Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: The Daily Beast (10-14-12)
Sidney Blumenthal, journalist, author, historian, and former senior adviser to President Clinton, is completing a book titled The Man Who Became Abraham Lincoln: How He Won the Civil War and Was Assassinated.
The latest Lincoln boom—kicking off with the bicentennial of his birth in 2009 and the continuing sesquicentennial of the Civil War—shows no sign of abating. It may not even reach its apogee with the release immediately post-election of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a biopic starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. Spielberg, according to a source familiar with the production, has deliberately withheld the film until the current, divisive presidential campaign is over in order to prevent Lincoln from being seized upon to score political points.
But lifting Lincoln above the fray doesn’t remove him from politics. While the political Lincoln may be difficult for us to acknowledge at a time when politics and partisan commitments are widely denigrated, Lincoln’s presidency demonstrates that partisanship and political ruthlessness can be used to advance the highest ideals. And there were no clearer cases than during his 1864 battle for reelection (without which the slave-owning South would almost certainly have triumphed) and subsequent effort to pass the 13th Amendment, which at long last purged slavery from the Constitution. In the end, Lincoln became the master of events because he was the master of politics.
The mythology of Lincoln as too noble for politics began at the moment of his death, with his body sprawled across a small bed in a house across from Ford’s Theatre, where he was shot. At the president’s last breath, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton famously pronounced, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Every age since has invented its Lincoln. Martyred on Good Friday, Lincoln the Christ has rivaled Lincoln the Common Man and Lincoln the Idealist in America’s collective imagination....
Posted on: Monday, October 15, 2012 - 09:49
SOURCE: Salon (10-13-12)
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. Excerpted from his new book “How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America.”
The most popular National Park Service site is the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, which has around 17 million visitors per year; the least popular seems to be the Whittaker Chambers pumpkin patch National Historic Landmark near Baltimore, which has around two visitors per year. I was one of them. One windy fall day, I set out from Baltimore with friends to search for the pumpkin patch. The Reagan administration designated it a National Historic Landmark (officially called “Whittaker Chambers Farm”) in 1988 over the unanimous objection of the National Park Service Advisory Board. The site, outside Westminster, Md., commemorates the spot where, in 1947, Whittaker Chambers reached into a hollowed-out pumpkin and pulled out some 35mm film. He said it showed that Alger Hiss, a pillar of the New Deal, had been a Soviet spy.
The “pumpkin papers” helped convict Hiss of perjury in 1950, which transformed public opinion, convincing Americans for the first time that communism posed a real danger to the country. The obscure congressman named Nixon who pushed the Hiss case won a Senate seat the year Hiss was convicted and got the vice-presidential nomination in 1952; a month after Hiss’s conviction, Sen. Joseph McCarthy gave the speech in Wheeling, W.Va., that launched his career and gave the new, virulent anticommunism its name. For the next 45 years, the Cold War served as the iron cage of American politics.
Conservatives had hoped this site would provide a place where the public could be told that the Communist Party did not just defend a totalitarian regime but also recruited its members to spy on that regime’s behalf. Thus the hunt for communist spies was not “McCarthyism”; it was a noble cause....
Posted on: Sunday, October 14, 2012 - 19:33
SOURCE: Russia in Global Affairs (10-7-12)
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University (Fairfax, Virginia, USA). His books include The Third World in Soviet Military Thought (1982), Russia and Arabia: Soviet Foreign Policy toward the Arabian Peninsula (1986), and Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan (2012). Links to many of his articles on Russian foreign policy and other subjects can be found on his website: www.marknkatz.com
When Vladimir Putin first came to power over a decade ago, he launched a foreign policy initiative to improve Russia’s relations with and influence in the countries of the Middle East, which had languished during the Yeltsin era. By 2010, this initiative had succeeded dramatically. With the active involvement of Putin himself both through visiting several Middle Eastern countries as well as receiving their leaders in Moscow, Russia had established good working relations with all the major actors in the Middle East: anti-American Muslim governments (Iran and Syria) as well as pro-American ones (such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar) and even American-installed ones (Iraq and Afghanistan); Israel as well as Fatah and even Hamas and Hezbollah. Indeed, Russia had good relations with every government and most major opposition movements, with the notable exception of Al Qaeda (which did not want good relations with anyone except for movements similar to itself).
Putin’s achievement stood in stark contrast to that of the United States. While the U.S. had retained the Middle Eastern allies that it had at the end of the Cold War (notably Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states), Washington was still at odds – and unable to positively influence – its longtime regional adversaries such as Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Further, anti-American sentiment in the region had only grown stronger in the first decade of the 21st century not only because of continued U.S. support for Israel, but also because of how the U.S. conducted its “War on Terror” as well as its unpopular intervention in Iraq. While Russia’s friendships in the Middle East may not have been as strong as some of America’s there, Moscow did not have fierce adversaries or face widespread resentment in the region like the U.S. did either.
Since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, however, much of what the previous decade of Russian foreign policy toward the Middle East accomplished has either been reversed or put in jeopardy. Although the sudden explosion of popular opposition against longstanding Arab autocrats caught everyone off guard, America and the West have been reasonably successful at establishing good working relations with the forces of change in the Arab World. Russia, though, has not. While America, the West, and even the Arab League backed Qaddafi’s opponents, Moscow continued to support Qaddafi. When his regime was ousted, then, Libya’s new rulers were unhappy with Russia and suspended economic cooperation with it – something that Moscow might have avoided had it not backed Qaddafi so vocally. Similarly, while the West has called for him to step down, Moscow has continued its strong support for the beleaguered regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Even though it remains in power, Russia’s continued support for the Assad regime has already resulted in the rise of popular animosity toward Russia in the Arab World. And if the Assad regime does fall, it is doubtful that the new regime will look favorably upon Russia as a partner....
Posted on: Friday, October 12, 2012 - 17:13
SOURCE: BBC (10-9-12)
Fouad Ajami is senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and author of The Syrian Rebellion (Hoover Press, 2012).
Pity the Syrian people. They had been given to believe that fighter jets in the arsenal of the state - those Russian-made MIGs they once viewed with pride - were there for the stand-off with Israel.
Now they know better. The runs over Aleppo, the bombings of Idlib, have laid bare the truth. It is no accident that the founder of this regime, Hafez al-Assad, emerged from the ranks of the air force, which is not often an incubator of coup-makers. There would come a day, the masters of this minority regime doubtless knew, when fighter jets would be used at home.
Israel was always the alibi, the declared enemy. But the Sunni-majority country the Alawites conquered was destined to awake one day, and the rulers prepared for a day of reckoning. The cruel, all-out war between the dictatorship and the vast majority of the population was in the script all along.
Of the rebellions that broke out among the Arabs in the last two years, the struggle in Syria was bound to be a case apart. Think of the Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali calling it quits and leaving with his loot, of Hosni Mubarak stepping aside after 18 magical days of protest - this Syrian rebellion's ferocity belongs to a different world of insurrections.
The Syrians must have understood the uniqueness of their situation....
Posted on: Thursday, October 11, 2012 - 14:13
SOURCE: The Daily Beast (10-10-12)
Adam Winkler is a constitutional-law professor at UCLA.
The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday (PDF) in a potentially landmark case that could spell the end of race-based affirmative action in higher education. The case involves a challenge to the University of Texas’s admissions policy that makes race one relevant factor—along with the usual assortment of other criteria, like SAT score, grade-point average, being a legacy, and skills such as playing football or the tuba. Abigail Fisher, a white applicant who was denied admission, claims that UT’s policy violates the 14th Amendment, which guarantees the “equal protection of the laws.”
Judging from the justices’ comments at oral arguments—which, lest we forget, can be misleading—her prospects of winning look quite good.
Although the Supreme Court upheld the use of race as an admissions factor less than a decade ago, the current conservatives on the court were dismissive of the rationale used in that case. Chief Justice John Roberts suggested UT’s effort to seek a “critical mass” of minority students was unworkable; Justice Antonin Scalia said Fisher “was not treated fairly”; and Justice Samuel Alito suggested that UT’s policy privileges successful minorities over the interests of whites “whose parents are absolutely average in terms of education and income.”...
Posted on: Thursday, October 11, 2012 - 08:28
SOURCE: Madmen of Chu (10-10-12)
Andrew Seth Meyer is associate professor of history at Brooklyn College and the translator for "The Dao of the Military: Liu An's Art of War."
The lead article in today's New York Times, about the shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban in northern Pakistan, is instructive for anyone concerned about U.S. policy in that region of the world. At the age of eleven Malala had been outspoken in her support of women's education. Yesterday she and three of her classmates were shot and wounded by Taliban militants as they rode a bus to school.
Americans are understandably weary of the ten-year conflict in Afghanistan. Many have been critical of the drone program that has destroyed homes and taken innocent lives in Pakistan. But if there has ever been any doubt that the threat to U.S. security in the Afghan-Pakistani theater is real, the shooting of Ms. Yousafzai should dispel them.
One often hears the complaint that Al Qaeda no longer maintains a viable presence in Afghanistan. The Al Qaeda fighters remaining in the region are stuck in Pakistan, confined to cave dwellings where they are under constant pressure from drones or the Pakistani military. Our opponent in Afghanistan is the Taliban, a group with interests and concerns different than Al Qaeda. The Taliban, so goes this argument, does not present the same threat to U.S. security, thus it does not warrant the extreme effort being waged against it in Afghanistan.
Ms. Yousafszai's fate should expose the flaw in this logic. The Taliban gave shelter and aid to Al Qaeda. It hosted Al Qaeda as it planned the 9/11 attacks and refused to break that alliance when presented with evidence of Al Qaeda's act of war against the U.S. Before we can risk the Taliban coming back to power over all or part of Afghanistan, we must be sure that the Taliban will never make common cause with Al Qaeda again. As the shooting of Malala Yousafzai shows, we can never be sure of such an outcome.
My concern is not simply that what the Taliban did was wrong, though it certainly was. Even more troubling, however, is that this attack shows the Taliban to exist in a completely alternate universe of value from that occupied by the U.S. and its allies (and, incidentally, from most Pakistanis and Afghans). What currency can be offered to, what deal can be struck with an opponent that perceives the urgent necessity of shooting a 14-year-old girl in the head and neck? A group that will go out of its way to commit this act is not a group that can be counted on to "leave well enough alone" where the U.S. is concerned. They do not calculate their interests in a way that would allow us to predict that, knowing the consequences of allying with Al Qaeda a second time, they would choose a different course. Moreover, we know for a certainty that our economy will continue to produce Carly Rae Jepsen songs and Julia Roberts movies and export them throughout the world via ever-faster digital technology. Who can believe that the would-be murderers of Malala Yousafzai would ever be content to co-exist peacefully with such a country, even if it withdrew its support from Israel and forswore any interference in the affairs of the Middle East?
For any U.S. government to abdicate the struggle against the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies would be a gross dereliction of duty. The surge ordered by President Obama has not achieved its objective of breaking the momentum of the Taliban, but that does not argue for the wisdom of complete withdrawal. The President's plan calls for Afghan forces to "take the lead" in the fight against the Taliban in 2014, but we can expect American troops to remain in Afghanistan far beyond that threshold. Like the Axis powers of World War II, Afghanistan was the origin-point of an attack on the U.S. and its citizens, and like Germany and Japan, Afghanistan can expect to play host to U.S. soldiers for many years to come. It is tragically unfortunate that that occupation will be marked by continued violence and suffering, but as long as the Taliban enjoys robust traction in Afghan and Pakistani society, the threat they pose to U.S. security will demand an armed response.
Posted on: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 - 16:15
SOURCE: Philadelphia Inquirer (10-10-12)
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).
Here's the type of question few are asking about the controversy at Philadelphia's Charles Carroll High School: What if student Samantha Pawlucy's T-shirt had read "Homosexuality is Shameful"?
We all know the answer: She would have been forced to change her shirt or go home. And most of us would be fine with that - which tells you all you need to know about the sorry state of free speech in American schools.
Pawlucy became a cause célèbre after teacher Lynette Gaymon criticized her for wearing a Romney-Ryan T-shirt in a "Democratic school." Gaymon, an African American, said it would be akin to her wearing a Ku Klux Klan shirt. The teacher's implication was clear: You can't challenge the accepted wisdom of your tribe when you're at school.
On that score alone, Gaymon was right. Anyone who thinks otherwise should consider the case of Tyler Harper, who wore the infamous "Homosexuality is Shameful" T-shirt to his California high school in 2004....
Posted on: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 - 10:03
SOURCE: Newsweek (10-8-12)
Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His Latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, has just been published by Penguin Press.
Posted on: Monday, October 8, 2012 - 15:29
SOURCE: National Review (10-8-12)
Daniel Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum.
Mitt Romney gave a generally fine speech today on the Middle East. Sensibly, he criticized the Obama administration for its Benghazi shenanigans, for the "daylight" with Israel, fecklessness vis-à-vis Tehran, and the cuts in military spending. Very justifiably, he called it "time to change course in the Middle East."
But I worry about three specifics.
First, Romney's policy ideas echo the rosy-tinted themes of George W. Bush's failed policies in the region. Flush with optimism for Afghanistan, Iraq, and "Palestine," Bush spoke a language that now seems from another world. For example, almost exactly nine years ago he predicted "a free Iraq [that] will be an example of freedom's power throughout the Middle East." I espy shades of this otherworldliness in Romney's pronouncement that the Middle East hosts "a struggle between liberty and tyranny, justice and oppression, hope and despair," his goal to build democratic institutions in Egypt, and his dream of "a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security" with Israel. These are slogans, not serious policy.
Second, except in reference to the attack in Benghazi, Romney pointedly avoids mention of Islam, Islamism, or jihad. Rather, he refers to "terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology," avoiding the real issue and portending problems ahead.
Third, his readiness to jump into the Syrian morass worries me. While one can hardly disagree with Romney's call to "identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need," those friendly members of the opposition are, in fact, a bedraggled few. Operationally, Romney is prepared to arm the Turkish-allied Islamists, a long-term prospect even more frightening than the Iranian-allied Assad regime now in power.
In office, I hope that Romney will shake the GWB-era illusions, not repeat them.
Posted on: Monday, October 8, 2012 - 14:50
SOURCE: The Atlantic (10-8-12)
Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University, and a lecturer in history at Babson College. He previously contributed to TheAtlantic.com under the name Cynic.
Today is Columbus Day, a solemn occasion marked by parades, pageantry, and buckets of fake blood splashed on statues of its namesake. Activists have turned the commemoration of Columbus' landfall in the New World into an annual protest against "the celebration of genocide." What the protesters may not know, however, is that the holiday they are protesting once played a crucial role in forging a society capable of listening to their concerns. This is the curious tale of how Columbus Day fell victim to its own remarkable success.
Christopher Columbus has been, from the first, a powerful symbol of American nationalism. In the early American republic, Columbus provided a convenient means for the new nation to differentiate itself from the old world. His name, rendered as Columbia, became a byword for the United States. Americans represented their nation as a woman named Columbia, adopted Hail, Columbia! as an unofficial anthem, and located their capitol in the District of Columbia.
Italian-Americans, arriving in large numbers in the late nineteenth century, took note of the reverence which their famous countryman enjoyed. It was a far cry from the treatment they themselves received. Many Americans believed Italians to be racially inferior, their difference made visible by their "swarthy" or "brown" skins. They were often portrayed as primitive, violent, and unassimilable, and their Catholicism brought them in for further abuse. After an 1891 lynching of Italians in New Orleans, a New York Times editorial proclaimed Sicilians "a pest without mitigation," adding, for good measure, that "our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they."...
Posted on: Monday, October 8, 2012 - 14:34
SOURCE: The Atlantic (10-3-12)
Tom Chaffin is research professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is author of Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire and a forthcoming book on Frederick Douglass's 1845-46 lecture tour of Ireland.
Mitt Romney's campaign manager Matt Rhoades sent reporters aGoogling in August when he suggested that his candidate's presidential role-model might be James K. Polk. According to the Huffington Post's Jon Ward, "Rhoades and the rest of the members of Romney's inner circle think a Romney presidency could look much like the White House tenure of the 11th U.S. president."
A Democrat who served as chief-executive from 1845 to 1849, Polk numbers among America's most intriguing, lesser known presidents. To be sure, the Tennessean -- though often a Machiavellian political maestro -- was in life, and remains in historical memory, an austere figure. Although he increased the nation's area by a third, Polk never possessed the leading-man allure of the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy, and Reagan.
Conventional wisdom associates Polk's presidency with Manifest Destiny. The phrase, coined in 1845 by journalist John O'Sullivan, came to refer to an unbridled, in most cases east-to-west, U.S expansionism ordained by a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon God.
But Polk wasn't particularly religious; and, so far as we know, he never uttered or penned the phrase Manifest Destiny. Not for this practical politician such a gaseous notion. Rather, husbanding political capital, Polk propelled his expansionist projects successively not simultaneously. And each was designed to appeal to specific partisan, sectional and economic constituencies. In the end, Polk's successes, for good or ill, were truly astonishing: waging war against Mexico, he secured U.S. title to Texas (a task initiated by Polk's predecessor John Tyler); and from Mexico -- also resultant of that same war -- Polk obtained for the United States today's American Southwest and California. And negotiating with Great Britain, he obtained the Pacific Northwest of today's continental 48 states....
Posted on: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 14:16
SOURCE: CS Monitor (10-3-12)
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).
In 1960, on the eve of the first televised Presidential debates in United States history, America’s leading newspaper launched a pre-emptive attack on them. Pitting Vice-President Richard Nixon against his telegenic opponent, John F. Kennedy, the debates would appeal to voters “who are influenced not so much by logic and reason as by emotional, illogical factors,” the New York Times warned. “The fear is that they will not discuss the issues as much as put on a show.”
Afterwards, most journalists sounded a similar theme: The debates were hollow and superficial, highlighting Kennedy’s youthful good looks – and Nixon’s sweaty jowls – instead of substantive political matters. But voters told a very different story. “I learned more about what each man stands for in an hour than I have in two months of reading the papers,” one Detroit viewer said.
In other words, presidential debates are educational. The voters know it, and the statistics show it. But somebody forgot to tell our news organizations, which continue to dismiss the real value of the debates....
Posted on: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 14:15
J. David Woodard teaches political science at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. He is the author of "The New Southern Politics."
The South is more conservative because, in the words of C. Vann Woodward, it was “the only part of the nation to experience the pain of a military defeat, occupation by a victorious external foe, and subsequent domination by its former servants.” Robert Penn Warren wrote that, “That kind of defeat, gives the past great importance.” Conservatives love the past, never more so than in the South....
Posted on: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 09:51
James C. Cobb, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is the author, most recently, of "The South and America Since World War II."
The fundamental explanation for the strong Republican support among working-class white Southerners is the striking disconnect between rural, overwhelmingly nonunion, Southern white workers and the national Democratic Party’s union-centric approach to labor issues.
This makes it easier for blue-collar Southern whites to convince themselves (with the eager assistance of Republican politicos) that the primary aim of Democratic initiatives like federal worker-training programs was or is to put black people in a position to take their jobs. Even if there is little reason to think the G.O.P. might actually help working-class white Southerners, they know at least that the Republicans are infinitely less likely to do anything to help blacks....
Posted on: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 09:48
SOURCE: NYT (10-1-12)
Todd Shaw is an associate professor of African-American studies and political science at the University of South Carolina.
George Lipsitz’s theory of "possessive investment of whiteness” partly explains why many in the white working class in the South remain strongly anti-Obama and strongly conservative. Given a history of racial discrimination against blacks and other minorities, Lipsitz reasoned that white identity has a “cash value” as accumulated from white advantages in education, occupational attainment, home values and wealth....
Posted on: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 09:44
SOURCE: NYT (10-1-12)
Kareem U. Crayton is associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
...Whereas economic issues tend to move a share of working-class voters toward more progressive or populist positions, social issues (some candidates commonly use the shorthand “guns, gays and God”) have a tendency to crowd out other campaign issues in Southern elections. The trend is especially strong in the South, which has a much higher rate of church attendance -- especially among protestant evangelicals -- than anywhere else in the country. And this trend has held true for decades....
Posted on: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 09:43
Joseph Crespino, a professor of history at Emory University, is the author of "Strom Thurmond's America."
...The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act did not usher in immediate political influence for black Southerners. African-Americans and voting rights advocates had to work for years to overcome vote dilution schemes that preserved white political control. By 1982, when Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act, Congressional districts were redrawn in ways that led to significant gains in black representation. To do that, however, officials often had to pack those districts with high numbers of black voters, along with handfuls of liberal whites. In the process, surrounding districts became increasingly “white” and conservative. Republicans were well aware of how these packed districts would ease their election, and they eagerly supported the process. It made for an odd alliance between Southern blacks and white conservatives....
Posted on: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 - 09:41
SOURCE: Philadelphia Inquirer (10-2-12)
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).
In 2007, George Kalman received notice that he had violated a law against blasphemy. But Kalman wasn't in Pakistan, Egypt, or any of the other Middle Eastern countries that have burst into violence over an anti-Muslim YouTube video.
No, Kalman was right here in Pennsylvania. After filling out a form to register his new film company as "I Choose Hell Productions L.L.C.," the Downingtown resident got a letter informing him that his request was rejected under a state law barring "blasphemy, profane cursing, or swearing" in corporate names.
At the time, just five other states still had anti-blasphemy laws on the books. But such measures were ubiquitous across America for three centuries, from the founding of the colonies into the mid-20th century. As we try to understand the current anger and mayhem in the Middle East, then, we might pause to examine our own history of religious intolerance.
It starts, like so much else, with the Puritans. Although we still tell our kids that the Puritans came to the New World to find "freedom," their laws tell another story. In 1636, for instance, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made blasphemy - defined as "a cursing of God by atheism, or the like" - punishable by death....
Posted on: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 09:20