Sam Smith – This month marks the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War One, the biggest war that most Americans never think about.
I’m one of the exceptions for two reasons. The first is that I came to comprehend an aspect of the conflict that is generally ignored. World War One helped introduce a culture of modernity that so changed the power of institutions over the individual that the latter would become what Erich Fromm called homo mechanicus, “attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive.” Becoming, in fact, a part of the machinery — willing to kill or to die just to keep it running.
For example, with Auschwitz-like efficiency, over 6,000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Richard Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half the officers assigned to them. But the internal bureaucratic logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance during this period: six miles. No one in that war was a person anymore. The seeds of the Holocaust can thus be found in the trenches of World War I. It is no accident that Hitler and Lenin turned to the teachings of American technocratic apostle Frederick Winslow Taylor to carry out their evil or that the Nazis used IBM cards to help manage their death camps. Individuals had became no better than the bullets that killed them, just part of the expendable arsenal of the state.
The second reason I can’t forget the war is that, while it occurred long before my birth, it caused death to hang like a shroud over my family. My mother’s brother was killed by a shell as he he served as liaison between airplanes and the artillery – part of a three year period in which my grandfather also lost his wife and sister.
My uncle’s first cousin was an aviator with the famed Lafayette Escadrille who lost his life a few months earlier while on a scouting mission over German territory. According to one account, “It was almost a year later that the remains of his charred Spad were located about three kilometers south of Montdidier, with a lone grave close by, marked with broken pieces of the plane.”The Escadrille consisted of American pilots who joined the French Army to fight against the Germans before the US entered the war. In all, 65 American pilots died while in the Lafayette Escadrille and the Lafayette Flying Corps.
Another uncle whom I would never meet came back from the war and, according to one of his grandsons, never smiled again. He had been involved in moving dead bodies from the front. Suffering from what we would call post traumatic stress syndrome, he committed suicide ten years later.
Finally, one of my father’s brothers was lost near Lisbon while serving as an officer aboard Admiral William Halsey’s first command. The then Commander Halsey wrote my grandfather:
“Your son was in charge of the forecastle and with the men was busy all the way down the river securing things for sea. As we got to the entrance it was seen there was a large sea running, so we slowed barely to steerage way. We finally ordered all hands off the forecastle. Your son requested permission to stay and secure a hatch. As the safety of the vessel depended on this hatch being secured, permission was granted. . . Scarcely three minutes later a high white wall of water was seen bearing down on us. There was no time to yell more than ‘hold on’ when the sea hit us. When it cleared, even high up on the bridge where I was, I was gasping for breath from the effects of the water. Life buoys were let go and searchlights were turned on, but your son and young Arthur were never seen again.”
When history hits that close to home that often, it’s hard to ignore or forget
As I sat watching the excellent film, Lincoln, a couple of stories began creeping back into my mind, too close to what was on the screen to push away. They weren’t pretty stories, just real stories and one of them occurred during the exact period of the movie.
During the Civil War, my great great grandfather on my father’s side, Isaac Ogden, vainly argued with his young son Ludlow not to join the Confederates. Ludlow had lived in the south and was opposed to slavery but supported secession. He wrote his father, “I cannot in the hour of danger desert the friends of so many years” as he went off to join a Louisiana regiment and later the Texas Rangers. He was killed near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, while on a scouting expedition.
As it became clear that Ludlow was joining the South, his mother Sarah faced another fear: her younger son Morris – only 17 – might be drafted and end up in battle against his own brother. She arranged to have her own brother, a brigadier general in the Union Army, take Morris onto his staff. He survived the war but only barely, once escaping from a hotel moments before it was attacked by using a sheet as rope to reach his horse and once on a boat raided by Confederates thanks to his location being kept a secret by a young woman southern spy he had earlier befriended. My grandmother later wrote, “They shot and stabbed all the paymasters and Union men, but Morris, shivering in his berth, was untouched. Morris went again into the saloon. The girl was still sitting coolly at the piano surrounded by the bodies of the men who had been killed. . . He went quickly away. He said he never wanted to see her again.”
The Civil War not only divided a nation; it divided families.
The second story took place in the same months as those shown in the movie and might have even affected them if Lincoln had ever heard about it.
My mother’s mother, Charlotte, had come from a line of plantation-holders and slave owners. My grandmother’s father, Charles Moses Shepherd Jr., had been wounded at the battle of Shiloh and was taken prisoner at the end of the war by the Union Army.
After the war, Shepherd’s whereabouts become exceedingly murky, but it is clear that he ran into deep financial trouble and essentially abandoned his children to their maternal grandmother, Ruhama, who took them to Philadelphia to live with a relative. My grandmother Charlotte was less than two years old at the time. When one of Charlotte’s brothers died, Ruhama wrote her own son:
Mr. H telegraphed the sad news to Mr. Shepherd, very fully; Then I wrote to him on the day the darling was buried, & Lotty H. had written to him during his illness; but not a line has been rec[eive]d from him. Can he be sick, or maybe he is away. We don’t understand not hearing from him.
In 1871, his plantation, Golden Grove, was almost seized by the tax collector. In 1872, a court ruled against Shepherd in an indebtedness case. No news or funds reached Philadelphia. Nothing more is known of him until his death in 1876.
Charlotte’s brother Kenner was a wanderer and sometime railroad brakeman, his travels took him as far as western Montana. He was a seedy-looking heavy drinker described by one Louisiana acquaintance as a “mean bastard.”
After Charlotte married my grandfather, Kenner would periodically show up seeking money. According to my sister Meredith and her husband Chad, who looked into the matter:
“These visits, building upon memories of her father’s neglect and financial ineptitude, intensified [Charlotte’s] distrust of Shepherds, and are said to have upset her so much that her husband . . . eventually had to pay the man off to get rid of him. “
Kenner had been named after a side of the family that fared considerably better, at least for a while. According to one account:
William Kenner arrived at Cannes Brulees at the turn of the century.. . . . Kenner played an important role in organizing a company which received a franchise from the United States Congress to dig a large canal across New Orleans. The canal was never started, but Canal Street received its name from the aborted project.
Kenner bought a plantation and married Mary Minor, the 14 year old daughter of Stephen “Don Estavan” Minor who had served as Spanish governor of Mississippi, “swatted mosquitos and hacked through cane thickets” as he later helped Andrew Ellicott plot the 39th parallel across the top of Florida and owned a goodly chunk of Natchez. Mary Minor gave birth to four sons and then died at the age of 27.
Six years later a trusted partner of Kenner absconded with most of the assets of the business and three years after that, William Kenner died at the age of 47. The Kenner boys, all under 16, were rescued by a family friend, Creole lawyer Etienne Masareau. They went on to own three large plantations, roughly occupying the current town of Kenner.
The most unusual of the four was, Duncan Kenner, the brother of my great great grandfather. Kenner had become a major slaveowner and one of the South’s richest men, reputedly losing $20,000 in one card game. He also married a Creole.
After my mother’s death, I stumbled across a little known part of his story told in a book I found on one of her shelves, Retrospections of an Active Life, published in 1909, authored by John Bigelow, former Union envoy in Paris:
Kenner was a member of the Confederate Congress. He had long been satisfied that it was impossible to prosecute the war to a successful issue without a recognition of the Confederacy by at least one of the maritime powers of western Europe, into the ports of which the Southern States might carry their prizes, make repairs, and get supplies. He was also satisfied that they would never secure recognition or any substantial aid so long as the foundations of their projected new empire rested on slavery. He communicated these views to President Davis. The President asked what he had to propose in the premises. He said he wanted the President to authorize a special envoy to offer to the governments of England and France to put an end to slavery in the Confederacy if they would recognize the South as a sovereign power. The President consented to submit the suggestion to several of the leading members of the Congress, by some of whom it was roughly handled.
They protested that the emancipation of the slaves would ruin them, etc. Mr. Kenner told them that he and his family owned more slaves, probably, than all the other members of the Congress put together, and that he was asking no one to make sacrifices which he was not ready to make himself. The result of the consultations was that Kenner himself was sent abroad by President Davis, either with or without the confirmation of the Senate, with full powers to negotiate for recognition on the basis of emancipation. As soon as he received his commission he took a special train to Wilmington, North Carolina. On his arrival there he found either that the blockade was too strict, or that there was no suitable transportation available from that port, and returned at once to Richmond, determined to go by the way of the Potomac and New York. When he mentioned his purpose to Davis, “Why, :Kenner,” he exclaimed, “there is not a gambler in the country who won’t know you. You will certainly be captured.” Kenner had been one of the leading turfmen in the South for a generation. “I am not afraid of that,” said Kenner. “There is not a gambler who knows me who would betray me. I am going to New York.”
Being a very bald man, Kenner provided himself with a brown wig as his chief if not only disguise, and proceeded on his journey. By hook and by crook he finally reached New York and drove to the Metropolitan Hotel. Discovering that the waiters were colored, and that there were too many chances of some of them knowing him, also that ex-Senator Foote of Mississippi, who had deserted the Confederates, was residing at this hotel, he succeeded in getting a note to Mr. Hildreth, then managing the New York Hotel, and an old and trusty friend, asking that a certain room on the lower floor and north side of the hotel be made ready for him, and named the hour that he might be expected, adding that he could not sign the letter, but was a friend. At the time named he went to the hotel and directly to the room he had ordered. The fireman was preparing a fire. While at his work at the grate the door opened, and in walked Hildreth to see who his ‘friend,’ and new lodger might be. Upon recognizing Kenner, he exclaimed, “Good God!” He was checked from continuing by observing Kenner’s fingers on his lips.
They talked upon indifferent matters until the fireman left, and then Hildreth asked Kenner, what could have brought him to New York at such a time. “Do you know,” said he, “that it is as much as your life is worth to be found here?”
“I am going to sail in the English steamer on Saturday, ” said Kenner, and I wish to stay quietly with you until then. You can denounce me to the government if you choose, but I know you won’t.”
Kenner did not leave his room till he left it in a cab for the steamer. His meals were served in his room by Hildreth’s personal attendant. As soon as Kenner arrived in London he sought an interview with Palmerston, to whom he unfolded his mission. Palmerston said that his proposition could not be entertained without the concurrence of the Emperor of France.
“With the Emperor’s concurrence would you give us recognition?” asked Kenner.
“That,” replied Palmerston, “would be a subject for consideration when the case presents itself, and may depend upon circumstances which cannot be foreseen.” Kenner went to Paris and had an interview with the Emperor, who told him he would do whatever England was willing to do in the premises, and would do nothing without her.
Kenner then returned to Palmerston to report the Emperor’s answer. During his absence, the news of Sherman’s successful march through the South had reached London.
Palmerston’s answer to him was, “It is too late.”
Bigelow’s story is mostly confirmed, with some variation, by a fascinating recent book about a little known aspect of the Civil War, how Britain was, and wasn’t, involved. Armanda Foreman, in A World on Fire, describes how Jefferson Davis attempted to deal with the prospects of total defeat:
President Davis decided to make one last appeal to Britain. With nothing left to offer, and with no threat of blackmail or an Anglo-American war to dangle, Davis resorted to the previously unthinkable: he proposed to abolish slavery in return for recognition of Southern independence. On December 27, 1864, he asked Duncan F. Kenner, one of his few remaining allies in the Confederate Congress, to go to London to speak to Lord Palmerston.. .. Meanwhile, Davis arranged a secret meeting between Kenner and the Confederate congressional leaders, who reluctantly accepted that there was no alternative.
This was approximately one month after Sherman’s march on Georgia and even as the fierce debate in the Thirteenth Amendment, so amazingly pictured in “Lincoln,” was underway.
When Davis’s envoy, Duncan Kenner, reached New York on February 6 after a hazardous trek through the back roads of Virginia and Maryland, he discovered that the slavery issue had been taken out of his hands. On January 21, the U.S. House of Representatives had finally voted – by 119 to 56 – to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, thus abolishing slavery on American soil. … Kenner also learned that the two governments had engaged in halfhearted peace negotiations [also in the movie] on February 3 – known as the Hampton Roads Conference – which collapsed on the first day These were all good reasons for him to give up, but he was determined to see the mission through to completion. He boarded the Southampton-bound America on February 11, posing as a Frenchman in order to confuse the detectives standing guard at the pier. Kenner believed the fate of the Confederacy lay in his hands: Wilmington was gone, Charleston was tottering, and Richmond was surrounded. But if Lord Palmerston could be persuaded that there was no longer any moral impediment to Southern recognition, Kenner still had faith that the combination of Britain’s navy and Confederate courage would win independence for the South.”
Duncan Kenner arrived in England in February 24.
The battles of Petersburg and Appomattox took place March 25 to April 9 and the Civil War came to an end
Writes Foreman, “Even if Duncan Kenner had succeeded in obtaining Southern recognition from Palmerston in exchange for emancipation … it was too late for the Confederacy.”
Sam Smith, 2002
I have considered Pilgrims among the most overrated American historical figures ever since I wrote a college paper in Robert G. Albion’s class on forty recorded voyages to New England before the Mayflower. And that didn’t include all the ones made by those who didn’t – or didn’t know how – to write it down. About a decade before the Pilgrims, for example, Samuel Champlain not only visited Plymouth harbor, he charted it, including Plymouth Rock.
But history favors occupiers over explorers, hunters, fishermen, and traders. And the literate over the literate. If you want to be remembered here, you have to stay here. And write it down.
A wonderful history of Maine, “Lobster Coast,” also suggests that the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving dinner didn’t hold up all that well. That winter the Pilgrims were forced to go to get food from some of their pre-arriving countrymen manning a trading post on a Maine island.
The first Europeans to visit New England waters were probably Scandinavian fishermen, who could make the northern transit of the Atlantic and never be more than a few hundred miles from shore. John and Sebastian Cabot, five years after Columbus, passed through and charted Maine’s Casco Bay on their way from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas. By 1602, when Bartholomew Gosnold arrived at Cape Neddick, his presence was considered by the Indians to be less than remarkable. John Bereton, the chronicler of the voyage, wrote:
“One who seemed to be their commander wore a coat of black work, a pair of breeches, cloth stockings, shoes, hat and band. . . They spoke divers Christian words and seemed to understand more than we, for lack of language, could comprehend. . . They pronounced our language with great facility; for one of them sitting by me, upon occasion I spake smilingly to him with these words: ‘How now sirha are you so saucy with my tobacco,’ which words (without any further repetition) he suddenly spake so plaine and distinctly as if he had been a long scholar in the language.”
As far back as 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano, arriving to the west of Casco Bay near Ogunquit, got a reception from the Indians that suggested more than a little previous contact with Europeans or “the boat people” as the natives called them. The Indians insisted on standing on a cliff and trading with Verrazano’s crew by use of a rope. “We found no courtesy in them,” Verrazano complained. Worse they rounded out the transaction by “showing their buttocks and laughing immoderately.”
As for Robert G. Albion, who got your editor started on all of this, his course was considered a “gut” at Harvard, heavily attended by football players and other lightweights. While I fit the latter category, I also was an avid sailor and an admirer of Albion’s mentor, maritime historian Samuel Eliot Morrison. Much later, I realized another reason Albion didn’t get much credit at Harvard; he was, well ahead of his time, a social historian on a campus that believed deeply that history was the work of great men. Nonetheless, another student of Albion named his motor yacht the “Robert G. Albion,” making the professor probably the only Harvard professor ever to reach this pinnacle of honor.
Sam Smith 2006
Now that Frances Fukuyama has rediscovered history, the Nation Magazine’s Katrina Vanden Heuvel would like to put it to bed again. In the best tradition of the establishment’s view of “civil discourse” – i.e. avoiding the real issues – Vanden Heuvel suggested in the :Washington Post that we “stop equating our opponents with famous dictators, their chief executioners, police apparatus or ideologies. I’m all for learning from history, but times are hard enough in American politics – with war, threats to national security, the greatest divide between rich and poor in our history and deep cultural divisions. Present differences deserve to be described in contemporary terms. The purpose of public speech is not just to restate anger but to clarify the principles and evidence that fuel it — in ways that invite discussion, not inhibit it.”
Vanden Heuvel is dead wrong. The reason people get away with bad historical analogies is because we don’t discuss history enough. We are left with an assortment of myths, stereotypes, and trite metaphors. Our present state is in no small part the result of not understanding and discussing our past. For example:
Have we always been so publicly callous about torture before?
Why have we passed more laws in the past 30 years than we did in our first two hundred?
Whatever happened to the Tenth Amendment?
Have corporations always been granted the status of individuals in our society?
The list is endless, but let’s just consider the aspect of history that Vanden Heuvel doesn’t want us to mention: similarities between present day American politicians and politics and some unpleasant precedents.
Her examples remind us that people can make these analogies crudely, wrongly, or for nefarious purposes. But if Vanden Heuvel felt more at home with history she would realize that this is part of a great American tradition: putting up with a certain amount of nonsense in order to preserve our freedoms including that of speech.
But what if we ignore Vanden Heuvel’s advice and ask ourselves, for example: how close are we to Hitler’s Germany? What can we learn from even a cursory consideration of history?
In the first place, one needs to separate Hitler, Nazism and fascism. Conflating these leads the unwary to assume easily that all three are inevitably characterized by anti-Semitism, when in fact only the first two are. By avoiding this distinction we don’t have to face the fact that America is closer to fascism than it has ever been in its history.
To understand why, one needs to look not at Hitler but at the founder of fascism, Mussolini. What Mussolini founded was the estato corporativo – the corporative state or corporatism. Writing in Economic Affairs in the mid 1970s, R.E. Pahl and J. T. Winkler described corporatism as a system under which government guides privately owned businesses towards order, unity, nationalism and success. They were quite clear as to what this system amounted to: “Let us not mince words. Corporatism is fascism with a human face. . . An acceptable face of fascism, indeed, a masked version of it, because so far the more repugnant political and social aspects of the German and Italian regimes are absent or only present in diluted forms.”
Thus, although the model generally cited in defense of organized capitalism is that of the contemporary Japanese, the most effective original practitioners of a corporative economy were the Italians. Unlike today’s Japanese, but like contemporary America, their economy was a war economy.
Adrian Lyttelton, describing the rise of Italian fascism in The Seizure of Power, writes: “A good example of Mussolini’s new views is provided by his inaugural speech to the National Exports Institute on 8 July 1926. . . Industry was ordered to form ‘a common front’ in dealing with foreigners, to avoid ‘ruinous competition,’ and to eliminate inefficient enterprises. . . The values of competition were to be replaced by those of organization: Italian industry would be reshaped and modernized by the cartel and trust. . .There was a new philosophy here of state intervention for the technical modernization of the economy serving the ultimate political objectives of military strength and self-sufficiency; it was a return to the authoritarian and interventionist war economy.”
Lyttelton writes that “fascism can be viewed as a product of the transition from the market capitalism of the independent producer to the organized capitalism of the oligopoly.” It was a point that Orwell had noted when he described fascism as being but an extension of capitalism. Lyttelton quoted Nationalist theorist Affredo Rocco: “The Fascist economy is. . . an organized economy. It is organized by the producers themselves, under the supreme direction and control of the State.”
The Germans had their own word for it: wehrwirtschaft. It was not an entirely new idea there. As William Shirer points out in the Rise and the Fall of the Third Reich, 18th and 19th century Prussia had devoted some five-sevenths of its revenue on the Army and “that nation’s whole economy was always regarded as primarily an instrument not of the people’s welfare but of military policy.”
Has “civil discourse” been harmed by knowing the foregoing and the uncomfortable similarities it bears with what is happening to our country today?
Another more complex example is Adolph Hitler. On many grounds, the analogy does not serve us well:
Germany’s willingness to accept Hitler was the product of many cultural characteristics specific to that country, to the anger and frustrations in the wake of the World War I defeat, to extraordinary inflation and particular dumb reactions to it, and, of course, to the appeal of anti-Semitism. Still, consideration of the Weimar Republic that preceded Hitler does us no harm. Bearing in mind all the foregoing, there was also:
– A collapse of conventional liberal and conservative politics that bears uncomfortable similarities to what we are now experiencing.
– The gross mismanagement of the economy and of such key worker concerns as wages, inflation, pensions, layoffs, and rising property taxes. Many of the actions were taken in the name of efficiency, an improved economy and the “rationalization of production.” There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment. In other words, a hyped version of what America and its workers are experiencing today.
– The Nazis as the first modern political party. As University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Childers explains, the Nazis discovered the importance of campaigning not just during campaigns but between elections when the other parties folded their tents. With this “perpetual campaigning” they spread themselves like a virus, considering the public reaction to everything right down to the colors used for posters and rally backgrounds. Knowing this, one can not watch the manic manipulations of public moments by the Bush regime without a sense of déjà vu.
– The use of negative campaigning, a contribution to modern politics by Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi campaigns argued what was wrong with their opponents and ignored stating their own policies.
– The Nazis as the inventors of modern political propaganda. Every modern American political campaign and the types of arguments used to support them owes much to the ideas of the Nazis.
– The suddenness of the Nazi rise. The party went from less than 3% of the vote to being the largest party in the country in four years.
– The collapse of the country’s self image. Childers points out that Germany had had been a world leader in education, industry, science, and literacy. Much of the madness that we see today stems from attempts to compensate for our battered self-image.
So while many of the behaviors that would come to be associated with Nazis and Hitler – from physical attacks on political opponents to the death camps – seem far removed from our present concerns, there is still much to learn from their history.
We are clearly in a post-constitutional era; the end of the First American Republic. Depending on what day it is we think of its replacement variously – ranging from an adhocracy to proto-fascism. But one does not need to know the end of the story to know that we headed at a rapid pace away from the extraordinary principles of American democracy towards the dark hole of power with impunity, to the sort of world in which, as Rudolph Giuliani has calmly asserted, “freedom is about authority.”
If we describe present differences only in contemporary terms then we have nothing to guide us but what happened yesterday.
George Bush and his capos have capitalized on this disinterest in history to rewrite the Constitution and other things. He’s not the first.
For example, Article 48 of the constitution of the Weimar Republic stated, “In case public safety is seriously threatened or disturbed, the Reich President may take the measures necessary to reestablish law and order, if necessary using armed force. In the pursuit of this aim, he may suspend the civil rights described in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153, partially or entirely. The Reich President must inform the Reichstag immediately about all measures undertaken . . . The measures must be suspended immediately if the Reichstag so demands.”
It was this article that Hitler used to peacefully establish his dictatorship. And why was it so peaceful and easy? Because, according to Childers, the ‘democratic” Weimar Republic had already used it 57 times prior to Hitler’s ascendancy.
There are eerie similarities between Article 48 and George Bush’s approach. When you add to this the remarkable incompetence of the current regime, the collapse of both traditional liberal and conservative politics, and the economic crises, it feels like a new Weimar Republic setting the stage for awful things we can not at this point even imagine. It may be that history has something to tell us after all.