Category Archives: United States History

Public Intellectual Within the Portals of Power

 

 

 

Richard Aldous, Schlesinger:

The Imperial Historian (W Norton & Co.)

                Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-2007) is best known today for serving as a presidential advisor to President John F. Kennedy and, after Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, writing what amounted to a quasi-official history of the short Kennedy presidency, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.  Schlesinger entered the White House in 1961 as one of America’s most accomplished 20th century historians, with highly regarded works on the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt already to his credit; and as a political activist who had helped define post-World War II anti-communist liberalism and advised the unsuccessful 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns of Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson.  Schlesinger thus personified what we might today term a “public intellectual,” a top-notch historian who also engaged in politics throughout his adult life.

                Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days received favorable reviews, became an immediate best seller, and won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for biography.   But the book has not aged well, and today is often dismissed as hagiography.  It helped cement Schlesinger’s reputation, deservedly or not, as an acolyte of the Kennedys, their pit bull defender in the court of public opinion.  A Thousand Days and Schlesinger’s post-White House years raise the question whether historians can enter the public arena as political actors, yet remain true to their calling when they seek to write about their real-world experiences.  Richard Aldous, author of an incisive analysis of the relationship between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, reviewed  here in June 2013, wrestles with this intriguing question in his biography, Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian. 

                Aldous suggests that Schlesinger might fairly be considered the last of the “progressive” historians, a group that included Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard and his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., himself an eminent professor of American history at Harvard University.  The younger Schlesinger  “believed in the uses of history and in useful history” (p.191), Aldous writes.  But was he a “great and important historian, a model of how academics and public service can mix?” he asks.  Or “was he a popularizer and court historian held captive to the Establishment that nurtured his career?”  (p.2-3).  No clear-cut answer to this question emerges from Aldous’ study, but he explores its implications adeptly in this crisply written and thoroughly researched biography, arranged chronologically (assiduous readers of this blog will recall Schlesinger’s collection of letters, reviewed here in December 2015).

                Along the way, Aldous traces the several paths that Schlesinger traveled to become one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals of the post-World War II era.  He provides good if not necessarily fresh insights into the personalities of Stevenson and Kennedy, the two stars to whom Schlesinger hitched his political wagon, coupled with one more  tour of the Kennedy White House (another such tour is Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House, also reviewed here in December 2015).   The post-White House years in Aldous’ account were less kind to Schlesinger, who found his unabashed liberalism yielding to other approaches to politics and the writing of history.

* * *                

                  Readers may be surprised to learn that Schlesinger was not born a “junior.”  As a teenager, he determined to change his name from Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger to Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Jr.  It was an odd change, since Bancroft was not merely his mother’s maiden name.  She was descended from one of America’s greatest 19th century historians, George Bancroft, a man whom Schlesinger later came to revere as a prime example of an “historian-participant.”  But the name change symbolized the extent to which Schlesinger was beholden to his father, who never lost his grip on his son.

                 Young Arthur was a gifted student who skipped grades and thus was two years younger and significantly smaller than his classmates in secondary school.  He performed brilliantly but was socially awkward due to the age difference.  When it came time to go to university, there was no real choice.  He went to Harvard, where he took many of his father’s courses and was, as Aldous puts it, a “homing bird, happy living in his father’s intellectual coop,” (p.28).  Schlesinger and John Kennedy, born the same year, were contemporaries at Harvard but had little interaction.  Schlesinger was a serious student, Kennedy significantly less so. 

                 Schlesinger graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1938, and even then had been spotted as an upcoming historian slated for distinction in the field.   His father had steered him to a senior thesis on an obscure 19th intellectual, Orestes Brownson, which led to a book on Brownson published in 1939, the first of many for the budding scholar.  His father pulled the appropriate strings for its publication (which Aldous’ compares to Joseph Kennedy’s efforts on behalf of his son John’s senior thesis on the 1938 Munich crisis, published as Why England Slept).  In his work on Brownson, Schlesinger sought to demonstrate how venal and anti-democratic business interests worked against the interests of common people, a youthful perspective that would be reflected in his subsequent studies of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt.

                As war loomed in Europe, Schlesinger spent the academic year 1938-39 on a fellowship at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, after graduation from Harvard.  He returned to Harvard for graduate studies, where his seminal work on Jackson began to take form.   American entry into World War II in 1941 precluded him from putting the final touches to his work, and bad eyesight prevented him from enlisting in the armed forces until nearly the end of the war.   But Schlesinger had a series of desk jobs during the war years, in Washington, D.C., and London.

                Among them was a stint at the Research and Analysis section of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA.   There,  he analyzed Nazi propaganda, which he considered a waste of time.  Aldous recounts how a disagreement with Maurice Halperin, head of the OSS Latin America desk, over how to characterize a change of governments in Bolivia resulted in an altercation between the two that may have involved physical blows and led to a less-than-favorable performance evaluation for Schlesinger, who was chided for his lack of “cooperativeness” (p.82).  Halperin was subsequently exposed as a Soviet spy, reinforcing Schlesinger’s conviction that there could be no accommodation between American liberalism and Communism.

                After the war, Schlesinger returned to Harvard, where he finished The Age of Jackson.  The work challenged the then widely held notion of Jacksonian democracy as a regional phenomenon confined primarily to the western frontier.  For Schlesinger, Jacksonian democracy was national in scope, characterized by a vigorous federal government countering entrenched business interests on behalf of urban workers and small farmers across the country, including in the Northeast.  Schlesinger won a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Jackson at the impossibly young age of 29, aided in part by his father’s lobbying on his behalf.  While not determinative, the senior Schlesinger’s efforts marked another instance, Aldous writes, of Arthur Jr. “living on the inside track, a placement that had served him well throughput his rise to national prominence, so often giving him a head start in an always-competitive race” (p.102).  The Age of Jackson was criticized in subsequent years for ignoring issues of Indian removal, race and gender, criticism that its author admitted was valid.  But Schlesinger’s study remains, Aldous indicates, the point of reference against which other studies of the Jacksonian era continue to be measured.   

                Schlesinger’s first volume of The Age of Roosevelt,  The Crisis of the Old Order, appeared in 1957, with The Coming of the New Deal appearing in 1959 and The Politics of Upheaval in 1960.  Schlesinger never completed the last two volumes in what he had envisioned as a five-volume series.

* * *

                No ivory tower recluse, Schlesinger in 1948 joined famed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and a group of other prominent Americans, including John Kenneth Galbraith, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther, to form the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a group that sought to mobilize support for what became mainstream American liberalism of the 1950s.  The ADA championed a strong federal government to regulate capitalism, assist those working within the capitalist economy, promote civil rights, and advance the national interest, while respecting civil liberties yet taking a vigorous stand against Communism at home and abroad.  

                The following year saw the appearance of Schlesinger’s The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, his first overtly political tract, in which he made the argument for liberal democracy as the only viable option for the post World War II era between the totalitarian temptations of Communism on the left and Fascism on the right.  The Vital Center turned out to be among Schlesinger’s “most enduring works” (p.139).   It was also a product of Schlesinger’s friendship with Niebuhr, another well-placed mentor for the rising academic star as he sought to influence the contemporary political debate.  Niebuhr gave Schlesinger “both the confidence and the intellectual underpinning” for The Vital Center, “which in turn would do more than perhaps any other book to popularize the theologian’s ideas” (p.137).

                Schlesinger moved even more directly into the political arena during the presidential campaigns of 1952 and 1956, supporting the candidacy of Adlai Stevenson.  Stevenson ran twice for president against American war hero Dwight Eisenhower, and lost by substantial margins each time. Schlesinger thought Stevenson had a chance to win the 1956 election because of Eisenhower’s heart attack the previous year, with lingering questions about his health and physical stamina giving the Democratic nominee a glimmer of hope.  Schlesinger entered into the Kennedy world during the 1960 presidential primary campaign as an intermediary between Stevenson, again a candidate, and Kennedy.

* * *

                Although Kennedy and Schlesinger hit it off well almost from the beginning, many within the Kennedy clan looked at him suspiciously, as a Stevenson infiltrator within their camp.  Schlesinger’s primary contribution to the 1960 general election between Kennedy and then Vice-President Richard Nixon was a book, Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make any Difference, cobbled together quickly to dispel the notion that there was no substantive difference between the two candidates.   Schlesinger’s work, effusive in its praise for Kennedy, ’showed him “writing at his most brilliant and polemical best” (p.214), Aldous observes.

                 After Kennedy defeated Nixon by a narrow margin in the 1960 presidential election, Schlesinger eagerly accepted an offer to work at the White House.  Kennedy and Schlesinger reached what Aldous suggests was an implicit understanding that Schlesinger would at some point use his White House experience to write The Age of Kennedy, preserving – and perhaps defining – Kennedy’s legacy.  His official title at the White House was “Special Advisor to the President,” but it was a position that lacked both clearly defined duties and a place in the White House hierarchy, a formula that guaranteed confusion and friction with other White House officials.  Schlesinger and Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy’s long-term assistant, bumped heads frequently over speechwriting responsibilities as they both sought the president’s attention and favor.  Unlike Sorenson and most of the other officials with whom he was competing for presidential attention, Schlesinger had no staff at the White House.  It was therefore more difficult for him to stay in the loop on the key issues that were reverberating through the administration. 

                 Schlesinger often worried that Kennedy was “no liberal” (p.224) and, throughout his White House years, came to feel that he was an “embattled liberal minority in the White House, constantly forced to fight [for] his corner as the administration settled into an essentially conservative character” (p.266).  Still, Schlesinger wrote memos to the President – lots of them, long ones, and on a wide range of subjects.  Even Kennedy, who appreciated Schlesinger’s sharp intellect in a way that many of his subordinates did not, “seemed to tire of Schlesinger’s barrage of ideas and proposals” (p.302).  In the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, however, in the early months of the Kennedy presidency, Schlesinger wrote what in retrospect appears as a remarkably prescient memorandum. 

                Schlesinger’s memorandum tried to convince the president not to go forward with the operation, arguing that insufficient attention had been afforded to the operation’s long-term political implications.  At one point, he thought he had convinced the president, only to be told subsequently by brother Robert Kennedy that he should keep his doubts to himself.  The operation turned into a spectacular failure, a serious blot on the young presidency, and Schlesinger came to regret that he had too dutifully followed Robert’s directive to fall into line.  

                Schlesinger had no role during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.  He attended none of the major meetings, which were so secret he “did not even know that they were taking place”  (p.289).   Moreover, he showed little interest in Vietnam during his time in the White House, although he became a passionate opponent of the war during the Johnson years.  The major substantive area where he arguably had the greatest impact was on Berlin.  After Kennedy’s disastrous confrontation with Soviet Party Secretary and Premier Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961, Schlesinger pleaded with the President to reject the views of several hawks in the administration pushing for military solutions to the Berlin crisis (Kennedy’s meeting with Khrushchev is the subject of Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, reviewed here in February 2013).  When the Soviets erected the infamous Berlin Wall in August of that year, Kennedy’s restrained response reflected the views Schlesinger had expressed a few weeks earlier.

                Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 provided urgency to Schlesinger’s long-planned project to write The Age of Kennedy as a complement to his works on Jackson and Roosevelt.  Schlesinger’s “entire life had prepared him for this moment” (p.2), Aldous writes.  If he had been somewhat of an outlier in the Kennedy White House, he moved front and center in the Kennedy circle in the aftermath of the assassination.  The “legacy project mattered for everyone: for [Kennedy’s wife] Jackie in reinforcing the Camelot myth; and for [brother Robert], who had to position himself in relation to the dead president, not just the living one.  At stake was the political agenda for the ‘60s” (p.317).   Although Schlesinger stayed briefly into the Johnson administration, he left in the winter of 1964 to concentrate on the book. 

                 A Thousand Days, appearing in 1965, became the vehicle by which Schlesinger worked through his shock, depression and grief in the aftermath of the assassination.  Schlesinger termed his work a memoir rather than comprehensive history, “only a partial view” (p.319) which emphasized what he had seen first hand.  The book placed Kennedy squarely within the progressive tradition of Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt, rendering him arguably more liberal than he actually was.  Like Jackson and Roosevelt, the Kennedy in A Thousand Days, was “tough-minded” and “pragmatic” (p.326), ready to take on the moneyed elite for the benefit of the many.

                Eminent historian James MacGregor Burns, writing in the New York Times Book Review a month after delivering a withering review of a similar work by Theodore Sorenson, found that A Thousand Days had captured the “sweep and the ferment of the thousand days,” placing the Kennedy presidency in the “widest historical and intellectual frame.”  A “great president,” Burns concluded, had “found – perhaps he deliberately chose – a great historian” (p.331).  But by the end of the 20th century, views on A Thousand Days had changed.  Typical were the 1998 observations of acerbic critic Christopher Hitchens, who termed the book a “court history” which served as the “founding breviary of the cult of JFK” (p.320).  Yet, to Aldous A Thousand Days still constitutes a “foundational text on the Kennedy administration.  Not only did Schlesinger establish the ‘first draft’ of history on the Kennedy years, but he offered an invaluable personal account of life on the inside. . . [T]he book remains a must for any historian working on Kennedy” (p.387). 

                 Much to his father’s dismay, Schlesinger had resigned from the Harvard faculty in 1962 to stay at the White House after taking the maximum allotted leaves of absence from the university.  He thus had no home to return to in 1965 when he finished A Thousand Days.  Just weeks prior to the book’s publication, moreover, the senior Schlesinger died suddenly of a heart attack, a devastating loss for Arthur Jr.  Later in 1965, the younger Schlesinger moved to New York to take a teaching position at City University of New York (CUNY).  In the same period, Schlesinger’s marriage of 25 years to wife Marian came unraveled.  Aldous does not dwell on Schlesinger’s personal life, but makes clear that his marriage was at times turbulent, enjoying more downs than ups.

                 Schlesinger had by this time become a vehement critic of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War.  In 1967, he published a critique of the war, The Bitter Heritage, an “undisguised attack on the Johnson administration” and its “heedless military escalation” in Vietnam (p.342).  He supported Robert Kennedy’s short-lived presidential campaign in 1968, and was again gripped by depression and grief when he too was assassinated in June of that year.  The death of the second Kennedy, along with that two months earlier of Martin Luther King, Jr., represented the “destruction of a broader idea,” bringing to an “ugly, violent end the optimism that framed much of Schlesinger’s life” (p.349).  For Schlesinger, the 1960s had become the “decade of the murder of hope” (p.351). 

* * *

                 Schlesinger continued to write while teaching at CUNY, but never finished The Age of Roosevelt, and never published anything approaching The Age of Jackson in stature.  In 1973, in the midst of the Watergate crisis, he produced The Imperial Presidency, a work that upbraided Johnson and Nixon’s presidential usurpations, while largely absolving Kennedy of any such transgressions (the book’s title appears to have yielded Aldous’ strained subtitle, which seems off point as applied to Schlesinger the historian).  In 1978, Robert Kennedy and His Times appeared, a biography Schlesinger had reluctantly agreed to write in the aftermath of the younger Kennedy’s assassination a decade earlier.  The work was greeted with mostly lukewarm reviews.

                Schlesinger supported George McGovern’s 1972 bid for the presidency, which he lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon.  He had to strain to generate enthusiasm for the last two Democratic presidents of his lifetime, Southerners Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton  (Clinton, Aldous reports, searched in vain for his own Schlesinger to “take care of the history,” p.387).  Neither espoused the pragmatic federal activism that Schlesinger had championed since the late 1940s.  Schlesinger further worried that the Democratic Party’s emphasis upon what we would today call “identity politics” – highlighting the interests of minorities, women, gays – risked undermining its capacity to unite working and middle class voters across racial and ethnic lines.  And he similarly worried that the emphasis on race, gender and sexual orientation in the writing of history had superseded his more traditional approach.

* * *

                 Schlesinger died in 2007, just short of his 90th birthday.  Although “perhaps the most famous historian of his time,” unlike most of  his fellow historians, Schlesinger was, Aldous writes, “never quite sure whether his loyalties lay mostly with his profession or with the people whose lives he chronicled” (p.2-3).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 10, 2019

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Filed under Uncategorized, United States History

A History of Overcoming Obstacles

 

 

Herb Boyd, Black Detroit:

A People’s History of Self Determination

(Amsted/HarperCollins)

          Detroit, once known as the “automobile capital of the world” and, during World War II, as the “arsenal of democracy,” is today more readily written off as the quintessential urban basket case.  Census figures alone provide a good part of the reason.  From a population that reached nearly 2 million in 1950, by the year 2000, that figure had dropped by almost exactly half, to about 950,000.  This precipitous drop continued into the present century – today, Detroit’s population is estimated to be about 675,000.  But population drop is only one part of a story that can be told from many perspectives.   

             In Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self Determination, journalist, activist, and Detroit native Herb Boyd tells the story from the perspective of the African-Americans who have been part of the city’s building blocks from its earliest days in the early 18th century, when it was a French trading settlement along the straits that link Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, up through the present, as a majority black city.  Boyd describes his book as the first to consider black Detroit “from a long view, in a full historical tableau” (p.14). 

          Through his treatment of 18th and 19th century Detroit, Boyd introduces his readers to numerous African-Americans who have been overlooked or neglected in earlier histories of the city.  Their stories are ones of survival, thriving, and even heroism in the face of the overwhelming odds which racism placed upon 18th and 19th century African-Americans in Detroit and throughout the United States.   But Boyd’s story takes off in the early 20th century, as Detroit’s intimate connection to the American automobile industry took hold, offering unparalleled employment opportunities for Detroit’s African-American community.    

          Over half the book addresses Detroit’s history in the nearly three quarters of a century since the end of World War II, and it is largely a dispiriting story.  After roughly two decades of unprecedented prosperity in the 1950s and early 1960s for Detroit’s working classes, black and white, the city went up in flames in a devastating 5-day riot in July 1967 and has not been the same since.  The riot accelerated the already on-going flight of the city’s white population to the suburbs.  They were joined by many of the businesses that had provided jobs to the city’s working class, black and white, thereby decimating the city’s tax base.  Detroit hit what Boyd considers its nadir in 2013, when it ignominiously filed for bankruptcy, the largest city in the United States to do so. 

          Boyd finds in 21st century Detroit all the indicia of a Third World city, comparing it explicitly to Dhaka, Bangladesh, with its “concentration of poverty compounded by a declining tax base, spreading squalor, inadequate health facilities, and high infant mortality” (p.283).   Since Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy, Boyd sees some signs of hope, especially in the revitalization of its downtown and midtown business areas, thanks to the efforts of several creative business entrepreneurs.  But daunting challenges remain, especially in the blighted neighborhoods beyond the city’s inner core.

* * *

            Boyd’s opening chapters emphasize how slavery was a fact of life in Detroit in the 18th century and into the early years of the 19th century.   By the time Michigan became a state in 1837, slavery had largely disappeared from Detroit but the city’s African-American population still faced enormous obstacles in exercising the rights and enjoying the freedoms that white Detroiters took for granted.  In the years before the American Civil War (sometimes called the “War Between the States”), Detroit and neighboring Canada became important end points in the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used to escort African-American slaves to freedom.   Boyd details the heroic contributions of many Detroiters to the success of the network, with William Lambert standing out. Lambert was a “phenomenal” conductor on the Underground Railroad, “assuring the safety of runaway slaves during their stay in Detroit and then escorting them to freedom across the river” (p.35).  The general consensus among historians is that some 40,000 men, women and children passed out of bondage through Lambert’s “gentle and caring hands” (p.36).

          Detroit emerged as an industrial center during the last quarter of the 19th century.  Although industrialization provided Detroit’s black workers with increased employment opportunities, most had “little choice but to accept menial jobs as immigrants slowly replaced black workers as longshoremen, coopers (barrel makers), barbers, cooks, teamsters, and doormen.  It made little difference if the newcomers were not fluent in English” (p.54).  As the automobile age dawned during first two decades of the twentieth century, Detroit became a preferred destination for the many African-Americans fleeing the American South, attracted by the opportunities that the burgeoning automobile industry offered.  “When considering all that Detroit has meant to America,” David Maraniss wrote in Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story, reviewed here in November 2016,  “it can be said in a profound sense that Detroit gave blue-collar workers a way into the middle class.” 

          But Boyd emphasizes how Detroit’s African-Americans had to struggle far more than whites throughout the 20th century to gain a share of this middle-class prosperity.  Among Detroit’s automobile manufacturers, Ford Motor Company “quickly surpassed all other companies in the number of African American employees” (p.94).  Some manufacturers, Dodge in particular, preferred Eastern European immigrants, even those who couldn’t speak English, to native-born African-Americans. The relationship between black Detroiters and the automobile companies could thus not help but be troubled, a “classic black-and-white battle and clearly an unequal one” (p.69).  

          In the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression hit black Detroiters harder than any other ethnic group.  As labor unrest became a fact of life in industrialized Detroit, black workers were often reluctant to participate in strikes against the automobile companies.  Many felt uncertain about the promises made by the emerging United Auto Workers (UAW).  “After all,” Boyd writes, there was a “four-century history of white betrayal to counsel hesitancy and prudent neutrality.   A few blacks even went so far as to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ford’s security forces as they brutally attacked union members, and some joined the legions of strike breakers who dared to cross the picket lines surrounding the plants” (p.133).  

          Many African-American men from Detroit went off willingly to fight World War II and acquitted themselves honorably in combat.  Their absence meant openings for women in the factories, including a dramatically increased number of black women.  But in the middle of World War II, tensions between black and white Detroiters exploded on a sweltering summer Sunday afternoon in June 1943.  A misunderstanding on the city’s recreational playground, Belle Isle, cascaded into an orgy of racial violence that spread across the city and turned into one of the most devastating civil disorders  to that point in American history, which Boyd painstakingly details.  

         The 1943 disorders were far from the first in the city’s history, and underscored how stark racial conflict between blacks and whites constitutes an inescapable part of Detroit’s history.  Other disorders, in 1833, 1863, 1925, and 1941, had also scarred the city’s landscape physically and psychologically, with the worst still to come.

* * *

          Although Detroit began losing population sometime in the early 1950s, the two decades following World War II were years of extraordinary prosperity in the city and the United States as a whole.  As Detroit’s automakers met Americans’ seemingly insatiable desire for new cars, a middle class lifestyle became a reality for more and more of the city’s working population, black and white.  In the early 1960s, Detroit was selected as the US nominee in the competition to host the 1968 Olympics.  Although the games were ultimately awarded to Mexico City, the city bested other American competitors for the nomination in no small part because a slew of high-minded officials in the public and private sector had carefully cultivated an image of the city as a model of racial progress for the nation.   

          Detroit in the early 1960s felt the full force of the Civil Rights Movement.  In June 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King led approximately 125,000 people in what was known as the “Walk to Freedom,” in which King delivered a speech that presaged his “I Have A Dream” address at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington two months later.  Later that year, Malcolm X, who had grown up in nearby Lansing and had lived in Detroit for a while, delivered one of his most noteworthy speeches, “Message to the Grass Roots,” which emphasized community control as the key to black advancement, a notion at the core of what was coming to be known as the Black Power Movement. 

          But the five days of looting, arson and violence in July 1967 permanently shattered Detroit’s image as a bastion of racial progress.  The disorder left 43 dead and 473 injured.  More than 7,200 persons were arrested, with some 2,500 stores vandalized or destroyed.  Overall damage was estimated to be somewhere between $40 and $80 billion.  In the aftermath of the 1967 disorders, Detroit was moving inexorably toward becoming a majority black city. The city elected its first African-American mayor, the cantankerous Coleman Young, in 1974.   Young went on to serve four additional terms as mayor, dominating the city’s political landscape until 1994.  His outsized persona also dominates Boyd’s narrative of the final quarter of Detroit’s 20th century.    

          Young was what an earlier generation of blacks called a “race man,” with a combative, take-no-prisoners style that, as Boyd puts it, was “emblematic of a Detroit toughness, a self-determinative disposition that continues to resonate from those who experienced his furious passage” (p.9).  When first elected mayor, Young “wasn’t naïve about his victory, feeling that the city was his because the whites no longer wanted it” (p.231).  Young forged alliances with key Detroit business leaders, which led to the building of a new sports arena and glittering skyscrapers downtown.  But he was frequently criticized for ignoring the city’s residential neighborhoods, black and white (one scathing critique is Paul Clemens’ Made in Detroit: A South of Eight Mile Memoir, reviewed here in 2012). 

          Many black middle class Detroiters joined in the exodus out of the city during Young’s rein, while powerful drug-dealing gangs came to dominate more and more neighborhoods and the citywide crime rate increased alarmingly.  One particularly painful reminder of the crime increase occurred in August 1994, when civil rights heroine Rosa Parks was mugged in her home by an intruder and robbed of $103.  “The irony of the attack was inescapable,” Boyd writes.  “Here was a woman who had risked her life to bring an end to a segregated society, an avowed nonviolent opponent of racism and discrimination, now waylaid by one of her own.  It was a horrible moment that circulated around the globe but with a particular resonance of despair in Detroit” (p.280-81). 

          By 2000, black middle class flight from the city exceeded white flight.  Politically, things seemed to go from bad to worse in the new century, as symbolized by the disheartening regime of Mayor Kilwame Kilpatrick.  Elected in 2001 at the age of 30, Kilpatrick appeared to be a young man on the rise, with charisma, oratorical skills and connections to the national Democratic Party elite.  But allegations of multiple forms of corruption hounded him from the very beginning of his term.  The most graphic involved Kilpatrick’s extramarital affair with his chief-of-staff, which Kilpatrick attempted to hide and lied about under oath, forcing his resignation, a guilty plea to several felony charges, and 120 days in jail. 

          Kilpatrick’s fall from grace, Boyd concludes, served as “another reminder of the city’s Third World circumstances”  (p.325).   In Detroit, as in Dhaka, Bangladesh, there was “very little left of a once prosperous manufacturing base, where residents purchase most goods from other countries and seldom own or control the means of production” (p.321-22).  Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy closes out Boyd’s narrative of downward spiral.  

          In recent years, mortgage and financial giant Quicken Loans has taken a lead role in the revitalization of the city’s downtown business district, where it established its headquarters,  accompanied by pledges to help employees find housing nearby.  Shinola, a Detroit manufacturer (not the defunct shoe polish company), produces not only watches, its main product, but also bicycles, leather goods and other items, offering myriad employment opportunities to Detroit residents.  And Boyd even sees cause for optimism in Detroit’s recent election of a white mayor, the first since 1974, who won “because he earned the black vote” (p.338).  But dozens of formerly vibrant residential neighborhoods beyond the downtown and midtown business districts remain severely blighted or nearly uninhabited.   

          Boyd steers away from a “big picture” attempt to dissect and explain Detroit’s precipitous post-World War II fall, a ground many other writers have treaded upon.  “I leave it to the social scientists and economists,” he writes, to “assess the damage, how it got there, and what can be done to restore and sustain the city” (p.338).  But a macro-theory explaining the fall can nonetheless be pieced together from his narrative, consisting most prominently of the following:

  • White racism/white flight: whites over the course of several decades “voted with their feet,” showing that they preferred to live in communities closed to blacks, outside the city limits; scores of businesses followed, decimating the city’s revenue base;

  • The devastating 1967 riot accelerated white flight and set the city on a downward course that, more than a half-century later, has yet to be fully reversed; and

  • Fiscal mismanagement and outright corruption within city government in the years Detroit was seeking to recover from the 1967 disorders, up to the 2013 bankruptcy. 

          Boyd gives less emphasis to changes in the automobile industry.  But Detroit’s famed Big Three automakers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, were generally outperformed by foreign competition during the 1970s and 1980s, while many of their key facilities left the city for the suburbs and beyond.   Then, in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown, General Motors and Chrysler themselves filed for bankruptcy.

* * *

           Boyd also elaborates throughout on how black churches served as institutional anchors for the city’s African-American community from Detroit’s earliest days, and he provides rich detail on the dynamic African-American music scene that flourished throughout Detroit’s history.  In the initial decades of the 19th century, prior to the American Civil War, Detroit’s Second Baptist Church became the “social, political, and economic bedrock” where black Detroiters could seek refuge from the ravages of the day.  “Here they could find succor and salvation from the slights of poverty, the insults, and the racism that were so much a part of their daily travails” (p.49).   

          In the 20th century, during the Civil Rights fervor of the early 1960s, the charismatic Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, minister at New Bethel Baptist Church, led the behind-the-scenes organization for the June 1963 Walk to Freedom and served as one of Dr. King’s key Detroit allies.   Franklin competed with the Reverend Albert Cleage for control over the details of the Walk and, more generally, for control over the direction of the quest for racial justice and equal opportunity in Detroit.  Cleage, whose church became known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna, founded on the belief that Jesus was black, sponsored Malcolm X’s November 1963 speech.

          In the post-Civil War decades, Detroit was awash in marching bands whose styles were subsequently popularized by John Phillip Sousa.  Through the work of Detroit organist, pianist, and composer Harry Guy, Detroit was arguably the birthplace of ragtime music, more frequently associated with Scott Joplin.  In the 20th century, Detroit came to rival such centers as Memphis and New Orleans as centers for the blues.  It was also a hothouse for jazz throughout the 20th century, from the “hot jazz” of the 1920s and 1930s to the “cool jazz” of the 1950s.

          But as the 1950s ended, Detroit’s music scene came to be dominated by marketing genius Berry Gordy, as he put together the popular music empire known officially and affectionately as Motown.  Gordy aimed to promote his Motown sound with white and black listeners alike.  His team included a mind-boggling array of stars (one who eluded him was Reverend Franklin’s daughter Aretha, who recorded instead for the Columbia and Atlantic labels).  He ran his popular music business like an automobile factory, Boyd writes playfully.  “When the song rolled off this assembly line of musicians and arrangers, the finished product was like a new Cadillac” (p.183).  Gordy stung the city psychologically in 1972 when he joined the exodus of businesses out of Detroit, moving his Motown empire to Los Angeles.

* * *

          In this comprehensive account of the African-American contributions to Detroit’s good and not-so-good times, Boyd shines light on a community that has always been “vigorous and resourceful” (p.26), as he puts it at one point, with a glorious tradition of “getting up off the floor [and] coming back” (p.339).  He writes about his native city’s downward spiral with circumspection, providing the details objectively, much like a physician reporting to family members on a seriously ill patient.  But there is more than a wisp of sadness and regret in his account of Detroit’s years of decline.  How could it be otherwise?

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 12, 2019

4 Comments

Filed under American Society, United States History

Medieval Scholar On the Front Lines of Modern History

 

Robert Lerner, Ernst Kantorowicz:

A Life (Princeton University Press)

          Potential readers are likely to ask themselves whether they should invest their time in a biography of a medieval historian, especially one they probably had never heard of previously.  Ernst Kantorowicz (1895-1963) may be worth their time because he was more than just one of the 20th century’s most eminent historians of medieval Europe, a scholar who changed the way we look at the Middle Ages, although for many readers that alone should be sufficient to warrant their time.   But Kantorowicz’s life story is only in part that of an academic.  It also encompasses some of the 20th century’s most consequential moments.

             A German Jew, Kantorowicz fought in the Kaiser’s army in World War I, then took up arms on three separate occasions on behalf of Germany in the chaotic and often violent period immediately following the war.  After the Nazis took power, Kantorowicz became one of the fiercest academic critics of the regime.  Forced to flee Germany in 1938, Kantorowicz wound up in the United States, where he became, like Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and scores of others, a German Jewish émigré who enriched incalculably American cultural and intellectual life.  He landed at the University of California, Berkeley.  But just as he was settling comfortably into American academic life, Kantorowicz was fired from the Berkeley faculty when he refused to sign a McCarthy-era, Cold War loyalty oath – although not before distinguishing himself as the faculty’s most vocal and perhaps most eloquent opponent of the notion of loyalty oaths. 

          In Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life, Robert Lerner, himself a prominent medieval historian who is professor emeritus at Northwestern University, painstakingly revisits these turbulent 20th century moments that Kantorowicz experienced first hand.  He adds to them his analyses of Kantorowicz’ scholarly output and creative thinking about medieval Europe, by which Kantorowicz earned his reputation as one of the “most noted humanistic scholars of the twentieth century” (p.387).  Lerner also demonstrates how Kantorowicz transformed from a fervently conservative German nationalist in the World War I era to an ardently liberal, anti-nationalist in the post-World War II era.  And he adds to this mix Kantorowicz’s oversized personality and unconventional personal life: urbane, witty, and sometimes nasty, Kantorowicz was a “natty dresser, a noted wine connoisseur, and a flamboyant cook” (p.4) who was also bi-sexual, alternating between men and women in his romantic affairs.  Lerner skillfully blends these elements together in this comprehensive biography, arranged in strict chronological form.

          Although Kantorowicz’s life’s journey encompassed well more than his time and output as an academic, he was a student or teacher at some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions: Heidelberg in the 1920s, Oxford in the 1930s, the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1940s, and the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, in the 1950s.  His stints in Heidelberg and Oxford produced the two major influences on Kantorowicz’s intellectual life: Stefan George and Maurice Bowra.  In Heidelberg, Kantorowicz fell under the spell of George, a mesmerizing poet and homoerotic cult-like leader who espoused anti-rationalism, anti-modernism and hero worship.  In the following decade at Oxford, he met Maurice Bowra, a distinguished classicist, literary critic, and part time poet, known for his biting wit, notorious quips, and “open worship of pleasure” (p.176).  George and Bowra are easily the book’s two most memorable supporting characters. 

          Kantorowicz’s life, like almost all German Jews of his generation lucky enough to survive the Hitler regime, breaks down into three broad phases: before, during and after that regime.  In Kantorwicz’s case, the first may be the most captivating of the three phases.

* * *

          Ernst Kantorowicz was born in 1895 in Posen, today Poznań and part of Poland but then part of Prussian Germany.  The son of a prosperous German-Jewish liquor manufacturer, Kantorowicz volunteered to fight for the Kaiser in World War I.  Wounded at Verdun, the war’s longest and costliest battle, Kantorowicz was awarded an Iron Cross for his valiant service on the Western Front.  In early 1917, Kantorowicz was dispatched to the Russian front, and thereafter to Constantinople.   In Turkey, he was awarded the Iron Crescent, the Turkish equivalent of Iron Cross.  But his service in Turkey came to an abrupt end when he had an affair with a woman who was the mistress of a German general. 

          In the immediate post-war era, Kantorowicz fought against a Polish revolt in his native city of Posen; against the famous Spartacist uprising in Berlin in January 1919 (the uprising’s 100th anniversary last month seems to have passed largely unnoticed); and later that year against the so-called Bavarian Soviet Republic in Munich.  In September 1919, Kantorowicz matriculated at the University of Heidelberg, ostensibly to study economics, a sign that he intended to take up his family business from his father, who had died earlier that year.  But while at Heidelberg Kantorowicz also developed interests in Arabic, Islamic Studies, history and geography.  In 1921, he was awarded a doctorate based on a slim dissertation on guild associations in the Muslim world, a work that Lerner spends several pages criticizing (“All told it was a piece of juvenilia . . .  [C]oncern for proof by evidence and the weighing of sources were absent.  Nuance was not even a goal;” p.65). 

          Kantorowicz in these years was plainly caught up in the impassioned nationalist sentiments that survived and intensified in the wake of Germany’s defeat in the war and the humiliating terms imposed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles.  In 1922, he wrote that German policy should be dedicated to the destruction of France.  His nationalist sentiments were heightened in Heidelberg when he came under the spell of the poet-prophet Stefan George, one of the dominant cultural figures in early 20th century Germany.

          George was a riveting, charismatic cult figure who groomed a coterie of carefully selected young men, all “handsome and clever” (p.3).  Those in his circle (the George-Kreis in German) were “expected to address him in the third person, hang on his every word, and propagate his ideals by their writings and example” (p.3).  George read his “lush” and “esoteric” poetry as if at a séance (p.69).  Since George took beauty to be the expression of spiritual excellence, he often asked young men to stand naked before the others, as if models for a sculptor. 

          George was “firmly antidemocratic” and rhapsodized over an idealized leader who would “lead ‘heroes’ under his banner” (p.80).  By means of George’s teaching and influence, the young men of the George-Kreis were expected to “partake of his wisdom and become vehicles for the arduous but inevitable triumph of a wonderfully transformed Germany,” (p.72), a land of “truth and purity” (p.3).  George urged Kantorowicz to write a “heroic” biography of 13th century Holy Roman emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), at various times King of Sicily, Germany, Jerusalem and the Holy Roman Empire.  George considered Frederick II the embodiment of the leadership qualities that post-World War I Germany sorely lacked.

          Kantorowicz’s esoteric and unconventional biography came out in 1927, the first full-scale work on Frederick II to be published in German.  Although written for a popular audience, the massive work (632 pages) appeared at a time when German scholars recognized that the work had filled a void.  Out of nowhere, Lerner writes, along came the 31 year old Kantorowicz, who had “never taken a university course in medieval history” (p.107), offering copious detail about Frederick II’s reign.  Although the book lacked documentation, it was obviously based on extensive research.  The book proved attractive for its style as much as its substance.  Kantorowicz demonstrated that he was a “forceful writer, taken to employing high-flown rhetoric, alliteration, and sometimes archaic diction for dramatic effect” (p.101). Moreover, he utilized unconventional sources, such as legends, prophecies, manifestoes, panegyrics, and ceremonial chants.

           But Kantorowicz’s work was controversial.  Being published without footnotes led some to charge that he was making up his story, a charge he later rebutted with copious notes.  Others found the biography too enthusiastic, and insufficiently dispassionate and objective.  To many, it seemed to celebrate authoritarianism and glorify German nationalism.  Kantorowicz portrayed Frederick as a tragic hero and the idealized personification of a medieval German nation.  Although not religious, Lerner finds that Kantorowicz came close to implying that the hand of God was at work in Frederick’s achievements.  Early versions of the book carried a swastika on the cover, and the Nazis seemed to like it, even though written by a Jew.  Their affinity for the book may have been one reason Kantorowicz later sought to put distance between himself and the work that established his scholarly reputation.

          In 1924, while preparing the biography, Kantorowicz traveled to the Italian portions of Frederick’s realm, where he was deeply impressed with the remains of the ancient Greeks.  The journey converted him into a Hellenophile, a lover of ancient Greek civilization.  From that point forward, even though Kantorowicz’s publications and his academic life continued to center on the Middle Ages, his emotional commitment lay with the ancients, another indication of George’s influence. 

          In 1930, Kantorowicz’s work on Frederick II earned him a teaching position at the University of Frankfurt, only 50 miles from Heidelberg but an altogether different sort of institution.  Prosperous merchants, including many Jews, had founded the university only in 1914, and it was among the most open of German universities to Jewish scholars.   In the winter of 1932, Kantorowicz acceded to a full professorial position at Frankfurt.  But his life was upended one year later when the Nazis ascended to power, beginning the second of his life’s three phases.

* * *

          Ever an elitist, Kantorowicz looked down upon the Nazis as “rabble” (p.159), although there is some indication that he initially approved of the Nazis’ national-oriented views, or at least found them substantially co-terminus with his own.  But by the end of 1933, his situation as a Jewish professor had become “too precarious for him to continue holding his chair” (p.158), and he was forced to resign from the Frankfurt faculty.  He found plenty of time for research because he could no longer teach, comparing himself to Petrarch as a  “learned hermit” (p.185).

            After resigning from the faculty at Frankfurt, Kantorowicz gained a six-month, non-paying fellowship at Oxford in 1934.  The fellowship transformed Kantorowicz into a life-long anglophile and enabled him to improve his English, a skill that would be vital to his survival when he had to flee Germany a few years later.  Almost everyone Kantorowicz met at Oxford was on the political left, and the German nationalist began unmistakably to move in this direction during his Oxford sojourn.  Renowned French medievalist Marc Bloch was at Oxford at the same time.  The two hit it off well, another  indication that Kantorowicz’s nationalist and anti-French strains were mellowing. 

            But the most lasting relationship arising out of Kantorowicz’s fellowship at Oxford was with Maurice Bowra, as eccentric in his own way as George.  An expert on ancient Greek poetry, Bowra was famous for his spontaneous, off-color aphorisms.  Isaiah Berlin termed Bowra the “greatest English wit of his day” (p.176). Bowra was as openly gay as one could be in 1930s England, and had an affair with Kantorowicz during the latter’s time at Oxford.  Although their romance cooled thereafter, the two remained in contact for the remainder of Kantorowicz’s life.  Lerner sees Bowra replacing George as the major intellectual influence upon Kantorowicz after his stint at Oxford.   

            Back in Germany by mid-1934, Kantorowicz received the status of “professor emeritus” that provided regular payments of a pension at full salary “as if he had retired at the end of a normal career” (p.186).  That Kantorowicz remained in Germany in these years demonstrated to some that he was a Nazi sympathizer, a view that Lerner vigorously rejects.  “No German professor other than Ernst Kantorowicz spoke publicly in opposition to Nazi ideology throughout the duration of the  Third Reich” (p.171),  Lerner insists. But Kantorowicz barely escaped arrest in the wake of the violent November 1938 anti-Semitic outburst known as Kristallnacht.  Within weeks, he had fled his native country  — thereby moving into the third and final phase of his life’s journey.

* * *

            After a brief stop in England, Kantorowicz found himself in the fall of 1939 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he gained a one-year teaching appointment.   Until he was awarded a full professorship in 1945, he faced unemployment each year, rescued at the last minute by additional one-year appointments.  The four years from June 1945 until June 1949, Lerner writes, were “probably the happiest in Ernst Kantorowicz’s life.”  He considered himself to be in a “land of lotus-eaters . . . Conviviality was unending, as was scholarly work”  (p.294).  He was smitten by the pretty girls in his classes, and had a prolonged affair with a cousin who lived with her husband in Stockton, some 50 miles away, but had a car.  By this time the fervent German nationalist had become, just as fervently, an anti-nationalist well to the left of the political center who worried that the hyper-nationalism of the Cold War was leading inevitably to nuclear war and identified strongly with the struggle for justice for African-Americans.     

            Substantively, Lerner characterizes Kantorowicz’s scholarly work in his Berkeley years as nothing short of amazing.  He began to consider Hellenistic, Roman and Early Christian civilizations collectively, finding in them a “composite coherence” (p.261), perhaps a predictable outgrowth of his affinity for the ancient civilizations.  Kantorowicz’s perspective foreshadowed the late 20th century tendency to treat these civilizations together as a single “world of late antiquity.”  He was also beginning to focus on the emergence of nation states in Western Europe.  In part because of uncertainty with the English language, Kantorowicz wrote out all his lectures, and they are still available.  Browsing through them today, Lerner writes, “one can see that they not only were dazzling in their insights, juxtapositions, and sometimes even new knowledge but also were works of art, structurally and rhetorically” (p.273). 

            If the years 1945 to 1949 were the happiest of Kantorowicz’s life, the period from July 1949 through August 1950, one of the hottest periods in the Cold War, was almost as trying as his time in Germany under the Nazi regime.  Berkeley President Robert Sproul imposed an enhanced version of a California state loyalty oath on the university’s academic employees, with the following poison pill: “I do not believe in, and I an not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United States Government by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional means” (p.313).  The oath affected tenured as well as non-tenured instructors — it was no oath, no job, even for the most senior faculty members.

           Kantorowicz refused to sign the oath. One Berkeley faculty member recalled years later that Kantorowicz had been “undoubtedly the most militant of the non-signers” (p.317).  Invoking his experience as an academic in Hitler’s Germany, Kantorowicz argued that even if the oath appeared mild, such coerced signing was always the first step toward something stronger.  He termed the requirement a “shameful and undignified action,” an “affront and a violation of both human sovereignty and professional dignity,” requiring a faculty member to give up “his tenure . . . his freedom of judgment, his human dignity and his responsible sovereignty as a scholar” (p.314). Professional fitness to teach or engage in research, Kantorowicz argued, should be determined by an “objective evaluation of the quality of the individual’s mind, character, and loyalty, and not by his political or religious beliefs or lawful associations”  (p.326).

             In August 1950, Kantorowicz and one other survivor of Nazi Germany were among several Berkeley faculty members officially expelled from the University.  Their dismissals were subsequently reversed by a state court of appeals in 1952, but on the technical ground that the university couldn’t carve out separate oaths for faculty members.  The California Supreme Court affirmed the decision in October 1952, which entitled Kantorowicz to reinstatement and severance pay.  But by that time he had left Berkeley for the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey (technically separate from Princeton University).

          The Princeton phase of Kantorowicz’s life seems drab and post-climatic by comparison. But in 1957, while at Princeton, Kantorowicz produced The King’s Two Bodies, his most significant work since his biography of Frederick II more than a quarter of a century earlier.  Using an “astonishing diversity of sources” (p.355), especially legal sources, Kantorowicz melded medieval theology with constitutional and legal history, political theory, and medieval ideas of kingship to generate a new vision of the Middle Ages. 

          Kantorowicz’s notion of the king having two bodies derived from a Tudor legal fiction that the king’s “body politic” is, in effect, immortal.  In The King’s Two Bodies, Kantorowicz found a link between the concept of undying corporations in English law and the notion of two bodies for the king.  Because England was endowed with a unique parliamentary system, Kantorowicz maintained that it was “only there that the fiction of the king never dying in the capacity of his ‘body politic’ was able to take shape” (p.351).  With new angles to legal history, political theory, and ideas of kingship, The King’s Two Bodies constitutes one of Kantorowicz’s “great historiographical triumphs” (p.355), as Lerner puts it. Appreciation for Kantorowicz’s last major — and most lasting — contribution to medieval scholarship continued to increase in the years after its initial publication.  

            Kantorowicz’s articles after The King’s Two Bodies revolved in different ways around the “close relationship between the divinity and the ruler, and about the vicissitudes of that relationship” (p.363).  In late 1962, he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, yet  went about his affairs as if nothing had changed.  He “carried on earnestly with his dining and imbibing.  As usual he drank enough wine and spirits to wash an elephant” (p.376).  He died in Princeton of a ruptured aneurysm in September 1963 at age 68.

* * *

            Some readers may find that Lerner dwells excessively on academic politics – a dissection of the letters of recommendation on behalf of Kantorowicz’s candidacy for a position at Berkeley spans several pages, for example.  In addition, the paperback version is set in small type, making it an eye-straining experience and giving the impression that the subject matter is denser than it really is.  But undeterred readers, willing to plough through the book’s nearly 400 pages, should be gratified by its insights into a formidable scholar of medieval times as he lived through some of the most consequential moments of modern times.  As Lerner aptly concludes, given Kantorowicz’s remarkable life, a biography “could not be helped” (p.388).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 13, 2019

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, European History, German History, History, Intellectual History, United States History

100% American?

 

Linda Gordon, The Second Coming of the KKK:

The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition (Livernight Publishing)

            The Ku Klux Klan, today a symbol of American bigotry, intolerance, and domestic terrorism at its most primitive, had three distinct iterations in United States history.  The original Klan arose in the American South in the late 1860s, in the aftermath of the American Civil War; it was a secret society that utilized intimidation, violence, assassination and other forms of terror to reestablish white supremacy and thwart efforts of recently freed African-American slaves to exercise basic rights.  This iteration of the Klan faded during the following decade, but not before helping to cement the regime of rigid racial segregation that prevailed in the American South for the remainder of the century and beyond.  Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan resurfaced in the South, again as an organization relying upon violence and intimidation to perpetuate white supremacy and rigid racial segregation, this time in the face of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the era. 

         The Ku Klux Klan, today a symbol of American bigotry, intolerance, and domestic terrorism at its most primitive, had three distinct iterations in United States history.  The original Klan arose in the American South in the late 1860s, in the aftermath of the American Civil War; it was a secret society that utilized intimidation, violence, assassination and other forms of terror to reestablish white supremacy and thwart efforts of recently freed African-American slaves to exercise basic rights.  This iteration of the Klan faded during the following decade, but not before helping to cement the regime of rigid racial segregation that prevailed in the American South for the remainder of the century and beyond.  Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan resurfaced in the South, again as an organization relying upon violence and intimidation to perpetuate white supremacy and rigid racial segregation, this time in the face of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the era. 

          In between was the Klan’s second iteration, emerging in the post-World War I 1920s and the subject of Linda Gordon’s The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition.  Gordon, a prominent American feminist and historian, portrays the 1920s Klan as significantly more complex than its first and third iterations.  Although bigotry and intolerance were still at the heart of the 1920s Klan, it directed its animosity not only at African-Americans but also at Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.  Gordon considers the second Klan to be a reaction to the supposed licentiousness of the “Roaring Twenties” and the rapidly changing social mores of the decade.   With a central mission of purging the country of elements deemed insufficiently “American,” the Klan in the 1920s sought to preserve or restore white Protestant control of American society, which it saw slipping away.

            As the reference to the “American Political Tradition” in the sub-title suggests, much of Gordon’s interpretation consists of an elaboration upon how six distinct American “traditions” came together to give rise to the Klan’s rebirth after World War I: racism, nativism, temperance, fraternalism, Christian evangelicalism, and populism.  She also includes a final section on how, despite ostensible similarities, the Klan differed from the European fascism that came to power in Italy and was bubbling in Germany in the same time frame.  Although it shared with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany a vision for the future based on “racialized nationalism,” the Klan’s nationalism melded racism and ethnic bigotry with evangelical Protestant morality.  The second Klan thus turned its enemies into sinners in a manner that set it apart not only from European fascism but also from the first and third Klan iterations.

            The 1920s Klan was anything but a secretive organization.  It elected hundreds of its members to public office, controlled newspapers and magazines, and boasted of six million members nationally.  It was a fraternal organization with innovative recruitment methods and a decentralized organizational structure, only marginally different from the Rotarians and the Masons.  Whereas the Klan in its first and third iterations was a distinctly southern organization, the 1920s Klan flourished in northern and western states as well as the American South; it was particularly strong in Indiana and Oregon. 

            In Gordon’s interpretation, the Klan in the 1920s further differentiated itself from its first and third iterations by engaging only rarely in what she terms “vigilantism” — overt intimidation and violence.  Readers expecting a gruesome recitation of middle-of-the-night lynchings, the Klan’s trademark form of domestic terrorism, are likely to be disappointed by this volume.  She rarely mentions the term “lynching.”  The primary incident of overt intimidation she highlights is one already familiar to many readers: the Klan’s nighttime assault in 1925 on the Omaha, Nebraska, house of the family of Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X.  Klansmen on horseback surrounded the Little house, shattered the windows and forced the family to flee Omaha.  The assault, Gordon indicates, was “typical of the northern Klan’s vigilantism – usually stopping short of murder or physical assault, but nevertheless communicating a credible threat of violence to Klan enemies.  The vast majority of Klanspeople never participated in this vigilantism” (p.94).  

            But what about vigilantism in the South?  Gordon hints at several points that murder and physical violence may have been more extensive in southern states than in the North and West (e.g., vigilantism was the Klan’s “core function” in the South, whereas Klan organizations in the North and West “rarely” engaged in violent attacks; p.206).  But she barely treats the American South, focusing almost exclusively on northern and western states, thereby leaving readers with the sense that they may not have received a full account of the vigilantism of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, and that a book which delved more deeply into the 1920s Klan in southern states might have been altogether different from this account.

            At least in northern and western states, Gordon argues, the Klan’s views were not out of step with most white American Protestants, the majority group in the United States in the 1920s.  “Never an aberration” in its prejudices, the second iteration of the Klan was, “just as it claimed, ‘100% American’” (p.36).  But in enunciating values with which a majority of white American Protestants of the 1920s probably agreed, the Klan:

whirled these ideas into greater intensity.  The Klan argued that the nation itself was threatened.  Then it declared itself a band of warriors determined to thwart that threat.  In the military metaphors that filled Klan rhetoric, it had been directed by God – a Protestant God, of course – to lead an army of right-minded people to defeat the nation’s internal enemies (p.36). 

* * *

            Antagonism to diversity, a “form of pollution, uncleanliness,” is key to understanding the Klan in the 1920s.  “Fear of heterogeneity” underlay its “extreme nationalism and isolationism; Klanspeople saw little to admire in any foreign culture” (p.58).  The Klan viewed Catholics as threats because their religion was global, making Catholics subservient to Rome and disloyal to America  —  “underground warriors for their foreign masters” (p.45).  The Klan charged Catholics with what amounts to “unfair competition,” alleging that emissaries of the Pope in Rome had helped Catholics “take over police forces, newspapers, and big-city governments” (p.203). 

            Jews were guilty of a different kind of foreign allegiance, to a “secular international cabal of financiers who planned to take over the American economy through its financial institutions” and establish a “government within our government” (p.49).  Jews did not produce anything; they were mere financial middlemen who contributed no economic value to the United States.  The Klan blamed the Jews for the decline in morality, for women’s immodest dress, and for the debasement of the culture coming from Hollywood.   But, “in one remarkable silence about the Jews,”  Klan discourse “did not often employ the reverse side of classic anti-Semitism: that these dishonest merchant capitalists were also Communists” (p.49).  

            Among immigrants, the Klan targeted in particular Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese and East Asians, along with Southern and Eastern Europeans (which of course included many Catholics and Jews).  Exempted were what it termed “Nordic” immigrants, generally Protestants from Germany, the Scandinavian countries and the British Isles.  The Klan argued “not only for an end to the immigration of non-‘Nordics’ but also for deporting those already here.  The date of their immigration, their longevity in the United States, mattered not” (p.27).  No matter how long such immigrants remained in the country, they could never become fully American.

            With rites based on Bible readings and prayer, the second Klan’s religiosity “might suggest that it functioned as a Protestant denomination.”  But the Klan was “not a denomination,” Gordon writes.  It sought to “incorporate existing Protestant churches, not replace them, and to put evangelism at their core.  It was in many ways a pan-Protestant evangelical movement, that is, an attempt to unite evangelical Protestants across their separate denominations” (p.88).  The Klan relied heavily upon evangelical ministers for recruitment, a mobilization that “foreshadowed – and probably helped generate – the entry of Christian Right preachers into conservative politics fifty years later” (p.90).  The 1920s “may have been the first time that bigotry became a major theme among [evangelical Protestant] preachers” (p.91).   

            The Klan joined enthusiastically with evangelical Protestants to support Prohibition, the anti-alcohol movement that succeeded in enshrining temperance into the American constitution in the form of the constitution’s 18th amendment.  For a full 14 years, from 1919 to 1933, the Klan theoretically had constitutional sanction for its vision of a world without alcoholic beverages.  Defense of Prohibition was universal among the Klan’s diverse chapters, and in Gordon’s view was “arguably responsible for the fact that many relatively tolerant citizens shrugged off its racist rhetoric” (p.95).  Supporting Prohibition, the Klan blamed its enemies for violations.  In Klannish imagination, “Catholics did the drinking and Jewish bootleggers supplied them” (p.58).

            The Klan also joined with many women’s groups in supporting Prohibition.  Klanswomen formed a parallel organization, Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK), which Gordon finds close in outlook and approach to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the major groups backing the 18th amendment.  The WKKK supported woman’s suffrage – for white, Protestant women.  Klanswomen also supported women’s employment and even called for women’s economic independence.  Although outnumbered about 6 to 1 in the Klan, women contributed a new argument to the cause: that women’s emergence as active citizens would help purify the country, bringing “family values” back into the nation’s governance.  Women engaged in charitable work on behalf of the Klan, raised money for orphanages, schools and individual needy families, and placed Protestant bibles in the schools.  Women often led youth divisions of the Klan.  Without women’s long hours invested in Klan activties, Gordon argues, the second Klan “could not have become such a mass movement” (p.129). 

            But, in an organization based on male hierarchy which played specifically to white Protestant males’ anxiety over loss of privileged status in the new and unsettling post-World War I years, many women rose to national prominence as leaders of the Klan’s second coming.  Perhaps the most striking characteristic of such women was their “entrepreneurship,” which involved “both ambition and skill, both principle and profit . . . Experienced at organizing large events, state-of-the-art in managing money, unafraid to attract publicity, they were thoroughly modern women” (p.122-23).  Gordon seems unsure how to present these strong, assertive women who freely embraced the Klan creed of bigotry and intolerance.   The Klanswomen’s activism “requires a more capacious understanding of feminism,” she writes.  Their “combination of feminism and bigotry may be disturbing to today’s feminists, but it is important to feminism’s history.  There is nothing about a generic commitment to sex equality that inevitably includes a commitment to equalities across racial, ethnic, religious or class lines” (p.123).  At another point, she admonishes readers to “rid themselves of notions that women’s politics are always kinder, gentler, and less racist than men’s” (p.110).

            In its economic values, the Klan was wholly conservative.  It was devoted to the business ethic and revered men of great wealth, with its economic complaints invariably taking the form of “racial and religious prejudices”  (p.203).  The Klan sought to implement its vision of a white Protestant America “without fundamental changes to the political rules of American democracy.  The KKK was a political machine and a social movement, not an insurrectionary vanguard” (p.208).   What made the Ku Klux Klan so successful in the early 1920s was an aggressive, state-of-the-art approach to recruiting:

Far from rejecting commercialization and the technology it brought, such as radio, the Klan’s system was entirely up-to-date, even pioneering, in its methods of selling.  From its start, the second Klan used what might be called the social media of its time.  These methods – a professional PR firm, financial incentives to recruit, advertisements in the mass media, and high-tech spectacular pageants – produced phenomenal growth for several years (p.63).

            The Klan in its second iteration faded quickly, beginning around 1925.  By 1927 Klan membership had shrunk to about 350,000.  Several highly publicized scandals and cases of criminal embezzlement among Klan leaders, exposing its leaders’ crimes, hypocrisy, and misbehavior, induced the Klan’s precipitous fall in the latter portion of the 1920s, along with the “profiteering” of Klan leaders — “gouging members through dues and the sale of Klan paraphernalia” (p.191).  Power struggles among leaders produced splits and even rival Klans under different names.  Rank-and-file resentment transformed the Klan’s already high turnover into “mass shrinkage as millions of members either failed to pay dues or formally withdrew” (p.191). 

            But the longest-term force behind the Klan’s decline may have been the increasing integration of Catholics and Jews into American society.  The “allegedly inassimilable Jews assimilated and influenced the culture, both high-brow and low-brow.  The alleged vassals of the pope began to behave like other immigrants, firm in their allegiance to America” (p.197).   By contrast, the Klan “never gave up its hatred for people of color.  As African-Americans moved northward and westward, as more Latin American and East Asian immigrants arrived, the latter-day Klan shifted toward a simpler, purer racial system, with two categories: white and not white” (p.197-98).

* * *

            Despite its precipitous decline, the Ku Klux Klan in its second iteration triumphed in many respects.  The biggest tangible Klan victory was in legislation restricting immigration.  Although the Klan was not solely responsible, its propaganda “surely strengthened racialized anti-immigrant sentiment both in Congress and among the voters” (p.195).  Less tangibly, the Klan “influenced the public conversation, the universe of tolerable discourse” (p.195).  The second Klan “spread, strengthened, and radicalized preexisting nativist and racist sentiments among the white population.  In reactivating these older animosities it also re-legitimated them.  However reprehensible hidden bigotry might be, making its open expression acceptable has significant additional impact” (p.195).   In this sense, Gordon’s compact and captivating interpretation serves as a reminder that the Klan remains a presence still to be reckoned with today, nearly a century after its second coming. 

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

January 28, 2019

11 Comments

Filed under United States History

A Tale of Three Cities’ Spaces and Places

Mike Rapport, The Unruly City:

Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution

In The Unruly City: Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution, Mike Rapport, professor of modern European history at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, provides a novel look at three urban centers in the last quarter of the 18th century: Paris, London and New York.  As the title indicates, the century’s last quarter was the age of revolution: in America at the beginning of the approximate 25-year period, as the 13 American colonies fought for their independence from Great Britain and became the United States of America; followed by the French Revolution in the next decade, which ended monarchial rule, abolished most privileges of the aristocracy and clergy, and uprooted deep-rooted social and cultural norms.  Great Britain somehow avoided any such an upheaval during this time, and that is one of the main points of the story. 

But radical democratic movements were afoot in all three countries, favoring greater equality, a drastically expanded franchise and opposition to entrenched privilege  – objectives overlapping with but not identical to those of the revolutions in America and France.  How these democratic impulses played out in each city is the real core of Rapport’s story — or, more precisely, how these impulses played out in each city’s spaces and places.  In examining the contribution of each city’s topography – its spaces and places — to political outcomes, Rapport utilizes a “bottom up” approach which emphasizes the roles played by each city’s artisans, small shopkeepers, and everyday working people as they struggled against entrenched elites.  Rapport thus brings the perspective of an urban geographer and demographer to his story.  But there is also a geo-political angle that needs to be factored into the story. 

The French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, in which France and its archenemy Britain vied between 1756 and 1763 for control of large swaths of the American continent, ended in ignominious defeat for France.  But both Britain and France emerged from the war with staggeringly high debts, triggering financial crises in both countries.  A decade and a half later, in 1777, monarchial France lent assistance to the American colonies as they broke away from Britain.  The newly formed United States of America in turn largely supported the French Revolution when it broke out in 1789, and sided with revolutionary France when it found itself again at war with Britain in 1792.  Rapport’s topographical approach, with its concentration on the cityscapes of Paris, London and New York, provides a fresh perspective to these familiar late 18th century events.

In the final quarter of the 18th century, Paris and London were sprawling nerve centers of venerable, centuries-old civilizations, while New York was far smaller, far younger, and not quite the nerve center of an emerging New World civilization.  In 1790, moreover, in the middle of Rapport’s story, New York lost its short-lived position as the political capital of the newly created United States of America.  But Paris was different from both New York and London in ways that are consequential for this multi-layered, complex and ambitious tale of three cities. 

Although France’s revolution was nation-wide, its course was dictated by events in Paris in a manner altogether different from the way the American Revolution unfolded in New York.  France in the last quarter of the 18th century lived under a monarchy described alternatively as “despotic” and “absolute.”  It benefitted from nothing quite comparable to America and Britain’s shared heritage from England’s 1688 “Glorious Revolution,” which established critical individual rights and checks upon monarchial power, all of which were “jealously defended by British subjects on both sides of the Atlantic and enviously coveted by educated, progressive Frenchmen and -women” (p.xv). Democratic radicalism in France thus had an altogether different starting point from that in America or Britain, one of the reasons radicalism fused with revolutionary fervor in France in a way it never did in either America or Britain.  These divergences between France on the one hand and America and Britain on the other help explain why Rapport’s emphasis on urban spaces and places serving political ends works best in Paris.   

Rapport resolutely links phases of the French Revolution to discrete Parisian spaces and places: giving impetus to the revolution’s early stages were the Palais-Royal, a formerly aristocratic enclave on the Right Bank, and the artisanal district of the Faubourg St. Antoine, located just east of the hulking Bastille fortress; Paris’ central market, Les Halles, and the Cordeliers district, centered around today’s Placed de l’Odéon on the Left Bank, sustained the revolution’s more radical stages.  The distinct character of these sections of Paris, Rapport writes, goes “a long way to explain how the events unfolded and where much of the revolutionary impulse came from.”  Their geographical and social makeup made Paris a “truly revolutionary city, with a popular militancy that kept politics on the boil with each new crisis.  This combination of geography, social structure and political activism distinguished the Parisian experience from that of London and New York” (p.202). 

When he moves from revolutionary Paris to New York and London, Rapport’s urban topographical approach seems comparatively flat and somewhat forced.  He shows how New York’s Common, located near the city’s northern limits in today’s lower Manhattan, became the focal point for the city’s’ rising democratic fervor and its resistance to British rule.  In London, he focuses upon St. George’s Field, functionally similar to New York’s Common as a location where large groups from all walks of life and all parts of the metropolis gathered freely.  St. George’s Field, which today encompasses Waterloo Station, became the center of mass demonstrations in support of democratic radical John Wilkes, who was jailed for seditious libel in a prison overlooking this largely undeveloped, semi-rural expanse.   But the most compelling story for New York and London is how the democratic energy in the two cities stopped short of the thorough social and cultural uprooting of the French Revolution, much to the relief of elites in both cities.     

* * *

By the fateful year of 1789, Paris’ Palais-Royal, then an “elegant complex of colonnades, arcades, gardens, fountains, apartments, theatres, offices and boutiques” (p.127), had become a combative pubic gathering place where journalists and orators “intellectually pummeled, ideologically bludgeoned and rhetorically battered the old order” (p.125).  Questions involving royal despotism and the rights of citizens were debated and discussed across Paris and throughout France, but “nowhere did these great questions generate more white hot fervor than in the Palais-Royal”(p.127).  The Palais-Royal gave political voice to the insurrection against the monarchy and inherited privilege that broke out in Paris in the spring of 1789 and spread nation-wide.  Without the “contentious cauldron” of the Palais-Royal, Rapport concludes, it is “hard to imagine the insurrection unfolding as it did – and even having the revolutionary results that it did” (p.145),

The Faubourg St. Antoine contributed “special vigor” (p.126) to the 1789 uprising, which resulted in a transfer of power from the King to an elected chamber, the National Assembly, and the subsequent July 1789 assault on the Bastille. An artisanal district famous for its furniture and cabinet makers, Faubourg St. Antoine’s topography and location, Rapport writes, made the neighborhood “especially militant” (p.137) because it was conscious of being outside the old limits of the city.  There was nothing in either New York or London to match the Faubourg’s “geographical cohesion, its homogeneity, its separateness and its defensiveness” (p.137). In Faubourg St. Antoine, a political uprising became a social and cultural upheaval as well.  As “bricks and mortar places,” Rapport writes, both the Palais-Royal and the Faubourg St. Antoine had a “material impact on the shape and outcome of events” and played outsized roles in marking the “final crisis of the old order” (p.126),

As the revolution became more radical, the central market of Les Halles, “the belly of Paris,” also played an outsized role.  Les Halles was the largest and most popular of several Parisian markets.  Its particular culture and geographic location gave Les Halles a “revolutionary dynamism” (p.177) that bound together those who lived and worked there, especially women.  A coordinated women’s march, fueled by food shortages throughout Paris, emanated from Faubourg St. Antoine and Les Halles in October 1789.  The march ended in Versailles, where the women invaded the National Assembly and gained an audience with King Louis XVI.  The King agreed to give his royal sanction to a series of revolutionary demands and, more to the point, promised that Paris would be supplied with bread.  Later the same day, the women forced the King and his family to return to Paris, where they lived as virtual hostages in a city whose women had “demonstrated their determination to keep the Revolution on track” (p.183).

In the aftermath of the march, the National Assembly, instilled by fear of the “unpredictable, uncontrollable force of popular insurrection” (p.185-86), restricted the vote to “active” citizens, adult males who paid a set level of taxes, only about one-half of France’s male population.  The subsequent move to expand the franchise in 1789-90 originated in the Cordeliers district, an “effervescent combination of an already articulate, politicized artisanal population, combined with the concentration of a sympathetic radical leadership” (p.188).  After Lucille and Camille Desmoulins, husband-and-wife journalists from the district, wrote an important article in which they attacked the restriction of the franchise – “What is this much repeated word active citizen supposed to mean?  The active citizens are the ones who took the Bastille” (p.190) – the Cordelier district assembly in June 1790 proposed that all males who paid “any tax whatsoever, including indirect taxes, which included just about everybody, should have ‘active’ citizenship” (p.188-89; notwithstanding the thorough uprooting of the French Revolution, there was no move to extend the franchise to women).   

The Cordeliers district narrowed the political divide between social classes in no small part because of the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, founded in the heart of the district.  Made up of merchants, artisans, tradesmen, retailers and radical lawyers, the Society also encouraged women to attend its sessions.  It saw its primary purpose as “rooting out the threats to the Revolution” and “challenging the limits placed on political rights by the emerging constitutional order” (p.191).  Its influence “rested in its distinctly metropolitan reach” and in having its roots in a neighborhood whose “social and political character made it a linchpin binding the axle of middle-class radicalism to the wheels of popular revolutionary activism” (p.195-96).  As the revolution entered its most radical phases, the Cordeliers district proved to be “one of the epicenters of the metropolitan outburst,” unlike any other district in Paris, bridging the “social gap between the radical middle-class leadership of the burgeoning democratic movement and the militants of the city’s working population” (p.195).    

            No specific Parisian neighborhoods are linked to the turn that the Revolution took in 1793-94 known as the Terror, “synonymous with the ghastly mechanics of the guillotine” (p.223).  This phase occurred at a time of multiple crises, when the newly declared French Republic grasped at repressive and draconian means to defend itself.  Driven by the  “blunt, direct and violent”  (p.226-27) radicals who called themselves sans-culottes (literally, those “without breeches”), the Terror was the period that saw King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette executed, followed by a chilling string of prominent figures deemed “enemies of the revolution” (among them prior revolutionary leaders Maximilian Robespierre and Georges-Jacques Danton, along with Cordelier journalist Camille Desmoulins).  Rapport’s chilling chapter on this phase serves as a reminder of the perils of excessive revolutionary zeal.

Throughout the Revolution, all sections of Paris felt its physical effects in the adaptation of buildings for the multitude of institutions of the new civic order. The process of taking over buildings in every quarter of Paris  — churches, offices, barracks and mansions — not only “made the Revolution more visible, indeed more intrusive, than ever before, but also represented the physical advance of the revolutionary organs deeper in the neighborhoods and communities of the capital” (p.226).  The “physical transformation of interiors, the adaptation of internal spaces and the embellishment of the buildings with revolutionary symbols, reflected the radicalism of the French Revolution in constructing an egalitarian order in an environment that had grown organically out of corporate society based on privilege and royal absolutism” (p.310).  In New York, the physical transformation of the city was not so thoroughgoing, “since the American Revolution did not constitute quite such a break with the past” (p.171).     

* * *

New York in the late 18th century was already an important business center, the major gateway into the New World for trade and commerce from abroad, with a handful of powerful, well-connected families dominating the city’s politics.  Although its population was a modest 30,000, diminutive in comparison to London and Paris, it was among the world’s most heterogeneous cites.  In its revolutionary years, New York witnessed what Rapport terms a “dual revolution,” both a “broad coalition of colonists against British rule” and a “revolt of the people against the elites,” which blended “imperial, local and popular politics in an explosive mix” (p.2). The contest between the “people of property” and the “mob” was about the “future forms of government, whether it should be founded upon aristocratic or democratic principles” (p. p.28-29), in the words of a future New York Senator.

The tumultuous period that ended with independence in 1783 began when Britain sought to raise money to pay for the Seven Years War through the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed a duty on all legal documents (e.g., deeds, wills, licenses, contracts), the first direct tax Britain had imposed on its American colonies.  Triggered by resistance to the Stamp Act, the dual American revolution in the years leading up to war between the colonies and Britain moved in New York from sites controlled by the city’s elites, especially the debating chambers of City Hall, to sites more accessible to the public, in particular the open space known as the Common, along with the city’s taverns and the streets themselves. 

More than just a public space, the Common was “also a site where the power of the state, in all its ominous brutality, was on display” (p.18).  Barracks to house British troops had been erected on the Common during the Seven Years War, and it was the site of public executions.  It was on the Commons that the Liberty Pole, the mast of a pine ship, was erected and became the city’s most conspicuous symbol of resistance, a “deliberate, defiant counterpoise” (p.18) to British state authority.  The first Liberty Pole was hacked down in August 1766, only to be replaced in the following days.  This pattern repeated itself several times, as the Common became the most politically charged place in New York, where a more militant, popular form of politics emerged to challenge the ruling elites.

  It was on the Common, at the foot of the Liberty Pole that New Yorkers received the news in April 1775 that war with the British had broken out in New England.  In 1776, George Washington announced the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence on the same site. During the war for independence, the Liberty Pole became the symbolic site where people declared their support for independence – or, in many cases, were compelled to do so.     

In 1789, after the American colonies had won independence from Britain, the Common served as the start and end point of a massive parade through New York City in support of a proposed constitution to govern the country now known as the United States of America, at a time when the entire State of New York was wrestling with the decision whether to become the last state to ratify the proposed constitution.  The choice of the Common as the parade’s start and end point was, Rapport writes, highly symbolic, “connecting the struggle for the Constitution with the earlier battles around the Liberty Pole” (p.162).  Dominated by the city’s tradesmen and craft workers, the parade was a “tour of artisanal force” that “connected the Constitution with the commercial prosperity upon which the city and its working people depended,” serving as a reminder to the city’s elites that the revolution had “not just secured independence, but [had also] mobilized and empowered the people”(p.163).

The parade from the Common through New York’s streets also demonstrated the degree to which democratic radicalism in New York had been tempered.  The city’s radicals, aware that New York’s prosperity depended upon good commercial relations and a thriving mercantile community, “reached beyond mere vengeance and aimed at forging a more equal democracy, in which the overmighty power of the wealthy and the privileged would be cut down to size, allowing artisans and ‘mechanics’ to enjoy the democratic freedoms that they had done so much to secure” (p.156). 

With their vested interest in the financial and commercial prosperity of the city, New York’s radicals were not yet ready to call for “leveling,” or “social equality,” among the greatest concerns to the city’s privileged classes.  In London, too, democratic radicalism stopped short of a full-scale challenge to the social order. 

* * *

While Britain was attempting to rein in America’s rebellious colonies, a movement for democratic reform emerged in London, centered on parliamentary reform and expansion of the suffrage.  The movement’s unlikely leader was journalist and parliamentarian John Wilkes, who symbolized “defiance towards the elites and the overbearing authority of the eighteenth-century British state” (p.35).  The liberties that Wilkes defended began with those specific to the City, a small and nearly autonomous enclave within metropolitan London.  Known today as London’s financial district, the City in the latter half of the 18th century was a “lively hub of activity of all kinds, not just finance but also highly skilled artisans, printers and merchants plying their trades” (p.37).  It had its own police constables and enjoyed privileges unavailable elsewhere in London, including direct access to King and parliament. 

Wilkes, writing “inflammatory satire,” excoriated the government and campaigned for an expansion of voting rights with a mixture of “irony, humor and vitriol” (p.42).  Wilkes tied his in-your-face radicalism to a defense of the traditional liberties and power of the City.  But his radicalism caused him to be expelled from the House of Commons, then tried and convicted of seditious libel.  For London’s working people, Wilkes became “another victim of a harsh, unforgiving system that seemed staked in favor of the elites” (p.51).  Wilkes was jailed in a prison that overlooked St. George’s Fields, London’s undeveloped, semi-rural gathering point on the opposite side of the River Thames from the City.  St. George’s Fields came to represent symbolically a “departure from the narrow defense of the City’s privileges towards a broader demand for a national politics more responsive to the aspirations of the people at large” (p.44).   

When authorities failed to release Wilkes on an anticipated date in 1768, a major riot broke out in St. George’s Fields in which seven people were killed.  Mobilization on St. George’s Fields on behalf of Wilkes, Rapport writes,  “brought thousands of London’s working population into politics for the first time, people who had little or no stake in the traditional liberties of the City, let alone a vote in parliamentary elections, but who saw in Wilkes’s defiance of authority a mirror of their own daily struggle for self-respect and dignity in the face of the overbearing power of the state and the social dominance of the elites” (p.44).

Once freed, Wilkes went on to be elected Lord Mayor of the City in 1774 and chosen also to represent suburban Middlesex in Parliament.  Two years later he was pushing the altogether radical notion of universal male suffrage. But, rather than attacking the privileges of the City, the movement in support of Wilkes fused with a defense of the City.  This fusion, in Rapport’s view, “may be one reason the resistance to authority in London, though certainly riotous, did not become revolutionary . . . Londoners were able to make their protests without challenging the wider structure of politics” (p.52-53).   By coalescing around the figure of John Wilkes, the popular mobilization “reinforced rather than challenged the privileges that empowered the City to resist the king and Parliament” (p.56).

As revolution raged on the other side of the English Channel after 1789, many in London believed that that Britain’s 1688 revolution “had already secured many basic rights and freedoms for British subjects; the French were starting from zero” (p.257).  Arguments about the French revolution and criticisms and defense of the British constitution were kept within legal boundaries in London.  It was the British habit of free discussion, Rapport concludes, “alongside, first, the commitment to legality among the reformers and, second, the relative caution with which . . . the government proceeded against them that ensured that London avoided a revolutionary upheaval in these years” (p.221).

* * *

Rapport sets a dauntingly intricate task for himself in seeking to demonstrate how the artisanal and working class populations of Paris, New York and London used each city’s spaces and places to abet radical democratic ideas.   How those spaces and places helped shape revolutionary events in Paris from 1789 onward and thereby transformed the city are the best portions of his work, insightful and at times riveting.  His treatment of New York and London, where no such physical transformation occurred, has less zest.  But the tale of three cities comes together through Rapport’s detailing of moments in each place when “thousands of people, often for the first time, seized the initiative and tried to shape their own political futures” (p.317).

* * *

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C. USA

December 31, 2018

2 Comments

Filed under British History, French History, History, United States History

They Kept Us Out of War . . . Until They Didn’t

Michael Kazin, War Against War:

The American Fight for Peace, 1914-18 

            Earlier this month, Europe and much of the rest of the world paused briefly to observe the 100th anniversary of the day in 1918 when World War I, sill sometimes called the Great War, officially ended. In the United States, where we observe Veterans’ Day without explicit reference to World War I, this past November 11th constituted one of the rare occasions when the American public focused on the four-year conflict that took somewhere between 9 and 15 million lives, including approximately 116,000 Americans, and shaped indelibly the course of 20th century history.  In War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-18, Michael Kazin offers a contrarian perspective on American participation in the conflict.  Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University and editor of the avowedly leftist periodical Dissent, recounts the history of the diverse groups and individuals in the United States who sought to keep their country out of the conflict when it broke out in 1914; and how those groups changed, evolved and reacted once the United States, under President Woodrow Wilson, went to war in April 1917.

            The opposition to World War I was, Kazin writes, the “largest, most diverse, and most sophisticated peace coalition to that point in U.S. history” (p.xi). It included pacifists, socialists, trade unionists, urban progressives, rural populists, segregationists, and crusaders for African-American rights.  Women, battling at the same time for the right to vote, were among the movement’s strongest driving forces, and the movement enjoyed support from both Democrats and Republicans.  Although the anti-war opposition had a decidedly anti-capitalist strain – many in the opposition saw the war as little more than an opportunity for large corporations to enrich themselves — a handful of well-known captains of American industry and finance supported the opposition, among them Andrew Carnegie, Solomon Guggenheim and Henry Ford.  It was a diverse and colorful collection of individuals, acting upon what Kazin describes as a “profoundly conservative” (p.xviii) impulse to oppose the build up of America’s military-industrial complex and the concomitant rise of the surveillance state.  Not until the Vietnam War did any war opposition movement approach the World War I peace coalition in size or influence.

            This eclectically diverse movement was in no sense isolationist, Kazin emphasizes. That pejorative term that had not yet come into popular usage.  Convinced that the United States had an important role to play on the world stage beyond its own borders, the anti-war coalition sought to create a “new global order based on cooperative relationships between nation states and their gradual disarmament” (p.xiv).  Its members hoped the United States would exert moral authority over the belligerents by staying above the fray and negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict.

             Kazin’s tells his story in large measure through admiring portraits of four key members of the anti-war coalition, each representing one of its major components: Morris Hillquit, a New York labor lawyer and a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, standard-bearer for the Socialist Party of America and left-wing trade unions; Crystal Eastman, a charismatic and eloquent New York feminist and labor activist, on behalf of women; and two legislative representatives, Congressman Claude Kitchen, a populist Democrat from North Carolina and an ardent segregationist; and Wisconsin Republican Senator Robert (“Fighting Bob”) LaFollette, Congress’ most visible progressive. The four disagreed on much, but they agreed that industrial corporations yielded too much power, and that the leaders of American industry and finance were “eager to use war and preparations for war to enhance their profits” (p.xiv).  Other well-known members of the coalition featured in Kazin’s story include Jane Addams, renowned social activist and feminist; William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State under President Wilson, three-time presidential candidate, and Christian fundamentalist; and Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, successively perennial presidential candidates of the Socialist Party of America.

            Kazin spends less time on the coalition’s opponents – those who had few qualms about entering the European conflict and, short of that, supported “preparedness” (always used with quotation marks): the notion that the United States needed to build up its land and naval capabilities and increase the size of its military personnel in the event that they might be needed for the conflict.  But those favoring intervention and “preparedness” found their voice in the outsized personality of former president Theodore Roosevelt, who mixed bellicose rhetoric with unadulterated animosity toward President Wilson, the man who had defeated him in a three-way race for the presidency in 1912.  After the United States declared war in April 1917, the former Rough Rider, then fifty-eight years old, sought to assemble his own volunteer unit and depart for the trenches of Europe as soon as the unit could be organized and trained.  To avoid this result, President Wilson was able to steer the Selective Service Act through Congress, establishing the national draft that Roosevelt had long favored – and Wilson had previously opposed.

             Kazin’s story necessarily turns around Wilson and his fraught relationship with the anti-war coalition. Stern, rigid, and frequently bewildering, Wilson was a firm opponent of United States involvement in the war when it broke out in 1914.  In the initial months of the conflict, Wilson gave the anti-war activists reason to think they had a sympathetic ear in the White House.  Wilson wanted the United States to stay neutral in the conflict so he could negotiate a lasting and just peace — an objective that the anti-war coalition fully endorsed.  He met frequently with peace groups and took care to praise their motives.  But throughout 1915, Wilson edged ever closer to the “preparedness” side. He left many on both sides confused about his intentions, probably deliberately so.  In Kazin’s interpretation, Wilson ultimately decided that he could be a more effective negotiator for a lasting and just peace if the United States entered the war rather than remained neutral. As the United States transitioned to belligerent, Wilson transformed from sympathizer with the anti-war coalition to its suppressor-in-chief. His transformation constitutes the most dramatic thread in Kazin’s story.

* * *

              The issue of shipping on the high seas precipitated the crisis with Germany that led Wilson to call for the United States’ entry into the war.  From the war’s outset, Britain had used its Royal Navy to prevent vessels from entering German ports, a clear violation of international law (prompting the quip that Britannia both “rules the waves and waives the rules” (p.25)).  Germany, with a far smaller naval force, retaliated by using its submarines to sink merchant ships headed for enemy ports.  The German sinking of the Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915, killing more than 1,200 citizens, among them 128 Americans, constituted the beginning of the end for any real chance that the United States would remain neutral in the conflict.

            A discernible pro-intervention movement emerged in the aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania, Kazin explains.  The move for “preparedness” was no longer just the cry of the furiously partisan or a small group of noisy hawks like Roosevelt.  A wide-ranging group suddenly supported intervention in Europe or, at a minimum, an army and navy equal to any of the belligerents.  Peace activists who had been urging their neutral government to mediate a settlement in the war “now faced a struggle to keep their nation from joining the fray” (p.62).

            After the sinking of the Lusitania, throughout 1916 and into the early months of 1917, “social workers and feminists, left-wing unionists and Socialists, pacifists and non- pacifists, and a vocal contingent of senators and congressmen from both major parties,” led by LaFollette and Kitchin, “worked together to stall or reverse the drive for a larger and more aggressive military” (p.63), Kazin writes.  The coalition benefited from the “eloquent assistance” of William Jennings Bryan, who had recently resigned as Secretary of State over Wilson’s refusal to criticize Britain’s embargo as well as Germany’s attacks on neutral vessels.

            In the aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania, Wilson grappled with the issue of “how to maintain neutrality while allowing U.S. citizens to sail across the perilous Atlantic on British ships” (p.103).  Unlike the peace activists, Wilson “tempered his internationalist convictions with a desire to advance the nation’s power and status . . . As the crisis with Germany intensified, the idealism of the head of state inevitably clashed with that of citizens whose desire that America be right always mattered far more than any wish that it be mighty” (p.149).

            As events seemed to propel the United States closer to war in late 1916 and early 1917, the anti-war activists found themselves increasingly on the defensive.  They began to concentrate most of their energies on a single tactic: the demand for a popular referendum on whether the United States should go to war.  Although the idea gathered genuine momentum, there was a flagrant lack of support in Congress.  The activists never came up with a plausible argument why Congress should voluntarily give up or weaken its constitutional authority to declare war.

         In his campaign for re-election in 1916 against the Republican Party nominee, former Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, Wilson ran as the “peace candidate,” dictated as much by necessity as desire.  “Few peace activists were ambivalent about the choice before them that fall,” Kazin writes.  “Whether as the lesser evil or a decent alterative, a second term seemed the only way to prevent Roosevelt . . . and [his] ilk from grabbing the reins of foreign policy” (p.124).  By September 1916, when Wilson left the White House for the campaign trail, he enjoyed the support of the “most left-wing, class-conscious coalition ever to unite behind a sitting president” (p.125).  Wilson eked out a narrow Electoral College victory in November over Hughes, with war opponents likely putting him over the top in three key states.

             Wilson’s re-election “liberated his mind and loosened his tongue” (p.141), as Kazin puts it.  In January 1917, he delivered to the United States Senate what came to be known as his “peace without victory” speech, in which he offered his vision for a “cooperative peace” that would “win the approval of mankind,” enforced by an international League of Peace. Borrowing from the anti-war coalition’s playbook, Wilson foreshadowed the famous 14 points that would became his basis for a peace settlement at the post-war 1919 Versailles Conference: no territorial gains, self-government and national self -determination for individual states, freedom of commerce on the seas, and a national military force for each state limited in size so as not to become an “instrument of aggression or of selfish violence” (p.141).  Wilson told the Senators that he was merely offering an extension of the United States’ own Monroe Doctrine.  But although he didn’t yet use the expression, Wilson was proposing nothing less than to make the world safe for democracy.  As such, Kazin notes, he was demanding “an end to the empires that, among them, ruled close to half the people of the world” (p.141).

           Wilson’s “stunning act of oratory” (p.142) earned the full support of the anti-war activists at home and many of their counterparts in Europe.  Most Republicans, by contrast, dismissed Wilson’s ideas as an “exercise in utopian thinking” (p.143). But, two months later, in March 1917, German U-boats sank three unarmed American vessels. This was the point of no return for Wilson, Kazin argues.  The president, who had “staked the nation’s honor and prosperity on protecting the ‘freedom of the seas,’ now believed he had no choice but to go to war” (p.172).  By this time, Wilson had concluded that a belligerent America could “end the conflict more quickly and, perhaps, spur ordinary Germans to topple their leaders, emulating their revolutionary counterparts in Russia.  Democratic nations, old and new, could then agree to the just and ‘cooperative’ peace Wilson had called for back in January.  By helping to win the war, the United States would succeed where neutrality had failed” (p.172).

* * *

           As the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917 (it never declared war on Germany’s allies Austria-Hungary and Turkey), it also seemed to have declared war on the anti-war coalition  and anyone else who questioned the United States’ role in the conflict.  The Wilson administration quickly turned much of the private sector into an appendage of the state, concentrating power to an unprecedented degree in the national government in Washington.  It persecuted and prosecuted opponents of the war effort with a ferocity few in the anti-war movement could have anticipated. “In no previous war had there been so much repression, legal and otherwise” (p.188), Kazin writes.  The Wilson administration, its allies in Congress and the judiciary all embraced the view that critics of the war had to “stay silent or suffer for their dissent” (p.189).  Wilson gave a speech in June 1917 in which he all but equated opposition with treason.

          The next day, Wilson signed into law the Espionage Act of 1917, designed to prohibit interference with military operations or recruitment as well as any support of the enemies of the United States during wartime.  The following year, Congress passed the even more draconian Sedition Act of 1918, which criminalized “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the government, the flag, or the “uniform of the armed forces” (p.246). The apparatus for repressing “disloyalty” had become “one tentacle of the newly potent Leviathan” (p.192).

            Kazin provides harrowing examples of the application of the Sedition Act.  A recent immigrant from Germany received a ten-year sentence for cursing Theodore Roosevelt and cheering a Germany victory on the battlefield.   Another served time for expressing his view that the conflict was a “rich man’s war and the United States is simply fighting for the money” (p.245); still another was prosecuted and jailed for charging that the United States Army was a “God damned legalized murder machine” (p.245).  Socialist Party and labor leader Eugene Debs received a ten-year sentence for telling party members – at a union picnic, no less – that their voices had not been heard in the decision to declare war.  The administration was unable to explain how repression of these relatively mild anti-war sentiments was helping to make the world safe for democracy.

            Many in the anti-war coalition, understandably, fell into line or fell silent, fearing that they would be punished for “refusing to change their minds” (p.xi). Most activists understood that, as long as the conflict continued, “resisting it would probably yield them more hardships than victories” (p.193).  Those continuing in the shrunken anti-war movement felt compelled to “defend themselves constantly against charges of disloyalty or outright treason” (p.243).  They fought to “reconcile their fear and disgust at the government’s repression with a hope that Wilson might still embrace a ‘peace without victory,’ even as masses of American troops made their way to France and into battle” (p.243).

           Representative Kitchin and Senator La Follette, the two men who had spearheaded opposition to the war in Congress, refrained from expressing doubts publicly about the war effort.  Kitchin, chairman at the time of the House of Representatives’ powerful Ways and Means Committee, nonetheless structured a revenue bill to finance the war by placing the primary burden on corporations that had made “excess profits” (p.244) from military contracts.  La Follette was forced to leave the Senate in early 1918 to care for his ill son, removing him from the storm that would have ensued had he continued to espouse his unwavering anti-war views.  Female activist Crystal Eastman helped create the National Civil Liberties Bureau, a predecessor to the American Civil Liberties Union, and started a new radical journal, the Liberator, after the government prohibited a previous publication from using the mails.  Socialist Morris Hilquit, like La Follette, was able to stay out of the line of fire in 1918 when he contracted tuberculosis and was forced out of New York City and into convalesce in the Adirondack Mountains, 300 miles to the north.

           Although the United States was formally at war with Germany for the last 19 months of a war that lasted over four years, given the time needed to raise and train battle ready troops it was a presence on the battlefield for only six months.  The tardy arrival of Americans on the killing fields of Europe was, Kazin argues, “in part, an ironic tribute to the success of the peace coalition in the United States during the neutral years” (p.260-61).  Hundreds of thousands of Americans would likely have been fighting in France by the summer of 1917 if Theodore Roosevelt and his colleagues and allies had won the fight over “preparedness” in 1915 and 1916.  “But the working alliance between radical pacifists like Crystal Eastman and progressive foes of the military like La Follette severely limited what the advocates of a European-style force could achieve – before Woodrow Wilson shed his own ambivalence and resolved that Americans had to sacrifice to advance self-government abroad and preserve the nation’s honor” (p.260-61).

          * * *

          Kazin’s energetic yet judicious work sheds valuable light on the diverse groups that steadfastly followed an alternate route for advancing self-government abroad – making the world safe for democracy — and preserving their nation’s honor.  As American attention to the Great War recedes in the aftermath of this month’s November 11th remembrances, Kazin’s work remains a timely reminder of the divisiveness of the conflict.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 16, 2018

 

13 Comments

Filed under American Politics, European History, History, United States History

Solitary Confrontations

 

Glenn Frankel, High Noon:

The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of An American Classic 

            High Noon remains one of Hollywood’s most enduringly popular movies. The term “High Noon” is now part of our everyday language, meaning a “time of a decisive confrontation or contest,” usually between good and evil, in which good is often embodied in a solitary person.  High Noon is a fairly simple story, yet filled with tension.  The film takes place in the small western town of Hadleyville.  Former marshal Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper, is preparing to leave town with his new bride, Amy Fowler, played by Grace Kelly, when he learns that notorious criminal Frank Miller, whom Kane had helped send to jail, has been set free and is arriving with his cronies on the noon train to take revenge on the marshal.  Amy, a devout Quaker and a pacifist, urges her husband to leave town before Miller arrives, but Kane’s sense of duty and honor compels him to stay. As he seeks deputies and assistance among the townspeople, Kane is rebuffed at each turn, leaving him alone to face Miller and his gang in a fatal gunfight at the film’s end.

          High Noon came to the screen in 1952 at the height of Hollywood’s anti-communist campaign, best known for its practice of blacklisting, by which actors, writers, directors, producers, and others in the film industry could be denied employment based upon past or present membership in or sympathy for the American Communist Party.  Developed and administered by film industry organizations and luminaries, among them Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne and future American president Ronald Reagan, blacklisting arose during the early Cold War years as Hollywood’s response to the work of the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities, better known as HUAC.

            Until surpassed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, HUAC was the driving force in post World War II America’s campaign to uproot communists and communist sympathizers from all aspects of public life.  The Committee exerted pressure on Hollywood personnel with suspected communist ties or sympathies to avoid the blacklist by “cooperating” with the Committee, which entailed in particular “naming names” – identifying other party members or sympathizers.  Hollywood blacklisting had all the indicia of what we might today call a “witch hunt.” Blacklisting also came close to curtailing High Noon altogether.

         Glenn Frankel’s engrossing, thoroughly-researched High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of An American Classic captures the link between the film classic and Hollywood’s efforts to purge its ranks of present and former communists and sympathizers. Frankel places the anti-communist HUAC investigations and the Hollywood blacklisting campaign within the larger context of a resurgence of American political conservatism after World War II – a “right wing backlash” (p.45) — with the political right struggling to regain the upper hand after twelve years of New Deal politics at home and an alliance with the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany during World War II.  There was a feeling then, as today, Frankel explains, that usurpers had stolen the country: “outsiders had taken control of the nation’s civil institutions and culture and were plotting to subvert its security and values” (p.x).   The usurpers of the post-World War II era were liberals, Jews and communists, and “self-appointed guardians of American values were determined to claw it back” (p.x).

          Hollywood, with its “extraordinary high profile” and “abiding role in our national culture and fantasies” (p.xi), was uniquely placed to shape American values and, to many, communists and Jews seemed to be doing an inordinate amount of the shaping.  In an industry that employed nearly 30,000 persons, genuine communists in Hollywood probably never exceeded 350, with screenwriters roughly half of the 350.  But 175 screenwriters, unless thwarted, could freely produce what right-wing politicians termed “propaganda pictures” designed to undermine American values.  Communists constituted a particularly insidious threat because they looked and sounded indistinguishable from others in the industry, yet were “agents of a ruthless foreign power whose declared goal was to destroy the American way of life” (p.x).  That a high portion of Hollywood’s communists were Jewish heightened suspicion of the Jews who, from Hollywood’s earliest days as the center of the film industry, had played an outside role as studio heads, screenwriters, and agents.  Jews in Hollywood were at once “uniquely powerful” and “uniquely vulnerable” to the attacks of anti-Semites who accused them of “using the movies to undermine traditional American values” (p.13).

            Frankel’s account of this struggle over security and values involves a multitude of individuals, primarily in Hollywood and secondarily in Washington, but centers upon the interaction between three: Gary Cooper, Stanley Kramer, and Carl Foreman.  Cooper was the star of High Noon and Kramer its producer.   Foreman wrote the script and was the film’s associate director until his refusal in September 1951 to name names before HUAC forced him to leave High Noon before its completion.  Foreman and Kramer, leftist leaning politically, were “fast-talking urban intellectuals from the Jewish ghettos of Chicago [Foreman] and New York [Kramer]” (p.xvi).  Foreman had been a member of the American Communist Party as a young adult in the 1930s until sometime in the immediate post-war years; Kramer’s relationship to the party is unclear in Frankel’s account.  Cooper was a distinct contrast to Foreman and Kramer in about every respect, a “tall, elegant, and reticent” (p.xvi) Anglo-Saxon Protestant from rural Montana, the product of conservative Republican stock who liked to keep a low profile when it came to politics.

            Although Cooper was the star of High Noon, Foreman emerges as the star in Frankel’s examination of HUAC investigations and blacklisting. Foreman saw his encounter with HUAC in terms similar to those which Cooper, as Will Kane, encountered in Hadleyville: he was the marshal, HUAC seemed like the gunmen coming to kill the marshal, and the “hypocritical and cowardly citizens of Hadleyville” found their counterparts in the “denizens of Hollywood who stood by passively or betrayed him as the forces of repression bore down” (p.xiii).  The filming of High Noon had begun a few days prior to Foreman’s testimony before HUAC and was completed in just 32 days, on what amounted to a shoestring budget of $790,000.  How the 84-minute black-and-white film survived Foreman’s departure constitutes a mini-drama within Frankel’s often gripping narrative.

* * *

         In most accounts, Hollywood’s blacklisting practices began in 1947, when ten writers and directors — the “Hollywood Ten” — appeared before HUAC and refused to answer the committee’s questions about their membership in the Communist Party.  They were cited for contempt of Congress and served time in prison.  After their testimony, a group of studio executives, acting under the aegis of the Association of Motion Picture Producers, fired the ten and issued what came to be known as the Waldorf Statement, which committed the studios to firing anyone with ties to the Communist Party, whether called to testify before HUAC or not.  This commitment in practice extended well beyond party members to anyone who refused to “cooperate” with HUAC.

           Neither Foreman nor Kramer was within HUAC’s sights in 1947.  At the time, the two had banded together in the small, independent Stanley Kramer Production Company, specializing in socially relevant films that aimed to attract “war-hardened young audiences who were tired of the slick, superficial entertainments the big Hollywood studios specialized in and [were] hungry for something more meaningful” (p.59).  In March 1951, Kramer Production became a sub-part of Columbia Pictures, one of Hollywood’s major studios.   In June of that year, while finishing the script for High Noon, Foreman received his subpoena to testify before HUAC.  The subpoena was an “invitation to an inquisition” (p.xii), as Frankel puts it.

           HUAC, in the words of writer David Halberstam, was a collection of “bigots, racists, reactionaries and sheer buffoons” (p.76). The Committee acted as judge, jury and prosecutor, with little concern for basic civil liberties such as the right of the accused to call witnesses or cross-examine the accuser.  Witnesses willing to cooperate with the Committee were required to undergo a “ritual of humiliation and purification” (p.xii), renouncing their membership in the Communist Party and praising the Committee for its devotion to combating the Red plot to destroy America.  A “defining part of the process” (p.xiii) entailed identifying other party members or sympathizers – the infamous “naming of names” — which became an end in itself for the HUAC, not merely a means to obtain more information, since the Committee already had the names of most party members and sympathizers working in Hollywood.  Forman was brought to the Committee’s attention by Martin Berkeley, an obscure screenwriter and ex-Communist who emerges as one of the book’s more villainous characters — Hollywood’s “champion namer of names” (p.241).

           Loath to name names, Foreman had few good options.  The primary alternative was to invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions. But such witnesses appeared to have something to hide, and often were blacklisted for failure to cooperate with the Committee.  When he testified before HUAC in September 1951, Forman stressed that he loved his country as much as anyone on the Committee and used his military service during World War II to demonstrate his commitment to the United States.  But he would go no further, refusing to name names.  Foreman conceded for the record that he “wasn’t a Communist now, and hadn’t been one in 1950 when he signed the Screen Writers Guild loyalty oath” (p.201).  The Committee did not hold Foreman in contempt, as it had done with the Hollywood Ten.  But it didn’t take Foreman long to feel the consequences of his refusal to “cooperate.”

           Kramer, who had initially been supportive of Foreman, perhaps out of concern that Foreman might name him as one with communist ties, ended by acceding to Columbia Pictures’ position that Foreman was too tainted to continue to work for its subsidiary.  Foreman left Kramer Production with a lucrative separation package, more than any other blacklisted screenwriter. His attempt to start his own film production company went nowhere when it became clear that anyone working for the company would be blacklisted.  Foreman, a “committed movie guy” who “passionately believed in [films] as the most successful and popular art from ever invented” (p.218), was finished in Hollywood.  He and Kramer never spoke again.

* * *

            Kramer had had little direct involvement with the early shooting of High Noon. But after Foreman’s departure, he reviewed the film and was deeply dismayed by what he saw.  He responded by making substantial cuts, which he later claimed had “saved” the film.  But in Frankel’s account, Cooper rather than Kramer saved High Noon, making the film an unexpected success.  Prior to his departure, Foreman had suggested to Cooper, working for a fraction of his normal fee, that he consider withdrawing from High Noon to preserve his reputation.  Cooper refused. “You know how I feel about Communism,” Frankel quotes Cooper telling Foreman, “but you’re not a Communist now and anyhow I like you, I think you’re an honest man, and I think you should do what is right” (p.170-71).

            Kramer and Foreman were initially reluctant to consider Cooper for the lead role in High Noon.  At age fifty, he “looked at least ten years too old to play the marshal.  And Cooper was exactly the kind of big studio celebrity actor that both men tended to deprecate” (p.150).  Yet, Cooper’s “carefully controlled performance,” combining strength and vulnerability, gave not only his character but the entire picture “plausibility, intimacy and human scale” (p.252), Frankel writes.  Will Kane is “no superhuman action hero, just an aging, tired man seeking to escape his predicament with his life and his new marriage intact, yet knowing he cannot . . . It is a brave performance, and it is hard to imagine any other actor pulling it off with the same skill and grace” (p.252).  None of the “gifted young bucks” whom Kramer and Foreman would likely have preferred for the lead role, such as Marlon Brando, William Holden, or Kirk Douglas, could have done it with “such convincing authenticity, despite all their talent.  In High Noon, Gary Cooper is indeed the truth” (p.252).

            High Noon also established Cooper’s co-star, Grace Kelly, playing Marshal Kane’s new wife Amy in her first major film.  Kelly was some 30 years younger than Cooper and many, including Kramer, considered the pairing a mismatch. But she came cheap and the pairing worked. Katy Jurado, a star in her native Mexico, played the other woman in the film, Helen Ramirez, who had been the girlfriend of both Marshal Kane and his adversary Miller.  During the film, she is involved romantically with Kane’s feckless deputy, Harvey Pell, played by Lloyd Bridges.  High Noon was only Jurado’s second American film, but she was perfect in the role of a sultry Mexican woman.  By design, Foreman created a dichotomy between the film’s male hero — a man of “standard masculine characteristics, inarticulate, stubborn, adept at and reliant on gun violence” (p.253) — and its two women characters who do not fit the conventional models that Western films usually impose on female characters.  The film’s “sensitive focus on Helen and Amy – remarkable for its era and genre – is one of the elements that make it an extraordinary movie” (p.255), Frankel contends.

           Frankel pays almost as much attention to the movie’s stirring theme song, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” sung by Tex Ritter, as he does to the film’s characters.  The musical score was primarily the work of Dimitri Tiomkin, a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine, with lyricist Ned Washington providing the words.  The pair produced a song that could be “sung, whistled, and played by the orchestra all the way through the film, an innovative approach that had rarely been used in movies before ” (p.230). Ritter’s raspy voice proved ideally suited to the song’s role of building tension in the film (the better known Frankie Laine had a “more synthetic and melodramatic” (p.234) version that surpassed Ritter’s in sales).  The song’s narrator is Kane himself, addressing his new bride and expressing his fears and longings in music.  The song, whose melody is played at least 12 times during the movie, encapsulates the plot while explaining the marshal’s “inner conflict in a way that he himself cannot articulate” (p.232). Its repetition throughout the film reminds us that Kane’s life and happiness are “on the line, yet he cannot walk away from his duty” (p.250).

           Frankel also dwells on the use of clocks in the film to heighten tension as 12:00 o’clock, High Noon, approaches.  The clocks, which become bigger as the film progresses, “constantly remind us that time is running out for our hero.  They help build and underscore the tension and anxiety of his fruitless search for support.  There are no dissolves in High Noon – none of the usual fade-ins and fade-outs connoting the unseen passage of time – because time passes directly in front of us.  Every minute counts – and is counted” (p.250).

           High Noon was an instant success from the time it came out in the summer of 1952, an “austere and unusual piece of entertainment,” as Frankel describes the film, “modest, terse, almost dour . . . with no grand vistas, no cattle drives, and no Indian attacks, in fact no gunplay whatsoever until its final showdown.  Yet its taut, powerful storytelling, gritty visual beauty, suspenseful use of time, evocative music, and understated ensemble acting made it enormously compelling” (p.249).   But the film was less popular with critics, many of whom considered the film overly dramatic and corny.

          The consensus among the cognoscenti was that the film was “just barely disguised social drama using a Western setting and costumes,” as one critic put it, the “favorite Western for people who hate Westerns” (p.256).  John Wayne argued that Marshal Kane’s pleas for help made him look weak.  Moreover, Wayne didn’t like the negative portrayal of the church people, which he saw it as an attack on American values.  The American Legion also attacked the film on the ground that it was infected by the input of communists and communist sympathizers.

* * *

          After leaving the High Noon set, Foreman spent much of the 1950s in London, where he had limited success in the British film industry while his marriage unraveled.  For a while, he lost his American passport, pursuant to State Department policy of denying passports to anyone it had reason to suspect was Communist or Communist-leaning, making him a man without a country until a court overturned State Department policy.  Kramer left Columbia pictures after High Noon.  He went back to being an independent producer and in that capacity established a reputation as Hollywood’s most consistently liberal filmmaker.  To this day, the families of Foreman and Kramer, who died in 1984 and 2001, respectively, continue to spar over which of the two deserves more credit for High Noon’s success.  Cooper continued to make films after High Noon, most of them westerns of middling quality, “playing the same role over and over” (p.289) as he aged and his mobility grew more restricted.  He kept in touch with Foreman up until his death from prostate cancer in 1961.

* * *

         Frankel returns at the end of his work to Foreman’s view of High Noon as an allegory for the Hollywood blacklisting process — a single man seeking to preserve honor and confront evil alone when everyone around him wants to cut and run. But, Frankel argues, seen on the screen at a distance of more than sixty years, the film’s politics are “almost illegible.” Some critics, he notes, have suggested that Kane, rather than being a brave opponent of the blacklist, could “just as readily be seen as Senator Joseph McCarthy bravely taking on the evil forces of Communism while exposing the cowardice and hypocrisy of the Washington establishment” (p.259).  Sometimes a good movie is just a good movie.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 3, 2018

 

6 Comments

Filed under Film, Politics, United States History

Magic Moscow Moment

 

Stuart Isacoff, When the World Stopped to Listen:

Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath 

            Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr., known to the world as “Van,” was the pianist from Texas who at age 23 astounded the world when he won the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, at the height of the Cold War.  The Soviet Union, fresh from launching the satellite Sputnik into orbit the previous year and thereby gaining an edge on the Americans in worldwide technological competition, looked at the Tchaikovsky Competition as opportunity to showcase its cultural superiority over the United States.  Stuart Isacoff’s When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath takes us behind the scenes of the 1958 competition to show the machinations that led to Cliburn’s selection in Moscow.

            They are intriguing, but come down to this: the young Cliburn was so impossibly talented, so far above his fellow competitors, that the competition’s jurors concluded that they had no choice but to award him the prize.  But before the jurors announced what might have been considered a politically incorrect decision to give the award to an American, they felt compelled to present their dilemma to Soviet party leader and premier Nikita Khrushchev. Considered, unfairly perhaps, a country bumpkin lacking cultural sophistication, Khrushchev asked who had been the best performer.  The answer was Cliburn.  According to the official Soviet version, Khrushchev responded with a simple, straightforward directive: “Then give him the prize” (p.156).

            Isacoff, a professional pianist as well as an accomplished writer, suggests that there was more to Khrushchev’s directive than what the official version allows.  But his response and the official announcement two days later, on April 14, 1958, that Cliburn had won first place make an endearing high point to Isacoff’s spirited biography.  The competition in Moscow and its immediate aftermath form the book’s core, about 60%. Here, Isacoff shows how Cliburn became a personality known worldwide — “the classical Elvis” and “the American Sputnik” were just two of the monikers given to him – and how his victory contributed appreciably to a thaw in Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The remaining 40% of the book is split roughly evenly between Cliburn’s life prior to the Moscow competition, as a child prodigy growing up in Texas and his ascendant entry into the world of competitive piano playing; and his post-Moscow life, fairly described as descendant.

            Cliburn never recaptured the glory of his 1958 moment in Moscow, and his life after receiving the Moscow prize was a slow but steady decline, up to his death from bone cancer in 2013.  For the lanky, enigmatic Texan, Isacoff writes, “triumph and decline were inextricably joined” (p.8).

* * *

            Cliburn was born in 1934, in Shreveport, Louisiana, the only child of Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Sr., and Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn.  When he was six, he moved with his parents from Shreveport to the East Texas town of Kilgore.  Despite spending his earliest years in Louisiana, Cliburn always considered himself a Texan, with Kilgore his hometown.   Cliburn’s father worked for Magnolia Oil Company, which had relocated him from Shreveport to Kilgore, a rough-and-tumble oil “company town.”  We learn little about the senior Cliburn in this biography, but mother Rildia Bee is everywhere. She was a dominating presence upon her son not only in his youthful years but also throughout his adult life, up to her death in 1994 at age 97.

        Prior to her marriage, Rildia had been a pupil of renowned pianist Arthur Friedheim.  It was Southern mores, Isacoff suggests, that discouraged her from pursuing what looked like her own promising career as a pianist.  But with the arrival of her son, she found a new outlet for her seemingly limitless musical energies.  Rildia was “more teacher than nurturer” (p.12), Isacoff writes, bringing discipline and structure to her son, who had started playing the piano around age 3.  From the start, the “sonority of the piano was entwined with his feelings for his mother” (p.12).  By age 12, Cliburn had won a statewide piano contest, and had played with the Houston Symphony Orchestra in a radio concert.  In adolescence, with his father fading in importance, Cliburn’s mother continued to dominate his life. “Despite small signs of teenage waywardness, when it came to his mother, Van was forever smitten” (p.21).

               In 1951, at age 17, Rildia and Harvey Sr., sent their son off to New York to study at the prestigious Juilliard School, a training ground for future leaders in music and dance.  There, he became a student of the other woman in his life, Ukraine-born Rosina Lhévinne, a gold-medal graduate of the Moscow Conservatory whose late husband Josef had been considered one of the world’s greatest pianists.  Like Rildia, Lhévinne too was a force of nature, a powerful influence on the young Cliburn.  Improbably, Lhévinne and Rildia for the most part saw eye to eye on the best way to nurture the talents of the prodigious young man.  Both women focused Cliburn on “technical finesse and beauty of sound rather than on musical structure,” realizing that his best qualities as a pianist “rested on surface polish and emotional persuasiveness” (p.54).  Each recognized that for Cliburn, music would always be “visceral, not abstract or academic.  He played the way he did because he felt it in the core of his being” (p.34).

           More than Rildia, Lhévinne was able to show Cliburn how to moderate and channel these innate qualities.  Without her stringent guidance, Isacoff indicates, Cliburn might have lapsed into “sentimentality, deteriorating into the pianistic mannerisms of a high romantic” (p.56). Although learning through Lhévinne to hold his interpretative flourishes in check, Cliburn’s “overriding personality – emotionally exuberant, and unshakably sentimental – was still present in every bar” (p.121).  By the time he left for the Moscow competition, Cliburn had demonstrated a “natural ability to grasp and convey the meaning of the music, to animate the virtual world that arises through the art’s subtle symbolic gestures. It set him apart” (p.18).

          During his Julliard years in New York, the adult Cliburn personality the world would soon know came into view: courteous and generous, sentimental and emotional.  He had by then also developed the idiosyncratic habit of being late for just about everything, a habit that continued throughout his life.  Isacoff mentions one concert after another in which Cliburn was late by periods that often became a matter of hours.  Both in the United States and abroad, he regularly compensated for showing up late by beginning with America’s national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”  At Juilliard, Cliburn also began a smoking habit that stayed with him for the remainder of his life.  Except when he was actually playing — when he had the habit of looking upward, “as if communing with the heavens whenever the music reached an emotional peak” (p.6) — it was difficult to get a photo of him without a cigarette in his hands or mouth.

           It may have been at Juilliard that Clliburn had his first homosexual relationship, although Isacoff plays down this aspect of Cliburn’s early life.  He mentions Cliburn’s experience in high school dating a girl and attending the senior prom.  Then, a few pages later, he notes matter-of-factly that a friendship with a fellow male Juilliard student had “blossomed into romance” (p.35).  But there are many questions about Cliburn’s sexuality that seem pertinent to our understanding of the man.  Did Cliburn undergo any of the torment that often accompanies the realization in adolescence that one is gay, especially in the 1950s?  Did he “come out” to his friends and acquaintances, in Texas or New York, or did he live the homosexual life largely in the closest?  Were his parents aware of his sexual identity and if so, what was their reaction?  None of these is treated here.

            With little fanfare, Juilliard nominated Cliburn in early 1958 for the initial Tchaikovsky International Competition, taking advantage of an offer of the Rockefeller Foundation to pay travel expenses for one entrant in each of the competition’s two components, piano and violin.  The Soviet Union, which paid the remaining expenses for the participants, envisioned a “high-culture version of the World Cup, pitting musical talents from around the globe against one another” (p.4). The Soviets confidently assumed that showcasing its violin and piano expertise after its technological success the previous year with the Sputnik launch would provide another propaganda victory over the United States.

            Soviet pianists who wished to enter the competition had to pass a daunting series of tests, musical and political, to qualify for the competition, with training similar to that of its Olympic athletes.  Many of the Soviet Union’s emerging piano stars were reluctant to jump into the fray.  Each had a specific reason, along with a “general reluctance to become involved in the political machinations of the event” (p.59).  Lev Vlassenko, a “solid, well-respected pianist” who became a lifetime friend of Cliburn in the aftermath of the competition, emerged as the presumptive favorite, “clearly destined to win” (p.60).

            On the American side, the US State Department only reluctantly gave its approval to the competition, fearing that it would be rigged.  The two pianists whom the Soviets considered the most talented Americans, Jerome Lowenthal and Daniel Pollack, traveled to Moscow at their own expense, unlike Cliburn (pop singer Neil Sedaka was among the competitors for the US but was barred by the Soviets as too closely associated with decadent rock ‘n roll; they undoubtedly did Sedaka a favor, as his more lucrative pop career was just then beginning to take off).  Other major competitors came from France, Iceland, Bulgaria, and China.

            For the competition’s first round, Cliburn was assigned pieces from Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.  The audience at the renowned Moscow Conservatory, where the competition took place, fell from the beginning for the Texan and his luxurious sound. They “swooned at the crooner in him . . . Some said they discerned in his playing a ‘Russian soul’” (p.121).  But among the jurors, who carried both political and aesthetic responsibilities, reaction to Cliburn’s first round was mixed.  Some were underwhelmed with his renditions of Mozart and Bach, but all found his Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff “out of this world,” as one juror put it (p.120).

          Isacoff likens the jurors’ deliberations to a round of speed dating, “where the sensitive antennae of the panelists hone in on the character traits of each candidate. . . There is no magical formula for choosing a winner; in the end, the decision is usually distilled down to a basic overriding question: Do I want to hear this performer again?”(p.117).  Famed pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who served on the jury, emerges here as the equivalent of the “hold out juror” in an American criminal trial, “willing to create a serious ruckus when he felt that the deck was being stacked against the American.  As the competition progressed, his fireworks in the jury room would be every bit the equal of the ones onstage” (p.114).

            Cliburn’s second round program was designed to show range.  Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms were the heart of a romantic repertoire.  He also played the Prokofiev Sixth, a modernist piece that reflected the political tensions and fears of 1940 Russia.  Cliburn received a 15-minute standing ovation at the end of the round, the audience voting literally with its feet and hands.  In the jury room, Richter continued to press the case for Cliburn, although the jury ranked him only third, tied with Soviet pianist Naum Shtarkman. Overall, Vlassenko ranked first and eminent Chinese pianist Shikun Liu second.

            But in the third round, Cliburn blew the competition away.  The round  began with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, for which Cliburn delivered an “extraordinary” interpretation, with every tone “imbued with an inner glow, with long phrases concluding in an emphatic, edgy pounce. The effect was simply breathtaking” (p.146). Cliburn’s rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “treacherously difficult” (p.147) Piano Concerto no. 3 was even more powerful.  In prose that strains to capture Cliburn’s unique brilliance, Isacoff explains:

After Van, people would never again hear this music the same way. . . There is no simple explanation for why in that moment Van played perhaps the best concert of his life. Sometimes a performer experiences an instant of artistic grace, when heaven seems to open up and hold him in the palm of its hand – when the swirl of worldly sensations gives way to a pervasive, knowing stillness, and he feels connected to life’s unbroken dance.  If that was not exactly Van’s experience when playing Rachmaninoff Concerto no. 3, it must have come close (p.146-47).

         Cliburn had finally won over even the most recalcitrant jurors, who briefly considered a compromise in which Cliburn and Vlassenko would share the top prize.  But the final determination was left to premier Khrushchev.  The Soviet leader’s instantaneous and decisively simple response quoted above was the version released to the press.  But with the violin component of the competition going overwhelmingly to the Soviets, the ever-shrewd Khrushchev appears to have concluded that awarding the piano prize to the American would underscore the competition’s objectivity and fairness.  One advisor recalled Khrushchev saying to her: “The future success of this competition lies in one thing: the justice that the jury gives” (p.156).  The jury’s official and public decision of April 14, 1958 had Cliburn in first place, with Vlassenko and Liu sharing second.  Cliburn could not have accomplished what he did, Isacoff writes, without Khrushchev, his “willing partner in the Kremlin” (p.206).

        Cliburn had another willing partner in Max Frankel, then the Moscow correspondent for the New York Times (and later, its Executive Editor). Frankel had sensed a good story during the competition and reported extensively on all its aspects.  He also pushed his editors back home to put his dispatches on page 1.  One of his stories forthrightly raised the question whether the Soviets would have the courage to award the prize to Cliburn.  For Isacoff, Frankel’s reporting and the pressure he exerted on his Times editors to give it a prominent place also contributed to the final decision.

             After his victory in Moscow, Cliburn went on an extensive tour within the Soviet Union. To the adoring Russians, Cliburn represented the “new face of freedom.” Performing under the auspices of a repressive regime, he “seemed to answer to no authority other than the shifting tides of his own soul” (p.8).  Naïve and politically unsophisticated, Cliburn raised concerns at the State Department when he developed the habit of describing the Russians as “my people,” comparing them to Texans and telling them that he had never felt so at home anywhere else.

          A month after the Moscow victory, Cliburn returned triumphantly to the United States amidst a frenzy that approached what he had generated in the Soviet Union.  He became the first (and, as of now, only) classical musician to be accorded a ticker tape parade in New York City, in no small measure because of lobbying by the New York Times, which saw the parade as vindication for its extensive coverage of the competition.

          After Cliburn’s Moscow award, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to host each other’s major exhibitions in the summer of 1959.  It started to seem, Isacoff writes, that “after years of protracted wrangling, a period of true detente might actually be dawning” (p.174).   The cultural attaché at the American Embassy in Moscow wrote that Cliburn had become a “symbol of the unifying friendship that overcomes old rivalries.  . . a symbol of art and humanity overruling political pragmatics” (p.206).

           A genuine if improbable bond of affection had developed in Moscow between Khrushchev and Cliburn. That bond endured after Cold War relations took several turns for the worse, first after the Soviets shot down the American U-2 spy plane in 1960, followed by erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and the direct confrontation in 1962 over Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba. The bond even continued after Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964, indicating that it had some basis beyond political expediency.

           But Cliburn’s post-Moscow career failed to recapture the magic of his spring 1958 moment.  The post-Moscow Cliburn seemed to be beleaguered by self-doubt and burdened by psychological tribulations that are not fully explained here.  “Everyone had expected Van’s earlier, youthful qualities to mature and deepen over time,” Isacoff writes.  But he “never seemed to grow into the old master they had hoped for . . . At home, critics increasingly accused Van of staleness, and concluded he was chasing after momentary success with too little interest in artistic growth” (p.223).  Even in the Soviet Union, where he made several return visits, critics “began to complain of an artistic decline” (p.222).  In these years, Cliburn “developed an enduring fascination with psychic phenomena and astrology that eventually grew into an obsession. The world of stargazing became a vital part of his life” (p.53).

           Cliburn’s mother remained a dominant force in his life throughout his post-Moscow years, serving as his manager until she was almost 80 years old.  As she edged toward 90, she and her son continued to address one another as “Little Precious” and “Little Darling” (p.230).  Her death at age 97 in 1994 was predictably devastating for Cliburn. In musing about his mother’s effect on Cliburn’s career trajectory, Isacoff wonders whether Rildia Bee, the “wind that filled his sails” might also have been the “albatross that sunk him” (p.243).  While many thought that Cliburn might collapse with the death of his mother, by this time he was in a relationship with Tommy Smith, a music student 29 years younger.  With Smith, Cliburn had “at last found a fulfilling, loving union” (p.242). Smith traveled regularly with Cliburn, even accompanying him to Moscow in 2004, where none other than Vladimir Putin presented Cliburn with a friendship award.  Smith was at Cliburn’s side throughout his battle with bone cancer, which took the pianist’s life in 2013 at age 79.

* * *

            Tommy Smith became the happy ending to Cliburn’s uneven life story — a story which for Isacoff resembles that of a tragic Greek hero who “rose to mythical heights in an extraordinary victory that proved only fleeting, before the gods of fortune exacted their price” (p.8).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 5, 2018

 

1 Comment

Filed under American Politics, History, Music, Soviet Union, United States History

Two Who Embodied That Sweet Soul Music

 

Jonathan Gould, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life 

Tony Fletcher, In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett 

        By 1955, the year I turned 10, I had already been listening to popular music for a couple of years on a small bedside radio my parents had given me. My favorite pop singers were Patti Page and Eddie Fisher, whose soft, staid, melodious songs seemed in tune with the Big Band and swing music of my parents’ generation. The previous year, 1954, a guy named Bill Haley had come out of nowhere onto the popular music scene with “Rock Around the Clock,” which he followed in 1955 with “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” Haley’s two hits became the centerpiece of my musical world. They were so different: they moved, they jumped – they rocked and they rolled! – in a way that resembled nothing I had heard from Page, Fisher and their counterparts.

        The term “rock ‘n roll” was already in use in 1955 to describe the new style that Haley’s songs represented. But “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” were not the only hit tunes I listened to that year that seemed light years apart from what I had been familiar with. There was Ray Charles, with “I Got a Woman;” Chuck Berry with “Maybelline;” and, most exotic of all, a man named Richard Penniman, known in the record world as “Little Richard,” rose to fame with a song titled “Tutti Frutti.” What I didn’t realize then was that Charles, Berry and Penniman were African-Americans, whereas Haley was a white guy, and that Charles and his counterparts were bringing their brand of popular music, then officially called “rhythm and blues” (and more colloquially “R & B”) into the popular music mainstream on a massive scale for white listeners like me.  Within a decade after that breakthrough year of 1955, “soul music” had largely supplanted “rhythm and blues” as the term of choice to refer to African-American popular music.

          Also listening to Charles, Berry and Penniman in 1955 were two African-American teenagers from the American South, both born in 1941, both named for their fathers: Otis Redding, Jr., and Wilson Pickett, Jr.  Redding was from Macon, Georgia (as was “Little Richard” Penniman). Pickett was from rural Alabama, but lived a substantial part of his adolescence with his father in Detroit. Each had already shown talent for gospel singing, which was then becoming a familiar pathway for African-Americans into secular rhythm and blues, and thus into the burgeoning world of popular music. A decade later, the two found themselves near the top of a staggering alignment of talent in the popular music world.

          As I look back at the period that began in 1955 and ended around 1970, I now see a golden era of American popular music.  It saw the rise of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, along with oh so many stellar practitioners of that “sweet soul music,” to borrow from the  title of a 1967 hit which Redding helped develop. Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard Penniman may have jump-started the genre in that pivotal year 1955, but plenty of others were soon competing with these pioneers: Sam Cooke, James Brown (another son of Macon, Georgia), Fats Domino, Marvin Gaye, the Platters, the Temptations, Clyde McPhatter and later Ben E. King and the Drifters, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were among the most prominent male stars, while Aretha Franklin, Mary Wells, Dionne Warwick, the Marvellettes, the Shirelles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were among the women who left their imprint upon this golden era.

          But if I had to pick two songs that represented the quintessence of that sweet soul music in this golden era, my choices would be Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” and Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” two songs that to me still define and embody soul music. Two recent biographies seek to capture the men behind these irresistible voices: Jonathan Gould’s Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, and Tony Fletcher’s In the Midnight Hour: The Life and Soul of Wilson Pickett.  Despite Redding and Pickett’s professional successes, their stories are both sad, albeit in different ways.

         Gould’s title reminds us that Redding died before the end of the golden age, in a plane crash in Wisconsin in December 1967, at age 26, as his career was soaring.  Pickett in Fletcher’s account had peaked by the end of the 1960s, with his career thereafter going into a steep downward slide. Through alcohol and drugs, Pickett destroyed himself and several people around him. Most tragically, Pickett physically abused the numerous women in his life. Pickett died in January 2006 at age of 64 of a heart attack, most likely brought about at least in part by years of substance abuse.

        Popular music stars are rarely like poets, novelists, even politicians who leave an extensive written record of their thoughts and activities.   The record for most pop music stars consists primarily of their records.  Gould, more handicapped than Fletcher in this regard given Redding’s premature death in 1967, gets around this obstacle by producing a work that is only about one-half Otis Redding biography.  The other half of his work provides a textbook overview of African-American music in the United States and its relationship to the condition of African-Americans in the United States.

        Unlike many of their peers, neither Redding nor Pickett manifested much outward interest in the American Civil Rights movement that was underway as their careers took off and peaked. But the story of African-American singers beginning their careers in the 1950s and rising to prominence in the lucrative world of 1960s pop music cannot be told apart from that movement.  At every phase of his story of Otis Redding, Gould reminds readers what was going on in the quest for African-American equality: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King’s marches, Civil Rights legislation passed under President Lyndon Johnson, and the rise of Malcolm X’s less accommodating message about how to achieve full equality are all part of Gould’s story, as are the day-to-day indignities that African-American performers endured as they advanced their careers.  Fletcher does not ignore this background – no credible biographer of an African-American singer in the ‘50s and ‘60s could – but it is less prominent in his work.

        More than Fletcher, Gould also links African-American music to African-American history.  He treats the role music played for African-Americans in the time of slavery, during Reconstruction, during the Jim Crow era, and into the post-World War II and modern Civil Rights era. Gould’s overview of African-American history through the lens of African-American music alone makes his book worth reading, and may give it particular appeal to readers from outside the United States who know and love American R&B and soul music, but are less familiar with the historical and sociological context in which it emerged.  But both writers provide lively, detailed accounts of the 1950s and 1960s musical scene in which Redding and Pickett rose to prominence.  Just about every soul music practitioner whom I admired in that era makes an appearance in one or both books.  The two books should thus constitute a welcome trip down memory lane for those who still love that sweet soul music.

* * *

        Otis Redding grew up in a home environment far more stable than that of Wilson Pickett.  Otis was the fourth child, after three sisters, born to Otis Sr. and his wife Fannie. Otis Sr. had serious health issues, but worked while he could at Robbins Air Force base, just outside Macon, Georgia.  Although only minimally educated, Otis Sr. and Fannie saw education as the key to a better future for their children.  They were particularly disappointed when Otis Jr. showed little interest in his studies and dropped out of high school at age 15. As an adolescent, Otis Jr. was known as a “big talker and a good talker, someone who could ‘run his mouth’ and hold his own in the endless arguments and verbal contests that constituted a prime form of recreation among people who quite literally didn’t have anything better to talk about” (Gould, p.115; hereafter “G”).

        Wilson Pickett was one of 11 children born into a family of sharecroppers, barely surviving in the rigidly segregated world of rural Alabama.  When Wilson, Jr. was seven, his father took the family to Detroit, Michigan, in search of a better life, and landed a job at Ford Motor Company. But the family came apart during the initial time in Detroit. His mother Lena returned to Alabama, and young Wilson ended up spending time in both places.  Wilson was subject to harsh discipline at home at the hands of both his mother and his father and grew into an irascible young man, quick to anger and frequently involved as an adolescent in physical altercations with classmates and friends.  His irascibility “provoked ever more harsh lashings, and because these still failed to deter him, it created an especially vicious cycle,” Fletcher writes, with the excessive violence Wilson later perpetrated on others representing a “continuation of the way he had been raised” (Fletcher, p.17; hereafter “F”). For a while, Pickett attended Detroit’s Northwestern High School, where future soul singers Mary Wells and Florence Ballard were also students. But Pickett, like Redding, did not finish high school.

         Both married young. Otis married his childhood sweetheart Zelma Atwood at about the time he should have been graduating from high school, when Zelma was pregnant with their second child.  Otis arrived more than an hour late for his wedding. Despite this less-than-promising beginning, he stayed married to Zelma for the remainder of his unfinished life and became a loyal and dedicated father to two additional children. Pickett married his girlfriend Bonnie Covington at age 18, when she too was pregnant. The couple stayed technically married until 1986, but spent little time together. Pickett’s relationships with his numerous additional female partners throughout his adult life all ended badly.

        Pickett discovered his singing talent through gospel music both in church in rural Alabama and on the streets of Detroit.  In the rigidly segregated South, Fletcher explains, the African-American church provided schooling, charity and community, along with an opportunity to listen to and participate in music.  Gospel was often the only music that young African-Americans in the 1940s and early 1950s were exposed to. “No surprise, then, that for a young Wilson Pickett, gospel music became everything” (F., p.18).  Similarly, it was “all but inevitable that Otis Redding would chose to focus his early musical energies on gospel singing” (G., p.62) at the Baptist Church in Macon which his parents attended.

       Redding gained attention as a 16-year old for his credible imitations of Little Richard. Soon after, he was able to replicate fluently the major R & B songs of the late 1950s. Through a neighborhood friend, Johnny Jenkins, a skilled guitarist, Redding joined a group called the Pinetoppers which played at local African American clubs – dubbed the “Chitlin’ circuit” – and earned money playing at all white fraternity parties at Mercer University in Macon and the University of Georgia.  Redding also spent a short time in Los Angeles visiting relatives, where he fell under the spell of Sam Cooke. Pickett started singing professionally in Detroit with a group known as the Falcons, which also featured Eddie Floyd, who would later go on to record “Knock on Wood,” a popular hit of the mid-60s.  Pickett’s first solo recording came in 1962, “If You Need Me.”

          Redding and Pickett in these two accounts had little direct interaction, and although they looked upon one another as rivals as their careers took off, each appears to have had a high degree of respect for the other. But each had a contract with Atlantic Records, and their careers thus followed closely parallel tracks.  Based in New York, Atlantic signed and marketed some of the most prominent R & B singers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin (whose charms were felt by both Redding and Pickett), along with several leading jazz artists and a handful of white singers. By the mid-1960s, Atlantic and its Detroit rival, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, dominated the R & B sector of American popular music.

       Both men’s careers benefitted from the creative marketing of Jerry Wexler, who joined Atlantic in 1953 after working for Billboard Magazine (where he had coined the term “rhythm and blues” to replace “race music” as a category for African American music). Atlantic and Wexler cultivated licensing arrangements with smaller recording companies where both Redding and Pickett recorded, including Stax in Memphis, Tennessee, and Fame in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  Redding and Pickett’s relationships with Wexler at Atlantic, and with a colorful cast of characters at Stax and Fame, play a prominent part in the two biographies.

          But the most affecting business relationship in the two books is that which Redding established with Phil Walden, his primary manger and promoter during his entire career. Walden, a white boy from Macon the same age as Redding, loved popular music of all types and developed a particular interest in the burgeoning rhythm and blues style.  Phil initially booked Otis to sing at fraternity parties at all-white Mercer University in Macon, where he was a student, and somehow the two young men from different worlds within the same hometown bonded. Gould uses the improbable Redding-Walden relationship to illustrate how complex black-white relationships could be in the segregated South, and how the two young men navigated these complexities to their mutual benefit.

       In 1965, Pickett produced his first hit, “In the Midnight Hour,” “perhaps the song most emblematic of the whole southern soul era” (F., p.74). The song appealed to the same white audiences that were listening the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the other British invasion bands. It was “probably the first southern soul recording to have such an effect on such a young white audience,” Fletcher writes, “yet it was every bit an authentic rhythm and blues record too, the rare kind of single that appealed to everyone without compromising” (F., p.76).

         Pickett had had three major hits the following year, 1966: “634-5789,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and “Mustang Sally.” The first two rose to #1 on the R & B charts.  Although “634-5789” was in Fletcher’s terms a “blatant rip-off” of the Marvellettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789” and the “closest Pickett would ever come to sounding like part of Motown” (F., p.80), it surpassed “In the Midnight Hour” in sales. In 1968, Pickett turned the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” into his own hit. He also made an eye-opening trip to the newly independent African nation of Ghana, as part of a “Soul to Soul” group that included Ike and Tina Turner and Roberta Flack.  Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” worked the 100,000 plus crowd into a frenzy, Fletcher recounts. Pickett was the “ticket that everyone wanted to see” (F., p.169) and his performance in Ghana may have marked his career’s high point (although the tour included an embarassing low point when Pickett and Ike Turner got into a fight over dressing room priorities).

          “Dock of the Bay,” the song most closely identified with Otis Redding, was released in 1968, and became the only posthumous number one hit in American music history.  At the time of his death in late 1967, Redding had firmly established his reputation with a remarkable string of hits characterized by powerful emotion and depth of voice: “Try a Little Tenderness,” “These Arms of Mine,” “Pain in My Heart,” “Mr. Pitiful,” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Like Pickett’s “Hey Jude,” a Beatles’ hit, Redding also “covered,” to use the music industry term, the Rolling Stones’ signature hit, “Satisfaction,” with his own idiosyncratic version.  Pickett’s “Hey Jude,” and Redding’s “Satisfaction,” the two authors note, deftly reversed a trend in popular music, in which for years white singers had freely appropriated African-American singers’ work.

         Gould begins his book with what proved to be the high water mark of Redding’s career, his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. There, he mesmerized the mostly white audience – “footloose college students, college dropouts, teenaged runaways, and ‘flower children’” (G., p.1) – with an electrifying five-song performance, “song for song and note for note, the greatest performance of his career” (G., p.412).  The audience, which had come to hear the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, rewarded Redding with an uninterrupted 10 minute standing ovation.

          After Monterey, Redding developed throat problems that required surgery.  During his recuperation, he developed “Dock of the Bay.” Gould sees affinities in the song to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Otis was seeking a new form of musical identity, Gould contends, becoming more philosophical and introspective, “shedding his usual persona of self-assurance and self-assertion in order to convey the uncertainty and ambivalence of life as it is actually lived”(G. p.447).

          Redding’s premature death, Gould writes, “inspired an outpouring of publicity that far exceeded the sum of what was written about him during his life” (G., p.444). Both writers quote Jerry Wexler’s eulogy: Otis was a “natural prince . . . When you were with him he communicated love and a tremendous faith in human possibility, a promise that great and happy events were coming” (G., p.438; F., p.126). There is a tinge of envy in Fletcher’s observation that Otis’ musical reputation remained “untarnished – preserved at its peak by his early death” (F., p.126).

          Pickett’s story is quite the opposite.  Although he had a couple of mid-level hits in the 1970s, Pickett’s life entered into its own long, slow but steady demise in the years following Redding’s death.  Pickett drank excessively while becoming a regular cocaine consumer during these years. His father had struggled with alcohol, and Pickett exhibited all the signs of severe alcoholism, including heavy morning drinking. Fletcher describes painful instances of domestic violence perpetrated against each of the women with whom Pickett lived.  He was the subject of numerous civil complaints and served some jail time for domestic violence offenses.  Of course, Redding might have gone into a decline as abrupt as that of Pickett had he lived longer; his career might have plateaued and edged into mediocrity, like Pickett’s; and his personal life might have become as messy as Pickett’s.  We’ll never know.

* * *

          Pickett was far from the only star whose best songs were behind him as the 1970s dawned.  Elvis comes immediately to mind, but the same could be said of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Barry Gordy moved his Motown operation from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972, where it never recaptured the spark it had enjoyed . . . in Motown.   By 1970, a harder form of rock, intertwined with the psychedelic drug culture, was in competition with that sweet soul music. The 1960s may have been a turbulent decade but the popular music trends that began in 1955 and culminated in that decade were, as Gould aptly puts it, “graced by the talents of an incomparable generation of African-American singers” (G., p.465). The  biographies of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett take us deeply into those times and its unsurpassed music. It was fun while it lasted.

Thomas H. Peebles

Marseille, France

February 26, 2018

P.S. For an audio trip down memory lane, please click these links:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTVjnBo96Ug

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGVGFfj7POA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sp3JOzcpBds

 

 

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Filed under American Society, Biography, Music, United States History

Inside Both Sides of Regime Change in Iraq

 

John Nixon, Debriefing the President:

The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein 

          When Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq in December 2003, it marked only the second time in the post-World War II era in which the United States had detained and questioned a deposed head of state, the first being Panama’s Manuel Noriega in 1989.  On an American base near Baghdad, CIA intelligence analyst John Nixon led the initial round of questioning of Saddam in December 2003 and January 2004.  In the first two-thirds of Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, Nixon shares some of the insights he gained from his round of questioning  — insights about Saddam himself, his rule, and the consequences of removing him from power.

        Upon return to the United States, Nixon became a regular at meetings on Iraq at the White House and National Security Council, including several with President George W. Bush.   The book’s final third contains Nixon’s account of these meetings, which continued up to the end of the Bush administration. In this portion of the book, Nixon also reflects upon the role of CIA intelligence analysis in the formulation of foreign policy.  Nixon is one of the few individuals — maybe the only individual — who had extensive exposure both to Saddam and to those who drove the decision to remove him from power in 2003.  Nixon thus offers readers of this compact volume a formidable inside perspective on Saddam’s regime and the US mission to change it.

         But while working through Nixon’s account of his meetings with Saddam, I was puzzled by his title, “Debriefing the President,” asking myself, which president? Saddam Hussein had held the title of President of the Republic of Iraq and continued to refer to himself as president after he had been deposed, clinging tenaciously to the idea that he was still head of the Iraqi state. So does the “president” in the title refer to Saddam Hussein or George W. Bush? With the first two-thirds of the book detailing Nixon’s discussions with Saddam, I began to think that the reference was to the former Iraqi leader, which struck me as oddly respectful of a brutal tyrant and war criminal.  But this ambiguity may be Nixon’s way of highlighting one of his major objectives in writing this book.

          Nixon seeks to provide the reading public with a fuller and more nuanced portrait of Saddam Hussein than that which animated US policymakers and prevailed in the media at the time of the US intervention in Iraq, which began fifteen years ago next month.  By detailing the content of his meetings with Saddam to the extent possible – the book contains numerous passages blacked out by CIA censors — Nixon hopes to reveal the man in all his twisted complexity. He recognizes that Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of his own people, launched a fruitless war with Iran and used chemical weapons without compunction.  He “took a proud and very advanced society and ground it into dirt through his misrule” (p.12), Nixon writes, and thus deserves the sobriquet “Butcher of Baghdad.”  But while “tyrant,” “war criminal” and “Butcher of Baghdad” can be useful starting points in understanding Saddam, Nixon seems to be saying, they should not be the end point. “It is vital to know who this man was and what motivated him.  We will surely see his likes again” in the Middle East (p.9), he writes.

          When Nixon returned to the United States after his interviews with Saddam, he was surprised that none of the high-level policy makers he met with seemed interested in the question whether the United States should have removed Saddam from power.  Nixon addresses this question in his final pages with a straightforward and unsparing answer: regime change was a catastrophe for both Iraq and the United States.

* * *

           Nixon began his career as a CIA analyst at in 1998.  Working at CIA Headquarters in Virginia, he became a “leadership analyst” on Iraq, responsible for developing information on Saddam Hussein: “the family connections that helped keep him in power, his tribal ties, his motives and methods, everything that made him tick. It was like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle with small but important pieces gleaned from clandestine reporting and electronic intercepts” (p.38).  In October 2003, roughly five months after President Bush had famously declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, Nixon was sent from headquarters to Baghdad.  There, he helped CIA operatives and Army Special Forces target individuals for capture.  At the top of the list was HVT-1, High Value Target Number 1, Saddam Hussein.

           After Saddam was captured in December 2003 at the same farm near his hometown of Tikrit where he had taken refuge in 1959 after a bungled assassination attempt upon the Iraqi prime minister, Nixon confirmed Saddam’s identity.  US officials had assumed that Saddam would “kill himself rather than be captured, or be killed as he tried to escape. When he was captured alive, no one knew what to do” (p.76).  Nixon was surprised that the CIA became the first US agency to meet with Saddam. His team had little time to prepare or coordinate with other agencies with an interest in information from Saddam, particularly the Defense Department and the FBI.  “Everything had to be done on the fly.  We learned a lot from Saddam, but we could have learned a lot more” (p.84-85).

          Nixon’s instructions from Washington were that no coercive techniques were to be used during the meetings.  Saddam was treated, Nixon indicates, in “exemplary fashion – far better than he treated his old enemies.  He got three meals a day.  He was given a Koran and an Arabic translation of the Geneva conventions. He was allowed to pray five times each day according to his Islamic faith” (p.110).   But Nixon and his colleagues had few carrots to offer Saddam in return for his cooperation. Their position was unlike that of a prosecutor who could ask a judge for leniency in sentencing in exchange for cooperation.  Nixon told Saddam that the meetings were “his chance, once and for all, to set the record straight and tell the world who he was” (p.83).  Gradually, Nixon and his colleagues buitl a measure of rapport with Saddam, who clearly enjoyed the meetings as a break from the boredom of captivity.

          Saddam, Nixon found, had  “great charisma” and “an outsize presence. Even as a prisoner who was certain to be executed, he exuded an air of importance” (p.81-82).  He was “remarkably forthright when it suited his purposes. When he felt he was in the clear or had nothing to hide, he spoke freely. He provided interesting insights into the Ba’ath party and his early years, for example. But we spent most of our time chipping away at layers of defense meant to stymie or deceive us, particularly about areas such as his life history, human rights abuse, and WMD, to name just a few” (p.71-72).

         Saddam saw himself as the “personification of Iraq’s greatness and a symbol of its evolution into a modern state,” with a “grand idea of how he fit into Iraq’s history” (p.86).  He was “always answering questions with questions of history, and he would frequently demand to known why we had asked about a certain topic before he would give his answer” (p.100). He often feigned ignorance to test his interrogators knowledge.  He frequently began his answers “by going back to the rule of Saladin.”  Nixon   “often wondered afterward how many people told Saddam Hussein to keep it brief and lived to tell about it” (p.100).

       The meetings revealed to Nixon and his colleagues that the United States had seriously underestimated the degree to which Saddam saw himself as buffeted between his Shia opponents and their Iranian backers on one side, and Sunni extremists such as al-Quada on the other.  Saddam, himself a Sunni who became more religious in the latter stages of his life, could not hide his enmity for Shiite Iran.  He saw Iraq as the “first line of Arab defense against the Persians of Iran and as a Sunni bulwark against its overwhelmingly Shia population” (p.4).  But Saddam considered Sunni fundamentalism to be an even greater threat to his regime than Iraq’s majority Shiites or Iran.

       What made the Sunni fundamentalists, the Wahhabis, so threatening was that they “came from his own Sunni base of support. They would be difficult to root out without alienating the Iraqi tribes, and they could rely on a steady stream of financial support from Saudi Arabia. If the Wahhabists were free to spread their ideology, then his power base would rot from within” (p.124).  Saddam seemed genuinely mystified by the United States’ intervention in Iraq. He considered himself an implacable foe of Islamic extremism, and felt that the 9/11 attacks should have brought his country and the United States closer together.  Moreover, as he mentioned frequently, the United States had supported his country during the Iran-Iraq war.

          The meetings with Saddam further confirmed that in the years leading up to the United States intervention, he had begun to disengage from ruling the country.  At the time hostilities began, he had delegated much of the running of the government to subordinates and was mainly occupied with nongovernmental pursuits, including writing a novel.  Saddam in the winter of 2003 was “not a man bracing for a pulverizing military attack” (p.46), Nixon writes.  In all the sessions, Saddam “never accepted guilt for any of the crimes he was accused of committing, and he frequently responded to questions about human rights abuses by telling us to talk with the commander who had been on the scene” (p.129).

          On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush had likened Saddam to Hitler, and the idea took hold in the larger American public. But not once during the interviews did Saddam say he admired either Hitler or Stalin.  When Nixon asked which world leaders he most admired, Saddam said de Gaulle, Lenin, Mao and George Washington, because they were founders of political systems and thinkers.  Nixon quotes Saddam as saying, “Stalin does not interest me. He was not a thinker. For me, if a person is not a thinker, I lose interest” (p.165).

          When Nixon told Saddam that he was leaving Iraq to return to Washington, Saddam gave him a firm handshake and told Nixon to be just and fair to him back home.  Nearly three years later, in December 2006, Saddam was put to death by hanging in a “rushed execution in a dark basement” in an Iraqi Ministry (p.270), after the United States caved to Iraqi pressure and turned him over to what turned out to be little more than a Shiite lynch mob.  Nixon concludes that Saddam’s unseemly execution signaled the final collapse of the American mission in Iraq.  Saddam, Nixon writes, was:

not a likeable guy. The more you got to know him, the less you liked him. He had committed horrible crimes against humanity.  But we had come to Iraq saying that we would make things better.  We would bring democracy and the rule of law.  No longer would people be awakened by a threatening knock on the door.  And here we were, allowing Saddam to be hanged in the middle of the night (p.270).

* * *

            Nixon’s experiences with Saddam made him a familiar face at the White House and National Security Council when he returned to the United States in early 2004.  His meetings with President Bush convinced him that Bush never came close to getting a handle on the complexities of the Middle East.  After more than seven years in office, the president “still didn’t understand the region and the fallout from the invasion” (p.212). In Nixon’s view, Bush’s decision to take the country into war was largely because of the purported attempt Saddam had made on his father’s life  in the aftermath of the first Gulf War – a “misguided belief” in Nixon’s view.  The younger Bush and his entourage ordered the invasion of a country “without the slightest clue about the people they would be attacking. Even after Saddam’s capture, the White House was only looking for information that supported its decision to go to war” (p.235).

          One of the ironies of the Iraq War, Nixon contends, was that Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush were alike in many ways:

Both had haughty, imperious demeanors.  Both were fairly ignorant of the outside world and had rarely traveled abroad.  Both tended to see things as black and white, good and bad, for and against, and became uncomfortable when presented with multiple alternatives. Both surrounded themselves with compliant advisers and had little tolerance for dissent. Both prized unanimity, at least when it coalesced behind their own views. Both distrusted expert opinion (p.240).

       Nixon is almost as tough on the rest of the team that surrounded Bush and contributed to the decision to go to war, although he found Vice President Dick Chaney to be a source of caution, providing a measure of good sense to discussions.  Chaney was “professional, dignified, and considerate . . . an attentive listener” (p.197-98).  But he is sharply critical of the CIA Director at the time, George Tenet (even while refraining from mentioning the remark most frequently attributed to his former boss, that the answer to the question whether Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk”).

         In Nixon’s view, Tenet transformed the agency’s intelligence gathering function from one of neutral fact-finding, laying out the best factual assessment possible in a given situation, into an agency whose role was to serve up intelligence reports tailored to support the administration’s positions.  Tenet was “too eager to please the White House.  He encouraged analysts to punch up their reports even when the evidence was flimsy, and he surrounded himself with yes men” (p.225).  Nixon recounts how, prior to the 2003 invasion, the line level Iraq team at the CIA was given three hours to respond to a paper prepared by another agency purporting to show a connection between Saddam’s regime and the 9/11 attacks — a paper the team found “full of holes, inaccuracies, sloppy reporting and pie-in-the-sky analysis” (p.229).  Line level analysts drafted a dissenting note, but its objections were “gutted” by CIA leadership (p.230) and the faulty paper went on to serve as an important basis to justify the invasion of Iraq.

          Nixon left the agency in 2011. But in the latter portion of his book he delivers his fair share of parting shots at the post-Iraq CIA, which has become in his view a “sclerotic organization” (p.256) that “badly needs fixing” (p.261).  The agency’s leadership needs to “stop fostering the notion that the CIA is omniscient” and the broader foreign policy community needs to recognize that intelligence analysts can provide “only information and insights, and can’t serve as a crystal ball to predict the future” (p.261).  But as Nixon fires shots at his former agency, he lauds the line level CIA analysts with whom he worked. The analysts represent the “best and the brightest our country has to offer . . . The American people are well served, and their tax dollars well spent, by employing such exemplary public servants. I can actually say about these folks, ’Where do we get such people?’ and not mean it sarcastically” (p.273-74).

* * *

         Was Saddam worth removing from power, Nixon asks in his conclusion. “As of this writing, I see only negative consequences for the United States from Saddam’s overthrow” (p.257).  No serious Middle East analyst believes that Iraq was a threat to the United States, he argues.  The United States spent trillions of dollars and wasted the lives of thousands of its military men and women “only to end up with a country that is infinitely more chaotic than Saddam’s Ba’athist Iraq” (p.258).  The United States could have avoided this chaos, which has given rise to ISIS and other forms of Islamic extremism, “had it been willing to live with an aging and disengaged Saddam Hussein”(1-2).  Nixon’s conclusion, informed by his opportunity to probe the mindset of both Saddam Hussein and those who determined to remove him from power, rings true today and stings sharply.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

January 31, 2018

 

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, Middle Eastern History, United States History