Archive for the ‘History’ Category

First as tragedy, then as farce

January 13, 2007

Many warbloggers and other assorted Iraq-war supporters fancy themselves to be followers of Winston Churchill.

And one of the most widely read biographies of Churchill is the two-volume hagiography by William Manchester. (As a boy, I read the first volume. For boys, it’s a good history.)

I had never thought to connect the two, though, until I read the following, from a 1989 review of Manchester’s second volume by David Cannadine, reprinted in his book History in Our Time:

[Manchester’s] concern is to retell (and to reburnish) the familiar story of Churchill’s wilderness years, which were, Manchester insists, undoubtedly the greatest and noblest of his career. For most of the 1930s, Churchill was out of office, out of power, out of favour, and out of luck. He was spurned, derided and rejected by the lesser men in government; he was regarded as an outcast by the Tory Party managers; and he was banned from speaking on the BBC. […] Truly, Churchill was a prophet without honour in his own country. But, undaunted and undismayed, he put together a vast underground intelligence network, which meant he was better informed about German rearmament and territorial ambitions than the Foreign Office. He made a succession of brilliant, unanswerable speeches, in Parliament and throughout the country, damning appeasement as cowardly folly, and struggled to alert the western democracies to the growing menace of Hitler. And so, in the eleventh hour, when all the grievous events that Churchill had so valiantly and vainly foretold had finally come to pass, the people eventually turned to him, as the rejected prophet became the national saviour and gave his country its ‘finest hour’.

While Manchester waxes thus fulsome in his eulogistic evocation of Churchill, he shows no mercy to the cynical Judases who were, he believes, the ‘betrayers of England’s greatness’. […] Without exception, Manchester insists, they were weak, shabby, irresolute, provincial mediocrities, who vainly believed that Hitler could be trusted and should be appeased. And they were supported in their ignoble endeavours by […] unimaginative and hypocritical politicians […] who believed in peace at virtually any price. Nor, Manchester insists, was this the full extent of their duplicity. For it was not just that they did not want to offend the Führer. Obsessed as they were with the fear of Communist subversion, they actually wanted to support and strengthen Nazi Germany as the most effective European counterpoise to what they saw as the much greater threat of Soviet Russia. And in order to do so, they deliberately misled the British public about the true nature and intentions of the Nazi regime.

Does any of Manchester’s mythology sound familiar? Sound, perhaps, like a mythology we have been hearing since 9/11?

If you wanted to pretend to be Manchester’s Churchill — wanted to interpret the geopolitical crisis of your own time so that you could enjoy the thrill of posturing in that particular heroic way — then would you have acted much differently than the warbloggers and their ilk have over the last five years, with their fisking and their demonizing and their unrealistic idealism and their blood-thirsty sermonizing?

A fine fantasy for boys. But isn’t it time they grew up?

100 most influential Americans?

November 28, 2006

The Atlantic Monthly has posted a list of the 100 Americans who a panel of historians consider to be the most influential in American history.

I suggested adding five people to the list:

I also noted five people I thought could be removed:

  • Stephen Foster
  • Herman Melville
  • Samuel Goldwyn
  • Alexander Graham Bell (someone else was about to invent the telephone)
  • The Wright Brothers (someone else would have invented the airplane)

When literacy was entertainment

October 23, 2006

For an American coming of age in the last third of the nineteenth century, one of the surest ways to gain prominence or to secure it was to become a fine public speaker. Oratory was an indispensable element in both politics and religion, on every public holiday and anniversary, at every unveiling of a statue or laying of a cornerstone, and at the banquets obligatory for any group able to hire a cook and rent a hall. Dozens of lecture circuits had sprung up by midcentury, enabling farmers as well as city dwellers to hear the best-known politicians, writers, actors, and preachers in the land.


[…N]early every adult had been able to witness a variety of oratorical performances. They thus elevated public speaking with much the same mix of canny criticism and admiration we now apply to professional athletes and movie stars. Newspapers routinely published the full or nearly full transcripts of major political speeches and sermons by celebrated ministers; editorial “impressions” accompanied the texts.

— Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, pgs. 10-11.


April 10, 2006

If the empire had been afflicted by any recent calamity, by a plague, a famine, or an unsuccessful war; if the Tiber had, or if the Nile had not, risen beyond its banks; if the earth had shaken, or if the temperate order of the seasons had been interrupted, the superstitious Pagans were convinced that the crimes and the impiety of the Christians, who were spared by the excessive leniety of the government, had at length provoked the Divine justice.

— Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XVI.

The Reconstruction of Iraq

April 5, 2006

President Bush carried every state of the old Confederacy in 2004, most by substantial margins. White people in those states have generally supported the President’s Iraq policies by greater margins than people in the rest of the country.

Which is odd, because most white Southerners are familiar with some portrayal or other of Reconstruction, which was the 12-year period (1865-1877) after the American Civil War when federal martial law was either a reality or a plausible threat throughout the defeated South.

Given that familiarity, why did so many white Southerners think it would be a “cakewalk” for Iraq to be invaded to free one people from the persecution of another? Or for it to be occupied by federal troops convinced of their moral superiority and with no understanding of or sympathy for the local mores? Or for the right of self-government to be first withheld completely, then granted only subject to military sufferance? Or for the existing elites to be disenfranchised in favor of carpetbagger exiles?

What did they think would happen? Did they think there would be no resistance; no equivalent of the original Ku Klux Klan? Did they think there would be no lynch mobs or brutal lawlessness? Do they think there will be no lasting bitterness; no “Iraq will rise again”?


April 2, 2006

A minor buzzword on the right wing of the blogosphere has been “Jacksonian”, used to describe populists who support the occupation of Iraq.

But anyone who is familiar with Andrew Jackson will know how bitterly he resented the British occupation of his native South Carolina during the Revolutionary War. Jackson blamed the rigors of the occupation for the deaths of his family. For the final 62 years of his life, he carried the scars he received from the sabre of a British officer whose boots he refused to clean, and his hatred of Great Britain never died.

Do the people who call themselves Jacksonians see the possibility that the American occupation of Iraq will prove as lastingly counter-productive as the British occupation of the nascent United States?

Conscientious objectors

April 1, 2006

[Christians] refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defense of the empire. […] This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare, exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans, who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?

— Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XV.

The emperor is blind when his eyes are closed

April 1, 2006

How often is it the interest of four or five ministers to combine together to deceive their sovereign! Secluded from mankind by his exalted dignity, the truth is concealed from his knowledge; he can see only with their eyes, he hears nothing but their misrepresentations. He confers the most important offices upon vice and weakness, and disgraces the most virtuous and deserving among his subjects.

— attributed to the Roman Emperor Diocletian by Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XIII.

Iraqi death rate, in perspective

March 27, 2006

California has had two major riots in the last 50 years:

  • The Los Angeles riots of 1992, when 53 people died, 26 of them in a single day.
  • The Watts riots of 1965, when 34 people died.

In Iraq, death tolls larger than these have been happening almost every single day. What in California is a memorable trauma is in Iraq everyday life.

Look at it another way:

Iraq has about 26.1 million people. The state of California has about 35.9 million people.

In the state of California, an average of about seven murders are committed each day.

In the country of Iraq, with only three-quarters as many people as California, massacres of 20-30 people are common, and those are on top of any single or double murders that are not notable enough to make the foreign news.

Just today, 40 Iraqis were killed in a single suicide bombing. Have 40 people ever been murdered on the same day in California? In Iraq, it will probably happen again before the week is out.

As a conquering nation, the United States has the duty to provide security and order in Iraq. The Bush administration has failed to do that, and thousands of people are dead because of that failure.

Ripped 100 years ago from today’s headlines

February 15, 2006

An excerpt from a letter written by President Theodore Roosevelt to U.S. Ambassador to Italy Henry White, dated September 13, 1906:

Just at the moment I am so angry with that infernal little Cuban republic that I would like to wipe its people off the face of the earth. All that we have wanted from them was that they should behave themselves and be prosperous and happy so that we would not have to interfere. And now, lo and behold, they have started an utterly unjustifiable and pointless revolution and may get things into such a snarl that we have no alternative save to intervene—which will at once convince the suspicious idiots in South America that we do wish to interfere after all, and perhaps have some land-hunger!

— quoted in: Nevins, Allan. Henry White: Thirty Years of American Diplomacy. New York : Harper & Bros, 1930. 255.

Poor suffering “national greatness” Republicans. Ever liberating little peoples who never have the gratitude to just do as they’re told. And those idiot neighbors and their unfounded suspicions!

Well! It’s enough to make a body not want to liberate any more countries.

For a while, anyway.