Why a Contrarian History of the United States Is

Ilan Stavans

HNN July 20, 2014


ImperfectI’m not a historian by trade, nor do I want to be one. Historians must rediscover the past with rigor: with objectivity, attempting to humanize it. But the past cannot be exclusively the purview of historians; for better or worse, it belongs to all of us.

I’ve often been struck by the triumphalist single-sidedness—and, at times, nearsightedness—of American history. This, so the argument goes, is an exceptional nation made of exceptional individuals. What makes us exceptional as a country is the conviction that the United States has a responsibility above all other nations, that we are better—wiser, more ethical—than everyone else.

I didn’t grow up with this tacky indoctrination. I’m an immigrant from Mexico. After years of wandering, I chose to come to the United States in 1985, when I was in my early twenties. The reasons were simple: passionate about the life of the mind, I wanted to be part of an open society, to add my voice to it, to live where things mattered. Thirty years later, I frequently find myself complaining of the closing of the American mind: how intolerant it has become, its apathy toward other cultures.

Immigrants are like converts to a new religion. To be embraced, they need to undergo a dramatic process of adaptation. They need to shed their old clothes and dress up in new ones. They feel their choices—indeed, their entire existence—is being questioned all the time. So they must explain themselves to others.

I wrote A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States because, this being a nation of newcomers, I’m tired of the hypocritical way immigrants are constantly being described today in public discourse. And in the way they are seen as an appendix in the nation’s past. The focus is always on the “great white men” who created this nation, on how we imitated the political principles of the French Revolution, on how emancipation made us more humane. Freedom is the buzz word: nowhere on earth are people more free than here.

Really? Freedom, in my view, is wasted on Americans. Not because we’re free do we always know what to do with our freedom. Although, in truth, we aren’t as free as we pretend to be. Look at how corporate America constantly manipulates our taste. Look at our inefficient, lethargic, bankrupted political system, defined by leaders more interested in their reputation than in the well-being of the electorate. Is it true that we vote for them when immense amounts of money, frequently coming from anonymous sources, are shamelessly funneled to brainwash voters?

I don’t worry about the future because everything that happens always happens in the present. But the past does concern me. For it is how we explain ourselves that makes us act the way we do. So a revision of the past is crucial. Needless to say, there is no narrative of history—mine included, of course—that isn’t biased. What matters isn’t how subjective we are but how committed we are to skepticism. That is the basic message of my book: don’t take what you hear about our past on face value; and don’t leave it to others to tell it to you. Question everything about it: why it is what it is and how it came to be so.

The only value that is truly American is contrarianism: the right to go against the current.

A Most Imperfect Union isn’t a people’s history, as the New York Times has generously described it. I’m not an alumnus of the Howard Zinn approach to the past. Yes, the book focuses not only on the Founding Fathers and the figures of the Civil Rights Era but on those who are often left out, “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Yet it’s also about the history of sexuality in America, the history of food, the history of our toys, our relationship with the dead, the history of our dreams, the history of how we tell history.

Plus, it is American history with a Latino bent. The book isn’t written in traditional prose but in cartoons. In 2000, I collaborated with syndicated-cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz in Latino USA: A Cartoon History. We came to know each other serendipitously. After seeing Alcaraz’s satirical work in LA Weekly, I sent him a fan letter. Soon after, we decided to collaborate on a book-long retelling of Hispanic history in the United States. My purpose then was to cover an area rarely explored by historians: the coalescing nature of Latino life north of the Rio Grande. Up until then, that story was often compartmentalized into national sub-narratives: Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Dominican-Americans, Puerto Ricans in the mainland, and so on. But the true mission was more complex: to ask if Latinos actually have a shared, usable past; and, if so, what kind of past that might be.

To our surprise, the volume became a runaway success, adopted into high-school and college courses across the country. On occasion, Alcaraz and I, in our email correspondence, talked about a sequel. It wasn’t a serious proposition until John Sherer, the publisher of Basic Books, asked us to prepare a 15th-anniversary edition of Latino USA. When the possibility of embarking on a new project came up, it felt to me as if A Most Imperfect Union, rather than a sequel, could be seen as a chapter of this larger, more ambitious endeavor, the first having been a tree and the second the forest in which it stands. Now there is talk of doing, at some point soon, an even more epic installment: a cartoon history of the world, again from a skeptic’s viewpoint.

I wrote A Most Imperfect Union because I too am obsessed with the question of perfection in the United States. Why are we obsessed with the word?

I wrote it because I want to thank America for opening its door to me and because I want to keep the door open to others, though not without offering some cautionary greetings. The country has been good to me; and I want to think that I’ve been good to the country as well.

I now know it’s easy to complain about how innocuous that conversation on ideas in America has become. A much harder —and more significant— task is to change its tenor.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He is the author of “A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States” (Basis Books, illustrated by Lalo Alcaraz). His new book, “Reclaiming Travel” (Duke University Press, with Joshua Ellison), will be out in the spring.


Black Southern Voters, Poised to Play a Historic Role

Nate Cohn

The New York Times   July 18, 2014

Southern black voters don’t usually play a decisive role in national elections. They were systematically disenfranchised for 100 years after the end of the Civil War. Since the days of Jim Crow, a fairly unified white Southern vote has often determined the outcome of elections.

This November could be different. Nearly five decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, black voters in the South are poised to play a pivotal role in this year’s midterm elections. If Democrats win the South and hold the Senate, they will do so because of Southern black voters.

The timing — 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and 49 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act — is not entirely coincidental. The trends increasing the clout of black voters reflect a complete cycle of generational replacement in the post-Jim Crow era. White voters who came of age as loyal Democrats have largely died off, while the vast majority of black voters have been able to vote for their entire adult lives — and many have developed the habit of doing so.

This year’s closest contests include North CarolinaLouisiana and Georgia. Black voters will most likely represent more than half of all Democratic voters in Louisiana and Georgia, and nearly half in North Carolina. Arkansas, another state with a large black population, is also among the competitive states.

Southern black voters have already made their mark on this year’s midterm elections. Last month, Senator Thad Cochran defeated a Tea Party challenger with the help of a surge in black turnout in a Republican run-off in Mississippi.

Black voters in the South have played an important role in a handful of federal elections since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the presidency with the help of black voters in the Deep South. Democrats also won many competitive Senate seats in the South in 1998. Black voters have even played a decisive role in some states that will be crucial this November: They represented about half of Senator Mary Landrieu’s supporters in Louisiana 2002 and 2008; and in North Carolina in 2008, nearly half of President Obama’s supporters were black.

But there has not been a year since Reconstruction when a party has depended so completely on black voters, in so many Southern states, in such a close national contest. President Carter, for instance, won by a comfortable margin in most of Dixie, with strong support among white voters. In 1998, Senate control was not at stake, and Mr. Obama’s 2008 victory in North Carolina was icing on the cake.

If Democrats win this November, black voters will probably represent a larger share of the winning party’s supporters in important states than at any time since Reconstruction. Their influence is not just a product of the Senate map. It also reflects the collapse in Southern white support for Democrats, an increase in black turnout and the reversal of a century-long trend of blackoutmigration from the South.

State-level Democrats performed fairly well among Southern white voters in the decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. A majority of white voters were still self-identified Democrats who formed their partisan allegiances when white supremacist Democrats ruled Dixie. As a result, Southern Democrats did not usually depend on black voters, who generally turned out at lower rates than white voters.

That era has come to an end. Today, the overwhelming majority of voters, white and black alike, reached voting age after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Southern politics are now defined by the post-Civil Rights era: The old generation of Southern white Democrats has almost entirely departed the electorate, leaving white voters overwhelmingly Republican. Mr. Obama won about 15 percent of white voters in the Deep South in 2012.

Democrats lamented low black turnout for decades, but Southern black turnout today rivals or occasionally exceeds that of white voters. That’s in part because black voters, for the first time, have largely been eligible to vote since they turned 18. They have therefore had as many opportunities as their white counterparts to be targeted by campaigns, mobilized by interest groups or motivated by political causes.

Mr. Obama is part of the reason for higher black turnout, which surpassed white turnout nationally in the 2012 presidential election, according to the census. But black turnout had been increasing steadily, even before Mr. Obama sought the presidency. In 1998, unexpectedly high black turnout allowed Democrats to win a handful of contests in the Deep South; in 2002, Ms. Landrieu won a Senate runoff with a surge in black turnout.

The Supreme Court’s decision last year to strike down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act unleashed a wave of new laws with a disparate impact on black voters, including cuts in early voting and photo-identification requirements.

These laws will disenfranchise an unknown number of eligible voters, but probably not so many as to have a big effect on election results. In Georgia, where a voter ID law has been in place since 2007, the black turnout rate has increased to nearly match that of whites.

The post-Jim Crow era also led to the end and eventual reversal of the Great Migration, the exodus of blacks from the South to escape racist laws and seek better economic opportunities. The South was home to about 90 percent of the nation’s African-Americans until the beginning of the 20th century. By 1970, 53 percent of blacks lived there.

This trend reversed in the decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Today, 57 percent of black Americans live in the South; more than one million black Southerners today were born in the Northeast.

Nowhere has the remigration done more to improve Democratic chances than in Georgia, where Democrats have a chance to win an open Senate seat this November. Since 2000, as the black population has risen, the share of registered voters who are white has dropped to 59 percent, from 72 percent.

The Democratic nominee in Georgia is Michelle Nunn, a candidate symbolic of generational change in her own right. She is the daughter of Sam Nunn, a conservative Democratic former senator from rural, downstate Georgia who was first elected in 1972. If Ms. Nunn wins this November, it will be with only a handful of the rural, Southern white voters who adored her father.

The state’s growing black population will give her a chance to win with less than one-third of the white vote, a tally that would have ensured defeat for Democrats just a few years ago. Her pathway to victory would be unrecognizable to her father, who never won re-election with less than 80 percent of the vote.


The Shocking Ways We Talked About Birth Control in 1932

Richard Kreitner 

The Nation  Jujy 10, 2014


Denys Wortman

“The doctor’s here again and it ud better be a boy, ’cause there’s no more room in our bed.” (This illustration by Denys Wortman appeared in the January 27, 1932, issue of The Nation. The Museum of the City of New York exhibited a major retrospective on Wortman in 2010.)

The Supreme Court’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision of late June returned birth control to the center of the national conversation. One might have thought that unnecessary this far into the twenty-first century; one would have been wrong.

A depressingly relevant—if fascinating—exercise it is, then, to revisit a special issue about birth control The Nation published on January 27, 1932, featuring contributions from some of the most authoritative writers on the subject, at that time and ever. Much of the material in the issue is surprising. Some of it is downright shocking.

An introductory editorial—presumably written by then–managing editor Freda Kirchwey—cited “the overshadowing importance of the question at this grave juncture of the world’s economic history.” In the midst of the Depression, when so many had so little to eat, birth control was treated as an economic issue as much as it was a social one.

It is also worth keeping in mind that the topic motivating The Nation’s 1932 special issue was not employer-guaranteed access to contraception—as is the issue today—but the right to distribute information about birth control at all. The Nation’s January 1932 editorial demanded that “no limits of any kind be set to the dissemination of facts about birth control and to urge its practice.”

The editorial continued:

In the first essay in the issue, Margaret Sanger writes that Pope Pius XI’s position on birth control is evidence of a more profound separation between ordinary people and the dictates of that embodiment of organized religion:

That last phrase is sure to set off alarm bells in the minds of progressives in 2014. As well it should.

One of the more uncomfortable aspects about the rise of the birth control movement in the United States is its intimate connection to the concurrent rise of eugenicism: each saw the other as an instrument for its own ends. Arguments for the scientific pruning of the population served as arguments for the technology which could, with relative humanity, get the job done. But it is easily and somewhat conveniently forgotten that these were not two movements partnered together for strategic or political purposes. Rather worse, some of the early twentieth century’s birth control pioneers widely and willfully employed eugenicist language to argue for the proliferation of birth control among lesser human beings.

The Nation special issue from 1932 is loaded with such language.

The theme develops slowly.

Witness this passage from the essay by Henry Pratt Fairchild, a sociologist who was president of the American Eugenics Society and a founder of Planned Parenthood:

The most significant aspect…of birth control is as an indispensable instrument in the hands of modern, socially conscious man, to be used in the subjection of population growth to the same deliberate, rational, and farseeing manipulation that he prides himself on applying to every other great human interest. This is something quite apart from its utility in solving the problems of personal and family life. It is a phase of that broad, intelligent, scientific self-direction of human groups which can rightly be designated social engineering.

The essay by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, best known by graduates of American high schools as the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is surely the most cringe-inducing contribution to the special issue. Titled, not subtly, “Birth Control, Religion and the Unfit,” Gilman’s essay begins with an excoriation of “admitted defectives living on our taxes. They are not only passively injurious as not earning their own livings, but actively injurious as consuming the livings of useful people.

We are mortified at our moronic average, alarmed at the increasing numbers of those far below it. Further, we find that the unfitter they are, the more lavishly they fulfill what some religionists assure us is the divine command—to increase and multiply and replenish the earth. Confronted with this difficulty, we propose to check the undesirable increase by the simple device of sterilizing the unfit. Unfortunately, when urging necessary legislation on the subject, we meet not only religious objections, but those of the unfit who are voters.

On further thought, seeking to antedate the disadvantageous reproduction, we seize on the benefits of birth control, a practice which does not interfere with the pleasures of the unfit but saves society from their reduplication. Again we are met by the indifference of the unfit as voters, and mere ignorance and stupidity are likewise often backed by the enormous power of religion.

The plea that concludes Gilman’s essay demonstrates as well as any other text of the era how deeply intertwined progressive and feminist arguments for birth control were with what might be called, to adapt a phrase, “a troublesome inheritance.”

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Even on an issue so directly, almost exclusively, related to women, it cannot be wrong to conclude with the wisdom of John Dewey. His contribution to The Nation’s 1932 special issue on birth control is worth quoting at length:

The suppression of information about birth control was ended by a Court of Appeals case in 1936. It was the beginning of a long line of victories for the emancipation of women and for reproductive rights. In the Hobby Lobby case and in its subsequent exemption of Wheaton College from the assurance of birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act, a majority of Supreme Court justices have demonstrated their willingness to initiate a widespread rollback of those successes. History should inform our defensive strategy, as should a renewed and long-overdue debate about what progress really means.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.


Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters on the Mall in Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963.

MLK’s Case for Reparations Included Disadvantaged Whites

Jonathan Rieder

The Root July 15, 2014

What does white America owe black America? To even broach that question 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 seems straight-out wacky. Did not the election of a black president redeem the nation? At a minimum, it’s rude—refusing to avert the eyes from that elephant in the room: “America begins in black plunder and white democracy.” That’s how Ta-Nehisi Coates deemed it recently in his extraordinary “The Case for Reparations.”

Far from fringe lunacy, the idea of a primal debt was obvious to Martin Luther King Jr. Exactly 50 years ago this month in Why We Can’t Wait, his Harper & Row account of the Birmingham, Ala., protests, he made his own impassioned case for compensation. And yet no matter how much he shared Coates’ desire to square accounts, King would settle on a rival solution for the crimes of slavery and all the forms of racism that succeeded it.

In the rapture of King’s crescendo at the March on Washington, it’s easy to forget the language of bankers that pervaded the first half of “I Have a Dream” (pdf): “America had defaulted on this promissory note” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” One year later, in Why We Can’t Wait, he was not coy about the nation’s “need to pay a long overdue debt to its citizens of color.” He retold the story of his 1959 visit to India, where Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru recounted all the preferential policies that aided the untouchables: “This is our way of atoning for the centuries of injustices we have inflicted upon these people.”

Invoking the sacred precedent of “our fighting men [in World War ll]” who “had been deprived of certain advantages and opportunities,” King ticked off all the things—the GI Bill of Rights—that were done “to make up for this.” Then King pivoted and pounced: “Certainly the Negro has been deprived” and just as surely “robbed of the wages of his toil.” You didn’t need a course in logic to complete the syllogism.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not diminish King’s zeal for reparations. “Frederick Douglass said we should have 40 acres and a mule,” he told a mass meeting not long before his death. Instead, the nation left blacks “penniless and illiterate after 244 years of slavery.” Calculating that $20 a week for the 4 million slaves would have added up to $800 billion, he noted acerbically, “They owe us a lot of money.”

The failure to repair thus added a new crime to the original one. It was like putting a man in jail and discovering his innocence years later: “And then you go up to him and say, ‘You are free,’ but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money … to get on his feet in life again. Every code of jurisprudence would rise up against that.”

There was still one more twist in the torment to come. All those “white peasants from Europe” who enjoyed the largesse of land grants and low-interest loans “are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. … It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Are the progeny of those “white peasants” readier to reckon with our racist legacy? Thirty-five years ago, a Brooklyn, N.Y., woman fumed to me about the TV program Roots, “If they keep shoving that stuff down our throats, there’s never going to be peace. … that was over 200 years ago that this slavery bit was!”

Today, countless Americans think blacks have received compensation in the form of anti-poverty money and quotas. As one person told political consultant Stanley Greenberg (pdf), “Didn’t they get 40 acres and a mule? That’s more than I got.” West Indians and African immigrants, too, sometimes complain that black Americans are too racial, and many millennials who used to thrill to President Barack Obama’s exalted flights are preoccupied with their own plights and the grit of a post-Lehman Brothers economy.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of whites even reject apologies for slavery, which cost nothing save one’s dignity. Many of the supporters of affirmative action whom Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman queried in the 1990s endorsed the remedy only if blacks were not its sole recipients and the rationale was universal: “help people who are out of work” rather than “because of the historic injustices blacks have suffered.”

It’s possible that attaching a race to the injustice made the respondents squirm. Perhaps it forced whites to dwell on this unsettling fact: Our success in part is a windfall, reaped from the access black exclusion gave us to jobs, slots in housing markets and much else.

In truth, white psyches and circumstances are too varied to sustain such generalities. The woman who recoiled from “that slavery bit” didn’t lack empathy. She filled up with emotion as she observed, “The blacks were treated worse than animals; they were taken up from their own happy soil.” When Greenberg returned to McComb County, Mich. (pdf), before the 2008 election, some of the same Reagan Democrats (or their children) who had seen blacks as the source of all their ills in the 1980s and heard Jesse Jackson’s “Our time has come” as “Your time is over,” could now acknowledge America’s special burden: “We did hold them back, and a lot of people were cheated.” As for Sniderman’s respondents, likely many of them saw universalism as a different, equally righteous take on healing and helping.

Maybe, then, it’s best to settle for those modest moral advances, especially if that’s the price of any coalition of conscience that might some day be motivated to remedy the ills of suffering Americans. Better to leave the fuller atonement to those Deep South museums that have confronted their louche local past; people who exit Twelve Years a Slave in turmoil; lawsuits seeking compensation for specific violations like the racist rampage in Tulsa, Okla. Anything more perfect might be the enemy of the good, even the moral good.


Ultimately, in the very chapter of Why We Can’t Wait in which he laid out the justice of reparations, King rejected the idea of recompense for blacks alone. It’s not that he was prepared to abandon this equation of restorative justice: The nation that did something special against the Negro had to do something special for him.

But the special thing that King proposed—“A gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial”—left plenty of room for white “veterans” in the mix. He offered solace to the least of these, no matter what their complexion. Inevitably, there was a shrewdness to this inclusion, part of the effort to woo white allies and crystallize the liberal coalition on race that had been growing since Birmingham. It was also, King underlined, “a simple matter of justice.”

Already in 1964, King was looking beyond the Civil Rights Act. He could grasp its limited power to effect “improvements” in the Negro’s “way of life.” He could see that rights and respect might arrive more quickly than economic equality. He could also see that however much white supremacy left blacks vulnerable to inimical forces, the forces could be unsentimentally free of bigotry and wreak havoc on whites and blacks alike.

At the March on Washington, King invited whites to join the  “we” who could sing, “Free at last … we are free at last,” and thus share in bondage and deliverance. He did something just as generous inWhy We Can’t Wait. Likely it took a Christian whose idea of a fair exchange was blessing those who curse you to offer poor and middling Southern whites this face-saving gift: He defined them not as beneficiaries of white supremacy but as “victims of slavery” who suffered their own “derivative bondage.” This wasn’t masochism talking, but a faith at once hard-boiled and brimming with grace.

What, then, about balancing the ledger for specifically black injuries? Throughout Why We Can’t Wait, there are hints that resolving matters of policy and politics didn’t still all the feelings churning within King. “A price can be placed on unpaid wages,” he underlined, but “no amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries.” He rejected an easy “four-minute atonement” as inadequate to “400 years of sinning.”

Atone, you sinners! That is the sound of the muffled voice of the preacher rising up through the printed page. And in the end it seems Coates, too, is seeking something similar: recognition as much as reparations; “not a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe” but “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.”

King harbored no illusions that whites as a whole had the moral gumption to undergo that ordeal. In the Letter From the Birmingham Jail, he observed, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.”

The evidence for pessimism only intensified as 1964 unfolded. George Wallace broke out of his Southern lair. White backlash quickened in the North. By 1968 King could warn, “a nation that put as many Japanese in a concentration camp … could put black people in concentration camps.”

And so, in the absence of full justice, the preacher could be a chastising prophet, who once told a mass meeting: “Do you know that in America the white man sought to annihilate the Indian, literally to wipe him out, and he made a national policy that said in substance, the only good Indian is a dead Indian? Now, a nation that got started like that has a lot of repentin’ to do.”

But even rebuke did not close the case. There remained the work of memory and mourning. King never stopped honoring that history, whose pain could not be fully assuaged by rebuke or recognition. In the refuge of a black church, in the nurturant embrace of his people, he grieved: “We read on the Statue of Liberty that America is the mother of exiles.” But whites “never evinced the maternal care and concern for its black exiles who were brought to this nation in chains. And isn’t it the ultimate irony … that the Negro could sing in one of its sorrow songs, ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.’”

As the audience erupted in applause, King demanded, “What sense of estrangement, what sense of rejection, what sense of hurt could cause a people to use such a metaphor?”

Jonathan Rieder, a professor of sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University, is the author most recently of Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation and The Word of the Lord Is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King Jr.


OVAL TEAM President Richard Nixon with National-Security Adviser Henry Kissinger (right) and Kissinger’s deputy, Alexander M. Haig Jr., 1972.

OVAL TEAM President Richard Nixon with National-Security Adviser Henry Kissinger (right) and Kissinger’s deputy, Alexander M. Haig Jr., 1972.


Audio: Nixon’s Secret White House Tapes

HNN  July 14, 2014

In an adaptation from their forthcoming book, Vanity Fair contributing editor Douglas Brinkley and historian Luke A. Nichter draw on 3,700 hours of President Nixon’s White House tapes to convey the inner workings of Nixon’s action-packed first term. Over the last several years, the tapes—many of which were muffled and, at times, indecipherable—have been cleaned up, pored over, and painstakingly transcribed. The result—excerpted below—includes conversations with Nixon’s national-security adviser Henry Kissinger, Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, and chief domestic aide John Ehrlichman is a verbatim narrative of a pivotal period in Nixon’s presidency that portrays him as a geopolitical strategist, a crisis manager, and a duplicitous paranoid. 


Go here for the article.

How Coffee Fueled the Civil War

Jon Grispan

The New York Times  July 9, 2014

index2It was the greatest coffee run in American history. The Ohio boys had been fighting since morning, trapped in the raging battle of Antietam, in September 1862. Suddenly, a 19-year-old William McKinley appeared, under heavy fire, hauling vats of hot coffee. The men held out tin cups, gulped the brew and started firing again. “It was like putting a new regiment in the fight,” their officer recalled. Three decades later, McKinley ran for president in part on this singular act of caffeinated heroism.

At the time, no one found McKinley’s act all that strange. For Union soldiers, and the lucky Confederates who could scrounge some, coffee fueled the war. Soldiers drank it before marches, after marches, on patrol, during combat. In their diaries, “coffee” appears more frequently than the words “rifle,” “cannon” or “bullet.” Ragged veterans and tired nurses agreed with one diarist: “Nobody can ‘soldier’ without coffee.”

Union troops made their coffee everywhere, and with everything: with water from canteens and puddles, brackish bays and Mississippi mud, liquid their horses would not drink. They cooked it over fires of plundered fence rails, or heated mugs in scalding steam-vents on naval gunboats. When times were good, coffee accompanied beefsteaks and oysters; when they were bad it washed down raw salt-pork and maggoty hardtack. Coffee was often the last comfort troops enjoyed before entering battle, and the first sign of safety for those who survived.


A sketch of exchanged Union prisoners receiving rations aboard the ship New York. Library of Congress

The Union Army encouraged this love, issuing soldiers roughly 36 pounds of coffee each year. Men ground the beans themselves (some carbines even had built-in grinders) and brewed it in little pots called muckets. They spent much of their downtime discussing the quality of that morning’s brew. Reading their diaries, one can sense the delight (and addiction) as troops gushed about a “delicious cup of black,” or fumed about “wishy-washy coffee.” Escaped slaves who joined Union Army camps could always find work as cooks if they were good at “settling” the coffee – getting the grounds to sink to the bottom of the unfiltered muckets.

For much of the war, the massive Union Army of the Potomac made up the second-largest population center in the Confederacy, and each morning this sprawling city became a coffee factory. First, as another diarist noted, “little campfires, rapidly increasing to hundreds in number, would shoot up along the hills and plains.” Then the encampment buzzed with the sound of thousands of grinders simultaneously crushing beans. Soon tens of thousands of muckets gurgled with fresh brew.

Confederates were not so lucky. The Union blockade kept most coffee out of seceded territory. One British observer noted that the loss of coffee “afflicts the Confederates even more than the loss of spirits,” while an Alabama nurse joked that the fierce craving for caffeine would, somehow, be the Union’s “means of subjugating us.” When coffee was available, captured or smuggled or traded with Union troops during casual cease-fires, Confederates wrote rhapsodically about their first sip.

The problem spilled over to the Union invaders. When Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union troops decided to live off plunder and forage as they cut their way through Georgia and South Carolina, soldiers complained that while food was plentiful, there were no beans to be found. “Coffee is only got from Uncle Sam,” an Ohio officer grumbled, and his men “could scarce get along without it.”

Confederate soldiers and civilians would not go without. Many cooked up coffee substitutes, roasting corn or rye or chopped beets, grinding them finely and brewing up something warm and brown. It contained no caffeine, but desperate soldiers claimed to love it. Gen. George Pickett, famous for that failed charge at Gettysburg, thanked his wife for the delicious “coffee” she had sent, gushing: “No Mocha or Java ever tasted half so good as this rye-sweet-potato blend!”

Did the fact that Union troops were near jittery from coffee, while rebels survived on impotent brown water, have an impact on the outcome of the conflict? Union soldiers certainly thought so. Though they rarely used the word “caffeine,” in their letters and diaries they raved about that “wonderful stimulant in a cup of coffee,” considering it a “nerve tonic.” One depressed soldier wrote home that he was surprised that he was still living, and reasoned: “what keeps me alive must be the coffee.”

Others went further, considering coffee a weapon of war. Gen. Benjamin Butler ordered his men to carry coffee in their canteens, and planned attacks based on when his men would be most caffeinated. He assured another general, before a fight in October 1864, that “if your men get their coffee early in the morning you can hold.”

Coffee did not win the war – Union material resources and manpower played a much, much bigger role than the quality of its Java – but it might say something about the victors. From one perspective, coffee was emblematic of the new Northern order of fast-paced wage labor, a hurried, business-minded, industrializing nation of strivers. For years, Northern bosses had urged their workers to switch from liquor to coffee, dreaming of sober, caffeinated, untiring employees. Southerners drank coffee too – in New Orleans especially – but the way Union soldiers gulped the stuff at every meal pointed ahead toward the world the war made, a civilization that lives on today in every office breakroom.

But more than that, coffee was simply delicious, soothing – “the soldier’s chiefest bodily consolation” – for men and women pushed beyond their limits. Caffeine was secondary. Soldiers often brewed coffee at the end of long marches, deep in the night while other men assembled tents. These grunts were too tired for caffeine to make a difference; they just wanted to share a warm cup – of Brazilian beans or scorched rye – before passing out.

This explains their fierce love. When one captured Union soldier was finally freed from a prison camp, he meditated on his experiences. Over his first cup of coffee in more than a year, he wondered if he could ever forgive “those Confederate thieves for robbing me of so many precious doses.” Getting worked up, he fumed, “Just think of it, in three hundred days there was lost to me, forever, so many hundred pots of good old Government Java.”

So when William McKinley braved enemy fire to bring his comrades a warm cup – an act memorialized in a stone monument at Antietam today – he knew what it meant to them.

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Jon Grinspan

Jon Grinspan is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Reseña de “Estados Unidos más allá de la crisis”

Castillo Fernández, Dídimo y Gandásegui (Hijo), Marco A. (coordinadores): Estados Unidos más allá de la crisis, México, Siglo XXI y CLACSO, 2012. 537 páginas.*

Por Leandro Morgenfeld

Vecinos en conflicto 8 de julio de 2014

UnknownPara comprender América Latina hay que estudiar a Estados Unidos. Acostumbrados a interpretar nuestro pasado y presente a través del prisma de la academia anglosajona, a primera vista puede parecer extraño o antojadizo que se analice el devenir de la crisis estadounidense desde el punto de vista latinoamericano. Y eso es justamente lo que se propone este libro: desentrañar diversas aristas vinculadas con la actual crisis de la potencia hegemónica mundial, desde el punto de vista latinoamericano. Luego de seis años de labor colectiva, un conjunto de intelectuales de la región, en el marco de un Grupo de Trabajo del Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales (CLACSO), presenta este libro, el tercero luego de Crisis de hegemonía de Estados Unidos y Estados Unidos: la crisis sistémica y las nuevas condiciones de legitimación. Coordinado por los sociólogos Dídimo Castillo Fernández y Marco A. Gandásegui, hijo, esta obra de nutre de 20 capítulos -sus autores son reconocidos investigadores de Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Chile, Cuba, México, Panamá, Puerto Rico y Estados Unidos-, divididos en los tres grandes ejes que la articulan: Crisis mundial o crisis del capitalismo; Crisis de hegemonía y decadencia interna en Estados Unidos; Nueva geopolítica de Estados Unidos, escenarios para América Latina.
La primera parte trata sobre la crisis desatada en 2008 y las consecuencias para Estados Unidos y el resto del mundo a mediano y largo plazo. Theotonio Dos Santos analiza el carácter estructural de la misma; Carlos Eduardo Martins la compara con la de 1929 y avanza en planteos teóricos, abrevando en Marx, Braudel, Dos Santos y Marini; Orlando Caputo Leiva rebate los argumentos de quienes sostienen que es una crisis financiera; Jaime Ornelas Delgado se centra en el agotamiento del modelo económico neoliberal; y Gandásegui se ocupa de la crisis de hegemonía del sistema mundo, vinculándola con el cambio de época en el desarrollo capitalista.
La segunda parte plantea el debate sobre la declinación de Estados Unidos a nivel mundial. Adrián Sotelo Valencia sostiene el carácter estructural y global de la crisis, y discute con la idea de su posible encapsulamiento a partir de medidas correctivas; Katia Cobarrubias Hernández explica cómo la hegemonía financiera y monetaria de Estados Unidos, desde 1971, fue una de las causas de los desequilibrios actuales y terminó debilitando el propio dominio económico estadounidense; Daniel Munevar se centra en el déficit fiscal de Estados Unidos, su vínculo con la deuda pública y las opciones para evitar la depresión económica; Fabio Grobart Sunshine analiza el agotamiento relativo y la pérdida de liderazgo de Estados Unidos en materia de ciencia y tecnología, y las promesas incumplidas de Obama en relación a ese sector de punta; Castillo Fernández analiza los cambios en el proceso de producción y trabajo que acompañaron el neoliberalismo y el crecimiento de la informalidad, el desempleo y la precarización laboral, vinculados al aumento de la explotación; Alejandro I. Canales estudia la inmigración latinoamericana y la relaciona con el proceso de creciente precarización del trabajo; James Martín Cypher analiza las consecuencias regresivas de la crisis actual para los trabajadores y la clase media; y Jorge Hernández Martínez examina las redefiniciones ideológicas y los cambios en la geopolítica mundial a partir de la asunción de Obama, esencialmente continuador de la política exterior de Bush.
La tercera parte se centra en la nueva geopolítica de Estados Unidos, la política exterior de Obama hacia América Latina -en su primer año y medio como presidente- y también en los potenciales escenarios para la región. Darío Salinas Firgueredo analiza las supuestas amenazas actuales a la seguridad estadounidense, la ubicación de la región en la agenda de ese país y las respuestas latinoamericanas; Luis Suárez Salazar critica las estrategias del “gobierno permanente” de Estados Unidos hacia el resto del continente americano, enfatizando las continuidades Bush-Clinton-Bush(h)-Obama, por sobre las rupturas; Silvina M. Romano desarrolla una perspectiva crítica del vínculo entre democracia y desarrollo, y su relación con la seguridad, desde los años sesenta hasta la actualidad; Jaime Zuluaga Nieto se centra en los cambios en las políticas de seguridad y en su incidencia en América Latina, desde los atentados de septiembre de 2001; María José Rodríguez Rejas explica cómo las transformaciones en la política de seguridad hemisférica inciden en el proceso de militarización de América Latina, enfocándose en los proyectos del Plan México y el Plan Colombia; Catalina Toro Pérez indaga en las continuidades en la política de Washington hacia la región y se pregunta si hay posibilidad de alternativas; y Gian Carlo Delgado Ramos estudia el papel de los recursos naturales -en particular los minerales estratégicos- en las relaciones interamericanas, contraponiendo las nociones de seguridad que plantea el gobierno estadounidense con el concepto de “seguridad ecológica”.
Además, completan el libro una Presentación, escrita por Theotonio dos Santos, un Prólogo, de John Saxe-Fernández, y una Introducción, a cargo de los dos coordinadores de la obra. El reconocido teórico brasilero de la teoría de la dependencia reafirma justamente la necesidad imperiosa de estudiar a Estados Unidos y el sistema imperial desde el punto de vista de América Latina y recuerda los obstáculos enfrentados desde los años setenta: “Fue difícil establecer una tradición de investigación sobre Estados Unidos en la región. La idea es de que bastaban los estudios hechos en Estados Unidos para informarnos sobre lo que era y lo que pasaba en ese país” (p. 7). Reivindica este libro, entonces, como parte de la lucha contra los retrasos de la academia latinoamericana en institucionalizar el estudio sistemático de los intereses y estrategias de los poderes del centro del sistema imperialista, producto de la mentalidad subordinada y dependiente que promueven las oligarquías locales y sus aliados externos.
Este análisis del centro imperial, desde una de las regiones históricamente más subordinadas al poder de Washington, se inscribe en la creciente preocupación por la reversión de esa dependencia. En palabras de Saxe-Fernández, “Los lazos oligárquico-imperiales de sujeción económica, empresarial y policial militar, se basan en la propensión histórica de las oligarquías criollas a estar satisfechas y hasta propiciar arreglos de coparticipación en la apropiación del excedente y en el manejo fiscal, presupuestal y de seguridad de las naciones que depredan: ya hay condiciones y contradicciones para superar esa trabazón de intereses” (p. 21). El desafío de este colectivo de investigación, que se proyecta a futuro en el marco de un nuevo Grupo de Trabajo CLACSO para el período 2013-2016, es entender el carácter de la crisis estadounidense, el devenir de la declinación imperial y las alternativas que este proceso presenta para Nuestra América en el siglo XXI, en la marco de su histórica lucha emancipadora.

*Revista de la Red Intercátedras de Historia de América Latina Contemporánea (Segunda Época), Año 1, N° 1, Córdoba, Junio de 2014. ISSN 2250.7264


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