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Author: OJ Early

War of 1812: Classroom Debate On The Causes

War of 1812: Classroom Debate On The Causes

The War of 1812 may not have been so just. At least that was the conclusion slightly more than half of my students at Walters State Community College reached.

As a historian and a college instructor, I frequently look for ways to do more than lecture in my courses. But I don’t want classroom activities simply for activities’ sake: I want my students to understand the complexities, the contingencies of history. So, here’s a look at how I ran one of my 55-minute courses, based on the help of a range of scholarly work and textbooks:

  • The causes of the War of 1812 were the subject for the day. So I gave a roughly 15 minute overview lecture. I displayed statements from the 1790s by James Madison declaring war unjust, yet it was Madison who became a war President. I noted some of the international conflicts brewing in the years before 1812. I explained how some legendary nineteenth-century politicians campaigned in 1810 on a war with the British. I also told the students how the congressional vote to go to war was incredibly close.
  • After that, I divided my class into three groups. I gave each group one of the key reasons for war. The reasons I chose: impressment, tensions with Native Americans, and the British Rule of 1756. I gave each group a paragraph or two that concisely explained each reason. I gave the groups 20 minutes to accomplish two things: discuss if their particular reason was a just enough reason to declare war and then vote, based solely on their reason, on whether or not war was justified.
  • The voting was extremely close. On impressment, the vote was 4-3 against war. As for tensions with Native Americans, the vote was 5-2 for war. And the Rule of 1756: 3-5 against war.
  • I put the vote totals on the board, and I invited students to voice their perspective. It was interesting, to say the least. I was probably most surprised that the group who had impressment didn’t find it a solid reason for war; their textbook reading emphasized impressment above all else. My students concluded that while impressment was unsatisfactory, a war shouldn’t happen given United States debt and the fact that the nation was still relatively new. Impressment, bad as it was, they said, wasn’t worth the risk of facing the British military.

Globalization and Vietnam: Examining Marc Levinson’s Compelling Work On Container Shipping

Globalization and Vietnam: Examining Marc Levinson’s Compelling Work On Container Shipping

Few historians question that globalization occurred in the late twentieth century. What caused this phenomenon, however, is far more controversial. Was it the steady growth of information technology? Or an intense search on the part of companies worldwide for low-wage labor? According to the journalist Marc Levinson, there is a more straightforward answer: the use of container shipping, beginning in the 1970s. Such an adoption by manufacturers dramatically cut transportation costs, thus permitting companies to establish genuinely global supply chains.

            Levinson writes with a seasoned reporter’s precision and narrative style. Yet that sometimes proves costly for the author, for he occasionally pens statements that sound a lot like technological determinism. “The logic of shipping freight in containers was so compelling,” he writes, “the cost savings so enormous, that the container took the world by storm” (276-77). Ironically, such conclusions belie the careful research Levinson clearly undertook for his project. Indeed, one of Levinson’s most salient points is to underscore the profound resistance to containerization. Mining a bevy of records, from periodicals to business documents, Levinson chronicles the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)—two of the most influential unions in the United States in the 1950s. These union members, Levinson shows, registered the great threat containerization presented. As early as 1956, automation was a deeply serious issue for the ILA. After a series of back-and-forth strikes, the Pan-Atlantic fleet agreed to a three-year contract that mandated that employers in New York would have the right to automate in return for protecting longshoremen’s incomes (163-4). Such disputes between employer and employee continued into the 1960s. As Levinson notes, “the longshore unions’ tenacious resistance to automation appeared to establish the principle that long-term workers deserved to be treated humanely” (190). For much of the rest of the US economy, however, that never really became the case. As one former ILWU secretary begrudgingly noted a decade later: “The union gave up more than it should have … it did not get all it was fundamentally entitled to” (191).

            As Levinson compellingly shows, resistance was not limited to union workers. In the 1950s, New York City mayor Robert Wagner Jr. rejected containerization as the road to modernization. For more than a decade—no doubt anxious to get dockworkers’ votes—the mayor funneled cash into dock maintenance (140-2). Tellingly, he did not do the same for container operations. Indeed, in 1955 Wagner declared pier reconstruction one of his main capital priorities. Through the late 1950s, thanks in part to Wagner’s leadership, port spending, as Levinson put it, “took on unprecedent proportions” (144). In 1957, for example, the city’s marine and aviation commissioner Vincent O’Connor envisioned $200 million in waterfront investment—as Levinson conveniently calculates, that amounts to nearly $2 billion in 2015 dollars (145).

Merging international history with the much-neglected field of business history allows Levinson to offer two compelling reasons to explain exactly how containerization finally “took the world by storm”: the Vietnam War and the risk-taking capitalist Malcolm McLean. Levinson paints McLean as possessing an incredible amount of entrepreneurial spirit. Bordering on the reckless, McLean was nevertheless able to realize “that the shipping industry’s business was moving cargo, not ships” (53). The Vietnam War pushed McLean toward commercial success. The U.S. Army, Levinson shows, turned to McLean’s Sea-Land Inc. to aid in the “logistical mess” of getting war materials to soldiers. Such an insight reflects a growing historiography, in which books such as James Sparrow’s Warfare State is a part, that military demands pushed the US economy forward.

Remembering The Rural Roots Of The New Deal

Remembering The Rural Roots Of The New Deal

Earlier this week, newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez outlined a Green New Deal, a sweeping plan that would ultimately shift the American economy on a path toward battling climate change. Her blueprint, championed by environmental groups, would mean the federal government would mobilize in ways unseen since World War II. Pundits have endlessly debated the merits of the proposal. And journalists have, of course, cited Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal as a basis for Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal.

Of particular interest to Ocasio-Cortez is agriculture. The report notes the importance of “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector” and “building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.” At this moment, what is perhaps worth noting is just how rural-focused FDR and many of his allies were. Historians have for decades suggested that the New Deal had deeper roots than Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933. One monograph does this better than any other: published in 2007, Sarah Phillips’ This Land, This Nation mixes political and environmental history to convincingly demonstrate the ways in which the Democratic Party of the 1920s began to envision using the expansive power of the government to uplift rural America. Such a conviction among influential members of the Left—as well as many of the farmers who cast ballots for Republican candidates before Roosevelt swept into power—began with the belief that the national economic collapse in the 1920s had origins in the farm depression. Indeed, as Roosevelt campaigned for the presidency in 1932, he spoke often about government-led distribution of electricity to the countryside and federally assisted rural development. As governor, Roosevelt argued for “a definite place for an intermediate type between the urban and the rural, namely, a rural-industrial group” (61). On this front, his words mostly matched the reality he sought: as governor, he pushed for lower rural taxes that also included moving the cost of school and road maintenance away from the local and to the state government.

Many scholars have dismissed such communication as reflective of Roosevelt’s “romantic attachment to the back-to-the-land movement” (61). Yet his rhetoric, paired with the programs he supported, suggests a genuine commitment to increased rural incomes, truths that demonstrate just how much agrarian thinking affected his economic worldview. Phillips’ work has gone on to inspire work on the New Deal, and one of her chief contentions—that scholars must look deeper into rural reform ideas in the 1920s to understand the realities of the New Deal in the 1930s—continues to resonate with historians. As she shows, even conservationists less radical than Roosevelt sensed the need to offer rural farmers a realistic chance at economic prosperity. Former Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot and engineer Morris Cooke, both of whom argued against federal ownership of the utility industry, nevertheless supported regulations to keep electrical rates low and pushed rural electrification (28-9).

The Long Struggle: Reviewing Select Works On The Civil Rights Movement

The Long Struggle: Reviewing Select Works On The Civil Rights Movement

To the extent that most Americans think about civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. no doubt remains stationed at the Lincoln Memorial. The figure of Lincoln towering behind him, King, whose memory scores of Americans celebrated only a few days ago, declared his vision for a color-blind America. Droves of history textbooks reinforce this narrative and, without explicitly noting it, highlight a “short” civil rights movement. Until the 1990s, scholars interested in the civil rights era focused on landmark political victories, including the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Historians in recent years, however, have complicated this image. In a 2005 essay, Jacquelyn Hall rightly critiqued the “short” civil rights narrative. Emphasizing “a more robust, more progressive and true story,” Hall calls for historians to embrace a “long civil rights movement” with roots deeper than Brown v. Board of Education and one that lasted beyond the political victories of the mid-1960s (Hall, The Long Civil Rights Movement, 1234). In other words, legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did not happen in a historical vacuum. National leaders such as King did not spring up in historical isolation. Rather, the civil rights movement featured scores of virtually unknown black and white Americans, and various forms of resistance began before the 1950s. Further, suffering among black communities, perpetuated in the name of white supremacy, certainly did not vanish with the passage of various civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Scholarship in recent years has effectively pushed the geographic boundaries of the civil rights movement, making plain that the fight for racial equality is not simply a story about the southern US. Just as important, historians writing over the last quarter century place tremendous emphasis on the critical role that war—especially World War II—played in driving civil rights in the US.

 Two important works published in the 1990s, John Dittmer’s Local People and Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, helped move the emphasis of civil rights history away from a national lens toward the local, as Dittmer’s title notes. Focusing on the story of Mississippi’s civil rights movement, Dittmer’s work details the ways in which throngs of white Mississippians fought bitterly to maintain white supremacy, and the black men and women who battled, sometimes to the death, to establish basic human rights for African Americans.

More than a dozen years before the national political battles of the 1960s, black World War II veterans sought to register to vote in 1946, two years after Smith v. Allwright, a Supreme Court decision that supposedly outlawed all-white primaries. Home from fighting in WWII, 21-year-old Medgar Wylie Evers led a group of fellow black veterans to vote in Decatur only to be turned away by “some 15 or 20 armed white men” (Dittmer, Local People, 2). In the face of intimidation and beatings, hundreds of black Mississippians ultimately cast ballots in the 1946 Democratic primary. As civil rights activism mounted in the decade following WWII, Dittmer makes plain that such efforts did not simply spring onto the scene in historical seclusion; instead, activists leaped from the shoulders of black resistance that started immediately after WWII. In some instances, the same activists who faced physical threats at courthouses in 1946 became leading figures in Mississippi by the 1950s. Indeed, it was Evers who became a state field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP.

 Arguably more than Dittmer, Payne makes clear that activists in the 1960s working in Mississippi relied heavily on networks of connections carved out by black activities stretching back to the 1940s. Payne also adds two other important insights: the ways in which many activists organized—adopting a bottom-up approach as opposed to top down—and the ways in which, as the title of Dittmer’s book conveys, “local people” played crucial roles in the movement. Consider the teachings and example set by Ella Baker, something of a behind-the-scenes organizer who criticized more charismatic leaders. Mary King, a white graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University who joined the civil rights struggle through the Young Women’s Christian Association, said this of Baker’s influence: “She taught me one of the most important lessons … There are many legitimate and effective avenues for social change and there is no single right way” (Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 3).

Historians active since the turn of the twenty-first century have continued to offer important correctives. Three lessons are especially evident. First, there were other important activists besides King working during the twentieth-century to advance racial equality. Second, the struggle for equality in the “second half” of US history is not just a southern story—it encompasses northern swaths of the US, as well as the world itself. Third, the hard-fought political victories of the early-to-mid 1960s did not trigger immediate positive changes in the lives of African Americans. As detailed in Timothy Tyson’s Radio Free Dixie, the North Carolina-born Robert F. Williams, a WWII veteran who in his youth observed unspeakable acts of physical and sexual violence performed by whites on black workers, Williams articulated a simple vision for African Americans: physically fight back. Suspended by the NAACP in the late 1950s for his proposed militancy, Williams went to Cuba where he broadcast his views in English on the program Radio Free Dixie.

Tyson also situates Williams in the global context of the Cold War, a conflict that both hindered and helped civil rights activists in the US. As members of the Communist press in the Soviet Union wrote openly about US hypocrisy on race issues, Williams understood how politically powerful it could be to expose to the world the baffling ironies of the US, a country committed through many of its written documents to freedom and equality. “Because of the international situation,” Williams declared, “the Federal Government does not want racial incidents to draw the attention of the world to the situation of the South” (Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, 104). In 2000, Mary L. Dudziak put America’s race problems in a world context. Presenting American government in the 1950s and 1960s as obsessed with their foreign image during the Cold War, a range of US policymakers and diplomats worked to present the US as making steady progress on race relations. To communicate this belief to legislators in Washington, John F. Kennedy asked Secretary of State Dean Rusk to speak to Congress ahead of a vote on civil rights legislation about the ways in which domestic race relations affected America’s global image.

Placing the story of civil rights back within a national lens, Thomas J. Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty stands as a powerful rebuke to those historians who claim that civil rights-related struggles happened only in the South. Consider that in 1958, parents in Harlem, New York, kept their kids home to protest segregated schools; in the same year, black parents and students boycotted schools in Long Branch, New Jersey and staged walkouts in Hempstead, New York (Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty, 167-169). Sugrue’s work is more than a criticism of racist northern whites and the historians who have ignored them; his scholarship likewise condemns local and state governments in northern states who pushed and enforced deeply racial laws.

Recent works has made plain that even after important political triumph in the 1960s, rural black southerners lacked virtually any personal economic security. As the activist Ezra Cunningham put it, “you can’t eat freedom” (de Jong, You Can’t Eat Freedom, 52). According to Greta de Jong, the battle for first-class citizenship, deeply wed to agricultural mechanization, raged on after the passage of 1960s civil rights legislation. In other words, the rural black antipoverty struggles that happened from the 1960s through the 1980s were intimately connected to earlier civil rights struggles—though hardly part of a single, unified movement. As de Jong makes plain, droves of African Americans from the 1960s forward determined to remain in the only geographic region they had ever lived—despite white conservative desires to see these workers leave the South after mechanization shriveled job opportunities in the former Confederacy. As such, these black residents kickstarted multiple initiatives. Consider that in 1966—two years after Freedom Summer and the passage of the Civil Rights Act—evicted sharecroppers took over an abandoned Air Force base in Mississippi. The sit-in drew national attention and sparked further interest in the condition of rural poor blacks in the South. After touring some of the nation’s most depressed rural areas in 1967, US Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman noted to President Lyndon B. Johnson that scores of black families in the South and North lived “in shocking poverty … it matches in some instances the worst I have seen in less developed countries around the world” (de Jong, You Can’t Eat Freedom, 52).

Scholarship published over the last quarter century has made plain that there were many other important protagonists besides King, critical as he was, in the “long” civil rights movement. Indeed, WWII veterans such as Evers and the grassroots-organizer Baker are among the many black activists who played important, if likely underappreciated by most Americans, roles in the civil rights struggle. Further, resistance to white supremacy and a push to usher in first-class citizenship started before Brown v. Board. The efforts of black WWII veterans to vote in the Deep South is but one example. Finally, there is without question no clear end point in the civil rights movement. As de Jong makes plain, efforts for economic sustainability in places such as Mississippi raged on after the mid-1960s.

A Tome Worth Reading: Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War

A Tome Worth Reading: Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War

In this post, contributing editor OJ Early reviews Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (New York: Random House, 2014).

At least since The New York Times and The Washington Post began publishing excerpts of The Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s, the American public learned harsh realities about its government and the Vietnam War: members of the executive branch had for years methodically lied to both the public and Congress. It is a time in United States History that still elicits great interest, and writers and film producers continue to draw parallels to our own time. Steven Spielberg’s 2017 movie, The Post, is but one recent example.

Fredrik Logevall’s lengthy but beautifully written Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam demonstrates, among other things, why so many powerbrokers repeatedly lied and how the U.S.—a country born out of an anti-colonial revolt against Britain—become so entangled in a foreign war to protect colonialism. For those who don’t care much about historography, the book offers lessons to ponder as scandals roil Washington and the US maintains a military presence in the Middle East. For scholars, Logevall’s work is an example of the fruits to be gleaned from transnational history. For all readers, the book presents deeply stimulating counterfactual questions.

To deal with the complexities of the Vietnam War, Logevall considers large swaths of the globe. He writes about politics and military action in France, Asia, the Soviet Union, and, of course, Vietnam. In so doing, Logevall argues for a striking amount of continuity, entrenched in a press-ahead approach, in US foreign policy. “Even if the odds for success were long, it was always safer, easier,” writes Logevall, “in domestic politics as well as geopolitical terms—to soldier on, to muddle through” (Logevall, Embers of War, 697).

Putting the Vietnam War in an international context allows Logevall to advance an insightful contention, one it seems historians who fail to employ transitional history could not make: what Logevall identifies as “the mantra of American administrations on Vietnam” (Logevall, Embers of War, 703). For Logevall, this is a foreign policy rooted in a look-forward-and-press-ahead mentality. As such, Logevall makes a compelling argument for continuity in American foreign policy for a more than fifteen-year span beginning in the late 1940s and lasting until President Lyndon Johnson halted at least some of the bombing in Vietnam in 1968. Indeed, when Secretary of State John F. Dulles declared in the summer of 1954 that “the important thing … is not to mourn the past but to … prevent the loss of northern Vietnam from leading to the extension of Communism,” he merely reflected a stance already prevalent in US politics (Logevall, Embers of War, 613).             

Exploring the Vietnam War in a transnational context, mining multinational sources, further allows Logevall to engage gripping counterfactual questions, a useful exercise in demonstrating the profound contingency of history. Consider, for example, what might have happened had Wilson in 1919 entertained the “wraithlike and penniless scribe” named, at the time, Nguyen Ai Quoc—the same person would become one of the most powerful revolutionaries of the twentieth century (Logevall, Embers of War, 3). Ponder, too, what might have occurred in the US and abroad if the French government had kept its hope-filled promises of infrastructure funding in Indochina. Finally, think how dramatically different world history might appear if John F. Kennedy, a keen observer of the international stage who visited Vietnam years before becoming president, had acted on his apparently strong personal belief that a conflict in Vietnam was unwinnable.