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, 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 19th century America, Christianity, Civil War, death, material culture, military, photographs, religion, rituals, violence

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Drew Gilpin Faust is a historian of the Civil War and the American South.  She is also the first female president of Harvard University.  Faust’s latest book, This Republic of Suffering, focuses on how the massive number of deaths that occurred during the Civil War (620,000) forever changed Americans’ understanding of death and their relationship with religion.  As Reverend John Sweet noted in his 1864 sermon that asked “What is Death?”: “There is not a household exempt from the universal lamentation which ascends from a grief stricken people.”[1]  The common belief in the “Good Death” was torn apart as thousands of loved ones faced violent deaths far away from home.  Faust compares letters written by dying soldiers to conclude that “[l]etters describing soldier’s last moments on Earth are so similar, it is as if their authors had a checklist in mind.”[2]  In addition to letters, Faust includes and analyzes political drawings and photographs that were published in newspapers and magazines, as well as literary works that grappled with the nation’s trauma.  Importantly, Faust shows the development of national responsibility for the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the ideals of the country.

Faust does an excellent job of showing how literate white Christian Americans and their families, Union and Confederate, were affected by the war and how the nation responded to their trauma.  African Americans were not completely overlooked, but free and enslaved people’s stories were not given the same nuanced attention as those of white soldiers.  American Indian soldier’s stories were not included at all.  Faust portrays a conservative white Christian understanding of what important factors contributed to the United States as a nation during and immediately following the Civil War.  Additionally, with Faust’s major focus on deciphering meaning from letters, tales from illiterate soldiers, of any color, were omitted.  Oral history did not appear to be an included research methodology.

[1] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 171.

[2] Ibid., 17.