Author: Matthew Masur

Recollections about Saint Anselm College in the 1960s–Part II

Last fall, Saint Anselm alumnus Dave Witham ’68 contacted Professor Masur after learning about his course on the Vietnam War. Professor Masur asked Mr. Witham if he would be willing to share some recollections about attending Saint Anselm during a very tumultuous time in American history. This is the second part of the interview. The first part can be seen here.

Question: Some campuses had demonstrations and experienced tension between students and administrators. Was that the case at St. Anselm?

Answer: The demonstrations, protests, and seizure of administration buildings that occurred at many college campuses across the country stemmed from young people’s—and a minority of older adults’–increasingly cynical attitude toward official explanations for institutional policies and actions.

Dave Witham a few years after his college days

I remember only one demonstration at St. Anselm, a quiet protest organized by our antiwar group in which we set up a table on the opposite side of the room from a Marine recruiter and his table. We had assembled a variety of literature giving background information on the war and explaining how American involvement was a tragic mistake. It was a totally low-key effort designed primarily to inform our fellow students who hadn’t looked more deeply into the conflict of some dissenting voices (such as Senators McGovern, Morse, McCarthy, and Fulbright) in the government and those (in such magazines as The New Republic and by respected TV reporters like Walter Cronkite) in the mass media. Otherwise I remember student ferment St. Anselm over the war as being generally negligible.

However, one event worth mentioning was the appearance during the second half of my freshman year of a group of pacifists, who had been invited to visit by the Political Science Dept. Struggling to pass my courses and not yet politically engaged, I passed by them as they stood behind tables in the Old Cafe and argued loudly with my fellow Anselmians—whether over pacifist principles and methods as an alternative to war or over their opposition to the war in Vietnam, I didn’t hang around long enough to know.

Later that evening, the group appeared in the Abbey Theater in a presentation followed by a Q & A session moderated by PoliSci Prof. Sampo. Etched in my memory after 54 years is his stepping forward and saying, “Now stop that!,” in a scolding tone to some students in the audience who had interrupted statements from the panelists with catcalls or a pejorative comment. Eventually Prof. Schmidt, who had emigrated from Nazi Germany, from the Economics Dept. stood and delivered a lengthy criticism of the pacifists’ naivete in believing that nonviolent tactics would deter a tyrant intent on leading his nation to world domination. Like many Americans and administration policymakers, he assumed that the North Vietnamese under their leader Ho Chi Minh and their Viet Cong fighters in the South were the latest manifestation of a similar genocidal Communist ideology. After he finished his impassioned monologue, the entire audience leaped to its feet and gave him a thunderous ovation—including me, who wasn’t brave enough to stay seated, especially as I didn’t have enough information about these subjects to justify applauding the professor’s opinion. A long-time friend and classmate (since first grade) of mine from Bangor was sitting next to me, but didn’t stand up as others did. When a fellow student sitting nearby leaned over and asked him why he wasn’t cheering, he replied, “I don’t agree with him.” When I asked him later why he disagreed with Prof. Schmidt’s perspective, he told me that it was a mistake to equate every conflict in the world—even if seemingly Communist inspired—with Hitler’s aggression, whose appeasement led to WWII. Intrigued by his comment, I resolved to become much more knowledgeable about such issues.

Q: One of the most tragic events in the spring of 1968 was the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4. What do you remember about his death? How did students respond?

A: My main recollection about the reaction to Martin Luther King’s assassination was Americans’–at least the majority of them—shock and dismay upon hearing or reading the news. The prevailing emotion among those in my group of campus friends, all of whom were supporters of King’s leadership of the NAACP and its struggle for civil rights for African-Americans, was a strong sense of despair. With the nation’s military bogged down in the intractable conflict in Southeast Asia; high rates of crime and poverty in our major cities; recent riots in reaction to racism in housing, employment, and social status in many of those same cities; and frequent violent protest (including bombings at universities and military facilities) against the war, complemented by police brutality (as would follow shortly at the Democratic Convention in Chicago) against peaceful demonstrators, the overriding perception among citizens of all ages and backgrounds was that violence was consuming our society.

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee

Q: When we look back at the spring of 1968, we tend to focus on the chaos and unrest: The Vietnam War was in full swing, American politics were in flux, and one of America’s most prominent leader had been assassinated. Did it feel like a chaotic and portentous time? Did it feel like the country was falling apart, which is how we often depict 1968? Or did it feel more “normal” for you and your classmates?

A: In the spring of my senior year of 1968 as I learned more through research and reading of the scale of the destruction throughout Vietnam, I felt as though the members of the Johnson Administration and our military policymakers and officers had descended into madness. Amid the killing of what ultimately would be more than three-million soldiers and civilians in an impoverished Third-World country, no explanation for such carnage seemed credible. In fact, the reasons for it changed repeatedly over time, so it’s difficult to remember what exactly the official version was in 1968. Was the U. S. presence needed to protect the freedom-loving people of South Vietnam from the Communist invaders from the North? Or was all of Southeast Asia susceptible to worldwide Moscow- and Beijing-driven aggression? Or was the U. S. itself threatened by whoever might eventually govern a small country with no air force and only a torpedo-boat navy 10,000 miles away? Or, in Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s colorful expression, was our client state at the mercy of Chinese Communist soldiers who could cross the border while carrying a nuclear weapon on their back? That ludicrous comment and the visual image that it evoked convinced me that no statement was too dishonest and despicable to reject in justifying what to increasingly more Americans seemed monstrous war crimes.

The Vietnam tragedy was unfolding in the wake of several years of urban riots in the minority neighborhoods of such cities as Detroit, LA, Chicago, Washington, DC, and New York City, with staggering loss of life and property. High crime rates also afflicted our society, accompanied by pervasive gun violence and bias toward minorities in the criminal justice system. And the Great Society programs implemented under President Johnson were in 1968 being compromised by the excessive cost of waging war in Vietnam. As for the soldiers forcibly inducted into the armed services, many Americans at this time cringed at the irony of an army of slaves marching off to protect another country’s supposed freedoms under the dictator Diem, who repressed dissent in So. Vietnam and who was later murdered by ARVN officers conspiring with Kennedy administration officials.

Riots in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention

The culmination of the widespread violence and perceived chaos in the spring and early summer of 1968—especially profoundly felt after Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy’s assassination—was the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Preceded unfortunately by the destructive “Days of Rage” rampage through city streets by the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the convention degenerated into a perceived undemocratic, smoke-filled backroom selection by the party regulars of Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who had entered not a single primary but became the nominee. One of the convention’s highlights (or more degrading moments) was the accusation from the dais by CT Senator Abe Ribicoff that Mayor Daley had unleashed his “gestapo” upon peaceful demonstrators in Grant Park. It was a sight to behold as Daley leaped to his feet among the Illinois delegation and hurled curses at Ribicoff, all of the exchange captured on camera. The resulting “police riot,” as judged by a commission that later studied the event, subjected the protestors and even passersby to random beatings and arrest. Television captured it all as the crowd chanted, “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” It seemed to me as I watched that disorder and lawlessness—most of it created by federal and state authorities, whether in Chicago or in Southeast Asia—had indeed become normalized. Students and others wishing to view the event can access the Youtube website, type in “Chicago police riot 1968,” and link to “Chicago Convention 1968” and other titles.

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Recollections about Saint Anselm College in the 1960s

Last fall, Saint Anselm alumnus Dave Witham ’68 contacted Professor Masur after learning about his course on the Vietnam War. Professor Masur asked Mr. Witham if he would be willing to share some recollections about attending Saint Anselm during a very tumultuous time in American history. The first part of the interview appears below. We’ll post the second part of the interview separately.

Q: Can you start by giving me a little bit of your background? Where are you from? When did you attend St. Anselm and what did you study?

A: I grew up in Bangor, ME, during the 1950s and early 1960s and attended John Bapst H. S., a Catholic school in the city. It was a time when across the kitchen table and in the mass media U. S. foreign policy and military involvements were rarely questioned. I graduated in 1964 and began my freshman year at St. Anselm the following September.

Dave Witham a few years after his college days

I declared as an English major at the beginning of my sophomore year. Because of my interest in history—especially military history—I enrolled in several courses over the four years in that department. Having such an engaging and demanding (in the sense of requiring us to know and to try through hard work to remember facts—and not of the fake variety) teacher as Fr. Justin in Western Civilization (or From Plato to NATO, as I now call it) helped greatly in developing my love of the subject matter. My accompanying affection for biography and autobiography is probably a direct result of my desire to know in greater detail the lives of important and fascinating people that I had encountered in my historical studies.

As an English major, the important writers, poets, and playwrights—for example, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, William Collins, Yeats, Joyce, Twain, Stephen Crane, Stevens, Faulkner, Baldwin,  and Jarrell, but alas, no Whitman or Dickinson until graduate school—that I encountered either in class or as reading recommendations by classmates initiated a lifetime of literary study. During my senior year I decided to become an English teacher and so had to take quickly enough education courses—including student-teaching at a Catholic high school in Manchester—to constitute a minor course of study.

Dave Witham while a St. A’s student

Q: 1968 was a big year in the United States and internationally. One important event at the beginning of the year was the Tet Offensive, up to that point the largest NLF/North Vietnamese campaign in the Vietnam War. What do you remember about the Tet Offensive?  Were people talking about it on campus?

A: Because nearly all students graduating from St. A’s during the years 1964-68 were draft eligible once their student deferment expired, the prevalent attitude that I recall was one of “whistling past a graveyard,” generally ignoring (except for a small group of students of whom I was a member) this horrific, seemingly interminable conflict in the hope that it would end prior to our graduation in 1968. News of the Tet Offensive dispelled that illusion, though I don’t recall much campus discussion of it. I remember thinking at the time that it was just one more disaster flowing from U. S. policy, a logical complement to U. S. weekly losses at times of around 250 soldiers and airmen. The Nixon Administration and such military leaders as Army Gen. William Westmoreland (also known among war protesters as “Waste-more-land”) portrayed the Tet Offensive as a U. S./ARVN victory due to the heavy NLF losses. However, over the next few weeks the increasingly skeptical commentary in newspaper editorials (but certainly not the then right-wing Union Leader) and some members of Congress centered on the fact that previous optimistic predictions about “a light at the end of the tunnel” were either outright lies or delusional opinions.

The ability of the enemy to launch attacks throughout South Vietnam attested to their military strength and persistence. As Mark Bowden, author of Blackhawk Down, states in his book on the battle of Hue, no longer was the question among many Americans, “When will we achieve victory?,” but rather “How will we get out of this morass?”

Q: The war in Vietnam prompted Senator Eugene McCarthy to challenge President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in early 1968.  What was your role in the McCarthy campaign? What drew you to McCarthy?

A: Senator McCarthy was one of only a few in Congress who addressed the immorality of inflicting modern weapons of war upon a third-world country, an unleashing of massive bombing campaigns (whose tonnage exceeded that of all U.S. airpower in WWII), unrestrained use of herbicides such as Agent Orange (still causing birth defects in Vietnam), and search-and-destroy tactics by U.S./ARVN ground forces.

Pat Fox (friend of Dave Witham) with Senator Eugene McCarthy

McCarthy’s call for an unconditional end to U. S. bombing of the North, for greater reliance upon a diplomatic end to the conflict, and for the administration’s recognition of the immoral ways in which the war was being prosecuted elicited widespread agreement among students and adult voters alike (a campaign very similar in its emotional tenor to that of Bernie Sanders’s recent run). I and several of my friends and classmates worked for him in the upcoming NH Primary; our duties included mostly passing out literature in the severe cold at various Manchester locations. In retrospect it was basically only our moral outrage at this unending, terrible conflict (eventually taking more than 3,000,000 Vietnamese soldier and civilian lives and that of more than 58,000 Americans) that could have motivated us to leave the warmth of the dorm and our academic obligations.

Q: What was the atmosphere on campus, particularly in regard to the war and the presidential election? Were students politically engaged?  Did students have strong opinions about the war in Vietnam?

A: During my four years at St. Anselm, the campus did not experience the same kinds of demonstrations—marches against the Vietnam War, protests against some universities’ perceived complicity with immoral military weapons research and objectives, and occupation of administration buildings and laboratories to support demands for minority and women’s studies programs—occurring at other institutions, especially as Presidents Johnson and Nixon greatly increased the numbers of soldiers and Marines and escalated the bombing campaign beginning in 1965. Except for the group that I mentioned above and some individual students and faculty members who voiced either concern about or opposition to U. S. military involvement in Vietnam, the student body at large was generally oblivious to events there through about the end of the school year in 1967.

As we seniors returned for our final year, Sen. McCarthy announced his candidacy during the fall, which served to galvanize a portion—say, around a quarter–of the student body in its opposition to the seemingly unending horrific loss of life and widespread destruction in Vietnam. The great majority of students seemed to accept unquestioningly (a typical attitude for draft-eligible young people from the end of WWII through the Korean War and beyond) the narrative of the monolithic Communist Menace.

So both the public and young people subjected to a compulsory draft were generally unaware that there was no Independent North Vietnam invading a struggling So. Vietnam that sought its own autonomy. I learned of the thwarted Geneva Accords only by reading an account in a book by the French journalist Bernard Fall, who had spent years reporting on events in Vietnam. That sealed the issue for me:  U. S. intervention on behalf of (followed years later by the assassination of) the self-aggrandizing Diem totally contravened the desire of the majority of the Vietnamese people for self-determination. It was this faulty foundation of U. S. policy and the later immoral prosecution of the war that solidified my opposition to it.

In retrospect, one tactic that any St. Anselm faculty member concerned about U. S. foreign policy and its application—especially regarding the use of force—to Vietnam could have implemented was one that existed on many college campuses across the country: the teach-in. My understanding of this kind of on-site gathering, as described in news reports and magazine articles, was that an institution’s instructors conducted informational sessions about the war. Having researched Vietnamese history (especially during its nearly century-long struggle against French colonialism) and American political and military involvement in Southeast Asia after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, they presented the facts as they saw them about third-world nationalism, alleged monolithic Communism, America’s apparent anti-Communist crusade, and the morality of its conduct of the war. I assumed that lively discussion and debate ensued after each of these presentations.

At St. Anselm, however, no faculty member stepped forward to plan and host its own form of a teach-in, and I unfortunately lacked the self-confidence and imagination to approach anyone among the faculty to elicit his or her reaction. So it remains uncertain whether the college administration—despite the provisions of academic freedom–would have acted to prevent such a seminar and even whether faculty members could be expected to speak out beyond the confines of the classroom on matters of public policy, especially when lives wereat stake. On the other hand, I recall vividly in 1967 the appearance of New York attorney and incisive war critic Allard Lowenstein at the student center; although I was unable to attend his lecture, one student told me that he no longer supported the war after listening to Lowenstein’s persuasive arguments.

As for student discussions about the war in Vietnam, they occurred sporadically—usually on an individual basis between members of our small group of antiwar protesters and students who conceived of North Vietnam as a separate nation from the South, and whose Communist aggression was an analogue of the Nazi conquests prior to WWII.  These students tended to subscribe to the highly emphasized (by such administration figures as Johnson, Nixon, Rusk, Laird, and other spokespeople) but ultimately simplistic domino theory, originally articulated by President Eisenhower, in which the loss of So. Vietnam through a policy of appeasement to the Hitlerian figure Ho Chi Minh, or his alleged handlers in Moscow, would inevitably lead to a Communist take-over of all Southeast Asia. As pointed out above in The Pentagon Papers quotation, Pentagon officials were skeptical of this scenario, though several administrations suppressed their opinion.

One common refrain that I heard occasionally over the years on campus whenever the subject of the war and its horrific violence came up was that “Life is cheap in the Orient,” a comment made whenever none of our few Asian students were within earshot. Obviously, it’s tempting to fall back on what we now would consider a racist remark when one is young and hasn’t been encouraged—or taken the time—to question the official line about national policies.  And only a few students or citizens stopped to think that it was the U. S. military’s use of search-and-destroy tactics, indiscriminate bombing, torture of POWs, chemical defoliants, and forced resettlement programs that so devaluated lives in Vietnam or “the Orient.” In fact, I don’t recall hearing the comment after the revelations of the My Lai massacre and the infamous published photo of terrified children running down a road after their clothes had been burned off by napalm and their skin severely damaged.

Masur Reviews Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Note: Professor Masur wrote a review of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS series The Vietnam War for the North Dakota Quarterly. The essay is reprinted here with permission. Professor Masur’s preliminary thoughts on the first episode of the series appeared on the blog in September.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War

America’s war in Vietnam, which ended almost fifty years ago, has never really faded from the country’s memory. Every American military intervention since the mid-1970s has elicited inevitable comparisons to Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial remains one of the most popular destinations in Washington, D.C. The Vietnam War and Vietnam vets continue to crop up in American movies and television programs. Colleges and universities around the country offer courses on the Vietnam War, and Millennials have shown no signs of losing interest in the topic.

This year in particular the Vietnam War seems to be on the minds of Americans. The Post, Steven Spielberg’s most recent film, recreates a pivotal event related to the war: the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of American involvement in Vietnam. Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of some of the War’s most fateful years, the New York Times has been publishing a series of articles looking back on the events of 1967 and 1968. Last fall, PBS began broadcasting Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part series The Vietnam War.

The Burns and Novick series is of particular interest because viewers tend to judge documentaries as more credible and “truthful” than Hollywood adaptations like The Post. And The Vietnam War it is likely to reach a wider audience than the New York Times series, and will certainly reach more Americans than most scholarly articles and books on the war. If earlier Burns and Novick productions are any indication, The Vietnam War will be watched and re-watched in living rooms and classrooms around the country. High school teachers and college teachers may lean heavily on the series, not only because it is a convenient way to present the war but also because it is powerful and informative. In other words, The Vietnam War may, for the time being, become the single most influential source in shaping Americans’ understanding of the history of the Vietnam War.

As would be expected for an 18-hour series, The Vietnam War offers ample material for analysis. Early reviews have applauded the series for its powerful use of first-hand recollections of the War. Some critics have lambasted Burns and Novick for favoring “balance” over accuracy. These critics feel that the series presents a false equivalence between the United States and its Vietnamese enemies, thus failing to hold the U.S. fully accountable for the war. Many have focused on one line of narration that comes early in the series: the assertion that American officials acted in “good faith” when they oversaw U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

Whatever the documentary’s virtues or shortcomings, Burns and Novick have made an effort to “Vietnamize” their account of the Vietnam War. (“Vietnamize” is a loaded term, of course, as it refers the strategy of shifting military responsibility from the United States to South Vietnam. President Nixon, most closely associated with “Vietnamization,” found the term preferable to its synonym: “de-Americanization.”) The series is available with Vietnamese subtitles, a nod to the fact that the Vietnamese themselves are not only sources for the series, but also a potential audience. Viewers will also notice right away that Burns and Novick include numerous Vietnamese interviewees throughout the series. Less obviously, the historical narrative in the series relies on important recent scholarship on North and South Vietnam during the war. Although The Vietnam War still gives primacy to the war as an American experience (not surprising for a film produced and broadcast in the United States), it gives Vietnam and the Vietnamese a more prominent place in the story.

The most riveting segments of The Vietnam War come from the first-hand accounts of the war. A few stand out. Marine Corps veteran John Musgrave vividly describes his combat experience in Vietnam, his post-war struggles, and his decision to protest against the war. A soldier from Roxbury, Mass. recalls a conversation with his mother, who assures him that he’ll make it back alive because she “talk[s] to God every day and your special.” “I’m putting pieces of special people in bags,” he replies.

Viewers hear the story of enlisted man Denton “Mogie” Crocker from his sister Carol and his mother Jean-Marie. The fact that Mogie himself is present only in pictures and letters tips off viewers to his ultimate fate. The foreshadowing makes it no less heart-wrenching when Carol and Jean-Marie describe the day that they learned of his death.

In an effort to present a more complete account of the Vietnam War, the series also includes interviews with numerous Vietnamese participants. Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese veteran and novelist, appears in multiple episodes and provides some important insights about the War. In episode nine, he describes the conflict as a “civil war”—a characterization that is generally at odds with the Party-sanctioned narrative that the Vietnamese were fighting primarily against a neo-imperialist foreign enemy. Bao Ninh also offers a touching anecdote near the end of the series. Describing his return home after the war, he says that his mom was overwhelmed with emotion:

For six years my mother had no idea if I was alive or dead. . . . My mother cried [when I returned]. But we didn’t make a scene. . . . In our apartment building, six young men were drafted, and I was the only one to return. We didn’t dare celebrate, didn’t dare express our joy, because our neighbors lost their children.

The series reflects the prominent role that Vietnamese women played in the conflict. Duong Van Mai Elliott describes her experience as a young woman interviewing NLF captives for the RAND Corporation. A North Vietnamese woman talks about her time as a truck driver ferrying materials down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, constantly threatened by American bombing. Americans may not be surprised to hear American soldiers talk about killing the enemy, but it is still a bit stunning when soft-spoken NLF veteran Nguyen Thi Hoa cooly describes her actions during the Tet Offensive: “When I found them, I shot them. An American, not that far away, about three meters. He opened fire. I raised my AK. I aimed. I had to shoot him. [Pause.] And I dropped him.”

While the interviews with Vietnamese participants do provide much-needed balance to the series, they do not quite carry the emotional heft of many of the American accounts. The series includes some story arcs that span several episodes: the Crockers worrying about Mogie’s fate; Hal Kushner undergoing a harrowing ordeal as a POW and not seeing his family—including a son born after he left for Vietnam—for over five years; Matt Harrison volunteering for a second tour to prevent his brother from being deployed. For the most part, the interviews with Vietnamese participants do not have the same depth, limiting their dramatic power.

The series includes Vietnamese perspectives in other ways as well. The historical narrative that is woven throughout The Vietnam War incorporates some of the most recent scholarship on the war, much of it exploring the political, economic, social, and environmental conditions in North and South Vietnam during the conflict. Several episodes depict the political and social unrest that plagued South Vietnam during the war, but the series also acknowledges that the South Vietnamese generally enjoyed more political freedom than their counterparts in the North. In a stunning revelation, a North Vietnamese Army veteran admits that up to 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians from Hue were massacred in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. “We rarely speak of it,” he says. “So please be careful making your film because I could get in trouble.”

The Vietnam War also incorporates recent scholarship revealing that Le Duan, rather than Ho Chi Minh, was the most powerful North Vietnamese official for most of the war. A hardliner, Le Duan generally pushed for a more aggressive military strategy in the South and seemed willing to accept high numbers of casualties as the cost of victory. Until recently, Le Duan has usually appeared as a secondary figure in scholarship on the war—if he is included at all. His name appears only eight times in Stanley Karnow’s 700-page tome Vietnam: A History, the companion book to PBS’ 1983 multi-part Vietnam documentary. The second edition of George Herring’s America’s Longest War (1986), for years the most popular textbook on the war, did not include him at all. (Even during the war the United States was slow to realize Le Duan’s significance. Episode 5 features a recording of a conversation from early 1966 that appears to be the first time Lyndon Johnson had ever heard his name—Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has to spell it aloud for the President.) But Le Duan crops up again and again in the Burns and Novick series, usually pushing for another bloody military offensive that he hopes will finally bring victory.

In spite of its efforts to show the war from many perspectives, The Vietnam War does have some unfortunate omissions. The series briefly describes the devastating effects of the war on Laos and Cambodia, but does not include any Lao or Khmer interviewees to tell their stories. Several American interviewees express their sadness at what they consider America’s betrayal of its South Vietnamese allies at the end of the war. The Hmong who participated in America’s covert activities in Lao were similarly left to fend for themselves, often experiencing similar oppression and suffering. And yet they are not even mentioned in the series. By the same token, the final episode briefly mentions that ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam were singled out for oppression in the years after the war ended. Their stories would provide even more evidence of the tragic nature of the war.

Any account of the Vietnam War will necessarily include some gaps and oversights. But viewers who watch the entire series—no small commitment—will encounter the central historical themes of the war. They will also be rewarded with a very human depiction of the Vietnam War, one which places the experiences of the participants at the forefront.

History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part II)

Part II

Part I of this post explored parallels between the 1924 immigration law and President Trump’s 2017 executive order restricting immigration to the United States. Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

While the lessons of history may be ambiguous, we can learn a lot about our own society by looking at how we understand past events. The first part of this post was inspired in part by a picture on Facebook:

italian-immigrants-didnt-wave-italian-flags

There are numerous problems with this meme, not least of which is the attempt to use the past to suggest that the ancestors of white Americans were more noble or patriotic than recent immigrants to the United States. To suggest that early 20th-century Italian-Americans were much more likely to assimilate than their modern counterparts is likely not true. In fact, Italian-Americans in the early 1900s had a reputation that was not all that different from immigrants today. Italians attempted to preserve their culture, often in the face of intense pressures to “Americanize.” Moreover, some native-born Americans questioned whether Italians’ religious faith—in this case, Catholicism—was compatible with American civic life. In other words, Italian-Americans were not that different from other immigrant groups that came to the United States, both at the time and in recent years.

There was another element of the Italian-American experience that bears interesting parallels to today. In 1919 and 1920, terrorists launched a series of deadly bombings in the United States. The culprits were American anarchists who may have been inspired by Luigi Galleani, an Italian-American radical based in Lynn, Massachusetts. The great majority of Italian-Americans were not involved in anti-government activities, let alone deadly bombings. Nevertheless, some Americans came to believe that immigrants—especially Italian ones—represented a very real and dangerous threat to the nation’s security. Galleani was deported in 1919, along with several other Italian radicals. A Justice Department crackdown on radicals included a 1920 raid in Paterson, New Jersey that led to the arrest of twenty-nine Italian anarchists.

galleani

Italian Anarchist Luigi Galleani

In this climate of anti-immigrant and anti-radical hysteria, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti gripped the nation’s attention. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian-Americans who were accused of murdering a guard during a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920. The two men, who were alleged to have ties to Galleani, were tried, convicted, and eventually executed in 1927. Though their culpability has been debated (and research suggests that one or both of the accused were in fact involved in terrorist activities), most historians argue that their trial was hopelessly compromised by the virulent anti-immigrant and anti-radical views of the period.

The fate of Sacco and Vanzetti brings us back to the issue of immigration that started Part I of this post. The 1924 immigration law ostensibly protected the United States from dangerous elements who wanted to destroy American society. Italian-Americans were the victims of these policies. Today, Italian-Americans who want to denounce recent immigrants for their failure to assimilate look back nostalgically to a time when, in their understanding, their great-grandparents came to the United States and admirably and enthusiastically transformed from Italians to Americans. This characterization obscures the long history of nativism in the United States and the debates about security that have often informed immigration policy. It also does a disservice to earlier generations of immigrants, who face intense prejudice and opposition–not unlike immigrants today.

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part I)

Part I

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

**Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

The images are striking: immigrants stuck in limbo, having arrived in the New York but detained and denied entry due to new, stricter immigration regulations. Those affected include men who risked their lives fighting for the United States who now find that they are unwelcome in the country they defended. In one case, a woman from the Middle East arrives in the U.S. to be reunited with her husband, a religious cleric who had come to the country legally more than a year earlier. The woman and their young daughter are taken into custody and then ordered to return home, prompting a frantic legal battle over their future.

ellis-registry

Holding area at Ellis Island.

These stories do not describe events that took place in the past week—they describe conditions in 1924, just after Congress passed legislation that dramatically reduced the number of immigrants eligible for entry into the United States. The new law created bottlenecks at American ports, including Ellis Island. Critics of the law were dismayed to note that soldiers who had fought in World War I but later left the country found themselves stranded, uncertain of when they could return. Other opponents complained that the law unfairly targeted certain ethnic groups. Italians, who had made up a large percentage of immigrants to the United States since the early 1900s, saw their numbers slow to a trickle. Religious minorities also suffered under the new law; the family mentioned in the opening paragraph were Jews from Palestine.

immigration-cartoon

On this blog, we try not to overstate the link between past and present. Immigration restrictions in 2017 are not the same as in 1924; America now is very different from America then. Nevertheless, President Trump’s executive order has drawn attention to America’s historic position as a beacon for immigrants, along with its equally long history of trying to exclude “undesirables.” Trump’s critics are right: his executive order is un-American, a betrayal of our core principles. At the same time, it is also quintessentially American, a modern manifestation of the nativist tendencies that have always existed in this country.

Part II of this post explores the fears that immigrants in the 1920s were violent radicals who threatened the American way of life. It will also consider how that history relates to current attitudes, and provide another illustration of how past events can be misconstrued in a modern context.

Last Day–heading home from Havana

On our last day in Cuba we had the morning in Havana before we had to leave for the airport. This gave us all a chance to pack and do some last minute shopping. Several of the students went back to the market, and others went on a mission to buy some coffee to bring back to the states.

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The professors on the trip decided to take a walk near the hotel, where we passed the Club Capablanca, a famous chess club. Sadly, it was closed—seemingly permanently. Then we tried to find an antique car so we could take a spin down the Malecon and have a cup of coffee.

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Initially most of the cabs were occupied, but we finally ended up in a rather beat-up old green Ford. We took a ride to the old section of town, where we had a great cup of coffee while watching the activity on the local square. For our return to the hotel we hailed this stunning metallic orange ’57 Chevy convertible. It was a great way to end the trip in style.

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As a final souvenir, just before getting on the bus for the airport, I took a picture of a mural on the wall near the hotel. It traced Castro’s journey before returning to Cuba in 1958. I’ll be interested to see if it is still there when we return–perhaps in 2017.

Bay of Pigs Museum and Trinidad

After a relaxing evening on the beach, the next morning we visited the small but interesting museum dedicated to the Bay of Pigs invasion. The tour started with a short propaganda video. Then we browsed the leftover military equipment and other relics from the invasion.

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Not surprisingly, the museum presented a rather nationalistic account of the invasion, which pitted American-backed “mercenaries” against heroic Cubans.

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After the museum we hopped back on our somewhat trusty schoolbus for the drive to Trinidad. The trip took us through more of rural Cuba, where we saw rice, sugar cane, and tropical fruit production. The bumpy roads were also dotted with occasional propaganda posters, including the most explicitly anti-American billboard that we saw on our trip.

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We arrived in Trinidad around lunch time. Trinidad is a beautiful old colonial town that was once a center of sugar production nestled in the Escambray Mountains.

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The cobblestone streets, brightly colored walls, and terra cotta tile roofs lend the city its distinctive character.

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While in Trinidad we took a tour of a home that had been owned by a family that had earned its wealth in sugar production. The house was kept in excellent condition and decorated with antique china, furniture, and art.

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We left Trinidad in the late afternoon for our long return trip to Havana. Although it took us several hours to get back, the journey was made easier by this beautiful sunset (and the Bucaneros that we picked up at a rest stop along the way).

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