Tag Archives: American history

For Those Who Forget

tax-the-tea“But until 1950, when our ramshackle world empire was institutionalized as the national security state, we were improving ourselves, and the generality took part in government while Opinion was not so cynically and totally manipulated as now. Since we cannot pay for the empire any longer, we shall soon be coming home–but to what?” -Gore Vidal, 1992

“The ‘just war’ liberal Left made plain that it did not want to hear from ‘excuseniks.’ This coinage, rehabilitating the Cold War rhetoric about Soviet Russia, suggests that those who seek to understand how the global map arrived at this juncture through asking how, in part, the United States has contributed to the making of this map, are themselves, through the style of their inquiry, and the shape of their questions, complicitous with an assumed enemy.” -Judith Butler, 2004


-1992-

Francis Fukuyama wrote that the end of the Cold War signaled the “end of history” in his book The End of History and the Last Man. His argument was not that history would stop after the Cold War, but was instead an effort to draw a universal historical narrative, a “directional history” that, for Fukuyama, was driven by a “logic of a progressive modern natural science” which “predisposes human societies toward capitalism only to the extent that men can see their own economic self-interest clearly” (108). This logic, according to Fukuyama, creates a historical narrative of “progress” toward liberal democracy in which everyone can easily participate in capitalism. The rest of history, in this master narrative, would involve the “transformation” of all Second and Third World nations into Western-style liberal democracies. Note that Fukuyama seems to think that the experiences of those countries’ transformations do not count as history.

The same year, the polemicist Gore Vidal published a speech he delivered to the National Press Club in The Nation, titled “Time for a People’s Convention.” Vidal’s argument–that the empire is coming home–is effectively the opposite of Fukuyama’s. Both men watched the collapse of the USSR from their homes in the US and arrived at different conclusions. But they both agreed that the event was momentous, that is said more about America than Soviet Russia, that it was ultimately part of a longer historical process. The end of history, or the end of the empire. Meanwhile, America ran victory laps through Iraq and Bosnia.

A third American historian, Howard Zinn, wrote on the aftermath of the Cold War three years later in a new edition of A People’s History of the United States. In the afterward, titled “On the Clinton Presidency,” Zinn critiques the way Clinton sought to resolve the aftermath of the Cold War, arguing that that a “concern for ‘stability’ over morality seemed to motivate the Clinton administration in its relations with Russia. It insisted on on firm support for the regime of Boris Yeltsin” despite the new Russian leader’s invasion and occupation of neighboring territories such as Chechnya (631).

For Zinn, an attention to ‘morality’ would amount to supporting “the rights of working people, here and abroad” (631), which Clinton neglected in favor of corporate interests. The Clinton/Yeltsin consensus brought to fruition Fukuyama’s prediction that liberal democracy (configured as more participation in capitalism) would spread, but as Zinn and Vidal both recognized, this “spread” was a result of Clinton’s opportunism with Yeltsin rather than the natural alignment of the Eastern Bloc with the US. Zinn saw the end of the Cold War was a lost opportunity, a predictable turn back toward Cold War priorities.

-2005-

One of my most distinct memories from childhood in the twenty-first century was all the propaganda, though this word was not available to me then. In my seventh grade social studies class, our teacher had us learn about the Middle East by “playing Arabia.” He had us divide into small groups to represent “Bedouin caravans,” and then to learn about the culture, we “started fatwa”s against each other’s groups.

The narrative we received in seventh grade social studies reflects Edward Said’s assessment that in the twentieth century West, “Islam, if it is ‘Islam’ that is being studied, is not an interlocutor but in a sense a commodity” (150). In this way we were made to believe that the Middle East was an abstract object and that Islam indefinably encompassed everything between Europe and China, between Russia and central Africa. I didn’t understand the war, but I was taught to be afraid of the places we sent the troops, and by extension to worship the troops as an abstraction, an object even. And then yellow “Support the Troops” stickers appeared everywhere. And then the TV shows all made at least one preachy 9/11 episode, from The West Wing to The Sopranos. And then the military started paying the NFL to do stunts at games. And then we started arguing about flag pins.

Judith Butler begins her collection of post-9/11 essays, Precarious Life, with a critique of liberals who wholeheartedly supported military action against in Afghanistan, even if they critiqued the later invasion of Iraq. This critique provides a historically-minded framework for what I grew up with: A reiteration of the Cold War consensus that pitted the US against a distant but fast-encroaching enemy, with calls for unquestioning unity.

The 1960 debate between Nixon and Kennedy exemplifies that consensus. At one point, someone asked Kennedy “just how serious a threat to our national security are these Communist subversive activities in the United States today?” to which Kennedy responded, “I think if the United States is maintaining a strong society here in the United States, I think that we can meet any internal threat. The major threat is external and will continue.” When asked to comment on his opponent’s response, Nixon began by saying, “I agree with Senator Kennedy’s appraisal generally in this respect.” Both men agreed that the threat was mostly external and that a strong internal state would help defeat that threat. This rhetorical move portrayed the threat as unified and the US as in need of unification, such that a protagonistic US is vulnerable while an antagonistic enemy, the Eastern Bloc, takes advantage of that vulnerability. But Kennedy and Nixon could not admit to such vulnerability. It was necessary to be the victim of a crime, of insidious espionage and conspiracy.

Likewise, the consensus in the 2000s was that the US had been the victim of a grave injustice, a terrorist attack, thus giving us permission to defend ourselves and our interests. The looming feature of my childhood and my generation is what Butler calls “our wounding,” which has shaped policy, culture, and literature. She observes that Americans “have to shore up the first-person point of view, and preclude from the telling accounts that might involve a decentering of the narrative ‘I’ within the international political domain. . . This decentering is precisely what we seek to rectify through a recentering. A narrative form emerges to compensate for the enormous narcissistic wound opened up by the public display of our physical vulnerability” (Butler 6-7).

Butler’s analysis here can be applied to the Nixon/Kennedy consensus that exemplified Cold War politics. To compensate for the vulnerability used as an excuse to interfere with world politics, the US must narrate itself into the center of the story. This comes down to how US history is told. By cutting out backstory, by cutting out context, the US becomes a justified vigilante on the world stage. By beginning with injustice rather than the years and decades before, historical narrative becomes a tool of empire.

Zinn also reaches for this use of history inadvertently when he writes that his “point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims” (10). Imagine, in other words, the implications of telling the story of the Civil War by starting with Sherman’s March. Imagine starting the story of Texas with the battle of the Alamo. Imagine explaining the Vietnam War by starting with the Gulf of Tonkin, or the American Revolution by starting with the Boston Massacre, or the Taliban without the CIA’s Operation Cyclone.

The narrative form that US history too often takes is a detective novel: The story begins with a crime, and will only end when the bad guys are arrested, but before the trial proceeds. The investigation, not the law, is what matters, and with investigation comes weaponry, expenditures, interrogations, false alarms.

-2010-

Gore Vidal reproduced this same narrative form in his writing. What sets his 1992 speech apart was its attention to what would finally happen after the long crime drama of the Cold War finally came to an end. Unlike Fukuyama, Vidal expected an end to the Kennedy/Nixon consensus and the “ramshackle empire” they helped create. His question is pertinent: What exactly will come after?

Vidal and Zinn both predicted massive protests against the system, but Vidal was more specific, writing “that we shall begin to see an organized resistance to so tyrannical a state” (Vidal 348), and proposed in 1992, as he had before the election of 1980, that “Article Five of the Constitution describes two methods whereby it may be amended or otherwise altered. . . The second procedure is very interesting indeed–in fact, one might almost call it democratic.” In his speech before the Press Club, Vidal called for a constitutional convention, writing that “Unlike us, the founders did not worship their handiwork. . . Thomas Jefferson wanted to hold a constitutional convention at least once a generation because, as he said, you cannot expect a man to wear a boy’s jacket” (348-349).

This method of changing the Constitution never came up in my high school AP Government and Economics class, which I took the same year that men dressed in colonial outfits and stood in the snow holding signs reading “Tea Party” and “Taxed Enough Already.” Instead, the classroom quickly became a space to openly fight the culture wars of the time. Unlike earlier classrooms, we were told to use the historical narrative we received. This narrative of America had internal mechanisms, and here we had a chance to tinker with them, as Vidal had done in his writing.

But we didn’t. We never talked seriously about economics or justice. Instead, we argued about things like whether or not America is a Christian nation. In fact, I began this post series with that very debate, when President John Adams declared that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” while numerous state legislatures simultaneously passed laws discriminating against Jews, atheists, and sometimes Catholics. In high school, we never talked about exceptions to the rule because we spent so much time trying to agree upon what the rules themselves were. By then, the Cold War had thoroughly been replaced with a War on Terror. The empire was not coming home after all. The Obama/McCain consensus had determined as much.

I admire Vidal’s continued call for a constitutional convention during his career, but it surprises me that he seems to have put so much confidence in the potential impact of such a convention. Here, Charles Beard continues to be useful for his observation, along with so many others, that “The Constitution was essentially an economic document based upon the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to the government and morally beyond the reach of the popular majorities” (Beard 13). Vidal would have been wise to remember this fact. I’m often surprised by its absence in his constitutional diagnosis.

Vidal favored, or perhaps feared, “the fury of those who have been deprived for too long of decent lives. It takes no unusual power of prophecy to remark they will not be apathetic forever” (Vidal 350). It is worrying to consider a constitutional convention as a means of appeasement rather than something close to Howard Zinn’s conceptualization of morality, as a collective movement made up of those “who have been deprived for too long of decent lives” in dialogue with similar movements across history.

A long memory, a historical consciousness, means recognizing that the propaganda that dominated my childhood is not unique. It is an evolved sequel to the propaganda my parents grew up with during the Cold War, which can be tied to the wartime propaganda of the First World War. While Zinn had his limits, what I admire most in him and his work is the longevity of the connective threads he seeks to narrate, which begins to decenter America and instead highlight the different communities that are part of the empire, by choice or by force. He (perhaps incidentally) encourages Americans to think long-term, to actively remember that we, our conflicts, do not come from a vacuum. If the empire is not coming home anytime soon, the least we can do, to use Butler’s analysis, is more actively decenter the narrative ‘I’ and begin working on a history of the empire that stretches before, around, and beyond its ever-narrowing scope.


Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. Verso, 2006.

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. Free Press books, 1992

Said, Edward. Covering Islam. Vintage Books, 1997.

Vidal, Gore. The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000. Vintage International, 2002.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial, 1995.

Findings, Purpose, and Apology

Plumbbob Los Alamos National Laboratory Archives

View of Atomic Test During Operation Plumbbob, Courtesy of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Archives

“The fear and inability to question authority that ultimately killed rural communities in Utah during atmospheric testing of atomic weapons was the same fear I saw being held in my mother’s body. Sheep. Dead sheep. The evidence is buried.” -Terry Tempest Williams, 1991


On October 5, 1990, President Bush signed into law the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA. According to Section 2 of the bill, Congress finds that “fallout emitted during the Government’s above-ground nuclear tests in Nevada exposed individuals who lived in the downwind affected area in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona to radiation that is presumed to have generated an excess of cancers among these individuals.”

During the 1950s and 1960s, as the United States military conducted nuclear tests in the Nevada desert, northeastward winds swept radioactive fallout into the mountain West, carrying fallout over the Southwest. The federal government spent decades telling citizens that the tests were harmless. First, sheep and cattle died, and soon people showed signs of radiation-related sickness. And the illness took its toll.

During the 1980s, there had been numerous efforts to introduce legislation such as RECA, but these efforts never made it through committee, in addition to several legal battles. Irene Allen v. United States, for instance, was an initial victory for downwinders in 1984, when District Judge Bruce Jenkins of Utah ruled in favor of ten plaintiffs, though the case initially “represented 1,200 individuals who were deceased or living victims of leukemia, cancer, or other radiation-caused illnesses” (Utah Historical Quarterly). Unfortunately, when the federal government appealed in 1986, the Tenth Circuit Court reversed the decision, and the Supreme Court refused to take the case in 1988. A year later, as the Cold War began to wind down and the USSR faced greater scrutiny for its mishandling of the Chernobyl disaster, Congress began debating compensatory legislation.

The version of RECA that landed on Bush’s desk in 1990 was introduced a year earlier by Congressman Wayne Owens, who briefly represented Utah’s 2nd congressional district. Owens, a member of the Latter-Day Saints, was born in Panguitch, UT, directly in the downwind path of radioactive fallout from Nevada’s testing sites. Owens became one of the last environmentalists to represent Utah, and was a dedicated advocate for those who lived in radioactive fallout zones northeast of the Nevada testing sites, people known colloquially as downwinders. RECA Covered Areas

RECA-covered areas, according to the United States Department of Justice.

Representative Owens himself was not in southern Utah during the peak years of atomic testing. During the infamous Operation Plumbbob in 1957, which included 29 atomic detonations in Nevada, Owens was serving his Mission for the LDS Church in France, fulfilling the expectation that all Mormon men spend two years as a missionary. His time abroad may have spared him the radioactive exposure that many of his constituents would gradually begin to suffer from.

Among those constituents was Terry Tempest Williams, who writes about her memories of growing up in southern Utah during the atomic tests of the 1950s and ’60s. Her essay “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” is a poignant family narrative, reflecting on the renowned health of Utah’s Mormon families who grew up avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco, and the outlying frequency of cancer in her own family, which she connects directly to growing up downwind of atomic tests, including Operation Plumbbob and numerous others.

The problem with compensation is the longstanding notion that the government’s sovereignty is infallible–that the king can do no wrong. But after World War II, it was the military, not the government, that reigned supreme. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower inherited a problem that Truman allowed to fester, specifically the military’s domination over scientific developments. In his 1961 farewell address, Eisenhower himself decried what he called the “military-industrial complex,” though he made no concrete gestures during his presidency to return atomic research to civilian hands.

The military, rather than the legislature, had seemingly indefinite control of the nation’s nuclear program. Civilians had no power to vote out generals whose finger was on the bomb–and historically, it was the generals, not the Truman, who made the decision to use atomic weapons in war. General Leslie Groves drafted the order to use nukes during WWII, showed the memo to Truman for approval, and proceeded to bomb Japan twice. Truman only intervened to prevent a third scheduled bombing on August 10, 1945. As Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace wrote, Truman worried that massacring “another 100,000 people was too horrible.”

Decades later, cancer in the West was an undeniable concern, and in the wake of such tragedies as the 1986 Chernobyl incident in the waning USSR, the consequences of atomic weapons testing returned to the foreground of public discourse. RECA may have been the most important piece of legislation that Congressman Owens passed. The bill includes a short subsection titled “Apology,” in addition to its attention funds for affected families, reading “The Congress apologizes on behalf of the Nation to individuals described in subsection (a) and their families for the hardships they have endured.”

RECA continues to provide monetary compensation for individuals who can prove that they are downwinders. The bill goes to great lengths to explain how individuals can prove mistreatment from the nuclear program, and this method has been regularly updated to accommodate new research and understandings of the effects of radiation.

The United States military has a long, painful history of using and abusing the Southwest, first in military conquest in the Mexican-American War, then for resource extraction, internment camps, and lastly as a place to test nuclear weapons. The military-industrial complex fundamentally altered the climate of the Southwest, literally changing the chemical compounds that the high desert winds pushed outward across the plateaus and canyonlands.

There is now a clear precedent for federal apology and compensation for the damage it does to the ecosystem, something worth noting as a group of young people are now close to successfully suing the federal government for failing to respond to human-caused climate change. But precedent doesn’t really matter. For Congressman Owens, there had been no precedent for RECA. For Irene Allen, there had been no precedent her own lawsuit. RECA has its limits, and Allen’s lawsuit was easily overturned. Using the rules of a system that allowed for injustice to try to correct that injustice is a deeply limited strategy, but RECA provides evidence for at least one thing: that the government is not only fallible, but can be forced to admit as much to the public.

 

The Oil Party of 1973

Gas rationing in Portland, Oregon, in December, 1973, as a response to the oil embargo.

Gas rationing in Portland, Oregon, in December, 1973, as a response to the oil embargo. Courtesy of the National Archives.

“For we have only just begun our confrontation with our imperial history, our imperial ethic, our imperial psychology. It is perhaps a bit too extreme, but if so only by a whisker, to say that imperialism has been the opiate of the American people.” -William Appleman Williams, 1980.

“Words like ‘monopoly,’ ‘cartel,’ and ‘block’ thereafter achieved a remarkably sudden if selective currency, although very rarely did anyone speak of the small group of American multinationals as a cartel, a designation reserved for the OPEC members.” -Edward Said, 1981.


On December 16, 1973, a few thousand Americans celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party by filing onto an imitation eighteenth century shipping vessel called the Beaver II and dumping oil drum barrels into the Boston Harbor. Onboard the ship was an effigy of Richard Nixon in a crown with the names of oil companies written on it. This Boston Oil Party coincided with a city-wide celebration of the 1773 Tea Party, for which Bostonians reenacted the original tea-dumping protest with empty boxes, to avoid pollution, and hurried through their reenactment as demonstrators made their way to the ship chanting “Nixon, Exxon, ITT: Drive the tyrants in the seas!” (Hall 125).

An article on the event published a day later in the New York Times reports that from “a powerful loudspeaker operated by the People’s Bicentennial Commission, the organizers of the demonstration, on the fourth floor of a nearby warehouse, a voice asked: ‘How many people think he should be taken to the boat and hung?’ An enormous cheer broke out.” But only the effigy was hung as demonstrators began another call-and-response chant: “Down with King George, Down with King Richard!”

The People’s Bicentennial Commission, or PBC, was, as Simon Hall puts it, a group of disaffected “veterans of the of the civil rights, student, and antiwar movements” founded in late 1971 “with the goal of democratizing the US economy” (117). The Oil Party drew American leftists who were frustrated with the rhetoric of the New Left’s response to the Vietnam War, which was grounded in a critique of American imperialism. The BPC was instead self-consciously American, in ways that are confusingly familiar to those of us in the twenty-first century: They waved “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and protested unfairly taxed resources. While ideologically opposite from the Tea Party of the early Obama years, the BPC had basically the same idea decades earlier: to locate solutions to present problems squarely in the past.

The BPC’s founder, Ted Howard, wanted to identify in US history an American tradition of protest to critique what he saw as simply a sudden turn in the wrong direction. Their target was Richard Nixon, the oil companies, and the military-industrial complex that exercised imperialism, most recently in Chile by supporting an anti-democratic coup against the newly elected Salvador Allende.

Nixon’s foreign policy, though, was a resurgence of Eisenhower’s, who himself had clashed with protestors during the Great Depression. Eisenhower vowed to prevent communist influence in nonaligned nations, but not through direct military action. Unlike Truman, who invaded Korea, Eisenhower preferred to make cosmetic changes through CIA influence. As a tool, he utilized the CIA to train rightist protestors in Iran, Guatemala, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo whenever these countries tried to nationalize one or another resource for their own benefit, rather than the benefit of American businesses. Kennedy and Johnson returned to direct action in Vietnam, and in reaction to the war’s unpopularity, Nixon returned again to Eisenhower’s brand of covert influence.

In October of 1973, Arab nations in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), decided to work together to combat this kind of imperialism by placing an embargo on the US, to protest American financial support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The result was a financial panic with national repercussions.

To express their outrage, the Oil Party drew a connection between Nixon and King George III, in part of a long, ongoing dialogue in which Americans see their present in someone else’s past. Recently, it has become popular to compare the US to empires in antiquity. Cullen Murphy’s 2007 book Are We Rome? is one example, and much more recently the far-right has drawn this comparison to support dictatorial leadership, going so far as to compare Senator Mitch McConnell to Julius Caesar. Likewise, Yale’s The Politic published an interview with Donald Kagan in 2011 in which Kagan compares America to the Athenian democracy.

The parallels between Athens and Rome are easy to make, but are hardly original. William Appleman Williams observes in Empire as a Way of Life that the Founders “knew the ideas, language, and reality of empire from their study of the classic literature about Greece and Rome. . . It became, indeed, synonymous with the realization of their Dream” (viii).

To be fair, Kagan also notes that the Founders studied the Athenian democracy, but he emphasizes that they wanted to craft a state that would be resilient to conflicts like the Peloponnesian War between Athens and neighboring Sparta, claiming that because “democracies are commercial republics. . . they require the approval of the population to wage war, and that checks them because the people may have contrary wishes.” His point here seems somewhat naive. Where was this “check” during American influence campaigns in Iran and Chile? Where was this “check” during drone strike campaigns in Pakistan and Libya?

But Athens may be a useful comparison. Like America during the Cold War, Athens controlled trade routes and islands with their powerful navy. In his account of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient historian Thucydides describes one episode in which the island of Melos wanted to be neutral, to the ire of Athens. This scene, known as the Melian Dialogue, is re-imagined hauntingly in the British film The War that Never Ends, with Michael Kitchen, Stephen Moore, and Oliver Ford Davies:

The Melian Dialogue is one of the most accurate summations of US foreign (and domestic) policy throughout the Cold War, although George W. Bush would provide a much simpler summation decades later: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” This strategy left no room for nonalignment, and those who tried for independence, like Melos, like Chile, Iran, and the OPEC nations, would find themselves ruined in the wake of American interventionism.

The Oil Party of 1973 was a reaction to the flaws of this policy, but failed to address the broader scope of it. OPEC’s protest had lasting consequences because it struck the heart of the empire: Wall Street. This is perhaps why the Oil Party faced no consequences for calling for the hanging of a sitting US president. The impact of their protest was short-lived and limited, seeing a temporary corrupt leader when the oil embargo should have prompted them to look inward at their own democracy.


Hall, Simon. “‘Guerilla Theater. . . in the Guise of Red, White, and Blue Bunting’: The People’s Bicentennial Commission and the Politics of (un)-Americanism.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 52 no. 1, 2018, pp. 114-136.

Said, Edward. Covering Islam. Vintage Books, 1997.

Williams, Appleman Williams. Empire as a Way of Life. Oxford University Press, 1980.

 

Locating Gabriel Over the White House

Gabriel Over the White House 2

“The soldiers threw tear gas at them and vomiting gas. It was one assignment they reluctantly took on. They were younger than the marchers. It was like sons attacking their fathers. . . MacArthur was looked upon as a hero. And so the bonus marchers straggled back to the various places they came from. And without their bonus.” -Jim Sheridan in Hard Times, by Studs Terkel


Less than a month after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration on March 4, 1933, MGM released one of the first films to directly confront the Great Depression: Gabriel Over the White House. A fictional president named Judd Hammond, played by Walter Huston, is revealed to be a self-absorbed, party-loyal moron who ignores the protests of impoverished WWI veterans marching on Baltimore demanding fair compensation for their service, a direct reference to the historic Bonus March of 1932.

Spoiler alert: the film gets weirder. Hammond races his car, crashes, and is temporarily comatose. When he wakes up, he becomes possessed by the Angel Gabriel. Now under spiritual control, Hammond confronts the marchers, promising to create for them an “army of construction” to guarantee employment.

Facing impeachment from congress, he declares martial law and embraces accusations of dictatorship, proclaiming that he believes “in democracy as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln believed in democracy,” that his will be “a dictatorship based on Jefferson’s definition of democracy: a government of the greatest good for the greatest number.” Hammond then creates a Federal Police to round up and publicly execute Prohibition-era bootleggers, many of whom are portrayed as immigrants. The film’s climax is an international summit held at sea, where Hammond annihilates empty warships using an ultra-powerful Naval Air Force bomb, to force the international community into a permanent peace, warning that “the next war will depopulate the Earth [with] invisible poison gases, inconceivably devastating explosives, [and] annihilating death-rays.” Terrified, the international community agrees to their universal disarmament.

Gabriel Over the White House portrays a Washington insider who abolishes the law to solve several national crises, the logical antithesis of a later Depression-era film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which a Washington outsider masters the law to solve a small local problem. Ideologically, these films are worlds apart, but they both praise the same three American leaders: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.

The film’s backstory is worth revisiting. After being fired from Paramount, producer Walter Wanger began working for MGM to make ends meet. When Wanger secured the rights to the story of Gabriel Over the White House, he pushed the film into production as quickly as possible on a budget of just over $200,000, “to avoid the scrutiny of [MGM manager] Louis B. Mayor, a dedicated Republican” (Carmichael 164). By February of that year, a month before FDR’s inauguration, the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst began aggressively micromanaging the script’s content.

Hearst and Wanger had ties dating to 1917, and after he began working for MGM, Hearst offered him financial support. Hearst, who disliked FDR but supported his running mate John Garner, was unusually interested in the film. He “ordered his own production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, to take over production,” and it is “believed that Hearst himself wrote some of the speeches for President Hammond” (Shindler 112).

Several MGM managers took issue with the script’s political nature. Some worried that its portrayal of Congress as incompetent would motivate Congress to censor Hollywood in retaliation, while others decried its positive portrayal of dictatorship. The film seemed to communicate directly to FDR that he should solve the Depression by becoming a fascist: Hearst was a casual admirer of both Mussolini and Hitler, but in early 1933, such admiration was quite common. Both dictators would eventually be Time‘s Person of the Year.

By March, 1933, Mussolini had been in power eleven years, Stalin roughly eight, and Hitler barely a month. There were not yet wars, purges, or camps. Totalitarianism to many looked like a safe, if drastic, solution, and many Americans wanted a similarly authoritative leader to take charge and solve the economic crisis, regardless of ideology. The film is more a response to Hoover’s failings than FDR’s potential, and arguably its most important scene is its version of the Bonus March.

In the film, the president hears the pleas of protestors marching on Baltimore and responds by creating a federal jobs program. In 1932, the real Bonus Army marched on Washington and were met with a brigade of cavalry and tanks led by Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower. At least one marcher died as a result. What little action Hoover took was one injustice on top of a dozen other injustices during the early years of the Depression. Ironically, Hoover’s response would become a defining tactic of totalitarian regimes: military action against civilian protest.

The most compelling scene is the one that corrects this recent injustice by presenting a fantasy of what Hoover should have done, which accounts for the film’s success and FDR’s own warm reception to it. We know that FDR planned to take critical economic action long before taking office. He stated in his inaugural address that Americans should treat the Depression “as we would treat the emergency of a war.” But FDR also took the time to write Hearst to say that he thought the film was “an intensely interesting picture and should do much to help” (Carmichael 174).

FDR admired Hammond’s decisive rhetoric, though it’s impossible to discern how much Gabriel Over the White House, and by extension Hearst, influenced his policies. Maybe it inspired his Works Progress Administration or his later war policies, or maybe it had no influence whatsoever.

There is at least one key difference between FDR and Hammond. While declaring martial law, Hammond cites Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln; in his inaugural address, FDR makes no reference to any of these presidents. Hammond’s dictatorship is self-consciously all-American.

As president, Washington led the militias of several states to stop a tax protest in rural Pennsylvania called the Whiskey Rebellion, making him the only sitting president to lead troops into battle (against tax protestors, no less). Jefferson attempted to use the navy to force peace with Barbary Coast pirates, and later invoked executive privilege when he refused to hand over subpoenaed documents to the Supreme Court during the investigation of his own Vice President for treason. During the Civil War, Lincoln pushed a de facto martial law through congress and suspended Habeas corpus for Confederate soldiers. The difference with Hammond is that he does all of these things simultaneously.

The underlying assertion of Gabriel Over the White House is that an American totalitarian does not need to import an ideological foundation from abroad. The seeds are already sown in a long chain of temporary American totalitarianisms in which presidents responded to crises with extralegal overreach. Hammond’s presidency is a Frankenstein’s monster of cobbled together, home-grown authoritarianism. An American totalitarian will not look like Mussolini, Stalin, or Hitler, but will instead look just like Hammond: very American, and very familiar.


Carmichael, Deborah. “Gabriel Over the White House (1933).” Hollywood’s White House, ed. Peter C. Rollins & John E. O’Connor. University of Kentucky Press, 2003, pp. 159-179.

Gabriel Over the White House. Directed by Gregory La Cava, MGM, 1933.

Shindler, Colin. Hollywood in Crisis. Routledge, 1996.

Terkel, Studs. Hard Times. Pantheon Books, 1986.

 

 

Breaking the Sphere

Distribution of Population in 1890, US Census

Population density of the United States according to the 1890 census (xciv).

“Nearer the soil, Western life told quite a different story. There was more homesteading after 1890 than before. A number of extractive industries–timber, oil, coal, and uranium–went through their principal booms and busts after 1890. If one went solely by the numbers, the nineteenth-century westward movement was the tiny, quiet prelude to the much more sizable movement of people into the West in the twentieth century.” -Patricia Nelson Limerick, 2000

“Whereas the traditional notion poses the common as a natural world outside of society, the biopolitical conception of the common permeates equally all spheres of life, referring not only to to the earth, the air, the elements, or even plant and animal life but also to the constitutive elements of human society, such as common languages, habits, gestures, affects, codes, and so forth.” -Hardt & Negri, 2009.


American historians at the turn of the century rushed to interpret the 1890 census as one of the most important moments in US history. Frederick Jackson Turner argued in 1893 that the census marked the “closing” of the frontier, and Charles Beard would later write in 1933 that this “closing” was one third of a “triple revolution in agriculture” between first the abolition of slavery and third the “subjection of farmers to the process of capitalist economy” (Beard II 271).

But closure is only an interpretation of the census report’s findings. Comprised of twenty-five volumes, the introductory preface to the first volume, called “Progress of the Nation,” instead declares the following: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent and its westward movement it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in census reports” (xxxiv). The 1890 census declared simply that it would no longer record a frontier line.

Previous reports had actually measured frontier lines. According to the 1890 census, “the length of the frontier line in 1880 [was] 3,337 miles” (xxxvii), was 1,178,068 miles in 1870 (xxvi), and so on. The wording in the proclamation about 1890 is telling. The frontier line had been “broken into by isolated bodies of settlement,” a phrasing that hides those who actually went into the frontier while framing it as a fragile object that has been broken. The writing goes out of its way not to implicate settlers in the population increase, instead referring to “isolated bodies of settlement” to suggest groups of people who then share responsibility for settlement.

The frontier line was a literal demarcation between “settled” and “unsettled” land, which the census defined simply by population density. One table (xxxiii) lists the population density of each state and territory. In Utah, for example, the “Total area of settlement [of] 2 or more [people] to the square mile” was 27,580 square miles; the total area containing 6 to 18 people per square mile was 1,208, and the area consisting of 18 to 45 people per square mile totaled 718. There is nothing listed for a population density of more than 45 people in Utah, as opposed to Pennsylvania, which totaled 35,152 square miles inhabited by 45 to 90 people.

Equating settlement with population density meant that 718 single square miles of Utah inhabited by at most 45 people each was enough to make the territory “settled.” According to the census, every state or territory in the west had enough population density to qualify as such. If 27,580 people could survive in Utah, it was no longer legally recognized as wilderness. This implicitly established an evaluative scale for the economic potential of land. While it mattered to the federal government who was on what land (women, Native Americans, and other groups were recorded, though they could not legally vote in 1890), what was just as important was how many people were on the land, which became the primary distinction between wilderness and settled society.

By highlighting the experiences of people considered between the boundaries of wilderness and settlement, Beard and Turner both pioneered an early vision of social history that emphasized the experiences of workers and farmers. But they also left much to be desired. Another American historian a generation later, Staughton Lynd, writes that Beard and Turner, “the twin giants of modern American historiography. . . systematically minimized [slavery’s] importance” in their analyses (Lynd 135-136), and Patricia Nelson Limerick critiques Turner’s limited vision of the frontier.

For Turner, the frontier was the state of nature, which reinforced a Eurocentric understanding of the west’s indigenous communities, but for Beard, the frontier was essentially the commons. He writes of the 1890 census that “the disappearance of cheap or free land” was a tragedy because “by one legal phrase or another and by administrative procedure, the federal government prepared the way for the rapid seizure and exploitation of all the remaining lands on the western frontier” (II 269-270). In this sense, the closing of the frontier meant the privatization of the commons just before the Gilded Age. For Beard, this closure was a penultimate phase, rather than a finalizing one.

But Beard still treats the land the way Turner does, as free to white settler colonization. Both historians are in agreement with the census report’s declaration that the frontier was broken because of population growth, and all three tend to treat this breaking as a step in progress. Once this frontier was broken, they reasoned, it could be used. In this sense, “settlement” was about the deployment of a workforce, the presence of a monitored population subject to US law.

Though it is limiting to conflate the frontier with the commons, its perception as such explains why many progressive historians responded to its perceived closure as a significant turning point. If the frontier was acted upon as a kind of commons, then its closing would have spelled good news for those in power in the United States, because it finally meant access to the entirety of its previously obscure resources. By measuring the frontier by population density, this good news for those in power meant comparatively bad news for most settlers and signified apocalypse for Native Americans. The closing of the frontier was a process of opening the west to the full violence of what Wallace Stegner labeled “the path of empire.”

Yet another American historian, William Appleman Williams, calls this process of expansionism the defining feature of American history, declaring that the “culture has been unable, after almost 300 years, to develop any conception of success—or fulfillment—except the idiom of the endless chase itself. It was all a footnote to Madison: ‘extend the sphere’” (Williams 124). America, including any articulation of the frontier, is about growth for its own sake, and transforming the meaning of growth into the converse meaninglessness of satisfaction or stasis.

The frontier at the turn of the century, then, was considered the absence of influence, extended and measured through the strategic quantification of mouths to feed per square mile. This created an official policy in the US government of no longer marking the existence of a frontier in its regularized measurement of the country. The absence of the frontier meant the dissolution of both land and people (as Beard and Turner failed to recognize) not subject to American expansion, beyond the scope of the sphere. When the century ended, many historians seemed to wonder how much more of the continent the US could break.


Beard, Charles. The Rise of American Civilization. MacMillan Company, 1933.

Hardt, Michael, Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Harvard University Press, 2011

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Something in the Soil. W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Lynd, Staughton. Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution. Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

United States. Census Bureau. “Population Part I.” 1895.

Williams, William Appleman. Empire as a Way of Life. Oxford University Press, 1980.

Giving to a Part the Strength of the Whole

The American High Commission 1871

American High Commission Negotiating a Treaty in Washington, with Hamilton Fish sitting in the middle.

“Though he did not get his way on Santo Domingo, Fish would shape the Monroe Doctrine more than any other American in the 1870s. A forgotten figure today, Fish was the longest-serving secretary of state in the nineteenth century. . . His foreign policy vision rested upon the pillars of rapprochement with Great Britain and ‘informal imperialism’ in America’s growing sphere of influence.” -Jay Sexton, 2011


In 1871, President Grant sent an investigative commission to Santo Domgino (what is now the Dominican Republic) to explore the possibility of annexing the country. The commission came two years after Grant proposed the idea to Congress as part of the post-Civil War Reconstruction effort, arguing that that annexing Santo Domingo could create a new state for freed slaves to inhabit, an idea that the assistant secretary of the commission, Frederick Douglass, also supported.

Grant and Douglass, in their respective memoirs, make similar defenses of their mutual support. In the end of his 1885 memoir, Grant writes that after the Civil War, African Americans “now should be considered as having as good a right to remain here as any other class of our citizens. It was looking to a settlement of this question that led me to urge the annexation of Santo Domingo” (761), and adds that at the time, the Dominican president Buenaventura Baez favored and even requested annexation.

Grant goes on to write that freed slaves “would go there in great numbers, so as to have independent states governed by their own race. They would still be States of the Union, and under the protection of the General Government; but the citizens would be almost wholly” of the same race. This passage is immediately followed by a long description of the development of the Western Frontier during Grant’s military and political tenure, and there is no textual transition between these two moments. To Grant, the Frontier and Santo Domingo were part and parcel.

Frederick Douglass echoes this sentiment almost point for point in his 1892 memoir. He emphasizes a similar claim that Baez wanted annexation and adds, “there was no more dishonor to Santo Domingo in making her a State of the American Union, than in making Kansas, Nebraska, or any other territory such a state. It was giving to a part the strength of the whole” (Douglass 409). Like Grant, Douglass believed that the creation of states specifically for freed African Americans would be a cause of Reconstruction, granting land and governance to a vulnerable population eager to leave the ruins of the hostile South.

Despite an initial treaty between Grant and Baez failing to pass through Congress, Grant organized an entourage for the commission. In addition to Douglass, there was the Radical Republican Senator B.F. Wade; the historian, diplomat, and co-founder of Cornell University A. D. White; the physician Samuel Howe; and a diplomat to Colombia, Allan A. Burton. Grant cherry-picked these scholars and activists largely for their Republican leanings.

Allan Nevins, in his 1937 900-page biography of Grant’s Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, provides one of the most detailed assessments of the commission. Nevins writes that in addition to the above five main members, there were “geologists, mineralogists, and other scientists, [and] ten newspaper correspondents” onboard (497). He goes on to describe B. F. Wade as “a Manifest Destiny man” and write that Howe was “carried away by humanitarian zeal for the Caribbean” (498). Fish himself was a quiet imperialist who influenced decisions behind the scenes, favoring annexation as an extension of the early nineteenth century Monroe Doctrine to protect (meaning control) the Western Hemisphere.

All five members returned to the US favoring annexation. On page 35 of the report, they conclude that “the annexation of Santo Domgino to the United States would be hardly less beneficial to the [Haitian] than to the Dominican people. . . This would end the exhausting border warfare” between the two republics sharing the island, by essentially forcing a regime change in Santo Domingo. Douglass and and Burton then go on to offer their “full and complete concurrence with the statements made.” So it was that in 1871, five abolitionists all agreed that annexing and colonizing a Caribbean republic would bring peace and stability, law and order.

There is, however, another chain of events that preceded the commission. Nevins notes that “two Yankee rovers and speculators, William L. Cazneau and Joseph Warren Fabens” who had “been in Texas just before its annexation and had seen the handsome fortunes made there by land speculators” had, before the Civil War, attempted to form economic treaties with Santo Domingo (252). When the first treaties failed, Cazneau “purchased a plantation near Santo Domingo City” and was joined by Fabens in 1859 (253). They wrote directly to Hamilton Fish encouraging annexation, but the Civil War interrupted their plans. A decade later, when the issue came up again under Grant, their investments in Santo Domingo had grown. Though they were not direct members of the commission, they were in contact with a geologist onboard named William Gabb, who worked alongside Wade, the “Manifest Destiny man.”

An even more obscure text, Melvin Knight’s 1928 The Americans in Santo Domingo, is more explicit. Knight writes that “Fabens and Cazneau were all stockholders in the National Bank of Santo Domingo” along with an unknown list of other stakeholders, which was “never published in full, but it was publicly charged in the newspapers, without provoking libel suits, that high officials of the Dominican Government were included” (Knight 8). The 1871 commission, then, followed the gradual investment in Dominican land by American capitalists, who had direct contact with the scientists onboard the commission, who concurred with Grant’s entourage that annexing Santo Domingo would be simultaneously an extension of Manifest Destiny, a defense of the Monroe Doctrine, and a major contribution to Reconstruction.

But it was clear by 1870 that Grant’s plan would not pass Congress, and the report became a way to justify itself by offering scientific and geopolitical evaluations of a neighboring republic. An ideological split within the Republican party between radicals and moderates led to Grant rapidly losing allies, though Fish remained a staunch, pro-expansionist supporter. This division would stall much of the real progress made in Reconstruction, and would contribute to the abandonment of Reconstruction altogether in 1877 as a compromise between moderate Republicans and southern Democrats.

Though the commission was an act of empire-building, it should also be understood, from Douglass’s perspective, in the context of Reconstruction. At the time, the South was occupied by Union soldiers tasked with keeping the peace, which meant protecting freed slaves from reactionary Confederate violence. Douglass supported the expansion that he otherwise opposed in previous and later iterations (Mexico and Haiti respectively) because he, and many others, had essentially greeted Union soldiers as liberators. He fully supported Grant’s coalition of Radical Republicans, who applied a uniquely American capacity to sustain contradiction to Reconstruction: the South became a frontier, and empire became a force of liberation. Douglass was swept up in the possibilities that fused imperialism with abolitionism.

A handful of Americans stood to benefit from the annexation and occupation of a foreign territory, for neither the first nor the last time. But the commission also demonstrates the similarities between three narratives in American history: the colonization of the western frontier, the power of financiers, and the Monroe Doctrine. All three became entangled in the Reconstruction Era, and frontier logic, as boiled down to Manifest Destiny, became a diagnostic tool as much as the Monroe Doctrine, an immaterial policy with material consequences.


Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, 1962.

Grant, Ulysses S. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Harvard University Press, 2017.

Knight, Melvin M. The Americans in Santo Domingo. Vanguard Press, 1928.

Nevins, Allan. Hamilton Fish. Dodd, Mead & Company, 1937.

Sexton, Jay. The Monroe Doctrine. Hill and Wang, 2011.

Panic in the Era of Good Feelings

Stock Exchange

Trading at the New York Stock Exchange, 1889.

“The Constitution was essentially an economic document based upon the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to the government and morally beyond the reach of the popular majorities.” -Charles A. Beard, 1913

“Beard described his ideal world as ‘a workers’ republic’. . . He possessed a radical analysis; he proposed public alternatives to private property; what he lacked was a radical politics to implement his ideas. This was a task he left to others.” -Ellen Nore, 1983


In early 1817, a handful of stockbrokers in New York City, meeting on Wall Street, drafted the Constitution of the New York Stock and Exchange Board, adding amendments throughout the year. In US history, 1817 is also considered the beginning of the “Era of Good Feelings,” marked by growing nationalism and economic expansion under president Monroe and, to a lesser extent, his successor John Quincy Adams, who helped draft the Monroe Doctrine. The era of Jacksonian populism, often portrayed as a backlash to Monroe/Adams republicanism, immediately followed. Common to both eras were regularized economic “panics” in 1819, 1825, and 1837, the defining feature of a longer era of contentious economic expansion.

Initially, brokers in New York signed a contract in 1792 called the Buttonwood Agreement to manage war-related securities investments. After the War of 1812, brokers wanted a more complex contract. In 1817, two Buttonwood signers, Nathan Prime and John Benson, were elected president and secretary of the freshly consolidated Board, and helped establish a “tradition whereby brokers on the exchange had a more privileged position than outsiders who simply dealt with or for the public” (Geisst 15).

This specialized privilege is evident in the text of the 1817 Constitution, which includes an amendment deeming that “no member of this Board, nor any partner of a member, shall hereafter give the prices of any Stock, Exchange, or Specie to any Printer for Publication.” Brokers, then, incorporated a means of controlling the flow of information into their constitution.

Walter Werner and Steven Smith detail the extent to which brokers secluded their operations, writing that not only “did keeping membership exclusive maintain the price-fixing cartel, it also sustained the practice of charging outsiders higher commission rates” (Werner & Smith 29). Stockbrokers initially restricted financial information as another commodity. Information, both factual or rumored, was central to nineteenth century America, such that by 1832, newspapers “generated only 15 percent of the revenue of the post office but 95 percent of the weight transmitted by horse and stagecoach” (Lepler 14). But controlling information to make it easier to exploit outsiders was part of a larger trend in risky land investments related to western expansion.

Even the newly established national bank began participating in rampant land speculation, resulting in the Panic of 1819. George Dangerfield suggests in his 1952 text about the era that the 1819 panic marked a downward spiral, writing that when “the prosperity began to collapse, nationalism as a unifying principle faded with it; and sectionalism, or the maneuvers of different sets of social and economic arrangements, took its place” (175). The republic into which Prime and Benson brought their Stock Exchange was economically centralized and nationally unified. Power was concentrated among landowners (southern slave owners, western frontier colonists, and northern investors) whose elected representatives did nothing to regulate the banking system that corresponded to the landowners’ aggressive, often militaristic expansion. Dangerfield describes this as a land bubble that burst in 1819.

Reaction to the land bubble’s bursting resulted in hostility toward the national bank. Jackson rode this hostility into the White House in 1828, and after reelection “ordered all federal deposits withdrawn from the bank as a sign of his lack of support” (Geisst 19), as part of his supposedly populist agenda. The national bank closed, causing smaller banks to close, which in turn prompted widespread payment suspensions, sparking the Panic of 1837.

The use of the word panic was a popular indictment of political leadership. Jessica Lepler notes that in the Jacksonian era, Americans used the word panic because “it implied individual innocence. By turning to the term panic in May 1837, rather than revulsion, crash, or the times, American authors blamed their troubles on collective forces beyond the control of all but political elites” (4). Monroe and Adams let wealth stratify, but under Jackson, the next panic was worse.

What is clear is that the national bank and private investments were so inseparable that by the time Jackson leveled the former out of populist extremism, the latter was unable to sustain itself for much longer. The federal government was often criticized in the early nineteenth century for its “relations with wealthy merchants and bankers” and for allowing “the commercial class [to operate] without much government interference” (Geisst 21). This is often misconstrued as a conflict between government and private enterprise, but this interpretation misses an important point.

Here, Charles Beard’s 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States provides a useful framework for understanding that the US Constitution was written for the same reason stockbrokers wrote their own constitution on Wall Street. Hardt and Negri nod to Beard’s framework when they argue that constitutional republics were designed to protect private property first and foremost. They note that “Behind every formal constitution. . . lies a ‘material’ one” which, as Beard points out, foregrounds the economic interests of its drafters, including land, slavery, and securities (Hardt & Negri 10). The republic was created to protect its creators’ property rather than the general population. When it could not protect investors from their own rampant speculation, those investors blamed the republic rather than their own practices.

Jacksonian populism was not the antithesis to Monroe/Adams republicanism, but the transformation of it. Giovanni Arrighi notes in The Long Twentieth Century that by the 1790s, “civilians were mobilized to sustain indirectly, and often unknowingly, the war-making and state-making efforts of rulers” (50), leading to inter-state systems taking on the previous tasks of monarchs through “the democratization of nationalism” (52). Individual states took on the task of governance for the ideological reasons Beard examines, which led to nationalist cooperation to accumulate capital. State-making became a civilian matter, and those civilians reacted negatively to the Panics of 1819 and 1825 by directing their state-making capacity toward localized interests, what Dangerfield calls “sectionalism.” This is how the Era of Good Feelings became, rather than precipitated, Jacksonian populism.

Wall Street survived Jacksonian populism because it acted, from its inception, as a state in itself, no more responsible for national financial panics than any other individual state. The Commonwealth of Wall Street took on the same duties of state-building as New York or Virginia.

Ellen Nore states that Beard’s analysis is only a framework for understanding national problems, but she also hints that Beard’s analysis implicitly invites radical solutions. Beard indicts the Constitution as a financial agreement between brokers, such that panic is inherent in its logic. One way to escape such panic, at least, is to imagine life beyond the rigid logic dictated by the past.


Arrighi, Giovanni. The Long Twentieth Century. Verso, 1994.

Beard, Charles A. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the U.S. Macmillan, 1925.

Dangerfield, George. The Era of Good Feelings. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952.

Geisst, Charles R. Wall Street: A History. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Hardt, Michael, Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Harvard University Press, 2011.

Lepler, Jessica M. The Many Panics of 1837. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Nore, Ellen. Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography. Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

Werner, Walter, Stephen Smith. Wall Street. Columbia University Press, 1991.