Sorry for the long absence.  As previously noted, I passed my qualifying exams, thereby moving past the stage of general knowledge and into the rarified air of shit-nobody-but-me-cares-about.  More in a future post about my dissertation topic (I’m taking ideas…), but for now, quick reflections on the qualifying exam process:

  • Though I pumped out 10 pages in a mock exam, I was only able to generate 5 pages for the real deal.  I still don’t know why, exactly.  It wasn’t the questions–they were pretty much what I expected.  Nerves, maybe?  The flourescent lights in the exam room?  Whatever it was, I just about threw my computer across the room when I got done.
  • Yes, I got to use my own computer.  What the hell is that about?  Shouldn’t they have given me a sterilized, non-networked, WordPerfect 5.1-only computer to do this thing on?  Instead, I had access to all of my notes plus the Internet.  What a tease.  Naturally, I was scared to death to use those resources (cheating on qualifying exams goes under the “really bad idea” category).  But seriously, what torture.
  • The oral component was kind of fun.  I say “kind-of” because there’s still the pressure of having to perform for a highly educated audience, including my adviser and his colleagues, so I was trying to both impress my adviser and not embarrass him in front of the rest of the committee.   And I muffed that pretty good: apparently I made a ridiculous error regarding the Navigation Acts of 1651.  But I still don’t know what that mistake was.  Nor, if I may be so bold to say, do I give a rat’s fart.
  • Final word on qualifying exams: All you have to do is pass.  In fact, that’s as much as you can do–nobody really impresses their exam committee.  Because, hey, these people have been doing this for years.  They know this stuff backwards and forwards in a way that a grad student just can’t at this early stage in her career.  So sit back and try not to fuck it up too bad.

Dry Run Qualifying Exam Answers

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.

Outlining: Cold War Foreign Policy Cold War Domestic Politics?

The puzzle here is figuring out how to reconcile two facts: (1) all of the examples of how Americans experienced the Cold War at home (bomb shelters, Mertle the A-Bomb turtle, McCarthyism, cultural manifestations); and (2) the myriad ways in which Americans went about their lives outside of Cold War tensions, particularly in terms of expanding middle-class affluence, racial tensions, and a confident liberal consensus.  The solution, I’d argue, is to understand American middle-class affluence, racial tensions, and liberalism as both the result of and justification for the Cold War abroad and at home.

–    Standard narrative: Cold War deeply affected Americans at home
o    Anti-Communism

  • Against former real communists (Schrecker)
  • Against homosexuals and un-manly men, alleged to be more susceptible to communist infiltration (Johnson and Dean)

o    Communist threat abroad

  • Soviet demonstrations of atomic capacity (Winkler)
  • Early and potentially escalating incidents: Turkey, Greece, Korea, Suz Canal, Cuban Revolution, etc.

o    Pop culture

  • Atomic language (Winkler)
  • Anti-communist pop movies and books (Whitfield)

–    Counter narrative: No, it wasn’t
o    Middle-class affluence

  • Growth of suburbia
  • Access to all sorts of consumer goods and entertainment distractions

o    Race relations

  • Continued growth in African-American presence in urban areas
  • Growing calls for civil rights, and immediate conflict close to home (closer than Korea, anyway)

o    American liberalism carrying the day

  • Democrats control Congress and Presidency most of the time
  • Truman’s sometimes-successful (although often limited) expansions of Social Security, minimum wage through Fair Deal
  • Eisenhower won’t touch Social Security, etc.

–    Bring it together
o    Affluence as product and justification for Cold War

  • Suburbia as product of federal cold war investment (Federal Aid Highway Act, defense spending-see Lisa McGirr)
  • Suburbs as gendered refuge from the problems of the world (May)
  • Justify: American standard of living proves superiority of American system (Nixon’s kitchen debate with Khruschev)
  • Means by which Cold War is brought home: affluence and access to entertainment (Whitfield)

o    Race relations

  • Need to prove quality of human-rights liberalism abroad drives publicity and sometimes policy (Dudziak and Borstelmann)
  • Racial hierarchy shaping foreign policy approach to third world (Borstelmann)

o    American liberalism

  • Constantly on guard against conservative accusations of communism (Dean, Johnson, Schrecker)
  • Cold War taking time, energy, money away from domestic liberal efforts (JFK’s focus as a Cold Warrior; LBJ’s Vietnam robbing him of Great Society)

Outlining: New Right b/c of grassroots or national political leaders?

Thesis: National conservative leaders capitalized on conservative grassroots movements that formed out of a response to the circumscribed political, legal, and rhetorical successes of national liberal leaders and the actions of grassroots liberal movements frustrated by the inherent limits of post-war compensatory human-rights liberalism.

Conservative leaders at the national level
o    Prototypes: Goldwater and Wallace, who had demonstrated the potential strength of playing to white Americans’s fears of communism or of changes to the racial status quo.  But note that they had both lost-failure at national level.
o    Finding effective national appeal

  • Nixon-“Tricky Dick”
  • Master of PR and image control, beginning as early as 1952, when he had gone on television to defend himself from accusations of having taken inappropriate campaign contributions-the “Checkers” speech.
  • Master political strategist

o    Making sufficiently moderate gestures-environmental protection, for instance-while also appealing directly to the South: opposing an extension of the Voting Rights Act, nominating conservative judges to the Supreme Court; opposing busing
o    Talking peace while increasing bombing in North Vietnam
o    Getting Gov. George Wallace to run as a democratic candidate for the 1972 election, thereby dividing the Democratic party (even after Wallace was shot, divisions continued)

  • Populist appeal: talking to the “silent majority” of Americans who, he argued, were tired of radicalism and protests and students and drugs and sex and rock ‘n roll-these were the real Americans. In effect, creating a dichotomy of two Americas, and inserting himself as the leader of the real America
  • Problems, though; his secrecy and obsession with total control gets him in trouble with Watergate. Moreover, he upsets conservatives with his liberal policies.
  • Historians of this school: Johnathan Schell, Rick Perlstein,
  • Reagan, the Great Communicator
  • Brinkley does a good job of highlighting Reagan’s political strengths: a charming personality, a way with words (first inaugural address: “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”; “I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers: Go ahead, make my day.”
  • More importantly, had a well-financed and extremely well-run campaign organization. Also, made sure that he returned the favor to his supporters: by cutting taxes and regulations on businesses and the wealthy (maximum tax rate from 70% to 50%), and by increasing national and domestic security for white lower- and middle-class while also cutting social programs ($41 billion worth of welfare payments, food stamps, Medicaid, public housing) that were portrayed as overwhelmingly benefitting minorities while costing the middle class.
  • The argument of Thomas and Mary Edsaall in their 1991 book, Chain Reaction.

o    Other leaders, too

  • Religious: Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jerry Falwell.
  • Masters of modern media: use of television and radio, beginning with the broadcaster’s responsibilities to provide public broadcasting
  • Masters of organization: mailing lists, political action groups (Falwell’s Moral Majority)
  • Finding a philosophy: that what begins at the individual level-salvation-must lead to a group level of participation in seeking to save not just yourself, but the world as well, both because it affects you and because it’s the right thing to do. And the problem was the state, which had become too powerful a secular force while also robbing people of the free market’s ability to provide liberty of conscience.
  • Small government thinkers/organizers: Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom (free market = freedom) and his school of economics at the University of Chicago; William F. Buckley, who founded the conservative magazine National Review in 1955 and in 1960 sponsored the founding of “Young Americans for Freedom,” a student organization dedicated to the free market and anti-communism
  • These thinkers and organizers provided both sufficient ideological coherency and leadership
  • Scholars: Godfrey Hodgson; Michael Lienesch; Thomas Frank

Conservative grassroots
o    All of these explanations at some level appreciate that leaders need followers; that Nixon, Reagan, Falwell, and the rest did not create the New Right from nothing.  Most historians recognize that the New Right’s supporters came out of the particular context of the 1960s and 1970s.  Usually described as a mass backlash

  • Racial backlash: in the South, continuing racism against any assertions of black power-in essence, that the South hadn’t given up on the Civil War. In the North, backlash against efforts to address structural inequality and segregation. Civil and political rights had been secured, but what about continuing black poverty? What about inequality in schools, though they were officially integrated? These problems had produced different responses by the federal government, such as busing programs and “affirmative action” against which whites reacted
  • Radical backlash: enough with the student protests already! No more hippies, no more drugs, no more rock ‘n roll, no more disorder. Even more disturbing: race riots, such as those in 1965. Or other violence, like the Democratic National Convention of 1968
  • Anti-government backlash. Environmental legislation, highway speed legislation, even Nixon’s price controls-all of it was too much. And all the liberals in power-so many government workers, so much of a liberal establishment and an entrenched liberal elite.
  • The basic idea is that these people are reactionary-that they were afraid of blacks, gays, feminists, and government, and they responded by voting for Nixon-although they were unsatisfied for a variety of reasons-and, finally and euphorically, for Reagan
  • Scholars: Perlstein; Michael Kazin re: populist appeals of Nixon and Reagan; Hoftstadter (who goes after the fringe elements of anti-government paranoia)

o    Grassroots organization and leadership

  • Other scholars who argue that the masses are not so easily beguiled-that, in fact, Nixon, Reagan, and the rest mattered much less than grassroots organizations focused on local issues
  • In Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, Lisa McGirr looks at Orange County, California, as a case study for understanding the rise of the New Right. These people were not paranoid or fanatics; they had a certain vision of America which they sought to realize: a western tradition of independence, the conservative family values and religion they brought with them from the Midwest, and a search for stability and community that found its manifestations in local organizations: creating anti-communism summer schools, ejecting school board members as bordering on communism, joining massive churches, running for local offices on moral, free market, and anti-communism platforms
  • Michael Lassiter looks at another part of the Sunbelt, this time in the suburbs of the South-Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis-and around the issuing of busing. White southerners did indeed react against busing, but not as racists; instead, they framed their opposition in their identity as taxpayers, homeowners, and schoolparents. For these suburbanites, the problem wasn’t racial integration-in fact, they were disgusted with the massive resistance offered by some white southerners, and Lassiter points out that the so-called Southern Strategy backfired when it was put to use, such as the mid-term elections of 1970-but rather what they saw as a violation of their rights as people who had fought for and realized the American dream. “the white families who joined the antibusing movement thought of the location of their homes and the proximity of quality public schools as nothing more and nothing less than the consumer rewards for their own willingness to work hard and make sacrifices for their children’s future.” These people formed organizations and committees like the Concerned Parents Association and held meetings and wrote letters in opposition to busing. And in the process, they framed the debate and brought the national parties’ attention to the power of the suburbs
  • Here, the emphasis is on grassroots organizations and local issues-things that people actually felt and experience and that they wanted taken care of. Yes, they were upset about radicalism and the rest, but it didn’t turn them into sheep, it turned them into activists. Nixon and Reagan were actually disappointments, but they were the best the suburbs could get.

o    But these groups and these leaders flourish within a particular context, as I’ve indicated.  A context of the rising power of suburbs, of perceived radicalism and disorder, of racial upheaval, of government power.  The question for some historians, then, is: what created those conditions?  Ironically, the answer is often: liberals.

Liberal leaders-their successes and failures. After all, it was liberals who created the post-war order and who had control of the reigns into the 1970s (in addition to Democratic and liberal Republican presidents, Democrats held the Senate and House in the 18 sessions between 1945-1981).  How had liberal policies create the context out of which the New Right would rise?
o    Creating space: sunbelt and the suburbs

  • Federal investment in the south and west, begun under FDR: investment in defense industries (like Liberty Ships, nuclear weapons facilities, aerospace industry, and NASA [Florida and Texas]). [see Bruce Schulman] These industries attracted educated whites from the Midwest and the North to the South-like the people Lisa McGirr talks about in southern California who worked at Douglas Aircraft based in Long Beach, CA
  • Federal encouragement of suburbs. FHA loan guarantees had encouraged both home buyers and home builders, who increasingly relied on mass production techniques to build tract homes-cookie-cutter suburbs. You could even include appliances like refrigerators and washing machines in your loan, making the suburbs even more attractive: affluence on a down-payment plan. And federal development of hydropower (especially in the Pacific Northwest) and the dream of atomic energy made it cheap to run all that stuff. [Adam Rome]

o    Creating middle class affluence

  • Educational opportunities for soldiers through the GI Bill; further federal investment in universities, especially those programs with Cold War applications (direct: science; indirect: studies of societies/cultures)
  • Social security, which gave one confidence for future, along with other forms of security net

o    Creating law [Lucas Powe in The Warren Court and American Politics and James Patterson in Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and its Troubled Legacy]

  • Civil Rights: Brown v. Board of Education; Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965; etc. These were masterpieces of legal leadership, often under the direction of national leaders (like MLK or Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund), shepherded through Congress by liberals (LBJ, in particular), and realized by judges, especially Earl Warren, Supreme Court justice from 1953-1969)
  • Other liberal victories: rules, regulations, and limits on death penalty; decisions protecting access to birth control; decisions that slowly opened up laws against censorship

o    Creating new ideological / rhetorical rules

  • Social security, etc. was hands-off (as long as you didn’t try to take it too far)
  • Made explicit racism illegal and politically untenable
  • In short, successful manifestations of a particular brand of liberalism: consumption-oriented human rights liberalism

o    Okay…so why do they lose?

  • One answer: political errors (Perlstein, Edsalls, Thomas Frank,
  • Alienating constituents: Overextended liberal programs to protect and serve more and more under-privileged minorities, and doing so by taxing and putting continual pressure on the middle- and lower- white class. Isolated themselves from public opinion by depending on special interests and PACs in Washington and the power of incumbency. Democratic party reform in 1972-in a response to the problems of 1968-that had the effect of including new delegates from new interests (abortion, gay rights, etc.) that were divisive, limited the former power of organized labor and political machines, and had the appearance of favoring minorities at the expense of whites.
  • Folly of anti-communism and Vietnamese

o    Plays into the hands of conservatives-liberals always tainted with Red
o    Discredits liberals from the left-Vietnam could be hung around their neck
o    Results in enormous budget problems, further exacerbated by Nixon, which Jimmy Carter inherits as stagflation, against which he is unable to find a solution-Reagan stands to benefit

  • Another answer: limits of liberal success (Katznelson and Brinkley)
  • Racist functions of early liberal programs-that though not explicitly racist, many of those things that the New Deal offered (social security, suburban homes, GI Bill, VA home loans) were effectively limited or not available to African Americans or other minorities. (Katznelson–“in New York and the northern New Jersey suburbs, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI Bill supported home purchases by non-whites.”) While the effects of discrimination were obvious, the causes of discrimination itself were not, because the GI Bill (and to a lesser extent other programs like Social Security) was color-blind. Explicit racial discrimination played no immediately obvious role in the unequal distribution of benefits from New Deal and Fair Deal programs, and so white, middle-class suburbanites could say-and truly believe-that they had risen not because of race, but because of merit.
  • When Democratic Party leaders did eventually address race, they addressed it outside of their earlier class analysis, regarding the problems as essentially separate (hence, civil/political rights, but not economic rights). Moreover, by separating those problems, they basically took race out of the discussion when they successfully attacked its civil and political manifestations. Whites could say that race was no longer a problem because the laws had been changed
  • Basically: in their focus on trying to control a consumption-oriented human-rights liberalism, liberal leaders created a party of interests that sometimes directly conflicted but nearly always spoke different languages: of class-neutral race, of race-neutral class.

Liberal grassroots-the success and misdirection
o    Like conservative leaders, liberal leaders came from somewhere-from the grassroots.  They had been intimately involved in those national victories

  • Civil rights: MFDP, lunch counter sit-ins, deep roots of African-American community and organization
  • Environmental movement
  • Women’s movement
  • Student movement

o    Liberal backlash–That is: frustration with the limits of liberal successes, with its inability to address structural issues

  • Persistence of racism, sexism, other forms of discrimination, hierarchy (at university); environmental degradation
  • Frustration takes a few forms
  • Riots and violence (Watts in 196)
  • Extra-political direct action (Black Panthers in 1966; Earth First! in 1979)
  • Struggling to address the deeper roots of inequality and injustice, and wracked by internal problems, movements develop cultural responses. Drawing inward-focusing on consciousness-raising and culture appreciation. From Civil Rights -> Black Nationalism -> Blackness (Van De Burg); from Women’s Rights -> Second Wave Feminism focusing on freeing ones’ self from male oppression (Echols)
  • This is what usually gets labeled the “radicalism” or “liberationism” of the late 1960s and into the 1970s-and it’s against this grassroots movement, argue historians like Rick Perlstein, that conservative grassroots movements react, pushing the New Right forward.

Outlining: Was the Cold War inevitable?

1. The “Nature” of the Soviet Union (Gaddis)
>> Ideology: Marxism-Leninism view of history that capitalism is shot through with contradictions and will, eventually, fall. That capitalist nations, in competition with each other, will go to war with each other—that’s what they had done in WWI, that’s what they did in WWII. That the working class would become conscious of its exploitation, and rise up in revolution that would overthrow capitalism. It was more or less inevitable; it was also just.
– Gave Soviet leaders faith in their country and their mission
– Soviet leaders sought to encourage the development of this inevitability—theirs was an essentially expansionist world-view.
>> Stalin, the personality. He was a megalomaniac and paranoid, set both on spreading communism and defending the motherland and himself from enemies, both within the USSR and without.
2. The “Nature” of the United States
>> Positive (Gaddis)
– American habits of democracy, compromise, and consensus-building led it to pursue a course that depended not on forcing allies, but putting power in their hands—letting the English, the French, the West Germans do their thing
– Freedom, especially free market, which the US was willing to allow operate as it would
– The U.S. had no choice but to confront Soviet aggression against these values and against America’s willing allies.
>> Negative, cynical (William Appleman Williams, Walter LaFeber)
– Continuation of America’s Open Door policy that it had started in the late 19th century—keeping European markets open
– Long history of anti-communism (remember: Wilson sent troops out to Russia to try to reverse the Bolshevik revolution in 1918; Red Scare of 1919; US did not recognize USSR until 1933)
– Search for leverage for particular type of post-war international order that would favor American interests
3. Realpolitik: US and USSR just doing what powerful countries do
>> WWII had taken five major powers out of the game: UK, France, Germany, Japan, and Italy. China was in the midst of its own revolution that would not settle until 1949. That left just the USSR and the US
>> The US and the USSR would pursue those actions which would seem to secure their states and their societies. USSR sought a defensible western border, so it gobbled up Eastern Europe; US sought allies in the west to defend against perceived threats, so it built up capitalist regimes and defense systems (intervention in Greece and Turkey in 1947; NATO in 1949)

1. USSR’s weaknesses
>> A crippled economy and people, over 20 million having died in the war
>> No real threat to US abroad
– Note its tentativeness in those places where it truly could have engaged the US directly: Greece, Turkey, Korea; later, Vietnam, when the US was obviously vulnerable
>> No real threat to US at home
– The Soviet Union had long since ceased to get anything helpful out of its limited network of spies, especially by the time the war ended. Rosenbergs, executed in 1953, had passed on essentially worthless nuclear information; Hiss had been accused of spying in 1937-1938.
2. Alternate path of multilateralism
>> Elizabeth Borgwardt’s A New Deal for the World
– Borgwardt reexamines the period before the Cold War not as an inevitable march toward hostilities between the West and East, but as a time when the United States sought to establish its own economic and political security through the creation of a world order that would guarantee those same rights for other individuals. This was basically the extension of the New Deal–with its pragmatism, its emphasis on order and organization, its wishes to alter the status quo, its belief in the legitimacy of capitalism as modified by Keynes, and its individualization of rights through the extension of federal power. The result of these efforts would be a “vision for human rights” throughout the world.
– Americans had come to this place after their experiences in the first half of the 20th century: WWI and the US’s failure of the League of Nations; the Great Depression and what it would drive people to do; the New Deal and what the government could do; more of that in World War II, combined with the sense of righteousness and the international experiences of soldiers and newsreels back home. Americans would no longer turn their back on the rest of the world; they would step up to the plate as they had not after WWI.
– Remarkable series of international, multilateral events at the end of the war: Bretton Woods (IMF for stabilizing economy; World Bank to fund reconstruction in poor countries); founding of the United Nations; Nürnberg Nazi trials, which demonstrated how international law might work
– Unifying it all: a focus on preserving individual human rights
>> And so what happened was a tragic mistake, a detour from a course towards multilateralism. An aberration.

My own conclusion: the Cold War was a function of the legacy of New Deal liberalism
1. Influence of Alan Brinkley in The End of Reform, in which he argues that liberalism underwent a dramatic transformation by the end of World War II
>> Compensatory, rights-based liberalism that focuses on (a) protecting individuals and (b) encouraging consumption. The early experiments with planning and with real, systemic change had been abandoned. The reasons:
– Liberals had been brow-beaten by conservatives, who had gained power in congress and made straw-man attacks on the planning-obsessions of the New Deal, raising the specter of totalitarianism—especially communism
– New Dealers came to believe that they could keep capitalism going much as it had been, with only occasional intervention by the government: Keynsian counter-cyclical spending. The didn’t have to build a new machine; they could keep the old machine going. The key was to make sure that it made enough and put enough people to work so that consumption would keep it moving. In short: a focus from attempts to plan the economy to efforts to make sure that individuals had enough money to spend, spend, spend.
>> Tenuous coalition: white urban workers; southern Democrats; African-Americans; a growing middle-class of white-collar workers.
– Keeping it all together
… Anti-communism
~~~ Effective foil against attacks from conservatives: “We’re just as patriotic and anti-communist as you are!”
~~~ Ideological coherency regarding individual rights and freedom
… Emphasis on consumption and expansion of markets
~~~ Preserving an American Way of Life meant preserving the American Standard of Living, which required markets.

Outlining Exams: The New Deal: Revolution, Reform, or Retrenchment?

All three. Check it:

Thesis: The New Deal was an immediately experience revolution that grew into retrenchment and left a legacy of reform.
I. Study of New Deal should begin with appreciation of accomplishments.
— Leuchtenberg gets it, see essay “The Achievement of the New Deal”.  Alternately, go look at any number of airports, bridges, social security offices, libraries with WPA histories, on-line collections of slave narratives, etc. and so forth.
— Not just in retrospect, either: during FDR’s first one hundred days and again after re-election, things could seem quite radical
— Scholars need to appreciate the lived experience of Americans during the New Deal.  And it was radical.  Man.

II. But: Conservative response and retrenchment
— See Brinkley on fears of radicalism (Coughlin, Long, Townsend, Sinclair)
— See Katznelson re: policies that reinforced racial categories and hierarchy
— See Worster for the Great Plains rejecting government planning (although not government dollars–of course, they always wanted that)

III. Legacy of Reform
— Capitalism saved in 100 days (see David Kennedy)
— Executive office transformed (see Leuchtenberg)
— Conservationism as enriching farmers and favoring industrial approach (Sarah Phillips) and environmentalism becoming part of American experience (Maher)
— Moderate, careful, cautious spending–see Ickes as developed by Smith in his analysis of public works projects

IV. Which is best interpretation?  Depends on purpose of analysis.
— Historical experience: Revolution
— Measuring change over time: Retrenchment
— Evaluating historical contribution: Reform

Outlining: What blend of anxiety and idealism drove the Progressive Movement?

In a previous post, I suggested some qualifying exam questions in U.S. History.  This is the first in a series of posts in which I attempt the death-defying feat of outlining potential answers to those questions.

Thesis: Confident optimism, rather than reactionary fear, characterized the Progressive Era.
I. Anxiety the dominant interpretation, post-Progressive historians like the Beards.
A. Hofstadter the fear monger (The Age of Reform)
i. Progressives as half-way between Populism and New Deal. Populists had been afraid of bigness, corporations (esp. RR), cities, and Jews (association with banks). Progressives jettisoned the anti-urban element, but kept the xenophobia (vs. influx of new immigrants), anti-corporations, and anti-bigness (which led to corruption). Hence legislation that sought to attack those perceived problems.
ii. Progressives were status-anxious, coming from the old blood of gentry, established professionals and merthants, and others seeking to maintain power in face of immigrants and up-starts.
B. In his footsteps, moderated fear-mongers who fleshed this out some more
i. Immigration. America in contact with rest of world, and having to deal with it (Jacobson)
ii. Status and professional. Clergy, lawyers, and teachers dealing with increasingly integrated and big world, seek confirmation of authority through licensing and professional organizations (Haskell)
iii. Fears of revolution. TR best example of the potential fear of revolution (Rauchway). Note labor unrest during 1870s/1880s and its aftermath.
iv. Synthesis of anxiety: Wiebe and his new middle class seeking Island Communities that were lost to flood of immigrants, racial problems (increasing black presence with over 1/2 million migrating north, as well as interaction with rest of the world), foreign policy
II. Idealism and Confidence
A. Explanations of moderated anxiety also draw attention to confidence to solve these problems
i. Wiebe as good explanation: not just losing Island Communities, but seeking to replicate those communal dynamics in new world. Through bureaucratization and limited use of state power, problems could be resolved.
ii. Examples: Pure Food and Drug Act; Hepburn Act; Clayton Act; Meat Inspection Act; Roosevelt’s nobel-prize winning involvement in Russo-Japanese War; later: Immigrant Literacy test; Federal Reserve System to manage growing economy
B. More than that: confidence in ability to improve–to Progress
i. Best example: land conservation policies. Reclamation Act; Pinchot and TR’s national forest management under Agriculture, rather than Interior. Preaching Hays’s “gospel of efficiency.” Yes, anxiety was a part of it (we’re losing our natural resources), but there’s a definite vision, a new and confident vision, for how the land will be used.
ii. Other examples: Public ownership (esp. water works, gas works, street cars) imported from Europe (see Daniel Rodgers). Public participation (the Oregon system of recall, initiative, and referendum (Johnston). Founding of The New Republic. Later: Income tax and women’s suffrage.
C. Confident plans rather than anxious reaction
i. Limits to that confidence and those plans, as we see in WWI, when Progressives back down for fear of the Right and for lack of plan (Brinkley).
ii. Historians have too often fallen into trap of focusing too much on that later period, rather than how idealist and hopeful were the plans of the Progressives.

20th Century Preliminary Exam Questions

I’ve been brainstorming questions that I’d like to be asked for my exams (t-minus 45 days). Here are some ideas for twentieth century, in roughly chronological order:

  • What blend of anxiety and idealism drove the Progressive Movement?
  • The New Deal: Revolution, Reform, or Retrenchment?
  • Was the Cold War inevitable?  Or was it an aberration, a detour from a multilateralist course set during the New Deal and World War II?
  • During the Cold War, to what degree did American domestic politics affect American foreign policy and vice-versa?
  • To what extent can the rise of the New Right be attributed to elite political actors versus grassroots movements?
  • Is American imperialism between 1898 and 2008 best characterized by change or continuity?

I’ve got some rough outlines for these questions that I’ll share next week.  Your thoughts?  Which sounds like more fun to talk about?

The Bench Responds: Cold War Paranoia and Race

Zunguzungu asks:

Anything interesting to say about the relationship between cold war paranoia and race? Perhaps wiretapping MLK or threats of third world revolution in the US?

Interesting?  Sadly, probably not; turns out that when I’m given 1 hour, 20 minutes to think about and write a response to a question (the structure of my school’s exams), I become even more incoherent than usual.  So: my apologies for the following response, which doesn’t do justice to the myriad ways one could approach the topic.  But I need to get this exercise down, so I’ll give you the unedited version.  Moreover, this is helping me think about these questions more deeply; while I move on to other readings, I continue to mull over the last question, which should help me in the end.


“Cold War Paranoia” covers a lot of territory.  Most obviously, international relations between the United States and the Soviet Union stoked political/military paranoia: fears of the atomic bomb, fears of the military strength of the Soviet Union, fears of communist spies and sympathizers in the United States.  But there were manifestations of other fears during this time, too: fears of changes to gender structures or in race relations.  Some historians, like Ellen Schrecker and Mary Dudziak, have argued that anti-communism was the primary paranoia, occasionally manifesting itself as anti-homosexuality or assertions that the civil rights movement was a cover for communism.  Other historians, such as Robert Dean and David Johnson, argue that ideas about gender shaped–perhaps even structured–how American leaders fought the Cold War at home and abroad; Thomas Borstelmann suggests that Southern fears about race shaped American foreign policy.  The question seems to come down to which was more important: fears of communism or fears of changes to race relations and gender roles and sexuality.  The value of both interpretations is how they reveal an anxious effort, both among elite and “average” white, straight Americans, to define American normality within the crucible of international political pressure and domestic changes unleashed by the New Deal and World War II.  A Cold War culture of consensus in the United States cultivated fears of communism and racial tension and sexual anxiety, setting the context for domestic and foreign policy decisions in the corridors of power and the behavior of white Americans at home.
During the first few decades of the Cold War–from 1947-1972–American policy makers sought desperately to secure American capitalism at home and abroad.  Fearing the “loss” to the USSR of non-aligned Third World countries, US foreign policy makers sought to bring more nations and more people within the Western fold.  As Mary Dudziak shows, anxiety over “losing” third-world countries to Communism led to efforts by the U.S. government to portray positively–or elide completely–race relations at home to the rest of the world, through the use of its various propaganda and publicity machines (particularly government-sponsored films, radio, and tours of American entertainers).  On occasion, anti-communism led to positive developments in American civil rights, such as Maryland’s efforts to desegregate in response to the complains of visiting foreign dignitaries.  But anti-communism also spurred policies directed against any other “radicals,” particularly those of the Civil Rights movement (for instance, Hoover’s belief and incessant efforts to prove that the civil rights movement was a communist front).  Anti-communism drove efforts to hunt down and expunge alleged homosexuals, as David Johnson explores, for their sexuality supposedly made them more susceptible to communism.
At home, Cold War paranoia was also rampant.  As Winkler shows, Americans were aware and increasingly terrified by atomic weapons, rejecting the government’s assertions of its ability to control the atom and defend its citizens.  Middle-class white Americans sought refuge at home, as Elaine Tyler May argues, defining their own policy of “domestic containment” that promised safety, economic security, and sexual excitement within the confines of heterosexual marriage in the suburbs.  Though often frustrated in these objectives, what’s important to note is the general thrust of these efforts: to define and create a normal life, by which was meant heterosexual and middle-class.  That latter characteristic precluded the incorporation of African-Americans, who, as Ira Katznelson shows, had been excluded from the booming growth of the post-war middle-class and its neighborhoods.  Thus, fears of communism led to the definition of normality which excluded African Americans.
Fears of changes in race relations also inspired policy makers.  Thomas Borstelmann shows how much influence southern senators had in shaping foreign policy vis-a-vis decolonizing nations whose racial hierarchy Southerners admired: South Africa, for instance, where apartheid’s strength was the envy of Southerners worried over increasing noises about civil rights at home.  Other policy makers demonstrated the effects of racial thinking in their approach to the civil rights movement; JFK’s administration thought civil rights to be a distraction or “pain-in-the-neck” (in the words of one Kennedy advisor) from the real problem of fighting world-wide communism, as Robert Dean argues.  These policy makers were empowered by their clear sense of how the world should work: for Southerners, with whites at the top; for JFK’s administration, for blacks to keep quite while America dealt with the communists.
Though few historians have explored how fears of changes in race relations affected how “average” Americans thought about communism and the Cold War, but further study might indicate that anxieties about race relations were just as prominent in shaping anti-communist behavior as was anti-communist anxiety in shaping white behavior toward non-whites.

Ask the Bench: World War II and the Aftermath

This week’s readings below.  Hit me.

  • Kennedy, David. Freedom From Fear.
  • Brinkley, Alan. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War.
  • Borgwardt, Elizabeth. A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights.
  • Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History.
  • Alterman, Eric. When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.
  • LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War.