Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism (2013)
Henry Wallace, according to Oliver Stone’s Showtime series, Untold History of the United States, was a true American hero, a lover of peace, and a gentle soul whose leadership could have saved the world from the Cold War. While no one has ever accused Stone of historical accuracy, his past work did not lay claim to documentary status. So how well does Stone’s interpretation comport with the historical record? As Tom Devine’s new book, Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism, makes clear, Stone’s view of Wallace is deeply misleading and based on an extremely selective reading of the sources. In fact, as Devine shows, Wallace was an astoundingly naïve politician, and he has remained a fairly obscure historical figure because he did not have much to contribute to American politics, beyond a pie-in-the-sky utopianism that was completely out of sync with the realities of his era.
Though the scholarship on the Red Scare and McCarthyism is extensive, that on Popular Front liberalism is decidedly less so. The historiography of Wallace’s campaign, moreover, tends to downplay or misunderstand the role of American communists in the Progressive Party. Devine provides a timely corrective by examining the alliance between the communists and the progressive left and illuminating the destructive influence of the U.S. Communist Party. Declaring the incipient fascism of U.S. domestic policy the greatest threat to world peace, the communists simultaneously denounced the Truman administration’s foreign policy in the harshest possible terms. Because anticommunist liberalism developed in response to the growing pro-Soviet orientation of Popular Front organizations, the communists deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the rancorous divisions that afflicted postwar liberalism.
Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace and Ellison D. 'Cotton Ed' Smith of the Senate Agriculture Committee meeting in Washington, January, 1939 (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)
Drawing on a wealth of oral interviews, in addition to archival and news media sources, Devine explores the Wallace campaign’s critique of American Cold War policy. In Wallace’s view, American imperialism and domestic fascism represented a far greater threat to world peace than did the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. The Marshall Plan was nothing but a Wall Street plot to dominate foreign markets and the United States bore sole responsibility for the burgeoning Cold War. Wallace believed the only way to secure world peace was to appease the Soviets by offering a series of concessions to their strategic goals. But as events like the Czech coup and the Soviet blockade of Berlin would demonstrate, Wallace’s belief in the essential goodness of the Soviet leadership was shockingly naïve and out of touch with the vast majority of international public opinion. Because his campaign was launched on the basis of a critique of Truman’s foreign policy, Wallace’s ignorance of foreign affairs and his rose-tinted view of life in the Soviet bloc was his biggest liability. Though Wallace ultimately proved to be an ineffective and unpopular politician, as Oliver Stone’s documentary series makes clear, the radical leftist narrative Wallace championed has endured. This is perhaps in part due to the fact that subsequent U.S. military interventions seemed to prove Wallace’s warnings about the dangers of U.S. Cold War imperialism particularly prescient.
Billboard promoting the 1948 Wallace campaign for President (Image courtesy of the University of Iowa Special Collections)
Devine’s exploration of Wallace’s campaign and the dynamics of the communist-progressive alliance is political history at its finest. Chockablock with colorful quotes, wry asides, and deft understatement, the book is not just a timely and persuasive rejoinder to the popular – though fundamentally misleading – narrative of American postwar liberalism, but is also a genuine pleasure to read.
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Published on Monday, October 7, 2013
The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War (2010)
Ronald Reagan’s presidential policies have irrevocably shaped the political debate over the last two decades. He effectively reversed the momentum of the New Deal expansion of the federal government while leading the largest growth in peacetime military spending in national history, making him a polarizing figure for commentators and historians alike. Contrasting visions of Reagan have been especially stark in the realm of foreign affairs. Advocates often argue that he launched a new arms race that undermined the Soviet Union. Critics remember a detached leader presiding over the shameful Iran-Contra scandal. Both depictions are problematic, as they accentuate different aspects of a complex, often inscrutable man. Therefore, James Mann’s examination of the president’s personal diplomacy with the Soviet Union is especially welcome. The journalist has written critically of conservative foreign policies in the past, but he finds much to admire in Reagan. No, the president did not single-handedly end the Cold War, nor was he the primary factor influencing its peaceful resolution. According to Mann, he was, however, optimistic and adaptable, relying on a set of Cold War values that emphasized the human character that existed under the communist system he so vehemently despised. These values ran counter to entrenched ideologies on both right and left, but they allowed him to see the promise of working with honestly reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mann finds the key to Reagan’s rebellion in his particular moralistic perspective on the Cold War conflict. The president believed that the United States was a country of right, where democracy and capitalism best served the needs of the people. In contrast, Reagan viewed communism as a devious ideology imposed on an unwilling nation by disingenuous leaders. This Manichean approach to the political systems often made him aggressive and overbearing, inspiring his rhetoric of the “evil empire” and his unbending attachment to the “Star Wars” missile defense system. However, Mann argues that this separation of the people from the system also allowed for a certain flexibility. Reagan saw a real possibility for systemic reform if only a Soviet leader would abandon dictatorial control of the people. Mann contrasts this ideological worldview with the seemingly more moderate one held by the realist architects of détente, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. The duo embraced a rigid model of geopolitical competition where the existence of two superpowers with contrasting ideologies made some conflict inevitable. Power relationships, and not specific leaders, fueled the feud. Managing the conflict through persistent pressure offered the only solution. Due to his faith in a laudable human side to the Soviet state, Reagan broke with his own party’s thinking. He embraced Gorbachev when he came to trust the man, moderating his suspicion of the Soviet actions in a way critics like Nixon could not understand.
This interpersonal relationship is Reagan’s lasting contribution to decreasing tensions. Mann makes this argument by examining a series of key moments in Reagan’s presidency. When Gorbachev first came to power, Reagan remained hawkish and distrustful of the new leader. The arch-Cold Warrior eventually warmed to the Soviet premier thanks partly to the intervention of popular author and Russophile Suzanne Massie and to the face-to-face meetings at Reykjavik and Geneva. Certainly, Reagan never fully abandoned his confrontational tone, perhaps best exemplified in his direct challenge to Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Still, Mann considers even this a positive quality, as Reagan continued to push Gorbachev to make good on his opening of the Russian political system and the liberalization of its foreign policy.
President Reagan meeting with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev for the first time during the Geneva Summit in Switzerland, 1985 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
There is room for debate in some of these conclusions, but Mann shows clearly the key role of Reagan in keeping dialogue going after the initial summit meetings. Nixon, Kissinger, and even advisers like Frank Carlucci rightly believed that Soviet reforms were meant primarily to strengthen the country, yet in their support for more confrontational policies they missed the real potential of cooperation. The president was almost alone in his belief in the sincerity of Gorbachev’s calls for reduced tensions and the decisive role collaboration could play in positively shaping global politics. The president could not have predicted the rapid dissolution of the communist bloc or the Soviet Union, but he “grasped the possibility that the Cold War could end” and he sold this hope to a wary country over the objections of his own political party.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan greeting Moscow citizens during the Moscow Summit (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Mann’s eminently readable book demythologizes Reagan, but it also celebrates his lasting if perhaps unpredictable contribution to ending the world’s most dangerous international conflict. Mann agrees with recent authors like historian Melvyn Leffler that Gorbachev’s actions lead to the peaceful resolution of the Cold War, though the Soviet premier does not take center stage. Reagan’s role was as the willing dance partner. Reagan was a hawk, but he was far less hidebound in his beliefs than many of his contemporaries. The president pursued the opportunity to reduce tensions when it presented itself. In a time when politicians from across the political spectrum are retreating into bunkers of partisanship, Mann is right to celebrate Ronald Reagan’s decision to ignore the party line.
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Published on Monday, September 16, 2013
Advancing Democracy: African Americans and the Struggle for Access and Equity in Higher Education in Texas
Amilcar Shabazz has authored an intriguing account of the fight against Jim Crow segregation in higher education in Texas. First he reviews the struggle of the descendants of African slaves to obtain the right to higher education in Texas from the time of Reconstruction to the 1940s. Then he provides a compelling and detailed description of the battle waged by national and state civil rights organizations to end the accepted system of segregation that denied blacks admission to colleges and universities in the southern United States. He argues that it was not primarily the collective action of the organizations or the government that brought about integration:
“That triumph must be found in the self-determined struggle of blacks themselves… It was the brave example of black students, who, from 1949 to 1965, stepped onto white campuses in the face of white resistance that ranged from passive, to massive and legal, to illegal mob violence. These students played the decisive part in winning the hearts and minds of large numbers of blacks of all social classes and, eventually, of many white liberals to integration as the only way to ensure racial equality and justice.”
Shabazz does a masterful job compiling original sources, including the NAACP Papers now housed in the Library of Congress, state and federal government documents, personal correspondence, personal interviews, and decisions of the Courts that heard the desegregation cases of the 1950s. The author expertly weaves this data into a moving and enlightening narrative of the era and what he calls the “University Movement.” Shabazz chronicles this “Movement’s” early ideological and financial struggles, and its victories and losses in the struggle against racism and discrimination in higher education on Texas.
Shabazz provides his readers a compelling picture of the efforts of the ex-slaves and their descendants to achieve the benefits of the freedom granted by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. With as much urgency as slave owners fought to keep their slaves uneducated and illiterate to maintain power over them, blacks sought to obtain the education they realized held the key to equality and independence. From the outset, the Reconstruction governments set up schools and provided for higher education of the freed blacks. But by the end of Reconstruction, new state legislatures throughout the south had reversed the legislation that had given rights to blacks, including funding for higher education. Supported by the 1896 Supreme Court Ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Texas Legislature established the separate and woefully unequal education system that existed for the next three-quarters of century. This provided blacks one institution of higher education, the Texas A&M branch called Prairie View. It was not until the Supreme Court’s ruling in Sweatt v. Painter that the state was forced to make an attempt to at least look like they were attempting to provide equal access to higher education for black Texans. Sweatt v. Painter made it illegal for the state to maintain separate and unequal institutions of higher education. Between 1949 and 1952 at major universities like the University of Texas and at private denominational colleges like Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, the walls of segregation were torn down as blacks gained a new era of opportunity and equality in higher education.
Members of the Texas NAACP Youth Department (Image courtesy of the UT Center for American History)
Attendees of the NAACP's annual conference, Houston, Texas, June 24-28, 1941 (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Shabazz emphasizes the role played by the individual students who dared to lead the fight by followed. Heman Sweat is undoubtedly the most famous, as the first African American admitted to the UT School of Law, and because of the lawsuit bearing his name. Not so well known, but just as important to the fight to integrate Texas higher education was Herman Barnett, the first black student to integrate the University of Texas Medical School. John Chase has the distinction of being the first student admitted to graduate school for architecture at UT. Hattie Briscoe was the first black woman admitted to St. Mary’s University Law School in San Antonio. Shabazz conveys their amazing courage and the reasons their their contributions are well worth preserving. Any student of U.S. history and especially anyone interested in twentieth century African American history will enjoy this highly readable and enlightening volume.
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Published Thursday, March 28, 2013
The Republic of Nature (2012)
Flip through the pages of almost any American history textbook. Within the first few sections, you will find paragraphs dedicated to the American Revolution and the ideological groundwork that supported it; the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mythology that surrounds Abraham Lincoln; the rise of a cotton-based economy in the South and the enslaved manpower that sustained it; the westward expansion of the American population and the lines of communication and transportation that they created in the wake of their migration. Fast forward to the twentieth century and that same textbook will likely devote space to the Manhattan Project, the Civil Rights Movement, and, perhaps less commonly, the country’s increasing reliance on foreign oil. In The Republic of Nature, Mark Fiege ambitiously attempts to reconceptualize this well-traversed historical terrain, first and foremost, as “a story of people struggling with the earthy, organic substances that are integral to the human predicament.” In each chapter, Fiege uses his riveting storytelling abilities to show that the nation’s history “in every way imaginable – from mountains to monuments – is the story of a nation and its nature.”
American loggers, 1908 (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Cotton farmers in the American south sometime between 1880 and 1897 (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Workers at the Central Park Zoo in New York City manicure an elephant, date unknown (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
As title clearly indicates, Fiege’s work is limited to the history of the United States. It is interesting to consider how his work could be expanded beyond national borders to include the transnational perspective that is beginning to permeate the historical discipline. Fiege’s decision to write from a national perspective, however, produced a book that locates “nature” in varied contexts in order to unmake the familiar and remake it with an environmental focus. Occasionally, in the sweeping scope of his scholarship, the notion of “nature” becomes fuzzy as he attempts to thread it through such disparate events over a substantial expanse of time. With those minor criticisms in mind, this reader will still take distinguished environmental historian William Cronon’s word for it: “No book before it has so compellingly demonstrated the value of applying environmental perspectives to historical events that at first glance may seem to have little to do with ‘nature’ or ‘the environment.’ No one who cares about American history can ignore what Fiege has to say.”
Published Thursday, February 28, 2013
Honorable Mention of 2013 Essay Contest: Covered with Glory: The 26th North Carolina Infantry at Gettysburg (2000)
Harry Burgwyn was twenty-one years old when he led more than eight hundred soldiers of the 26th North Carolina Infantry into battle at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. Two and a half days later, after two bloody assaults, fewer than one hundred remained fit for duty. According to some calculations, the 26th North Carolina “incurred the greatest casualties of any regiment at Gettysburg” (Gragg 210). Despite these losses, the 26th rebuilt itself and continued fighting for an additional twenty-one months.
This fascinating regiment is the subject of Rod Gragg’s Covered with Glory: The 26th North Carolina Infantry at Gettysburg. As the subtitle indicates, the majority of the book covers the Gettysburg campaign, but it is also an admirable history of the 26th North Carolina and its role in the American Civil War, from the regiment’s establishment in the summer of 1861 to its surrender at Appomattox and the postwar lives of its survivors.
This book is the story of the men and their regiment. By and large, it is not about politics, nor is it an argument about the causes or broad issues of the war. It is a narrative of the experiences of men and boys, in camp, on the march, and on the battlefield. Such a detailed, personal view can enhance anyone’s understanding of the monumental history involved.
Readers make the acquaintance of many Tar Heels, from privates to generals, who fought in or were closely associated with the 26th North Carolina. This regiment was remarkable for the youthfulness of its commanders, several of whom were college students before the war. Colonel Henry King Burgwyn Jr. had graduated from two institutions of higher education before he was twenty. Major John Thomas Jones, twenty-two, had been a schoolmate of Burgwyn. Lieutenant Colonel John Randolph Lane turned twenty-eight the day after the fighting at Gettysburg ended. At thirty-four, Brigadier General James Johnston Pettigrew, who commanded the brigade that included the 26th, was already an accomplished scholar in several disciplines. The officers are important and engaging characters, but they are not the entire story. Readers also meet lowlier fellows such as Private Jimmie Moore, a farmer’s son who was fifteen when he enlisted and seventeen when he was wounded at Gettysburg, and Julius Lineback, a slight, observant musician of twenty-eight.
Gragg tells the tale with eloquence, with great affection for the men of the 26th, and with respect for their opponents in blue. Covered with Glory is a work of nonfiction, but it is also a fine piece of storytelling. Sixteen pages of images help to put faces on the people in the text.
We are now in the sesquicentennial year of the Gettysburg campaign. This is a fitting time to study the events and people of the Civil War. As Lane said in a postwar speech, the story of the men of the 26th does not belong only to North Carolina or to the South, but rather it is “the common heritage of the American nation” and represents “the high-water mark of what Americans have done and can do” (Gragg 245). If you are interested in the American Civil War, in nineteenth-century life, or in military history, you should read this book. If you are or ever have been a college student in your twenties, you should read this book.
Unidentified Union soldier, 1860-1870 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
And be sure to check out Kristopher Yingling's winning submission to Not Even Past's Spring Essay Contest.
Published on Monday, February 25, 2013
The Founders and Finance (2012)
Thomas McGraw argues that there was something in the background of immigrants to the United States that distinguished them from native born Americans and contributed to their suitability to become Secretaries of the Treasury. Including those born in Africa, less than 8% of the population was not native born and yet four of the first 6 Treasury Secretaries were immigrants. They served in that capacity for 78 percent of the period from 1789 through 1816. McGraw makes his case based almost entirely on the two most important of the Treasury Secretaries, Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin.
Most of the Founders, like Washington, Jefferson and Madison under whom Hamilton and Gallatin served, were raised as wealthy members of the planter class. Their experiences and lifestyles revolved around agriculture and large landholdings. In contrast Hamilton and Gallatin both had early exposure to merchant activities in which they developed knowledge of markets and finance. Hamilton had little interest in land and agriculture and although Gallatin had a romantic notion of land and the West, he was not successful as a landowner.
Although plausible, the argument is not very convincing. First, McGraw provides no evidence to connect immigrants in general with a merchant background. He does not even make that connection with the two other Treasury Secretaries who were immigrants. Second, Gallatin shared the Republican view that land and agriculture were of paramount importance to the future of the country even though he came from an urban background.
Fortunately, the linkage between Hamilton and Gallatin’s service to the country and their immigration status is not very important in assessing the contributions that the two men made. McGraw makes the case that they were the most dominant cabinet members in the administration in which they served. The two of them along with another immigrant, Robert Morris, who served as Superintendent of Finance under the Articles of Confederation were largely responsible for establishing the foundation of the country’s economic policy. They made the new nation credit worthy by implementing a national tax system that reduced the revolutionary war debt of the states and by establishing the Bank of the United States that provided a stable supply of currency.
Historians often emphasize the policy differences between Hamilton and Gallatin, but the similarities are much more important. Both men understood markets and the importance of national credit worthiness. Hamilton was instrumental in the first battle to establish the Bank of the United States and Gallatin convinced Jefferson of the need to renew the charter. The policies that each supported were less a function of their views than the views of the principals for whom they worked. Washington was a committed nationalist who believed that the Federal government should take the lead in fiscal matters. Jefferson and Madison believed in a minimal role for the Federal government and more authority for the states. Hamilton and Gallatin provided policy recommendations consistent with the beliefs of their Presidents and the functioning of the market. Both men were pragmatists who placed an emphasis on what would work rather than on ideology.
It is one of the great ironies of the era that had Jefferson and Madison prevented the establishment of the Bank of the United States, the Louisiana Purchase would likely not have been possible and the United States would have had difficulty fighting the War of 1812.
The Founders and Finance provides a valuable historical perspective on our current fiscal problems. The nation has confronted from its earliest days questions about our fiscal policies and the potential answers to them. McGraw died within three weeks of the publication of the book but not before he wrote an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal. In that essay he applied the lessons of his book to our current fiscal crisis. McGraw did not offer a specific plan, but he argued the need for the type of leadership that Hamilton and Gallatin provided the nation in its first three decades.
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Published Monday, February 11, 2013
L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present (2003)
For African Americans in the twentieth century, Los Angeles was a dream destination; black migrants were drawn to it (much as they were drawn to Chicago and Detroit) in search of freedom from the Jim Crow South. However, Los Angeles African Americans quickly confronted their limitations as a minority group. Jobs, housing, education, and political representation spearheaded blacks’ struggles for greater equality in Los Angeles. In L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, Josh Sides argues that the migratory experience of blacks in Los Angeles was more representative of the history of urban America than that of northeastern cities such as Chicago and Detroit.
Sides begins L.A. City Limits by introducing the Great Migration from the early 1900s through the 1930s, as African Americans migrated from Louisiana and Texas. He explores the growth, development, and sustainment of the Los Angeles African American community as compared to the nation as a whole, both in the north and the south. Sides highlights the roles of Leon Washington and Loren Miller as members of the black press, and the significance of the color line in the labor industry as it applied to blacks and Mexican Americans. He discusses the complex nature of racial equality and organized labor among blacks and Mexican Americans. He also uses several examples that emphasize the separation of the races; not along ethnic lines, but rather to the extent of “white” and “non-white.” As Sides notes, “Multicultural neighborhoods brought blacks and other groups into contact with one another not just as neighbors but also, at times, as fellow parishioners, club members, consumers, friends, and even spouses.” Although Los Angeles African Americans did not live in all-black neighborhoods like in Chicago and Detroit, they still struggled to define their status and “were justifiably ambivalent about their progress” prior to World War II.
World War II was a landmark event for African Americans. Between 1940 and 1970, the black population of Los Angles swelled from 63,744 to nearly 763,000. Sides labels this period as the “Second Great Migration,” and provides case studies of the African American experience from three southern cities: Houston, New Orleans, and Shreveport. He then examines how Los Angeles adjusted to this large influx of black southern migrants, revealing the adverse effects of racial segregation, by highlighting major World War II industry opportunities, the “Negro problem,” and the challenges migrants faced as they settled in South Central Los Angeles.
During the postwar era Los Angeles African Americans experienced a negative restructuring of the postwar economy, as economic parity with whites remained outside their grasp. However, there were advances in employment in major industries such as automobile, rubber, and steel manufacturing. Nevertheless, Sides emphasizes that the aerospace industry, which produced significant suburban residential growth, held to racist hiring practices. Despite these economic and employment limitations, Sides concludes that after World War II, life for black men and women in Los Angeles vastly improved. Housing discrimination during the urban crisis in the postwar era, however, together with “ghetto flight” and the emergence of a black middle class widened the gap among blacks, both financially and geographically. In addition, Mexican Americans, who at times adopted a “white or near white” identity, occupied an area within the racial hierarchy where they were viewed with far more tolerance and acceptance than blacks, according to Sides. This increased Mexican integration into white society was largely a reflection of white attitudes toward blacks and Mexicans.
Sides's treatment of black political activism illustrates the steps Los Angeles African Americans took in responding to workplace discrimination and police brutality. In his treatment of black activism, Sides examines the signature event of the 1965-Watts Riot and the ideological differences between prominent black organizations, arguing that during the 1940s and 1950s the Communist Party was “the most outspoken and militant advocate for black equality in postwar Los Angeles.”
L.A. City Limits is an important work for students and historians of the American West, race relations, and urban studies. Sides takes a defensive position in his study of the city of Los Angeles in comparison to Chicago and Detroit. He argues that scholarly studies overemphasize the Great Migration to northern cities and a study of Los Angeles provides a more comprehensive view of the overall experience. Sides convincingly constructs the racial hierarchy among minorities, providing an element of Latin American studies that is largely absent from most Great Migration studies. Nevertheless, L.A. City Limits does not completely live up to its title. Sides’s work centers on the years 1945–1964, as opposed to the Great Depression to the present. Despite this limitation, Sides’s examination is a suitable companion to works such as Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996) and James R. Grossman’s Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (1989).
An employee of the Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach, CA, circa 1940s (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)
Los Angeles, circa 1950 (Image courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration)
Pubished on December 5, 2012
2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse (2011)
While many in the US thought the world would end on November 6 when the guy they didn’t vote for won the Presidency, another whole section of the population is convinced that the apocalypse will come on December 21, 2012; the fast approaching winter solstice, in accordance with predictions made by ancient Mayans. A Reuter’s poll of 16,262 people in 20 countries conducted in May this year showed that
“nearly fifteen per cent of people worldwide believe the world will end during their lifetime and ten per cent think the Mayan calendar could signify it will happen in 2012.”
These are striking figures, and ones that you might find easier to believe after scanning the results of a Google search for the terms “Maya prophecy.” Only last week the electrician visiting my apartment told me that he thinks something like the apocalypse is coming: according to 70 year old Austinite Sonny, there will be a big earthquake on the east coast of the USA, and something like 9/11, but bigger, pretty soon.
Why are so many people convinced of the world’s impending destruction? There is no doubt that pop-culture has nurtured the apparently widespread fears of the looming end of the world. Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster disaster film 2012 (released in late 2009) surely played a role in translating the Mayan apocalypse from a fringe discourse into the mainstream. Furthermore, in the past twelve months, serious news-media outlets including The Guardian have discussed the end of days as predicted by the ancient Mayans (this British newspaper published the comforting words of expert archaeologists who reassure us that “the end of the world is not quite nigh”).
What is going on here? Should we start filling the bathtub with water and hoarding stocks of canned food, flashlights, and medical supplies as December 21 approaches?
Clay rendering of a Mayan priest (Image courtesy of Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia Commons)
Thankfully two historians, Mathew Restall and Amara Solari, have come to the rescue with the publication of a new book 2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse. In the authors’ own words, this study “takes seriously a potentially silly topic.” Restall and Solari provide an interesting discussion of pre-conquest Maya texts, including the famous but poorly understood Long Count calendar and “Monument 6” that form the basis of the present-day “2012-ology,” a the authors call it, which anyone interested in the approaching end of the world will want to read.
Restall and Solari’s most important contribution is showing that the belief in a near apocalypse is a deeply-rooted tradition in Western society. Drawing upon the Bible, the writings of the twelfth-century theologian Joachim di Diore, and Albrecht Dürer's beautiful set of fifteen engravings of the apocalypse, Restall and Solari make a compelling argument that the origins of the Maya Apocalypse lie in the medieval European millenarian tradition. “Whereas millenarianism is not easily and clearly found in ancient Maya civilization, it is deeply rooted and ubiquitous in Western civilization. Whereas Maya notions of world-ending Apocalypse – with a capital A – was a profound and pervasive presence in the medieval West.”
This book examines the survival of the apocalypse discourse from the early-modern period through to today. Restall and Solari make the bold claim that Chilism (the specifically Christian version of the belief that an impending transformation will dramatically change society), is at the heart of Western modernity – in Christianity as much as in Marxism.
A Mayan alter excavated in Caracol, Belize. (Image courtesy of Suraj/Wikimedia Commons)
Those interested in colonial New Spain will appreciate Restall and Solari’s analysis of Mayan documents such as the books of Chilam Balam (the Books of the Jaguar Prophet), which reveal how the Western apocalyptical discourse influenced Mayan conceptions of time and the world.
Watch for our December post on Milestones on the Mayan calendar and the history of the concept of Apocalypse
Published on Monday November 19, 2012
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1972)
“How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?”
Forty years on, that question still haunts the pages of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 like the ghost of Boss Tweed. First appearing as a series of articles in Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 presidential election shines light on the darker side of the democratic process. Thompson, author of Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has the right kind of eyes to see the corruption, the lunacy, and the sheer depravity of choosing a chief executive in modern America. In his landmark work of Gonzo journalism, Thompson chronicles the Democratic Party’s struggle to mount a viable challenge to Richard Nixon as the Vietnam War raged on with no end in sight.
Thompson powerfully sets the stage for the 1972 Democratic primary contest – a party divided, old coalitions fragmenting, and the chaos of the 1968 election looming over the process. For the first time, the Democrats would choose their nominee exclusively through state primaries, rather than a combination of elections and back-room deals. The list of candidates – including Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine, Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, and Gov. George Wallace of Alabama – proved familiar but uninspiring. In the midst of this drab battle for the soul of the Democratic Party, Thompson spots an honest man in a pack of party hacks: Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.
McGovern, who died last weekend at the age of 90, emerged in 1972 as the unlikely presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. As a rare liberal spokesman from a conservative state, McGovern championed the anti-war movement in the U. S. Senate. McGovern, a former history professor and decorated World War II bomber pilot, passionately protested the Vietnam War on the Senate floor, lamenting: “I am sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.” McGovern’s fledgling campaign picked up steam through the primaries of 1972 and Hunter S. Thompson went along for the ride.
Thompson and Senator McGovern, 1972. (Image courtesy of bpx/Flickr Creative Commons)
As a sort of embedded journalist with the McGovern campaign, Thompson shunned the idea of impartial reporting. Objective journalism, he argued, is a “pompous contradiction in terms.” After all, selecting sources and choosing verbs are subjective activities. Besides, Thompson reasoned, artificial objectivity blinded most journalists to the dishonesty of politicians like Richard Nixon, his main antagonist. By this reasoning, Thompson publicly declared his support for McGovern early in the primaries.
At times, Thompson’s irreverent style (which he termed “Gonzo journalism”) also blurs the line between fiction and reality. On the campaign trail, he reported that a rumor was circulating that frontrunner Ed Muskie had been treated with a powerful psychoactive drug called Ibogaine. His report was true. There was indeed a rumor, but Thompson had started it himself. Similarly, Thompson sets his sights on derailing Hubert Humphrey’s nomination bid. Over the course of a brutal series of primary battles between Humphrey and McGovern, Thompson tells of suspected election fraud and attempts to circumvent the newly-instated primary system by the “old ward heeler” from Minnesota.
Hunter S. Thompson at the 1988 Miami Book Fair (Image courtesy of MDCarchives/Wikimedia Commons)
From the primaries to the convention, Thompson’s colorful prose proves both gripping and darkly humorous. The unprecedented access he gained to McGovern campaign staffers and Democratic Party chiefs enabled him to document every day of the historic contest in graphic detail. Thompson does not simply regurgitate press releases and the transcripts of pool interviews. He vividly relates the feel of life on the campaign trail – the blind euphoria, the hopeless despair, the money, the loneliness, the alcohol, and all. Thompson’s clarity and wit have firmly established Fear and Loathing as an celebrated work of political journalism and its author as an icon of American literature.
But what of the hero? What of George McGovern?
McGovern lost every state in the Union, save for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Nixon’s landslide victory represented the first time a Republican carried every Southern state and delivered the incumbent a then-record 520 electoral votes. Thompson rattles with contempt in his reflections on the Nixon landslide, but maintains enough composure to analyze the reasons for McGovern’s devastating loss. First, the ugly primary fights with Humphrey left the liberal McGovern labeled as the candidate of “Amnesty, Acid, and Abortion.” Second, the fractured Democratic establishment never fully united behind its nominee.
Senator McGovern, 1972 (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)
Perhaps most significantly, McGovern’s running mate, Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri, was revealed to have undergone electroconvulsive therapy for depression. After waffling for days, McGovern asked Eagleton step down to be replaced by former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver. Through these debacles, Thompson portrays McGovern as an honest man making foolish mistakes. These political errors undermined public confidence in McGovern’s judgment and reinforced his image as “too liberal” for the country.
While the American public rejected McGovern in 1972, Thompson viewed him as the last best hope for America. As he writes: “The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes […] is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been.”
President Nixon at a campaign event, 1972 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
In light of the social upheaval of the 1960s and the persistent trauma of war in Vietnam, McGovern’s grassroots campaign provided a powerful contrast to the heavy-handed and often secretive Nixon Administration. Indeed, as Thompson tracked McGovern’s campaign for Rolling Stone, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein diligently investigated the June 17, 1972 Watergate burglary in the pages of the Washington Post. To avoid a probable impeachment, Nixon resigned the presidency just over two years later. As Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 brilliantly reveals, George McGovern inspired many with a vision of an honest and humane government, intent on building peace at home and abroad. It is a vision that has been eroding ever since.
Published on Monday October 29, 2012
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2007)
In the past ten years, Americans have shown a sustained interest in cultural depictions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), or the Mormon Church. South Park’s 2003 episode “All about Mormons" and the 2011 musical The Book of Mormon satirized the founding of the LDS church. Other television shows, however, like HBO’s Big Love and TLC’s Sister Wives have tried to portray other non-LDS strands of Mormonism in a more complex way by exploring modern day polygamy. Now with Mitt Romney’s nomination for the Republican Party candidate for President, the Mormon faith once again finds itself in the spotlight.
With all the drama of television, or quite frankly a presidential campaign, the historical origins of Mormonism can get lost in the shuffle. Despite all the media coverage, a religion that some scholars have deemed the quintessential American religion remains largely misunderstood by the American public. For those interested in learning more, however, about many of the fundamental doctrines and the beginnings of the Mormon (and particularly LDS) Church, I recommend Richard L. Bushman’s recent biography of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, Jr., Rough Stone Rolling.
In Rough Stone Rolling, Bushman brings his extensive knowledge of early Mormon history to expand upon his first book about the life of Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, by tracing the entirety of Smith’s life from the cradle to the grave with a special emphasis on the cultural context out of which he came. Bushman himself is a member of the LDS Church, but his pro-Mormon bias does not prevent him from presenting Smith as a flawed human being, noting that Smith never set himself up as a perfect moral exemplar, but rather a “rough stone rolling”—one that would be smoothed over in time.
Bushman’s approach to writing a biography of Joseph Smith almost necessarily focuses heavily on Smith’s spiritual development and how it went hand in hand with the development of Mormonism. Thus, the narrative of the book is punctuated by major events of Smith’s spiritual life, well known to followers of Joseph Smith: his first contact with the Angel Moroni; his discovery of the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written; the transcription of those plates into an English text; the restoration of the Aaronic priesthood and the priesthood of Melchizedek in 1829; the founding of the church in 1830; and various revelations that instituted new doctrine or prompted the growing Mormon church to move from New York to Ohio and eventually to Illinois, where Smith was killed.
However, Bushman also spends much time providing the cultural and political context of Smith’s life. In so doing, he implicitly engages with a number of debates about Mormon history. For instance, did Joseph Smith invent the Book of Mormon or was he truly divinely inspired? Was he a power hungry man who had “convenient” revelations resting the sole power of revelation for the LDS church in him or did he really hear commands from God?
Bushman’s treatment of polygamy is particularly engaging, given that mainstream Mormonism (the LDS Church) officially gave up polygamy in 1890. Even though Bushman doesn’t support polygamy himself, he tries to explain why “plural marriage” (the Mormon term for polygamy) made sense in the context of Joseph Smith’s theology. In particular, Bushman claims that Smith emphasized the importance of family, so he created, or was inspired to create, rituals to ensure that marriage and family lasted for eternity—marriage sealing and baptism for the dead, for instance. In this light, taking on multiple wives was considered another way to extend the family and preserve as many people together in the afterlife as possible.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that he takes a sympathetic view of polygamy, because he views Smith sympathetically throughout the book. Skeptics may find his matter-of-fact dealings with angels and revelations a bit hard to swallow, and strong opponents of polygamy will not likely be satisfied with Bushman’s assessment that plural marriage was mostly a loving institution at its beginning. It is important to remember, however, that Smith was not the only antebellum American experimenting with different kinds of marriage or claiming to receive messages directly from God. He was in good company with the Oneida Community, Ellen G. White and the Seventh-day Adventists, and many other 19th-century religious groups.
As a biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling only tracks the development of the Church of Latter-day Saints up to Smith’s death in 1844 at the hands of some angry Illinois citizens. Readers interested in the rest of the story will have to pick up other books to learn about schisms in the early church; the trek westward of the followers of Brigham Young; the contest between Mormons and the U.S. government over the legality of polygamy; and the history of race and Mormonism. Nevertheless, Bushman’s history provides great insight for a reader trying to understand the appeal of Joseph Smith and the Mormon faith from the outside.
Posted on Wednesday October 3, 2012