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American History

“Light at the End of the Tunnel”? The Vietnam War, the Credibility Gap, and the COVID-19 Crisis

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Wartime analogies abound in the fight against COVID-19. In the United States, the Surgeon General warned that the nation faced a “Pearl Harbor moment” and Donald Trump, who declared himself a “wartime president”, has invoked the Defense Production Act, a piece of Korean War era legislation which grants the federal government greater control of the economy. Plenty of analysts have commented on these analogies; they work better for some than for others.

But one of the most striking and perhaps overlooked evocations of wartime thus far were Trump’s statements and tweets in April claiming to see “LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL!” Trump was not alone in his use of this phrase. Bill Gates, Boris Johnson,[1] Dominic Raab, and Keir Starmer, to name a few, have recently made similar statements. But absent from much of the commentary on Trump’s use of the phrase, and almost certainly absent from his understanding of it, is that it is most closely associated with American hubris and defeat in the Vietnam War.

During the early years of the American war in Vietnam, U.S. government officials frequently employed the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” both publicly and privately to suggest that the United States was making slow, steady progress toward a successful resolution of the conflict or, for the less sanguine among them, that the government and the military at least needed to convince the American public that this was the case.

Yet by 1967, the U.S. had deployed over 400,000 troops and there was little indication of a resolution in sight. Although anti-war protests grew throughout the United States, public opinion polls indicated that many Americans continued to support the war effort, but they were not convinced that the United States was making progress and were not happy with President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the conflict. In the summer and autumn of 1967, Johnson’s team therefore launched a public relations offensive to sell the war and requested that top American civilian and military officials in Vietnam “search urgently for occasions to present sound evidence of progress” to the American people. Walt Rostow, Johnson’s National Security Advisor, suggested that the administration could employ “ways of guiding the press to show light at the end of the tunnel”.

Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation and once again used the phrase to convey progress, although when pressed on the matter, he refused to say how much of the tunnel remained to be traversed. The U.S. military commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, also returned to the U.S. to make several public appearances. On 21 November, he told an audience at the National Press Club that the war had reached a point “where the end begins to come into view”. A few days later, Westmoreland sent a cable to his deputy saying that he thought it was an appropriate time to “portray to the American people ‘some light at the end of the tunnel’”.[2]  Although there was skepticism among the American press corps in Vietnam about these pronouncements, the PR campaign did temporarily boost public support for the American war effort.

Then, in late January and early February 1968, came the Tet Offensive, the massive, coordinated North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front attacks on South Vietnam’s towns and cities, including an attack on the U.S. embassy in the heart of Saigon. The light at the end of the tunnel, some joked, had been an oncoming train. The prominent CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite speculated that the United States was now “mired in stalemate” and the fragile consensus within the Johnson administration fell apart. The offensive also shattered the progress narrative that Johnson’s team had tried to promote and the so-called “credibility gap”, between how the government presented the war and how the American media and public witnessed it, widened even further.

In late March, amidst plummeting public support, Johnson announced a partial bombing halt of North Vietnam, indicated his willingness to engage in negotiations, and announced that he would not stand for re-election. The light at the end of tunnel, if it had existed at all, rapidly receded and the war would grind on for another seven years.

It should perhaps come as little surprise that American political leaders are so quick to employ wartime analogies. As the late Marilyn Young argued, war is “the substance of American history”. Although the United States has not formally declared war on another nation since the 1940s, it has engaged in near permanent military conflict for the past 75 years.[3] War has also served as the dominant metaphor in major policy campaigns against poverty, drugs, cancer, and terrorism.

Of course, American political leaders usually consciously invoke such metaphors. What is remarkable about the recent usage of this phrase is the apparent ignorance of its historical baggage. While “light at the end of the tunnel” is an idiom with an etymology and application that extends beyond the Vietnam War, the expression is now freighted with irony due to its close association with that conflict.

More than a month has passed since Trump first promised “light at the end of the tunnel” but a conclusion to the crisis does not appear in sight. As the U.S. and U.K. governments prepare to lift some restrictions amid confused messaging and unclear evidence of progress, they are at risk of widening the “credibility gap” even further.

Simon Toner is a Lecturer in Modern American History at the University of Sheffield.

Cover image: Situation Room: Walt Rostow shows President Lyndon B. Johnson a model of the Khe Sanh area

[1] In a confusing twist on the metaphor at a 30 April press conference, Boris Johnson claimed the UK had “come through the peak. Or rather we’ve come under what could have been a vast peak, as though we’ve been going through some huge alpine tunnel. And we can now see the sunlight and pasture ahead of us.”

[2] Westmoreland is often thought to have used the phrase publicly, but I don’t think this was ever the case. However, his association with the phrase was fixed in the popular memory during a 1984 trial in which he sued CBS for libel. CBS had produced a documentary which claimed Westmoreland had misled the Johnson administration about the true strength of enemy forces in Vietnam in order to indicate progress in the war. During the trial, Westmoreland claimed never to have used the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel”. When a lawyer representing CBS showed him the above cable, he said that he had been optimistic, but he had not forecast the end of the war. The case was eventually settled out of court.

[3] Most American military engagements since 1945 have occurred under Congressional and/or UN resolutions authorizing the use of force following a presidential request, rather than formal declarations of war.

 

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“Confederate Heritage Month” and the Memory of the American Civil War

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The history of the American Civil War is very much about memory and, in recent years, the construction and contestation of this memory has played out on social media platforms like Twitter. While this presents an opportunity for those who wish to promote dangerous or inaccurate historical myths, Twitter also provides a platform for historians to challenge historical inaccuracies. For the past few years, I’ve used Twitter to challenge one iteration of such mythmaking: Confederate Heritage Month.

The end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the rise of the southern revisionist history of the war––the Lost Cause––created the conditions that permit Americans to wave both the U.S. flag and the Confederate States of America’s battle flag. The celebration of the latter—a physical representation of slavery and treason—allows some to treat former Confederates as heroes and not members of a failed slavers’ insurrection. One example of such celebrations is “Confederate Heritage Month”, typically marked every April by several former secessionist states.

Slavery, despite secessionist states claiming it as the cause for their rebellion, has largely been removed from the narrative of the rebellion in these celebrations. Instead of discussing slavery and treason, many champion “states’ rights” and the alleged battlefield prowess of Confederate generals. Indeed, the Lost Cause began a purposeful skewing of history by defeated Confederates to recast the Confederacy as having fought a noble fight for states’ rights. It is important to remember that secessionist states left the Union for the right to own slaves. The Lost Cause also makes Southerners into victims of Northern aggression––which is of course a lie. This skewed narrative ultimately downplays the fact that the U.S. military won key battles and eventually brought the rebellion to its metaphorical knees.

Memory of the Civil War affords opportunities to defeat the Lost Cause. As some communities remove Confederate statues––most emplaced during America’s Jim Crow period––as a military historian, it is important for me to take on the myth of Confederate military prowess. Statues to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, to name a few, present them as heroes, when in fact leaders such as these lost the pivotal battles to the U.S. Army and committed treason. Lee in particular is problematic as the aura of his supposed military genius is used to obscure his past as a brutal slave owner, who broke his oath to the United States to fight in the rebellion.

Confederate Heritage Month is a celebration of the American Civil War from deep within the Lost Cause. Since 1994, in former secessionist states––particularly Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and previously in Virginia––Confederate Heritage Month has celebrated those who fought for the Confederate States of America. State legislatures and leaders purposefully misconstrue the failed slavers’ rebellion as some glorious cause for freedom and states’ rights. In 2016, Mississippi celebrated that vile cause in April.

In 2016 after a conversation on Twitter, fellow historian B.J. Armstrong urged me to push back against Confederate Heritage Month by tweeting a Confederate defeat for each of April’s thirty days. As he accurately mentioned, there were plenty of defeats from which to choose. I accepted his challenge and what began as a simple, one-month only reminder that the Confederacy lost numerous battles, and ultimately the war, has now became a yearly ritual.

At this point I should note that I am an academically-trained historian of the Vietnam War. Yet, as a military historian, I take some joy is using battles to expose the myths surrounding the Confederacy. By spotlighting battles, I am able to demonstrate that the so-called Confederacy did not have better leadership, soldiers, or any lasting victory. Since 2016, I have dedicated myself to a yearly counter-celebration every April. I pair each day with a Confederate battlefield defeat. The first year I focused on Mississippi. I covered Georgia in 2017. In 2018, I changed things up by addressing how U.S. military installations are named after Confederates while listing a defeat. 2019 proved my most popular celebration as I paired Southerners who remained loyal to the United States with a Confederate military defeat.

The majority of the responses to my celebration are positive. Some fellow historians also now join in my challenging of the Lost Cause in April. Most of the negative responses, which are few, come from Neo-Confederates. Since Neo-Confederates are largely averse to academic responses to their feelings-as-arguments approach to understanding the Civil War, interactions with them are brief. In the end, although rife with sarcasm, I am producing educational content.

Tweets are a great way to deliver concise, accessible statement. And if, as Mississippi’s Republican Governor Tate Reeves recently proclaimed, Confederate Heritage Month is about learning lessons, then those lessons should include that the Confederacy led a traitorous rebellion against the United States, did so in the name of slavery, and was thoroughly defeated on the battlefield. The efforts of historians to correct the myths of the Confederacy remain far from over. Historians presented arguments against the existence of Confederate monuments in public spaces, resulting in the removal of some. Yet, Lost Cause symbols and rhetoric remain in the continued influence of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization and the continuance of Confederate Heritage Month in Mississippi.

Rob Thompson is a historian at the Army University Press. His book on pacification in the Vietnam War is forthcoming with Oklahoma University Press. He tweets at @DrRobThompson and his 2020 Confederate Heritage Month counter-celebration thread can be found here and you can find last year’s thread here.

Cover image: Lee Surrendered, Albany Journal, 10 Apr 1865.

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Reading Between the Lines: What Can Testimonies of Former Slaves Tell Us about their Relationships with their Former Mistresses?

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The testimonies of formerly enslaved women reveal a great deal about their experiences and relationships formed with their former white mistresses (a term used for female slaveholders in antebellum America). My SURE project, supervised by Rosie Knight, sought to compare the testimonies of formerly enslaved women in Virginia and South Carolina recorded in the WPA Slave Narratives Collection. Comparing these states reveal the varying factors that influenced slave-mistress relations, and the weight they held in doing so. These two regions contrasted greatly in a number of ways, including economic circumstances, slaveholding sizes and geographical disposition, which in turn influenced the relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses.

The WPA interviews have been a hotly debated source of testimony, providing valuable insight into the experiences of formerly enslaved people from their own perspectives, but also heavily influenced by the context of the 1930s. Many participants were suffering in poverty during the Great Depression, which may have influenced more nostalgic recollections of their childhood characterised by greater economic security.

Moreover, the ruling of Jim Crow may have meant participants were intimidated by their white interviewers, and indeed expressed reluctance to say too much or ‘the worse’, as one interviewee put it. In cases such as these, their silences may be the most revealing aspect of their testimonies. From analysing these interviews, three key themes come to the fore: violence, material well-being and religion. However, the nature and extent of the influence of such factors were subject to regional variations.

The violence experienced by enslaved women was heavily dictated by regional circumstances, and greatly influenced both the relationships formed and perceptions constructed of the mistress. Slaveholdings were generally smaller in Virginia than those in South Carolina, meaning mistresses themselves would often beat and whip slaves themselves, whereas in larger slaveholdings in South Carolina, overseers usually inflicted violence upon slaves.

The personal dimension of such violence played a key role in shaping how mistresses were remembered by slaves later in life. For example, Henrietta King (VA) recalled the brutal violence she experienced at the hands of her mistress for stealing a peppermint candy when she was a child, explaining: “See dis face? See dis mouf all twist over here so’s I can’t shet it? See dat eye? All raid, aint it? … Well, ole Missus made dis face dis way.” She went on to describe her former mistress as “a common dog.”[1]

In contrast, recollections of former slaves in South Carolina tend to recall their former mistresses as justified in their violence toward them, and appear less resentful, perhaps influenced by the relatively good material conditions and religious teachings they were provided. Victoria Adams, for example, recalled: “De massa and missus was good to me but sometime I was so bad they had to whip me.”[2]

The booming slave economy of South Carolina meant enslaved people often experienced better material conditions, and the larger size of slaveholdings meant enslaved people had greater opportunities to form stable family units and networks of kinship than in Virginia, where familial separation was common due to interstate slave-trading and the tendency for smaller slaveholdings. The better conditions in South Carolina may have led to less direct resistance, and thus less violence from their mistresses. Economic decline in Virginia meant slaves often lived in abhorrent living conditions and were provided little, if anything, to eat, which led to attempts to escape or steal food.

Such conditions shaped perceptions of former mistresses, as expressed by Henrietta King:  “In de house ole Missus was so stingymean dat she didn’t put enough on de table to feed a swaller.”[3] Such a testimony illustrates the ways in which the material conditions of slaves influenced their perceptions of their mistresses, both during their enslavement and retrospectively. Moreover, located further north, Virginia slaves were more likely to reach the free states, and so may have more readily engaged in direct resistance and efforts to escape.

In South Carolina, where conditions were better, interviewees tended to remember their former mistresses as domestic and motherly women. For example, Granny Cain described her mistress as “the best white woman I know of — just like a mother to me, wish I was with her now.”[4]

Viewing nostalgic recollections of slaves within the context of the Great Depression allows us to understand how interviewees may have recalled their experiences in slavery in survival terms, as a time in which they may have had greater economic security. Fear of bad-mouthing former slaveholders, again, may have also played a role in such recollections. Moreover, many interviewees were children during slavery, and so may have had greater experiences and less responsibilities than their mothers or older siblings would have experienced.

Religion also proved to be a significant survival strategy in the experiences of enslaved women, both providing comfort and, in some cases, strengthening connections with their slaveholders. In Virginia, enslaved people appear to have received religious instruction mainly via the church and with little input from their mistress, while in South Carolina, religion and its instruction played a key role in slave-mistress relations. This led to enslaved people associating their mistress with what she taught — as pious, good and even a saviour in some cases. Josephine Stewart, for example, described one of her former mistresses as “a perfect angel, if dere ever was one on dis red earth.”[5]

The relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses can therefore be seen as greatly influenced by regional and economic variations across slaveholdings. The most important influences included: the violence enslaved people were subjected to, especially if this was at the hands of the mistress; the material well-being of slaves; and religious instruction. The variation of testimonies across the South points to the value of a comparative framework, signifying how experiences of enslaved women were not the same across the region and cannot be generalised. Understanding the influence regional variations had upon the experiences of enslaved people and the relationships they formed with their mistresses not only enables us to place these testimonies and their experiences in historical context, but also helps us avoid making generalisations about a topic so sensitive and complex.

Lydia Thomas is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationships formed between enslaved women and their white female slaveholders. She focused on antebellum Virginia and South Carolina to explore how variations in regional circumstances, such as economy and slaveholding size, influenced the relationships formed and testimonies of formerly enslaved women.

Cover image: A close up of an old map of the USA, featuring Virginia and South Carolina. https://unsplash.com/photos/HA0Rgl-ISko [Accessed 24 March 2020].

[1] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Bardon and Robert K. Phillips (eds), Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville, 1976), p. 190

[2] Victoria Adams, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, pp. 10-11

[3] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, et al., Weevils in the Wheat, p. 190

[4] Granny Cain, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, p. 166

[5] Josephine Stewart, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.4, p. 152. It is important to reiterate the influence of the context on such testimonies — positive recollection may have been utilised as a means of avoiding conflict with interviewers; Mistresses also often utilised religious instruction as a form of manipulation and control, especially within the large slave-holdings of the low country, presenting themselves in a position of authority and as an agent in the salvation of the slaves

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There is No War on Christmas

(not so) Happy Holidays!

There is hardly a Christmas in memory upon which there wasn’t a war waged—or, at least, so it seems if one is tuned into American right-wing media. According to Bill O’Reilly in 2004, as a part of a plot to banish religion from the public sphere and bring forth a ‘brave new progressive world’, liberals were banning religious floats from parades and calling Christmas trees ‘holiday’ trees instead. Similar (but fewer) complaints have been made in the U.K.—say, about the use of the phrase “Winterval” instead of Christmas.  But fear not, dear reader. The great and powerful Trump has singlehandedly won the war on Christmas by making it acceptable to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again—a phrase which, according to Trump,  was never uttered publicly during the Obama years.

In reality, however, the so called ‘War on Christmas’ doesn’t exist. It never has.

Now, don’t get me wrong—there has been (what historian Stephen Nussbaum called) a battle for Christmas for centuries: a fight over how Christmas is celebrated. As Earl Count points out, December celebrations originate from pagan festivals (like Zagmuk and Saturnalia) which date back at least two thousand years before Jesus would have been born. And during the 300s, Constantine tried to Christianize these celebrations by declaring 25th December (the sun god Sol’s birthday) to be Jesus’ birthday. But it never really worked; people forgot the pagan origins sure, but throughout the middle ages (what came to be known as) Christmas was celebrated in mainly pagan ways: with drinking, feasting, and sex. It was so debaucherous, in fact, that the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas all together.

Now, thanks to people like Clement Clarke More, Charles Dickens, and Queen Victoria, Christmas did make a comeback in the early 1800s—but when it did, it was again as secular drunken celebration. Thanks to capitalism, however, it was quickly domesticated into a holiday about giving gifts to your children (and, later, to nearly everyone you know). And once it was popular again, Christianity renewed its efforts to ‘Christianize’ it.[1] But despite what we now call it, ‘Christmas’ has never been celebrated, primarily, as a religious holiday. Christians lost that battle.

Once Christmas was popular again, however, it was very useful for vilifying one’s enemies. In the 1920s, for example, the anti-Semite Henry Ford claimed that Jews were waging a war on Christmas in his anti-Semitic tract, ‘The International Jew.’ In 1959 it was the communists that were targeted. The right-wing conspiratorial John Birch Society claimed that ‘One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas.’ And in 1999, it was right-wing pundit (and founder of the hate group VDare.com) Peter Brimelow complaining about liberals using phrases like ‘Happy Holidays’ and government Christmas parties being called ‘A Celebration of Holiday Traditions.’ Of course, the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ is just a short way to reference all the holidays celebrated in December and January. It dates back to at least 1863, and was popular (and uncontroversial) in the ‘30s and ‘40s—especially after the song ‘Happy Holiday(s)appeared in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. But today, it’s use is viewed as ‘political correctness gone mad.’

The idea that there is a liberal war on Christmas really took flight in 2005 with the publication of John Gibson’s book The War On Christmas: How The Liberal Plot To Ban The Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought and with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly becoming obsessed with the idea that December—and (along with Fox News) remaining obsessed with it pretty much every December since. But, in reality, none of the events that they saw as ‘shots across the bow’ in this war actually occurred.  As I point out in the second chapter of my book The Myths that Stole Christmas, religious floats were not being systematically banned from parades. No school in Plano, Texas banned the colors red and green during Christmastime. [2] Ridgeway Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wisconsin didn’t change the lyrics to ‘Silent Night’ to eliminate all references to religion.[3]  And while it’s true that Democratic Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee didn’t call the tree in the Rhode Island Statehouse a ‘Christmas tree’ in 2011, neither did the Republican governor Donald Carcieri from 2003 to 2010…and yet Fox News never made a peep.

It’s true, of course, that Walmart once encouraged (but did not require) its greeters to say ‘Happy Holidays’ (instead of ‘Merry Christmas’) because not all their customers celebrate Christmas. And there have been a number of lawsuits in response to courthouses or other government entities (like schools) putting up lone nativity scenes or otherwise favoring Christian ways of celebrating. But such actions do not constitute a war on Christmas. They are simply efforts to be more inclusive, and (in the latter cases) to protect against violations of the separation of church and state enshrined in the constitution. But there has never, ever, been any effort to make the celebration of Christmas, or the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’, illegal.

This, of course, hasn’t stopped people from trying to capitalize on the idea that there has. Rick Perry cited it as part of ‘Obama’s war on Religion’ in a 2010 campaign ad. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich did something similar during the 2012 Republican campaign. And, of course, Donald Trump cited the ‘War on Christmas’ numerous times during his 2016 campaign. Indeed, he (and his family) have been taking a victory lap ever since (2017, 2018, 2019) by declaring that he ended the war by allowing everyone to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again. This is why, without any evidence at all, or any clarity about what he meant, Trump this year declared that liberals are now waging a war on Thanksgiving. Declaring that your political enemies are waging a war on things that are universally loved is just too useful for vilifying them.[4]

Before you fall for it, however, realize: in 2005, when he was raging about the liberal War on Christmas, Bill O’Reilly’s website was selling ‘holiday ornaments’ to hang on your ‘holiday tree’, and the Bush White House wished everyone a ‘Happy Holiday Season’ in their ‘holiday card.’ And today, despite all the rhetoric, Trump’s online store has a ‘holiday gift guide’, a ‘holiday collection’, and wishes people ‘Happy Holliday’s’ [sic], and avoids the term Christmas altogether. The same is true in Trump Tower, where the word ‘Christmas’ is nowhere to be found.

In reality, the only wars on Christmas that have ever been waged were waged by Christians, either to Christianize it (like Constantine) or shut it down (like the puritans). But just one look around this December will show that these wars were the most unsuccessful wars in all of history. [5] Not only is Christmas celebrated in mostly secular ways, but in our society (unlike in Trump Tower) Christmas is literally everywhere—taking over the calendar and our entire economy for over a month every year. If there was a war on Christmas…Christmas won.

David Kyle Johnson is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College (PA) and author of the book ‘The Myths that Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions that Hijacked that Holiday. His latest book, Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections, is available now. You can find him on Twitter @kyle8425

[1] By, for example, falsely declaring Jesus to be the ‘reason for the season’.

[2] Other towns where this supposedly happened include Saginaw Township, Michigan and Orlando, Florida. None of the stories are true. All the schools in question proved as much by posting their guidelines online.

[3] In reality, a church choir director had changed the lyrics to make them easier for children to learn.

[4] Indeed, the stories that circulate about the war on Christmas are part of a larger, absolutely false, ‘Christian victimization narrative’ that tries to paint Christians as a persecuted minority.

[5] And the only causalities were these poor birds.

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Can a single piece of material culture represent the American experience of the Great Depression?

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Exhibitions as a genre rely on representational history; they rely on an object or a constrained collection to represent a much larger set of ideas. Following my study of exhibitions on the Great Depression, I have at times been asked if there is a single object, person, image or event that might best represent the American experience of the Great Depression. The 90th anniversary of the Wall Street Crash, a key event in the onset of the Depression, seems a fitting occasion to once again reflect on this question. My answer is yes, but the object is not one that anyone expects and it is not one that I’ve ever actually found in an exhibition on the Great Depression.

When the National Museum of American History was being renovated (2006-2008) the Smithsonian Institution staged a ‘Treasures’ exhibition. Within that exhibition, the case on the Great Depression held Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, the radio mic from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘Fireside Chats’, and substitute currency made of shells. Certainly a strong argument could be made for either of the first two iconic objects taking on the mantle of THE Depression-era material/visual culture.

Radios have been a regular, almost omnipresent inclusion in the exhibitions on the Depression that I’ve analysed, and with good reason. Radios can be used to interpret a range of narratives for museum audiences.  For example, during the Great Depression, radio was the conduit for reassurances sought and offered through the ‘Fireside Chats’ and the soap operas alike. The popularity of shows such as Amos’n’Andy, in which stereotypical black characters were played by white actors in a form of audio blackface, provides insight into the racism inherent in American society at the time.  But within an exhibition a radio must be turned on or explained to fully convey its power. It lacks the silent gravitas of the FSA photographs.

So perhaps Lange’s Migrant Mother is a better choice. Certainly it is a recognizable, emotional Depression moment captured by a skilled artist, who, at the time, was employed by one of the largest federal relief efforts in history. Yet even Migrant Mother and the other FSA images come laden with the weight of decades of being repurposed, reframed, recut.

There is a strong argument that rather than adopting a single iconic object, it is better to embrace the juxtaposition found in the best exhibitions and the dialectic between objects: a photograph, a radio broadcast, a soup-kitchen kettle, plans from a New Deal housing project, a union badge, a Federal Theatre playbill, a copy of the Grapes of Wrath or Tobacco Road. All of these have been used in combination to great effect in various exhibitions on the era.  Yet, despite the fact that it is yet to appear in any exhibition I have visited, I believe there remains one potential object that more fully captures America during the Great Depression.

Conducting the research on museum exhibitions involved travelling from California to Michigan, to New York, to Washington D.C., to Seattle.  All these flights, bus rides and train trips in turn spawned numerous brief conversations with temporary travelling companions. The exchanges usually began with “What brings you to…?” Upon hearing mention of the Great Depression, a surprising number related that their grandmother, or uncle, or next-door-neighbor had lived through the Depression, and for years afterward kept an ever-growing ball of string. Small pieces were collected and preserved, with little concern to color or weave, as insurance against some ill-defined, ill-articulated future disaster.

As bad a crisis as the Great Depression proved to be, for the majority of Americans, it did not result homelessness, or breadlines, or a job with WPA. But it did entail a pervasive sense  of uncertainty and vulnerability and a fear that one could be next. Even as the crisis seemed to ebb, there was a fear that the effects could spread further and devour those homes, those workplaces, as yet untouched. These balls of twine, hidden in kitchen pantries and workbench drawers are the material culture of the lasting effects of uncertainly, of fear, of exposure to risk and of attempts, however small, to mitigate that exposure.  As such, even more than the radio, or the FSA images or a hundred other powerful objects, these are quintessential objects of the American experience of the Great Depression.

Dr Meighen Katz’s research interests include urban history, architectural conservation, built heritage, transgressive women & visual culture.  Currently a Heritage Assessments Advisor for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, she formerly served as the Ian Potter Museum of Art Grimwade Curator, and lectured at several universities in Melbourne, Australia. Her book, Narratives of Vulnerability in Museums (Routledge) was published in 2019.

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Party Politics, Realignment and Brexit: Can the American Civil War Teach us Anything?

Andrew Heath Blog

A recurring historical analogy in discussions of Brexit over the past few months has been the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel’s decision to back repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. In lowering the price of grain, he split his party: an eventuality that Jacob Rees Mogg, among others, has warned Theresa May to avoid. At the very same moment Peel was driving a wedge through the Tories, though, another telling comparison to our present condition was taking shape across the Atlantic, where the future of U.S. land annexed from Mexico brought the question of slavery to the fore of electoral politics, and eventually led to the Civil War of 1861-65.

Like Europe, the ‘slavery question’ in the United States provides a case in point as to how the most divisive of issues can be shielded from party politics, yet how, with remarkable suddenness, they can come to occupy the centre of political debate.

To see battles over slavery and Europe as historical equivalents, of course, would be deeply problematic. Whatever the stakes in the current crisis the human toll pales into insignificance when set against the fate of the four million black southerners forcibly held as property across the US South. But the political dynamics, at least, bear some striking similarities.

Prior to 1846, slavery, much like the Europe question before the referendum, stood on the margins of American party politics. Despite the herculean efforts of black and white abolitionists to make it the great issue of the day, neither of the major political parties had any interest in challenging the status quo. Both the Whigs and the Democrats, after all, had been vying for votes from nearly all-white electorates in the North and South ever since the heyday of so-called ‘Jacksonian Democracy’ in the 1830s. To mobilise around either the expansion or extirpation of slavery would have alienated citizens in one section or the other.

Politicians for sure often had strong feelings about the enslavement of black southerners, and would say as much in their own states, but when it came to fighting national elections the parties were non-committal at best. It was a stance that all but guaranteed slavery’s perpetuation. No wonder many abolitionists saw party politics as a dead end.

Slavery, like Europe in British politics then, divided the parties internally prior to the 1850s, but did not automatically produce what political scientists refer to as a ‘realignment’. Attempts to turn American politics into a battle between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces initially failed as the third parties of abolitionists and their southern critics flickered into life before quickly burning out… In a distorted way, such endeavours resemble the efforts of organizations like UKIP, insofar as they placed pressure on the major parties without forcing a redrawing of party lines. The survival of the Second Party System, as it was known, depended on silencing slavery as a subject of debate. When, from roughly the mid-1850s onwards, that no longer proved possible, the political landscape quickly changed beyond recognition. Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 as the figurehead of a new, antislavery Republican Party underscored the transformation. Within a few months southern whites formed their breakaway slaveholding republic.

To understand the roots of the American Civil War we, therefore, need to explain that party realignment. How did slavery move from the margins of American party politics to become its central divide? In the simplest terms, historians have tended to fall into one of two camps to answer that question: ‘fundamentalists’, who see slavery slowly but surely undermining the foundations of the Second Party System, and the ‘revisionists,’ who blame either blundering politicians or political dynamics for the collapse.

The latter often hone in on the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: legislation that opened new territory to slaveholders and prompted the formation of the Republican Party. At first glance, a brazen attempt to extend slavery, the measure, on closer scrutiny, can be seen as a ploy on the part of the northern Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas to resolve a political impasse in his party.[1]

Eager to secure southern Democrats’ support for a transcontinental railroad from his home state of Illinois, he offered slaveholders the sop of new territory, while reasoning that soil and climate would prevent them from migrating in sufficient numbers to seize it. By making slavery extension a question for white voters in territories to determine themselves, Douglas believed the divisive issue could be depoliticized at the national level. The result was precisely the opposite: guerrilla warfare soon broke out in ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and within a few years electoral politics was pitting North v. South.

When it comes to the Civil War, I lean more towards the fundamentalist line. But if such categories were transposed to Brexit I’d be more inclined to revisionism. The Europe question has simmered in British politics since the 1970s, and has divided both major parties, but it required miscalculations on part of clever politicians to bring it to a raging boil. For Stephen Douglas and the Kansas Nebraska Act in 2016 read David Cameron and the referendum of 2016. Both were seemingly clever manoeuvres to resolve internal party conflict that had unforeseen consequences. The political fallout of Brexit, though, is harder to discern.

Even amid the current chaos, the national parties most united on Europe – UKIP, the Greens, and the Liberal Democrats – languish in the polls. No realignment has remade British politics into a struggle between pro- and anti-European parties, and for now at least, the old party lines just about hold. But will that be the case over the next few months? Once slavery did become the major issue in American politics between 1846 and 1854, it quickly tore apart the established parties. Nothing short of a revolutionary war could resolve it. That eventuality may be improbable here, but the party system we have grown up with may not long endure.

Andrew Heath is a lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, where he teaches a third-year special subject on the origins of the American Civil War. His book, In Union There Is Strength: Philadelphia in the Age of Urban Consolidation, will be published by University of Pennsylvania Press in February.

[1] Though ‘fundamentalists’ would quite rightly point out that Douglass was responding to pressure from his southern slaveholding colleagues in the Democratic Party.

 

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