“We’re on the Same Side”: Anglophone Exceptionalism, Darkest Hour, and Dunkirk

by Alan Allport, Guest Contributor

“The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.” So declared Winston Churchill in his address to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940. Churchill was speaking on the same day that Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of Allied forces from the Dunkirk beaches, formally ended. Thanks to the efforts of DYNAMO, most of the men (though not the equipment or weapons) of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which had been trapped in a small pocket of northern Flanders thanks to the success of the German Blitzkrieg, had been successfully extracted from France back across the English Channel.

But from Churchill’s point of view on June 4, 1940, the campaign in France, and Britain’s involvement in it, was far from over. “We have our duty to our Ally,” he pointed out to his fellow MPs. RAF aircraft were still operating from bases in western France on June 4. British strategic bombers would soon be arriving at airfields near Marseilles to begin raids on Italy, which was (correctly) expected to declare war on the Allies any day. Even as the bedraggled veterans of the Dunkirk campaign were disembarking at southern English ports, the 52nd Lowland and 1st Canadian infantry divisions were preparing to cross the Channel in the opposite direction, to join the British 1st Armoured and 51st Highland infantry divisions still in France. Churchill conceived of them as a second BEF which would help the French push back the Germans massing along the Somme and reestablish stability on the Western Front. As he made clear to the Commons on June 4, he did not believe that the catastrophe at Dunkirk had made the fall of France inevitable. “There is no reason why we should not in a few months overtake the sudden and serious loss that has come upon us,” he said. Churchill would take considerable persuading over the weeks to follow that France really was doomed to defeat and that further assistance to Britain’s ally would serve no purpose.


Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Focus Features.

None of this, however, makes it into the version of the speech that audiences hear in Joe Wright’s biopic Darkest Hour (2017). So far as Darkest Hour is concerned, it is the Prime Minister’s famous peroration which matters. Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, assures the Commons that Britain will “fight on the beaches … on the landing grounds … in the fields and in the streets” rather than surrender; that he and his compatriots will “defend our island home … if necessary for years, if necessary alone.” To be sure, the movie includes Churchill’s promise that “we shall fight in France”; but this is very much a throwaway remark. Wright’s story, which ends with the successful evacuation from Dunkirk and Churchill’s fervent roar of defiance, leaves its audience in little doubt that the Anglo-French alliance is already doomed by the beginning of June 1940. The future of the war, and further resistance to Nazi tyranny, is very much all in Britain’s hands now – at least until the intervention of the United States after Pearl Harbor.

Indeed, although Darkest Hour spends little time concerning itself with Churchill’s French counterparts one way or the other, the film drops more than a few hints that the whole Anglo-French partnership was, from Britain’s point of view, a mistake from the beginning. At one of his first Chiefs of Staff meetings as Prime Minister, a shocked Churchill is informed by General Ironside that “the entire French Ninth Army – some 200,000 men – have capitulated … surrendered, deserted. It was a rout.” Further evidence of French lassitude is soon provided when Churchill flies across the Channel to rally the leaders of the Third Republic. “We must rouse our old friends to a heroic resistance,” the old warrior insists: but the film makes it clear that this is one of Churchill’s touchingly naïve fantasies, and one that is about to be cruelly exposed. At his meeting with Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, the British leader’s enjoinments for the French Army to immediately counterattack the Germans are met with cool Gallic cynicism. “We have lost,” Reynaud baldly responds. “He’s delusional”, he adds to his colleague Daladier as Churchill’s plane departs. “He’s English,” Daladier notes. The film strongly concurs with Daladier’s view. If the fight against Hitler is to continue, Darkest Hour suggests, les Anglo-Saxons can expect little further assistance from their Francophone neighbors. They simply do not have the same right stuff.


Dunkirk, Warner Bros.

Dunkirk, the other 2017 movie blockbuster which covers much the same historical territory as Darkest Hour, comes to similar conclusions regarding the Anglo-French alliance of 1940. As one of its promotional taglines declares: “When 400,00 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” Never mind that around half of those 400,000 Allied troops trapped in the Dunkirk pocket were already ‘home’ in May 1940, being French or Belgian troops; Dunkirk is very much a story of deliverance to safety from a hostile and foreign place, of a doomed and foolish overseas venture in the service of incompetent and untrustworthy allies. “Survival is victory”, goes another of the film’s taglines. Survival, for Dunkirk, is to be understood strictly in British terms. Survival after this continental disaster will, after all, be a prelude to victory in the Battle of Britain and all the moral grandeur of the Churchillian ‘finest hour’ of 1940.

The film addresses the question of Britain’s responsibility to its allies most directly in the sequence in which a group of BEF soldiers confront a Frenchmen who has been hiding in their midst, disguised in British Army uniform, and trying, like them, to get off the beaches. The soldiers are making a bid for escape in a leaky trawler; at least one of them must disembark, presumably to be shot by the enemy, if the vessel is to stay afloat. “A Frog! A bloody Frog! A cowardly little queue-jumping Frog!” one of the British soldiers snarls when the duplicity is revealed. Another soldier, ‘Tommy’, tries to defend the Frenchman: “we’re on the same side!” he reminds his comrades. The dialogue that follows is a performance in miniature of the whole moral issue at Dunkirk: do the British on the beaches still have a continuing obligation of any kind to an ally which (it is strongly implied) has let them down so badly?

“It’s not fair!”

“Survival’s not fair.”

“He saved our lives.”

“And he’s about to do it again … we need someone to get off so the rest of us can live – you want to volunteer?”

“Fuck no. I’m going home.”

“And if this is the price?”

“I’ll live with it, but it’s wrong.”

While the film shows some sympathy for Tommy’s moral qualms, it also suggests that the ruthless logic of the other British soldiers might be more defensible in the service of the greater good. “We need our army back,” the unnamed senior naval officer in charge of the evacuation mutters off-the-record when he is asked if he will honor Churchill’s promise to evacuate French and British soldiers at the same rate. Dunkirk offers little challenge to this cold-blooded calculation. If squeamish considerations for the fate of the French had overridden all other concerns, it suggests, then the war might have been lost there and then on the beaches in May 1940. Perfidious Albion was quite right to think solely of its own needs at the moment of crisis.

It’s perhaps not surprising that these visions of British moral exceptionalism and the necessity of detachment from continental entanglements have struck a sensitive chord in the UK in the months following the troubled Brexit vote. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party and the bête noire of embattled ‘Remainers’, has urged young Britons to go out and see Dunkirk. Gary Oldman has been asked what he thinks Churchill would have made of Brexit. The London Times journalist Jenni Russell has lamented that Dunkirk was released at this particular moment, for its “narrative of heroic retreat in order to fight another day, cannot help but feed the national pride in Britain’s capacity to triumph eventually, no matter what the odds … nothing could be less helpful to our collective psyche.” Ian Jack accuses the two films of “feeding Brexit fantasies.” Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk’s director, has denied any such thing. Patrick Porter backs Nolan up, insisting that the film “does not end simply celebrating homecoming and a departure from Europe.” Anthony King demurs, seeing Dunkirk as “structured around the question of British nationalism” in a way that depicts “home [as] the only redemption from the alienating emptiness” of France.

The significance of these films for a British people wrestling with their conception of themselves and their place in the world is understandable enough. What is interesting is the extent to which Churchillian and Dunkirk myths might also be resonating with modern American audiences. Both films, though preoccupied with purely British historical stories, and without any leading American characters or actors, have done very well at the US box office. Dunkirk has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture; Darkest Hour too is up for Best Picture, with five other nominations, including Gary Oldman as Best Actor. Churchill’s status, shared only with Lincoln, as the one historical statesman to whom all US politicians wish to be compared, remains as solid as ever. Mike Huckabee attracted much attention, and no end of derision, for his Twitter claims that Darkest Hour demonstrated what “real leadership” looks like, and that in President Trump, “we have a Churchill.”

But perhaps it’s not so surprising that stories of lone Anglophone defiance in a hostile world of babbling foreigners should be gaining traction on the other side of the Atlantic. Most Americans had barely heard of Dunkirk before Nolan’s film. To most of them, perhaps, it remains an obscure overseas battle. But America is going through its own isolationist hour (‘finest’ or not) at the moment: retreating into trade protectionism, eyeing its foreign allies with increasing distrust and resentment, literally raising its border walls. It’s not difficult to see how accounts of a white English-speaking people standing unaided against belligerent aliens might find purchase among certain constituencies of American movie-goers – and voters – in the Trump epoch. Whether they or their President might also see the Dunkirk story as a cautionary tale of the catastrophe that can befall nations that take their allies for granted is not so clear.

Alan Allport is an Associate Professor of History at Syracuse University. His books Demobbed: Coming Home after the Second World War (2009), and Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939-1945 (2015), are both published by Yale University Press. His forthcoming two-volume history of the Second World War, British Iliad, will be published in North America by Knopf.


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“We Danced While They Bombed”: Popular Dancing in Britain during the Second World War

by Allison Abra, Ph.D.

Abra book coverIn the fall of 1939, during the first months of the Second World War, famed American war correspondent Edward R. Murrow undertook what he called an “investigation into London nightlife.” Describing a recent tour through some of the restaurants, hotels, and night-clubs in the city’s West End he observed that “business is good; has in fact improved since war came.” In particular Murrow noted that there were now more dance bands being featured than before the war, and that many establishments “where one could eat without musical distraction in the old days have now engaged small orchestras.” As Murrow summed it up, “Customers want to dance.”[1]

The war was in its infancy when Murrow wrote, but the phenomenon that he observed would endure until its conclusion, when Britons celebrated their victory by dancing in the streets on VE Day. Additionally, as I discuss in my recent book Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50, throughout the war, dancing took on a host of important cultural meanings that helped the British people express who they were as a nation, and to define how and why they were fighting.


East London in the aftermath of the German Blitz of 1940-41.

From the moment the war broke out there was voracious press coverage of Britain’s “dancing boom.” As one dance magazine reported about London’s first and most famous dance hall, ‘It takes more than a war to empty [the] Hammersmith [Palais]… [it] is, in fact, doing better business than ever.”[2] From that point on, the British people’s desire to dance was frequently deployed as evidence of their high spirits, fortitude, and endurance. When the Blitz began, stories about dances carrying on during air raids were abundant. An illustrative report described the scene in a dance hall as German bombs rained down, observing that “the band … played on, and the dancers continued as though nothing had happened, although many of the windows had been blown out.’[3] Special attention was focused on the persistence of dancing in Dover, which suffered under both heavy bombing and enemy shelling across the English Channel from occupied France. A journalist marveled in 1942 that under such conditions the town still staged weekly dances, and that “One occasion saw the orchestra vie with German gunners as to which could make the most noise: dancers remained swaying to the rhythm of war and a ‘hot’ band! … [showing] the ‘carry on’ spirit of a town living under the shadow of German long-range artillery.”[4] Reports of this type helped to establish the belief in the “Blitz spirit,” and the British people’s stalwart refusal to succumb to Nazi aggression.

Dances were also frequently heralded for being spaces where social unity and “community feeling” were on vivid display. A letter to the editor of a dance magazine described his experience at a Manchester dance hall, where “before a few dances were over, I found quite happily that all the dancers were singing as well as dancing – in fact, it almost became community singing – and it really did help us all to feel more cheerful.[5] There was a belief that dances were a unifying force, bringing together people of different classes, from distinct regions within the British Isles and from across the British Empire, and cementing bonds between the British and their military allies, such as Poles or Americans.

Dance hall proprietors also sought ways to enable their patrons to make tangible contributions to the war effort during their visits, positioning dancing as not only a morale-booster but a way of doing one’s “bit.” In a notable example, the Manchester Ritz hosted a “Tank Week” in 1941, during the course of which a large inflatable tank was pushed around the ballroom, and as they danced across the floor patrons dropped coins upon its surface; by week’s end the hall had raised over fifty pounds towards the building of a new tank. Dancing therefore provided enjoyment and relaxation, but also enabled Britons to feel that even in their leisure time they were contributing to the country’s victory in the war.

Meanwhile, with growing restrictions on dancing in Nazi Germany and across occupied Europe, the British saw their very ability to dance as something that distinguished them from the enemy, and reinforced their reasons for fighting. As one writer opined in 1944, in “dictator-occupied countries… force rules and freedom goes and with it dancing which so truly expresses a freedom of spirit and action that is distasteful to rulers and conquerors.’[6] The dance craze in Britain thus came to represent the nation’s continued freedom from tyranny, and the people’s dancing bodies became a physical expression of their enduring democracy.

It is important to note that this vision of the dancing nation – cheerful, defiant, and united – shrouded lingering social tensions, on the dance floor and beyond. While it was a predominant belief during the so-called “people’s war” that shared sacrifices and the collective waging of the war effort were dissolving social divisions of class, gender, race, age and region, historians have clearly demonstrated that many societal fissures were exacerbated rather than eliminated during the war years.[7] This was no less true of the dance floor, where, for instance, controversies over interracial dancing sparked significant tensions or even violence. Even the much vaunted dance craze was to some degree illusory. For all the times that dances continued during air raids, there were other occasions when they simply shut down; attendance at leisure venues also declined significantly during moments when the military situation appeared particularly grim, such as during the German offensive in 1940, when, as one contemporary put it, “the mood of the people is not to go out nearly so much at night to make whoopee in the West End.”[8]

Dancing in London on VE Day

Dancing in London on VE Day, May 8, 1945.

Yet even with these necessary caveats, dancing undoubtedly played a critical role in constructing and presenting – within Britain and around the world – the dominant image of the fighting nation, and the ideals upon which it waged the war. Indeed, I argue in the book that for all of the ways that the “people’s war” was a myth, the dance floor provided a space where that myth could be realized and experienced by wartime Britons, even if only in the ephemeral “moment of dance.”[9] Dancing in World War II Britain thus has much to tell us about the role played by popular culture in wartime, and how it operates not solely as escapism or propaganda, but as a crucial site for the creation and expression of soldiers’ and civilians’ motivations and belief systems.

Allison Abra is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society and the Nina Bell Suggs Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. A specialist in modern British history, she is the author of Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50 (Manchester, 2017).

[1] Edward R. Murrow, This is London (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941), p. 41.

[2] Irene Raines, “London Ballroom Notes,” Dancing Times (November 1939), p. 74.

[3] “Bombed, But Danced On,” Dance News (18 October 1941), p. 1.

[4] Frank Illingworth, Britain Under Shellfire (London: Hutchison & Company, 1942), p. 42.

[5] “Manchester Notes,” Modern Dance (October 1939).

[6] James Mackenzie, Stepping Out (Danceland Publications, 1944), p. 6.

[7] Sonya Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain, 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

[8] MOA: TC 38/8/D, Correspondence, Letter from H.E. Smith to Tom Harrisson (21 May 1940).

[9]The “moment of dance” is a concept articulated by dance studies scholar Julie Malnig in: Julie Malnig, “Women, Dance, and New York Nightlife,” in Julie Malnig (ed.) Ballroom Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), p. 82.

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Why We Need to Study Soldiers and Families

In honor of today’s release of her latest book, Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit, Dale Center co-director Susannah Ural reflects on a new approach to writing unit histories.

by Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D.


Isaac Cline’s ambrotype of Josephine “Josie” Scott, 1863. Image courtesy of the Texas State Historical Association.

In the summer of 1863, Josephine “Josie” Scott walked into Isaac Cline’s photography gallery in Palestine, Texas. Her features and attire in the image Cline captured that day are unremarkable. What stands out was Scott’s decision to hold an ambrotype of her husband while Cline made an ambrotype of her.

Josie Scott’s husband was Lt. John G. Scott, a member of the 1st Texas Infantry. Serving in the Texas Brigade in Lt. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the 1st Texas was known for aggressive fighting that had won them an unwanted honor the previous September at the battle of Antietam. They suffered the most casualties of any regiment on either side in the war in that bloody fight. But even 87 percent losses (higher than the 82 percent often quoted) had not broken the regiment, though it had made a host of women like Josie Scott widows. Perhaps it was with this in mind that she decided to send her husband a subtle message that, even though he was a thousand miles away, he was with her, just as she was with him.

Josie Scott’s image highlights the strong familial bonds that sustained a hard fighting unit like the Texas Brigade through four years of war. By the time she had the ambrotype made, Hood’s Texans, as they were known, were already famous for helping to roll back Union forces at the battles of Gaines’s Mill and Second Manassas, for their astonishing bravery at Antietam, and for seizing the first if not the second of their objectives at the Battle of Gettysburg. The men of this unit had raced to be among the first to reach Virginia when the war began because it was there that they believed they could best contribute to Confederate victory. They could have fought just as honorably closer to home, but not, they argued, as effectively. So they remained in the east, year after year, suffering such astonishingly high casualties that they earned another dubious honor. Most Civil War soldiers were twice as likely to die from disease as they were in combat, but by the end of the war, the opposite proved true for the Texas Brigade.

Hood’s Texans became a textbook unit in lessons of leadership and soldier ideology, and rightfully so. But too often overlooked is the significant role that their families played in helping their men sustain that determination to fight. This unit reminds us that when we study units to understand what made them effective or ineffective, we need to more closely consider the contributing role played by their immediate families. While some Southern wives, mothers, and fathers were telling men that they needed to come home or writing to governors to insist that soldiers’ families receive the care they were promised, astonishingly few letters like this came from Texas Brigade families. This may be because many of them had the financial stability to offset the hardships caused by the war, to help other brigade families, and to raise funds for their men in Virginia. But families’ letters and diaries also indicate that they shared their volunteers’ belief that sacrifices were necessary to secure Confederate independence.

Texas Brigade soldiers and families continued to face hardships together, as a unit, long after the fighting stopped. When veterans opened businesses, for example, they were more likely to cite their service in the Texas Brigade than anything that had to do with their new enterprise. When Dr. R. J. Breckenridge, who ended the war as chief medical examiner for the Army of Northern Virginia, opened his practice in Houston, he advertised his original position as a surgeon in Hood’s Texas Brigade to attract patients, not his training or prominence in Lee’s army. By 1870, five years after they returned home, those connections helped to ensure that two-thirds of the veterans and families of Hood’s Texas Brigade were more financially secure than their friends and neighbors in the same county. They waged the peace of Reconstruction together as a unit just as they had waged the war.

Josie Scott’s ambrotype reminds us that it is only by studying the full picture of a military unit — the men at the front and their families at home — that we can begin to understand what drove them to war, how they fought and endured it, and how they navigated the rocky peace that followed.

Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D. is professor of history and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of four books on the U.S. Civil War, including the latest: Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit. Ural credits the Blount Professorship in Military History, which she held from 2013-2015, for giving her the time and support she needed to complete her decade-long study of this unit.

Posted in military families, Military history, soldiers, U.S. Civil War, unit histories, war and society | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The War Stories We Tell

by Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D.

best years of our lives poster

Poster advertising the 1946 film, The Best Years of Our Lives.

My Honors students and I recently watched the 1946 Oscar-winning film, The Best Years of Our Lives, which follows three World War II veterans as they return home and struggle to settle back into civilian life. Homer Parrish (portrayed by an actual wounded World War II veteran) lost both hands while serving with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. Fred Derry, an Army Air Forces captain, suffered from nightmares of his time at war. Sgt. Al Stephenson took to the bottle to smooth the jarring reentry into his roles as husband, father, and banker. There were no ticker tape parades, no triumphant landing of victorious soldiers into the arms of a jubilant public. The three veterans arrived at an airport alone, and in trying to find a flight to their hometown, learned that they were all going to the same place. No one met them when they landed. They shared a taxi, which dropped them off at their respective homes on an ordinary day. They hugged their families, and everyone expected things to get back to normal. But the vets only felt “normal” when they were in each other’s company, sharing drinks and stories at the local bar.

Change the fashion, the cars, and the soundtrack, and The Best Years of Our Lives could have been about Vietnam veterans. The lonely return home, the struggle to cope with war wounds and terrifying flashbacks, and the difficulty reconnecting with family and civilian friends are all hallmarks of the American public memory of the Vietnam veteran. What’s more, we have created an image of the Vietnam veteran as a man whose wartime experience was distinct, especially when compared to the vets of his father’s generation. The Vietnam veteran was ignored, if not abused. The Vietnam War was uniquely traumatic, and all Vietnam veterans served in combat units or were otherwise in the line of fire. America was on the winning side of World War II, so that made it easier for veterans to process the pain. Not so, according to The Best Years of Our Lives.

Burns docThe comparison between the World War II and Vietnam veteran experiences struck me because I was watching Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War at the same time that my students and I watched The Best Years of Our Lives. Burns enforces the image of the distinctly damaged Vietnam veteran by prioritizing the voices of infantrymen and Marines. The archival footage of Americans shows men in violent battle, and the veterans interviewed describe the horrors of combat. The anecdotes are dramatic, and the documentary’s use of them suggests that combat was the primary American experience in Vietnam. Karl Marlantes, Tim O’Brien, and W.D. Ehrhart no doubt conveyed the feelings and experiences of many Americans who served in Vietnam. Yet historian Meredith Lair has argued with convincing archival evidence that, depending on the year, most American troops served in the rear echelon, where the greatest risk to soldiers and the military’s mission was boredom.

Burns does not tell that story. His is a fairly one-dimensional view of the U.S. soldier’s experience in Vietnam, just as the long-established image of World War II troops gleefully returning home to a hero’s welcome is simplistic. Americans—the public, filmmakers, writers, and historians—seem to be unwilling or unable to complicate the popular portrayals of World War II and Vietnam veterans. Why not acknowledge that some veterans of “the good war” spent their entire lives battling their wartime demons? Why not incorporate into our national narrative stories of Vietnam vets like Joel Blackwell, whose time in-country was an adventure, “a lark,” as he wrote recently in the New York Times?

Why are Americans so invested in the story of the traumatized Vietnam veteran? If American male soldiers appear as victims in our collective memory, does that help us stomach the bad policies and decisions Americans made regarding Vietnam? If Vietnam vets were uniquely traumatized by their war experiences compared to veterans of other wars, does that allow Americans to argue that the Vietnam War was an anomaly rather than a typical example of what the U.S. does in the world? I often wonder what World War II veterans might have told us if they had come out of war into a culture of consciousness raising and protest. Had Ken Burns interviewed American veterans who had no gruesome tales to tell, it would have been more difficult for him to produce a documentary that portrays Americans as victims of the Vietnam War, rather than perpetrators or bystanders.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is the Gen. Buford “Buff” Blount Professor in Military History and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. She is co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) and author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011).

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Let Us Speak of What We Have Done

Editor’s note: In the October 2017 issue of Civil War Times magazine, Dale Center co-director Dr. Susannah J. Ural was invited along with 14 other leading Civil War scholars to offer her thoughts on the current debate over Confederate memorials. The post below is an extended version of her thoughts on subject.

By Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D.

There’s an obelisk at Karnak built to honor Hatshepsut, one of the few women pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Its inscription captures her curiosity at how she, who ushered in a period of prosperity and peace, would be remembered: “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say — those who shall see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.” Hatshepsut’s successor, for reasons still debated, nearly destroyed every memory of her. But history has a way of haunting us. Our current struggle with a Confederate past has me wondering, like Hatshepsut, how future generations will interpret our decisions.

Hood's Texas Brigade monument front of the Texas state capitol

Hood’s Texas Brigade monument in front of the Texas state capitol.

In an era of great division, a point that is often missed in the Confederate monuments debate is that most factions rightly agree that history should not be erased. The question is in how it should be remembered. In my opinion, if citizens come together through a democratic process and agree to remove monuments in their community, they should do so. That’s how democracy works. But don’t hide them away in warehouses. Place them at museums or battlefield parks where historians and interpreters can help visitors learn about the motives behind the Lost Cause. These monuments were erected at the height of this movement to, yes, honor concepts of sacrifice for liberty and family. Countless letters from the men and women who endured the Civil War and raised the money to build these monuments verify that. When Confederate veteran Joseph B. Polley, who fought in the 4th Texas Infantry, debated with his fellow veterans about the design of the Texas Brigade monument in Austin, he insisted that it had to feature an individual soldier rather than Jefferson Davis or a Confederate commander. “If a medallion of Davis appears on the monument at all, it is bound to have the central and most conspicuous place, and the men and women who when we are dead and gone look at it, will accept it as a monument to Davis and the cause he represented.” Instead, Polley and his fellow Texas Brigade veterans decided to depict a common soldier representing “the brave men to whose memory alone it should be dedicated.” (J. B. Polley, Floresville, Wilson County, Texas to Col. B. F. Chilton, Angleton, Texas, July 18, 1908. F. B. Chilton Papers, The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.)

"Silent Sam" monument at UNC-Chapel Hill

“Silent Sam” monument at UNC-Chapel Hill

We need to recognize, however, that many of these monuments were also erected amid an effort to entrench a ruthless tradition of white supremacy. One of the best-known examples of this is the recently removed Battle of Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans. Another appears in the speech by Confederate veteran and Southern philanthropist Julian S. Carr at the 1913 dedication of the Confederate memorial at UNC-Chapel Hill. Carr celebrated many things in his speech, including “what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South — When ‘the bottom rail was on top’ all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence, the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States — Praise God.” (Carr’s full speech is here; this quote is from page 9-B; sources relating to this monument can be found here).

I don’t believe there is a universal answer to the monuments question, just as I fail to see a universal motivation in those who erected them. The past is messy, and that messiness is what inspires so many of us to study it. So, let’s talk about these complexities, and preferably at sites that have trained historians and archivists on staff who can help visitors research and read original sources and enjoy an informed debate about the issues — not so we can all agree, but so we can reach our own informed conclusions about the past to help us shape a better future.

Joseph B. Polley, Private, Company F, 4th Texas Regiment, 1862-65

Joseph B. Polley, Private, Company F, 4th Texas Regiment, 1862-65

I truly hope the fury over these monuments will inspire a similar fury to support education about the Civil War and its enduring legacy. Rather than mock simplistic videos and erroneous postings from museums that are understaffed and misinformed, we might consider how we can come together to help sites across the nation improve their facilities. We can remind our representatives why funding education in the humanities is so important. We can support groups like the Civil War Trust, which works tirelessly with diverse groups of scholars, educators, and preservationists to save and interpret Civil War history. We can also volunteer our services at historic sites in our area. But I want to be clear that volunteering needs to be done under the direction of a trained public historian, archivist, or museum curator. Otherwise, well-intentioned volunteers can interpret in ignorance or damage more than we preserve. But under such direction, many of us have the education, research, computer, and organizational skills that museums can put to use transcribing and digitizing collections, editing signage, and helping with publicity. These approaches would be a better use of funds and energy than, as some suggest, erecting more monuments that represent alternatives to, say, the White League memorial in New Orleans. In a city that is facing potentially crippling financial challenges, I’m not convinced that erecting and maintaining more monuments is a realistic solution.

Like Hatshepsut’s obelisk, Confederate memorials “speak of what [we] have done.” Let us do just that at historic sites designed for that purpose, where Confederate symbols, including the flag, are and should be part of the landscape from which visitors learn.

Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D., is Co-Director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and President of the Mississippi Historical Society. She is the author of Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It (Osprey, 2013) and The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865 (NYU Press, 2006). Her current project, Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit, will be published this year by LSU Press.

Posted in battlefields, Historic preservation, public history, soldiers, U.S. Civil War, veterans, war and society | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Who Gets to Be a Soldier?

Editor’s note: This is a combined post by Dale Center fellows Dr. Douglas Bristol and Dr. Heather Stur, who co-edited Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II. The book was recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

“More Likely to be Attacked Than Honored”: Changing the Way We Remember Black Soldiers

by Douglas Bristol, Ph.D.


T/5 William E. Thomas and Pfc. Joseph Jackson in Europe, March 10, 1945. Office of War Information, Overseas Operations Branch, 1942-1945. Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951. National Archives.

On Veterans’ Day last year, the Equal Justice Initiative released a new report, “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans,” that says, between 1877 and 1950, “no one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans.”[1] The report supplemented the organization’s 2015 report, “Lynching in America,” that documented 4,075 lynchings, which is 800 more than any previous tally. Although historians have noted that white supremacists disproportionately targeted black veterans for assault and murder, the subject has never been examined so comprehensively. Thousands of black veterans were assaulted, lynched, or threatened. Bryan Stevenson, the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said in an interview that the report should change the way we remember black veterans. “We do so much in this country to celebrate and honor folks who risk their lives on the battlefield,” Stevenson said, “but we don’t remember that black veterans were more likely to be attacked for their service than honored for it.”[2]

As sobering as his comment is, Stevenson left out black soldiers who were violently assaulted, unfairly punished, or disproportionately among the casualties while they were serving in the military. Whereas “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans” tells the well-known story of Isaac Woodard, who was blinded in 1946 by a South Carolina policeman while he was travelling home from his service in the Pacific, Integrating the U.S. Military tells the story of Private Felix Hall, who was lynched at Fort Benning in the spring of 1941, just months before Pearl Harbor. The book examines such incidents to provide a historical context for understanding the role that violence, harsh justice, and death have played in the black military experience since World War II.

The chapter on the resistance of black soldiers during World War II, for example, makes the pervasiveness of racial violence a central theme. Beyond the indignity of having to serve in a segregated military, African Americans experienced many varieties of racial discrimination. The most egregious were attacks by white law enforcement officers who patrolled the towns near the southern military bases where most black soldiers were posted. Perhaps the best example is the Alexandria Riot of 1942.

Alexandria, Louisiana was surrounded by three large military bases, which brought thousands of black and white soldiers downtown to mingle with civilians every Saturday night. On January 10, 1942, it was a typical Saturday night until a black soldier responded to a white woman driver honking at him while he crossed Lee Street. He asked the white woman, “Would you hit a veteran?” She responded by calling over a city policeman, who arrested the soldier for “using vile and unnecessary language.” A group of black soldiers thought the arrest was excessive, and they crowded around the policeman and his prisoner. In very short order, white M.P.s, state troopers, and National Guardsmen from nearby Camp Beauregard reinforced the Alexandria police. Instead of restoring order, however, the armed white men began firing volley after volley of shots into businesses patronized by African Americans. Local NAACP leaders said they targeted black soldiers. At least ten African Americans were killed, and no charges were filed. The fact that military personnel joined the police in their rampage illustrates how the military used violence, as did civilian law enforcement, to maintain racial subordination and segregation.

The chapter that examines black soldiers in Vietnam shows that integration did not end discrimination, which often meant black soldiers died. Because the Selective Service drafted African Americans in disproportionate numbers and the military assigned African Americans to the infantry in disproportionate numbers, black soldiers suffered disproportionately high casualties. African American made up around 11% of the U.S. population in 1966, but black soldiers made up 15% of the forces serving in Vietnam and accounted for 22% of the casualties to that date. Although the black casualty rate declined after 1967, the overall death rate for black soldiers was approximately 30% higher than for all U.S. forces fighting in Southeast Asia.

This chapter also shows a pattern of racial discrimination in the administration of military justice. To give one example, a 1972 Department of Defense investigation of military justice at several bases revealed that African Americans made up over 34% of the court-martials. Such high numbers should prompt historians to ask whether mass incarceration, which has emerged as a major topic in the history of African American civilians, existed in the military.

The book also illustrates how resentment over being targeted for unfair treatment and violence led to resistance by black soldiers that, at times, generated enough disorder to force the military command to address racial discrimination. During World War II, the resistance of black soldiers helped lead to deploying black troops overseas and to the trial of integrated combat troops following the Battle of the Bulge. During Vietnam, racial disturbances at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in 1969, which left one soldier dead and dozens injured, initiated another wave of military reform that is examined in the chapter on the history of the Defense Race Relations Institute. Racism was one of the factors that caused the riots since many black soldiers had been outraged when white soldiers celebrated the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The problems with race relations at Camp Lejeune made the national news, prompted the creation of a special House Armed Services Committee, and ultimately led to the creation of the Defense Race Relations Institute in 1971.

Even within the Defense Race Relations Institute, violent threats against African Americans loomed large. “We had people that threatened our lives,” said one black instructor. “I was threatened, so I bought a .38 Special that I kept in my car when I drove to work. . . . Even in my office, I would have bricks and stones thrown into the office windows.” By not quitting in response to these threats, this instructor resisted attempts to thwart reform in the military. His courage shows that black soldiers were not only disproportionately targeted by racists, but they also played an outsize role in ending racial discrimination.

If the targeting of black soldiers and veterans became central to our understanding of the black military experience, it would transform the history of the U.S. military and of American race relations. The cooperation between military authorities and civilian law enforcement to keep black soldiers in their place disproves assertions by military leaders during World War II that race relations were a civilian affair outside their jurisdiction. Racial disparities in the draft and in the military justice system during the Vietnam War question the commitment of military leaders to integration. Yet, to understand these issues, one must look outside the military to the broader American society that maintained segregation and that accepted racial inequality in the operation of the Selective Service and the criminal justice system. Integrating the U.S. Military explores these and other links between military life and civilian society, and in the process, makes the case for historians to examine this interaction more consistently.

Black soldiers lend new clarity to the investigation of American race relations because, when they donned the uniform of their nation and fought to defend it, they challenged stereotypes about African Americans in ways that domestics and sharecroppers could not. That is why they were targeted so frequently. At the same time, paying attention to the impact of black soldiers when they resisted discrimination adds a grass-roots element to the top-down story of how the military struggled to improve race relations. It also sheds new light on the influence of black veterans on the civil rights movement. Thus, the contributions that black soldiers made to overcoming racism are as important to remember as their contributions to the defense of the United States. This legacy only becomes visible when the enormity of the attacks on black soldiers is recognized as a central part of their history.

[1] Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans,” http://eji.org/reports/online/lynching-in-america-targeting-black-veterans (accessed April 27, 2017).

[2] Peter C. Baker, “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Military Veterans,” The New Yorker (Nov. 27, 2016), http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-tragic-forgotten-history-of-black-military-veterans (accessed April 27, 2017)

Douglas Bristol, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. He is co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II and author of Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

When Military Policies Collide with Civilian Ideas

by Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D.


Specialist DeJesus, a member of the Puerto Rico Army National Guard, presents the Defense of Saudi Arabia streamer to Col. Emmette Y. Burton during the Armed Forces Day celebration at Headquarters, Fort Buchanan. DeJesus was among the first women to be deployed to the Persian Gulf during Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm From RG: 330, Combined Military Service Digital Photographic Files. National Archives.

Back in March, the Marine Corps and other branches of the U.S. armed forces came under fire after service members posted nude and partially nude photos of their fellow personnel to Facebook and other websites. When Marine veteran Erika Butner discovered photos of her posted on a closed Facebook group called Marines United, she hoped that the Marines would not dismiss the incident as a type of “boys will be boys” prank. Butner is a rape survivor, and she told a reporter that this type of behavior can lead to sexual violence.[1] The Pentagon has launched an investigation into the matter, and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued a statement in which he asserted that “Lack of respect for the dignity and humanity of fellow members of the Department of Defense is unacceptable and counter to unit cohesion.” Mattis went on to say that “We will not excuse or tolerate such behavior if we are to uphold our values and maintain our ability to defeat the enemy on the battlefield.” Far from dismissing the incident as an example of “boys will be boys” behavior, Mattis cast it as the type of activity that destroys unit cohesion and undermines the Marines’ ability to perform its missions.

The story and subsequent ongoing investigation illustrate the difficulty of changing deep-seated cultural attitudes about men, women, and military service even as legal and institutional changes go into effect to open the armed forces to women more fully. Efforts to integrate minorities have shown the military to be “pragmatically progressive.” To meet personnel needs, military authorities have, at times, crafted policies that were progressive relative to a minority group’s position in the civilian world. Yet cultural resistance to military integration has been much more difficult to change. It is difficult, if not impossible, to legislate a mindset change. Laws can open military opportunities to African Americans, women, gay men, and lesbians, but laws cannot force Americans to change the image in their heads of who is an American soldier, of who represents and wields U.S. power in the world. Can it be a woman? Can it be a gay man? There is tension between military integration at the policy level and resistance to policies that appear to challenge the traditional image of the U.S. soldier.

A question I’ve begun to ask related to this is: Where does the traditional image of the U.S. military come from? Did the military create this image, or is it a product of broader civilian attitudes about American identity and American power? Attitudes and behaviors on display in the Marines United incident reflect not just a type of military culture but a much broader civilian culture which offers tacit approval of the objectification of women’s bodies and heterosexual male entitlement to images of them. Marines United brings to mind Tailhook, another private organization with heavy Marines and Navy membership, which got into serious trouble in 1991 when members at its annual convention sexually assaulted male and female attendees. In the context of contemporary culture from the Anita Hill case in the 1990s to the proliferation of rape and sexual assault on college campuses in recent years, we can see the impact of civilian culture on women’s experiences in the military. Given this type of continuity in the interplay between the U.S. military and civilian worlds, Integrating the U.S. Military offers useful historical context for contemporary civil-military relations.

The chapters in our book encourage readers to ask questions that are relevant to the U.S. military from the mid-twentieth century to the present day. Who is a soldier? What is combat? Why have the U.S. armed forces banned certain Americans from service based on race, gender, or sexuality? What has motivated military authorities to lift service restrictions? When we think of military culture, we often think of hypermasculine, aggressive, heterosexual behavior – and men – which may lead us to wonder where that image originated. Is it a military idea, or does it stem from a broader civilian mindset? If it’s the latter, why have Americans invested in this particular image? What does it tell us about American identity? Where have we seen its limits and resistance to it? Integrating the U.S. Military will help readers see the ways in which leaders of the armed forces have responded to social changes in the civilian world and have been pragmatic progressives in positioning the military as a vanguard of social change in order to meet practical personnel needs. It will also guide readers through the much more entrenched conventional wisdom to which Americans cleave about who should serve in the armed forces and why.

[1] Steve Almasy, “Female Marine veteran ‘disgusted’ to see photos posted online,” CNN.com, Mar. 9, 2017, < http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/08/politics/marines-united-photos-victims/> Accessed Mar. 14, 2017.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. She is co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II and author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011).

Posted in African American soldiers, Military integration, national identity, war and society, women and war | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Recovering the Experiences of the Black Greatest Generation

by Douglas Bristol


African American troops in the 761st Tank Battalion, World War II.

After conducting hundreds of hours of oral history interviews with Vietnam veterans, the Founding Director of the Dale Center, Dr. Andrew Wiest, persuasively argued in his Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam that historians have overlooked how ordinary GIs experienced war. I contend this is also true of black veterans of the “Greatest Generation” in World War II. In the case of these black GIs, I argue the problem is that historians are too preoccupied with finding the origins of the Civil Rights Movement in the wartime experiences of African American troops. This has led some historians to start with the assumption that most, if not all, black soldiers understood that they were on the front lines of the struggle for racial equality. This assumption has shaped the research questions civil rights historians have asked, both of archival sources and of veterans themselves. Some historians have been surprised, then, to learn that not all African American World War II veterans had the struggle for civil rights on their minds when they served. To make my point, I will examine several oral histories of black World War II veterans conducted by Dr. Neil McMillen for the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage at the University of Southern Mississippi.


Double V Campaign logo.

McMillen is a distinguished historian, whose book, Dark Journey: Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In his interviews, he focused his questioning of black veterans on civil rights issues such as the Double V Campaign, an effort by the black-owned newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, to encourage African Americans to fight for victory over the Axis powers and victory over racial discrimination in the United States. By doing so, he was assuming that all black veterans understood at the time that their World War II experiences were part of the long civil rights struggle.

The veterans’ answers to McMillen’s questions clearly surprised him. When he asked Dr. John Berry, the first black professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, if he had heard of the Double V campaign, Berry said, “Not during the war, no I did not hear about that.” McMillen seemed perplexed because all he said in response was, “Okay.” Berry explained his answer by saying, “. . . I went into the service when I was eighteen years old.” Another veteran that McMillen interviewed was James Boykin, who was the first African American elected to the Forrest County, Mississippi, Board of Supervisors. McMillen prefaced his question about the Double V campaign by explaining that it had been launched by the Pittsburg Courier during the war. Boykin said, “I don’t remember that.” Boykin went on to explain that he was familiar with the Pittsburg Courier since he had a part-time job at the newspaper when he was a graduate student, but he did not recall anyone in his hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, reading the newspaper. McMillen had asked Berry, Boykin, and several other veterans about the Double V campaign because it set an important precedent for later achievements in the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, none of them were familiar with it during the war. It did not consciously shape how they understood their identity as African American soldiers.

McMillen’s more general questions about the war begin to reveal what World War II meant to black veterans. First, he asked why they served. James Jones, who was the President of the Jones County, Mississippi, Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., had served with the famous 761st Tank Battalion that fought at the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate three concentration camps. Jones said, “. . . we did it because we were Americans . . . we felt, although we’re being used as second-class citizens, we felt it was our duty, and we had pride in America . . . we always felt that someday the shackles that held us down would be broken. We had faith in this country. This is the only country we had.” The other black veterans also said they served in the military out of patriotism.

McMillen also asked the veterans what they got out of the war, and the major theme that emerged from their answers was how they were transformed by spending time in other countries. Lamar Lenoir had served with the Fifteenth Air Force in North Africa and in Italy, and he remembered being treated with respect. He said, “Color wasn’t a factor when you were in the army. Because we found that the color was these citizens left back here.” What Lenoir meant was that white Mississippians were the ones preoccupied with skin color. John Berry also had fond memories of his time in Europe. When he got together with other World War II veterans, he said they always talked about Paris. He explained why, saying that “I feel like we were more accepted in France . . . .”   Similar comments about the experience of serving overseas in the interviews demonstrates that the war let black GIs imagine better, more equal lives. They did not necessarily see themselves as part of a broader civil rights struggle, but they did begin to think about the possibilities of equality because of their experiences in other countries.

Although historians of the black Greatest Generation have had the best of intentions, their focus on the origins of the Civil Rights Movement has obscured the experiences of black GIs in World War II. Neil McMillen followed the conventional wisdom, asking black veterans questions about the wartime initiatives of civil rights leaders and the Roosevelt Administration only to learn that African American soldiers did not necessarily connect politics with their wartime service. However, when McMillen asked black veterans why they served and how the war changed them, their answers provided a glimpse of what the war was like for them. In some ways, they sounded like white veterans. They were ill-informed about wartime politics and very patriotic. In other ways, the black veterans sounded very different. Their chance to play a role in the defense of their country and to travel overseas led them to question the narrow opportunities available to them as black men in Mississippi. Their later success as civil rights leaders, as college professors, and as politicians suggests that World War II changed their lives even if they didn’t realize its transformative power while they served.

Douglas Bristol, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. He has written about the black “Greatest Generation” in Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality since World War II (The Johns Hopkins University Press, April 2017), which he co-edited with Dale Center Fellow Dr. Heather Stur.

Posted in African American soldiers, Black veterans, Civil Rights Movement, Military history, oral history, soldiers, U.S. military and civil rights, war and society, World War II | Tagged | Leave a comment

Trump’s Foreign Policy and the American Story

by Heather Marie Stur

NATO summit

U.S. President George W. Bush, seated next to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, addresses world leaders during the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at Practica di Mare Air Force base near Rome, Italy. Image courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump offered little substance regarding his national security strategy or his worldview. In interviews, debates, and speeches, he called NATO “obsolete,” promised to expand the U.S. armed forces, and pledged to defeat ISIS. His website states a commitment to fighting “radical ideologies that direct and inspire terrorism” and deterring nuclear and cyber attacks. It’s too early to tell what a “Trump Doctrine” will look like, but foreign policy and military analysts have already begun to speculate about how Trump will approach international relations. Is he a realist who will privilege national interest over ideology? Might he usher in a twenty-first century version of the Peace of Westphalia, in which “national sovereignty” is central to the global order? What will a Trump presidency mean for the future of liberal internationalism?

As I’ve pondered these questions since the election, I’ve found myself thinking about the foreign policies of Trump’s predecessors and wondering how his vision might compare. Trump’s statements about NATO speak to the broader issue of how, and to what degree, the U.S. should be involved in international affairs. Trump has suggested that alliances need not be permanent, and he has threatened to reevaluate the U.S. role in NATO if members don’t abide by a 2002 agreement to spend at least two percent of their GDP on defense. President Obama has also called upon NATO members to spend more money on defense, but he has not threatened to dismantle a nearly 70-year-old alliance that made the transition from the Cold War world to the post-Cold War era. The only time NATO members invoked Article 5, which calls for collective defense, was in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, in support of the U.S. NATO militaries subsequently served in the war in Afghanistan. Looking farther back in time for a comparison, Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, repudiated Wilsonian internationalism in his rejection of the League of Nations. In his “Return to Normalcy” speech, he argued that in the aftermath of the Great War, the U.S. needed “not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.” A significant difference between Harding and Trump, though, is that Harding also worked to limit defense spending and arms proliferation, whereas Trump has called for a major expansion of the U.S. defense budget in addition to suggesting that the U.S. does not need its long-standing allies.

Trump’s proposal to spend big to fight a vague enemy reminded me of the ideologically driven foreign policies of Harry Truman and George W. Bush, both of which resulted in lengthy wars. For Truman, the nebulous global threat was communism. During his administration, the State Department issued NSC-68, a paper arguing that because the Soviet Union was “animated by a new fanatic faith” and determined “to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world,” the U.S. must embark on a massive buildup of conventional and nuclear weapons. The commitment to paying any price to stop the spread of communism inspired U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, a conflict that cost the U.S. dearly in blood, treasure, and national morale. Bush’s vague conflict was the global war on terror. Central to the Bush Doctrine was the idea of “preemption”: because terrorism exists, and because weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of terrorist groups, the U.S. was justified in launching preemptive attacks on perceived security threats. Bush’s policy led to the 2003 Iraq War, and Iraq remains mired in sectarian fighting and ISIS violence. Trump has said that the U.S. must build up its armed forces in order to counter Islamic extremism, especially in the form of ISIS. He recently offered the position of national security adviser to Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who has said that the U.S. is in a “world war” with “radical Islamic terrorism.”


Eleanor Roosevelt at Gila River, Arizona, at Japanese-American Internment Center. Image courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Foreign policies have domestic ramifications, including the persecution of citizens whom elected officials have deemed security threats. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the internment of Japanese Americans, and in the first decade of the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated accusations of communist influence in the government and in Hollywood. The “red scare” that resulted from HUAC activities inspired a “lavender scare” which targeted gay government employees based on the absurd notion that homosexuality was a mental illness, and thus gays and lesbians were more susceptible to communist influence. In the 1980s, a Congressional committee found that racism and xenophobia, not concrete security concerns, had motivated Japanese internment, and in 1988, President Ronald Reagan authorized reparations payments to surviving prisoners. With reparations, U.S. lawmakers acknowledged the injustice the federal government had done to Japanese Americans, but Trump supporters and advisers have stated that Japanese internment set a precedent that would justify the registering of Muslims in the U.S.

Donald Trump and his supporters have made provocative statements and insinuations that suggest a Trump Doctrine might borrow from what historians have judged to be the more objectionable pages of past presidents’ playbooks. Central to Trump’s persona since he entered the presidential race has been his defiance. As president, will he show his defiance by dismissing cautionary tales about the consequences of his predecessors’ policies? Will he scoff at the notion that singling out all Muslim Americans as potential security threats undermines the protection of civil liberties that theoretically sets the U.S. apart from rogue states and terrorist groups? On the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush gave a speech in which he described American exceptionalism: “The attack on our nation was also an attack on the ideals that make us a nation. Our deepest national conviction is that every life is precious, because every life is the gift of a creator who intended us to live in liberty and equality. More than anything else, this separates us from the enemy we fight.” Even when rhetoric has not reflected reality, American politicians have invoked the “city upon a hill” metaphor to argue for the nation’s moral superiority. It remains to be seen how Trump’s approach to national security will change the story we tell ourselves and the world about America.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011). She is currently writing Saigon at War: The Third Force and the Global Sixties in South Vietnam (Cambridge, forthcoming).

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Brexit and the Search for British Identity

by Allison Abra


A house in London shows support for the Leave campaign.

Last May, I wrapped up a course on the history of Britain in the 20th century with a class discussion on “Britain today.” Having covered the history of the European Union – and Britain’s often fraught relationship with it – earlier in the semester, I described the then pending “Brexit” vote that was set for June 23rd. In a referendum, citizens of the United Kingdom would decide whether to leave or remain in the EU. I closed the class by telling my students to “stay tuned” during their summer break to see how the vote panned out.

At the time, I was primarily thinking about ways to keep my students engaged in the history of Britain after our class had ended, and to encourage them to continue applying the historical knowledge they had accrued to current events. I didn’t think there was much of a chance that proponents of Brexit would succeed, and that the British would actually vote to leave the EU. Like many, I woke up on the morning of June 24th and was stunned to discover that the Leave campaign had carried the vote by a margin of 52% to 48%.

In the months since, the Leave victory has inspired a wide variety of responses – not the least of which seems to be a general confusion over how Brexit will proceed, or if it will proceed at all. Most recently, Prime Minister Theresa May, who replaced David Cameron after he resigned during the fall-out from the referendum, has repeatedly asserted that “Brexit means Brexit” and that her government will trigger the formal process of leaving the EU by March 2017. The future of Britain’s relationships with Europe and the rest of the world hangs in the balance, and the fate of the UK itself is in question given the ammunition that the Leave result has provided the Scottish nationalist cause. While signs point towards some form of Brexit taking place, I don’t think anyone – myself included – has a clear sense of precisely what will happen next. However, what I have been reflecting on in the wake of the referendum is how these events are just the latest chapter in a much longer story in which Britain has sought to define its national identity and place in the world in the decades since the Second World War ended in 1945.


Propaganda poster from World War II.

How the British nation has been imagined at different points in its history is a fundamental question of historical scholarship in my field. Historians have argued that British national identity was constructed against a French Catholic “other” in the eighteenth century; in relation to an ever-expanding colonial empire in the nineteenth century; and by ideals of duty, service, and national unity during the two world wars.[1]

Yet the British people emerged from the Second World War without a clear sense of who they would be as a nation from that point on. The country was victorious in war, but economically and physically devastated from years of bombing, rationing, and war-making. The gradual loss of the Empire as the era of decolonization began in earnest, and the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as the world’s new superpowers took away the global predominance that had defined the country for centuries. So what did it now mean to be British? As my class and I explored last spring, in various ways Britain has spent the ensuing seventy years trying to figure that out.

On the domestic front, the establishment of the Welfare State in the late 1940s – the “people’s peace” that resulted from a “people’s war” – offered one vision of the nation defined in terms of collective welfare and social citizenship. In the early 1950s, special events like the Festival of Britain and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II each circulated competing ideas about nationhood built on an intersection of modernity and tradition. The Festival emphasized the belief that Britain was recovering from the war and would have contributions to make in the future, but it also celebrated heritage and history. Two years later, the Queen was crowned in a ceremony that was centuries old, but which was broadcast all over the world via the new medium of television.[2]


A National Front march in Yorkshire in the 1970’s.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a common enemy and with liberation movements flowering worldwide, it became less clear what now united the disparate nations of the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – and Celtic nationalism surged. Waves of immigration from the Empire and Commonwealth constructed a possible national identity built on multiculturalism, but also prompted the assertion of a reactionary nationalism that affirmed Britishness as white.[3] This was most visibly expressed in the racist anti-immigrant invective of Enoch Powell and the National Front in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by the rise of the British National Party. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which played a central role in the Leave campaign, is Britain’s most recent incarnation of far-right political thought.


US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Camp David in 1984.

Like its opposition to immigration, UKIP’s Euroskepticism builds on longstanding tensions over Britain’s place in the world after 1945. Throughout its post-war history Britain has often seemed uncertain about which way to look in evaluating trading partners and military allies. Should it rely on the Empire and Commonwealth, or the United States with which it shares that “special relationship,” or the continent to which it is connected by geography (officially, if not physically, given the presence of the English Channel)? At different moments – within the broader context of decolonization, the Cold War, European integration, Thatcherism, and the post 9/11 world – British foreign policy, economic ties, and cultural exchanges have leaned one way or the other.

With respect to Europe, Britain resisted joining the EU’s precursor, the European Economic Community, when it was founded in 1957. Four years later, a change of heart led to a British application to the EEC that was denied by a French veto. Membership in the EEC finally came in 1973, but ambivalence towards Europe lingered in the policies of Margaret Thatcher, in the John Major government’s decision not to adopt the Euro when the EEC expanded into the European Union, and in the controversies over the number of people from member states, particularly from Eastern Europe, living and working in the UK as the EU expanded.


The famous bus of the Leave campaign which promised the re-direction of funds from the EU to the NHS if Brexit was achieved.

And so we come to Brexit, the latest manifestation of Britain’s efforts to define itself and its relationship to the world. Many of the debates and issues described above reared their heads once again in the lead-up to the referendum: Euroskepticism, certainly, but also xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom, and even the importance of the Welfare State to the nation’s sense of self, as demonstrated by the Leave campaign’s promise to re-direct funds currently going to the EU into the National Health Service. What remains to be seen is whether the aftermath of the Brexit decision will force a resolution to these enduring questions and uncertainties, and if a clear idea of what it means to be British in the 21st century will at last be articulated.

Stay tuned.

Allison Abra is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society, and the Nina Bell Suggs Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. A specialist in modern British history, her book Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50 will be published by Manchester University Press in 2017.

[1] See, for example: Linda Colley, Britons: Forging of the Nation, 1707-1837, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Nicoletta Gullace, ‘The Blood of Our Sons:’ Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Sonya Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain, 1939-1945, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2] Becky E. Conekin, ‘The Autobiography of a Nation:’ The 1951 Festival of Britain, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003); Wendy Webster, Englishness and Empire, 1939-1965, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[3] Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar World, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997); Wendy Webster, Imagining Home: Gender, Race And National Identity, 1945-1964, (London: Routledge, 2003).

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“A Firm and Perpetual League of Friendship and Amity?”: Reevaluating the United Colonies of New England and the Politics of War, 1636-1690

by Tyler Rotter, Guest Contributor

As a self-proclaimed cultural historian, I began my dissertation research believing

Bloody Brook

Tyler A. Rotter at the site of Bloody Brook massacre near present day Deerfield, Massachusetts. On September 18, 1675, a group of Nipmuc Indians ambushed colonists escorting a wagon train, killing most of the militiamen and teamsters. Photo courtesy of the author.

political history was passé, especially in relation to military history. I could not have been more wrong. When addressing the relationship between religion and military conflict in early New England, the politics of war simply cannot be ignored. Although religious and civil institutions were considered separate pillars of authority in Puritan society, they regularly interacted. Wanting a deeper understanding of Puritan perceptions of war led me to investigate the workings of the United Colonies of New England, an institution with firm foundations in both the religious and civil life of the region. While initially approaching the topic from a cultural viewpoint, it became clear that I needed to reconsider the political life of early New England as well.

Wars, invasion threats, raids, border skirmishes, and expeditionary adventures continually frayed the nerves of Puritans in early New England. Shortly after the Winthrop fleet landed in Massachusetts, defense became a primary concern for the colonists. With the Pequot War (1636-1637) fresh in their memory and the English Civil War just beginning, representatives from the colonies of New England (Massachusetts Bay, New Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven), excluding Rhode Island, allied themselves in order to preserve the “purity” of their religion from outside interference and strengthen themselves against possible threats posed by the French, Dutch, and Native Americans. While seemingly a sound solution in theory, in practice the United Colonies of New England suffered from internal strife and contests of authority that made it ineffective from its inception in 1643.[1]

During the spring of 1637, Massachusetts prepared for war with the Pequots. Concerned about money and manpower, Massachusetts’s legislative body – the General Court – sought aid from Plymouth Colony. Already upset with Massachusetts over trade issues and land rights in Maine and Connecticut, Plymouth was hesitant to join forces with their


From Captain John Underhill, a woodcut print depicting the Battle of Mistick Fort near present day Mystic, Connecticut, May 1637. Hundreds of Native men, women, and children were killed at the hands of the English and their Indian allies. Image courtesy of the author.

sister colony to the North. It did not help matters that Plymouth blamed John Endecott, a prominent Massachusetts official and soldier, for single-handedly provoking the Pequots and starting the war. Addressing Plymouth’s objections, Massachusetts Governor Henry Vane insisted that they simply wanted Plymouth to “join against the common enemy, who . . . would prove as dangerous to them as to us.”[2] Though still uncertain, Plymouth officials agreed to join Massachusetts’s war effort. However, they wanted assurances that aid would be reciprocated in the event of future wars – a sentiment also shared by Connecticut.[3]

Even though Massachusetts insisted on cooperation between the colonies during the Pequot War, this stance was short-lived once the fighting stopped. Having not reaped the desired rewards (land) from the Pequot War, Massachusetts was hesitant to establish a confederation with the other Puritan colonies. Knowing they would contribute more resources and manpower in future conflicts, the Bay Colony wanted guaranteed authority over the other members and insisted on the supremacy of their own General Court over any confederation council, an argument that became a major point of contention once the


A map indicating the location of the New England Colonies in 1650. The location of New Netherland is also included. Image courtesy of the author.

United Colonies was established five years later.

According to the “Articles of Confederation,” the Commissioners had “full power” to assess all matters “of our war or peace.” Only six of the eight commissioners needed to agree in order to settle any business in question.[4] However, Massachusetts, as the largest colony in New England, refused to let their authority be undermined by the combined efforts of the league’s three smaller members.[5] For instance, during the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654), New Haven, Connecticut, and Plymouth were concerned about maintaining their trading and territorial interests that were threatened by the Dutch in neighboring New Netherland. Citing a rumor that the Dutch and Narragansetts were negotiating a treaty and discussing whether or not to attack the English, the three smaller colonies called for an immediate offensive expedition. While such an expedition was justifiable according to the United Colonies’ Articles of Confederation, the Massachusetts General Court refused to participate. When the other colonies challenged their refusal as destructive to the league, Massachusetts once again reasserted the “supreme power” of their General Court stating the Commissioners “cannot, nor ever did, challenge authority over us, or expect subjection from us.”[6] This assertion was not unique. Massachusetts Bay often used their self-imposed authority as a means to avoid participation in potential conflicts, or, at the very least, delay participation until royal officials challenged their authority directly.

king philip

A portrait of Metacomet (King Philip) made by Paul Revere for the 1772 edition of Benjamin Church’s An Entertaining History of King Philip’s War.

With the coming of King Philip’s War (1675-1676), Massachusetts shifted its policy back to one of cooperation.[7] A general fear of Indians continued to grow within Massachusetts throughout the seventeenth century and by the 1670s attitudes were at a tipping point. Because of this fear, Massachusetts offered Plymouth support in subduing Metacomet (King Philip) and the Wampanoags after the tribe initiated hostilities in the summer of 1675. However, Massachusetts continued to assert supremacy within the region, demonstrated in part by the United Colonies debate concerning the Narragansetts (a powerful tribe in southern New England that had been neutral in the war) in the fall. Connecticut favored a policy of caution and partial appeasement in order to prevent war with the


Place-marker at the location of the Great Swamp Fight between the English and Narragansett Indians. Image courtesy of the author.

Narragansetts, who were located on their eastern frontier. Conversely, Massachusetts – and subsequently Plymouth who had submitted to the Bay Colony’s increasing authority – tried to persuade the Connecticut commissioners to adopt a more aggressive posture. When Connecticut officials refused to budge, the Commissioners from Massachusetts and Plymouth declared Connecticut’s actions to be “an absolute violation” of the Articles of Confederation.[8] The subsequent


Depiction of the colonial attack on the Narragansetts for in the Great Swamp, near present day South Kingstown, Rhode Island. Image courtesy of the author.

English attack on the Narragansetts in December 1675 forced the powerful tribe into the war.

The United Colonies had been designed to be a unifying force in New England. While the two examples above are only a small sample of the problems faced by the league, they are representative of the many issues addressed by Commissioners during the Confederation’s tenure. When viewed against its stated purpose, the United Colonies were largely ineffectual until the group dissolved in 1690. This does not mean, however, the institution should be ignored. Examining the various debates that occurred between the member colonies, and the many political viewpoints exhibited during those debates, offers a window into how Puritan society viewed and acted in the face of war.

Tyler A. Rotter is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at The University of Southern Mississippi and is the department’s 2015-16 W.D. McCain Graduate Dissertation Fellow. His research has been funded in part by the Colonel W. Wayde Benson (USMC Ret.) Fellowship and the Lamar Powell History Graduate Scholarship from the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. He is currently working on his dissertation “The New England Mind at War: Religion, Politics, and the Evolution of Puritan Identity, 1630-1720,” under the supervision of Dr. Kyle F. Zelner.

[1] The last major work to specifically focus on the United Colonies was Harry Ward’s The United Colonies of New England. Ward argued that although differences often arose amongst the confederated colonies, the United Colonies were successful and became the first example of federalism in the New World. See Harry M. Ward, The United Colonies of New England, 1643-1690 (New York: Vantage Press, 1961).

[2] All direct quotes have been changed to reflect modern spellings. John Winthrop, Winthrop’s Journal: “History of New England,” 1630-1649, ed. James Kendall Hosmer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908) 1:213-214; William Bradford, Bradford’s History “Of Plimoth Plantation”: From the Original Manuscript (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing, 1898), 419-423.

[3] The most comprehensive history of the Pequot War is Alfred Cave’s The Pequot War. Alfred A. Cave, The Pequot War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996).

[4] David Pulsifer, ed., “Acts of the Commissioners of the United Colonies of New England,” in Records of the Colony of New Plymouth, in New England (Boston: Press of W. White, 1859), 9:6.

[5] Officials in Massachusetts Bay were constantly concerned with the independent nature of their colony and challenges of authority made present by the other New England colonies, various Indian groups, and forces within England. See Jenny Hale Pulsipher, Subjects unto the Same King: Indians, English, and the Contest for Authority in Colonial New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

[6] Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, ed., Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: Press of W. White, 1854), 4.1:143.

[7] For further accounts of King Philip’s War and the English interaction with the Narragansetts, see Daniel R. Mandell, King Philip’s War: Colonial Expansion, Native Resistance, and the End of Indian Sovereignty (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); James D. Drake, King Philip’s War: Civil War in New England, 1675-1676 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).

[8] Acts of the United Colonies, PCR, 10:456; MCR, 5:66-7.

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