I did a mock qualifying exam session: four hours, three questions. The results are below. And I promise: this is almost over. I’ll go back to being boring in other ways pretty soon.
1. Do the writings of historians confirm or refute the assertions of Stephen Greenblatt about what we can know about Indians?
Taking Indians Seriously
In Marvelous Possessions, Stephen Greenblatt suggests that it is fundamentally impossible to understand Indians at the time of contact between the Old and New Worlds. Indeed, it is difficult even to appreciate fully European behavior and ideology, although through literary critique, Greenblatt argues, we can understand how Europeans came to terms with the appearance of a new world and new peoples. A sense of wonder, he argues, simultaneously incorporated the New World and its peoples into European concepts of the possible, while also validating European conquest; thus was Columbus able to marvel at strangeness of the indigenous people of the Caribbean, while confidently asserting that it was his and the Crown’s right to subjugate these essentially foreign others through slavery and death. For Greenblatt, the central problem is a lack of sources from an Indian perspectively. It’s an odd cop-out for such a deep and inventive reader as Greenblatt; nevertheless, for historians wedded to a need for archival proof, the relative dearth of Indian sources presents a problem. Greenblatt’s work implies a deeper difficulty for historians: that the Indian world view was, and perhaps even is, fundamentally unaccessible to Europeans and to historians today. Against these two problems of sources and world views, a number of historians have provided effective solutions. Indian behavior and even motivation can be revealed through careful and contextualized reading of both European and Indian sources. As for the Indian world-view, one must avoid assuming a completely materialistic perspective; instead, historians should appreciate the possibility and probability of a mix of ideological and material motives. In the end, it’s a matter of appreciating both the fundamental foreign-ness of others’ experiences–both European and Indian–while also appreciating the Indians’ ability to change over time. In other words, the solution to approaching the Indian past is to take Indians seriously as humans.
The dearth of Indian sources presents a serious challenge to historians interested in Indian behavior and motivation. Relative to European sources, there’s very little traditional material–that is, written, first-hand accounts–available. The closest approximation to such traditional sources comes from Mesoamerica, where codices, passed down through generations of native peoples, have been preserved–but only partially, translated through the hands and world-view of Spanish priests. These sources, such as the Aztec account of Cortez’s conquest, can be useful in confirming events–such as the ambush massacre of Aztec priests or the spread of smallpox throughout Tenochtitlan–as well as in suggesting the Indian perspective on those events–the shock of such an ambush or the horror of such a deadly, unknown disease. But these sources present problems. They were filtered both through time (having been recorded after the fact) and through priests; both filters potentially, perhaps probably, led to an explicitly sympathetic and victimized account of the conquest of Tenochtitlan, serving the purposes of Spanish priests seeking royal support for their power struggle with New Spain’s secular authorities and the purposes of the colonized Indians, struggling to come to terms with the meaning of the end of the once-great Aztec empire and culture.
Historians can try other, more creative (and questionable) approaches for identifying the Indian past. European accounts, such as those offered by Cortez himself (or by the French and English), offer the opportunity to identify events, but Indian motivation is as difficult to discern through these sources as it was for Europeans at the time. Indeed, that’s part of the problem; Europeans (as Greenblatt demonstrates) came at the New World with their own idea about how the world was ordered, and their interpretation of Indian behavior was filtered through this lens. One need only look at the interpretation of Indian behavior in response to European “ceremonies of possession,” as Patricia Seed does, to get a sense of how determined were the European responses to Indian behavior; for instance, coming from a background of popular enthusiasm for the crown, the French were eager to see in Indian actions a warm embrace of French authority. As for Cortez’s account of the Aztec, Inga Clendinnen has demonstrated the lengths to which Cortez went to prove his own confidence and ability in his appeals to the Spanish crown–we can hardly believe his explanation of his motivation, much less his assertions of what Indians wanted. Historians have also tried “upstreaming,” by which more recent (and recorded) accounts of Indian behavior and motivation are used to explain the Indian past. Ramon Gutierrez used such a methodology to understand the Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest. But he was roundly and rightly criticized for having taken too many liberties in using more recent accounts and even of pulling in material from Indian peoples quite distinct in time and place from the Pueblo peoples.
Some of Gutierrez’s fiercest critics were descendants of Pueblo peoples; their concerns represent a deeper, more fundamental problem in approaching the Indian past. Much of the critique of Gutierrez boiled down to this: you’re not an Indian, so you can’t know Indians. Calvin Martin has presented a more thoroughly developed and forcefully stated explanation of this challenge in a variety of venues and regarding a variety of places. Critiquing William Cronon for assuming that New England Indians were from “Wall Street,” Martin insists instead that historians much appreciate the spirituality of Indian peoples. He provides a case study for such an approach in his explanation of the near-extinction of the beaver at the hands of the Algonquians; rather than a result of production for market, Martin argues that the Algonquian embarked a war of extermination against the beaver. Having abandoned their traditional practices of following shaman’s advice regarding the animal’s spirit (or manitou) in favor of following the lead of seemingly powerful French priests and traders, the Algonquian were disappointed by the continuing devastation wreaked by disease, and they responded by unleashing their full strength against the beaver, no longer protected by the reciprocity that had characterized their previous spiritual relationship with the animal. Here, Martin indicates an essential “indianness” that the Algonquian were leaving behind when the abandoned the philosophy of manitou. In “Time and the American Indian,” Martin makes an even more forcefully essentialist argument: Indians run on biological (read: spiritual, non material, use-value oriented, cyclical) time, whereas Europeans run on chronological time. Note here the verb tense: run, rather than ran–Martin’s argument about time is also about timelessness, in the sense that Indians are only Indians when they have this sense of spiritual, biological time. And if that is the case–if Indian conceptions of time are not just different, but contradictory to those of Europeans–than there was no way for Europeans to understand Indians, and there is no way for historians to understand, much less narrate, the history of Indians.
Historians have responded with vigor to these challenges of sources by demonstrating the power of historical contextualization. Inga Clendinnen, in her explanation of Cortez, also provides an understanding of Indian behavior and motivation in perhaps the best example of how to deal with the paucity of Indian sources and the bias of European sources. Clendinnen situates Indian behavior–recorded by both Indians and Spaniards–within what can be known of Aztec culture at the time of contact, contrasting what Cortez observed with Cortez’s interpretation of those events. The Aztec did not massacre Cortez when they had the chance, which Cortez explained as a combination of God’s intervention and of Indian timidity. Wrong, says Clendinnen; such an assault on a retreating enemy ran counter to Aztec warrior principles both in the objective of war (to capture prisoners and demonstrate superiority of a newly subjected, or completely repulsed, people) and in one’s sense of honor–what honor would there be in a massacre of a clearly defeated enemy? Clendinnen does the same in her masterful treatment of the Mayan heresy and witchcraft trials, providing both an explanation of why the Spanish were so insulted (how dare these ungrateful children use the Cross for human sacrifice) and of Indian behavior (yes, there was human sacrifice, but the Cross was not used for that purpose; instead, the Cross was one of many symbols that had been incorporated into Mayan society, as had been the practice for generations in this area of multiple cultures and shifting polities). Richard White provides much the same approach in his explanation of Algonquian practices on the “Middle Ground” in the Great Lakes area, where the French were incorporated into ideas–both traditional and evolving–about fathers, their obligations to their children, and children’s contingent respect for fathers.
Clendinnen and White both seek to understand the world-views of Indians; unlike Calvin Martin, they do not assume that such a world view is inaccessible. Martin’s frustration may stem from historians who have assumed too much European-like rationality among Indian actors. Bruce Trigger argues that material rationalism goes a long way to understanding Indian behavior in the face of European contact and trade goods; indeed, much of the literature on Indian behavior and motivation centers around this question of trade goods and the degree to which Indians were and became dependent on those European goods. Eric Wolf suggest that dependency was not long in coming once Europeans entered and exploited existing trade routes in the New World; Denys Delage seems the same happening among the Iroquois as the French, Dutch, and later English entered the Iroquois world.
Not that Martin would disagree about Indians becoming dependent on European trade goods–just that once such dependency occurred, Indians ceased being Indians. Richard White disagrees strongly, and in his treatment of the Sioux in the Great Plains and the Algonquian and affiliated people of the Great Lakes, he demonstrates the all-too-human ability of Indians to adapt and capitalize on changed circumstances, all the while maintaining power. And in maintaining that power and autonomy, these people maintained their Indianness, in that they continued to create their identity. This is a process that continues to this day, as Indian people continue to redefine themselves, as James Clifford explores among the Mashpee. The key here is appreciating the ability of Indians to redefine themselves, to change and to adapt–just like any other human group. Once opened to this possibility, the historian can approach the history of Indian behavior and motivation, applying the same cautiousness that she should use whenever applying sources, no matter how extensive or limited.
2. Was the Civil War inevitable?
The Production of An Inevitable War
The Civil War had its roots in the expansion of the market during the antebellum period, an expansion that pushed the limits of economic relations between sections and classes, American ideology, and ultimately the capacities of the American Constitution. Coupled with the resistance, both exceptional and quotidian, of free and enslaved African Americans, and the white American resistance to compensated emancipation, market expansion created a material, ideological, and legal crisis that demanded, but was not resolved by, the blood of over 600,000 Americans, black and white.
The expansion of the market economy in the early 19th century set in motion a series of dramatic changes in the economic, political, ideological, and cultural lives of white Americans. Routes of transportation improved, from macadamized roads to canals and eventually to railroads, carrying faster and larger traffic, from wagons that no longer feared mud to steam-powered ships powering up river to railroads defying time and space. On these forms of transportation, eastern merchants sent consumer goods westward to farmers clamoring for essentials, luxuries, and markets for their crops. Charles Sellers argues that this expansion represented a “revolution,” as families left behind a land-, community- and use-oriented value system and were forced instead to adopt–or violently resist–a system of commodified exchange that totally and irreversibly changed what and how they produced, as well as how they though. Sellers overplays his hand in his description of the newness and totality of the market revolution, for, as Naomi Lamoreaux, Daniel Vickers, Richard Bushman, and many other early American historians have described, market-oriented exchange–however moderated by communal or religious values–had long been part of American production in both the city and countryside, from the export-oriented tobacco producers of the Chesapeake to the merchants and fishermen of New England. Nevertheless, market expansion was widespread and had deep effects on Americans, effects that required a coming to terms with the changing economy and ideas about proper social relations. As Paul Johnson explores in the case of Rochester, market expansion created something of a crisis for merchants; new modes of production gave them the opportunity to relinquish former responsibilities of economic and moral maintenance for their apprentices and workers, but also forced a reconciliation with those former responsibilities. That reconciliation came by means of religion and the Second Great Awakening, which gave license to and encouraged a sense of self-reliance and independence conducive to increasingly alienated and individualized modes of production.
The Second Great Awakening produced a series of reform movements, culminating most famously in the abolitionist movement. Johnson describes the temperance efforts of Rochester’s political elite, who sought not only their own salvation through that of the world’s, but also a reliable body of workers. Workers themselves sometimes saw advantages, either spiritual or material, in temperance efforts. Religious enthusiasts also sought to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy by shutting down liquor, business, and the mails on Sundays. Sabbatarianism was particularly acute, argues Carol Sheriff, on the Erie Canal, a stunning and for some disturbing manifestation of market expansion and threats to the American character. Gender roles, too, were changing (or seemed to be changing) as the market expanded, with women working the Lowell mills, mothers encouraging the growth of a middle class (as Mary Ryan argues in Cradle of the Middle Class), and utopian experiments with open marriage and sexuality, as Louis Kern explores in An Ordered Love. These reform movements found both their reactionary impulse and the means for their success–through publicity, access to consumer goods and transportation, etc.–from market expansion, and the same is true of the abolitionist movement. From the first, the abolitionist movement was a millennial movement, believing that the nation’s salvation could only be achieved through a cleansing of the moral–and, for some, skin-color–blight of slavery. But it was also a market movement, with abolitionist tracts printed by machine and delivered over expanding transportation routes in the hands of an American state creating laws to facilitate the growth of business. Abolitionism became a part of the lives of white Americans, be they enthusiastic sympathizers in the North or Southern whites seeing in abolitionism a threat to their way of life.
As the market expansion affected white Americans, so too did it shape African American lives, precipitating further change to a culture characterized by adaptation and resistance. Westward expansion opened up new lands to slavery, further fracturing slave communities, and manufacturing in the North and abroad increased the value of cotton and encouraged slave owners to extract more from their slaves while at the same time seeking a means of control. Eugene Genovese, Kenneth Stamp, and William Duisnberre argue that slave owner control was more or less total, with Stampp and Duisenberre providing the sordid details of the extent of paternalism and slave owner power, and Genovese giving it theoretical coherency through Gramscian hegemony. Such interpretations neglect the reality of slave resistance as revealed both through overt, although occasional, forms of rebellion and day-to-day forms of resistance. The quotidian experiences of slaves, as seen over the long-term by Ira Berlin and in the three decades before the war by Walter Johnson, John Blassingame, and Leon Litwack, reveal how slaves sought survival within the system, by creating kin networks, using their own naming conventions, insisting on their own practices of spirituality, and engaging in small-scale sabotage and theft. This day-to-day resistance formed the material, both ideological and organizational, by which enslaved African Americans would force the issue of emancipation, by their successful attempts to get their story heard by Northerners and, later, through their participation in the Civil War.
The market expansion that bread ideological and racial tension also produced geographical expansion, sectional tension and, eventually, a constitutional crisis. White Americans pushing West sought official recognition of their claims to land and legitimate American government, moving into the territory acquired by treaty in the Louisiana Purchase and by force in the Mexican War. As Eric Foner shows, the acquisition of this land and the question of how it would be incorporated centered around a question fundamentally driven by market expansion: would this land be used by the free labor created, needed, and valued by American capitalism, or would it sustain slavery through expansion of that system? Advocates of free labor seemed to lose their battle at every turn, as the south forced compromise after compromise, ever demanding more–a consequence, many northerners believed, of a conspiracy of the “Slave Power.” Although certainly not as coordinated as some like Lincoln believed, the South did have disproportionate power, as Leonard Richard demonstrates. That power came by virtue of the Constitution, which gave the South equal senate seats (though its population was significantly lower than the equally-number Northern states), and by the South’s constant threat to secede, an ace card they played first at the Constitutional Convention and then again and again in the years following, with increasing frequency in the 1850s. The South scored its last constitutional coup with Roger Tauney–a southerner–and his decision in the Dred Scott case, but Southerners were rebuked by the other part of the Constitution–the republican representation part–with the election of Lincoln in 1864.
3. How and why did the US get involved and “fight” a Cold War?
American Liberalism Caused the Cold War
The Cold War was an event tied to both time and space, but the explanations of its origins and its shape often assume a sense of timelessness, essentialism, and inevitability. Resisting this interpretation, other historians have suggested that the Cold War was an aberration, but their arguments go too far and provide no coherent explanation for how this thing called the Cold War actually happened. An examination of a particular form of American liberalism at the end of World War provides the best explanation for the origins and shape of the Cold War.
Historians taking the long view of the origins of the Cold War have too often fallen into the trap of teleology and essentialism. John Lewis Gaddis, the self-assuming dean of Cold War narratives, places the blame for the war squarely on the shoulders of the Soviet Union and Stalin. The leaders of the Soviet Union (but not its people) had convinced themselves of the inevitability of world-wide revolution and the steps from inter-capitalist warfare to communist rule to the end of history through socialism; this, argues Gaddis, was the essence of the Marxist-Leninist philosophy of history to which Soviet leaders were committed. Stalin’s brutal and paranoid psychology led him to apply this philosophy of history to the world situation as he saw it during the 1930s and 1940s, when he desperately sought to consolidate his rule and prepare eastern Europe as the front line of the coming revolution. In the United States and its leaders, Gaddis sees the polar opposite to the USSR. The US was not wedded to any particular philosophy of history, but instead defined by a political and cultural tradition of compromise and multilateralism, embodied in the American Constitution and manifested by the American approach to European allies: not forcing West Germany, France, or Italy into coalition by gun, but by allowing them to make the choice on their own.
Not all Cold War teleology begins with the arch-henchmen of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin; other historians have essentialized the United States in more negative ways. Walter LaFeber, following William Appleman Williams, argues that the Cold War was a manifestation of American domestic politics and, more specifically, the expansionist nature of American capitalism. Seeking new people for workers and consumers, American capitalists needed the power of the state to secure their investments and their ideology. This is a story that stretches back to the early days of American imperialism and the Spanish-American War of 1898. Whereas then, Americans sought an open door to Asian and Latin American markets, resisting the power of European manufacturers, American capitalists had the whole world to themselves, and they wanted to keep it that way, and make any inroads into Communist markets whenever possible. Thus their frustration with having “lost” China and its many consumers; thus the American foreign policy of containment of Communism so that capitalism could flourish.
Another approach to the origins of the Cold War rejects the essentialization of Soviet and American politics, instead substituting the “realist” model of international relations. World War II had removed from the stage five major players–Great Britain, France, England, Japan, and China (add Italy for six if you like even numbers–and both the Soviet Union and the United States saw this, naturally, as both an opportunity to expand their powers and a threat to their national security. Any self-defensive gestures by the one could be interpreted as aggression by the other, thus precipitating more self-defensive/aggressive maneuvers and eventually hardening the line of the Iron Curtain in Europe and opening battlefields in third-world countries, newly freed of their colonial chains. Add to this realpolitik stew the explosive and potentially world-terminating ingredient of nuclear weapons, and what you get is a power game not totally unlike any other such tension in world history–West v. Islam, Protestants v. Catholics, Germany v. France–except that the danger of mutual annihilation made the stakes too high to actually play the game. And so: the Cold War face off.
Other historians have resisted the teleology and essentialism of these explanations of the Cold War, even going so far as to suggest that it was an unnecessary aberration. Historical contingency enters the narrative here, with historians proposing various “what-if” scenarios and suggesting the alternatives. What if FDR hadn’t died–would he have kept Stalin under control as he had presumably done during the war? What if Truman had shared the bomb’s secret with Stalin–would that have precipitated the trust necessary to maintain multilateralism after the war? What if the Soviet Union hadn’t lost so many men–would their system have not required such a heavy hand and actually developed into a different, perhaps more attractive form of communism? Such games are entertaining, but more helpful are analyses grounded in historical fact, such as Eric Alterman’s point that the Cold War can be traced to the misdirection–maybe even lies–of FDR in the aftermath of Yalta. FDR had more or less agreed to allow Stalin authority in Poland; when Stalin exercised that authority after the war, newly-installed President Truman saw it as move of aggression, unaware of the understanding between FDR and Stalin. From this perspective, the Cold War was not inevitable; it was a result of secrecy, errors, and lies. Elizabeth Borgwardt, following the lead of her mentor David Kennedy, also argues that the Cold War was an aberration, a detour from a course of multilateralism set at the end of World War II. American leaders and Americans, dragged through years of depression, the New Deal, and war, had come to embrace an international perspective, and sought to give a “New Deal for the World,” embodied by the IMF and World Bank, proven by the successes of the Nürnberg trials, and encapsulated by the Atlantic Charter, guaranteeing rights for “all the men in all the lands.” It was a vision of human rights for the rest of the world, and the Cold War was an unfortunate mistake of unilateralism.
A more comprehensive explanation of the Cold War resists both teleological essentialism and the total role of chance. American liberalism as it evolved through World War II and within the domestic context of the United States explains the origins and shape of the Cold War. This approach follows to some degree the work of Borgwardt and Kennedy: yes, the United States and Americans had become internationalist, especially in comparison to American behavior after World War I (which is Kennedy’s point of comparison in Over Here and Borgwardt’s contrasting case study). But Borgwardt downplays the aggressively pro-American capitalism components of Bretton Woods; the IMF and World Bank in particular guaranteed American power from the beginning (through the contributory scheme). Moreover, Bretton Woods assumed the justness and naturalness of international trade through capitalist exchange, a different, yet no-less-powerful “philosophy of history” as historical materialism. What brings this all together is a concept of American liberalism that understands its evolution through the war years, an explanation provided by Alan Brinkley in The End of Reform. Brinkley argues that because of the organizational difficulty of New Deal programs, conservative pressure, and a new class of New Dealers who believed in capitalism, New Deal liberalism transformed into consumer-based individual human-rights-based liberalism. This liberalism provided both material and ideological impetus for American Cold War policies: of expansion of markets abroad and affluence at home that made possible and validated American capitalism, and an ideological crusade to bring human rights–neutered of any economic guarantees–to the rest of the world. This liberalism took shape and developed within a long history of American anti-communism that had its roots in the 1920s and the power-grabs of conservative politicians. Ellen Schrecker shows how McCarthyism was less a matter of real threats from the Soviet Union and its (long-since non-existent) spies in America, and more a result of the CPUSA’s self-defeating secrecy and an extensive network of conservative organizations that truly feared–and truly stood to gain from the eradication of–communists and associated liberals.