After the 1929 Market Crash, the world collapsed into nearly feudal isolation, and international trade quickly dried up. Like the rest of the world America focused inward, disillusioned by U.S. participation in WWI. Across the Pacific, the Japanese Empire, too, promoted a sphere of influence, sold to Asians under the moniker of a “Co-prosperity Sphere.” China, a vulnerable prize lay across the Sea of Japan, awaiting the wrath of Japanese aggression for land and resources.
Great Britain, too, struggled with a malaise of its own, as did the French–both nations saddled with debts extended by American banks during the war. Next to the new Soviet Union, Germany, struggled most of all, buried in war reparations the allies demanded from the vanquished.
As the financial fallout worldwide grew wildly unstable, regimes hunkered down and waited for better times.
The solution in that movement-elevate anti-democratic despots to power.
The Italians were the first, having produced a Fascist strongman, Benito Mussolini. He suppressed political diversity, harnessed economic efficiency, and soon, like the Japanese, pursued colonial inroads into Libya, and later the conquest of Ethiopia. Mussolini envisioned a return to the glory days of Rome.
Germany, soon flirted with fascism, as well. In a reaction to impossible debts, and of national pride, Adolf Hitler, a feckless dreamer, stood on beer hall tables, and passionately spoke of national betrayal, and the victimization of Germany. “Mein Kampf” the product of an earlier prison sentence, circled around much the same, blaming Bolsheviks, Capitalists, and Jews for the hated Armistice of 1918.
However, America, unlike the rest of the world, clung with all their might to the national system of Constitutional norms. At the same time Germany elected a Hitler in 1932, the U.S. found their champion in Franklin Roosevelt.
A popular Roosevelt Coalition steered those hard years holding the United States together. That’s not to say there weren’t kooks, to borrow Lindsay Graham’s phrase, but Americans faced the long haul together, knowing better days had to be ahead..
As FDR did not cause the Depression, Joe Biden did not precipitate the inept handling of Covid-19. Moreover, Biden’s policies did not cause Putin to invade the Ukraine, nor trigger the inflation rate, as financial matters are linear, impervious to election cycles. This new administration is not responsible for China’s economic reach, Britain’s Brexit debacle, Russia’s saber rattling, or global warming, let alone shortages of baby formula.
The utter incompetence of that last blowhard made the real mess. This moment, like FDR’s, will take more time to sort out and stabilize.
So, here is the question. Can Americans again remain bound to the framework of our Republic? Will today’s misinformed kooks forsake our financial, social, and political traditions and turn to petty retribution and tyranny?
Will we, as a nation, exchange our democracy for a strong man who insists he has all the answers?
That is the question of this historic moment.
Gail Chumbley is an author and history educator.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.
A professor of History and Government, President Woodrow Wilson fervently believed America could fulfill its promise as the world’s beacon of democracy, a “City Upon a Hill.” After WWI, this President aimed to reform old monarchial Europe, and lead the world to a new, enlightened destiny. But perhaps his ambitions were too lofty to be realized in a cynical world of power and greed.
Participants convened at the Bourbon Palace of Versailles on June 28th, 1919 to design a new future for . . . really the entire world. Wilson attended in person, which for an American President was a first. He posed, all smiles with the French president, Georges Clemenceau, the English Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and Italy’s, Vittorio Orlando.
Considering the devastation from the recent war, these leaders had their work cut out for them.
After the Armistice had been signed the previous year, Wilson prepared for his journey by completing a new framework to rebuild a better world. Titled the Fourteen Point Plan, the President outlined a path to enduring peace. The intent was clear: Freedom for all. Free trade, self-government, transparency in treaties, a reduction in weaponry, and most importantly, an international peace-keeping body, The League of Nations. This proposed League had been crafted to resolve international conflicts through open diplomacy. For Wilson, mechanized warfare had proven pointless, so much so, that modern warfare had become a zero sum game.
Naturally many attendees were self-appointed representatives from oppressed ethnic groups around the globe. All had gathered to endorse the American President’s call for free governments, freely chosen.
The Chinese, for example, lobbied for colonial possessions formally held by Germany be returned. China was ignored. Young Ho Chi Minh, a student in Paris, attempted to see President Wilson to discuss the liberation of his home, French Indochina, (Vietnam). But Ho never got trough the gilt doors of Versailles.
The multitudes under British colonial rule, clamored for freedom, as well. Egyptian, East Indian, and Muslim peoples embraced Wilson’s vision of self determination. Zionists, Palestinians, even the Sinn Fein in Ireland looked for release from British subjugation.
Returning home to the White House, the President received a cable that his deputy remaining at Versailles, a Colonel Edward House, had agreed, in Wilson’s absence, to drop the League provision. Wilson flipped his wig and back he sailed, to resurrect his League as a non-negotiable part of the final agreement.
And though the League of Nations was indeed established, the US never joined. After all the horse-trading with his counterparts in Paris, Wilson could not convinced Republican Senators to ratify his treaty. Stunned, the President took his crusade to the American people, via a whistle stop tour. Exhausted by exertion and poor health, Wilson finally collapsed, followed quickly by a massive stroke.
Without the United States participation the League invariably failed. And a broken Woodrow Wilson died shortly after leaving office.
Perhaps President Wilson was foolish to think old world autocrats would give up any power and authority to colonial possessions. Clemenceau and others had viewed him as hopelessly naive. And maybe Wilson’s critics were correct. The man had a stubborn, self-righteous streak, that ultimately was his undoing.
Open government, free elections, and international commitment to fair play. Was Wilson merely a dreamer?
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.
Each year I prepared for two major wars, the finale if you will, of second semester US History. With a combined sense of dread and anticipation, I led the kids through the causes, and progression of the Civil War (with 10th graders), and WWII (with my Juniors).
A lifetime of study in these eras, especially Antebellum America, tells an anxious story, as two passionate belief systems came to blows. Sophomores learned that our nation, a democracy born in such promise, plunged into the abyss over America’s original sin, slavery.
Meanwhile, for Juniors, the failures of the uneasy peace that followed WWI shaped a broader corrosion. The world after 1919 disintegrated into deadly factions, underscored by exaggerated entitlement, racial hate, and lust for revenge.
Much like America’s 19th Century plunge into the breach, the 20th Century also debased human life, sliding into scapegoating, unthinkable cruelty, and massacre. This record is hard to face, let alone study.
Real monsters masqueraded as heads of state; Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and the War Lords of Japan. All, to varying degrees, convinced regular people that the “worth” of others was suspect, and targeting civilians an acceptable strategy. Yet, as awful as both conflicts were, it’s hard not to stare, and to hopefully recognize the signs when hate again emerges as a justification for horror.
The heresy of exceptionalism, normalizing violence on the vulnerable, and extremism, unleashed evil on the world. Andersonville Prison, Fort Pillow Massacre, the Rape of Nanking, Bataan, the Warsaw Ghetto, and death camps. More than one a student wondered aloud, how could that happen?
These signs are clear again. Those same pre-conditions have resurfaced, right now, here in our communities, states, and nation.
A white nationalist parade in Charlotte that kills one, where there were “good people on both sides.” Normalized daily murders of people of color, and incendiary rhetoric that ends with an attack on the US Capitol, killing five. All offenses excused and minimized by a once great political party, that has forsaken its moral underpinnings.
The only difference between the Proud Boys and the Brown Shirts is the Brown Shirts didn’t wear Carhartt and flannel.
This endless playlist has looped over repeatedly, cursed by the “blind arrogance of now.” But dear reader, now is then, and deluded people do not change with time. The descent into barbarity is more predictable than exceptional.
When reasonable folks are manipulated by the chorus of the Big Lie, the era doesn’t matter. Society inevitably falls into depravity.
Gail Chumbley is a career history educator, and author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles on Kindle.
“Princes’ don’t immigrate” opined the 19th Century American magazine, Puck. The subject of the quote concerned the multitudes of immigrants flooding both American coastlines. Newcomers hailing from Asia and Southern Europe had alarmed American Nativists who considered the influx as nothing more than riffraff, and a danger to good order. Unfortunately this view of the foreign-born still endures today.
News footage over the last few years has chronicled the plight of the dispossessed amassing along southern tiers of both Europe and the US. Frequently victims of repressive governments, criminals, and crippling poverty, risk dangerous journeys, refugee camps, and even cages to escape hardships.
The earliest immigrants to American shores shared similar pressures, escaping the unacceptable familiar for an unknowable future. A brief look at the American Colonial period illustrates this enduring dynamic.
16th and 17th Century England targeted dissident groups in much the same way; exiling nonconformists, petty criminals, while others were lured by the hope of riches and a fresh start.
These emigres shared one common thread-remaining in England was not an option.
Religious challenges to the Catholic Church set in motion a veritable exodus of refugees fleeing England. As the Protestant Reformation blazed from Europe to the British Isles, the bloody transformation of the English Church began. In the 1535 English Reformation, King Henry VIII cut ties with the Vatican, naming himself as the new head of the English Church. This decision triggered a religious earthquake.
The Church still closely resembled Catholicism, and the disaffected pressed for deeper reforms, earning the title, “Puritans.” Ensuing religious struggles were long, bloody, and complicated. Ultimately the discord culminated in the violent repression of Puritans.
Two phases of reformed believers departed Great Britain for the New World. First was a small sect of Separatists led by William Bradford. These Protestants believed England to be damned beyond redemption. This band of the faithful washed their hands entirely of the mother country. Settling first in Holland, Bradford and other leaders solicited funding for a journey to Massachusetts Bay. Americans remember these religious refugees as Pilgrims.
Nearly a decade later another, larger faction of Puritans followed, making landfall near Boston. More a tsunami than a wave, the Great Puritan Migration, brought thousands across the Atlantic, nearly all seeking sanctuary in New England.
Lord Baltimore was granted a haven for persecuted English Catholics when that faith fell under the ever swinging pendulum of religious clashes. Maryland aimed for religious toleration and diversity, though that ideal failed in practice.
The Society of Friends, or Quakers, made up another sect hounded out of England. Britain’s enforcement of social deference, and class distinction, ran counter to this group’s simple belief in divine equality. Quakers, for example, refused to fight for the crown, nor swear oaths, or remove hats encountering their ‘betters.’ That impudence made the faith an unacceptable challenge to the status quo.
William Penn (Jr.) became a believer in Ireland, and determined the Crown’s treatment of Quakers unjust. After a series of internal struggles, King Charles II removed this group by granting Penn a large tract of land in the New World. Settling in the 1660’s, “Penn’s Woods,” or Pennsylvania settled the colony upon the egalitarian principles of Quakerism.
Scot settlers, known as Scots-Irish had resisted British hegemony for . . ., for . . ., well forever. (Think of Mel Gibson in Braveheart.) First taking refuge in Ireland, this collection of hardy individualists, made their way to America. Not the most sociable, or friendly bunch, these refugees ventured inland, settling along the length of the Appalachian Mountains. Tough and single-minded, this group transformed from British outcasts to self-reliant backcountry folk.
Virginia, the earliest chartered colony, advanced in a two-fold way; as an outpost against Spanish and French incursions, and to make money. At first a decidedly male society cultivated tobacco, rewarding adventurers and their patrons back home by generating enormous profits. Ships sailed up the James and York Rivers depositing scores of indentured servants, not only to empty debtors prisons, but to alleviate poverty and crime prevalent in English cities.
Transporting criminals across the Atlantic grew popular. The Crown issued a proprietary charter to James Oglethorpe, for Georgia. Oglethorpe, a social reformer, envisioned a haven for criminals to rehabilitate themselves, and begin anew.
All of these migrants risked dangerous Atlantic crossings for the same reason. Parliament and the Crown considered the Colonies as a giant flushing toilet. England’s solution to socially unacceptable populations, was expulsion to the New World.
Caution ought to guide current politicians eager to vilify and frame immigrants as sinister and disruptive. No one lightly pulls up roots, leaving behind all that is familiar. (Consider the human drama on April 1, 2021 where two toddlers were dropped over a border wall from the Mexican side).
Americans today view our 17th Century forebears as larger than life heroes, but their oppressors saw these same people as vermin–as dispensable troublemakers who threatened good social order. This human condition remains timeless, and loose talking politicians and opportunists must bear in mind the story of the nation they wish to govern.
*The Middle Passage was the glaring exception of those wishing to emigrate.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles available on Kindle.
Precise beginnings to recognizable endings, that is how American wars are recorded and remembered. ‘The Shot Heard Round the World’ to Yorktown, Fort Sumter to Appomattox, Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima; all in sequential order from the opening salvos, to the tense calm of ceasefire. And this arrangement has worked well for classrooms, historical fiction, television documentaries, and films. Still this approach has its limits, failing to consider the intricate causes, and lingering effects that set the stage for the next war. Here is an example from the past that isn’t commonly recalled—The Spanish American War (1898).
The island of Cuba blazed in revolt. Throughout the 1890’s local freedom fighters, including Jose Marti and Maximo Gomez, struggled to end 400 years of Spanish conquest. Alleging atrocities at the hands of their colonial oppressors, of burning villages and starving civilians, rebels monopolized banner headlines across America. Enterprising publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst mobilized their own forces, dispatching droves of journalists to the war-torn island.
Reporters soon filed embellished, sensationalized stories, and circulation quickly boomed. Hearst illustrator, Frederick Remington sailed to Havana, promptly cabling his boss that he had found no war. Hearst famously, and cynically countered, “you furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war.”
The resulting flood of salacious, skewed features gave birth to the “Yellow Press,” of tabloid journalism. Facts didn’t trouble these news editors, they were too busy raking in profits. American newspaperman also found assistance in the Cuban rebels themselves. Ensuring that America would intervene in the struggle, Cuban insurgents torched acres and acres of American-owned cane fields. Absentee-American sugar planters, losing revenues, railed for war, accosting McKinley to act.
As the last US President to have experienced battle, William McKinley hesitated to draw America into another armed conflict. But, in the face of fiery Cuba, the pressure grew fierce. Jingoists like Theodore Roosevelt, impatient to flex American muscle, demanded immediate action.
Still McKinley hesitated, understanding, what the young could not. A veteran of the Civil War, the President grasped the real cost of war, measured in blood, treasure, and humanity. Nonetheless, following the sinking of the US gunboat “Maine,” moored in Havana harbor, the President relented, and the Spanish American War began.
In the years that followed, the President’s worst fears were more than realized.
Characterized as a “Splendid Little War,” this conflict, contested at the dawn of the 20th Century, reaped endless bounty for mainland business interests.
The US annexed: Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, Guam, and the Philippine Islands in the Pacific.
To many, this step into world affairs proved worth every penny and every drop of American blood. The pace of American factories to produce goods far outstripped domestic consumption. Overseas markets quickly absorbed stockpiled goods, and in turn secured further demand. Besides, it was argued at the time, if America didn’t move quickly Great Britain, Russia, Japan, or France would gladly take over.
However, expansionist quickly faced an unexpected moral and legal dilemma. Were the native people living in these newly-American owned possessions protected by Constitutional law? Should the US government follow mainland custom, and promise eventual statehood for these far flung islands? Prior Indian policy provided no guideline, as islanders were in the majority, not residing in small, isolated pockets.
The Supreme Court soon obliged and settled this legal predicament. In a series of Court opinions beginning in 1901, the Insular Cases established a principle that despite America’s authority over island people, they could expect no civil protections. Essentially the Court ruled that “Rights don’t Follow the Flag.”
In the aftermath, Pacific and Caribbean islands became US territories, but Cuba did not. After ‘liberating’ the island from Spain, decorum prevented an out and out American takeover. Still, the embattled island could not be set free–too much had been expended in the conflict, and Cuba was too valuable.
In 1898 the Teller Amendment established a US military installation at Guantanamo Bay, followed in 1901 with the Platt Amendment, authorizing extended American control of Cuban affairs.
In the far Pacific, the McKinley administration opted to annex the Philippine Islands, rather than granting Filipino independence. This decision backfired triggering a bloody, colonial uprising. American Marines hunted resolute guerrilla insurgents in sweltering Filipino jungles; both sides perpetrating horrific atrocities (six decades before a similar war in Vietnam). American businessmen had designs on nearby China, and the Philippines offered deep natural harbors for passing American Vessels.
The US soon plunged into a world-wide race to carve up China. American business and political interests demanded an equal share of the Open Door to Chinese markets. By 1899 this multi national intrusion exploded into another bloody revolt, the Boxer Rebellion.
Young Chinese outraged by foreign exploitation; the trade in opium, the depletion of gold to pay for the opium, opium addiction, and western missionaries insisting on ‘saving’ the Chinese became too much. In the three year struggle 100,000 perished, foreign and Chinese.
In the end, there is no end. The hunger for colonies quickened into a global frenzy. An international arms race ensued, navies competing to outstrip their rivals for dominance. Countries with few colonies jumped into the fray scooping up whatever low fruit remained. Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy, relatively late on the imperial scene, headed into the Balkans and to Africa.
By 1914 the strain of fierce rivalry reached critical mass, engulfing first Europe, and then America into the horror of the First World War.
Beginnings and ends work in placing historic events, but with war there is only an endless sweeping pendulum.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.