the twentieth century and to the Civil Rights Movement. You detail how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X viewed the Declaration and the Founders Constitution. What are a few things you learned?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I learned so many fascinating things! I said before that I think we misunderstand the Declaration of Independence, that we overread the phrase “all men are created equal” and lose sight of its historical context. When I started thinking about the way that claim works in the Declaration (I say it’s a rejection of the divine right of kings and nothing more), I was very interested in the question of whether this was the original understanding, and whether other people had described it that way. Pauline Maier’s article The Strange History of “All Men Are Created Equal” does a great job, I think, of showing that it was the 1776 understanding. Then the abolitionists started reading it differently. But did anyone keep asserting the original understanding?

Yes, it turns out. In the years before the Civil War, you did see some people arguing for what I call Jefferson’s version of equality, rather than Lincoln’s. And it shouldn’t be surprising that these were supporters of slavery, people like John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and Alexander Smyth of Virginia, and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. (Just to be precise, this is not the same thing as saying that “all men” doesn’t mean “all people.” That was another argument that supporters of slavery made, people like Stephen Douglas and Roger Taney. I think that argument is stupid and wrong. What I believe is that “created equal” does not have the significance we assign to it now.) Then that understanding goes away, almost totally. But you do find someone else saying it in the 1960s: Malcolm X. And this is a very powerful illustration of the point that the significance of a particular reading of the Declaration might change over time. It might change depending on what else you have to rely on. If there’s nothing else, then reading the Declaration to be consistent with slavery supports slavery. But if you have Reconstruction, then you don’t need to argue that the Declaration is anti-slavery.

Which brings us to Martin Luther King, because Martin Luther King relies on the Declaration of Independence in much the same way Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address—but unlike Lincoln, he had alternatives. So in the I Have a Dream speech, King argues that racial segregation and race-based denial of the right to vote are inconsistent with American values, and he calls on America to live up to its promise of equality—the promise made in the Declaration of Independence. And all of that makes perfect sense from a constitutional law perspective, right up until the end. I’ve argued that the Declaration of Independence doesn’t actually make a promise of equality, but even if it did, everyone agrees it has no legal force. But the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution do, and they ban exactly what King is complaining about, racial segregation and the denial of voting rights to blacks. So it’s very odd that King is looking back to the Founding, rather than to Reconstruction.

It becomes still odder when you learn that nineteen years earlier, as a junior in high school, King had entered an oratory contest with a speech called The Negro and the Constitution in which he addressed the same question as I Have a Dream—what determines how black Americans are entitled to be treated. But that speech is all about the Civil War and Reconstruction. We are fighting to translate the Reconstruction Amendments “from writing on the printed page to an actuality,” he said, and if blacks are given the rights they are owed, they will “defend even with their arms, the ark of federal liberty from treason…”

So why did King switch from Reconstruction to the Founding? The answer, I’m pretty sure, is that he learned that Reconstruction was divisive. He wanted to appeal to whites who wouldn’t listen to an appeal in the name of Reconstruction but might listen to one in the name of the Founding. And then, later, I think he learned that this strategy didn’t work, after all, and that a focus on the Founding tended to support the status quo. And that strategy is what we’re still pursuing today, and we have to learn the lesson that King did.

Robin Lindley: And you write of a Second Reconstruction and then a Second Redemption. How do you see those periods?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: The Second Reconstruction is the Civil Rights movement that King was a part of, when the Reconstruction amendments are brought back to life and Congress passes antidiscrimination laws and maybe most crucially the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s a real step forward for equality. But equality movements are always divisive—that’s part of what King learned—and there’s a backlash. I date that backlash to 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan famously endorsed states’ rights and promised to shrink the federal government. He promised to appoint Supreme Court Justices who would read the constitution the way the Founders intended and undo the Second Reconstruction decisions of the Warren Court. This is what I call the Second Redemption, because it’s an attempt to undo or roll back the Second Reconstruction. And that’s the era we’re living in now.

Robin Lindley: Is it fair to see Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump as neo-Confederate presidents who advanced racists policies to appeal to their voters and for other political gain?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I think so. Broadly speaking, I think both of them advance a vision of what I called exclusive individualism, rather than inclusive equality, and exclusive individualism is what I see as the ideology of the Confederacy—though also the Founding. Both of them tell white Americans that undeserving others—chiefly blacks and immigrants—are taking what rightfully belongs to the real Americans. And there’s a very direct line from those sorts of dog whistle political appeals to the earlier determination to exclude blacks from national citizenship. It’s an attempt to draw or maintain the line between insiders and outsiders, and to say that the government mustn’t give benefits to the outsiders. And both Reagan and Trump use the slogan “Make America Great Again,” which I think is also an appeal to an era when the government protected the right people and outsiders were kept outside.

Robin Lindley: How do you see the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol to overturn a democratic presidential election? The evidence now indicates that the deadly assault was instigated by a sitting president who sought to retain office by sparking a violent coup. And this former president persists in the Big Lie that he won the election. How do you see the January Sixth attack and ongoing lies about the election in the context of the history you present?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I think the January 6 attack looks a lot like Redemption: it’s the refusal to accept the legitimacy of a democratic election because people don’t like the outcome. And this connects in an interesting way to bigger questions about the Founding and Reconstruction, because the Declaration of Independence isn’t pro-democracy. It’s not anti-democratic, but the test that it sets out for whether a government is legitimate doesn’t require democracy.

The Declaration says that to be legitimate, a government must be formed by consent, and it must protect the rights of the people who formed it. It’s the Gettysburg Address, with its invocation of government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” that makes a commitment to democracy. So what is the complaint of the January 6 insurrectionists? It’s that the government isn’t protecting the right people, the real Americans. That’s the Trump politics of white grievance, but it’s got a basis in the Declaration. And if that’s what you care about, democracy doesn’t matter. All of this makes sense and actually hangs together pretty well if you accept two premises—the government has to protect insiders and not outsiders, and black people are outsiders. And those are ideas that you can get from the Declaration and the Founders’ Constitution—that’s what the Supreme Court said in the Dred Scott decision—but they’re rejected by Reconstruction. So January 6 is a crystallization of the Second Redemption.

Robin Lindley: To realize the “better story” of America and the vision you present, what should happen next? Are reparations appropriate for Black citizens now? What other measures involving education, housing, healthcare, mass incarceration, militarization of police, etc. may be required to assure equality and justice?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I’m in favor of reparations, although as a strategic matter I probably wouldn’t use that word. And I wouldn’t frame it as payments from wrongdoers to victims, because I think that’s politically a non-starter.

What I would suggest is targeted investment: take some of the massive amounts of money that the federal government spends, and look for ways to spend it that would reduce, rather than increase, the racial wealth gap. I don’t know if that would strike people as radical, but once you realize that for the past century we’ve been working in the opposite direction—for a hundred years or so, we’ve engaged in massive federal spending that quite deliberately tended to exclude black people—it seems very reasonable to me. This could be an intervention in housing, or education, or healthcare, or all of them. There are so many ways that we could try to decrease rather than increase racial inequality. The militarization of police is a slightly different issue, but it’s also a problem I’m concerned about, and it’s also one that, when you look at the history, turns out to have a lot to do with race.

Robin Lindley: You find hopeful the vision of liberty and equality that came out of Reconstruction. Where do you find hope now, particularly in view of our divided political landscape and a majority rightwing Supreme Court? It’s worrisome for many that the Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act and eliminated a woman’s right to choose in the recent Dobbs as our fragile democracy hangs in the balance.

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I find hope in my students, and in younger people generally. I like the generation that’s coming into adulthood now quite a lot. I think that generational replacement is moving us in the right direction, because it looks as though these younger people are staying progressive as they age.

I think that demographic change is generally positive—as the white percentage of the population declines, I think we’ll see greater racial equality. In some ways conflict is a positive sign: sometimes conflict means that a hierarchy is being challenged, and that those in power feel a threat. The easiest way to see if an equality movement is making headway, maybe, is to see if it inspires a backlash.

Robin Lindley: You suggest, I think, that some parts of the Constitution deserve reconsideration and perhaps repeal or amendment such as the Electoral College provision which, as you write, “creates a false unity,” while excluding some voters and giving others a disproportionate voice. What must be re-examined in the Constitution?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I think the Constitution has some unfortunate and antidemocratic features. These didn’t matter so much until they started having a partisan valence, but now they’re empowering a rural white minority and, in some cases, allowing it to control branches of the federal government that should be controlled by the majority. The electoral college is one, and I’m in favor of trying to circumvent that with the National Popular Vote Compact. Equal state representation in the Senate is another, and while we can’t change that without a constitutional amendment (or maybe even with one, since article V says that can’t be changed without the states’ consent), we could ameliorate the problem by admitting some small blue states, like the District of Columbia. And I’m in favor of term limits for Supreme Court Justices, as a way of tying the composition of the Supreme Court to presidential elections.

Robin Lindley: I think you suggest that there’s a more important musical than Hamilton that should be produced now. To tell your story of reconstruing and reconstructing our past, who or what should a new artistic endeavor focus on? Frederick Douglas or Lincoln or Charles Sumner? Dr. King? John Lewis and Selma? Other people or events?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: It’s hard to pick the right person, but using Hamilton as a model—and I’m actually pretty serious about this—I think that Frederick Douglass would be a great through-line. He’s born into slavery, he attains freedom, he becomes an abolitionist, he has both a pro- and anti-slavery reading of the Constitution, he sees the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and Redemption—we could tell the whole story through his eyes. There’s a musical now, American Prophet, that does tell some of that story.

Robin Lindley: I liked your idea of changing our national anthem from “The Star-Spangled Banner” to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” How is the latter song a better choice and more in keeping with the rethinking of our history you posit?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: “The Star-Spangled Banner” is about the War of 1812, not the Revolution, but that war has all the same problems as the Revolution. Enslaved people escape and join the British forces to fight against their American enslavers, and the Americans think this is terrible. There are complaints about that in the Declaration of Independence, and in “The Star-Spangled Banner” there’s a reference to American victory over “the hireling and slave.” So I don’t think that’s something we should celebrate in our national anthem.

We should celebrate the war that ended slavery, which of course is the Civil War. And “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is about that. It’s about making sacrifices to help other people, which I think is a better message. As Christ died to make men holy, it says “let us die to make them free.” And by the way, when I say that Martin Luther King eventually moved away from the Founding and back to the Civil War and Reconstruction, this is where he landed. The last line of his last speech, his last words to America, is the first line of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Now, when I said this in an interview a lot of people pointed out that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is very religious, which of course it is, and they objected to it as a national anthem on that ground. I have to concede that’s a fair point.

Robin Lindley: Some also people also like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is You Land” for an anthem.

Many thanks for hanging with me Professor Roosevelt. I appreciate your generosity. We’ve covered a lot. Is there anything you’d like to add for readers about your work or your book that we haven’t covered?

Professor Kermit Roosevelt III: I think we’ve covered a lot! I’d like to add that I’m working on a Coursera course that develops the themes of the book, which I hope will be available in the summer of 2023.

Robin Lindley: That course seems an excellent way to continue the conversation on our Founding, Reconstruction, and equality.  Thank you, Professor Roosevelt, for your generosity, thoughtfulness and insights. And congratulations on your new book of law and history, The Nation That Never Was, an outstanding starting point for discussion of our past with a new understanding of where we have been. You have shared a vision of a more just and equal nation that grows out of Reconstruction rather than from the Founders’ documents that ignore racial equality and oppression. Best wishes on your continuing work.


Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer, illustrator, and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, social justice, conflict, medicine, visual culture, and art. Robin’s email: robinlindley@gmail.com.

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154690 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154690 0
Another Casualty of the Academic Job Market? The Relatable Professor

From "Scholars at a Lecture," William Hogarth 1736



The tightening academic job market is of great concern for professional historians. It is very important that younger faculty are able to secure positions. But while we often think about the effects of the job market on faculty, we rarely consider the consequences for students. Replacing older faculty with younger may benefit students in many ways. As faculty age, it can be harder to understand students—their slang, their technology, their cultural references. Seemingly classic in-class jokes begin to fail. It might seem as though the loss of older faculty means fewer misunderstandings, but it’s also possible that as an older generation is nearing and hitting retirement, our students are actually losing some of faculty who are ultimately most relatable to them.


For faculty under a certain age, sitting around with the faculty closer to retirement can be kind of a shock. You’ll hear people talk about getting “C” averages in college. You might hear of some other careers people briefly pursued or some “lost years” in their twenties. You’ll likely hear more idiosyncratic opinions and potentially less about publishing. Even in 2010, Louis Menand was able to write in The Marketplace of Ideas that “the road to a professorship is much steeper than it was fifty years ago.” It’s very steep now. There are fewer non-PhDs teaching at universities and fewer of those people who wax eloquent and inspire students but publish very little. People from a gentler GPA era may not always be professionally the most impressive, but they are very important for the profession.


While the higher expectations today result in more accomplished faculty, it may also mean that the person at the head of the room has little in common with most of the people in it. Already faculty are likely to be experts and enthusiasts on subjects that students may not equally love. Younger faculty are also people who tend to have held high grades from high school and are increasingly from privileged backgrounds. There is a decline in first-generation faculty and probably fewer people who seem fun to know if you’re 18-22 and not interested in a PhD yourself.


We rightly consider the importance of representation in the classroom and higher ed, but in certain respects we are turning out factory-issued faculty. Almost everyone has been on about a ten to fifteen year quest for academic excellence. Almost everyone is living with a “publish or perish” mentality. The professional values and objectives are largely the same everywhere. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud suggested that the whole of Western society could be considered neurotic. One could make a similar argument about academia.


Consider the profession-created hurdles that faculty face in relating to students. If it is increasingly difficult for one-time average students to become PhDs, how well can faculty sympathize with our students who are academically struggling or indifferent? If PhDs are increasingly the children of PhDs, how can we relate to our students who see academia as a strange place? If only those who publish are employable, how can we relate to our students who will never aspire to write? Is there anyone teaching us how to do well in these areas? None of this is insurmountable, but it is worth remembering that this is another way in which students might look to the front of the room and see someone with no resemblance to themselves.


Faculty don’t have to be entirely relatable to teach—thank goodness—but there is no doubt that a relatable teacher can make a real difference in the classroom. People talk about presidential candidates having an advantage if they seem like someone it would be fun to “have a beer with.” The same may be true for faculty. Most people who developed an interest in a particular field were inspired at some point by a teacher. Students can be motivated to develop passions for subjects by teachers who can communicate that passion. That communication is easier when faculty can relate to student perspectives, and vice versa.


Thanks to the tight job market, universities are basking in the glory of hires who excel in all ways academic. They might want to consider how a generation of all-stars fits into the classroom. If the fit seems awkward, professors and institutions should do things to make it better. If we have little in common with most of our students, the classroom will be a poorer place.

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185166 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185166 0
Whose "Red Lines"?


In the conflict-ridden realm of international relations, certain terms are particularly widely used, and one of them is “red lines.”  Derived from the concept of a “line in the sand,” first employed in antiquity, the term “red lines” appears to have emerged in the 1970s to denote actions one nation regards as unacceptable from other nations.  In short, it is an implicit threat.

Vladimir Putin, self-anointed restorer of the Russian empire, has tossed about the term repeatedly in recent years.  “I hope nobody will get it into their heads to cross Russia’s so-called red line,” he warned in April 2021.  “Where it will be drawn, we will decide ourselves in each specific case.”  These red lines, although addressing a variety of issues, have been proclaimed frequently.  At the end of that November, Putin announced that Russia would take action if NATO crossed its “red lines” on Ukraine, saying that the deployment of offensive missile batteries on Ukrainian soil would serve as a trigger.  In mid-December, as Russian military forces massed within striking distance of Ukraine, the Russian foreign ministry demanded that NATO not only rule out any further expansion, but remove any troops or weapons from NATO members Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Balkan countries, and obtain Russian permission before holding any military drills in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia.

Finally, on February 24, 2022, Putin―ignoring a U.S. offer to negotiate some of these items―sent a massive Russian military force pouring into Ukraine in a full-scale invasion.  “This is the red line that I talked about multiple times,” he said, and “they have crossed it.”  Most nations were not impressed by this justification, for the Russian invasion and subsequent annexation of large portions of Ukraine were clear violations of international law and, as such, were condemned by the United Nations General Assembly and the International Court of Justice.

Of course, Putin’s red lines and international aggression, though particularly blatant, are hardly the only features of this kind that have appeared throughout Russian or world history.

The United States has a lengthy record in this regard.  As Professor Matthew Waxman of Columbia Law School has written, the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 involved “drawing a red line―with an implicit war threat” against “any European efforts to colonize or reassert control in the Western Hemisphere.”  Given the relative weakness of the United States at the time, the U.S. government did not attempt to enforce President James Monroe’s grandiose pronouncement. 

But, with the emergence of the United States as a great power, its government expanded the Monroe Doctrine to justify frequent U.S. meddling in hemispheric affairs, including conquering and annexing Latin American territory.  Even in recent decades, when U.S. annexations have become a relic of the past, the U.S. government has engaged in military intervention in other lands, especially in the Caribbean and Central America, but also in Asia and the Middle East (where President George W. Bush drew what he called “a line in the sand”).

In recent years, as China’s military and economic power have grown, its government, too, has begun emphasizing its red lines.  Meeting with U.S. President Joseph Biden in mid-November 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that Taiwan was the “first red line that must not be crossed.”  Xi did not mention the tension-fraught situation in the South China Sea, where China had set up military fortifications on islands claimed by its neighbors, including Vietnam and the Philippines.  But here, as well, China had red lines―leading to the current dangerous confrontations between U.S. and Chinese warships in the region.  Sharply rejecting a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that denied China’s control of the area, the Chinese government continued to build up fortifications on the disputed islands.  Furthermore, Chinese troops have continued for more than six decades to engage in violent military clashes with Indian troops along the disputed border, in the Himalayan region, between their two nations.

Although it could be argued that red lines are only an innocent expression of what a nation considers unacceptable in world affairs, it’s worth noting that they are employed especially by major nations.  The “great powers,” after all, have the military strength to give their warnings some credibility.  Conversely, smaller, weaker nations do not usually bother to issue such pronouncements, as their warnings―and even their interests―are rarely taken as seriously.  For this reason, the issuance of red lines usually boils down to a matter of what nation has the power to compel other nations to accept its demands.

Consequently, red lines lead inevitably to spheres of influence that other nations are supposed to respect―including a U.S. sphere in Latin America, a Russian sphere in Europe, and a Chinese sphere in Asia.  Naturally, people and nations living in the shadow of these major powers are not enthusiastic about this arrangement, which explains why many Latin Americans want the Yankees to go home, many Europeans fear Russian hegemony, and many Asians are wary of the rise of China.

Another problem with the issuance of red lines is their tendency to inspire international conflict and war.  Given their roots in the professed interests of a single nation, they do not necessarily coincide with the interests of other nations.  In this competitive situation, conflict is almost inevitable.  Where, in these circumstances, is there a place for collective action to fashion a common agreement―one recognizing the fundamental interests of all nations?

Rather than a world of red lines proclaimed by a few powerful nations, what humanity needs is a strengthened United Nations―a global federation of nations in which competing national priorities are reconciled and enforced through agreements, treaties, and international law. 

Setting red lines for the world is too important to be left to individual, self-interested countries.  They should be set―and respected―by all.

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185161 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185161 0
Why We Don't Remember Edith Galt Wilson as the "First Woman President"

In the first posed photograph of Woodrow Wilson after his stroke, First Lady Edith Galt Wilson holds the paper he is portrayed as signing, concealing the paralysis of his left side. 

Library of Congress, June 1920



It was a grueling period for both President Woodrow Wilson and his wife Edith. First, they convened with the world’s diplomats in Paris, then returned to the United States to launch a cross country trip of 8-10,000 miles to seek support for the League of Nations.  They passed through scorching temperatures in the West, without any air conditioning.  He complained of splitting headaches, at one stop experiencing blurred vision.  She called for his doctor, and said that her husband’s face was twitching and he was gasping for breath, similar to an asthma attack. Cary T. Grayson, his doctor, drew up a series of mandates: “Complete rest, total isolation from his job, and no one should interfere with his health.” The Wilsons returned home.

On October 2, 1919, Edith Wilson went to check to see how her husband was doing. He said to her, “I have no feeling in my hand,” motioning to his left hand. Minutes later, after calling his doctor from downstairs, she heard a thump like a body falling from his bed.  Running back upstairs, she found her husband unconscious and bleeding on the bathroom floor, having suffered a stroke.

How bad, in fact, was the President’s condition? In Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography, Edith Weinstein writes

The symptoms indicate that Wilson suffered from an occlusion of the right middle cerebral artery, which resulted in a complete paralysis of the left side of the body, a loss of vision in the left half vision of both eyes, weakness of the muscles of the left side of his face, tongue and jaw and pharynx accounted for his inability to speak. 

In layman’s terms, all additional physicians that were allowed to see him remarked, “He looked as if he was dead.”

Edith Galt Wilson had to make a series of quick decisions about what the world, let alone Woodrow’s administration and members of Congress, would learn of his health crisis. Her decision was very simple: nothing was to be said about the nature or severity of his condition. The cover up had begun, and would continue for nearly two years until the end of his administration. During this time, Edith Wilson could be said to have acted as the first woman President of the United States, albeit in a secretive arrangement that revealed the limits of the Constitution’s original treatment of presidential incapacity and still today shows the importance of public knowledge about presidential health.

Having advised Edith Wilson that the president himself should be kept unaware of the severity of his condition, Dr. Grayson was willing to conceal facts that might have led to Wilson’s replacement in office. He refused to sign a finding of disability, downplayed the severity of the stroke to the cabinet, and recommended against fully informing the public.

He also provided diagnoses that excused Wilson’s absence from the public without suggesting permanent disability. On October 3rd, the day after his collapse at home, Dr. Grayson issued a bulletin: “The President is a very sick man. Diagnosis is a nervous exhaustion.” In the remaining days and weeks, additional bulletins would provide reassurances that the president was recovering nicely.

If this lack of transparency about presidential health is shocking from our present perspective, we would also consider Wilson’s health history alarming for a prospective president. Historian Edwin A. Weinstein notes that Wilson had a history of cerebrovascular disorders dating back to 1896, sixteen years before he was elected president. Wilson was serving as an instructor at Princeton in 1896 when he suffered his first stroke. In 1913, Wilson suffered another stroke, only this time, it was his left arm that was affected. Weinstein writes:

The episode which affected Wilson’s left arm was particularly ominous from a clinical standpoint…. [It] not only increased the risk of future strokes, but also created the possibility that enduring changes of behavior, based on insufficient blood supply and impaired oxygenation of the brain, might eventually occur.

What few people also knew was that the President had kept his wife in the loop about all matters of state, including her sitting in on the League of Nations meetings. How, though, was she to govern? In her memoirs she states very clearly, “The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to the President.” 

In the mornings, Edith Wilson would get up and begin her “stewardship,” the word she used to refer to her relative takeover of the West Wing. She would attend meetings in place of her husband, and when information needed to be passed to him, she would insist that she be the one to do it. In the evenings, she would take all necessary paperwork back to the residence, where Woodrow was presumably waiting, and inform him of what he needed to know. The next morning, she would return the paperwork to its original owner, complete with new notes and suggestions. She would also vet the carefully crafted medical bulletins that were publicly released.  Continually, she would say that the President needed bed rest and would be working from his bedroom suite.

If it seemed like an odd arrangement, the people closest to the matter didn’t comment on it. They lined up at Edith’s door day in and day out, waiting for the notes that she passed back and forth between them and their leader. They went no further than the first lady; if they had policy papers or pending decisions for him to review, edit or approve, she would first look over the material herself. If she deemed the matter pressing enough, she took the paperwork into her husband’s room where she would read all the necessary documents to him.

Perhaps the improbability of the arrangement, combined with the personal political interests of those involved, allowed the coverup to endure as a mutually self-serving fiction, despite growing doubts. While Edith maintained that she was simply a vessel for information and that all notes passed back to presidential staff were Woodrow Wilson’s own words, White House officials soon began to doubt the authenticity of the notes. For one, they had never seen the president himself write the words, and for another, they didn’t entirely trust the First Lady. William Hazelgrove, in his book Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson, goes further:

The issue of a presidential signature is a vexing one. Presidents must sign many documents and the operation of government can be held up for want of signature. But here was a man paralyzed on his left side going in and out of consciousness. Edith “helped” the president by “steadying his right hand in guiding his pen.” 

The essence of Mrs. Wilson's usurpation lay, therefore, in minimizing actual decision-making. She permitted only a handful of officials to see the president, and that only in the latter phase of his illness; and these audiences were often weirdly stage-managed in his darkened White House bedroom, usually in her inhibiting presence and that of Admiral Grayson. Many issues (e.g., the infamous "Red scare" raids of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer) were not brought to the president's attention, and it is uncertain whether he had the capacity to act even if he could have focused on them. When it became absolutely necessary to indicate what Wilson thought about a pending question, Mrs. Wilson would occasionally issue in her own handwriting a kind of bulletin from the sickroom reading "the president says" thus and so -- an unacceptable, yet accepted, substitute for real decision memoranda.

It was a bewildering way to run a government, but the officials waited in the West Sitting Room hallway.  When she came back to them after conferring with the President, Mrs. Wilson turned over their paperwork, now riddled with indecipherable margin notes that she said were the president’s transcribed verbatim responses. To some the shaky handwriting looked less like that written by an invalid and more like that of his nervous caretaker.

She became the sole contact between the President and the cabinet. In fact, when Senator Albert Fall was sent by the Republicans to investigate the President’s true condition, Edith helped arrange Woodrow in bed so that he appeared presentable and alert. The President passed the test. The New York Times reported, perhaps creating rather than documenting reality, that “the meeting silenced for good the many wild and often unfriendly rumors of the President’s disability.”

Inevitably, the ruse wore thin.  Secretary of State Robert Lansing, a man who was with Wilson in Europe and an important part of the negotiations over the League of Nations, was the first to raise the alarm that the president was in an incapacitated state.  Lansing pressed Dr. Grayson about the reports that the president had fallen ill.  Dr. Grayson lied to Lansing, telling the secretary of state that Wilson was only suffering from “a depleted nervous system” and that the president’s mind was “not only clear but very active.” However, Joseph Tumulty, Wilson’s private secretary and an antagonist of Edith Wilson, was more candid and suggested to Lansing that the president had suffered another stroke.  Lansing immediately declared that Wilson should transfer presidential power to Vice President Thomas R. Marshall.  Loyal to Wilson, both Tumulty and Dr. Grayson objected.

Robert Lansing ultimately called a cabinet meeting on October 6, 1919, something he was not supposed to do without President Wilson’s knowledge.  It was an important meeting because no administration had had to address a situation when a president was alive but incapacitated. Increasingly aware of the dire state of the president’s health, the cabinet became aware of their lack of power to do anything about it.  The United States Constitution’s only words for such a situation before the passage of the 25th Amendment in 1967 are found in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6.  It states as follows:

In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.

Wilson was not dead, had not resigned, and was disputing, at least through a proxy, that he could not discharge the powers of the presidency.  Vice President Marshall did not want to appear too eager to become president, so he declared he would not act unless Congress declared Wilson incapacitated.

The cabinet meeting on October 6th did little—could do little—to define or answer any Constitutional questions.  Nothing was decided except to see how Wilson’s health progressed.  Robert Lansing was compelled to resign the following year on February 20. His offense? He committed an “assumption of presidential authority” by calling the cabinet meeting without Wilson’s approval.

William Hazelgrove writes that

Edith Wilson’s presidency was short–less than two years–but it was groundbreaking. Woodrow Wilson after his stroke could not perform the duties of the presidency and Edith stepped in to fill the role. Edith's guiding mandate as president was to keep her husband alive by taking over his job and restricting access to him. Edith’s presidency fits the constitutional definitions of the duties of president.

Indeed, beginning with the first constitutionally defined role of the president as commander-in-chief of the military, which she exercised by managing negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles and the push for the League of Nations, Edith Wilson could be reasonably said to have exercised 5 of the 6 defined duties of the presidency.

A paper trail of written communication gives us an indication that, by deferring to her cabinet officers, and tackling a handful of high priority issues, Mrs. Wilson managed to keep the ship of state afloat between October 1919 and March 1921. What rendered this possible was the institutional momentum of the executive branch. In the absence of direct guidance from the White House, officials filled the void with their own best judgment, and muddled through.     

A few Republican critics of the president, such as Sen. Albert Fall (R-N.M.), railed against “petticoat government,” suggesting that there was some public familiarity with the idea that Edith Wilson was running the administration, but the President’s Democratic allies largely circled the wagons, ignoring his obvious impairment, while adversaries in his own party, including Vice President Thomas Marshall, remained conspicuously silent. 

Unfortunately, in the absence of authoritative White House leadership, institutional forces could only keep the government machine well-oiled for so long. Eventually, Mrs. Wilson’s method of temporizing and triage proved inadequate. Wilson’s illness exacerbated his more negative qualities of stubbornness and his need to be right.  He absolutely refused to compromise on the Versailles treaty to get it through Congress.  Wilson was so far out of the loop due to his illness that he didn’t comprehend the extent of the opposition in the Senate and that the only way to get the treaty passed was with Henry Cabot Lodge’s reservations.  Edith tried to convince him to change his mind. Because of his unwillingness, the Democrats didn’t have enough votes to ratify the treaty, and the United States ended up not joining the League of Nations. 

Had Wilson resigned at the outset of his illness, and Vice President Marshall succeeded as President, or at least assumed the role until Wilson was better, a compromise might have been reached with Lodge, and the treaty might have passed.  The United States could have joined the League of Nations and played an active role in the international peace organization in the years that, as it happened, ultimately led to World War II.  If Edith had put the nation’s needs ahead of her husband, Wilson’s dream of America playing a significant role on the international stage would have come to fruition.  As it was, his successor Warren Harding took America back to its isolationist stance. 

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185162 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185162 0
Youth Failed by Their Leaders: How the Palestinians Lost Their Way



The following is the second installment in a series of three articles. The first addressed how Israel lost its way; the third will demonstrate certain realities on the ground that are not subject to change short of a catastrophe. In that context, since Israeli-Palestinian coexistence is inevitable, both sides must choose between living in peace or perpetual violent conflict.

Although the 55-year-old Israeli occupation cannot be justified under any circumstances, Palestinian leaders have greatly contributed to its disastrous continuation. Their misguided policies over the years have tragically subjected four generations to a life of misery and hopelessness in pursuit of a delusional goal of destroying Israel.

Righting the Wrong

For the past 75 years, the Palestinians have raised four generations of aspiring youth who, like their counterparts in Israel and other advanced countries, dream of growing and flourishing while making their own mark by contributing to their community’s and their country’s prosperity and growth. They have failed not because they are incapable, or less talented, or unworthy of success: they have failed because their leaders failed them. Palestinian leaders failed them due to their shortsightedness, misguided policies, and unwillingness to accept Israel’s ineliminable reality. As such, they have played directly into Israel’s hands by threatening its very existence, which provided Israel with the rationale and justification for continuing the debilitating occupation.

Ironically, during the 75- year-old conflict between the two sides, Israel became a global power, a leader in every sphere of science and technology, with a powerful economy and formidable military, while millions of Palestinians are still languishing in refugee camps. If this does not demonstrate the utter moral and political bankruptcy of the Palestinian leadership, I don’t know what does. Thus, their insolvent policy only compounded their youth’s despondency and despair for which they conveniently blame Israel, giving rise to militancy and violence against a country with which they must coexist.

From the onset of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 1948, the Palestinian leadership adopted a policy of resistance and confrontation against Israel. Even at times of relative calm, the persistent denunciation of Israel on various issues, especially in connection with the Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, and the Israeli settlements provided a constant reminder to every Palestinian youth that Israel is the obstacle that hinders their progress and shatters their dreams.

That is, the Palestinian leadership linked the fortunes and the future well-being of their youth to the destruction of Israel. As such, successive Palestinian generations condemn Israel for their misfortune which is constantly reinforced not only due to lack of genuine efforts on the part of the Palestinians to find solutions, but also because the longer the conflict persisted, the more it became intractable. At the present, the two sides are further apart than they were 30 years ago when the Oslo Accords were signed.

Indoctrination in schools The indoctrination of Palestinian youth begins from a very young age in schools; it is one of the most potent ways to sway the minds of the young, and get them to believe whatever they are taught. In essence, Palestinian schools have become in part laboratories for anti-Israeli disinformation both through the teachers and textbooks. For example, in history books Israel is depicted not only as an occupying power that must be resisted, but as having no right to exist at all.

In geography books, the 1967 borders are not delineated, and in Palestinian maps the ‘state of Palestine’ covers the entire landmass from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. In the studies of Palestinian refugees, the blame is placed squarely on Israel for causing the catastrophe, al-Nakba, which is being inculcated in the mind of young pupils. The continuing occupation only reinforces what these young students are misled to believe.

As Mark Twain observed in his autobiography, “When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition…” To be sure, in schools the Palestinian people are portrayed as being the victims of a brutal power. The misinformation and the selected truth about the conflict with Israel passes from one generation to the next, and today Palestinian youths view Israel the way their parents have, as an irreconcilable enemy to be resisted at all costs.

Brainwashing through public acrimony Whereas the anti-Israel schooling is poisoning the minds of the young, it continues to be reinforced by the Palestinian leaders’ acrimonious public narrative against Israel. The day-to-day public denunciation of Israel further resonates in the minds of the young and they become increasingly in tune to resistance, rather than reconciliation. This state of mind is further bolstered, especially when they hear from extremist Palestinians leaders, such as Hamas, and the media about Israel’s ruthlessness which will not end until Israel is soundly defeated.

Moreover, disunity between extremist groups such Hamas and the more moderate Palestinian Authority makes it impossible for the latter to moderate its public acrimonious narrative against Israel, fearing being accused of appeasing the Israelis. Indeed, rather than preparing the public for the inevitability of peaceful coexistence and engaging in constructive public dialogue, they are poisoning the political atmosphere by promoting the belief that only the destruction of Israel would liberate the Palestinians from the bondage of occupation, allow them to reclaim the land, and restore their national pride and dignity.

Failing to invest in nation-building The Palestinian leadership’s dismal failure to dedicate itself to nation-building made it impossible for hundreds of thousands of young people to find respectable employment, which kept them deprived of decent wages to support themselves and denied them a dignified life. Tens of thousands of young Palestinians cannot pursue higher education because more often than not they are forced to find menial jobs to help feed their families.

Thus, idleness and the lack of any prospect for a better and more productive life radicalizes many Palestinian youths who become disposed to join militant groups where they are embraced, feel respected, and are rewarded for their willingness to join the fray against Israel. Basically, they escape from their imprisonment in a life of despair as they are lured to go to a new prison, where they presumably find meaning to their lives. As Aldous Huxley cogently stated, “It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison and yet not free — to be under no physical constraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel and act.”

Exaltation of martyrdom Many young Palestinians who feel left out without any prospect of living a normal and productive life often search for a greater meaning to their lives and are swayed to believe that they can find in death the salvation that eludes them when they are alive. Martyrdom is glorified, especially when the cause for which they sacrifice themselves is for the good of the entire Umma (nation). The Quran makes many references to martyrdom including the following: “Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord; They rejoice in the bounty provided by Allah….” (3:169).

The problem here is that the Palestinian leadership, especially the extremists, do not preach for peaceful coexistence; instead, they praise acts of violence and terrorism against Israel, and honor the perpetrators’ courage and valor in sacrificing themselves for the greater cause of national liberation. Thus, for a multitude of young Palestinians, killing Israeli Jews and ridding themselves of the occupation has become a holy mission as if it were sanctioned by Allah. They seek martyrdom because they truly believe what they are told, that they will rejoice in heaven instead of continuing to be humiliated and mortified on earth.

Missing opportunities to make peace From the time Israel was established in 1948, the Palestinians missed many opportunities to make peace. The late Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban put succinctly when he stated that “the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” a fact that prevented a multitude of young Palestinians from enjoying the fruits of peace and becoming constructive players in nation-building who are able to take pride in their achievements.

Starting with their refusal to accept the UN partition plan in 1947, the Palestinians have indisputably missed a number of opportunities, but it will suffice to name only a few. Following the Six Day War in 1967, the Palestinians turned down Israel’s offer to return all the territories captured in war in exchange for peace (with the exception of the final status of Jerusalem). In 1977, the Palestinians rejected the invitation to join the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations which could have resulted in in an Israeli-Palestinian peace along with the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement signed in 1979.

At Camp David in 2000, the Palestinians missed another historic opportunity and walked away the last minute when a comprehensive agreement was afoot. The most violent uprising—the Second Intifada—that began a few months later stunned the Israelis, who concluded that Palestinians are simply not interested in peace. And finally, in 2007-2008 the Palestinians once more walked away from negotiations, this time over a disagreement in connection with percentages of land swaps.

Since then, largely under Netanyahu’s and Abbas’s leadership, no substantive peace negotiations have taken place, and sadly a fourth generation of Palestinians is now flagging between corrupt dictatorial leadership and self-destructive extremism, with no prospect for any meaningful life. Neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas have any plans or strategy that will help bring an end to the most destructive conflict to which they have subjected their youth for 55 years and counting.

This is how the Palestinians lost their way. As they continue to revel in the illusion that they can destroy Israel, they in fact are sowing the seeds of their own destruction. It’s time to wake up before they forfeit the next generation’s chance to live in peace and realize their dreams and aspirations to prosper in their own country, which they richly deserve if only given the opportunity.

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185163 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185163 0
Don't Forget the Private Sorrows of Ukraine

Ukrainian refugees housed in an athletics facilty, Moldova




The best quote I’ve discovered about war is from Ian McEwan’s novel Black Dogs (1993). His main character reacts to World War II in Europe:


He was struck by the recently concluded war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust. . . . For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow, unique and solitary too, which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories.


With all the media available today we do sometimes become aware of war’s “private sorrows,” but not often enough. When we consider how important our own sorrows (like the death of a loved one) are to each of us, we should pause longer to reflect on all the deaths, maiming, and other tragedies that wars inflict.


Like the general public, historians (including myself) often fail in this regard. We are better at providing mind-numbing statistics regarding all the deaths and injured than we are at conveying much feeling for the millions of individual tragedies caused by wars. Sporadically, however, I have tried to correct this defect. On the first page of my book An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008), I quote McEwan and then add,


Some feeling for all these tragedies is also sometimes conveyed by first-hand accounts. A few early ones are provided here, and readers can only attempt to imagine some of the other millions of tragedies which lie behind the gruesome statistics of the remainder of the century.


I then provided excerpts from the writings of a few U. S. soldiers that killed Filipinos at the very beginning of the twentieth century--in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) “as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died from violence, famine, and disease.”  Here is just one sample:


Our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, and children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino was little better than a dog, a noisome reptile in some instances, whose best disposition was the rubbish heap.


Almost all wars have produced such “private sorrows.” But I have only occasionally touched upon them--see, for example, “A Memorial Day Lament for Capt. Wilfred Owen, Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, and the Needless Dead of Foolish Wars."


Now, however, having just observed the one-year anniversary of the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seems appropriate to describe just a small percentage of the individual suffering wrought by this tragic war.

One of those tragedies occurred last year on the first day of summer, June 21. It happened in a pine forest near the Ukrainian Donbas city of Sievierodonetsk, and it killed a professional Ukrainian-Jewish couple in their early thirties, Taras and Olha Melster.

They had grown up in Kropyvnytskyi, a central Ukrainian city of 230,000, surrounded by wheat fields and relatively unscathed by the physical damage inflicted on so many other Ukrainian cities. The couple knew each other from age eight on, engaged in environmental protests together, went to college--he studying electrical work, she art--and married when they were 25. Six years later, they were living in a small apartment, owning a big dog, not yet having children, but hoping to soon. He was constructing websites, she had created an online decoration business. Like so many other Ukrainians of various ages and professions they both volunteered for military service, in their case on the very first day of the Russian invasion back in February 2022.  

Even though the couple had little military training and she was the only woman in their unit, they found themselves on the front lines because of her persistence and major losses to more experienced soldiers. Their job? Hold their trench despite heavy Russian shelling and bombing; prevent the Russians from advancing. But after particularly intense Russian bombardment, another soldier discovered the couple’s bodies “next to each other, ripped apart.”

Another Ukrainian tragedy occurred the following month. But since I’ve already described it, I’ll just summarize it here. In July 2022 in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, about 160 miles southwest of Kyiv, Iryna Dmytriev, a thirty-four-year-old single mother, is pushing a pink and black stroller. In it is her only child, four-year-old Liza, who is afflicted with Down syndrome and was also born with a defective heart. When she was seven months old she required five-hour heart surgery. 

As Iryna and Liza are walking Iryna suddenly hears a frightening noise above. She looks, sees a “massive” missile, and spontaneously huddles over the carriage trying to protect her daughter. But it did no good. The Russian missile killed Liza and severely injured mother Iryna, who was hospitalized for a month, with her left leg shattered and missile fragments requiring removal from her stomach and left arm. About the killing of her daughter Iryna said, Liza “was my life. . . . What Russia took from me cannot be forgiven. All my plans are destroyed.”

Another example of the “private sorrows” of wars that McEwan wrote about occurred in Dnipro, the Ukraine’s fourth largest city with a population of about one million. It’s on the Dnieper River, about 243 miles southeast of Kyiv. On January 14, 2023 a Russian cruise missile hit the apartment building where Anastasia Shvets, age 24, lived on the sixth floor with her parents and a cat. She was the only survivor in her apartment. According to Ukrainian authorities at least 44 other people in the building were killed and 80 were injured.

Anastasia’s mom had worked in a bank, and her dad had been a mechanic until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when he lost his job and later volunteered to build roadblocks to secure the city. Anastasia and her mom also took in stray cats, fed them, and looked for people to adopt them.

On the day the missile struck, the daughter and her parents had just finished lunch, but the latter remained in the kitchen, where they made candles for Ukrainian soldiers hunkered down in trenches. Working a night job at a bakery, Anastasia left the kitchen to sleep for a while. But just minutes later she heard a “massive roar,” and the kitchen and most of the apartment was blown apart. Her parents’ dead bodies were pulled from the rubble the next day.

As with many Ukrainians, this death was not the first to bring her grief. The previous September her boyfriend, Vladyslav, died in battle during a Ukrainian counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine. All this tragedy has left her living with an aunt and grandmother, taking sedatives, being on sick leave, and being frightened of air-raid warnings and loud noises.


A final example of the war-inflicted suffering is that of Andrii Mishchenko, his wife Olha Taranova, and their 11-year-old daughter, Sasha. From living together in Kyiv, they parted like many couples early in the one-year-old war. In their case at the Ukrainian-Slovakian border. He eventually ended up on the front lines in eastern Ukraine doing dangerous reconnaissance work. She and Sasha are now in Trossingen, a small town in southwest Germany, which has also welcomed other refugee Ukrainian mothers and children. Fortunately, because she can work remotely, she is able to continue earning income from the IT (Information Technology) job she had in Kyiv.


Andrii and Olha communicate mainly by cell phone. Every morning he tries to send her a heart emoji; she responds with an electronic kiss, but also tries to send him videos of her and Sasha. In one exchange he wrote, “Kissing and hugging you tightly”; she replied, “I am yearning for you.” He responded, “Miss me but do not be sad.”

Once he ordered flowers to be sent to her German address. She used the flower box to send him German chocolates, a box he now keeps beside him when he sleeps.

One can only imagine the anxieties of this man and wife, separated by more than a thousand miles and warfare, when they cannot communicate. That was the case for three straight weeks in September during Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

Since they parted in early 2022, the family has only been able to get together twice. The first time was in Kyiv in August, but only for about four hours because Andrii’s unit needed him back quickly for a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region. The second time, in December in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, they were able to spend five days together. They talked about Olha and Sasha moving back to Kyiv, but because Andrii would worry too much about a Russian missile killing them there, Olha agreed for her and Sasha to return to the safety of Trossingen.  

The four sketches outlined above are just a small sample of the innumerable hardships and tragedies suffered by the Ukrainian people. We can read statistics like 13 million Ukrainians displaced from their homes (8 million of them now refugees in Europe), but they don’t mean much unless we think of millions of individual cases, most of them worse, like those of Olha and Sasha. Ditto for linking the at least 100,000 Ukrainian troops killed or injured with the Kropyvnytskyi couple Taras and Olha Meltser, found dead, “ripped apart,” in a trench together. And ditto for connecting the at least 8,000 Ukrainian non-combatants who have been confiramed killed and nearly 13,300 injured with the four-year-old child Liza (killed in Vinnytsia) ); her mother Iryna (injured); and the parents of 24-year-old Anastasia Shvets (killed), all non-combatant victims of Russian missiles.


The four cases mentioned above are just a minuscule sample of what McEwan called “a near-infinity of private sorrows.” And none of the four deal with cities or villages like Mariupol, Kherson, or Bucha where some of the worst atrocities occurred. (See, for example, “Putin’s Mariupol Massacre is one of the 21st century’s worst war crimes,” a late-February 2023 “60 Minutes” treatment of Kherson, and an AP News account of Russian tortures and executions in Bucha.)


Nor do any of our four cases mention Russian missile or other attacks (a total of 707) on Ukrainian medical facilities that occurred in 2022. Nor do any of the four deal with the effects of the war on children’s education. (A recent UNICEF report stated, “Recent attacks against electricity and other energy infrastructure have caused widespread blackouts and left almost every child in Ukraine without sustained access to electricity, meaning that even attending virtual classes is an ongoing challenge.”)


Nor have our tragic examples mentioned rape, sending some Ukrainian children to Russia, or the imposition of Russian propaganda in Ukrainian areas seized by Russia--all of which have occurred. Nor have I written about all the Russian deaths--reportedly more than Ukrainian ones--nor Putin’s increased domestic curtailments.


And for what purpose have all these evils occurred? Primarily because in Vladimir Putin’s head all kinds of evil Ukrainian and Western threats whirl around. Some, like NATO’s expansion, may be genuine dangers; but others like the Western desire to dismember Russia, or Ukraine being dominated by neo-Nazis, are more like paranoid delusions.

The present essay has not addressed the need for a diplomatic solution to end the war. Nor has it minimized the risk of it leading to an escalation and perhaps even a resort to nuclear weapons. Moreover, the sources cited may not all be 100 percent objective. But, as one critic of the escalating level of Western military support for Ukraine has written, “There is no valid excuse for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its horrific ongoing war on that country.”

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185164 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185164 0
The "Singular and Emblematic" History of Tuskegee with Dr. Brian Jones After our last couple of interviews, exploring the history of socialism and the culture wars, I wondered: are we destined to fight the same battles from the past over and over again, or are we (haltingly) moving closer to a more just society? Dr. Brian Jones, the inaugural director of the Center for Educators and Schools of The New York Public Library and author of The Tuskegee Student Uprising: A History, answers that question through the lens of the Tuskegee Institute.

Dr. Jones and I discussed how (to borrow his words) “the contradictions of Tuskegee Institute’s history are bound up with the contradictions of Black history.” I asked him about these contradictions, the lasting influence of Black student activism in the 60s, and why he still can’t find a way to score on me (we play soccer together every Sunday!). 

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below.

Ben: Dr. Jones, thank you so much for being here.

BJ: It's great to be with you.

Ben: To begin, let's discuss the founding of Tuskegee. Who founded it when, and how were “compromises and contradictions” baked into the school from the beginning?

BJ: Tuskegee Institute was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington in a moment of counterrevolution.

Remember that after the Civil War, with support from the victorious northern armies, Black people tried to build a biracial democracy. It was a revolutionary moment, and as Black southerners were elected to office during Reconstruction, top on their agenda was building schools. Soon, all southern states included public education in their constitutions, which meant that many white folks went to school for the first time thanks to the initiatives of their Black neighbors. 

Of course, this interest in education and the democratic aspiration to build a society from the bottom up was thwarted. A counterrevolution followed. Using violence, terror, intimidation, and murder, whites and the newly formed Klan put the genie of Reconstruction back in the bottle. 

It was in that moment that Washington founded Tuskegee. And any new school that was going to attract white people's funding, that was going to be well supported in this counterrevolution, was necessarily going to be a school that was not singing the same song as the earlier Black Power calls for public school, democracy, and for “one person, one vote.” It was going to be a different kind of animal by necessity. 

Ben: Can you discuss Washington's pedagogical philosophy and how it chafed with students’ expectations? In 1896, he tells students, “We are not a college, and if there are any of you here who expect to get a college training, you'll be disappointed.” By college training, I assume he was not referencing the ability to do keg stands, but correct me if I’m wrong.

BJ: Well, it's complicated. Undoubtedly, Booker T. Washington was making a big public show of promoting “industrial education,” which meant a curriculum oriented toward manual labor that would essentially train Black students to serve segregated communities. No doubt he made some of these comments to secure continued white funding of the school, but there’s also evidence that because Washington relied on college-educated teachers, what you might call “the classical liberal arts education” ended up being on offer anyway.

To this day, people debate whether Washington was a sort of sly fox taking white folks’ money and then providing subversive education on the sly, or if was complicit in the erection of the new Jim Crow order.

What’s so interesting to me is that it's not like students showed up and said, well, Booker T’s doing his thing. It's understandable because look at the counterrevolution and the violence and the lynchings and everything that's going on around us. 

Instead, students from Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana showed up on the campus and pushed back. They thought there was too much compromise on the campus. They wrote petitions, they wrote letters, and sometimes, like in 1896 and 1903, they went on strike. Students were required to work on the campus: construct its buildings and maintain its premises. This was part of their instruction in learning the supposed value of manual labor.

But in those years, the students refused to work, trying to get more time for study. They recognized that questions over the purpose of their education resonated with implications about their place in society. So you can see how from early in Tuskegee’s history, student protests were both singular and emblematic of the larger, deeper patterns and problems in Black society and the US writ large.

Ben: In a reflection of this protest tradition at Tuskegee, I was taken aback that as far back as 1907, you found records of 41% of the students being subject to disciplinary actions in one school year. That's so many people! If 41% of the players in our soccer game got yellow cards, it would be really hard to keep the ball moving.

BJ: A good point.

Ben: Washington led Tuskegee until his death in 1915. How did the school evolve in the following decades?

BJ: There were a number of shifts after Washington's death. Nationally, there was a dramatic expansion of schools as an institution. As more and more people went to high school, Tuskegee had to raise its standards for Black students to be able to get somewhere with their degrees. Tuskegee would've gone out of business if it maintained this “we are not a college” stance, so it grew into a university offering graduate degrees.

Still, during the Great Depression and the buildup to World War II, the philanthropy that had underwritten the university, once donated by the Carnegies of the world, faded away. So Tuskegee, like other historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and really all of higher education at the time, became deeply enmeshed with the federal government and the military. For example, the now-famous Tuskegee airmen program began in 1939. 

There was a radical edge to these developments. Tuskegee leaders still deferred to the local white, political power structure in Tuskegee proper (Tuskegee is a city in Alabama), but there were increasing numbers of people with advanced degrees working on campus and a really well-educated group of people living in the surrounding community who essentially weren’t allowed to vote.

Ben: Right, to limit Black voting power in the area, in 1957, the Alabama state legislature passed a bill to change the shape of Tuskegee City limits from a “simple square” to what one person at the time called “a curious 28-sided figure resembling a stylized seahorse,” aka a seahorse that cuffs its jeans.

BJ: Ha! Eventually, this tension came to a head, and Tuskegee faculty patiently but persistently campaigned for the right to vote, bringing a lawsuit that went all the way up to the US Supreme Court. It’s not widely remembered today, but at the time the battle over voting rights in Tuskegee was national news. In the Court case, Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960), the Tuskegee faculty successfully overturned the gerrymander.

Ben: Building on this victory, and moving toward the student uprising, you write “the generation of young Black people who went to college in the 1960s confronted a contradiction between raised expectations and a power structure (white and Black) resistant to change.”

Could you elaborate?

BJ: So the same year that the faculty stepped out of the paradigm of deference to the local white supremacist hierarchy and scored a slam dunk at the Supreme Court, four students at an HBCU sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, setting off a new phase of the Civil Rights Movement. Meanwhile, between the years 1960 and 1961, several African nations became independent. 

Tuskegee students watched all of these developments unfold. At the same time, they went off campus, out of their privileged little bubble, into rural counties to fight for voting rights, where they encountered the violence, terror, and intimidation that rural people heroically endured. 

So, they got this tremendous political education off campus, and when they got back to school, class seemed boring as hell. They weren’t reading any works by the leaders of African decolonization; they weren’t learning about how the world actually worked. They felt like their intellectual growth outside the classroom far outstripped what was happening within it.

And then Sammy Younge, a Tuskegee student very involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee, was murdered by a white gas station attendant in the early days of 1966. His death, the acquittal of his murderer by an all-white jury 11 months later, and the administration’s reaction, which the students reckoned was more about tamping down the student movement than trying to get justice for Younge, was a radicalizing moment. Suddenly, all of the compromises Tuskegee had made over the years felt 1000% intolerable. How could the students stand another moment of injustice? 

In the aftermath of Younge's murder, the students successfully campaigned to elect the first Black sheriff in the South since Reconstruction. Then, they turned their attention to the campus, insisting that the school needed to change, too, and articulating a “Black university” idea then spreading around the HBCUs. The idea was to change the university from a feeder to corporate America into an institution that served the larger social agenda of the Black community. To get their point across, just days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, students took the school’s board of trustees hostage.

Ben: A reminder that you should never mess with nerds.

BJ: Well-put: as you allude, the hostage-takers were led by engineering students. I should mention, they didn’t have any weapons or anything. They were armed really with documents and walkie-talkies. Nobody was in physical danger. One of the trustees was a former major general in the US Army, and when he told the students I gotta go catch a flight, they were like, well, I guess you gotta go! and let him leave. When the white press asked him how violent the students were, he laughed.

The state of Alabama responded differently. They sent in the National Guard, armed with bayonet tips on their rifles. Ultimately the administration made the decision to close the campus to avoid a blood bath, which conveniently also served their agenda of trying to weed out the radicals. Afterward, the administration basically dismissed every single student and said you had to reapply to come back. A federal judge intervened, but this move really blunted what had been a very powerful student movement.

Still, when classes resumed, it was clear that the students had won significant victories: representation on all committees dealing with student affairs, full scholarships for athletes, 50 new course hours devoted to Black culture and an African studies program, and the ability to withdraw from courses at any time—in other words, things that made it possible to be successful students and which equipped them to participate in making change.

The victories reflect how Black students throughout the 20th century, and particularly in the 60s, had a transformative impact on all of higher education. The democratization of campus life, student participation in governance, the opening of new intellectual horizons that made space for women's studies and LGBTQ studies and ethnic studies, the origin of Black Studies as we know it today—all of these things came from students’ efforts.

Ben: I’m curious about some of the conclusions you draw when reflecting on this movement today. As you write, we’re now witnessing a crisis for Black Studies departments, which are increasingly “underfunded or cut altogether.”

Related, you say that “depending on your perspective, one could conclude either that the Black movements in the 1960s ‘went too far’ or, alternatively, that they didn’t go far enough. To me, the latter framework makes more sense than the former.”

I wonder if you can explain your perspective a little further.

BJ: I go back to where we started: Reconstruction; to the promise of restructuring society in a more fundamental way.

Until we make a more fundamental change, I think we're going to feel like we’re stuck in an endless cycle; that we’re fighting the same battles over and over and over again—because there's some truth to that. Until we destroy the institutional supports and edifices of white supremacy, we're going to keep finding grassroots, armed white supremacist groups; we're going to keep seeing manifestations of inequality in education; we’re going to keep stamping out one kind of power structure only for further injustice to arise someplace else.

What gives me hope that we can break out of these cycles is that we've seen periodic possibilities for more democratic and egalitarian modes of life. I take heart from moments like Reconstruction, where the world gets turned upside down and you glimpse the contours of something totally different that can be created in this country.

And there’s a reason that, as Tuskegee’s history suggests, we often get these glimpses at educational institutions. They are where young people gather, and despite all of the compromises, despite everything we lay on top of education, despite the ways parents try to ban books or put young people into boxes, students break out of them and push us to think in new ways, to see in new ways, to continue trying to build a new society.

Ben: A graceful concluding note, Dr. Jones. Thank you so much for your time and erudition. I look forward to returning the favor and schooling you on the soccer pitch soon.

BJ: It's been a lot of fun. See you out there!

Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154686 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154686 0
The Roundup Top Ten for March 3, 2023

There's a Long History of Indoctrination in Florida Schools—on the Right

by Tera W. Hunter

The author's experiences with a state mandated course contrasting "Americanism" with "Communism" echo in today's attacks on curriculum, and the exclusion of ideas challenging a social order of economic and racial inequality. 


Black History, White Terror, and Rosewood at 100

by Dan Royles

The efforts of historians and survivors to achieve a small measure of justice and acknowledgment for the Rosewood massacre demonstrate the stakes of Florida's current efforts to restrict the teaching of history that challenges white supremacy. 



The Bankrupt Vision of the College Board

by Annie Abrams

"We have endowed the College Board with the power to shape millions of minds with its profitable exams. In turn, it holds students hostage for college tuition, stifles teachers, and destroys space for debating difficult topics."



Is Ukraine Headed for a Cease Fire? And Is That the Best Option?

by Sergey Radchenko

After an essential stalemate between 1951 and 1953, a cease-fire in Korea enabled the parties to avoid both defeat and the cost of victory. Is this the best chance for resolving the war in Ukraine? 



It's Time for Labor Spring

by Cindy Hahamovich, William P. Jones and Joseph A. McCartin

In 1996, labor unions connected with campus activists to support anti-sweatshop movements, living wage campaigns for campus workers, and graduate student union organization. Now, labor must expand that effort for "wall-to-wall" organizing to make campuses better and more democratic workplaces. 



A Different Kind of Unfree Labor Haunts a Houston Suburb

by Ashanté Reese

Texas's convict labor system was a first step in reasserting white dominance over Black labor through criminal law. The discovery of remains of convicted laborers on the site of a former prison farm show the need to reckon with unfree labor after the end of slavery. 



Is Globalization Changing Mexico's Relationship to Death?

by Humberto Beck

Post-revolutionary Mexico embraced cultural commemorations of the dead—Diá de los Muertos—to help conceal the violence of the regime's rise. Now, that "traditional" culture is again being transformed by global cultural appropriation and the escalating violence of global drug trafficking.



Ignorance of Its Achievements Contributes to Feminism's Bad Rap

by Elizabeth Cobbs

Slanders of American feminism as disruptive and disloyal go back to John Adams. But advances in freedom from education to abolition, suffrage to labor rights, have reflected the work of feminists to claim a public role for women as citizens. 



Black Power is a Love Story

by Dan Berger

While the movement is popularly associated with anger, love was the emotional force that enabled activists to struggle for justice against powerful opposition. 



Marjorie Taylor Greene's "National Divorce" Won't be Amicable

by Thomas Lecaque and Joshua Call

The greatest danger of the Congresswoman's call for red and blue states to disaffiliate is that it will encourage followers to use political and extralegal means to move their communities and states closer to the fantasy of unity and homogeneity she referenced. 


Mon, 20 Mar 2023 18:52:47 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185160 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/185160 0