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Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

What Happened the Last Time Republicans Had a Majority This Huge? They lost it.

Josh Zeitz

Politico.com    November 15, 2014

Since last week, many Republicans have been feeling singularly nostalgic for November 1928, and with good reason. It’s the last time that the party won such commanding majorities in the House of Representatives while also dominating the Senate. And, let’s face it, 1928 was a good time.

America was rich—or so it seemed. Charles Lindbergh was on the cover of Time. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Jean Lussier went over Niagara Falls in a rubber ball (thus trumping the previous year’s vogue for flagpole sitting). Mickey Mouse made his first appearance in a talkie (“Steamboat Willie”). Irving Aaronson and His Commanders raised eyebrows with the popular—and, for its time, scandalous—song, “Let’s Misbehave,” and presidential nominee Herbert Hoover gave his Democratic opponent, Al Smith, a shellacking worthy of the history books.

The key takeaway: It’s been a really, really long time since Republicans have owned Capitol Hill as they do now.

But victory can be a fleeting thing. In 1928, Republicans won 270 seats in the House. They were on top of the world. Two years later, they narrowly lost their majority. Two years after that, in 1932, their caucus shrunk to 117 members and the number of Republican-held seats in the Senate fell to just 36. To borrow the title of a popular 1929 novel (which had nothing whatsoever to do with American politics): Goodbye to all that.

A surface explanation for the quick rise and fall of the GOP House majority of 1928 is the Great Depression. As the party in power, Republicans owned the economy, and voters punished them for it. In this sense, today’s Republicans have no historical parallel to fear. Voters—at least a working majority of the minority who turned out last week—clearly blame Barack Obama for the lingering aftershocks of the recent economic crash.

But what if the Republicans of 1928 owed their demise to a more fundamental force? What if it was demography, not economics, that truly killed the elephant?

In fact, the Great Depression was just one factor in the GOP’s stunning reversal of fortune, and in the 1930 cycle that saw Republicans lose their commanding House majority it was probably a minor factor. To be sure, the Republicans of yesteryear were victims of historical contingency (the Great Depression), but they also failed to appreciate and prepare for a long-building trend—the rise of a new urban majority comprised of over 14 million immigrants, and many millions more of their children. Democrats did see the trend, and they built a majority that lasted half a century.

The lesson for President Obama and the Democrats is to go big—very, very big—on immigration reform. Like the New Dealers, today’s Democrats have a unique opportunity to build a majority coalition that dominates American politics well into the century.

***

For the 1928 GOP House majority, victory was unusually short-lived. About one in five GOP House members elected in the Hoover landslide served little more than a year and a half before losing their seats in November 1930.

On a surface level, the Great Depression was to blame.

The stock market crash of October 1929 destroyed untold wealth. Shares in Eastman Kodak plunged from a high of $264.75 to $150. General Electric, $403 to $168.13. General Motors, $91.75 to $33.50. In the following months, millions of men and women were thrown out of work. Tens of thousands of businesses shut their doors and never reopened.

But in the 1920s—before the rise of pensions and 401Ks, college savings accounts and retail investment vehicles—very few Americans were directly implicated in the market. Moreover, in the context of their recent experience, the sudden downtick of 1929-1930 was jarring but not altogether unusual. Hoover later recalled that “for some time after the crash,” most businessmen simply did not perceive “that the danger was any more than that of run-of-the-mill, temporary slumps such as had occurred at three-to-seven year intervals in the past.”

By April 1930, stocks had recouped 20 percent of lost value and seemed on a steady course to recovery. Bank failures, though vexing, were occurring at no greater a clip than the decade’s norm. Yes, gross national product fell 12.6 percent in just one year, and roughly 8.9 percent of able-bodied Americans were out of work. But events were not nearly as dire as in 1921, when a recession sent GNP plunging 24 percent and 11.9 percent of workers were unemployed.

In fact, Americans in the Jazz Age were accustomed to a great deal of economic volatility and risk exposure. It was the age of Scott and Zelda, Babe Ruth, the Charleston, Clara Bow and Colleen Moore—the Ford Model T and the radio set. But it was also an era of massive wealth and income inequality. In these days before the emergence of the safety net—before unemployment and disability insurance—most industrial workers expected to be without work for several months of each year. For farm workers, the entire decade was particularly unforgiving, as a combination of domestic over-production and foreign competition drove down crop prices precipitously.

In hindsight, we know that voters in November 1930 were standing on the edge of a deep canyon. But in the moment, hard times struck many Americans as a normal, cyclical part of their existence.

Unsurprisingly, then, many House and local races in 1930 hinged more on cultural issues—especially on Prohibition, which in many districts set “wet” Democrats against “dry” Republicans—than economic ones.

If the Depression was not a singular determinant in the 1930 elections, neither had Herbert Hoover yet acquired an undeserved reputation for callous indifference to human suffering. Today, we think of Hoover as the laissez-faire foil to Franklin Roosevelt’s brand of muscular liberalism. But in 1930, Hoover was still widely regarded as a progressive Republican who, in his capacity as U.S. relief coordinator, saved Europe from starvation during World War I. When he was elected president, recalled a prominent journalist, we “were in a mood for magic … We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably and confidently to watch problems being solved.”

In 1929 and 1930, Hoover acted swiftly to address what was still a seemingly routine economic emergency. He jawboned business leaders into maintaining job rolls and wages. He cajoled the Federal Reserve System into easing credit. He requested increased appropriations for public works and grew the federal budget to its largest-ever peacetime levels. In most contemporary press accounts, he had not yet acquired the stigma of a loser.

Still, in 1930 Hoover’s party took a beating. Republicans lost eight seats in the Senate and 52 seats in the House. By the time the new House was seated in December 1931, several deaths and vacancies resulted in a razor-thin Democratic majority.

If the election was not exclusively or even necessarily about economics, the same cannot be said of the FDR’s historic landslide two years later. As Europe plunged headlong into the Depression in 1931 and 1932, the American banking and financial system all but collapsed. With well over 1,000 banks failing each year, millions of depositors lost their life savings. By the eve of the election, more than 50 percent of American workers were unemployed or under-employed.

In response to the crisis, Hoover broke with decades of Republican economic orthodoxy. He stepped up work on the Boulder Dam and Grand Coulee Dam (popular lore notwithstanding, these were not first conceived as New Deal projects). He signed legislation outlawing anti-union (“yellow dog”) clauses in work agreements. And he chartered the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a government-sponsored entity that loaned money directly to financial institutions, railroads and agricultural stabilization agencies, thereby helping them maintain liquidity. The RFC was in many ways the first New Deal agency, though Herbert Hoover pioneered it. Even the editors of the New Republic, among the president’s sharpest liberal critics, admitted at the time, “There has been nothing quite like it.”

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America’s conspiracy mania: Why Ebola and 9/11 truthers reflect a tortured history

From 9/11 to McCarthyism, we have a long history of conspiracy theories — and government acts have encouraged them

Salon. com  November 3, 2014

America's conspiracy mania: Why Ebola and 9/11 truthers reflect a tortured history

(Credit: AP/Seth Wenig/Bridget Besaw Gorman)

Hey, did you hear that President Obama purposefully allowed Ebola to enter the United States so America will be more like Africa?

That’s what conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly said earlier this month, after the first Ebola case reached our shores. In the darker corners of the Internet, others suggested that Obama was spreading Ebola to justify the imposition of martial law; still others charged that government health officials had conspired with pharmaceutical companies to foster the disease and then to hawk a vaccine to cure it.

How could anyone believe that our government would plot to harm its own citizens? Because it’s happened before. Over the past century, the American federal government has repeatedly conspired against the people who elect it. And that’s why so many people suspect that the same thing is happening now.

From 1932 until 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service denied potentially lifesaving treatment to syphilitic African-American men as part of a study of their disease. And starting in the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly tested LSD and other drugs on psychiatric patients. It also hired prostitutes to lure unwitting patrons to CIA safe houses, where the agency slipped LSD into their drinks and observed their reactions.

Meanwhile, the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation illegally wiretapped and harassed thousands of civil rights and antiwar activists, including Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI even sent a tape recording of King making love with one of his mistresses to his office, where the package was opened by his wife.

Then came Watergate, when President Richard Nixon and his aides conspired to spy on their political enemies and then conspired to cover all of it up. And the 1980s brought the Iran-Contra conspiracy, in which federal officials sold arms to Iran and illegally funneled the profits to rebels in Nicaragua.

And when the government wasn’t conspiring against Americans, it was spreading false conspiracy theories of its own. The great master of the genre was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who blamed the Yalta accords, the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and the Communist takeover of China on “Reds” inside America. Indeed, McCarthy charged, the so-called fall of China reflected “a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

Yes, a small handful of duplicitous Americans passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. But the idea of a vast Communist conspiracy within the United States was itself a lie, hatched by McCarthy and others to whip Americans into a frenzy of fear.

To combat accusations of his own conspiratorial activities, meanwhile, Nixon spread false conspiracies about his predecessors. One Nixon aide faked a cable implicating John F. Kennedy in the murder of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, then leaked it to the press.

In the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, finally, the George W. Bush administration invented a conspiracy between the hijackers and Saddam Hussein. Just hours after the attacks Bush instructed counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke to investigate Saddam’s role in them, turning aside Clarke’s protests that “al Qaeda did this.” Then Vice President Dick Cheney went on television to declare that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague several months before the attack, even though FBI agents found records indicating that Atta was in the United States around that time.

No wonder that over one-third of surveyed Americans in 2006 said that the Bush administration had either planned the 9/11 attacks or knew about them beforehand and did nothing to stop them. And after so many years of government conspiracies, real and invented, no one should be surprised when Americans announce that Ebola, too, is a plot by their government.

Let’s be clear: There is no evidence whatsoever for the claims about President Obama spreading Ebola. The people who spread these lies are reprehensible demagogues, and we should do everything that we can to expose them as such.

But we should also keep challenging government secrecy and duplicity, which provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists of every stripe. After last year’s revelations that the government was secretly collecting phone records of millions of Americans, whether they were suspected of a crime or not, many Americans got a bit more suspicious of their government. Didn’t you?

When the government creates conspiracies, it encourages the rest of us to do the same. But if it’s transparent, we’re more likely to trust it.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of education and history at New York University. He is the author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and three other books.

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President Barack Obama has lost his hold on a majority of Americans, according to recent polls. Though more than two years remain in his term, the popular appeal that propelled him to win the 2008 and 2012 elections may be beyond recovery.

It is sadly reminiscent of what President Lyndon B. Johnson experienced in the mid-1960s after winning the 1964 presidential election by one of the largest landslides in U.S. history.  This is not to suggest that history is repeating itself. There are too many differences between Johnson and Obama — both the men and their presidencies — to argue that. Yet, as Mark Twain said, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

In broad terms, though, LBJ and Obama share a record of pushing through bold domestic reforms, then losing momentum as foreign affairs blocked their progressive programs. With Johnson, it was largely foreign problems that stopped his forward motion. With Obama, it has been foreign and domestic developments.

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Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty programs generated strong conservative opposition to so broad an expansion of federal power. Johnson most likely wouldn’t even have been able to enact his stunning domestic reforms if not for President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. This tragedy gave Johnson a martyr to invoke in his effort to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which forbids racial segregation in public accommodations and helped establish an anti-poverty agency that Johnson said JFK intended to create.

The two-thirds Democratic majorities that Johnson had in both the House of Representatives and the Senate after the 1964 elections allowed him to push through the Voting Rights Act, as well as Medicare and federal aid to education. Numerous other progressive reforms became law in 1965 and 1966, including two new Cabinet departments –transportation and housing and urban development.

By 1967, however, Johnson’s advocacy of additional reforms had fallen victim to the fighting in Vietnam, where the United States was losing close to thousands of combat troops every month, and doubts had arisen about the wisdom of fighting a war against insurgents in the Vietnamese jungles. The public  questioned why American sacrifices in Southeast Asia were essential to defeating Communist Russia and China in the Cold War.

The surprising North Vietnamese-Viet Cong Tet offensive in the winter of 1968 did much to create a Johnson “credibility gap.” He had been insisting the U.S. military could see the light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam.

“How do you know when LBJ is telling the truth?” Johnson’s critics would ask. “When he rubs his chin or pulls at his ear lobes, he’s telling the truth. When he moves his lips, you know he’s lying.”

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Tet and the credibility gap helped end any prospect of renewed progressive advances in the United States and destroyed Johnson’s chances of winning another term. Vietnam crushed Johnson’s reform ambitions and hopes of a historical reputation as one of America’s great presidents.

Ironically, Johnson thought if he lost Vietnam it would kill his reform agenda. But it was the fighting in Vietnam that ruined all his progressive dreams.

Obama has had no single foreign-affairs frustration comparable to Vietnam. Historians will likely credit the Obama administration with more advances toward a more humane society. His signed into law his signature initiative, the Affordable Care Act, designed to provide health insurance to most of the more than 40 million uninsured; promoted equal rights for women, including equal pay for similar work; ensured equal treatment under the law for gays and lesbians; increased protections for the environment, and pressed for sympathetic treatment of illegal immigrants, especially the “Dreamers,” children brought to the United States by their parents.

The Obama presidency will likely be remembered as part of the country’s progressive tradition — dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt and continuing with the administrations of Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Johnson.

At this juncture, however, when Democrats look unlikely to take back the House or perhaps hold the Senate in the midterm elections, Obama’s progressive agenda seems to be stymied by both domestic and foreign developments.

At home, he confronts the aggressively conservative Tea Party movement. Its message has been consistently anti-government — and anti-Obama.

During one of the five dinners that Obama has held with a group of presidential historians (including me), I said the Tea Party is practicing classic “politics of resentment.” Though Tea Party adherents talk about being opposed to government debt and intrusion into people’s private lives, this is only the overt part of their opposition, I explained. Tea Party adherents are mainly white, middle-class citizens, angry at being elbowed aside by minority voters. Obama replied only that he saw something “subterranean” in their outlook.

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In many ways, though, these Tea Party conservatives are a throwback to the fundamentalists of the 1920s, who spoke out against blacks, Catholics, Jews and immigrants. The 1924 National Origins Act, strongly supported by small-town and rural Americans across the country, served as a roadblock to post-1870 immigrants, who flocked to America from Southern and Eastern Europe. When Johnson put through major immigration reform in 1965, tossing out the National Origins measure, he called the 1924 law “racist.”

Tea Party-inclined Republican representatives in the House have indeed played a large part in stopping Obama’s reform agenda. The Republican House majority has often made it impossible for the president to negotiate compromises on his proposals and virtually killed some legislative advances Obama hoped would expand his record of progressive reforms.

Even if the Republicans didn’t control the House, however, Obama’s foreign-policy problems would likely have made a bold reform program problematic. In May 2009, at the first of our White House dinners, three historians (full disclosure: including me) cautioned the president against expanding the war in Afghanistan or sending in additional ground forces.  History has shown the difficulty of combining guns and butter, we stated.

Consider: U.S. participation in World War I ended the Progressive movement; after Pearl Harbor, FDR said “Dr. Win the War” had replaced “Dr. New Deal;” President Harry S. Truman’s Fair Deal went a-glimmering with the Korean War, and LBJ’s Great Society came to a halt with Vietnam.

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Obama replied that he was not unmindful of what we were saying. But, he added, he had a problem with this argument. We took it to mean that though he had labeled Iraq a “mistake” and vowed to “remove” U.S. troops from there as soon as possible, he had called Afghanistan a “necessary” conflict and could not back away from it without paying a substantial political price or abandoning a foreign-policy judgment he still considered accurate.

Other foreign problems have also undermined Obama’s popularity. These include a red line in Syria that he never enforced, as well as an inability to influence events in Egypt or the fighting between Israel and Hamas. He also looks unprepared to deal with Islamic State’s challenge to the Iraqi government and other Middle East nations, and the Ebola crisis has driven his approval numbers lower. With only about 40 percent of the country now supporting him, it is doubtful that he could have led other bold reforms through even a more sympathetic Congress.

Like Truman, Johnson and Jimmy Carter before him, Obama now looks like he could end his presidency on a sour note. Yet he still has two years to recoup some of the lost political ground and find a formula that excites renewed enthusiasm for his leadership.

It is doubtful that Obama will end up with as poor a reputation as Johnson. Recent polls place Johnson third from the bottom in the rankings of public approval for the 10 last presidents — ahead of only Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush. Obama will certainly do better than that.

The high hopes Obama initially brought to the White House, however, have been disappointed. He has again forcefully demonstrated that being president can be a hazardous enterprise.

PHOTO (TOP): REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/LBJ Presidential Library

PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Lyndon B. Johnson shaking hands with a crowd in 1966. REUTERS/LBJ Presidential Library

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Lyndon B. Johnson talking with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, March 18, 1966. REUTERS/LBJ Presidential Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto

PHOTO (INSERT 3): President Lyndon B. Johnson signing Voting Rights Act of 1965.

PHOTO (INSERT 4): President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to the Denver Police Academy in Denver, Colorado, April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Robert Dallek

Robert Dallek is the author of two volumes on President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson in his Times 1908-1960” and “Flawed Giant 1961-1973.” He is also the author of “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963” and most recently “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.” He is now writing a biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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How Even President Obama Gets U.S. History Wrong: We Weren’t a Colonial Power?

by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

HNN October 10, 2014

In a 2009 interview with Al Arabiya Television in Dubai, soon after his first inauguration, President Barack Obama affirmed that the U.S. government could be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying, “We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power.”

One has to query the president: How did the United States begin with thirteen small colonies/states hugging the Atlantic seaboard and end up in the mid-twentieth century with fifty states over much of North America, and a number of island colonies in the Pacific and the Caribbean? Apparently, it was manifest destiny at work.

According to the centuries-old Doctrine of Discovery, European nations acquired title to the lands they “discovered,” and Indigenous inhabitants lost their natural right to that land after Europeans had arrived and claimed it.Under this legal cover for theft, European wars of conquest, domination, and in some cases–such as the United States–settler colonial states devastated Indigenous nations and communities, ripping their territories away from them and transforming the land into private property. Most of the land appropriated by the United States ended up in the hands of land speculators and agribusiness operators, many of which, up to the mid-nineteenth century, were plantations worked by another form of private property, enslaved Africans.

Arcane as it may seem, the Doctrine of Discovery remains the basis for federal laws still in effect that control Indigenous peoples’ lives and destinies, even their histories by distorting them.

From the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, most of the non-European world was colonized under the Doctrine of Discovery, one of the first principles of international law Christian European monarchies promulgated to legitimize investigating, mapping, and claiming lands belonging to peoples outside Europe. It originated in a papal bull issued in 1455 that permitted the Portuguese monarchy to seize West Africa. Following Columbus’s infamous exploratory voyage in 1492, sponsored by the king and queen of the infant Spanish state, another papal bull extended similar permission to Spain. Disputes between the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies led to the papal-initiated Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which, besides dividing the globe equally between the two Iberian empires, clarified that only non-Christian lands fell under the discovery doctrine.

This doctrine, on which all European states and the United States relied, thus originated with the arbitrary and unilateral establishment of the Iberian monarchies’ exclusive rights under Christian canon law to colonize foreign peoples, and this right was later seized by other European monarchical colonizing projects. The French Republic used this legalistic instrument for its nineteenth- and twentieth-century settler colonialist projects, as did the newly independent United States when it continued the colonization of North America begun by the British.

In 1792, not long after the founding of the United States, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that the Doctrine of Discovery developed by European states was international law applicable to the new U.S. government as well. In 1823 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Johnson v. McIntosh. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Marshall held that the Doctrine of Discovery had been an established principle of European law and of English law in effect in Britain’s North American colonies and was also the law of the United States. The Court defined the exclusive property rights that a European country acquired by dint of discovery: “Discovery gave title to the government, by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.” Therefore, European and Euro-American “discoverers” had gained real-property rights in the lands of Indigenous peoples by merely planting a flag. Indigenous rights were, in the Court’s words, “in no instance, entirely disregarded; but were necessarily, to a considerable extent, impaired.” The Court further held that Indigenous “rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished.” Indigenous people could continue to live on the land, but title resided with the discovering power, the United States. The decision concluded that Native nations were “domestic, dependent nations.”

In fact, Indigenous peoples were not allowed to continue living on their land under Andrew Jackson’s presidency; with the Indian Removal Act that he pushed through Congress, all the Indigenous nations east of the Mississippi were dissolved and their citizens were forcibly relocated to “Indian Territory,” which itself was later dissolved to become a part of the state of Oklahoma.

The Doctrine of Discovery is so taken for granted that it is rarely mentioned in historical or legal texts published in the Americas.

In the era of global decolonization of the second half of the 20th century, Native Americans remained colonized. The official celebration of Columbus is a metaphor and painful symbol of that traumatic past, although the United States did not become an independent republic until nearly three centuries after Columbus’s first voyage. None of Columbus’s voyages touched the continental territory now claimed by the United States.

Native American nations and communities are involved in decolonization projects, including the development of international human rights law to gain their right to self-determination as Indigenous Peoples, having gained the United Nations’ 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the Obama administration endorsed. It’s time for the United States government to make a gesture toward acknowledgement of its colonial past and a commitment to decolonization. Doing away with the celebration of Columbus, the very face of the onset of colonialism in the Western Hemisphere, could be that gesture. In its place proclaim that fateful date of the onset of colonialism as a Day of Solidarity and Mourning with the Indigenous Peoples. In retiring Columbus, nullification of the Doctrine of Discovery is also required.

The affirmation of democracy requires the denial of colonialism, but denying it does not make it go away. Only decolonization can do that.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her latest book is “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.” –

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Credit Photograph by David Hume Kennerly/White House via AP

Credit Photograph by David Hume Kennerly/White House via AP

 

Obama and the Fall of Saigon

By

The New Yorker    September 10, 2014

Almost forty years ago, in April of 1975, as the North Vietnamese Army was sweeping through South Vietnam toward Saigon, President Gerald Ford addressed a joint session of Congress. He asked for seven hundred and twenty-two million dollars in emergency military assistance for the government of South Vietnam. He invoked the dire risk faced by tens of thousands of South Vietnamese, including those affiliated with the United States. In “Last Days in Vietnam,” Rory Kennedy’s gripping new documentary about the fall of South Vietnam and the chaotic U.S. evacuation, Henry Kissinger, who was the Secretary of State, says of Ford, “He had two major concerns. The first was to save as many people as we could. He cared for the human beings involved—that they were not just pawns and, once they had lost their military power, they were abandoned. The second was the honor of America—that we would not be seen at the final agony of South Vietnam as having stabbed it in the back.”

It’s a little jarring to hear Kissinger distance himself on moral grounds from using human beings as pawns. His and Richard Nixon’s policy in Southeast Asia amounted to little more than that: sacrificing untold hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians, as well as thousands of American troops, to bloodless terms like “credibility,” “strategic realignment,” and “peace with honor.” But Kissinger’s account of American efforts during the fall of South Vietnam is accurate: in Washington and in Saigon, officials went to great, though tragically belated, lengths to rescue those Vietnamese associated with the governments of South Vietnam and the United States. “Last Days in Vietnam” will unsettle many of your fixed ideas about the end of the war. (For example, the film raises the possibility that, had Nixon not resigned over Watergate, nine months before the fall of Saigon, the North Vietnamese wouldn’t have invaded the South so readily, because they regarded Nixon as a madman capable of anything.)

In the long view of history, the war was unwinnable. As Neil Sheehan’s masterpiece “A Bright Shining Lie” shows, it was a war of Vietnamese nationalism, and the French and American interventions were seen by most Vietnamese as last stands of colonialism rather than as Cold War imperatives. By that April, two years after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the withdrawal of the last American combat forces, most people back home didn’t want to hear the name of the country where, in twelve years, almost sixty thousand U.S. troops had died. Congress, reflecting that exhaustion, voted down Ford’s emergency request (which would only have postponed defeat). Hearing the news, the mild-mannered President cursed, “The sons of bitches!” The fall of Saigon was just days away.

“Last Days in Vietnam” is full of dramatic tales illustrated by vivid archival footage. With no space for a landing, a South Vietnamese pilot drops his family out of his transport helicopter, onto the deck of an offshore American Navy vessel, then dives into the South China Sea and saves himself as the chopper crashes into the waves. A Vietnamese student named Binh Po buys and talks his way onto the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, joining ten thousand other desperate people, only to wind up among the four hundred and twenty left behind when an order from President Ford ends the evacuation prematurely and the last Marine chopper takes off. (Binh Po spent a year in a Communist reëducation camp before escaping from Vietnam by boat, in 1979.) Marine Sergeant Mike Sullivan and other Embassy guards, without orders, take it upon themselves to make sure that the Vietnamese they know personally—tailors, cooks, dishwashers, and their families—make it out on the Chinooks. As North Vietnamese tank divisions roll toward Saigon, individual Americans break official rules and risk their lives to get as many of the Vietnamese who worked with Americans as they can to safety, along with their families—an inspiring example of moral heroism in the final days of a war best known for its mistakes, crimes, and sheer waste.

At the same time, the evacuation was a disaster. Ambassador Graham Martin, a rigid Cold Warrior out of “The Quiet American,” refused to believe that Saigon was about to fall, and wouldn’t allow fixed-wing air evacuations from the Tan Son Nhut airbase while it remained out of North Vietnamese hands. The result of Martin’s delusion was the frantic helo lifts from the Embassy grounds, the last and worst option, too little and too late, which left tens of thousands of our Vietnamese allies behind to suffer the brutality of the North. Yet even Martin, who lost his only son in the war, emerges, more ambiguously, as a conscientious diplomat at the last hour, postponing his own evacuation long enough to get thousands of Vietnamese out.

Army Captain Stuart Herrington, one of the heroes of the evacuation, had to lie to the Vietnamese left behind at the Embassy, telling them that a big chopper was on the way, then sneak away to board the last flight off the roof. Still haunted, he speaks for the film: “The end of April of 1975 was the whole Vietnamese involvement in a microcosm. Promises made in good faith, promises broken, people being hurt because we didn’t get our act together. The whole Vietnamese war is a story that kind of sounds like that. But, on the other hand, sometimes there are moments when good people have to rise to the occasion and do the things that need to be done, and in Saigon there was no shortage of people like that.”

Back in 2007, when I started writing about the betrayal of Iraqis associated with America in Iraq, I spoke with two of the men featured in “Last Days in Vietnam”: Frank Snepp, the chief C.I.A. analyst in Saigon and the author of “Decent Interval,” an account of that period; and Richard Armitage, a naval officer, who returned to Vietnam as a civilian defense official and ended up bringing twenty thousand Vietnamese out on boats. Hearing their stories, I thought that the analogies with Iraq were obvious—willful blindness at the highest levels, no plan for rescuing Iraqis—but the differences were even sharper. The Vietnam-era Americans came off much better. With a few exceptions, it was hardly possible to imagine Embassy officials or troops in Baghdad taking great risks to get their Iraqi contacts out before we left. Relationships with Iraqis were much more distant, and Americans much more isolated, owing to security restrictions and other factors. Above all, in Baghdad there was a pervasive air of deskbound caution, buck-passing, and ass-covering, in contrast with the Wild West atmosphere that broke out, for better and for worse, in Saigon in April of 1975. It was all too easy for Americans in Iraq not to know what they didn’t want to know.

On Wednesday night, President Obama will speak to the country about his strategy for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. I wonder if he’ll have a chance to see “Last Days in Vietnam,” which opened on Friday. He would probably be struck by the historical irony that, like Ford, he must try to explain to Congress and a weary, sour public why the U.S. should get involved again in a far-off, supposedly concluded war that most Americans now view as a waste.

This is a speech that Obama, even more than Ford, never wanted to give. He ran for reëlection, in part, on having fulfilled a promise to end the war in Iraq—always the previous Administration’s war. His eagerness to be rid of the albatross of Iraq played no small part in clearing the way for ISIS to take a third of the country, including Mosul, and to threaten Baghdad and Erbil.

All the more reason to give the President credit (though his political enemies never will) for his willingness, however reluctant, to turn around and face the catastrophe unfolding in Iraq and Syria. Wednesday’s speech will no doubt nod toward staying out (no boots on the ground, no new “American war”), even as it makes the case for going back in (air strikes, international coalitions, the moral and strategic imperative to defeat ISIS). This is the sort of balancing act that Obama speeches specialize in. But he also needs to tell the country bluntly that there will almost certainly be more American casualties, and that the struggle against ISIS—against radical Islam generally, but especially in this case—will be difficult, with no quick military solution and no end in sight. Otherwise, he’ll have brought the public and Congress on board without levelling with them, a pattern set in Vietnam and repeated in Iraq, with unhappy consequences.

By the time Ford gave his speech, that war was lost, and seven hundred and twenty-two million dollars couldn’t have done what billions of dollars and half a million American troops hadn’t—though the end game, as Kennedy’s film compellingly shows, was a last unnecessary fiasco. But the Iraq War never ended, except in the minds of most Americans. Unlike Vietnam, ISIS is an irreconcilable enemy and a metastasizing threat. We Americans want to wake up as fast as possible from our historical nightmares, whatever the cost to other people. It’s human nature. Unfortunately, this one still requires our attention.

George Packer became a staff writer in 2003. For the magazine, he has covered the Iraq War, and has also written about the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone, civil unrest in the Ivory Coast, the megacity of Lagos, and the global counterinsurgency. In 2003, two of his New Yorker articles won Overseas Press Club awards—one for his examination of the difficulties faced during the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, and one for his coverage of the civil war in Sierra Leone. His book “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq” was named one of the ten best books of 2005 by the New York Times and won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award and an Overseas Press Club book award. He is also the author of “The Village of Waiting,” about his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, and “Blood of the Liberals,” a three-generational nonfiction history of his family and American liberalism in the twentieth century, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award; in addition, he has written two novels, “The Half Man” and “Central Square.” He has contributed numerous articles, essays, and reviews to the New York Times Magazine, Dissent, Mother Jones, Harpers, and other publications. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2001-02, and has taught writing at Harvard, Bennington, and Columbia. His most recent book is “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.”

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Mark Byrnes
HNN   September 10, 2014

Truman with Stalin and Churchill at Potsdam, 1945

Historians try to do the impossible: recreate and preserve the past. We do so knowing that the product, even at its most encyclopedic, will inevitably be imperfect and incomplete. The resultant telescoping of events can have the effect of robbing the past of its fullness and complexity.

In diplomatic history, what is sometimes lost in the retelling is the deliberative part of policy-making. That is certainly true in popular versions of history. In our haste, we too often cut to the chase: the decision. In memory, we see decision rather than deliberation. The danger is that it then becomes easy to forget the deliberation ever happened.

When this tendency infects politics and punditry at a tumultuous time, we get the kind of excitable hand-wringing that has dominated both fields for the last several weeks. John McCain and Lindsey Graham fret in the New York Times that President Obama is “dithering” on ISIS. The second ISIS video showing the beheading of an American journalist adds to the sense of urgency that something—and one suspects, in the minds of some people, anything—must be done. Maureen Dowd blasts Obama’s deliberations and absurdly asserts that “panic is a sign of clear thinking.” David Brooks longs for the post-World War II visionary decisiveness of Harry Truman, George Marshall, and Dean Acheson.

Brooks, with his “the sky is falling” alarmism about the state of the world, makes some truly astounding statements.  Incredibly, he asserts: “There has been a norm, generally operating over the past few decades, or even centuries, that big, powerful nations don’t gobble up everything around them just because they can.”

Centuries? Does Brooks not know that the 19th century saw the western states “gobble up” much of the rest of the world? Does he think that doesn’t count because their empires were not often immediately “around them”? Did the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 not count simply because the U.S. didn’t annex the country?

That absurdity aside, his main point is that “Putin and ISIS … are threats to our civilizational order.” He longs for “a leader who can step outside the crush of events and explain how fundamental the threat to the rules of civilization now is.” That, he argues, is what Truman, Marshall, and Acheson did after World War II.

Brooks is guilty of the kind of telescoping I mentioned above. With the Truman Doctrine, he says, those leaders were “establishing certain norms and creating a framework for civilization.”

What Brooks does not mention is that the policy of containment was not fully formed or articulated until nearly two years after the defeat of Hitler. As Alonzo Hamby puts it in Man of the People, his biography of Truman, “[a]s late as the fall of 1946, [Truman] presided over a foreign policy that was more a response to disparate crises than a strategically unified whole.” Sounds familiar.

While there were voices in his administration calling for a tougher line on the Soviet Union, Truman himself was often seen by critics as vacillating between a soft and hard approach. According to Hamby, the Truman Doctrine speech—seen by Brooks as emblematic of a clear vision of the rules of civilization—was “[l]ess the product of a consciously formulated strategy than of a rush of events that demanded a decision.” Again, sounds familiar.

Brooks says: “People who conduct foreign policy live today under the shadow of the postwar era.” Perhaps, but that is only because, in retrospect, we can conveniently forget the nearly two years of indecision that preceded the Truman Doctrine speech. That shadow is cast primarily by a romanticized notion of the past that emerges out of ignorance of its complexity.

It also seems worth noting that the proposals Truman made in that March 1947 speech were fairly modest. There was no call for American military intervention, no boots on the ground, no air strikes–just a statement of political support for the Greek government and a fairly modest proposal to increase financial aid to it. In short, it was not at all unlike the statements of support for Ukraine and Iraq that Obama has made.

No doubt Brooks would object that it was the principle Truman announced, not the specific proposals, that mattered: “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” Truman said.

Any student of the cold war knows, however, that the stark universalism of that statement, its refusal to distinguish carefully between vital and peripheral issues, led to disasters like the American war in Vietnam, and led the “father of containment,” George Kennan, to decry what his idea became in practice.

In addition, when Truman prudently recognized the limits of American power in China, he was savagely lambasted by reactionary politicians who blamed him for “losing” China, and not living up to the universalism of his own doctrine. Rep. Richard Nixon denounced Dean Acheson as an appeaser, referring sneeringly to “Acheson’s College of Cowardly Communist Containment.” Sen. William Jenner said that Gen. George Marshall was “a living lie” who was “eager to play the role of a front man for traitors.” Joe McCarthy accused Marshall of being part of “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” Such are the political costs of recognizing the limits of American power.

Despite all of the carping of the critics, Obama’s deliberations, his refusal to engage in dramatic, impulsive gestures that may do more harm than good, his desire to line up allies for a concerted, considered, long-term response to the challenges represented by Putin and ISIS represent the historical policy-making norm, not dangerous “dithering.”

Mark Byrnes is an associate professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

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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.

 

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