Posted in 20th century America, atomic bombings, death, journal articles, Ku Klux Klan, military, religion, terrorism, violence

Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field

Gage, Beverly. “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field.” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73-94.

“Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field” by Beverly Gage, appeared in the Journal of American History in 2011.  Gage sets the foundation for her argument by presenting historian Richard Hofstadter’s call in 1970 for historians to “remedy their ‘inattention’ and construct a history of violence that would speak to the present and the past.”[1]  She explains how the historical profession stepped up to the challenged over the course of the next forty years by publishing numerous studies on “racial conflict, territorial massacres, gendered violence, empire, crime and punishment, and war and memory,” yet, even though terrorism dominates American political discourse, historians have not effectively confronted the issue.[2]

In the early part of her essay, Gage shows that “terrorism” is difficult to define, although she does claim that terrorism tends to be a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[3]  Throughout the essay, certain examples are repeatedly cited as terrorist acts, such as Klan lynchings and labor violence like the Haymarket riot.

She also discusses political violence and social movements, and historians’ hopes of developing a general theory of terrorism through studying groups such as The Weather Underground and the Irish Republican Army.  But most of all, Gage contends that these historians sought to underscore the “illegitimacy of terrorism as a means of social change, a violation of state sovereignty and moral norms.”[4]  These historians afforded the state exceptional status rather than holding the government to the same moral codes as individuals.

There are many challenges to distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence, including determining whether formal “states” can be terrorists.[5]  Most specialists agree that the term terrorism needs to be “restricted to nonstate actors—specifically, groups or individuals seeking to challenge existing governments.”[6]  One of the big issues, though, was that the government funded many of the studies, so there seems to be a conflict of interest.  Chomsky and others emphasized the large role the United States government played in exporting a “state-sponsored ‘culture of terrorism.’”[7]  Such actions should not be ignored.

Since 9/11, there has been a boom of studies focused on terrorism.  Yet a primary focus of these studies has been based on a “new terrorism” framework, which Gage connects to sociologist Mark Jurgensmeyer’s work.[8]  In this framework, violence is always motivated by religion.  Placing the focus on religious motivations, however, pushes politics out of the discussion.[9]  Isabelle Duyvesteyn states that emphasizing religion tends to obscure the political nature of terrorism.  She offers Timothy McVeigh as an example and remarks: “[he] may have purported to love Christ, but he certainly despised the federal government.”[10]

I view the atomic bombings of Japan as acts of terrorism, so clearly I do not side with historians who wish to exempt the state from such considerations.  Bombing cities that were heavily populated with civilians aimed to send a very strong message to Japan and the rest of the world and therefore fits Gage’s assessment of terrorism being a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[12]  I do not necessarily think that there is anything for me to gain by labeling President Truman or other government officials as terrorists; however, my approach is to view the evidence from a guilty perspective.  What I mean by this is that I tend to analyze evidence without trying to justify the bombings.

Duyvesteyn’s point about religion is well-taken, but I also feel like religion is not the only lens that can obscure the political nature of terrorism.  Blaming the bombings on the American government’s racist attitudes, as some historians have, also distorts the truth.

I have read two of Jurgensmeyer’s books and a number of books on lynchings, Timothy McVeigh, Waco, Ruby Ridge, abortion clinic bombings, and about museum exhibits and memorials dedicated to these and similar themes.  The most frustrating issue I have found is that few authors (and even fewer public exhibits) seem to address the role American leadership plays in evoking and advocating these acts of terror.  The narratives tend to focus on demonizing the actor without effectively evaluating all of the contributing societal factors.

In her final paragraph, Gage writes, “The historiography of terrorism with its uneasiness about terminology, its political uncertainties, and its fractured discussions, is still struggling to find the proper balance between these imperatives.”[13]  I am not attempting to reach any definite conclusions about the atomic bombings or the definition of terrorism, but I hope that my project might help others in the field think about the issues and relationships in more creative and objective ways.

[1] Beverly Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 78.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 82.

[9] Ibid., 91.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 93.

[12] Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” 74.

[13] Ibid., 94.

Posted in 20th century America, capitalism, Christianity, conservative politics, racism, religion

To Serve God and Wal-Mart : The Making of Christian Free Enterprise

Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart : The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Bethany Moreton’s, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise examines Wal-Mart’s role in making free market and evangelical values mainstream during its rise as the world’s largest public corporation and the nation’s biggest private employer. Moreton offers a critical appraisal for how “Wal-Mart Moms” became a key constituency in shaping national values and how they helped to shape a global economic order founded on “Christian service” and “family values.” The main focus of the book is not on Wal-mart’s international appeal, but rather, Moreton focuses on the cultural roots of the Wal-Mart way of doing business, whose central employee and customer is female and Christian. Moreton asserts on the first page that one in five American women shopped at Wal-mart every week. And even as early as 1995, The Christian Coalitian understood the link between “value shoppers” and “values voters”—they could be reached from the pulpit or in the Wal-mart stores.

Moreton shows how Sam Walton built his retail empire from its farmer-oriented Ozark base starting with his flagship store that opened in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. Walton tapped into the reservoir of cheap white female Ozark labor to begin his enterprise. Moreton claims that these women did not mind the low pay or lack of advancement because they were just looking to supplement their husband’s income and they appreciated the flexible work hours that enabled them to tend to their children. Work was like being with family and appealed to the female workers’ Christian values to create what the author calls “servant leaders.” Yet surprisingly, Moreton also explains that Walton and his wife fall outside of the demographic the book focuses on: “[N]either Walton could be described as evangelical, born-again, Pentecostal, or fundamentalist, let alone as Christian activists outside their mainstream denomination.” Helen Walton supported Planned Parenthood and legal access to abortion. Their Presbyterian congregation was considered to be conventionally liberal.

I found the most interesting part of the book to be Walton’s role in infusing the gospel of Christian free enterprise into university business curricula and Walton’s investments in college scholarships for Central Americans during the Reagan/Noriega era. To counter free college scholarships offered by communists in Central America, the Kissinger Commission suggested that Americans offer 10,000 of their own scholarships to help these youths embrace American capitalist values. The Waltons donated $3.6 million. They eventually helped to establish hundreds of scholarships to Christian universities in Arkansas. Recipients overwhelmingly majored in business (and were pressured to do so). Graduates would then return home to spread the religious and economic gospel.

This book relates to Suburban Warriors with common themes of white Christian conservative politics, the important role of females in the system, and the connections to the Reagan presidential era. However, the power structures illustrated in this book seem a bit different. For example, in Suburban Warriors, Estrid Kielsmeier is a woman from the suburbs who runs coffee klatches to gather support for Barry Goldwater’s election. She was an example of an ordinary woman who found a way to effect change in her community and the world at large through networking with other like-minded women. Sam Walton and his wife Helen also found powerful ways to effect change in their community and the world at large through building a financial empire. They too networked from the ground up until they developed the financial and symbolic capital to influence politics from the top.

Posted in 20th century America, Christianity, Civil Rights, conservative politics, gender studies, Ku Klux Klan, marginalization, racism, religion

Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right

McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Lisa McGirr’s book, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, is an interesting study of the grassroots conservatism that developed in Orange County, California beginning in the late 1950s.  The stories are both enlightening and disturbing as McGirr traces how this group learned to shift the conservative movement away from radical right-wing organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society to develop high levels of respectability for themselves—enough to successfully elect Ronald Regan to the Presidency in 1980.  The big turning point for these conservatives was Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat.  He lost support for opposing the 1964 Civil Rights’ Act and Social Security.  Another contributing factor was his campaign’s association with the John Birch Society.  Republican moderates were alarmed by Goldwater’s nomination acceptance speech where he stated, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”[1]  Following this defeat, but still concerned with “law and order” and “morality,” conservatives shed their extremist language to attract a more mainstream audience.[2]  The 1966 gubernatorial campaign for Reagan was their first real victory.

McGirr’s overriding question considers “how conservative political ideology, often considered an antimodern worldview, attracted a large number of people in the most technologically advanced and economically vibrant of American locales.”[3]  She shows that the Orange County  conservative movement embraced some aspects of modernity while rejecting others.  Right-wing evangelical Protestantism offered meaning through community and morality, and helped to ease fears of looming social upheaval (Communism, integration, birth control and abortion, to name a few).  It also embraced consumerism and entrepreneurial endeavors, which were key aspects of the technological economy that flourished in the region since the end of World War II.

McGirr’s resources included newspaper articles, interviews, sermons, magazines, poitical newsletters, McGuffey Readers, court proceedings transcripts, presidential election statistics, letters, ACLU papers, and the papers of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and other politicians discussed in the book.

This book connects with others on this site in a number of ways.  For example, Estrid Kielsmeier, a woman in the suburbs who ran coffee klatches to gather support for Barry Goldwater’s election, is an example of an ordinary woman who found a way to effect change in her community and the world at large.  She was part of a network of women who “organized study groups, opened ‘Freedom Forum’ bookstores, fill the rolls of the John Birch Society, entered school board races, and worked within the Republican Party, all in an urgent struggle to safeguard their particular vision of freedom and the American heritage.”[4]  And while I would not compare the integrity of the works of Estrid Kielsmeier to Ella Baker, both women worked hard for what they believed in.  “Baker was part of a powerful, yet invisible network of dynamic and influential African American women activists who sustained civil rights causes, and one another, across several generations.”[5]  And even though Baker’s primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom, she dedicated herself to making the entire world a better place for everyone.

[1] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 140-141.

[2] Ibid., 186.

[3] Ibid., 8.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 4.

Posted in 20th century America, African Americans, Civil Rights, gender studies, marginalization, racism, resistance, urban studies, violence

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Barbara Ransby outlines the focus of her biography, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement as follows:

Ella Baker played a pivotal role in the three most prominent black freedom organizations of her day: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; pronounced “snick”). She worked alongside some of the most prominent black male leaders of the twentieth century: W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, George Schuyler, Walter White, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael. However, Baker had contentious relationships with all these men and the organizations they headed, with the exception of SNCC during its first six years. For much of her career she functioned as an “outsider within.”

Yet, Baker did not work as a sole female activist, nor were her struggles confined to African American communities. “Baker was part of a powerful, yet invisible network of dynamic and influential African American women activists who sustained civil rights causes, and one another, across several generations.” And even though Baker’s primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom, she dedicated herself to making the entire world a better place for everyone. Ransby points out that Baker was involved in more than thirty major political campaigns and organizations, “addressing such issues as the war in Vietnam, Puerto Rican independence, South African apartheid, political repression, prison conditions, poverty, unequal education, and sexism.”

Ransby attempts to sum up Baker’s life and work at the end of the book. She notes Timothy Jenkin’s eulogy at a SNCC reunion in 2000 where he describes Baker as being the “mortar between the bricks.” But Ransby disagrees. She likens Baker to a patchwork quilt, noting that “like the quilting tradition itself, [Baker’s] life work was collective work.”
Ransby, who is also an activist, admits that she came upon Ella Baker’s story in her search for “political role models, not research subjects.” But Ransby refers to Baker as a “biographer’s nightmare.” Being a very private person, Baker left little personal correspondence that Ransby could assess. Her public voice and presence as documented in over thirty archival and manuscript collections of organizations and individuals across the country is what remains. Ransby incorporated numerous oral interviews into her research and even conducted a number of the interviews herself. In addition, Ransby consulted published books, theses and dissertations, newspapers, and a variety of other sources.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement connects with the themes of gender and racism explored in other books on this site. Baker defied gender restrictions of her time, not unlike Dorothea Lange. Both books address how these women fought for those less fortunate than themselves and how they changed as women and human beings as a result of their struggles.

Posted in 20th century America, assimilation, death, journal articles, Korean War, military, Native Americans, racism

Burying Sergeant Rice: Racial Justice and Native American Rights in the Truman Era

Kotlowski, Dean J. “Burying Sergeant Rice: Racial Justice and Native American Rights in the Truman Era.” Journal of American Studies 38, no. 2 (2004): 199-225.

In 1951, Sergeant First Class John Raymond Rice, an eleven-year veteran of the United States Army who had been killed in the Korean War, was refused burial in Sioux City, Iowa’s Memorial Park cemetery, because he was not white. The insult enraged many Americans, including President Harry S. Truman, who soon arranged for the soldier’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Kotlowski recounts the history of this event and notes three larger themes. First is the character of Truman, a President whose historical reputation has fluctuated over the years. Second, this event revelas how mid-twentieth-century liberals approached the issue of race. Kotlowski points out that Native Americans were often lumped together with African Americans’ fight for equality, whose leaders advocated integration into white society during the 1950s. Native Americans fought a different fight. And third, veterans and minorities were rightfully outraged when the Cold War mantra was for national unity. But again, Native Americans did not want to assimilate. They wanted to maintain their special rights, privileges, and institutions.

The Rice burial unfolded within the context of an evolving federal policy toward Native Americans. Kotlowski illuminated the postwar climate and federal programs meant to integrate disparate communities. He shed light on Truman’s affinity for Native Americans and also his disinterest in preserving them. Kotlowski also painted an intimate portrait of Rice, his community, and the bias against Native Americans, even in death.

Truman’s gesture was not politically motivated but generated out of moral outrage concerning racial prejudice against a soldier. (214) Kotlowski recounted a particularly vicious attack in 1946 against Isaac Woodard, a recently discharged African American sergeant, who had his eyes gouged out by a sheriff in South Carolina. Truman cited the Woodard attack when defending his decision to desegregate the armed services. (214) Many Americans applauded Truman’s gesture. Yet, it was interesting that non-assimilated Native Americans did not respond with the same enthusiasm. The government, including the President, continued to believe that Native Americans should not retain their unique, federally protected status.

Posted in 20th century America, commemoration, imperialism, journal articles, memorials, military, Vietnam War, WWII

War, Memory, and the Public Mediation of Affect: The National World War II Memorial and American Imperialism

Doss, Erika. “War, Memory, and the Public Mediation of Affect: The National World War II Memorial and American Imperialism.” Memory Studies 1, no. 2 (2008): 227-50.

Doss asserts that war memorials are flourishing around the country, especially those dedicated to the memory of WWII. In this article, she examines why people feel such a need to say thank you to those who fought over sixty years ago. Doss claims that “memorials embody a ‘cultural turn’ toward public feeling, toward affective modes of knowledge and comprehension.” (229) People want to experience history.

Importantly, Doss compares Alison Landsberg’s notion of “prosthetic memory” to Joan Scott’s understanding of experience. Landsberg claims that new forms of public cultural memory and mass technology enable anyone to personally experience the past, no matter how remote or distant or traumatic. Whereas, Scott contends that “discourses of experience are both illuminating and highly problematic.” (229) The people who have an experience understand it as authentic. But we must realize that these people are subjects who are constituted through experience. Memorials help to fabricate public subjectivity. Memorials are, to paraphrase Ann Cvektovich, “a public ‘archive of feelings’ which is encoded in their material forms, narrative content and ‘practices that surround their production and reception.’” (229) Doss points out that these affective experiences do not foreclose possibilites of social or personal transformation, but we need to understand “how and why (and which) feelings shape historical moments, concepts of citizenship, and understandings of self and national identity.” She argues that we need to understand how they work to mobilize and maintain contemporary American war memory.

WWII was always celebrated as the Great War and memorialization began almost immediately. Doss details many projects over the years, but focuses primarily on the WWII memorial on the National Mall. She discusses the many contributors and the design, noting its imperialist qualities. Doss contends that “the National World War II Memorial is not simply to say ‘thank you’ to the ‘greatest generation’, but to dramatically reconfi gure contemporary understandings of national purpose and identity. Its privileged location in America’s capital city helps promote its cause.” (240) Surprisingly, Doss shows that not everyone supported the building of this memorial. Some veterans thought that it ruined the Mall. (242) Other veterans felt like they were trying to erase the “dangerous memory” of the Vietnam War.

Doss ends by stating, “Framed by saying ‘thank you’ to the ‘greatest generation’, the National World War II Memorial is a blatant example of the manipulative dimensions of war memory.”