Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1807-1845, Part 1 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 34)

john-quincy-adams-picture

[Note: Between 1807 and 1845, the political system in Georgia underwent a reluctant, clumsy, and—to outsiders—baffling evolution. Georgia politics seemed so bizarre that Baltimore editor Hezekiah Niles was wont to look down his increasingly Whiggish nose and mutter something along the lines of, “We know not what they differ about, but they do violently differ.” Of course, Niles made almost no effort to try to understand Georgia politics; it was easier, and perhaps more satisfying, to publish yet another scathing criticism about how things were done by those Georgia bumpkins. Yet, as was the case for Georgia’s previous political generation, it is possible to understand what Georgians “differed about” in the first half of the nineteenth century, even if one must agree with Niles that, no matter why Georgians “differed,” they continued to do so “violently.”]

* * * * *

When Georgia’s first “party boss,” James Jackson, died in 1806, there was a Republican consensus, thanks to Jackson’s skill at yoking avid support for Thomas Jefferson with angry opposition to the role of Senator James Gunn and other prominent Georgia Federalists in the infamous Yazoo Land Fraud. Although Georgia historians have long argued that leadership of the state’s Republican interests passed smoothly to Jackson’s designated political heirs, the story is more complicated.  John Milledge, long a Jackson lieutenant, and Governor of Georgia in 1806, was elected to fill the remainder of Jackson’s Senate term and subsequently won a full term for himself. However, he resigned the seat because of his wife’s health and retired from politics.

David B. Mitchell

Once Milledge left the stage, Georgians were divided between two more-or-less “Republican” factions:  one was headed by a rising upcountry politician, William Harris Crawford, and by Jackson’s low-country protégé, George M. Troup; the other by General John Clark, an adamant foe of Jackson, Crawford, and Troup but a self-proclaimed “republican” nonetheless, even if his foes believed he was a Federalist.  Yet, Crawford was already launched on a career of national significance and Troup was occupied in Congress, so the real leader of the “Crawford [or Jeffersonian Republican] party” in Georgia was David Mitchell. Mitchell fought a defensive, rear-guard action, as prominent supporters, for various reasons, sought greener pastures in Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, even as John Clark successfully extended his “party” across the state.

The Yazoo Fraud, which had dominated Georgia politics during the final decade of James Jackson’s life, continued to roil those waters after his demise. Although transferring Georgia’s Yazoo lands to the national government in the Compact of 1802 was supposed to settle the long-simmering controversy over the state’s western territory, it did not. To most white Georgians, the key to future growth lay in the national administration’s willingness to compel the Creeks and the Cherokees to surrender their claims to Georgia lands as provided in the 1802 agreement.  Yet, the government in Washington proved unable, or unwilling, to do that, at least at a pace satisfactory to land-hungry Georgians.

* * * * *

The original Yazoo purchasers disposed of their lands to reputedly “innocent” buyers, who demanded that the national government satisfy their claims. Aided by Virginia’s John Randolph, a vocal cadre of Georgia congressmen, led by George Troup, opposed the new purchasers and pressured Washington to live up to the 1802 agreement. Despite determined opposition from Randolph, the Georgians, and their allies, Congress finally reached a compromise with the “innocent” Yazoo purchasers in 1814, but echoes of Yazoo continued to bubble up from the state’s political memory during campaigns into the 1840s, a rhetorical gift that kept on giving.

George M. Troup

In the context of defending Georgia against pressure from Yazoo purchasers, Congressman George Troup honed a state rights philosophy that would become his trademark in the 1820s. Rather than satisfy the demands of corrupt land speculators, Troup thundered, the general government should eliminate Native American land claims in Georgia, as provided in the Compact of 1802; but, if Washington were unwilling or unable to do that, then Georgia must act unilaterally, he argued.

Peter Early

Most Georgians strongly opposed settling “corrupt” Yazoo claims, but the state’s “Republican” consensus divided bitterly over two other issues. The first was the enactment by the state legislature, in 1808, after passage of Jefferson’s Embargo by Congress, of the Alleviating Act.  This measure was intended to ease credit terms for planters driven into debt by American attempts to use commercial pressure instead of warfare to settle disputes with Britain and France. Georgia Republicans supported this concept in 1808, 1809, 1812, and 1813, despite increasingly angry opposition from creditors. In 1814, however, Governor Peter Early, who had signed the 1813 measure, vetoed its successor and was denied a second term, then watched, with other Republicans, as the Crawford party was damned by irate debtors, and its members ousted from office.

As if Crawford Republicans were not in enough trouble, several members dealt the party another blow in 1816, when they supported the Compensation Act, which altered the method of paying members of Congress from a flat annual rate to a per diem basis. This change unleashed a storm of criticism of this supposed “salary grab,” cost William Bibb his Senate seat, and evicted most of the state’s congressmen as well. By 1816, the Crawford party was reeling.

* * * * *

John Clark

The bitter climax of the David Mitchell-John Clark rivalry came after the War of 1812, when Mitchell resigned as Governor to serve as American agent to the Creeks, just as the “Clark party” emerged as Georgia’s dominant Republican faction. Agent Mitchell became involved in a slave-smuggling scheme, and Clark, elected Governor in 1819, grimly pursued allegations against him and publicized the results. Clark’s determined campaign, bolstered by his political alliance with Andrew Jackson, sparked an investigation by the Monroe Administration and led to Mitchell’s removal from office in 1821, further embarrassing the Crawford party.

The collapse of the Crawford Republicans was halted—and, to some extent, reversed–by the fiery George Troup, who returned from Congress to assume leadership of the organization, soon referred to as the “Troup party.” Troup and John Clark opposed each other for Governor three times between 1819 and 1825, with Clark winning in 1819 and 1821 by joint votes of the legislature. Troup defeated Clark lieutenant Matthew Talbot on a joint legislative ballot in 1823, and faced Clark again in 1825, when Georgia voters first elected a Governor directly.

Ironically, in 1825 “the people” chose the more “aristocratic” Troup, not the supposedly more “democratic” Clark, with Troup’s rapidly evolving “state rights” stance seemingly the deciding factor. As Governor, Troup used the national government’s apparent reluctance to fulfill the Compact of 1802 as a whetstone, further honing the aggressive state rights philosophy he had developed in Congress, and, perhaps unwittingly, helping lay the groundwork for acceptance by many in Georgia of John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of Nullification in the 1830s.

Chief William McIntosh

Exploiting his relationship with his cousin, Chief William McIntosh, Troup secured remaining Creek lands in Georgia through the Treaty of Indian Springs (1825). When the new John Quincy Adams administration disavowed that agreement on the grounds of corruption, Troup sparked an angry confrontation that, although it seemed at first to threaten civil war, eventually secured Creek lands for Georgia peacefully, thanks to two additional treaties (Washington, 1826; Fort Mitchell, 1827). With the Creeks finally divested of their Georgia lands, a Milledgeville editor smugly noted, the turn of the Cherokees had come, and the even uglier process of Cherokee removal began.

END OF PART I

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For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American "republicanism", American History, Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Removal, Creek Indians, George M. Troup, Historical Reflection, History, James Gunn, John Clark, Nullification, Research, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized, William Harris Crawford | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Growing Up White in the Segregated South: A View from North Carolina (Teaching Civil Rights, 14)

A Review of:

Melton A. McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South (2nd ed.) Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1998.

[Regular readers of this blog will remember that near the end of my career as a History teacher at an Atlanta prep school (referred to here by its nom de blog, Atlanta’s Finest Prep School, or AFPS), I inherited a one-semester, junior-senior course, the History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement. In revising the course, I decided that it must begin with a substantial unit on “The Age of Jim Crow.”  I believed this background was essential if my students were to understand the magnitude of what the modern civil rights movement had accomplished.

One of the supplementary texts I selected was by Melton McLaurin, Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the Segregated South. Although I’ve read other accounts of growing up White in the Jim Crow era over the past decades I haven’t found a more engaging account than this one, or one more suitable for classroom use.]  

* * * * *

In September 1953, in the small town of Wade, North Carolina, seventh-grader Melton McLaurin began working at his grandfather Lonnie Mack’s store, located on the boundary between the White and Black communities. In retrospect, McLaurin describes Wade as “an almost perfect microcosm of the rural and small-town segregated South.” (3)  McLaurin’s generation of White children would be the last to come of age in the segregated South, yet even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s epochal 1954 decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, residents of Wade “remained convinced that the South would find an acceptable method of circumventing it.” (4)

Wade was a mill town surrounded by small farms owned mostly by Whites but worked by Black and White tenants and field hands. There were few college-educated Whites in Wade; White high school graduates usually found jobs with the local railroad.  Although residential segregation in Wade was not rigidly enforced, everyone knew the rules of Jim Crow and followed them—or else.  Melton McLaurin’s father, Merrill, was a member of the town’s small middle class, having begun as a barber and then become an insurance salesman; but for young Melton, his grandfather’s store was the center of the world:  he worked there every summer and most school holidays between seventh and twelfth grades. 

McLaurin described his grandfather as an “indomitable little man, taught by experience to stifle any expression of feeling, to be emotionally tough and to cloak his caring with blunt speech and a hard, cold demeanor calculated to keep everyone at a safe distance.” (18)  Lonnie Mack was a hard taskmaster, both to his grandson and to his customers, because he took seriously his self-appointed role as the town’s “fixer,” for some Whites of course, but especially for his store’s many Black customers.

And it was these people, especially the African Americans, that Melton McLaurin served in the store during a formative period in his life.  He believed that the “association with blacks [sic] had also forced me to make some difficult moral judgments about racism and segregation” that most Whites in Wade did not make, which  would “further alienate me from the society in which I came of age.” (26)

* * * * *

To explain how this happened, McLaurin presents a series of sketches of the most memorable Black residents of Wade whom he encountered at his grandfather’s store.  Each of them managed to call into question, in various ways, the values and beliefs of the White society in which McLaurin had grown up, and these encounters helped determine the man he became. The stories McLaurin tells are arranged in roughly chronological order, and the people featured in each chapter also helped frame McLaurin’s assessment of how Jim Crow shaped Southern society at ground level.

Bobo, a young Black man McLaurin’s age, from a poor family, lived in a constricted world where rules were spelled out by Jim Crow and enforced using the power of White paternalism, or, if necessary, violence. For Bobo’s parents, this meant leaning on the generosity of “Mister Lonnie” when they needed money or credit and being sufficiently grateful if their request was granted, as it usually was.  Young Melton’s reckoning with this elaborate system of white noblesse oblige came one afternoon during a pick-up basketball game near his grandfather’s store, when he suddenly realized that the needle he needed to re-inflate the communal basketball had previously been in Bobo’s mouth.  To regain his place as a member of the “superior race,” McLaurin was reduced to a mild act of violence, which “for the first time raised questions in my mind about the institution [of segregation], serious questions that adults didn’t want asked and, as I would later discover, that they never answered.” (41)

Street, an older Black man who lived in a cave near Wade filled with books, magazines, and religious pamphlets, struck Melton as one of the most intelligent people in the village, as well as the best read, and both these qualities ran counter to the doctrine of white supremacy.  Young McLaurin saw Street as “the freest man in Wade,” as well as, in a sense, his mentor.

Betty Jo, a Black teenager McLaurin met while waiting on her at his grandfather’s store, reminded him how “interracial sex,” or even the thought of it, “became the ultimate temptation and the ultimate taboo, a symbol of both the reality and the futility of segregation.” (65)  Although white supremacy kept young Melton from going beyond the minimum contact he had with Betty Jo in the store, he came to believe that “she was really no different from the white girls [he] dated.” (85)

The figure of Sam, a mentally challenged young man of McLaurin’s acquaintance, comes across as a Black version of Harper Lee’s character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.  In retrospect, Sam came to personify for Melton the White stereotype of African Americans.  It was fine to taunt Black people for whatever reason, McLaurin had assumed, but, when he joined several White friends in making fun of Sam one memorable summer night, he was unable to forget the incident.  This encounter only deepened his feelings of guilt about the power of segregation.

In the story of Granddaddy and Viny Love, McLaurin’s grandfather Lonnie Mack takes center stage, when his role as “the Man” in the village seems (to him) to have been called into question by a bureaucrat in the local welfare office.  Viny Love, a hard-working Black single mother whose only child suffered from cerebral palsy, came to Granddaddy asking him to intervene with the welfare department so that she could receive financial benefits to which she was entitled, to help her son.  Lonnie Mack agreed to help her, and, when he learned that his aid had been of no avail, he blew a gasket.  He was a racist, as were most of the Whites in Wade, but his “help” was intended to keep Wade’s African American population loyal to the system. When his effort to help Viny Love was challenged by the local welfare official, Granddaddy took action in an unforgettable fashion that won plaudits from local Blacks and from his own family, especially from his grandson.

In his reminiscence of Jerry and Miss Carrie McLean, Melton McLaurin once more was brought face-to-face with the differences between White stereotypes of Black people and how Whites interacted with them on a personal level.  Miss Carrie was a retired schoolteacher, the only Black woman he knew who was addressed by Whites as “Miss.”  Her husband Jerry was a man of mixed race who made a living doing odd jobs for Whites and had built with his own hands the home where he and Miss Carrie lived.  When he was seventeen, McLaurin was invited by Miss Carrie to join her and Jerry to eat pie in her kitchen.  Knowing how well thought of the couple were in Wade, Melton went to their home expecting to find a house up to White middle-class standards, but he was shocked to see that the McLeans had so little.  In retrospect, McLaurin believed this episode “made inevitable my final rejection of the segregated South.” (154) 

* * * * *

Melton McLaurin grew up to become a historian of the South, spending most of his career at the University of North Carolina branch in Wilmington.  Not only is he an engaging writer, but his historical training has also enabled him to place his personal story of growing up in the Jim Crow South in the proverbial “larger context.”

In the book’s Epilogue, McLaurin recounts a visit home for Christmas in 1984, when he accompanied his father to the home of Dora Lee to drop off some lard as a gift, a visit that enabled him to see his father at his paternalistic best:  “He remained, spiritually, emotionally, a resident of the Wade I had left and to which I could never return. . . . And so, aware of and linked by our separate pasts, we rode toward home and the celebration of a family Christmas.” (164)

In an Afterword added to the second edition of the book, McLaurin focuses on events in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he had spent most of his teaching career. He reviews the “revolt” of Wilmington’s Whites in 1898, during which they ousted the leaders of the local Populist/Republican ruling clique, in a “stridently racist campaign portraying blacks as the rapacious destroyers of white civilization, as an insidious evil against which the whites [sic] of North Carolina could be protected only by Democratic leadership.” (167)  Building on this success, Democrats recaptured control of the state government in 1900, disfranchised Black voters, and imposed legal segregation.  A century later, Professor Melton McLaurin worked to create a commemoration of that 1898 racial violence campaign in Wilmington that would enable both races to understand the consequences of that event and work for the common good of the city’s residents.

In December 1997, McLaurin again returned home for Christmas. He used that opportunity to talk with Allen Smith, whose father had received some attention in this book, about the importance of race in modern Wade.  According to Mr. Smith, despite undeniable progress in race relations over the previous four decades, “[Racism] is in you, and it’s in me, and that’s the truth, down there inside us. That’s just the way it is.”  (176)  This conversation filled McLaurin with “a deep, sorrowful anger,” and he drove home “to continue to struggle with the difficult necessity of confronting our separate pasts.” (176)

* * * * *

Melton McLaurin’s Separate Pasts:  Growing Up White in the Segregated South is a great book. It is a subtle, but deep and powerful treatment of his coming of age in a small southern town in the 1950s, engagingly written and accessible. Drawing on his memories, McLaurin paints an unforgettable picture of life in Wade, and he situates his memories firmly in the historical context.  Available at amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle editions, Separate Pasts belongs on the e-readers and bookshelves of anyone interested in the history of the South.

Melton McLaurin

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in Age of Jim Crow, American History, Civil Rights Movement, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, memoir, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching | 4 Comments

J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”: Two Reviews

[Note: In 2016, J.D. Vance published Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of his growing up as a child in a later, Appalachian white, version of the “Great Migration,” a youngster who accompanied his mother and her extended family from a “holler” in Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, in search of work and a future.

Vance’s book appeared just as Donald Trump had begun his ascendancy in the quest for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. And, as events unfolded, members of the “commentariat,” well-educated, well-paid, and generally cocksure newspaper columnists, tried to steer their readers in the proper, anti-Trump, direction, but there was a problem: those “in the know” kept missing what was going on, and Trump’s candidacy continued to gain strength, despite the efforts of op-ed writers nationwide to make it go away.

Vance’s book became a hot item, a volume recommended as at least a partial explanation of Trump’s candidacy. And yet, those who specialized in American politics continued, despite Vance’s views, to misunderstand the Trump phenomenon. Yes, lots of writers cited Vance’s work, but once Trump was elected in November 2016, where Hillbilly Elegy fit into the political debate no longer seemed important, at least until the 2018 midterm elections.

Vance himself made the rounds of television interviewers, even gave a TED Talk, obviously enjoying his moment in the sun, regardless of whether people actually understood his book. And then, perhaps inevitably, came a movie version of Hillbilly Elegy (2020), directed by Hollywood notable (and veteran of “The Andy Griffith Show”) Ron Howard, which earned lukewarm reviews, perhaps saved from disaster by the bravura performance of actress Glenn Close as Vance’s grandmother.

Yet, although Vance’s book fell from the lofty heights it had occupied on the New York Times–and other–best-sellers lists after Donald Trump entered the White House, some observers continued to read–and review–Hillbilly Elegy.]

* * * * *

Reviewing books is an art, not a science, and how one does it depends upon both the genre to which the book belongs and the audience for which it is being reviewed.

This post offers reviews of Vance’s book by two historians who approach the memoir from different perspectives but still try to give readers an idea of both the book and the larger context in which it fits.

First up is Joseph Kitchens, who spent a good part of his career doing “public history” after a stint teaching history in a college classroom. Joe recently retired from the directorship of the Funk Heritage Center at Georgia’s Reinhardt University, a jewel of a museum that emphasizes the impact of the Creeks and the Cherokees on Georgia, and vice versa.

Joe’s approach, in a post at his blog, Longleaf Journal (August 2020), is to review Hillbilly Elegy, but also to enmesh the book in a broader historical context, ranging from colonial Georgia to the election of Donald Trump. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but I think Joe does a fine job with it:

While you’re visiting Joe’s blog, “Longleaf Journal,” I invite you to explore other posts there. Dr. Kitchens is a skillful writer of “Southern stories” with a vivid imagination and a great sense of humor, as a trip through his blog’s archives reveals.

My review of Hillbilly Elegy, originally posted on this blog in August 2017, focuses on the memoir, but also attempts to place the volume in the context of the 2016 presidential campaign:

Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Hillbillies | Retired But Not Shy (georgelamplugh.com)

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[Note: It is important to keep in mind that these reviews of Hillbilly Elegy were published in a blog, not in a historical journal or a newspaper. What that means is that the authors of those notices–and, as it happens, the creators of those blogs–could set whatever length they wished for the reviews.

Normally, a book review in a historical journal is limited to somewhere between 250 and 750 words, and the reviewer must adhere to that standard. In “Retired But Not Shy,” the upper limit I set for each post is around 2000 words. This allows me to examine a subject at greater length, but it also risks boring a reader whose interest in a particular book might not be as strong as that of the proprietor of the blog. In the case of Vance’s book, though, each reviewer believes the volume was important enough to merit extended consideration, even if their emphases differed.]

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Post for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday, 2021: “A Prayer for our Country”

[Note:  A year ago, I reflected in this space on the play of “light” and “darkness” in the rhetoric of Dr. King, drawing on remarks by the late Georgia Congressman John Lewis and Republican columnist Michael Gerson.  I ended by confessing that I could not imagine what Dr. King would make of the state of our union in 2020.  Do you see where I’m going with this?

Since that post, we’ve had the worsening of the Covid-19 pandemic, the presidential election that would not die, and, between November and early January, the eyes of the nation were fixed on my home state of Georgia, where two–count ’em, two–seats in the U.S. Senate were at stake.  And, son of a gun, the Democrats won both seats!

BUT, just when a few optimists thought that the bad times were over and a brighter future beckoned this battered country, our incumbent President refused to accept the outcome of the presidential race and then tried to “fix” the results of the Georgia senatorial election because control of the Senate hung on the outcome.

Bad, right?  But it got worse:  On January 6, 2021, the incumbent President encouraged several thousand of his supporters, who had made the trip to Washington because he promised that things would be “wild,” to march on the Capitol, at the very time Congress had assembled there to count ritually the presidential votes from the states in the Electoral College.  The President promised he’d be with his supporters on their march, but of course he wasn’t; instead, he was hunkered down in the comfort of the White House watching everything on television that he’d set in motion, no surprise given his conduct over the past four years.

And the results of that “march” by “patriotic” followers of a defeated President yielded only chaos, including five deaths.  The new President, former Vice-President Joe Biden, is to be inaugurated on January 20.  Problem over, right?  No!  Rumors reported by the FBI warn of the possibility of gatherings by the defeated incumbent’s supporters, not only in the Nation’s Capital (again) but also in state capitals. 

Oh, I almost forgot:  our lame-duck Commander-in-Chief has now been impeached by the Democratic-controlled House, for the second time, for inciting the riot that led to the invasion–and brief occupation–of the Capitol by his fan club. Of course, he escaped conviction by the Republican-controlled Senate almost a year ago, and whether he’ll be convicted by the soon-to-be Democratic-controlled Senate this time, after Biden is inaugurated, is up in the air.]

* * * * * 

So, what in the world can I say on this King holiday that will bring comfort, or be even the least bit celebratory?  I thought I’d try something different this year. 

I am an Episcopalian; central to our worship is the Book of Common Prayer (hereafter BCP), a volume of nearly 1000 pages, with roots in the English Reformation, that guides our modern worship services, religious rites, and private devotions.  What some say about us is almost literally true, “You Episcopalians have a prayer for everything!”  (To which I invariably respond, “Not quite, but close.”)  And today I offer an example, a “Prayer for our Country.”  Believe it or not, this is one of at least three such prayers for the nation in the BCP, and is the most complete and detailed petition.  Moreover, the words seem to me to “speak to our condition” in this perilous moment: 

Almighty God, who has given us this good land for our heritage:  We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favor and glad to do thy will.  Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners.  Save us from violence, discord, and confusion, from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way.  Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues.  Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth.  In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  (BCP, p.820)

* * * * * 

The prayer’s first two sentences seem to embody “American exceptionalism,” the idea that, to put it colloquially, “God is an American.”  Thereafter, though, comes recognition that our history always has been messy and will continue to be, followed by a plea for national unity.  Interestingly, this plea is based upon the notion that we are “a nation of immigrants,” at a time when immigration policy is a “third rail” in American politics.  There follows a request for wisdom on the part of those who govern and–believe it or not–that, by our obedience to law, we may set an example for the rest of the world.  The concluding sentence has haunted me since I first encountered this prayer:  “In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail. . . .”

* * * * * 

As I type this, I have no idea how things will turn out between now and January 20.  I simply offer the “Prayer for our Country” for those of you who, like me, are uneasy about our nation’s immediate future and pray for better days ahead.  Let’s hope that, a year from now, we can face the future with renewed confidence and energy, as we continue working to achieve Dr. King’s goal of the “beloved community.”

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

 

Posted in American History, Books, Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Episcopal Church, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, Martin Luther King, memoir, Popular Culture, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

John Wereat and Georgia, 1775-1799, Part 2 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 33)

[NOTE:  This is the second, and final, post about John Wereat, who turned up at almost every crucial event in Georgia’s history between the outbreak of the American Revolution and his death in 1799 Part 1 followed him from his arrival in Savannah from England through the end of the War for Independence. This installment traces Mr. Wereat’s role in Georgia’s post-Revolutionary history until his death in 1799.

For Part 1, go here.  A list of sources is appended to this post.]

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John Wereat (Wikipedia)

In 1783, after the end of the Revolutionary War, John Wereat served as Auditor-General of Georgia, charged with the unenviable task of putting the state’s war-shattered finances on a sound footing.  That he was re-elected annually by the legislature for a decade testified to the esteem in which his efforts were held.

Wereat was the natural choice for this arduous post: as Georgia’s continental agent during the Revolution, he had demonstrated an impressive grasp of finance, earned a reputation for probity, and, not least important considering the state’s tangled obligations to Congress, had made a number of influential friends in Philadelphia.

Further evidence of the respect Wereat commanded in Georgia came in December 1787, when he was chosen president of the state convention that unanimously ratified the newly written Constitution of the United States.  As the session concluded, delegates voted Wereat their thanks “for his able and impartial conduct in the chair.”

* * * * *

Georgia in 1790

Once the new national government began to function, Georgia’s tangled financial obligations to the federal government required attention.   Perhaps not surprisingly, in December 1790, the legislature unanimously elected Auditor-General John Wereat as its agent for settling Georgia’s outstanding financial claims with the new United States. Wereat remained at his post in Philadelphia until early August 1793.  His long stay in the temporary national capital meant that his funds would be exhausted before he could conclude his business.   Moreover, Wereat, his daughter Nancy, and his granddaughter arrived in the city during an outbreak of smallpox and promptly joined others in seeking refuge in New Jersey.

To ensure the continued operation of the state auditor’s office during his absence, Wereat appointed his nephew, Thomas Collier, to act for him in Georgia.   Unfortunately, Collier’s high-handed conduct during his uncle’s absence created ill-feelings towards Wereat.  Either because of this, or because Wereat had had all the fun he could stand trying to resuscitate the state’s finances,  he was not re-elected auditor in 1793.

At least partly as a result of Wereat’s efforts as the state’s agent in Philadelphia, the national government agreed to assume $246,030 of the debt Georgia had contracted during the Revolution, out of the $300,000 maximum permitted by law.  Moreover, the final report of the federal board of commissioners ruled that the national government still owed Georgia $20,000.

* * * * *

Following his retirement from politics, John Wereat, his financial situation ravaged by the War and by the unstable economic conditions before ratification of the new federal Constitution, engaged in land speculation.  On November 12, 1794, he made the first bid to the state legislature to purchase a tract of Georgia’s western territory, the so-called “Yazoo lands,” on behalf of three wealthy acquaintances in Pennsylvania.  When his offer was rejected, Wereat joined three other Georgians to form the Georgia Union Company, which hoped to purchase the Yazoo lands desired by the Georgia and Georgia Mississippi companies, but, because the rival companies had swept the state clean of hard currency, Wereat and his associates were unable to raise sufficient funds to convince the legislature of the sincerity of their bid.

Yazoo Land Grants, 1795

Nevertheless, Governor George Mathews vetoed this Yazoo Act.  Wereat briefly thought that the proposal of his Georgia Union Company might have another chance, but that was not to be.  Instead, the General Assembly passed a revised version of the law, and the successful purchasing companies greased the measure’s passage by distributing money and lands to pliant legislators, public officials, militia officers, and newspaper editors, virtually every person of influence in the state who could keep the lid on popular discontent over the Yazoo sale.

During the ensuing controversy over the so-called “Yazoo Fraud,” the successful Yazoo companies impugned the motives of Wereat and other organizers of the Georgia Union Company, accusing them of trying to torpedo the sale after the legislature had rejected their inferior bid.  Wereat responded that, “As the [Yazoo] Act has doubtless been obtained by corruption and fraud, will not the [state constitutional] Convention who are to meet in May [1795] have it in their power to declare it null and void?”

Mr. Wereat’s prominence in that May 1795 state constitutional convention, which ordered anti-Yazoo petitions transmitted to the next session of the General Assembly, lent credence to the successful purchasers’ accusations against Wereat and the Georgia Union Company. Nevertheless, using anti-Yazoo petitions and other evidence of corruption accompanying the law’s passage, the legislature in 1796 passed the Rescinding Act, nullifying the sale.

* * * * *

Following the Yazoo controversy, John Wereat retired to his home in coastal Bryan County, but his hopes for peace and tranquility were short-lived. He soon found himself embroiled in a bitter family squabble that forced him once more into the public eye and dragged on for nearly six years after his death.

The disagreement erupted after Wereat announced that he was offering for sale five-hundred acres of land that had once belonged to his brother-in-law, the late Reverend John Collier.  Collier’s son, Thomas, who had served as deputy auditor under Wereat and been disgraced by accusations of corruption during his tenure, promptly inserted a notice in the press asserting that those lands were not Wereat’s to sell.  According to Thomas Collier, the lands should have passed to his brother John Collier, Jr., and, when his brother died, to Thomas himself.  Instead, Thomas Collier argued, “Mr. Wereat, administrator of the estate, thereby obtained possession, and still retains them; whether fraudulently or otherwise must be determined by a jury of Chatham County.”

Wereat replied a month later, charging that Thomas Collier’s publication had been intended to injure his reputation.  He termed Collier’s assertion that he had “obtained possession of certain papers as administrator of your brother’s estate,” a “base falsehood,” and claimed to welcome the investigation into the matter promised by his nephew.  Wereat added that “any further publication you may think proper to make will be treated with silent contempt.”  Collier fired another shot in this newspaper war, maintaining, among other things, that Wereat consistently had practiced “dissembling flattery. . . [for plunder] towards me and your sister’s family.”  True to his word, John Wereat remained silent, even after Thomas Collier sued to recover the disputed tract of land.

Although he had chosen to ignore his nephew’s accusation in public, Wereat drew up a new will on April 1, 1798, following the death of his daughter.  The new document provided that, upon Wereat’s death, Thomas Collier was to receive but “One Spanish milled dollar.”  Moreover, Wereat vowed that, even if his chief beneficiary, his granddaughter Elizabeth Fishbourne, died before reaching the age of twenty-one, “Thomas Collier shall receive no more than his dollar.” Collier’s suit against Wereat was taken up by Collier’s sister and her husband, Jacob Isaacs, after both Collier and Wereat died. It was finally dismissed by the courts in 1805.

* * * * *

John Wereat died at his Bryan County home on January 25, 1799, at the age of sixty-five.

His death deprived the state of one who had served Georgia well from the outbreak of the American Revolution until his retirement from the Auditor-General’s post in 1793.  A reluctant leader of the conservative Whig faction during the war, Wereat had helped the fledging state grapple with the manifold financial problems accompanying independence.   While it is tempting to describe him as an eighteenth-century bureaucrat, Wereat saw the matter in a different light: to him, his career was neither a “profession” nor a “job,”  but instead, it was “the duty of every good Citizen.”

John Wereat’s involvement in the Yazoo sale, which was motivated by friendship, personal connections, and a desire for financial gain, was unsuccessful.  However, his opposition to the corrupt purchasers eventually redounded to the state’s benefit, though perhaps at some cost to Wereat’s reputation.

Although unsuited by temperament for the rough give and take of Georgia politics, John Wereat nevertheless proved himself a capable, conscientious public servant.  Quiet and reserved by nature, Wereat preferred to avoid controversy; ironically, he found no peace short of the grave.

* * * * *

Wereat Estate Records (excerpts)

Wereat’s Will, dated April 8, 1798—His daughter, an only child, had just died, so Wereat made changes in his will.  His major beneficiary was now his granddaughter, Elizabeth Fishbourn. His daughter Ann (Nancy) had married Dr. Michael Burke after Benjamin Fishbourn’s death.

One odd provision: Wereat awarded his nephew, Thomas Collier, “one Spanish milled dollar (was his mother alive I would give her a good many). . . .”  Wereat added that, if his granddaughter did not live to reach age twenty-one, “Thomas Collier shall have no more than his dollar, nor have I any other relation by blood in America.”   

Wereat listed his estate as follows:

Plantation and tract of Land on the river Ogeechee in Chatham County;

Unimproved tract of Land in Bryan County called Pengathly;

Four lots in the township of Hardwick, in Bryan County;

1400 acres of land on the Great Satilla River;

Two tracts of land in Burke County of five hundred acres each;

Tract of land near Augustine’s Creek;

A confiscated estate in Columbia County called Daverill [?]—three tracts of land, along with sixty adjoining acres;

House and lot in the town of Savannah;

Also in Savannah, a lot fronting St. James’s Square, for use of granddaughter Elizabeth Fishbourn.

Wereat transferred his Columbia County plantation, Mount Hope, to his son-in-law Dr. Michael Burke.

Appraisal of John Wereat’s personal property, dated Hardwick, March 1799:

56 Negroes                                                                    $14,000

30 Head black cattle                                                            150

6 Horses                                                                                 480

50 Head of sheep                                                                 100

2 Feather Beds & bedding                                                  100

6 Chairs, Crockery ware, & household furniture             60

Plantation Carpenters & Blacksmith Tools                      60

1 Sulkey & Harness                                                               40

1 Gun                                                                                       12

__________

$14,922

* * * * *

SOURCES

George R. Lamplugh, Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (Newark, DE, 1986).

______________, “‘To Check and Discourage the Wicked and Designing’:  John Wereat and the Revolution in Georgia,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 61 (Winter, 1977): 295-307.

______________, “‘The Duty of Every Good Citizen’:  John Wereat and Georgia, 1782-1793,” Atlanta Historical Journal 27 (Spring, 1983): 87-94.

______________, “John Wereat and Yazoo, 1794-1799,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 72 (Fall, 1988): 502-517.

______________, “John Wereat,” Kenneth Coleman and Steve Gurr, eds., Dictionary of Georgia Biography (Athens, GA, 1983).

______________, “John Wereat,” John Inscoe, ed., New Georgia Encyclopedia (https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/john-wereat-ca-1733-1799).

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, American Revolution, Education, Georgia History, History, History Curriculum, History graduate school, History Teaching, John Wereat, memoir, Philadelphia Convention (1787), Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Stephen Calt, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

John Wereat and Georgia, 1775-1799, Part 1 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 33)

[NOTE:  I first met John Wereat in the late 1960s, while researching Georgia politics in the era of the American Revolution.  (By that time, he’d been dead for about 175 years!) I soon found him fascinating, because almost nothing had been written about him in standard secondary sources.  Yet, the deeper I got into my research, the more primary sources I found about Mr. Wereat (as I usually call him).  Consequently, over the past half century I became his biographer, publishing three articles about him, as well as  sketches of his career in two reference works.

What I’ve discovered is that, like some late eighteenth-century Georgia version of the fictitious “Forrest Gump, John Wereat made his presence felt during the most significant events in the state’s history from the outbreak of the Revolution until his death in 1799.

In this two-part post, I’d like to introduce Wereat to a wider, general audience, and  explain what drew me to him as a biographical subject over the course of my career.]

* * * * *

What first caught my attention about Mr. Wereat was his last name, which I still don’t know how to pronounce.  (But as the possessor of an odd name myself, I suppose I shouldn’t complain!) My best guess:  “Weer-ee-at.”

Then there was his distinctive handwriting, beautifully wrought, as befits a person who began his career as a diligent merchant’s clerk in England and eventually joined a mercantile firm in Georgia.  Here’s a sample:

 

Finally, a portrait of John Wereat has survived. I first saw it at the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah around 1970. The head of the Society ushered me down to the basement to show me the painting, apologetically explaining that there was not enough wall space upstairs to display all the art in the Society’s collection. (Her implication seemed to be that only pictures of important people were displayed on the main floor, and since Mr. Wereat’s portrait had been consigned to storage, he must not have been a significant figure in Georgia’s history.)  In the vernacular of the times, though, it was “pretty cool” to have a face I could attach to his odd name as we became better acquainted over the next fifty years.

John Wereat (Wikipedia)

* * * * *

Wereat was born circa 1733 in the village of Road, Somerset, in the southwest of England. In 1759, he and his wife, the former Hannah Wilkinson, arrived in Georgia, where he joined a Savannah mercantile firm headed by William Handley, a relative of Mrs. Wereat.

Between 1760 and the outbreak of the Revolution, financial problems blighted Wereat’s career as a merchant and forced him to dispose of almost three thousand acres to satisfy creditors. The lands he saved, however, along with his slaves, served as collateral for additional loans that improved his holdings along Georgia’s rice coast. Despite those earlier setbacks, then, John Wereat was a man of property by 1775.

Wereat’s entry into politics coincided with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. He represented St. Mary’s Parish, and then the town of Savannah, in provincial congresses prior to the drafting of the state’s Constitution of 1777 and served briefly on the Council of Safety.  A trip to Philadelphia in July 1776 secured his appointment as Georgia’s “continental agent,” representing the state in dealings with Congress, a post Wereat would hold throughout the Revolution. As continental agent he was responsible for provisioning American vessels that called in Georgia ports; disposing of captured enemy ships; and furnishing cargoes for a continental mail vessel that sailed regularly between Savannah and Philadelphia. (Obviously, his career as a merchant and the contacts he’d made in various colonial ports stood Wereat in good stead in this role.)

* * * * *

Button Gwinnett (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

During the Revolution, Georgia’s Whigs, those working for independence from Britain, were divided into bickering factions.  John Wereat emerged as a spokesman for the conservative Whigs, in opposition to the radicals, who were led by Button Gwinnett.  In private letters, grand jury presentments, and pamphlets, Wereat charged that Gwinnett and his allies espoused “patriotism” only to mask their ambition and greed.

Lachlan McIntosh

Wereat claimed that Gwinnett and his minions in the so-called “Liberty Society” labelled conservative opponents like himself and his friend General Lachlan McIntosh “with the hateful name of Torey [sic], . . . in order to raise themselves fortunes, & political fame upon the ruins of the real Friends of their Country and the American Cause.”  He blamed the Constitution of 1777 for this situation, arguing that it reflected the views of Button Gwinnett and his allies:  increased county representation provided in the new frame of government, Wereat believed, had combined with reduced property requirements for voting to render helpless the “best part of the community,” thereby creating a situation in which “neither Liberty, or [sic] property are secure.”

Relations between General McIntosh and Button Gwinnett deteriorated, until they resolved their differences with pistols.  On May 16, 1777, they met outside Savannah; both were wounded in the exchange of shots; Gwinnett’s wounds proved mortal.

* * * * *

After the fall of Savannah to the British in December 1778, Mr. Wereat sought refuge in South Carolina, but he shortly returned to Georgia following the withdrawal of British forces from Augusta.  Remnants of the colony’s House of Assembly gathered there and chose a “Supreme Executive Council” to govern the small part of the state still in Whig hands.  On August 6, 1779, that Council elected John Wereat as its president.  The loss of Savannah to the British, the dispersal of the state’s constitutionally elected officials, and the dire need for congressional assistance had transferred the reins of Whig government from the radical to the conservative faction; thus, Wereat found himself the de facto Governor of Georgia.

To show that they acted out of selfless patriotism rather than the selfish opportunism they ascribed to radical Whigs like Button Gwinnett, the members of the Supreme Executive Council agreed to serve without pay, and pledged to exercise neither legislative nor judicial powers. They also circulated petitions in the upcountry seeking popular approval of their actions until elections for a new House of Assembly could be held.  Lacking constitutional sanction, however, Wereat’s regime was short-lived.

During the unsuccessful Franco-American siege of Savannah, President Wereat negotiated with British authorities for an exchange of prisoners, but to no avail.  Upon his return to Augusta, Wereat set December 1, 1779, as the date for the election of a new House of Assembly. Presumably to avert a resurgence of the radical faction, he also published in a South Carolina newspaper a proclamation informing exiles from the Georgia low country, the center of conservative Whig strength, of the scheduled poll.

George Walton

Before the election could be held, however, George Walton, a former conservative ally, arrived in Augusta and formed an alliance with two prominent radicals, George Wells and Richard Howly. They and their supporters formed their own “House of Assembly” and elected Walton both governor of Georgia and delegate to Congress.

Walton had brought with him a letter from Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln, suggesting that an Assembly should be organized as soon as possible, which gave Walton’s actions at least a shadow of legitimacy.  Moreover, most of Georgia’s influential conservative Whigs, Wereat’s natural allies, had abandoned the state, found sanctuary in neighboring South Carolina, and had not returned.  Thus, Walton’s maneuver succeeded.

Wereat claimed that the exodus of conservative Whigs from Georgia had left men like himself virtually powerless “to check and discourage the wicked & designing whose principles & policy is to raise themselves to wealth & opulence on the ruins of honest & inoffensive individuals & of the whole state.”

The new government, dominated by radical Whigs, promptly secured the suspension from Continental command of Wereat’s friend and political ally, General Lachlan McIntosh. For the remainder of the war, Wereat worked with McIntosh to clear his name and secure his reinstatement in command.

Wereat was captured when the British returned to Augusta in the summer of 1780 and  sent to Charleston, where he joined McIntosh as a prisoner of war. Following their release from captivity a year later, the two friends journeyed to Philadelphia, McIntosh to try to restore his reputation and Wereat to settle his accounts as Georgia’s continental agent.

* * * * *

The end of the war was in sight by the time Mr. Wereat returned to Georgia in 1782. He estimated his financial losses during the Revolution at almost 2400 pounds. In submitting his account to the state, though, he commented bitterly, “I don’t expect to be reimbursed a Shilling of it.” Instead, he urged his attorney to push matters through the courts “immediately.”

As the war wound down, John Wereat did what he could to help restore order in the  upcountry.  Battles and skirmishes had disrupted agriculture, and the situation around Augusta was particularly acute.  In March 1782, Wereat journeyed to South Carolina, where he procured “a small supply of Rice” that would “enable the people in the back part of [Georgia] to subsist ‘til the Crops of Wheat comes [sic] in.”

In the summer of 1783, Georgia Governor John Martin sent Wereat and two others to British East Florida to negotiate with Royal Governor Patrick Tonyn an end to raids by military forces across the St. Marys River. The Georgia emissaries met a cool reception in St. Augustine, and, while they awaited Governor Tonyn’s reply, Wereat renewed his acquaintance with several exiled Georgia Loyalists who had taken up residence there.

In a poignant letter to one such former Georgian, Wereat recalled a discussion they’d had during the heady days before the outbreak of hostilities:  “I have in the course of this business found your prediction fully verified,” he wrote, “and cannot pretend to say that every Man who has been professedly an American was actuated by a regard for justice or an inviolable attachment to the rights of this Country, and that many who had very little pretention [sic] to public trust and confidence, have wormed themselves into appointments of the first consequence, and into great fortunes, while others more deserving have been reduced very considerably.”

Based on his own experience, then, John Wereat believed that the American Revolution had permanently altered the world he had known.  Once the loyal colonial “establishment” had been ousted, well-to-do Whigs like Wereat assumed that direction of affairs would pass smoothly to men of property like themselves, but they had reckoned without the ability of the radical Whig leadership.

The fabric of an ordered society dominated by the “best part of the community,” which Wereat and other conservative Whigs had hoped to preserve amid revolution, lay in tatters. With time, the gains of independence became evident enough; yet, given his conservative perception of the course of the American Revolution in Georgia, Mr. Wereat could not help thinking wistfully in 1783 of what had been lost.

End of Part 1

Copyright 2020 George Lamplugh

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, American Revolution, Constitution of 1787, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, John Wereat, Philadelphia Convention (1787), Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized, Yazoo Land Fraud | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Vietnam War and American Culture(s), Part 3: “Passionate Historians,” and Selected Sources on the Vietnam War

[NOTE:  It’s awfully easy to stereotype historians as calm, objective, even bloodless observers of the past, especially when you read a garden-variety history textbook.  But, when one moves to more specialized works, there is room for a historian to bring in personal opinions.  That is certainly the case with both Loren Baritz and Christian Appy in their treatments of the impact of the Vietnam War on American culture(s).

Both historians consider the cultural significance of the Vietnam War as a product of American culture and for American culture, and they do not pretend to be “objective.”  Rather, they clearly analyze and “passionately” interpret their topic.  Why?

I also append to this final post in the series links to online information concerning historians Baritz and Appy; and a list of sources I’ve found especially helpful in assessing the impact of the Vietnam War on the United States.

Two odd coincidences:  Loren Baritz was affiliated with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in one capacity or another from 1980 until his retirement in 1991.  Christian Appy has been on the faculty of that school since 2004. Secondly, Appy does not mention Baritz’s book in the endnotes to his own volume (there is no bibliography), perhaps because Baritz’s volume, written a generation earlier, had a more limited perspective, and, thus, did not add much to Appy’s picture in 2015 of the war’s domestic impact.]

* * * * *

Loren Baritz (digitalcommonwealth.org)

In his Preface, Loren Baritz claims that, when he began writing Backfire in the summer of 1982, he had been agonizing over the War in Vietnam for nearly two decades; had read “every major book and article about the war”; but “was always disappointed by them.” (7)  To Baritz, these sources merely described the conflict; they “did not explain the war, or why it happened, or why we waged it the way we did, or why we negotiated the way we did, or why it eventually became such a disaster for us.” (7)

Baritz admits that, to him, the Vietnam War was not an abstract, “academic” topic. He “became a political participant in opposition to” the conflict; participated in “teach-ins, marches, more speeches than was consistent with sanity, and political organization.”  In 1968, he was elected as a delegate to “the terrible Democratic National Convention in Chicago.” (8)

Baritz asserts that the War in Vietnam was one of those events where, for the historian, “truth is more important than evenhandedness,” and he does “not apologize for the fact that some of [his] conclusions are passionate.  We are considering matters of life and death,” he writes, “not merely an intellectual exercise.” (11)

* * * * *

In 1985, Loren Baritz appeared on Chicago radio icon Studs Terkel’s interview show to talk about his new book, Backfire.  Baritz emphasized there that the roots of our Vietnam involvement had been our belief in the myth of “American exceptionalism.” This notion, which he traced to Puritan Massachusetts, essentially made Americans “God’s Chosen People” and led us, as Bob Dylan sang, to believe that “God was on our side,” but with disastrous results.  (See Baritz’s 1964 book, City on a Hill: A History of Ideas and Myths and America for background on this.)

Angry and frustrated with the Vietnam War, Baritz applied his notion of the folly of “American exceptionalism” to his study of our journey into the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam—and onward, into the Reagan administration. His view of the war in Backfire clearly reflects, no doubt with the aid of hindsight, his feelings at the time.

Another factor that might have shaped Baritz’s attitude towards the Vietnam War was that, by the 1970s, he had left the classroom and become a college administrator, first as provost, executive vice president, and then president of the State University of New York’s Empire State College; and, finally, as provost and acting vice president of the SUNY system.  In 1980, Baritz was appointed provost and, in 1982, acting chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, before stepping down in 1983 and returning to the classroom, where he remained until his retirement in 1991. To college administrators in that era, the war in Vietnam simply would not go away, if only because students refused to stop protesting against it and its consequences, and those protests were easily transferred to other issues.

To Baritz, President John F. Kennedy’s “best and the brightest” were merely “engineering mechanics” who tried to calm the country down, and his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, was the “great cheerleader of them all.”  In this 1985 interview, Baritz scathingly described the “management mentality” in engineering and business administration graduate schools, populated by “Yuppies” who were no longer subject to the draft, as the same mindset that had “brought us Vietnam.”

Baritz argued that we equated our technological superiority with moral superiority, so that George Orwell’s dictum in the novel 1984, “Ignorance is strength,” became, during the Lyndon Johnson era, “strength is ignorance.”  What we were not taught to do, he believed, “was to see ourselves as the bully.”

Baritz told Studs Terkel that “the press did not distinguish itself in Vietnam.”  He also maintained that subordinates lied to General William Westmoreland, attempting to make their reports of wartime “progress” match Westmoreland’s heightened expectations.  In short, a key lesson of Vietnam, at least according to Loren Baritz, was that guerrilla wars were not as easy to fight and win as we had expected.

* * * * *

Christian Appy (umass.edu)

In his “Introduction” to American Reckoning, Christian Appy proposes that “the Vietnam War shattered the central tenet of American national identity—the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but in the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life.  A common term for this belief is ‘American exceptionalism.’” (xi-xii)

So, where did Appy’s animus towards the concept of “American exceptionalism” originate?  Born in 1955, Christian Appy grew up during the Vietnam War, graduating from high school in 1973.  Appy claims that the conflict did not have a major impact on him or his family at the time. He does recall that his father, a World War II veteran who initially supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam, turned against the war, voting for George McGovern, the Democratic antiwar candidate, in the 1972 presidential election. Appy turned 18, and became subject to the draft, in 1973, but was not drafted

At Amherst College, Appy was exposed to more debate about Vietnam, including the views of Amherst’s legendary American History professor Henry Steele Commager, a one-time exponent of American exceptionalism, who came to believe that the country had badly lost it bearings in Vietnam.  In a 1972 essay, for instance, Commager wrote that, although we honored Germans who had resisted Hitler during World War II, we failed to respect the views of Americans who opposed the Vietnam War a few decades later.

In the 1980s, while working on a doctorate in American Civilization at Harvard University, Christian Appy interviewed Vietnam veterans in the Boston area.  This research became the basis for his dissertation, and first book, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (1993). A subsequent work, Patriots (2003), an  oral history of the Vietnam War, featured interviews with some 350 people “from all sides”—Americans, Vietnamese, soldiers and generals, journalists, antiwar protesters, and government officials — who had been touched by the bitter struggle that cost more than 58,000 American lives and the lives of more than three million Vietnamese.  

* * * * *

After publishing Patriots, Appy was ready to find a new subject for study, at least until he became frustrated with the seemingly endless Iraq and Afghanistan wars (2002-present). He saw disturbing parallels between those conflicts and Vietnam but heard little discussion about how they might be part of the legacy of  the Vietnam War.  So he began to write American Reckoning.

Probably because of the publication of that work in 2015, Christian Appy agreed to review Lynn Novick and Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The Vietnam War” (2017), for the Organization of American Historians’ blog, “Process.”  His take on the series is well worth reading, whatever your opinion of Novick and Burns’s production (see below for episode links).

In a lecture delivered in 2017, Appy made an interesting point:  Burns and Novick, in discussing their project, said that they hoped it would heal the wounds of the war and its legacy in the U.S.  Yet, Appy argued, the series ends with the war itself, in 1975; there is no real attempt to treat its “legacy.”  In fact, he asserts, there was no mention in the documentary of two crucial words that he believed were connected to said “legacy”:  “Iraq” and “Afghanistan.”

[Note:  From 1989-2010, I used a lecture, “Growing Up with Vietnam,” with my senior AP U.S. History classes, then published it in four parts on this blog in 2011.  In Part IV, “Paying the Cost to be the Boss:  With Apologies to B.B. King,” I consider the short and long-term consequences of America’s adventure in Vietnam.  And, in Part III, “Coming to Terms,” I examine my changing attitude towards the conflict.]

* * * * *

ADDITIONAL SOURCES

Interviews:

Loren Baritz, interview with Studs Terkel, WRMT Radio (1985):

https://studsterkel.wfmt.com/programs/interview-loren-baritz

Christian Appy, with Steve Pfarrer, Amherst College Bulletin (2015):

https://www.amherstbulletin.com/Archives/2015/07/14artAppy-hg-081415

Obituary:

Loren Baritz, 2010.  https://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/article/obituary-loren-baritz-former-provost-and-acting-chancellor

Lecture:

Christian Appy, “The Legacy of the Vietnam War” (2017):

https://www.pbs.org/video/christian-appy-the-legacy-of-the-vietnam-war-r0n9gt/

Christian Appy’s review of Novick and Burns’s “Vietnam” series for PBS:

* * * * *

SELECTED SOURCES ON THE VIETNAM WAR

Surveys

Herring, George CAmerica’s Longest War:  The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (1979). Diplomatic history of the war.

Karnow, Stanley.  Vietnam:  A History (1983).  Companion volume to PBS series, “Vietnam: A Television History.”  (1984, 2004).   

Burns, Ken, and Lynn Novick.  The Vietnam War (2017).The latest effort to analyze the war for television.

Context

Fitzgerald, Frances.  Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972).

Kaiser, David.  American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of The Vietnam War (2000).

Schell, Jonathan.  The Time of Illusion (1975). The Vietnam War as part of the “Nixon Era.”

Journalism

Emerson, Gloria.  Winners and Losers:  Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses, and Ruins from the Vietnam War (1985). By a New York Times correspondent stationed in Vietnam, 1970-1972.

Halberstam, David.  The Best and the Brightest (1993).  A classic account of American hubris.

Herr, Michael.  Dispatches (1978). From a correspondent sent to Vietnam in 1967.

The Library of America.  Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959-1975 (2000). Paperback featuring sixty-one selections from 106 in the two-volume hardback edition with the same title published in 1998 by “The Library of America.” 

The War at Home

Kaiser, Charles.  1968 in America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation (1988).

Maraniss, David.  They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 (2003).  A tour de force, in which Maraniss tells three stories that climaxed in the Fall of 1967:  one occurred in Vietnam; the others took place on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and in Washington, D.C.

Palmer, Laura.  Shrapnel in the Heart:  Letters and Remembrances from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1987).  What we learn from things left behind by loved ones at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Todd, Jack.  Desertion:  In the Time of Vietnam (2001).

Wells, Tom.  The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam (1994)  The War on the home front.

Men at Arms

Atkinson, Rick.  The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966 (1989). Hard to put down.

Goldman, Peter, and Tony Fuller.  Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us (1983).  Fascinating treatment of a single Army infantry company in Vietnam, 1968-1969.  From a long piece in Newsweek magazine  in 1981, based on the recollections of sixty-five members of Charlie company who attended a reunion.

Moore, Lt. Gen. Harold G., and Joseph L. Galloway.  We Were Soldiers Once. . . and Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam (1993). A gripping account of two American Army units who longed to meet the enemy and did so, in November 1965.  

Sheehan, Neil.  A Bright Shining Lie:  John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988).  A classic of its kind.

Spector, Ronald H.  After Tet:  The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam (1993). Exactly what it says, unfortunately.

Memoirs and Oral History

Baker, Mark.  Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Soldiers Who Fought There (1983).  A gripping oral history, but like others of its kind, lacking in context.

Laurence, John.  The Cat from Hue: A Vietnam War Story (2002).  Memoirs of the noted CBS correspondent who covered the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1970.  A long read, but worth it.

Marlantes, Karl.  What  it is Like to Go to War (2011)Memoir of a Marine officer in Vietnam in 1969. Marlantes also wrote a novel about his experiences there, Matterhorn (2010).

Mason, Robert.  Chickenhawk (1983).  Memoirs of an American helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

O’Brien, Tim.  If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box me up and Ship me Home (1975).  Memoir by the noted author of The Things They Carried (1990).   

Santoli, Al.  Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It (1981).  Another powerful collection of stories, with the same weakness noted about Mark Baker’s volume, above.

Terry, Wallace.  Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (1984). See comment on Santoli, above.

Tripp, Nathaniel.  Father, Soldier, Son: Memoir of a Platoon Leader in Vietnam (1996).  A complicated work, but certainly worth the read.

End of Part 3

Copyright 2020  George Lamplugh

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP Cover

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, Books, Cold War, History, History Teaching, Research, Retirement, Teaching, Uncategorized, Vietnam War, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Vietnam War and American Culture(s), Part 2

[Note:  This is the second installment of a three-part series examining the impact of the Vietnam War on the United States, by historians writing a generation apart:

Loren Baritz, Backfire:  A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (1985); and

                                           Christian Appy, American Reckoning:  The Vietnam                                                     War and Our National Identity (2015)

This segment looks at the short and long-term consequences of the war.  (For Part 1, go here.)  A list of suggested readings on the Vietnam War will appear in Part 3.]

* * * * *

Loren Baritz (digitalcommonwealth.org)

In Backfire, Loren Baritz labels the collaboration between President Richard Nixon and Dr. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s aide and eventual Secretary of State, as “the politics of ego.” (190)  In his eyes, the relationship between Nixon and Kissinger was “mutually enriching and parasitic,” one that was “consummated in a shared dedication to secrecy, which always tends towards a conspiratorial view of political and human affairs.” (206)  To Baritz, the seeds of the Watergate scandal were planted in the secret bombing of Cambodia and in the intricacies of the subsequent diplomatic negotiating process that eventually brought “peace with honor” and ended American participation in the Vietnam War.

The proof that Vietnam era Presidents misrepresented the importance of Vietnam to our foreign policy, Baritz argues (writing in 1985, remember), is that, since the reunification of Vietnam under Communist rule in 1975, almost nothing had happened in that part of the world to threaten our security.  “America was now like other nations of the world, its meaning, if it still had one, in shambles.  What was left for America was power, technology, and bureaucracy.  What was missing was  purpose.” (230)  So much for the “domino theory.”

When Baritz speculated on the nation’s future in the wake of our Vietnam adventure, his view was gloomy.  War is the product of “culture,” he argued, and in Vietnam our “managerial sophistication and technological superiority resulted in our trained incompetence in guerrilla warfare.” (322)  Put another way, to Loren Baritz the “American culture” he refers to in the subtitle of his book was that of the civilian and military bureaucracies, rather than what we might call “popular culture,” although he also hangs his interpretation of the early support for the Vietnam War on the widespread acceptance in the United States of the “myth of American exceptionalism.”

Yet, Baritz writes, the end of the draft under President Nixon freed most young Americans to indulge “their distaste for public issues.” (336)  They evinced no concern beyond self.  Thus, we became “a nation without citizens, and a people without politics,” yet another impact of the war on American popular culture that is only implicit in his text. (338)  The prototypical young American of the 1980s, the “Yuppie,” had arrived.

What had we learned from the Vietnam experience?  In Baritz’s view, not much.  In fact, as he was writing, President Ronald Reagan was urging Americans to abandon self-doubt and to restore that “city upon a hill.”

* * * * *

Christian Appy (umass.edu)

In American Reckoning (2015), Christian Appy, with three more decades in his rearview mirror than Loren Baritz, could assess the impact of the Vietnam War on the United States through the first term of President Barack Obama (2009-2013).

In language similar to that of noted Southern historian C. Vann Woodward when analyzing the impact of the Civil War on the American South, Appy argues that the war in Vietnam introduced “something new and unexpected into the American war story:  failure.” (228)  By 1982, with the opening of The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., American popular culture had decided to “separate the warriors from the war”:  thanks to memorials and clichés, “mainstream culture and politics promoted the idea that the deepest shame related to the Vietnam War was not the war itself, but America’s failure to embrace its military veterans.” (241)

Then, enter Hollywood’s string of Vietnam War action flicks, stage right, featuring symbols of American manhood like Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris heading back to a cinematic Southeast Asia to “rescue” the remaining POWs. (246-249)  (Appy comments  that few if any Americans knew or cared about the real POWs, the South Vietnamese forced into “re-education centers” because of their service in the South Vietnamese government and military, or their work for the U.S. government during the Vietnam War.)

* * * * * *

During the Reagan years, according to Professor Appy, in the USA “the pride was back,” and the process of rebuilding it had not taken long.  Somehow, Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Born in the USA,” became a sort of post-Vietnam national anthem, thanks mainly to the fact that “hawks” promoting it didn’t listen to the words.  And then there was the Chrysler advertisement interpreting Oliver Stone’s film “Platoon” as a “’memorial’ to Vietnam veterans.”  (257-258)  Springsteen wouldn’t agree to let “Born in the USA” be used in a Chrysler commercial, so the corporation created a new anthem, “The Pride is Back,” which was transformed into a country song that included a musical reincarnation of American exceptionalism:  Americans were “born special, born blessed/born different from all the rest.” (260)

The opening to the public of the renovated Statue of Liberty in 1986 featured tributes to the nation’s immigrant past, but, because we were also being roiled by economic problems, this focus fostered “a xenophobic hostility to foreigners and newcomers, particularly immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.” (261)

Moreover, high school history texts were being revised to remove iconic Vietnam War photographs that put us in a negative light, while, at the same time, movies and paperback books had joined the rush to make the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese the unalloyed “bad guys” and the Americans the “good guys.” (267-269)  

Even if “the pride was back,” pride was accompanied by a desire for “no more Vietnams.”  Antiwar Vietnam vets, for example, opposed our involvement in Central America during the Reagan years, which angered congressional “hawks,” who blamed their lack of enthusiasm for further military engagement on a loss of national will, the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome.”  According to Appy, though, the real “Vietnam Syndrome” was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

* * * * *

President Reagan was the captain of the national cheerleading team, in Appy’s view, doing his best to wash all the negativism away.  Still, there emerged a bipartisan agreement that “never again should the U.S. engage in long, inconclusive wars with high American casualties.” (286)  Perhaps sensing this, the sometimes bellicose President Reagan responded to an attack on U.S. barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 Americans by withdrawing our forces.  On the other hand, when Reagan was convinced we could prevail, as in the American assault on Grenada, he stood firm. These events formed the background for the “Iran-Contra scandal,” when secrecy was preeminent, and both Congress and the American public were kept in the dark.

Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, served only a single term, but he managed to launch “the two biggest military operations since the Vietnam War,” the invasion of Panama and Operation Desert Storm in the Middle East. (293-300)  The nation’s now twenty-four hour news cycle provided “mostly celebratory coverage” of Desert Storm, Appy claims, which enabled the first President Bush to declare that Iraq was “not another Vietnam,” and to crow that “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” (299)

* * * * *

And yet, under both George H.W. Bush and his successor, Bill Clinton, the public’s doubts resurfaced when confronted with events in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. (300-304)  Still, to the nation’s “hawks” we were at least projecting American power abroad (if not very effectively), one of the keystones of “American exceptionalism.”

In his final chapter, “Who We Are,” Appy revisits the post-invasion period in Iraq, examining issues like the Abu-Ghraid prison photos.  He believes that President George W. Bush was kept in the dark by Vice-President Dick Cheney and CIA Director George Tenet, so that the younger President Bush could assert that the Abu Ghraib pictures did “not represent the America I know.” (309)  Nevertheless, Appy maintains, our government’s actions in Iraq “fundamentally contradicted a core principle of American exceptionalism—the belief that the United States adheres to a higher ethical standard than other nations.” (309)

* * * * *

Following the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of Navy Seals in May 2011, the Barack Obama Administration began planning the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, while adding troops to Afghanistan.  Despite the fact that bad stuff also was happening in Afghanistan, we continued to insist that “This is not who we are.” (307)  When Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, spoke at Ft. Benning, Georgia                  (May 2012), he referred to the “challenges ahead,” which Professor Appy paraphrases as “Don’t commit war crimes, because you never know when someone might take a picture of it to make us look bad.” (308)

Appy concludes with this message to the American pubic:  “As long as we continue to be seduced by the myth of American exceptionalism, we will too easily acquiesce to the misuse of power, all too readily trust that our force is used only with the best of intentions for the greatest good.” (335)

* * * * *

So what, if anything, can we learn from these two studies of the impact of the Vietnam War on American culture, published a generation apart?

First of all,  perspective matters.  When Loren Baritz put the finishing touches on Backfire, he stood only about a decade from the end of the Vietnam war. He could make some judgments, but the years after 1985 were of course unknown to him.  Christian Appy, on the other hand, had thirty additional years of perspective (and hindsight) on the war and its consequences when he wrote his concluding chapter.

Secondly, definitions matter.  Baritz’s subtitle is “How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did.” His understanding of “American Culture” focused on the civilian and military bureaucracies that attempted to guide our campaign against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.  (Yet, his introduction to the issue also relied on his belief in another, more popular, cultural trope, the “myth of American exceptionalism.”)

Christian Appy’s understanding of “American Culture,” while taking into account the power of the belief in “American exceptionalism,”  is broader than Baritz’s.  Appy delves more deeply into the antiwar movement than Baritz and also considers how popular music, films, and novels portrayed the war and its consequences.  Put another way, Baritz’s understanding of “American culture” was mostly from the top down, while Appy’s was more from the bottom up.

Nearly half a century after the end of the war in Vietnam, we still struggle with the conflict and its legacy.  People in my age group have probably made up their minds about the war, because we lived through it—and many of us served in it—but younger Americans are perhaps not as certain of its causes or consequences.  They no longer have to worry about the draft, no matter what sort of a bind American foreign policy places us in, and there have been so many subsequent adventures abroad for American foreign policy that the details of the Vietnam endeavor tend to fade into the mists of time.

While there are obvious similarities, then, between Loren Baritz’s view of the Vietnam imbroglio and its consequences and the analysis offered by Christian Appy, there also are differences in both approach and emphasis.  Neither historian gives us the “whole story,” but they present enough of it to make the topic interesting; perhaps that is the most we can expect.  Once more, in trying to understand the Vietnam conflict and what it did to us as a nation, we are wrestling with the idea that “each generation writes its own history.”

End of Part 2

Copyright 2020  George Lamplugh

Next:  “Passionate Historians”; additional sources on Baritz and Appy; selected sources on the War in Vietnam.

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, Books, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Review of

Loren Baritz, Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (1985); and

 Christian Appy, American Reckoning:  The Vietnam                                                   War and Our National Identity (2015)

 [Note:  The “page” devoted to posts on “The Vietnam Era” at this blog charts a defining period in my life.  Four posts are devoted to “Growing Up with Vietnam” [Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV], a lecture I wrote to present the history of the war to my students, from a personal perspective. Two posts originated as editorials during my time as editor of the my school’s History Department Newsletter. [here and here]  Another dealt with “Teaching the Vietnam War as History,” a talk offered to a group of local history teachers at a conference.   In 2015, I combined a book review with a concise account of “My Vietnam War and Welcome to it.”

In other words, from my years at “My Old Graduate School” (MOGS, 1968-1973), through my career at “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AFPS, 1973-2010), and on into retirement (2010-present) I have pondered the Vietnam War and its legacies.

Before I could write “Growing Up with Vietnam,” I delved into the history of our involvement in Southeast Asia after World War II.  A very helpful volume I encountered during those early years at AFPS was Loren Baritz’s Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did (1985).  A generation later, after I’d been retired for five years, I read another scholarly effort to explain our involvement in Vietnam and what it wrought, Christian Appy’s American Reckoning:  The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (2015).

In this post and the next, I want to revisit our Vietnam adventure and its consequences, in light of both Baritz’s 1985 volume and Appy’s take on the same subject a generation later.]

* * * **

In Backfire, Loren Baritz asserts that we never understood Vietnam, or even tried to.  He is especially harsh on the influence of our continuing belief in the myth of “American exceptionalism” that he traces to Governor John Winthrop and the colony of Massachusetts Bay: that the Puritan colony was a “city upon a hill” which the world would watch to see how a group of religious people organized a society governed by the ordinances of God.
* * * * *
Baritz pursues the idea that the United States was a special, God-given, and God-protected nation into the twentieth century, including the beliefs of President Woodrow Wilson, whose idealism (e.g., that America’s role in World War I was to “make the world safe for democracy”) met bitter defeat when Congress refused to support American membership in the new League of Nations at war’s end.  Baritz argues that this notion of “American exceptionalism” was also held by President John F. Kennedy and his chief advisors five decades later.  American altruism was absolute in the 1960s, Baritz contends, and we were convinced we could prevail militarily in a “limited war” anywhere in the world, buttressed by our superior technology, which supplied the tools; and our federal bureaucracy, both civilian and military, which provided the procedures and trained and led the men and women who used those tools to attain our desired aims.

 

To Baritz, our involvement in Vietnam was a product of the Cold War.  He creates a metaphorical “Chain to Vietnam,” comprising ten “links” between the issuance of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947 and the situation in Vietnam in September 1960, near the end of President Dwight Eisenhower’s second term, when we were paying 70% of the budget of the newly-created “nation” of South Vietnam.  One underlying premise in the forging of this “chain” was the Truman Administration’s acceptance of diplomat George Kennan’s policy of “containment,” the theory that the Soviet Union was an expansionist power, but that, if the West resisted, the USSR would collapse, the victim of Soviet Communism’s internal contradictions.  Containment seemed to work in Europe immediately after World War II, but, by the 1950s, the doctrine was fading, because the Soviet Union, frustrated by American efforts at “containment,” began to work through proxies, including the Communist regime under Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam.

To Baritz, the myth of  Governor Winthrop’s description of  the “city upon a hill” fitted snugly with “containment” and helped to impel America’s God-given mission to build democracy around the world. Fortunately for that “city upon a hill,” President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was “Woodrow Wilson’s most direct and natural heir.” (78)  (And, though Baritz could not have known this, Dulles’ sunny take on Wilson’s outlook on world affairs would live on, into the early twenty-first century, when President George W. Bush and his administration viewed the prospect of American intervention in Iraq in the aftermath of 9-11 as a sort of “cake-walk,” with a Texas twang.)

* * * * *

In Christian Appy’s American Reckoning, the “reckoning” was produced by false pretexts used to justify our intervention in Vietnam; the indiscriminate brutality of our warfare; the stubborn refusal of elected leaders to withdraw from Southeast Asia, despite public opposition; and the military’s failure to achieve its objectives.  Appy’s thesis is that our involvement in Vietnam “shattered the central tenet of American national identity—the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but in the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life.  A common term for this belief is ‘American exceptionalism.’” (xi-xii)  Thus, Appy agrees with Loren Baritz that the idea of “American exceptionalism” was at the heart of our involvement in Southeast Asia, a part of our cultural DNA.

Although Professor Appy, like Baritz, reviews the Cold War background of our involvement in Vietnam, he basically reduces it to the perceived need for the United States to “save” Asia, and, because we were the United States, he argues, we believed we would succeed.  (On the other hand, race relations in the U.S. at the time did not reveal a lot of love for people of color.)

To Appy, the key to our involvement in Vietnam was President Eisenhower’s belief in the “domino theory.”  “For U.S policymakers, supporting capitalism and building anti-Communist alliances were indistinguishable goals; they were ‘two halves of the same walnut,’ to use [President] Harry Truman’s phrase.” (94)  But, Appy argues, the key was to cloak this economically-oriented rhetoric in language calling “for global freedom and democracy, not global capitalism.” (95)  (By the 1990s, for example, the United States had established diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which, though Communist, “was now open for business.” [114])

* * * * *

Baritz and Appy agree that the war in Vietnam was fought “by the numbers,” as the administrations of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were determined to stave off the angry right wing of American politics by claiming—and supporting with all sorts of statistical information, no matter how wrong or misleading—the success of “superior” American forces against the “inferior” armies of North Vietnam, from 1965 to 1968.  Yet, our general at the time, William Westmoreland, evidently understood the importance of winning battles against the entrenched American military and governmental bureaucracies better than he did the armies of North Vietnam and the Vietcong.

When, in 1968, the North Vietnamese and their South Vietnamese allies launched the Tet Offensive, the result was an American “victory,” but one from which we never recovered.  The “credibility gap” between what a President said and what he actually did came home to roost, with a vengeance.  President Johnson was so stricken by Tet that he declined to run for re-election in 1968.

* * * * *

Both Loren Baritz and Christian Appy criticize the operation of the draft during the Vietnam War.  Baritz, in a treatment I drew on for my “Growing Up with Vietnam” lecture, points out that, of 27 million Americans eligible for the draft, 2,215,000 were drafted; 8.7 million enlisted, some to avoid the draft; 500,000 evaded or resisted the draft; and 16 million had deferments, exemptions, or disqualifications. (Baritz, 287)  By Appy’s reckoning, poor and working-class Americans formed the bulk of the American war effort:  “About 60 percent of the Vietnam generation’s men were able to avoid military service, most of them simply by taking advantage of the rules created by the draft.” (Appy, 134-136)

There’s a sense in which both historians play fast and loose with that figure of sixteen million Americans who had deferments, exemptions, and qualifications.  A sizable number of those individuals were granted deferments for college, but with the obligation to enter the military once college, or in some cases graduate school (e.g., law, medical,  or dental school), had been completed.  True, some of those students abused that deferment provision (with prominent names among them); but others, including me, played by the rules and did our duty.  [In my case, two years on active service (U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, 1966-1968), followed, once I entered graduate school, by two additional years in the active Reserve, most of it in a Quartermaster unit in Rome, GA, north of Atlanta.]

* * * * *

An interesting difference between the coverage of the “war at home” in the two books is that Baritz, writing in the mid-1980s, scatters his references to the antiwar movement throughout the text.  Appy, on the other hand, delivers a solid chapter on the domestic responses to the war: the antiwar demonstrations, of course; but also the role of the civil rights movement—and its face and voice in the 1960s, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—in trying to shape popular opinion about the war.  Appy also examines the efforts of President Richard Nixon to use the idea of a “Silent Majority,” whether hardhats in New York City or Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio (1970), to build a pro-war constituency.

With thirty more years of hindsight than Baritz to draw on, Christian Appy also has a better appreciation of the significance of technological changes in television coverage of the war, which showed Americans on the home front, who viewed bloody small unit engagements each night over dinner, the nature of modern warfare, and, thus, helped turn them against it.  While Baritz certainly did not neglect efforts by GIs in Vietnam to resist the war, Appy seems more attuned to it, as well as more aware of the work of the antiwar “Vietnam Veterans Against the War.”  Finally, Appy notes that even prominent historian Henry Steele Commager, “who had come to national prominence in the 1950s as a prolific champion of American exceptionalism,” argued in a 1972 article that Vietnam was “not only a war we cannot win, it is a war we must lose if we are to survive morally.” (217)

End of Part 1

Copyright 2020  George Lamplugh

Next:  Short and long-term consequences of the Vietnam War, according to Baritz and Appy.

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted on by georgelamplugh | 4 Comments

[Note:  2020 has rapidly become a “Year of Discontent” in the United States.  The coronavirus–and our government’s seeming inability, or unwillingness, to bring it under control–has produced much of the pervasive anger and frustration currently testing the strengths of the American social contract.

But there are other strands contributing to the current gloomy atmosphere–political, economic, social, and cultural. One of the bitterest of these has been the latest flareup over the continuing legacy of racism in this nation, its roots in our history, and the best way(s) forward in light of it.   I’ve been studying and teaching about the intersection of race and history in the United States for over half a century now, so I take this personally.]

* * * * *

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

As I was growing up, I lived through landmark developments in race relations and civil rights, including the Supreme Court’s epochal Brown decision in 1954, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.  The televised coverage of these  events helped determine the way I viewed the world and, once I began to teach American History, shaped the emphasis I placed on the significance of southern and African American history in the nation’s past.

Voting Rights Act (1965)

A decade before I retired, I inherited a one-semester course in the History of the Civil Rights Movement; the need to revise and restructure it led me to rethink the parameters of the story.  A key decision I made was to devote considerable time to the precursor of the Movement, the so-called “Age of Jim Crow.”  I felt that, unless I considered in some detail the period that established the “ground rules” for the post-Reconstruction world of African Americans living in the South (and in much of the rest of the country), my students would not receive a well-rounded picture of what the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement had achieved.  Without a knowledge of Jim Crow America and its tentacles on the nation’s African American citizens, the triumphs of the King era might have seemed inevitable.

Age of Jim Crow (ea.wikipedia.org)

So, I immersed myself in a study of the origins of the Jim Crow South.  The result was a series of lectures I used throughout the Civil Rights course–and in my Advanced Placement U.S. History survey–to provide context for the material provided in texts, supplementary readings, and videos.  This interest in the Jim Crow era accompanied me into retirement.

* * * * *

Since leaving the classroom, I have continued to “do history,” primarily through this blog.  Look at the top of this page; under the picture, you’ll see links to various “pages,” each of which organizes relevant posts topically.  One of them is “The South/Civil Rights.” Click on that link and you’ll find a list of more than thirty posts.  Scan this list;  notice how many of the posts are related, not to the Antebellum South, the Civil War and Reconstruction, or the modern South of the Civil Rights Movement, but to the Jim Crow years.

Reviewing this page recently, I realized that the lectures I created to supplement material assigned in the Civil Rights and AP U.S. History courses provide a concise overview of the road from the end of Reconstruction through the early twentieth century, AKA “the Age of Jim Crow.”  In this seminal period are buried the origins of issues that still roil our society, politics, and culture.

* * * * *

Below are links to those posts, along with a brief description of each.  I have appended a list of suggested readings to each essay:

The New South:  Myth and Reality–a sketch of the economic and social worldview of a group of influential Southern journalists and promoters after the end of the Civil War, whose ideas amounted to a contract, whereby southern whites would allow their states to be made over in the image of the victorious North, if they were permitted to handle race relations themselves.  This post also mentions the origins of an important cultural adjunct to the “New South Creed,” the Lost Cause, which remains a controversial trope in our current wrestling match with the legacy of the Jim Crow period (see, for example, here and here).

The Road to Jim Crow, Part 1 and  Part 2–I used to tell my students, when teaching about the Jim Crow Era, that what happened then was nothing less than that the South, defeated on the battlefields, actually “won the Civil War” by the end of the nineteenth century.  These posts, along with the intellectual framework provided by the “New South Creed,” help explain why that occurred.

amazon.com

The Age of Jim Crow–life in the Jim Crow South as lived by African American and white southerners.  I draw heavily here on the late Leon F. Litwack’s fine study, Trouble in Mind:  Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.  (For important supplementary information, see Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long:  The Aftermath of Slavery.)

The South/Civil Rights page also includes a concise treatment of the modern Civil Rights Movement through 1968, as the “Second Reconstruction,” Part 1 and Part 2.

Finally, for a look at a peculiar feature of the course I offered on the history of the modern Civil Rights Movement, go here.

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Since I published the posts listed above, I have read–and listened to and watched– different approaches to the Age of Jim Crow and its legacies.  Here are a few recent sources that I’ve found helpful:

Sheffield Hale
(atlantadowntown.com)

“For Faith: Monuments and Symbols”–this podcast features the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, The Rev. Robert Wright, and Sheffield Hale, President and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, discussing Confederate monuments and their significance.

(petecandler.com)

A Deeper South–This site is the creation of Pete Candler, an Asheville, NC-based writer and photographer who explains his idea of “a deeper South” this way:

The vision of A Deeper South is rooted in the idea that the spiritual, political, and cultural health of a nation, region, city, town, or person depends upon an honest and unflinching memory; that the gravest danger to our cities and ourselves is a willful amnesia; that hope is to be found through the work of active remembrance, putting back together the fragments of personhood scattered by a culture of selective memory.

A Deeper South features stories, short films, podcasts, and, of late, Zoom interviews  with guests who, like Mr. Candler, are interested in both the South of memory and, more importantly, why we remember it the way we do.  (Candler lays out his views on this “Deeper South” in more detail in an engrossing essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

Heather Cox Richardson (Facebook.com)

And, finally, a shout out to Dr. Heather Cox Richardson, professor of History at Boston College, whose nine-part video series on YouTube, “The American Paradox,” is based on her recent book, How the South Won the Civil War.  (It’s always heartening when one encounters a younger historian who shares his sometimes weird ideas of what makes the historical world go round!)

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

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