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American Crucible : Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century

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9780691102771

ISBN10:
0691102775
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Pub. Date:
8/5/2002
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Princeton Univ Pr
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Summary

This sweeping history of twentieth-century America follows the changing and often conflicting ideas about the fundamental nature of American society: Is the United States a social melting pot, as our civic creed warrants, or is full citizenship somehow reserved for those who are white and of the "right" ancestry? Gary Gerstle traces the forces of civic and racial nationalism, arguing that both profoundly shaped our society. After Theodore Roosevelt led his Rough Riders to victory during the Spanish American War, he boasted of the diversity of his men's origins- from the Kentucky backwoods to the Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighborhoods of northeastern cities. Roosevelt's vision of a hybrid and superior "American race," strengthened by war, would inspire the social, diplomatic, and economic policies of American liberals for decades. And yet, for all of its appeal to the civic principles of inclusion, this liberal legacy was grounded in "Anglo-Saxon" culture, making it difficult in particular for Jews and Italians and especially for Asians and African Americans to gain acceptance. Gerstle weaves a compelling story of events, institutions, and ideas that played on perceptions of ethnic/racial difference, from the world wars and the labor movement to the New Deal and Hollywood to the Cold War and the civil rights movement. We witness the remnants of racial thinking among such liberals as FDR and LBJ; we see how Italians and Jews from Frank Capra to the creators of Superman perpetuated the New Deal philosophy while suppressing their own ethnicity; we feel the frustrations of African-American servicemen denied the opportunity to fight for their country and the moral outrage of more recent black activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X. Gerstle argues that the civil rights movement and Vietnam broke the liberal nation apart, and his analysis of this upheaval leads him to assess Reagan's and Clinton's attempts to resurrect nationalism. Can the United States ever live up to its civic creed? For anyone who views racism as an aberration from the liberal premises of the republic, this book is must reading.

Author Biography

Gary Gerstle is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Historical Studies at the University of Maryland.

Table of Contents

List of Figuresp. xi
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Introductionp. 3
Theodore Roosevelt's Racialized Nation, 1890-1900p. 14
A History of the American "Race"p. 17
War, Renewal, and the Problem of the "Smoked Yankee"p. 25
Civic Nationalism and Its Contradictions, 1890-1917p. 44
"True Americanism"p. 47
Racial Dilemmasp. 59
The New Nationalismp. 65
Hardening the Boundaries of the Nation, 1917-1929p. 81
War and Disciplinep. 83
"Keeping Pure the Blood of America"p. 95
Civic Nationalism in the New Racial Regimep. 115
Aborting the New Nationalismp. 122
The Rooseveltian Nation Ascendant, 1930-1940p. 128
A Kinder and Gentler National Builderp. 131
Radicalizing the Civic Nationalist Creedp. 139
Conservative Counterattackp. 156
The Survival of Racialized Nationalismp. 162
Good War, Race War, 1941-1945p. 187
The Good Warp. 189
Race Warp. 201
"Something Drastic Should Be Done": The Military's Hidden Race Warp. 210
Combat and White Male Comradeshipp. 220
The Cold War, Anticommunism, and a Nation in Flux, 1946-1960p. 238
War, Repression, and Nation Buildingp. 241
The Red Scare and the Decline of Racial Nationalismp. 246
Racial Nationalism Redux: The Case of Immigration Reformp. 256
Civil Rights, White Resistance, and Black Nationalism, 1960-1968p. 268
Civil Rights and Civic Nationalismp. 270
"I Question America": The Crisis in Atlantic Cityp. 286
"Speaking as a Victim of This American System"p. 295
Vietnam, Cultural Revolt, and the Collapse of the Rooseveltian Nation, 1968-1975p. 311
A Catastrophic Warp. 313
The Spread of Anti-Americanism and the Revolt against Assimilationp. 327
The Collapse of the Rooseveltian Nationp. 342
Epilogue: Beyond the Rooseveltian Nation, 1975-2000p. 347
Varieties of Multiculturalismp. 349
"A Springtime of Hope": Ronald Reagan and the Nationalist Renaissancep. 357
Reviving the Liberal Nationp. 365
Notesp. 375
Indexp. 439
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

Excerpts


Chapter One

Theodore Roosevelt's

Racialized Nation,

1890-1900

In the 1890s many American nationalists believed that a good war would impart the unity, vigor, and prosperity that they felt their increasingly troubled and fractious society needed. A long economic depression, spanning the years 1893-97, had deepened poverty, exacerbated tensions between the rich and poor, and sown doubts about the virtues of industrialization. Cities were awash in immigrants, many of whom appeared to care little about America and its democratic heritage. Many northerners and southerners still seemed unwilling to let go of the anger and resentments aroused by the Civil War thirty years earlier. And the new industrial and bureaucratic order seemed to be robbing men of precious masculine virtues--independence, strenuous living, patriarchal authority--while giving women an expanded role in economic and political affairs. International developments also appeared to threaten America, especially the rush by European powers for territory, trade, and conquest in Africa and Asia. If America wanted to stay abreast of its economic competitors, many nationalists argued, it had to establish an international military presence, at minimum to protect foreign markets and, at maximum, to demonstrate the power of America and the superiority of its industrious, freedom-loving, and aggressive people.

A victorious war against a European rival could enhance America's international stature. The calls for unity that such a war would inevitably entail might also heal the divisions between North and South, rich and poor, and even between the native- and foreign-born. Men who fought, meanwhile, might be able to recover a manliness that seemed to be slipping from their grasp.

Few wished for such a war more ardently than Theodore Roosevelt, a rising star in the Republican Party who, in the 1890s, had served as a civil service commissioner, New York City police commissioner, and, by 1897, assistant secretary of the navy. In 1898, when war erupted between the United States and Spain over the latter's increasingly brutal efforts to end an insurrection in Cuba, one of its few remaining colonies, Roosevelt could barely contain his enthusiasm for the coming fight. He resigned his position as assistant secretary, raised a volunteer cavalry regiment that would be immortalized as the Rough Riders, and then rushed to Cuba where he led his troops to victories in battles that decided the outcome of the war. Covering himself in glory, he returned to America a hero, a status he would quickly parlay into political advancement. He became governor of New York in 1898, vice-president of the United States in 1900, president in 1901, and leader of the progressive movement that, energized by the American victory in 1898, launched a remarkable crusade to heal the republic's deep economic, social, and political wounds and restore its historic promise.

As we shall see, Roosevelt's progressivism expanded and enriched American civic nationalism. But first we must reckon with Roosevelt's racial nationalism, which powerfully informed his conception of what he was doing in Cuba. This racial nationalism was manifest not only in his attitude toward Cubans and other groups of Latin Americans, whom he judged to be too racially inferior to be entrusted with the responsibility of self-government. It was also evident in his conception of the mission and composition of the Rough Rider cavalry. This regiment's mission was to throw American men into the kind of racial and savage warfare that earlier generations, especially the backwoodsmen of the mythic Daniel Boone era, had experienced in their struggles against the Indians. In Roosevelt's recounting of that pioneer history, the battles of these rural warriors against the savage red man had forged them into a powerful, superior, and freedom-loving race. It also served the indispensable purpose of uniting disparate groups of Europeans into one American people. America, in the 1890s, Roosevelt believed, desperately needed to recapture the strength, vitality, unity, and race consciousness of those pioneer Americans. This belief underlay his eagerness for war and impelled him to envision the Rough Rider regiment as a crucible that would bring together various groups of Euro-Americans and give them solidarity and purpose that, in his eyes, they so conspicuously lacked. At the same time, Roosevelt excluded blacks from his regiment, for he deemed them too base a race to become true Americans. They would pollute his regiment, rob it of its superiority, and prevent Euro-Americans in it from invigorating the "American" race and nation.

In Cuba, Roosevelt and his Rough Riders carried out their reenactment of the nation's founding myth with panache. In two of the war's most important battles--for Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, ridges that guarded the approach to Santiago, the Spanish capital in Cuba--they had charged into the teeth of tough Spanish defenses and overran them. But a problem had arisen. As Roosevelt stood on the crest of San Juan Hill, a moment he would always regard as the greatest in his life, he saw black Americans everywhere. They belonged to the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries and the Twenty-fourth Infantry; they were among the finest regular soldiers in the U.S. Army, and Roosevelt knew this. In his heart, Roosevelt understood that the Rough Riders and, by extension, America, would not have triumphed in this crucial battle without the assistance of these "buffalo soldiers," and in the flush of victory, he admitted as much.

Something extraordinary had happened during those battles, as black American soldiers had fought alongside and intermixed with white ones, demonstrating that racial division could be overcome and that a fighting force including all Americans, not just those of European descent, could operate effectively. Roosevelt possessed the material for constructing a radically new and racially egalitarian myth about the American people. Even though his civic nationalist principles ran deep, he was not prepared for the opportunity that the victory at Kettle and San Juan Hills had handed him. As he wrote the history of his battles in Cuba, he diminished the black contribution to his victory to the point of insignificance. The nation to which he wanted to give birth and lead had to be a white nation. The greatness of America, he believed, could only lie in the exploits of Euro-Americans forged by battle into a single and superior race. Out of such convictions was the twentieth-century nation born.

A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN "RACE"

If for Karl Marx history was the history of class conflict, for Roosevelt history was the history of race conflict: of the world's various races struggling against each other for supremacy and power. Roosevelt was hardly an accomplished racial theorist, but he had absorbed the racialist thought that permeated literary and academic circles in the late nineteenth century. Like many of his contemporaries, Roosevelt equated race with peoplehood. The British, the Americans, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Africans--each of these groups was thought by Roosevelt to possess a distinct culture rooted in inborn racial traits that had been transmitted from generation to generation. In his epic work, The Winning of the West (1889), Roosevelt traced the process by which the American "race" had come into being and made itself into the greatest English-speaking race the world had even known.

The history of racial conflict, in Roosevelt's eyes, pointed in the direction of civilization and progress: more often than not, the higher civilized races triumphed over the lower savage or barbaric ones. But this tendency was not an iron law. There had been shattering reversals--the Dark Ages most notably--when the forces of barbarism had overwhelmed the citadels of civilization. No race, no matter how civilized its people or how superior their mental ability, could afford to become complacent about its destiny. Racial triumph came only to those peoples willing to fight for it. Success in battle required the cultivation of manly, warlike, even savage qualities: physical toughness and fitness, fearlessness, bravery, singlemindedness, ruthlessness.

The fierce Germanic peoples who streamed southward out of the central European forests in the fourth and fifth centuries possessed these qualities, which is why they laid waste to the once mighty Roman Empire, whose warriors and rulers had gone soft. These Teutons possessed the intelligence, the independence, the love of liberty and order, and the intense tribal loyalty (patriotism) necessary to push civilization forward. But they had often failed to impress their qualities or superiority on the peoples whom they had conquered, allowing themselves instead to be absorbed by the Spanish, French, and other "subject-races." These latter races benefited from this infusion of Germanic blood, becoming strong, powerful, and conquering peoples themselves. But after a few centuries, the Germanic elements of these subject races faded for lack of replenishment and the latter then reverted to their more natural, and mediocre, racial condition.

In Britain, however, the fifth-century Germanic invasion had taken a different course. The conquest of the indigenous Briton and Celtic peoples had not been easy, and large numbers had been killed or driven off. The invading Teutons, as a consequence, formed a large portion of Britain's population and were able to impress their customs, beliefs, laws, and language on the conquered local peoples. The Teutons, in effect, successfully assimilated the indigenous Celts and Britons into their race, and thereby improved the quality of their own racial stock. Here Roosevelt first revealed his own belief in the benefits that could accrue from racial mixing and racial assimilation, provided that these processes were properly controlled by the superior race.

Periodic attempts at invasion from abroad kept the Teutonic instinct for self-preservation razor sharp, while Britain's physical separation from Europe prevented Latin and other continental cultures from penetrating and enervating Britain's Teutonic core. In these circumstances of Teutonic domination, war, isolation, and limited assimilation, a super-Teutonic race incubated, strengthening itself through the incorporation of conquered Celtic and Scandinavian peoples and their customs, and preparing to embark on the greatest adventure the world had ever seen: "the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world's waste spaces." This adventure lasted three hundred years until the English race, once limited to a small island "between the North and Irish seas," held "sway over worlds whose endless coasts are washed by the waves of the three great oceans." To Roosevelt, it was no accident that the spread of this race had inaugurated an extraordinary period of economic growth, technological innovation, and democracy. The Teutonic-English race had raised the quality of civilization and carried it to the farthest reaches of the globe.

In this saga of worldwide triumph, the most important conquest had occurred on the North American continent, where an English-speaking people had duplicated the feats of the Teutons in Britain, but on a larger and more heroic scale. In Roosevelt's eyes, the settlers who mattered were not the godly Puritans of New England or the virtuous farmers who diligently worked the land or the merchants who made great fortunes by acquiring and trading the continent's abundant resources. Rather, they were the backwoodsmen who bravely ventured forth into the trans-Appalachian wilderness to battle the Indians and clear the land. These backwoodsmen, in Roosevelt's eyes, like the Germans who had invaded Britain, were warriors above all, and their primary task was not placid husbandry but relentless war against the savage Indians who claimed these lands as their own. Roosevelt had no use for a Turnerian view of the frontier as an uninhabited place awaiting cultivation by diligent bands of husbandmen. "A race of peaceful, unwarlike farmers," Roosevelt argued, "would have been helpless before such foes as the red Indians, and no auxiliary military forces could have protected them or enabled them to move westward.... The West would never have been settled save for the fierce courage and the eager desire to brave danger so characteristic of the stalwart backwoodsmen."

Roosevelt loathed the savage red man but admired him, too, for his bravery, cunning, and, most of all, ferocity. The backwoodsman achieved his greatness as a result of the extraordinary battles he had fought to subdue the remarkable Indian foe. Here is a typical Rooseveltian account of the terrifying but ennobling character of the backwoodsmen-red men encounters:

Often the white men and red fought one another whenever they met, and displayed in their conflicts all the cunning and merciless ferocity that made forest warfare so dreadful. Terrible deeds of prowess were done by the mighty men on either side. It was a war of stealth and cruelty, and ceaseless, sleepless watchfulness. The contestants had sinewy frames and iron wills, keen eyes and steady hands, hearts as bold as they were ruthless.... The dark woods saw a myriad lonely fights where red warrior or white hunter fell and no friend of the fallen ever knew his fate, where his sole memorial was the scalp that hung in the smoky cabin or squalid wigwam of the victor.

On the field of battle, the Indian was every bit the backwoodsman's equal.

Roosevelt regarded the conquest of the Indians and the winning of the West as "the great epic feat in the history of our race." The relentless westward march was "a record of men who greatly dared and greatly did, a record of wanderings wider and more dangerous than those of the Vikings; a record of endless feats of arms, of victory after victory in the ceaseless strife waged against wild man and wild nature." And just as the struggle to subdue the Celts had given rise to a super-Teutonic race in Britain, so too the war to exterminate the Indian created the "Americans," the fittest English-speaking race yet to appear on earth.

The backwoodsmen could not assimilate the Indians as the Teutons had done to the Celts, for the racial gap between them and the Indians was simply too great to be bridged. Those Europeans who had mixed with the Indians--the French and the Spanish--had merely created new, inferior races. But the war against the Indians had accelerated a different kind of assimilatory process, one that fashioned a single American people out of many European strains. The backwoodsmen, according to Roosevelt, were primarily the descendants of two British races--the Scotch Irish and the English--but included in their ranks significant numbers of Germans, Huguenots, "Hollanders," and Swedes. Although these distinct "racial" groups were still conscious of their differences when they arrived in the wilderness, they had become oblivious to them within the course of their lifetimes. "A single generation, passed under the hard conditions of life in the wilderness," Roosevelt wrote, "was enough to weld [them] together into one people." And so, "long before the first Continental Congress assembled, the backwoodsmen, whatever their blood, had become Americans, one in speech, thought, and character." "Their iron surroundings," Roosevelt continued, "made a mould which turned out all alike in the same shape." Here, for the first of many times, Roosevelt referred in a positive way to the melting-pot origins of the American people.

This assimilation was different from the sort undertaken by the conquering Teutons in Britain, for there the Teutons assimilated the Celts into their own culture. Roosevelt might have claimed that the American culture was essentially English or Anglo-Saxon; and, at times, he came close to labeling the backwoodsmen culture Scotch Irish. But he pulled back from both claims, perhaps because either would have put him into the awkward position of having to admit that his own heritage--mixed but primarily Dutch--lay outside the core American culture. Instead he stressed the mixed, hybridized character of the American, unconsciously reiterating the perspective expressed 100 years earlier by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. "What then is the American, this new man?" Crevecoeur had queried in a famous passage in his 1782 book, Letters from an American Farmer . "He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations." This statement precisely anticipated Roosevelt's view regarding the origins of the American people.

There was, however, one important similarity between the melting-pot character of assimilation in the United States and the Teutonic-conformity assimilation that had occurred in Britain. Both were controlled processes. The control in Britain lay in making sure the Celts assimilated to a dominant Teutonic culture; the control in America lay in limiting the American mix to European strains. Both Crevecoeur and Roosevelt only included in their American brew races emanating from Europe. They excluded all nonwhite races--not only Indians but Africans as well.

Roosevelt did not worry much about the proper place of Indians in the nation, for the savage wars with the Americans had culminated in their expulsion or extermination. But he was troubled by the place and role of blacks. Roosevelt regarded the importation of African slaves to the North American continent as a racial and national catastrophe. The European races who conquered America, Roosevelt intoned, "to their own lasting harm, committed a crime whose short-sighted folly was worse than its guilt, for they brought hordes of African slaves, whose descendants now form immense populations in certain portions of this land." These "hordes" could never be truly assimilated into American society: the distance separating them from the white races was simply too great. Nor could they play the role of the proud savage foe against whom American warriors defined their race and peoplehood, for the Africans were already a bowed and conquered people when they arrived, forced to obey their masters' every command. Regrettably, the black man could "neither be killed nor driven away." He had to be found a place in the nation. But where? Giving blacks an equal place would violate the racial order of things, while hemming them into a subordinate status vitiated the American commitment to democracy and equal opportunity.

Roosevelt blamed this dilemma not on his heroic backwoodsmen but on the "trans-oceanic aristocracy" of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that had allegedly created and sustained the international slave trade. The racial crime committed by these aristocrats had already triggered one national disaster--the Civil Warm that almost destroyed the mighty nation that the backwoodsmen had so painstakingly and courageously built. And even emancipation, an act that Roosevelt supported, provided no simple cure to the race problem because Negroes, Roosevelt believed, would not take well to democracy, a form of government that depended on the kind of self-control and mastery that only the white races had attained. As president, Roosevelt would struggle to devise what were, in his eyes, decent remedies to the race problem. But he would always regard the Negro as an indelible black mark on the white nation that had so gloriously emerged in the mid-eighteenth century, a constant reminder of America's racial imperfection, of an opportunity compromised by the nefarious dealings of corrupt, antidemocratic, and immoral aristocrats. There would never be, Roosevelt once conceded in private correspondence, a true solution to "the terrible problem offered by the presence of the negro on this continent."

In his frettings about the Negro problem, Roosevelt admitted what is everywhere implicit in his racialist history of America: that democracy was a form of government appropriate only to the European or white races. This view appeared, too, in his occasional writings in the 1890s about Chinese immigrants. Roosevelt applauded the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (as well as similar legislation passed in Australia): "From the United States and Australia the Chinaman is kept out because the democracy, with much clearness of vision, has seen that his presence is ruinous to the white race." "Had these regions been under aristocratic governments," Roosevelt wrote, "Chinese immigration would have been encouraged precisely as the slave trade is encouraged by any slave-holding oligarchy, and the result in a few generations would have been even more fatal to the white race." Fortunately, "the democracy, with the clear instinct of race selfishness, saw the race foe, and kept out the dangerous alien" and thus preserved "for the white race the best portions of the new world's surface."

In his probe of the process through which democracy had actually taken root in the "best portions of the world's surface," Roosevelt subscribed to some of the same views about the socially leveling and purifying effects of the frontier that Frederick Jackson Turner would soon popularize. The harsh wilderness, Roosevelt argued, stripped people of their Old World ranks and privileges. In the backwoods of Kentucky and in what would become Tennessee, conditions of rough equality prevailed. A sense of entitlement or privilege was worthless; a man could get only what he worked for. Self-reliance was perhaps the most important ingredient of success, but each man also depended on the labor of his family and the support of his neighbors. A democratic ethos emerged from this sense of mutual interdependence, an ethos that prompted the settled backwoodsmen to devise institutions of self-government that would bring security, justice, and equality to the wilderness.

But Roosevelt, unlike Turner, refused to base his entire account on environmental factors. "It has often been said that we owe all our success to our surroundings; that any race with our opportunities could have done as well as we have done." This view, Roosevelt asserted, was demonstrably false. "The Spaniards, the Portuguese, and the French, not to speak of the Russians in Siberia, have all enjoyed, and yet have failed to make good use of, the same advantages which we have turned to good account." The Americans had made plenty of mistakes and missed more than their share of opportunities. But "we have done better than any other nation or race working under our conditions." For Roosevelt the explanation for the rise of democracy in the wilderness rested ultimately on the racial superiority of the English-speaking peoples.

(Continues...)

Copyright 2001 Princeton University Press. All rights reserved.



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