Monthly Archives: May 2017

“MONUMENTS WITHOUT INSCRIPTIONS”–OUR WWII VETERANS

The World War Two Memorial

I was back in Washington, D.C. last week and had the privilege of visiting the World War Two Memorial there.  If you haven’t visited it before, it’s an impressive site, although I had the kind of mixed feelings that regularly plague me on such locations.  I can’t help but think we should visit such places in quietness and contemplation.  One of the prominent inscriptions on the memorial is from one of my sailor father’s heroes, Admiral Chester Nimitz:

They fought together as brothers-in-arms.  They died together and now they sleep side by side.  To them we have a solemn obligation.

And yet there was very little solemnity around me as I walked around the memorial.  The memorial is ringed by two semi-circular walls on which the names of the major battles of the European and Pacific theaters are inscribed, and when I got to the two words “LEYTE GULF”–the battle in which my father’s destroyer was sunk by Japanese suicide bombers–I found it hard to swallow, and for a moment, difficult to see.  And yet all around me there were children laughing and playing, teenagers eating hot dogs and taking selfies, and tired parents resting on the names of battles at which Americans had died.  If an experience can be inspiring and depressing simultaneously, this one was.

“Monuments Without Inscriptions”

All of which has got me to thinking about a different kind of WWII memorial, namely the dwindling number of surviving WWII veterans.  Roughly 97 percent of those who served our country during World War Two are now gone.  Many who are still with us are past sharing about their experiences, and many never wished to.

In writing this I am reminded of one my favorite books by one of my favorite authors: Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry, the prolific Kentucky novelist, poet, and essayist.  Like many of Berry’s novels, Hannah Coulter is set in the tiny fictional hamlet of Port William, Kentucky.  Narrated through the reminiscences of an aged farm wife, the novel spans the period from the Great Depression through the close of the twentieth century, but the emotional heart of the novel grapples with the personal effects of the Second World War.

HannahCoulter

Toward the end of her recollections, Hannah relates that she “married the war twice, you might say, once in ignorance, once in knowledge.” She married her first true love, Virgil Feltner, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Virgil entered the army in 1942 but didn’t come home, falling at the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 she married another local GI, Nathan Coulter.  Nathan came home physically unscathed, but forever marked by what he had experienced.

Hannah’s reflections about her second husband remind me of my own father’s unwillingness—or inability—to share about his wartime experiences. As I have noted before, my dad saw extensive action in the South Pacific from 1942-1944. On the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor, his destroyer, the U.S.S. Mahan, was hit by three Japanese Kamikaze suicide bombers off the coast of the Philippines and sunk. Dad has always been willing to share this much, but no more. What he felt when he heard the crash of the Kamikazes, what he thought when the forward magazine on the Mahan exploded, what he saw as he headed toward the side, what went through his mind when he jumped into the oil-coated bay, what, perhaps, he prayed as he bobbed in the water while the battle continued to rage—these are things that Dad never once offered to share.

And so I was deeply moved to read Hannah’s reflections on Nathan’s half-century-long silence:

He did not talk about it, I understood, because it was painful to remember; and for the same reason I did not ask him about it. . . . Nathan was not the only one who was in it, who survived it and came home from it and did not talk about it. There were several from Port William who went and fought and came home and lived to be old men here, whose memories contained in silence the farthest distances of the world, terrible sights, terrible sufferings. Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have.

Are there “monuments without inscriptions” in your life today?  Reach out to them while you can.

DOES ANY OF THIS STILL APPLY?

Deja Vu All Over Again?

I’ve been spending a lot of time this spring with Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

Tocqueville wrote this classic at a time when democracy was still a novel experiment in the world. Its future was uncertain. Its impact was unclear. And although he was writing about democracy in a very specific historical context (he arrived in the United States at the midpoint of Andrew Jackson’s first term as president), his investigation was driven by questions as relevant today as they were in the 1830s.

I thought I’d share just a few quotes that are going into my commonplace book.   Democracy in America is so rich that I could share quotes from it for months and still not get to all the good ones, but here are a few of my favorites.  They come from the 2004 edition translated by Arthur Goldhammer of the University of Virginia.

I give them below without further comment, except to share my opinion that Tocqueville’s insights strike me as timeless.  I’d welcome hearing your thoughts.

* “Generally speaking, only simple conceptions can grip the mind of a nation.  An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex.”

* “Man firmly believes a thing because he accepts it without looking deeply into it.  He begins to doubt when objections are raised.  In many cases he succeeds in laying all his doubts to rest and begins to believe again.  Then he no longer clings to a truth plucked at random from the darkness but stares truth in the face and marches directly toward its light. . . . We can be sure that the majority of men will remain in one of these two states: they will either believe without knowing why, or not know precisely what they ought to believe.”

* “But nothing is harder than the apprenticeship of liberty.  This is not true of despotism.  Despotism often presents itself as the remedy for all ills suffered in the past.  It is the upholder of justice, the champion of the oppressed, and the founder of order.  Nations are lulled to sleep by the temporary prosperity to which it gives rise, and when they are awake, they are miserable.”

* “Americans do not converse; they argue.”

* “In America centralization is not popular, and there is no cleverer way to court the majority than to rail against the alleged encroachments of the central government.”  

* “Now, what has to be said in order to please the voters is not always what would best serve the political opinion they profess.”

* “It is astonishing to see how few, how weak, and how unworthy are the hands into which a great people can fall.”

And My All-Time Favorite . . .

* “When the past is no longer capable of shedding light on the future, the mind can only proceed in darkness.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

PRESIDENT TRUMP AND THE CAUSE OF THE CIVIL WAR

Had Trump been President in 1860, Would He have Prevented the Civil War, or Caused It?

Although I’ve been doing my best to take a break from this blog (as much as I enjoy it) while on sabbatical at Wheaton, the headlines announcing that President Trump had speculated about the causes of the Civil War in a recent interview were too much to ignore.  If you missed it, here is what Trump had to say in an interview with the Washington Examiner released just this morning:

“I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.  He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War.  He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’  People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?  People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?  Why could that one not have been worked out?”

The president’s liberal critics have been quick to jump on his remarks, extracting his rhetorical question about why the Civil War occurred as evidence that he is utterly clueless about it.  (You can read a sampling here.)  There have been countless condescending tweets suggesting that the president should read up on something called slavery and figure out what the rest of the world already knows.

I’m convinced that President Trump is largely clueless about U. S. history (ask Frederick Douglass, if you don’t believe me), but these particular jibes are unfair.  In context, what the president was really getting at was the question not of the causes of the Civil War but of its inevitability.  Might the war have been avoided?  Could more effective political leadership have addressed the national blight of slavery while avoiding the bloodiest war in the nation’s history?  This is a much harder question to answer, and one that academic experts on the conflict continue to debate to this day.  It’s not a stupid question.

Having defended President Trump on this point, I have to say that his observations about Andrew Jackson’s concern for “what was happening with regard to the Civil War” are just ridiculous.  As others have pointed out, Jackson died sixteen years before the war erupted.  Less patently absurd is the president’s speculation that, had Jackson served as president some years later, he might have successfully averted the war during his administration, at least.

“Counterfactual” History

This is what historians call a counterfactual hypothesis–speculation about the likely consequences of a set of historical circumstances that never existed.  By definition, a counterfactual hypothesis cannot be proved correct, so academic historians almost always avoid them, but they can be intriguing, and they sometimes can lead to fruitful insight.

Not in this case, however.

While southern politicians were convinced that Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 posed a direct threat to the preservation of slavery–and so responded by advocating disunion–slaveholders had nothing to fear from a Jackson presidency.  While Lincoln’s Republican Party denounced slavery as a moral wrong and called for its eventual demise, Jackson’s party took the position that it was no business of the federal government to interfere with slavery.  While Lincoln denounced slavery as a “moral, social, and political wrong,” the slaveholding Jackson was outspoken in his condemnation of northern abolitionists and, as president, even allowed southern postmasters to confiscate and destroy abolitionist literature.  In sum, it seems highly unlikely that the South would  have attempted to secede under Andrew Jackson’s watch, but not because of Jackson’s strong leadership or skill at negotiation.

But as long as we’re playing the counterfactual game, let’s not stop here.  President Trump has repeatedly compared himself with Andrew Jackson (whose portrait he had installed in the Oval Office), and his suggestion that Jackson could have avoided the Civil War is, in this sense, a backhanded self-compliment, i.e., “the president who most resembles me is the one who could have saved the nation’s from its bloodiest war.”  Is there any reason to think that the nation might have fared better in 1861 with Donald Trump, and not Abraham Lincoln, in the White House?

Lincoln Would have Seen Donald Trump as Part of the Problem

Although it is inconceivable to imagine the Civil War occurring had the institution of slavery not existed on American soil, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Civil War was inevitable or that, even if it was inevitable, that it had to break out at the time and in the manner that it did.  The Civil War, if it signified anything, was a blaring testimony to the failure of the American political system.  Historians believe that the system failed, in large part, because of a massive crisis of popular confidence in the nation’s political institutions.

One of the great ironies of the Civil War is that both the North and the South believed that they were under attack by the other.  As I stress to students when we wrestle with the coming of the Civil War, by the close of the 1850s common folk in both regions could ironically agree on two things: 1) the other region was committed to an agenda that would undermine their way of life, and 2) the political process was powerless to protect them from the threat.  The moral controversy over slavery had something to do with this, but so did politicians on both sides who regularly exaggerated the threat posed by the other region because of the partisan benefits that resulted when their constituents were afraid.

Nearly a quarter-century before the first cannon boomed at Fort Sumter, a young Abraham Lincoln had warned about precisely this kind of political danger.  In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln, then an Illinois state congressman, told his audience that the most serious threat to America’s political institutions did not come from a foreign invader.  “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” he asked.  “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

Lincoln went on to make three key points: First, the “strongest bulwark” of our democratic form of government is “the attachment of the People.”  Second, free government is never more vulnerable than when the public has concluded it cannot, or will not, protect them and champion their interests.  In such an environment, the majority may eventually conclude—recklessly, emotionally—that any change is better than no change since “they imagine they have nothing to lose.”  And third, what should we look for when a people driven by passion lose faith in their government?  Danger.

What is the solution?  Key to Lincoln’s prescription was his realization that popular attachment to the government is not just something that happens when government does its job.  Lincoln insisted instead that attachment to the government is a political quality that the American people must constantly, consciously cultivate.  “How shall we fortify against” the loss of faith in government, Lincoln asked?  We do so, he maintained, by promoting respect for the rule of law and by replacing passion in the public square with reason.

How would a President Trump have acted during the run-up to the American Civil War?  We’ll never know, of course, but anyone who listened to his speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania just two days ago heard a president who excels in doing precisely what Lincoln warned against: fueling popular contempt for government while channeling our darkest passions.