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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.

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.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/01/indian-african-dunkirk-history-whitewash-attitudes

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/opinion/dunkirk-indians-world-war.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0

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.

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.

After Brexit, Whither or Wither British History?

brexit

Dane Kennedy recently wrote an essay in Perspectives, the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, in which he analyzes the impact that Brexit will exert on the study British history.

https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/october-2016/does-british-history-matter-anymore-reflections-on-brexit

In his survey of the field, Kennedy reaches two main conclusions. First, Brexit may make British history obsolete. The Brexit vote exposed important national divisions within Britain; England and Wales voted to leave the European Union, while Scotland, and to a lesser extent, Northern Ireland, sought to remain. The outcome of the referendum may only exacerbate these divisions. The Scottish National Party, which committed itself to the “Remain” campaign, is already weighing the wisdom of holding another Scottish independence referendum (the last one, held in 2014, was defeated 55% to 45%). By complicating relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Brexit paradoxically makes it more likely that the two will increasingly draw closer in an attempt to safeguard their common interests (e.g. stabilization and peace in the region). Should Britain begin to disintegrate, Kennedy asserts, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will increasingly focus on their own histories rather than a common British one.

Second, Brexit will undermine the precarious position of British history in the United States.  As Kennedy points out, up until the 1970s and 1980s, every history department in the United States believed it needed at least one British historian. This belief stemmed partly from a sense that America owed a great deal to its British inheritance, partly from a Cold War Atlanticist attitude that saw Britain as America’s closest ally, and partly from the “Eurocentric orientation of the historical profession itself.” However, starting in the 1990s, in an attempt to diversify their offerings, departments began to hire historians who studied previously neglected areas, such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America. As Kennedy puts it, “in the zero-sum game that characterized academic hiring in those financially straitened times, the number of British history positions declined.” And this number continues to decline today. As academic history in the United States became more diverse and global in outlook, the only factor that helped sustain British history was is its connection to empire. In other words, British history has remained interesting to the profession insofar as it is integrated into world history. For this reason, Kennedy argues that since Brexit “marks Britain’s retreat from the world around it,” academic historians will increasingly lose interest in that country with effects that are “detrimental to British history’s survival as a field of study in the United States.”

Much of what Kennedy writes makes a great deal of sense. For sure, as Kennedy puts it, “while Britain’s post-Brexit future may not change the facts about history, it will change how we view that history and what significance we draw from it.” Here Kennedy reminds us of the extent to which contemporary concerns and events shape our study of the past. If One Thing after Another has quibbles with Kennedy on anything, it is in the claim that Brexit is a major turning point that represents a retreat from the world. Such a statement seems like an oversimplification. Instead of representing a sudden break in the course of events, Brexit is part of a long saga in which Britain has sought to manage its relationship with the rest of the world and particularly Europe. It is worth pointing out that well before a slight majority of Britons voted to leave the EU, Britain had already opted out of a number of important EU polices: the Economic and Monetary Union, the Schengen Agreement, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and the AFSJ (Area of Freedom, Security, and Justice). In other words, Britain has long experienced reservations about political integration with the EU. Brexit was the triumph, then, of anti-EU feeling that had existed for some time. To say that Brexit represents a sudden retreat from the world, then, is only partially right. For sure, many voters and politicians who supported the “Leave” campaign felt that political integration with the EU exposed Britain to various elements of globalization that were intolerable (e.g. free movements of peoples). However, a distaste for political integration with the EU (and its consequences) is not necessarily tantamount to shutting oneself off from the world; there is more than one way to to engage with the global economy. Even the most obtuse of the Brexiteers understand that a country with the world’s fifth-largest economy (now possibly sixth-largest with the falling of the pound) simply cannot embrace some type of autarky, especially when exports account for almost 30% of GDP. Enthusiasm for a soft Brexit and bilateral agreements with other nations, unrealistic as these prospects might be, indicate that Britons still wish to relate to the rest of the world—but on their own terms. One Thing after Another does not claim that Brexit was a good idea, that the leaders of the Brexit campaign were models of prudence, or that those who voted “Leave” acted from the best of motives. Rather, this blog argues that Brexit is perhaps not the turning point it has been made out to be. If such is the case, then its impact on British history might be somewhat muted.

Toward the end of his essay, Kennedy expresses skepticism that Britain’s significance at the height of empire will sustain the interest of historians in future years. After all, he points out, the Mongols exerted enormous influence in the past, but there is no great demand for historians of this people. One Thing after Another begs to differ. As Christopher Bayly (a leading scholar of imperial and world history) argued in The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914, Britain was an “exemplar and controller” of modernity. In other words, starting in the late 18th century and continuing well into the next, Britain played a crucial role in propagating the globalization on which it has ostensibly turned its back. We no longer live in a British century, but we live in a world that Britain helped make. That achievement will help ensure its continued historical relevance for some time to come.

CFP Jimmy Carter and the “Year of the Evangelicals” Reconsidered

CFP  Jimmy Carter and the ‘Year of the Evangelicals’ Reconsidered
April 6-8, 2017
New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Saint Anselm College
Manchester, New Hampshire

In 1976 Newsweek magazine borrowed a phrase from pollster George Gallup and proclaimed that year the “Year of the Evangelicals.”  Both presidential candidates – Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter – claimed to be “born again” Christians, a claim made by one third of all Americans; and significant proportions of Protestants and Catholics told Gallup’s pollsters that the Bible should be taken literally, a marker of conservative evangelical Christianity.  This phenomenon caught journalists by surprise, and they struggled to understand this new segment of the electorate, beginning at the top with the candidacy of Jimmy Carter. The election of 1976 brought evangelicals back into the political arena. While many of these people supported Carter’s candidacy and made the difference in his election, the ways in which they influenced public life quickly extended beyond Carter and the Democratic Party.  It also marked evangelicals’ movement from the margins of intellectual and cultural life into the mainstream. Indeed, they soon became a political and cultural force.

Some forty years later, with financial support from the Henry Luce Foundation, Saint Anselm College and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Manchester, New Hampshire, will host a conference in honor of that Newsweek cover story and presidential election. The conference, “Jimmy Carter and ‘The Year of the Evangelicals’ Reconsidered” aims to assess both the scholarly and popular significance of the return to public life of American evangelicals.  While the Newsweek cover story provides the initial starting point, this conference aims to explore the phenomenon of evangelicals and politics more broadly.

Conference organizers seek individual paper proposals or proposals for an entire panel that analyze evangelicalism in light of its contributions to public life both in and since 1976.  In many ways, scholarship on late twentieth-century evangelicalism and the rise of the Religious Right has matured.  But there are still questions to be answered and new interpretations to be offered.  The following research questions point to potential areas for proposals, but this list is not exhaustive and proposals that address other questions or re-imagine conventional interpretations will be welcomed.

First, with the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s and 1980s, the progressive evangelicalism in the Newsweek article was relegated to minority status in the political world.  Why is that and what happened to its political influence in the late 20th century?

Second, in the Newsweek story, Foy Valentine, leader of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, called the label “evangelical” a “Yankee” word.  What made southern Protestant Christianity different from the rest of the nation (and why was it not necessarily “evangelical”)?

Third, African Americans are not often included in the category “evangelical” – especially in the political sense that characterized Newsweek’s story. What about African-American evangelicals?  Where do they fit in evangelicalism’s conventional historical narrative?

Fourth, what has been evangelicals’ influence on popular culture and intellectual life since their return to public life in the 1970s?

Fifth, where are we now?  Has evangelicalism’s influence on American politics diminished in the twenty-first century?

Sixth, what about the mainstream press’s treatment of evangelicals and politics?  What impact did the Newsweek cover story and the election of 1976 have on journalists?

Finally, what was the relationship between Catholics and evangelicals during this period?

Individual paper proposals should include a 250-word abstract, a brief (1-page) CV, and contact information (including email address).  Panel proposals should include a 500-word abstract, with brief (1-page) CVs for all participants and contact information for the panel organizer.

Direct proposals and any questions to Andrew Moore (amoore@anselm.edu).

Deadline for submissions is November 15, 2016.