Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently said that "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." Mayor Emanuel is right. In the case of the present neo-Weimar-ian Zeitgeist in the US, one of the things – no doubt, among many others – that “you think you could not do before” is to teach the Nation some history, and thereby, one may hope, nurture some sense of perspective. The point in doing so is not to induce a relaxation of vigilance or concern, perhaps not even of alarm, but to avert the kind of “carpet-bomb-‘em-til-the-sand-glows” hysteria that serves no purpose except to impair rational thought by providing fuel for the Willy Wonka Demagogue Factory that the Republican Party seems to have become. For example, what does it say about the GOP that Jeb Bush’s statement that only Christians should be able to immigrate into the US marks him as what passes these days for a “moderate” Republican, a description that used to apply, without the double quotes, to people like Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller, but now only to Sec. Colin Powell? But I digress from the salient point, which is simply this: we have been here before. “Here” comprises several factors: (1) xenophobia, (2) fear manifest as a willingness to abridge constitutional rights, (3) religious prejudice, (4) anger originating from a sense that the Nation is in decline and perhaps even in imminent danger of collapse or invasion, and (5) a “ready-fire-aim” willingness to resort to military force. With regard to these five factors, Qoheleth in the Book of Ecclesiastes is right: There is nothing new under the sun.
In fact, we (= the American government and the American people) have been here twice before – actually more often than that, but space prevents the discussion of more than the following two:
o The “quasi-war” with France in the late 1790s
This was a “perfect storm” diplomatically, politically, militarily, and ideologically. It all began with the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, which was ratified by the US Senate in 1794. The Jay Treaty settled some issues that remained outstanding after the signing of the Treaty of Paris formally ending the Revolutionary War in 1783. (Lord Cornwallis actually surrendered at Yorktown in 1781.) For example, under the terms of the Jay Treaty, Great Britain agreed to withdraw remaining troops from the US Northwest Territories, an action previously mandated by the Treaty of Paris. Great Britain had been dilatory in complying because the United States was equally slow to deal with the issue of claims of English creditors against American – at the time, Colonial – debtors. (The British had a valid complaint here!) The Jay Treaty also sent the issue of the official US-Canadian boundary to arbitration and allowed the US limited trading privileges with other British possessions, primarily India. The Jay Treaty was strongly supported by the dominant Federalists, but precipitated vituperative opposition among Republicans in Congress, some Senators, notably Sen. John Rutledge, even alleging on the floor of the Senate that President George Washington -- yes ... the George Washington! -- was insane (Rutledge's word, not a paraphrase), because it was seen as drawing the US into closer ties with the former Mother Country.
The ratification of the Jay Treaty also outraged France, Great Britain’s chief rival and adversary throughout all of the 18th and much of the 19th centuries. Americans had been overwhelming in support of the French Revolution from its inception in 1789 and through the early 1790s. But the French revolutionary government interpreted the Jay Treaty to mean that the US was now drawing away from France and toward Great Britain. It did not help the French cause that their revolution gradually became an exercise in anarchy as the revolutionary government gave way to the Terror and the government of the Directory through “Jacobinical” – radical anarchist – elements, a narrative that played into the hands of the “Franco-phobic” elements of American Federalists who feared that the radical revolutionary virus in France would cross the Atlantic to America, especially after French Marquis Talleyrand's clumsy attempt to bribe American negotiators precipitated the notorious "XYZ Affair".
So the French began seizing American ships on the high seas, especially those carrying American goods to and from Great Britain. Rumors became rife of an imminent French invasion of the US through the southern States, using the remaining Spanish and French presence in the South, e.g., New Orleans, as a toehold into the Continent. The US embarked on a massive military build-up to deal with this generality. All things French – people, language, culture, even food – came under immediate popular suspicion. Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. During times when the climate of public opinion was much friendlier toward France, men had adopted the wearing of the “tricolor” (red, white, and blue) cockade on their hats, but now such a display of Francophilic leanings was almost guaranteed to be met with public ridicule, and even public beatings. The Alien Act gave the President the power to decree the deportation of any alien resident or visitor whom the President deemed persona non grata – and to do so with no due process. The approximately concurrent Naturalization Act tripled the length of time a resident foreigner had to reside in the US before being eligible for naturalized citizenship. There are no records of any resident foreigner being expelled from the US under the Alien or Naturalization Acts. The situation with the Sedition Act, however, was much different. Several dozen newspaper publishers and pamphlet authors were convicted of “seditious libel” – a long-standing English common-law crime that basically meant criticizing the government in any way and in any terms, however civil and mild, written or verbal – and imprisoned and / or fined … including Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin and publisher of a prominent newspaper The Aurora. Bache died of yellow fever while awaiting trial. War with France was averted because President John Adams abruptly entered into negotiations with France, over vociferous opposition from many of his Federalist colleagues. The Alien and Sedition Acts were both subject to "sunset" language in their texts, and when Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1800, he allowed both to lapse -- and also pardoned everyone convicted under the latter.
o World War I and Weimar Germany
We usually forget that the xenophobia and fear directed against Japanese-Americans -- that is, American citizens of Japanese ancestry -- that led to the justly reviled Japanese internment in 1942 under Executive Order 9066 had its prior counterpart in public revulsion against all things German during World War I. In some school districts, the teaching of the German language was forbidden -- though the Supreme Court in Meyer v. Nebraska did strike down the prohibition of teaching German in Nebraska schools. Sauerkraut was renamed "liberty cabbage". ("Freedom fries", anyone?) (Not that the German government was an innocent victim, as witness the Kulturkampf -- "cultural struggle" -- in the early 1870s to Teutonize the culture of the recently united German nation, and the apparently gratuitous burning of the great library of the University of Louvain during the invasion of Belgium in 1914.) It may -- or may not -- be to the credit of the United States that, whereas the outrages practiced against Japanese-Americans in 1942 were undertaken with the explicit behest of the government, similar outrages in the First World War were pretty much "private" depredations practiced by private citizens. Xenophobia, a lust for vengeance, and fear-driven bigotry are equal-opportunity employers.
And it was a lust for vengeance that motivated the Allies to stand on the corpse of a defeated imperial Germany and exact a ruinous level of reparations, so ruinous that Germany, with the Deutschemark inflated to the point of being useless paper -- at one point during Germany's hyper-inflation, it took several billion D-marks to buy a single American dollar -- could not resist when the French, in lieu of reparations payments, marched its army into the Ruhr Valley in 1923 and seized the German industrial heartland and its infrastructure. Driven by anti-German bigotry, and, at least on the part of France, by memories of the Franco-Prussian War 40 years earlier, defeat degenerated into humiliation, economic collapse, politics-by-assassination, low-level civil war -- and lent Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists a reservoir of anger, resentment, and revanchist fury that would ensure a replay of 1914, an apocalyptically scaled lesson about being careful what you wish for. Adolf Hitler promised to "Make Germany great again". Does this sound at all familiar?
If this does not, then you must have been vacationing on one of the outer moons of Saturn for the last several months. In the 1790s, the boogey-man du jour was anything French, in particular, French citizens with populist or anti-monarchical leanings; in 1914, it was all things German. (E.g., dachsunds were renamed "liberty pups".) Today it is observant, practicing Muslims ... and generally people who "look Middle Eastern". In the 1790s, the French language and French culture were in disrepute; ditto German language and culture during the war years. Today school teachers court retaliation for teaching schoolkids to write the shahada – La illahu illah Allah, anna mahamadur rasul Allah (“There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His prophet”) – in Arabic calligraphy. The Seattle Public Library has had to begin requiring female Muslim staff wearing hijabs, to be trained in how to respond to patrons who do not want to be helped by a Muslim woman. (I repeat: this is happening in Seattle -- unofficial City anthem: Kumbaya -- arguably the co-capitol, along with San Francisco, of the “Left Coast”!) The fact that France in the 1790s was at least nominally Catholic did much to stoke prejudice against Catholics in the US, especially during the middle 1800s when opposition to Catholic immigration became one of the planks in many splinter parties like the “Know Nothings” in the “Burnt-Over District” of New York State and Pennsylvania. About all that was missing in the 1790s’ reaction against France were demands for preemptive action against the French Navy – and even then largely because Alexander Hamilton, recently departed as Secretary of the Treasury, argued persuasively that the US was not yet strong enough to battle European maritime powers as an equal. Hamilton may have been a doctrinaire High Federalist, but he was no fool. Whether the same can be said of Americans who whipped up the 1914 war frenzy to a fever pitch is eminently debatable. Hence Ezra Pound's bitter meditation from his long poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:
There died a myriad,
and of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.
We can hope that no future Ezra Pound will have cause to write similar words about some "clash of civilizations".
Even I, who am no professional historian, could cite other examples, but by now you should either be depressed or instead -- hopefully -- reassured. I am some of both: hopeful because we do learn from history, but depressed because we always keep learning the same lessons over and over again, as if we just cannot progress beyond long division to first-year algebra. But as T. S. Eliot said, writing of a still-later war, we are "only undefeated because we have gone on trying".
James R. Cowles
G.F. St. John - Macpherson collection in, Alan Moore, Sir, Bt. (1926) Sailing Ships of War, 1800
-1860 (London: Halton & Truscott Smith)
Color lithograph by T. G. Dutton after painting by G.F. St. John
Library of Congress -- Public Domain