Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Rush to Judgment: Preliminary Thoughts on PBS’ “The Vietnam War”

Like many Americans with an interest in history, One Thing after Another sat down to watch the premiere of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s much-anticipated documentary The Vietnam War. While only a fool would judge an eighteen-hour series on the first episode, we at One Thing after Another have never shied away from a challenge. So what follows are some very preliminary observations about a program that is bound to shape the way Americans—and others—understand the Vietnam War.

First it is worth noting the many strengths that jump out in the first episode. The filmmakers have employed a diverse set of contributors to share their thoughts on the Vietnam War. Careful viewers might notice some familiar names: Bao Ninh (NVA veteran and author of The Sorrow of War), Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), Leslie Gelb (former official in the State Department), Rufus Phillips (CIA officer), Bui Diem (South Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S), and Duong Van Mai Elliott (scholar and author of the memoir Sacred Willow). But many of the interviewees are not necessarily prominent figures who played an exceptional role in Vietnam. Rather, the filmmakers rely on people whose experiences were “ordinary,” in the sense that they experienced Vietnam in ways that were familiar to many participants.

The filmmakers have also done a nice job in capturing some of the key historical developments in the years leading up to the “Americanization” of the war. Many viewers will be surprised to learn of the brutality of French colonialism and Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to appeal to the United States as early as World War I. The episode effectively (and accurately) depicts the French War to be both a colonial struggle but also a civil conflict between Vietnamese, with Duong Van Mai noting that the fighting split many Vietnamese families. The section on Dien Bien Phu is illuminating, as it captures the against-all-odds victory of General Vo Nguyen Giap over a garrison of French troops. And viewers will likely watch with a sense of foreboding as the French war unravels, knowing that the United States is about to jump in and suffer a similar fate.

But the nagging feeling that the events of the 1940s and 1950s serve as a prelude or backdrop to the “real” war of the 1960s is also one of the limitations of the documentary—or at least of the first episode. One of the first things that viewers may notice about the series is the war does not unfold chronologically. The first episode covers the period from French colonization in the 1860s up to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. At various points throughout the episode, though, it jumps forward to recollections of later moments in the war—soldiers talking about going on patrol in 1966 or the domestic upheaval that erupted in Chicago in 1968. The purpose of these interruptions seems to be to shrink the distance between the events that preceded American involvement and the American war itself. The message, it seems, is that events and experiences in the 1940s or 1950s bear a certain resemblance to–or even connection to–events in the mid- to late-1960s.

The importance of understanding the historical roots of America’s conflict in Vietnam is reinforced by the opening segment. The first episode begins with footage of the fighting in Vietnam that appears to be taken from the 1960s. Eventually, though, the images begin moving backwards, as the viewer is transported from the late 1960s back to the beginning of the decade, and then further still to the 1950s and eventually to World War II. Meanwhile, viewers hear the words of American presidents, but moving from later presidents like Johnson and Kennedy backwards to Eisenhower and then Truman. With these techniques, the first episode lays out a sort of “roadmap” to America’s involvement in Vietnam—first the French came, but they found that they could not defeat the forces of Vietnamese nationalism. The United States, blinded by its Cold War assumptions, was inexorably drawn into the conflict when the French left.

There is obviously some truth to this narrative. Frankly, if The Vietnam War is able to teach Americans this simple account of the Vietnam War it will probably be a real accomplishment. But this narrative also has some flaws or holes, and it is only one way that historians might approach the topic. For example, by characterizing America’s intervention as a long, slow slide into Vietnam the documentary may reinforce the idea that the U.S. had limited opportunities to avoid involvement in the conflict. More and more, historians are emphasizing that American officials had numerous opportunities to choose de-escalation rather than escalation. This theme will likely become more apparent in later episodes, as Fredrik Logevall, one of the leading proponents of the theory that the U.S. “chose” war, is one of the historical advisors for the documentary.

If the first episode shades toward a bit of determinism in describing America’s role in Vietnam, it may do the same in its account of the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Viewers of the first part of the documentary may be left thinking that Ho Chi Minh and his followers represented the sole—or at least the primary—movement challenging French colonialism (and, by extension, Japanese control). But such a portrayal ignores the fact that many different groups jockeyed for position in Vietnam, often offering wildly divergent visions for Vietnamese independence and development. In the 1940s, for example, non-communist nationalists allied with the Guomindang attracted a small following. After 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem tried to establish an independent government below the 17th parallel. And throughout this period various religious groups, including different Buddhist sects and the indigenous Hoa Hao, offered their own visions for an independent Vietnam.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick had to make hard choices when deciding what to include in their documentary. While the length of the series may seem excessive to some viewers, it is impossible to provide a comprehensive account of the Vietnam conflict(s) in eighteen hours. You can be certain that historians would quibble with omissions in a series that was twice as long. It’s also fair to expect a documentary written, produced, and broadcast in the United States to emphasize the stories that interest an American audience. At the same time, a documentary that is bound to shape Americans’ understanding of Vietnam will face a fair amount of scrutiny and second-guessing. Fortunately, the dialogue spurred by the series will provide ample opportunity to think about how best to understand the Vietnam War.


Why are There No Indians in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk?

With respect to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, there is a fair amount of “What about-ism” these days. What about Churchill? What about the French? As One Thing after Another has pointed out in a previous post, some critics are unhappy that Nolan did not include the stories of various figures or groups in his film. Now it is the turn of those who complain that Nolan has left Indians out of his tale.

One Thing after Another has a two-part response to these criticism. First, Nolan’s ambition consisted of presenting the experience of Dunkirk, not relating the story of a battle in the round like, say, The Longest Day, or other such films associated with “blockbuster history.” In doing so, Nolan took British memories of Dunkirk as a plucky evacuation and recast them into a harrowing survival story (military historian Robert Citino claims this movie presents the best rendition of what helpless infantry must have felt like when attacked by Stukas). As this blog has argued earlier, many of Nolan’s critics appear to desire a semi-documentary that details the doings of everybody on the beach when that was never his ambition. In large part, they desire this treatment because they want his film to bear the large and unwieldy load of rectifying British amnesia about the contributions of others during the evacuation (and the entire war for that matter).

And that brings us to the second part of this blog’s response. In the New York Times, Yasmin Khan complains that Dunkirk allows Britons to continue ignoring the imperial dimension of World War II. Why, then, did Nolan not show Indian troops at Dunkirk or present the narrative through Indian eyes? The answer is that there were probably very few Indians at Dunkirk. When World War II broke out in September 1939, the Indian Army had just over 200,000 men on the rolls. According to Khan’s India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War, 53,000 Indians enlisted in the army during the first eight months of the war. In other words, when the Dunkirk evacuation occurred, the Indian Army still numbered under a quarter million men, not enough to spare many soldiers abroad, guard the volatile North-West Frontier, and maintain domestic order. Not surprisingly, then, the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) order of battle for 1940 reveals that there were no Indian combat units in France. Khan and others have pointed out that elements of the Royal India Army Service Corps (see photo above) were present in France and made it to the beaches for evacuation. But the RIASC only ever sent four companies to Franceabout 1,000 men. This unit would have constituted a drop in the bucket compared to the 225,000-odd British troops stranded on the beach. As for the lascars, those Indian sailors who constituted around a quarter of the British Merchant Navy’s strength, the evidence seems to indicate that they were not as numerous at Dunkirk as Sunny Singh believes. A large majority of British troops rescued from the beach were picked up by the Royal Navy’s smaller warships (destroyers, minesweepers, and so on) or vessels pressed into service by the Royal Navy (mainly ferry boats or those involved in Britain’s coastal trade). The latter, to judge from W. J. R. Gardner’s The Evacuation from Dunkirk: “Operation Dynamo”, 26 May-4 June 1940, the standard reference work on the subject, were captained by officers from the Royal Navy Reserve, and they generally appear to have been manned by British crews.

India’s enormous contribution to the British Empire’s war effort (as chronicled recently by both Khan’s excellent book and Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia) came later and elsewhere in the form of men, resources, and production. The Indian Army, which grew to just under 2.5 million men, played a very significant role in the Middle East, a commitment that spilled over into North Africa and thence to Italy and Greece. This force also proved particularly important in driving the Japanese out of Burma (now Myanmar). These missions were generally in keeping with the traditions of the Indian Army which consisted of safeguarding nearby imperial interests, including the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and southeast Asia (the one big exception came during World War I in the fall of 1914 when about one-fifth of the BEF in France consisted of Indian troops). And that is part of the reason why India’s contribution to the war has often been overlooked by both Britons and Indians; each has their reasons for ignoring the British Empire during World War II. British memories of the conflict stress how Britons heroically fought “alone” against the Germans for 18 months after France collapsed. This memory also tends to emphasize the action in Europe; there is less interest in the imperial dimension of the war because the empire is now dead and gone. At the same time, as Khan explains in her book, Indians also do not seem particularly interested in the role they played during World War II, largely because that role is difficult to incorporate in the nationalist narrative about India’s movement to independence in the 1940s. How does one tell the story of the almost 2.5 million Indian soldiers who faithfully did the British Empire’s bidding just a few short years before India’s “tryst with destiny”?

There is a movie yet to be made about Indians’ contribution to World War II that deals with the complexity of their relationship to the conflict and the British Empire. Dunkirk is not the setting for that movie. Such a film should be set in the Middle East or North Africa. Better yet, it it should take place in Burma, where eight of the thirteen infantry division that served in Bill Slim’s 14th Army were Indian. Their victories at Imphal and Kohima in the spring of 1944, which dealt Japan its greatest defeats on land during World War II, led to the recovery of Burma. It’s pretty clear that a British audience would not show much interest in such a film. But would Indians be in the mood to watch a movie that showed them in the service of an empire that they believe they are well rid of?

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Its Critics

If you pay attention to movies, you know that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which was released in the United States on Friday (and on July 13 in Britain), has been a tremendous hit with film critics, winning a fresh score of 92% at Rotten Tomatoes. Media outlets across the political spectrum appear to agree in conferring high honors on Dunkirk. For example, The Guardian acclaims it as “Nolan’s best film so far,” describes it as a “visceral piece of film-making,” and compares Nolan to Stanley Kubrick. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal, which usually doesn’t find itself on the same side of most issues as The Guardian, praises Nolan for having “created something new in the annals of war films—an intimate epic.”

The world, of course, would not be what it is if somebody wasn’t critical of Nolan’s choices. A handful of critics have complained that the film does not have much of an emotional core because there is little character development, and One Thing after Another can understand where they are coming from; Dunkirk is an inspired piece of filmmaking, but it is not perfect. One Thing after Another, however, is less forgiving of more political criticisms of the movie. In a mixed review that admires Dunkirk’s ability to immerse the audience in the experiences of the protagonists but criticizes the lack of character development, Jacques Mandelbaum in Le Monde (one of France’s pre-eminent newspapers) takes Nolan to task for turning his movie into “a purely English history.” “In this film, where are the 120,000 French soldiers also evacuated from Dunkirk?” Mandelbaum asks. “Where are the other 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against an enemy superior in arms and in numbers?” Mandelbaum would like to rescue the story of Dunkirk from its status as an exclusively British epic; the narrative he desires to see is a Franco-British one. This narrative would stress the courageous efforts of French troops at Lille and Dunkirk who bought time for the men on the beach—both French and British—to be rescued in a joint Allied operation. It would also express the pathos of the relations between allies who were now fated to go their separate ways—the British saving themselves to fight another day and liberate the Continent, the French succumbing to defeat and the tender mercies of Petain and German occupation. This type of criticism of is intelligible. France has its own story to tell about a battle that took place on French soil and involved hundreds of thousands of French troops who generally acquitted themselves in a courageous fashion. One can understand how tiresome it must feel to have this tale usurped or appropriated by the British. Yet there is more than one way of looking at Dunkirk, and many of these ways do not involve surveying the battle in its totality. Nolan is clearly interested in using Dunkirk as the setting for a timeless survival story. In so doing, he recasts the traditional British memory of Dunkirk which stresses the virtues of pluckiness, improvisation, courage, and the stiff upper lip. Instead, Nolan’s Dunkirk is a grim, austere, and often terrifying story where men must face terrible choices as they run a gauntlet of nightmares. As The Guardian puts it, Dunkirk is not so much a war movie as a disaster film; the characters, often with limited means, try to evade or, at most, mitigate the great harm of war. Indeed, Dunkirk reminds One Thing after Another of Samuel Hynes’ The Soldiers’ Tale (1998) with its evocation of the soldier as helpless victim before the often indiscriminate and sweeping reach of modern war (see Slate‘s comments to this point). At the end of the film, one of the characters, now safely in Britain, gets hold of a newspaper, and in a sometimes faltering voice, reads aloud Winston Churchill’s famous June 4, 1940 oration in the House of Commons (commonly referred to as the “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech). How strange and incongruous these words sound in the mouth of an exhausted British soldier who has done everything he could to escape a French beach, surviving rifle fire, artillery bombardment, strafing, bombing, and the sinking of several vessels. This moment makes us aware of the degree to which Nolan seeks to overturn the story that has dominated British memories of the evacuation.

At bottom, Dorothy Rabinowitz’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Review (as opposed to the positive film review by Joe Morgenstern which is cited above) suffers from the same kind of problem as Mandelbaum’s criticism. Rabinowitz accuses Nolan of “dumbing down” the story of Dunkirk because he did not supply the full historical context for the evacuation. Churchill, she complains, never makes an appearance in the film and, as she points out, it’s almost impossible, unless one already knows the story of Dunkirk, to see that the British characters in the film are pitted against Nazi Germany. Rabinowitz attributes the worst motives to Nolan by dwelling on his desire to make a “universal” and “relevant” story that neither gets bogged down in “politics” nor seems “old-fashioned.” She concludes that these aims show how little Nolan thinks of his audience; he does not wish, she argues, to tax their intellect too much. Like Mandelbaum, she wants a more complete story, but her version would involve Churchill, the discussions of the British cabinet, the conferences of generals and admirals, a full accounting of what occurred on the beach, and so on. In graduate school, One Thing after Another learned that a book reviewer should generally criticize a work on the basis of its arguments, not for neglecting to cover the topic that the reviewer wished the author had tackled. That piece of advice seems particularly apposite in this case. Rabinowitz appears incensed that Nolan did not depict Dunkirk the way she would have done it. As we have already seen, Nolan’s goals are far different from hers. She is interested in presenting what amounts to a history lesson in semi-documentary form. He is more concerned with the experience of individuals who try, each in his own way, to deal with the disaster at Dunkirk. Again, there is more than one way to portray this story.

One Thing after Another will go further, though, and argue that in other cases, Rabinowitz’s preferred approach to telling a World War II story has already been tried and found wanting. From the early 1960s, starting with The Longest Day (1962), and continuing until A Bridge Too Far (1977), Hollywood was plagued by “blockbuster history” films about World War II (to use Stephen Ambrose’s phrase). These movies, which also included The Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), were huge productions that involved enormous casts and long running times. They interlaced the big picture with the little one, attempting to integrate the stories of politicians and generals with common soldiers. They could be entertaining and compelling in spots, but they generally faltered under the weight of their own ambitions. Film critics do not consider them great films, and historians do not think of them as great history. This sub-genre, then, has already been done before and, by most accounts, has failed. Why would Nolan want to give Dunkirk the blockbuster history treatment which is what Rabinowtiz seems to demand of him? Perhaps this is what Nolan meant when he said he did not want to make an “old-fashioned” war film.

Mandelbaum and Rabinowitz ought to understand that one can see the story of Dunkirk from a variety of perspectives. In recognizing that fact, they should ask themselves, first, if Nolan has seized upon an interesting and worthwhile perspective and, second, if he has related his tale well. Most critics, it appears, have answered “yes” to both questions.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Review: Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance

Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015).

For a work that is not a history of memory, Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows is still very much conscious of the way the French remember the Resistance movement of World War II. The introduction of this book is concerned almost exclusively with the emergence of the “central myth” of Resistance that was perpetuated by Charles de Gaulle and how it later succumbed to competing narratives. De Gaulle’s nationalist myth claimed that 1) the story of the Resistance could be traced in a straight line from the point when de Gaulle made his famous 1940 BBC radio address (where he called upon the French to continue resisting after their armies had been defeated) to the liberation of Paris and his famous march down the Champs-Élysées in 1944; 2) the vast majority of the French had supported the brave few who had taken up arms (and pens) against the German occupation; and 3) while the Anglo-Americans had provided valuable assistance, France had liberated itself and thus “restored national honour, confidence and unity” (3). While this myth persisted for some time, others grew alongside it or eventually supplanted it. The Communists, who had played an important role in the Resistance, always had their own myth that stressed their significance, the terrible suffering they had undergone during the occupation, and the kind of world that they had fought for. After de Gaulle’s death, another narrative emerged that emphasized the importance to the Resistance of foreign anti-fascists and especially foreign Jews (6). Other narratives that saw light of day in these years included those that highlighted the degree to which most Frenchmen had been “time-servers and cowards if not traitors” (5) or those that depicted Jews in France as victims rather than resisters. Most recently, one of the more influential fables has portrayed the French as a people moved by the Enlightenment, the rights of man, and humanistic values to support the small minority who rescued Jews from persecution. At the end of the introduction, Gildea clearly expresses a desire to right the balance of memory so that it more accurately reflects the past:

The dominant narrative of resistance today is a humanitarian and universal myth of the struggle for the rights of man, which allows a greater role for women and rescuers of Jews, and a lesser role for freedom fighters with Sten guns. The memories of resisters of dissident communist, foreign and Jewish origin survived as group memories but not as dominant narratives. One of the aims of this study is to bring these back into the mainstream. (19)

For these reasons, Gildea is far more interested in the politics and experience of the Resistance than he is in the Resistance’s military effectiveness or contribution to Allied victory. Fighters in the Shadows, then, speaks more to French history than the history of World War II. At the same time, the main themes of this work revolve around the diversity, divisions, and difficulties that characterized the Resistance throughout the war. What Gildea seems to indicate is that one should not be surprised by the bitterly contested leadership battles, the arguments over military strategy, the disputes over the movement’s political direction, and the overall lack of military effectiveness. Rather, what is truly astonishing is that the Resistance accomplished as much as it did, de Gaulle made an almost seamless transition to power in 1944, and France was able to contain civil discord as much as it did in the aftermath of the liberation.

Gildea is at his best in describing the experience of resisters—the motives that inspired them to join the Resistance, the institutions that served as the foundations for their organizations (“trade unions and businesses, universities and museums, churches and refugee groups”), the various forms of resistance they engaged in, the political objectives they sought to attain, and the means by which they sought to achieve these objectives. Chapter 7 (“In and Out of the Shadows”) is especially interesting in probing the ambiguity of Resistance, where there was always a “tension between appearance and reality, trust and treachery, and the absence of laws apart from those dictated by circumstance” (179). This theme meshes well with the confusion and conflict that characterized the Resistance from the beginning. Many of those who were appalled by German victory and determined to resist the occupation were perplexed about what to do. Those on the right stayed their hand for the moment because they thought (or hoped) that Petain was playing a deep game against the Germans and would eventually find a way to eject the occupiers from the country. Those on the left, especially Communists, did not wish to take up arms against a state that was an ally of the Soviet Union. Even after it became clear that Petain was incapable of using his power as a shield to protect the French people (as he had promised) and even after Germany invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941), the Resistance was plagued by divisions rooted in its miscellaneous composition. Aside from their important ideological disagreements, resisters came to the movement from diverse backgrounds (e.g. conservative army officers, leftist veterans of the Spanish Civil War—foreign and native, women seeking to stretch gender norms, and Jews, many of whom were foreign nationals). These people displayed variegated temperaments and expressed divergent aspirations. They also performed a wide variety of duties—collecting intelligence, leading protests, producing propaganda, conducting attacks, sabotaging industry, rescuing Jews, and smuggling downed Allied airmen. Gildea notes that the different circumstances in the Occupied Zone (nominally ruled by the Vichy government but run by the Germans) and the Free Zone (administered by Vichy alone until November 1942, when the Germans occupied the rest of the country) produced movements that applied themselves to contrasting tasks (in the former, the Resistance undertook “practical” jobs like collecting intelligence, while in the latter, it was more involved in propaganda). Not surprisingly, the various Resistance groups were divided over strategy, organization, and leadership. Broadly speaking, Communists aimed at sparking a national insurrection when the time was right so that they could eject the Germans from France and install a leftist regime. Many to the right of the Communists objected to this plan because they saw such a move as suicidal (the Germans were much better armed than any Resistance group) and had no wish to further the Communists’ objectives. Arguments about strategy (which were heavily influenced by politics) often intersected with those about leadership. Many Resistance groups understood the advantages of coordinating their efforts through some sort of national association. However, they were reluctant to lose their autonomy and expose themselves to extensive German infiltration. Those who led the larger movements had leadership ambitions of their own. Even resisters who had no such ambition felt trepidations about serving any overseas master, including de Gaulle. Some feared that he was a stooge of the British while others worried about what kind of plans a conservative, Catholic general might have for France’s future.

The story of the Resistance, of course, is inextricably tied to that of de Gaulle and the Free French. Gildea also covers De Gaulle’s story which is nothing short of remarkable. In June 1940, he was a mere brigadier general and former junior minister in the Reynaud Cabinet—without friends or following in Britain. In August 1944, he marched through Paris, the uncontested leader of the French nation. De Gaulle had to overcome a number of opponents and obstacles to achieve this goal. Although they recognized him as the leader of the Free French very early (in late June 1940), de Gaulle’s relationship with the British was always strained, and Churchill often wondered if the Frenchman was worth supporting. The Americans, who always seemed inclined to make a deal with Vichy authorities rather than replace them (particularly in North Africa), expressed much hostility toward de Gaulle. Meanwhile, at least in the early years, de Gaulle struggled to attract soldiers to his Free French force which was always smaller in number than Vichy’s armies (i.e. the Armistice army and the Army of Africa). Once the Allies conquered North Africa (Operation Torch, November 1942), and the Free French were merged with the Army of Africa, de Gaulle faced competition from General Henri Giraud for overall leadership of the Resistance. Finally, de Gaulle’s efforts to subordinate the Resistance to the Free French enjoyed a brief success before suffering a calamitous reverse in June 1943 when his intermediaries with the Resistance, Jean Moulin and Charles Delestraint were captured by the Germans (shortly thereafter, Moulin was either tortured to death or committed suicide after undergoing a terrible ordeal, while Delestraint was held in captivity until he was executed at Dachau in April 1945). De Gaulle’s links to the Resistance never recovered from this disaster.

The only partial reestablishment of ties between the two accounts for the behavior of the Resistance during the Normandy invasion—all groups more or less “went their own way” with only some obeying orders from the Free French (378). The results were often catastrophic as poorly trained and badly armed maquisards were shot to pieces by battle-hardened German troops. In spite of these problems, de Gaulle proved a masterful politician who outmaneuvered his opponents and manipulated the Allies. Most important of all, he fashioned a myth about his relationship to the metropolitan Resistance that had just enough of an air of verisimilitude to convince both the French and the “Anglo-Saxons” of his indispensability. It is this myth, which formed the basis of a post-war consensus in France, that Gildea seeks to counter by stressing the claims of others to pre-eminence, namely those “resisters of dissident communist, foreign and Jewish origin.”

At times, Gildea’s discussion of obscure figures (or those not widely known in the United States), particularly in Chapter 1 (“Awakenings”), can be both exhaustive and exhausting. This kind of detail, however, is obviously a product of his intense interest in the topic. Moreover, it helps convey the diversity of backgrounds and motives that characterized the Resistance throughout its short existence. In investigating both the low (the experiences of individual Resistance members) and the high (the machinations of de Gaulle along with those of his allies and competitors) as well as describing the links between the two, Gildea has done a great service. Surveys of the French Resistance written for an English-speaking audience are far and few between (the only recent work that comes to mind is Olivier Wieviorka’s The French Resistance, which originally appeared in French back in 2013 before being translated and published in the United States in 2016). Americans hoping to learn about the Resistance may find Fighters in the Shadows challenging because of its extensive cast of characters (and the lengths to which Gildea goes to represent their thoughts and experiences). However, Gildea carefully keeps the reader on track, especially in the conclusion of each chapter where he summarizes his arguments. Those who read to the end will be rewarded with a nuanced understanding of the French Resistance in both history and myth.

Hugh Dubrulle

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

New Orleans and Its Disappearing Confederate Statues

One Thing after Another has noticed over the last several months that national politics has crowded just about everything else out of the news. Stories about history’s contemporary relevance or impact are sometimes difficult to find these days. So if you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed the saga now taking place in New Orleans.

In July 2015, in the wake of the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, asked his city council to remove four monuments from the city. Five months later, after much public debate, the city council voted 6-1 to do so. Three of the monuments celebrated Confederate heroes: Jefferson Davis (president of the Confederacy), Robert E. Lee (commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia), and P.G.T. Beauregard (a prominent Confederate general born outside of New Orleans). The fourth, the Liberty Monument (erected in 1891), memorialized the so-called Battle of Liberty Place (1874). This armed struggle pitted the Crescent City White League, which sought to settle a disputed election by seating a Democratic governor by force, against the metropolitan police (along with elements of the state militia) which fought to defend a Republican regime associated with racial equality. An inscription added in 1932 explicitly celebrated the battle as a step in the direction of white supremacy.

On Monday, April 24, the Liberty Monument was disassembled. Over two weeks later, on Thursday, May 11, the statue of Davis was removed. The workers who took away the Davis statue wore flak jackets for protection and masks to conceal their identity. Such precautions should come as no surprise; the whole exercise has been incredibly controversial, and the statues have been the scenes of protests as well as counter-protests.

What position should one take on the removal of these statues? One Thing after Another believes that the following interview of Professor David Blight (an expert on the history of slavery and the American Civil War who teaches at Yale while directing the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery) in Slate contains a great deal of good sense:

Yes, One Thing after Another understands what its readers have come to expect—that this blog usually refers to articles only to criticize them. This case, however, is different. Blight makes a number of thoughtful points throughout his interview. Anybody who has read this blog’s discussion of Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic will be familiar with several of the ideas that emerge from this exchange. The three most important and relevant ones are as follows.

First, the Confederates fought valorously (much—if not all—of the time) but for a bad cause that was inextricably tied to slavery. One Thing after Another ought to remind readers that such is not merely the verdict of contemporary historians. This blog recalls Ulysses S. Grant’s verdict in his Memoirs (1885), which describes the preliminaries preceding Lee’s surrender at Appomattox:

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

Blight argues, then, that those inclined to defend the memorials ought to admit that the Confederate cause was “deeply flawed or terrible.” However, they ought to also realize that the contemporary South should feel neither shame nor pride for what Southerners did over 150 years ago. As Professor Randy Sparks (a scholar at Tulane University whom the interviewer refers to and with whom Blight agrees) asserts, Confederates were “men of their time and place.”

Second, people need to see, as Sparks argues, that now “is our time, and our place.” We cannot change what our ancestors did, but we can influence the world that our descendants inherit. Much of the controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate statues really has to do with contemporary issues (an argument that Horowitz also makes). For sure, a number of these issues are rooted in the legacies of slavery and the war (e.g the underprivileged position of African Americans today). Still, when people argue about, say, the Confederate battle flag, more often than not, they are projecting today’s concerns on the past. Such debates are often truly about present-day disputes concerning inequality, race, economic opportunity, identity, the basis of community, the limits of government authority, and so on. We ought to have conversations about these issues without making inapt, ahistorical, or anachronistic references to the Civil War.

Third, having recognized these points, we can’t and shouldn’t destroy every Confederate memorial. Attempting to stamp out such memorials would pose to communities questions that admit no easy solution (e.g. Is this or that a memorial? What does it commemorate?). Such a policy would also come to feel oppressive as localities fell under the shadow of a memorial police. As Blight points out, iconoclasm is dangerous because no one quite knows where it will lead. American history without Davis, Lee, and Beauregard would be incomplete, so we cannot erase them from the past. But we can, as Blight suggests, erect “tasteful, important, meaningful new memorials” that show how history has moved on from the Lost Cause fable. In this fashion, we can bring memory and history closer together, an achievement that would prove a public service. Blight refers to the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Memorial on the edge of Boston Common (a patinated plaster cast of which is pictured above) as a possible model for future monuments, and rightly so. If we are compelled to remember Confederate leaders like Davis, Lee and Beauregard, justice demands that we do a better job of representing the complexity of the American Iliad. That task involves publicizing the stories of those who have been pushed to the margins by traditional memorialization of the war (e.g. African Americans, poor Southern whites, and women) but who played such an important role in the conflict.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

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:


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.


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.


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.


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.