Thoughts Informed by History

A Commentary on History and Current Affairs

Louis Ginsberg and Allen Ginsberg

I recently read an excerpt of a discussion between Allen Ginsburg, the poet of the Beat Generation and author of Howl, , and his father, Louis Ginsberg (1895-1976). I remembered that back in high school, I had briefly been in an English class taught by Louis Ginsberg. It was probably in 1958 or 1959 at Central High School in Paterson, New Jersey. Other students told me then that he was a good teacher and that he did not get along with his son. I am not sure that at the time I knew who Allen Ginsburg was, and I did not stay in the class long enough to find out whether or not he was a good teacher. I was assigned to another English class. The main thing I “learned” there was that if you wanted to attract a crowd, just stand on a street corner and stare up at the rooftops. Soon, a crowd would gather around to see what was going on. Then you could leave and look back at the crowd still staring up. This information I learned from the teacher.

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The Manhattan Project, the Belgian Congo, and World War II

I recently read Susan Williams book, Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II (2016).  It is a subject I knew nothing about.  Her primary focus is on the activities of OSS (Office of Strategic Services) agents in the Belgian Congo in particular, and West Africa in general.  The reason for American interest in the Congo was as a source of high quality uranium, which was essential for the development of the atomic bomb.  A secondary concern was to make sure that Germany did not get that uranium.  With the cooperation of the Belgian Union Minière, the available uranium was shipped from the Congo to New York between 1940 and 1942.  After that, OSS agents sought to prevent the smuggling of uranium to Germany.  Germany did obtain uranium that had been shipped to Belgium before World War II began, but targeted bombing by the Allies prevented any use of it.  The Congo provided most of the uranium used by the U. S. in its nuclear weapons program until the early 1950s.  The book, therefore, helps explain American interest in Central Africa.

While Williams identified the men and women employed by the OSS, she could not uncover much detail about their actual activities.  I suppose that is only to be expected in a book about secret agents.  For example, one agent, Dock Hogue, survived several assassination attempts, but it is unclear who carried out those attempts.  Since Hogue claimed to be investigating diamond smuggling, diamond smugglers rather than German agents may have been involved.

The book shows how interconnected the world was, even before globalization became a popular explanation of economic trends.  England, France, Belgium, and Portugal all had African colonies.  Germany dominated Belgium and Vichy France, but the Allies had the support of the Belgian Congo.  Although Portugal was neutral during the war, it was sympathetic to Germany.  Liberia had close ties to the United States and Firestone Tire and Rubber.  Troops from the Congo fought the Italians in Ethiopia.  The war against Germany, Italy, and Japan did indeed have worldwide ramifications, and the consequences of the war were therefore global.

Coincidence?

James Bradley, author of The China Mirage, discussed in the previous post, also published Flags of Our Fathers, which described the role of his father, John Bradley, in raising the American flag on Iwo Jima that was recorded in the famous photo we have all seen.  Now the Marine Corps has announced that the person identified as Bradley in the photo was actually Harold Schultz.  Bradley had helped raise the flag earlier in the day, but that event had not been photographed.  You can read the story at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/24/us/politics/marines-iwo-jima-flag-photo-mistaken-identity.html?_r=0 .  Bradley was seriously injured later.

In his introduction in The China Mirage, James Bradley cited his father’s presence in the famous photo.  It helped personalize his argument that the war against Japan was only necessary because of the actions of the China Lobby.

Diplomatic Blunders

In The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster (2015), James Bradley criticized American foreign policy toward China during much of the twentieth century.  He contends that a “China Lobby” influenced both public opinion and government policy.  His account of the origin and operation of that lobby is the most interesting part of his book.

In the mid-nineteenth century, American merchants engaged in the profitable business of selling opium to China.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt’ s grandfather, Warren Delano, was among those businessmen.  At the same time, American missionaries sought to convert the Chinese to Christianity.  They sent optimistic letters home about their progress and their hopes for the future.  Some of their children, notably Pearl Buck, author of The Good Earth, and Henry Luce, the founder of Time Magazine, continued those efforts.  The China Lobby supported the Chinese Nationalist Party and Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) and guided American foreign policy in that direction.

Bradley argues that the businessmen, the missionaries, and the government officials they influenced did not understand China.  As a result, their advice and actions set the U.S. on a path to disaster.  Americans believed wrongly that Chiang would be able to unite China and resist effectively the Japanese.  Our efforts to force the Japanese to halt their invasion of China led to us fighting World War II in both Asia and Europe.  We also failed to assess properly the potential for Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists to defeat Chiang and seize control of China.  Had we been on better terms with Mao, perhaps we could have avoided the Korean and Vietnamese wars.

Specialists in Japanese and Chinese history might question Bradley’s understanding of Japan and China.  The Japanese had expanded in Asia since the 1890’s, and America probably would have confronted Japan sooner or later.  Whether good relations with Mao in the 1930s and 1940s was a realistic goal is also questionable.  The U.S. had opposed communism at home and abroad since the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Nevertheless, this book serves as a reminder and a warning.  The world is a complicated place, and it is extremely risky to lunge precipitously into unknown regions and cultures across the world.  Experts and lobbyists eager to give advice must be examined about their expertise and their motives.  The public should be wary of simple and simplistic solutions to complicated issues.

The Bible in American Politics

In The Political History of the Bible in America,  Paul Hanson seeks a “theo-political hermeneutic” (theocratic method for the interpretation of scripture) that can guide political life in America.  He reviewed the past application of the Bible to American society and politics and found they lacked a systematic foundation.  Too often, the Bible was simply a source of texts chosen to support a particular position.  Hanson studied Jewish and Christian history and literature, both biblical and extra-biblical, searching for an adequate hermeneutic to inform decisions in today’s world.  Hanson used modern scholarship to place texts in their historical context and determine what they meant when they were written.  Hanson believes that God progressively reveals Himself through texts and circumstances.  Indeed, as circumstances change over time, not only are new texts written, but older texts are re-interpreted.

The Bible teaches from beginning to end that God is sovereign over both Israel and the universe and that He has chosen Israel as His people.  He rescued them from slavery in Egypt and continued to bless and protect them.  But He also punished them when they failed to obey His commandments.  Hanson emphasizes the importance of the commandments found in Exodus 20:22-23:19, many of which protected slaves, foreigners, and the poor.   God will bless such a society.  The gospels show how compassionate Jesus was toward suffering people.

The kings of Judah and Israel were also to obey these laws. (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)  Persians and Romans could be tolerated if they did not interfere with the worship of the one God.  Similarly, early Christians had no conflict with Rome until Rome attempted to compel Christians to worship the emperor.  The Bible does not prescribe any particular form of human government, but warns that man and human institutions are imperfect.  The apocalyptic visions of Daniel, Revelation, and the Dead Sea scrolls all agree that the future is in the control of God, and the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth will be the work of God.

After his long survey of the history of Israel and the written commentaries on that history, he suggests guidelines for contemporary political discussion and action.  We should remember that human institutions are subject to error.  As individuals, we should not dogmatically assume that our positions on specific issues represent the will of God.  Because we now live in a pluralistic society, we must be considerate of alternative viewpoints.  In this way, we can contribute to a more just society in accord with the commandments of God.

Divided Republicans – Again

A century ago, the Republican Party was in turmoil.  In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt challenged President William Howard Taft for the presidential nomination.  When the Republican national convention chose Taft, Roosevelt won the presidential nomination of a new party, the Progressives.  During the campaign, Roosevelt declared he was as fit as a bull moose, thereby adding a this political mascot to the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey.  (The Socialists did not have a mascot.)  Liberal Republicans joined the Progressives; conservative Republicans backed Taft.  The Democrats nominated New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson and the Socialists chose Eugene Debs.  With the Republicans split, Wilson became the first Democratic president of the twentieth century.  After the election, some Republicans, including Roosevelt, returned to their party, but others stayed with the Progressives and then joined the Democratic Party.

The Republican Party emerged from this crisis as a much more conservative organization.  Liberal Republicans from the Midwest and West wielded some influence, but a Republican pro tem of the Senate dismissed them as the “Sons of the Wild Jackass”.   Conservative Republicans dominated the 1920s until the Great Depression transformed the political landscape, and the Democratic Party took power in 1933.

How Donald Trump will change the Republican Party is now the question of the hour.  If he loses in November, then it is likely that his nomination was only an aberration of our political system. If Trump wins, he will certainly transform the Republican Party, and perhaps even the Democratic Party.  Global economic changes and other world events influenced by a Trump presidency could have consequences that will dwarf Trump’s domestic political impact.   It is also a certainty that the unexpected will happen, and President Trump’s response will be critical.  We may look back on 2016 as the start of a new era.

Another Impossible Dream

In The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics (2015), John Danforth, former senator from Missouri and an ordained Episcopal priest, argues that religion should unify and not divide us.  We are commanded to love God first and then our neighbors.  That perspective should guide our political life, but religion and politics remain discrete spheres of life.  Our Christian beliefs should affect how we relate to the people around us, including political opponents.

Danforth does not believe there are “causal connections” between religious beliefs and specific positions on political issues. (p. 6) Nor can politics be reduced to a contest of good versus evil.  When confronted with evil, it is better to find non-political ways to change the culture.  (p. 41) In Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr described several ways Christians relate to culture.  One way is “Christ the Transformer of Culture”, and Danforth fits comfortably under that description.

Once you recognize the distinction between religion and politics, it is then possible to seek political compromise.  Danforth notes that the founding fathers believed in “virtue”, defined as seeking the common good instead of private interest.  As a result, they compromised their strongly held beliefs because to achieve national unity, a public good.  All too often, politicians seek their own interests, such as their re-election.  All too often, politicians seek their own interests, such as their re-election.  The refusal to compromise and the seeking of private gain are two causes of the current political quagmire.

Religion also calls us to be concerned about the good of others.  Too many of us live, by choice or circumstance, isolated from others.  Danforth criticizes the liberal tendency to rely on government programs to assist people.  He prefers private actions and private organizations.  He gives several examples of such efforts in which he was involved but acknowledges that, with all the good intentions and hard work by dedicated people, they still failed.

Danforth uses numerous examples from his private life and his public life to support his views.  He makes a reasonable presentation, but will convince only people who already agree with him.  It is hard to see that it will have a significant impact on dedicated political partisans.  In the midst of the 2016 campaign, a return to civility in our political life seems the impossible dream.

Irreconciliable Differences

The 1920s were anxious years. The consequences of the Great War (World War I), the rise of dictatorships, and economic turmoil were obvious sources of that anxiety. More subtle causes were the social and intellectual changes that had been accumulating for decades. American Protestants recognized these threats to traditional beliefs and practices and sought to respond, but could not find a unified program of action.

The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists & Moderates by Bradley J. Longfield, published in 1991, describes how Presbyterians fought about what to do. Fundamentalists resisted change; modernists wanted to adapt church beliefs and practices to the modern world; moderates sought compromise and denominational unity. Dire warnings of an end to civilized society, the imminent abandonment of Christian teachings, and the irrelevance of Christianity to the modern world exacerbated the conflict.

The Presbyterian Controversy is an interesting and well researched study, but it suggests that the ultimate outcome of such internal divisions in the church is that one faction separates itself from its opposition. This pessimistic conclusion, in fact, agrees with the history of the Christian church. New leaders and new organizations keep appearing.

In the 1920s (and now), the ideas of evolution challenged the literal interpretation of Genesis. If you identify evolution with reason and Genesis with faith, admittedly an oversimplification, then you have a connection with a dialectic between reason and faith, which has existed since the work of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Why do we expect to settle it now?

  1. Richard Niebuhr, author of Christ and Culture (1951), traced various recurring patterns in how Christians have interacted with their culture. He observed that some followers of Christ separate themselves as much as possible from the culture in which they live. The fundamentalists Longfield describes can fit into this category. Others seek to conform to or transform the culture and still obey Christ. The modernists and moderates Longfield portrays might not have agreed with each other, but both fit into these categories. These patterns of thought and action will not disappear.

The New Testament preaches the unity of all believers in Christ, but the earthly Church is always fragmented and torn by dissension. We have to view these irreconcilable differences as aspects of the trials of faith we should expect during our earthly pilgrimage and have faith in a future unity in Christ and with all believers.

Gunsmoke and the Critics of Obama

Political columnists regularly list national and international threats to our nation’s peace and security and then attack President Obama for not ending the threats. They are under the influence of the Gunsmoke Syndrome. That TV western ended its network run in 1975, but its impact on our thinking lingers on. You remember the plot line. One or more individuals cause trouble in Dodge City because they are evil, foolish, or both. Eventually, Marshal Dillon restores peace and tranquility, usually with a well-placed bullet after all his advice and warnings have been rejected or ignored. The peace of Dodge City, of course, only lasts until the next week’s episode. The question the columnists implicitly ask is why is President Obama not more like Matt Dillon?

They ignore the unspoken premises of the show. The problems come from individuals. Dramatic action against them is both possible and guaranteed of success. Only the trouble makers will suffer negative consequences. Whatever happens next week will not be connected to this week, except that the marshal, Miss Kitty, Doc, and Chester will be present.

Fortunately, President Obama can see the complexity of the real world, although he should restrain his rhetoric. He recognizes the systemic nature and the underlying causes of the threats that face us. Removing the troublesome individuals we blame for our problems will not solve the problems. Individuals are quickly replaced. The drone attacks the President favors provide enough examples of that. Individuals, organizations, and nations will respond to our actions. While we can predict some of those responses, others will be unexpected, and therefore not preventable.  The consequences of our actions may not become apparent for decades and emerge in circumstances we cannot even imagine now.  Neat, satisfying conclusions work well on television.  But Obama is right to weigh carefully how present actions will shape our future.

Recycling Past Ideas

It is a familiar saying that the past is a foreign country.  The phrase originated as part of the opening sentence of The Go-Between (1953) by L. P. Hartley.  The sentence continues, “they do things differently there.”

For historians, it is a reminder of the complexity of understanding the past, even when an American is studying the history of America. Familiarity with the language, the names, and the places only enhance the illusion that the full complexity of past events is grasped by the modern story teller.

Hartley wrote the sentence, but he actually recycled an idea of Rene Descartes.  In his Discourse on Method, he wrote, “To live with men of an earlier age is like travelling in foreign lands,” (quoted from R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History,(1946),  p. 59).  And the idea may well have been expressed earlier, whether or not Descartes knew that it had been.

The Bible says that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and it is no crime to recycle ideas, although it is good to give credit where credit is due.  But in this modern world, full of marvelous technology, it is indeed humbling to consider  that much of what we presume is new is actually just recycled.