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).

Posted in 2016 presidential election, American exceptionalism, Foreign policy, national identity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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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“Thanks AOL!” Technology and Public Opinion in the Early Post-Cold War Era

by Samantha A. Taylor, Guest Contributor

“Dear Mr. President: I as a Citizen of the United States of America am deeply concerned and appalled at the apathetic stance taken by the US government and the United Nations toward the situation in Bosnia. As the Serbs have recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of their inhuman and atrocious genocide against the Muslims in former Yugoslavia, the US stands by idly and watches the carnage in Europe. Not only is the United States doing nothing to help Bosnians, it is in fact aiding the Serbs by tying the hands of the victims with an immoral arms embargo on the region…President Clinton, during your Presidential Campaign, you spoke of the arms embargo as being unjust. You stated that the U.S. should consider lifting this embargo. We voted for you on this premise. We voted for you because we though that you, unlike your predecessor would do something about the miserable conditions of the Bosnians. Please do no let us down. Please do not forget your own words. Please pressure the United Nations to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia.[1]


E-mail from Faisal Sheikh to President Bill Clinton, Jan. 6, 1995, Clinton Presidential Records, William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

This is a portion of one of thousands of letters and e-mails that President Bill Clinton received from American citizens during the Bosnian crisis of 1992 to 1995. I found a copy of this e-mail while conducting dissertation research at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, and it caught my attention because as I went through the folder, I found it again and again. It was not until I re-read the e-mails and noted the date on each one that I realized the author had sent it every day for a month.

During Clinton’s presidency, e-mail was becoming a popular replacement for traditional mail. I can still remember my family’s first Microsoft Windows computer and watching my dad set up AOL in our house. This letter shows how technology changed the way we communicate with our elected officials. The writer could send the e-mail – and thus express his opinion on Bosnia – to the president as often as he wanted simply by pressing a button. Today we can send Facebook messages or tweets to our elected officials, so there is no shortage of ways in which citizens can express themselves on policy issues. My dissertation covers the early post-Cold War era, a period which coincided with the beginning of the digital revolution, and because I focus on public attitudes toward foreign policy, the rise in e-mail use means I have access to many more opinions than I might have had if I were studying a period when “snail mail” was the primary mode of communication between citizens and their government.

President Clinton received so many e-mails from his constituents that he had staff members dedicated to recording and analyzing them to help him get a sense for what was on citizens’ minds. As a result, Clinton regularly received e-mails from his staff describing the communications that the White House received. In September 1994, when a U.S.-led coalition force backed by the UN invaded Haiti to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency, the White House saw a spike in e-mail traffic from citizens wanting their voices heard on the issue:

“Its been busy around here. We received 15,000 messages in four days on the subject of Haiti. AOL decided it would be fun to encourage its members to watch the President’s speech and send email reactions via their service. We’ve had spikes before; they usually doubled the mail. This time we received six times the average mail for four days after the speech. Thanks AOL! GRRR @#(*%&@.”[2]


Southern Miss History Ph.D. candidate Samantha A. Taylor at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, TX, fall 2015.

In my recent trips to the Clinton and George H.W. Bush presidential libraries, I spent a great deal of time studying the correspondence both presidents received, and I noted several trends. The Bush and Clinton presidencies were four years apart, yet in that time, technology changed tremendously, and the way Americans contacted their president and voiced their opinions about current events changed with it. In the Clinton Library, there were very few physical letters; the predominate means of communicating with the president was via e-mail. I noticed that the majority of the e-mails from citizens were very short, and the majority of the physical letters came from Congressional members or organizations. In the Bush archives, the correspondence I found were mostly physical letters regardless of whether they were from individuals, Congressional members, or organizations. The advent of personal computers, the internet, and e-mail made it easier for individuals to contact the White House and express their opinions about the president’s policy choices.

The archivists at both libraries were extremely helpful, and they me guided toward collections that had only recently been opened to the public, including the Persian Gulf War Files in the Public Mail Files at the Bush Library. This collection contains all the “snail mail” that President Bush received about the first Gulf War from August 20, 1990 to May 20, 1991. This collection provides valuable insight into the ways the American public understood and felt about America’s efforts to get Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Letters like these are important for my dissertation because they shed light on the ways in which the public understood policymaking related to the conflict. As a result, I am able to see how citizen attitudes affected the development and implementation of foreign policy decisions in the early post-Cold War period. These letters allow me not only to analyze public opinion about U.S. actions in the Middle East, but also how the public viewed the post-Cold War period and the U.S. role in it. In the early 1990s, regime change and technological innovation transformed the world in numerous ways, and new technology allowed Americans to express their opinions about the rapidly-changing world to policymakers more quickly and frequently than they could in the pre-internet era.

Samantha A. Taylor is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Southern Mississippi and is the department’s 2016-17 McCain Fellow. Her research has been funded in part by the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, and the Lamar Powell History Graduate Scholarship from the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She is currently working on her dissertation “‘Gosh I Miss the Cold War’: Post-Cold War Nationalism in the United States and Germany,” under the supervision of Dr. Heather Stur.


[1] Email To President Bill Clinton From Faisal Sheikh, January 6, 1995, [OA/ID 5000,000] WHO To President: Bosnia, Serbs, Serbia, Public Opinion, Automated Records Management System [Email] [01/10/1995-06/08/1995], Clinton Presidential Records. William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

[2] Email, Stephen K. Horn to D Byers, ‘RE: What’s up?’ September 29 1994, [OA/ID 500,000] WHO [Haiti or Operation Uphold] Automated Records Management System [Email], [09/19/1994-10/07/1994], Clinton Presidential Records.

Posted in Bill Clinton, dissertation, George H.W. Bush, Gulf War I, Haiti, Post-Cold War, Public opinion, research, war and society | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Evanescent Courage”: The Fire Zouaves Go To War

by Lesley J. Gordon, Guest Contributor


“Col. Ellsworth’s Fire Zouaves,” Harper’s Weekly, May 18, 1861.

When the American Civil War began, and heady martialism swept the nation, twenty-four year old Elmer Ellsworth sought to raise a regiment of Zouaves. Based on French Algerian troops, Zouaves were trained in precision drill and distinctive in their colorful uniforms. Ellsworth, a former law clerk and close friend of Abraham Lincoln’s, had already been promised “the best position in the military which can be given you.”[i] Determined and restless, Ellsworth, who rejected desk appointments in the War Department, wanted a field commission. He was selective, too, about who was suitable to serve under him: “I want the New York Firemen for there are no more effective men in the country, and none with whom I can do so much. They are sleeping on a volcano at Washington and I want men who can go into a fight now.”[ii]

Indeed, volunteer firemen seemed the quintessential definition of idealized “martial manhood” in mid-19th century American society. As historian Amy Greenberg explains, these firemen “identified themselves as manly men, first and foremost, and vied their membership as a masculine brotherhood, where strength, appearance and bravery determined the ultimate value of an individual.”[iii] Even for an urbanizing metropolis like New York, firemen, many of them Irish immigrants and working class, seemed the ideal counter to white southern slaveholders’ claims of martial superiority. Ellsworth’s Fire Zouaves, with their unconventional training and conspicuous dress, appeared perfectly scripted to spearhead the North’s war effort. Harpers Weekly agreed, declaring: “Our firemen brave as steel, would be restive under the stiff restraints of light infantry tactics, whereas the comparative freedom and dash of the Zouave drill suit them exactly.”[iv] Lincoln’s secretary John Hay described them as “a jolly gay set of blackguards.” “They were,” he judged, “in a pretty complete state of dont care a damn, modified by an affectionate and respectful defense of the Colonel.”[v] Hays marveled after watching them drill: “They are the largest sturdiest and physically the most magnificent men I ever saw collected together.”[vi]

However, the very traits that defined the Fire Zouaves, their brash, rabble-rousing


“Willard’s Hotel, Washington, Saved by the New York Fire Zouaves—Sketched by Our Special Artist,” Harper’s Weekly, May 25, 1861.

behavior, would prove disastrous. Col. Ellsworth, impatient to prove his men’s fighting prowess, left the state on his own accord. New York’s governor repeatedly urged Ellsworth to wait, that his regiment was too large and unwieldy and not ready for the front. By early May, the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry, or Fire Zouaves, arrived in Washington, D.C.

Not only did New York City firemen make good copy, but the Zouaves’ brazen behavior only drew more attention. While quartered in the U.S. Capitol, members held raucous mock sessions and swung from ropes suspended in the unfinished rotunda. Residents of the district accused the firemen of deliberately setting fires so they could put them out. At one point, their unruliness led to a direct reprimand from Gen. Joseph K. Mansfield, commander of the Department of Washington, warning Ellsworth that he was “entitled to fuel,” but that he would have to be “careful not to burn fences, as some have already been burnt.”[vii] When a fire broke out in the middle of the night near the famed Willard Hotel, it was the Fire Zouaves who triumphantly doused the flames.

Then on May 24, 1861, tragedy struck the regiment. Soon after their arrival in Alexandria, Virginia, Ellsworth impulsively rushed to remove a rebel flag flying conspicuously atop an inn.   Shot at point blank range by the defiant innkeeper, Ellsworth died immediately. But the regiment Ellsworth had so proudly raised was in disarray.

Two months later, the Fire Zouaves fought in the Battle of Bull Run. As one historian of the battle states, they were “the most famous volunteer regiment in the Union army, and many people expected big things from them.”[viii] Ordered, along with other units, to support an artillery battery on Henry House Hill, the Zouaves faltered and panicked. Some regrouped and continued to fight, several valiantly so; but most joined the general Union

Zouaves Bull Run

There were mixed accounts of the Zouaves’ performance at Bull Run. This popular print stresses their bravery in the midst of the battle’s chaos. “Gallant Charge of the Zouaves and the Defeat of the rebel Black Horse Cavalry,” Currier & Ives, 1861. Courtesy Library of Congress.

rout. The Battle of Bull Run was a humiliating Union defeat.

When they took stock of their casualties for the day, they were high: nearly 200 lost in killed, wounded, missing or captured. Within days of the battle, serious charges began to circulate. Col. Andrew Porter reported: “The evanescent courage of the zouaves prompted them to fire perhaps a hundred shots, when they broke and fled, leaving the batteries open to a charge of the enemy’s cavalry, which took place immediately.”[ix] Later testimony pointed to their performance on Henry House Hill as the pivotal moment when the entire battle shifted against the Union. Captain Charles Griffin, most tellingly, blasted the New Yorkers’ “moral courage to fight,” and “disorganized state.”[x]

The Fire Zouaves never recovered. Survivors were reorganized and returned to New York City, where they angrily protested what they believed were unfair charges. A present-day blog claims that the Battle of Bull Run haunted and undermined the Zouaves with a “dismayed public” “looking for people to blame.”[xi] By June 1862, the unit was formally disbanded.

What few recognized, at least at the time, was that the onslaught of civil war caused societal expectations and assumptions about bravery and cowardice to change. Many Americans, even firemen, heralded as heroes in peacetime, found their worlds and sense of self changing just as quickly.

Lesley J. Gordon is Professor of History at the University of Akron and former editor of Civil War History (2010-2015). Her publications include General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), Inside the Confederate Nation: Essays in Honor of Emory M. Thomas (Louisiana State University Press, 2005), and A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2014).  She is presently at work on a book manuscript entitled Battlefield Cowardice: Violence, and Memory in the American Civil War.

[i] Abraham Lincoln to Elmer Ellsworth, April 15, 1861 in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Roy P. Basler, ed. (New Brunswick, 1953), Vol. IV: 333.

[ii] Quoted in Charles A. Ingraham, Elmer E. Ellsworth and the Zouaves of ’61 (Chicago, 1925), 127.

[iii] Amy Greenberg, Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1998), 8.

[iv] Harper’s Weekly, May 11, 1861.

[v] John Hay, Diary Entry, May 2, 1861, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay. Michael Burlingame and John R. Ettinger, eds.(Carbondale, 1997), 17.

[vi] Hay, Diary Entry, May 7, 1861, Inside Lincoln’s White House, 20.

[vii] Joseph K. Mansfield to Elmer Ellsworth, May 9, 1861, quoted in Ingraham, Elmer E. Ellsworth, 136.

[viii] David Detzer, Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run (Orlando, 2004), 402.

[ix] Report of Col. Andrew Porter, Sixteenth U. S. Infantry, Commanding 2nd Division, 1st Brigade, July 25, 1861, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 Vols.(Washington, DC: 1880-1901, series 1, vol. 2, 385.

[x] Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in Three Parts (Washington, D.C, 1863), 174.

[xi] http://www.myrtle-avenue.com/firezou/impression.html.

Posted in Manhood, soldiers, U.S. Civil War, Union Army, war and society | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“You’ve Come a Long Way … Maybe”: American Women in Combat

by Heather Marie Stur


U.S. Army Specialist Fourth Class Alyssa Wells, Supervisor Guard, 186th Military Police Company, watches from the roof as women come out to the courtyard in the Rusafa Prison Complex, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter announced that the armed services would open all combat positions to women in anticipation of President Obama’s January 2016 deadline for doing so. What this means, Carter told reporters at a press conference, is that servicewomen will “be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”[i] Pentagon officials have stated that the armed forces will not modify their standards or set quotas for women. Those in favor of allowing women to officially serve in combat hail the decision as a crucial step toward the full integration of women into the military and the removal of a barrier to career advancement. Opponents cite studies indicating women’s physical limitations and argue that women in combat will weaken unit cohesion. Some feminists argue that integrating women into the military fails to challenge a war making system grounded in patriarchal ideas about power and domination. Buttressing the various opinions in the debate are cultural beliefs about gender, citizenship, and security.

The history of women in the U.S. military is one of gradual integration and fairly consistent cultural resistance. Women began serving officially in the armed forces when the Army and Navy established nurse corps in the early 1900s. Long considered “women’s work,” nursing was an acceptable field in which women could serve, but when American women joined civilian rifle clubs and civil defense groups during World War I, this subversion of traditional ideas about men as protectors and women in need of protection shocked the American public. The idea of armed women defending the nation ran counter to the prevailing gendered divisions between home front and battlefront.[ii] During World War II, manpower needs led the Army to establish the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which opened clerical, intelligence, communications, and other non-combat specialties to women. Critics decried this type of mobilization of women, arguing that women did not belong in harm’s way and that the WAC would be a haven for lesbians and “loose women.”[iii]

When the Defense Department abolished the draft at the end of the Vietnam War, the armed forces launched recruitment campaigns targeting women in order to help fill the ranks of an all-volunteer force. The U.S. military academies began admitting women in 1976, and the Army dissolved the WAC in 1978 and integrated servicewomen into the regular army.[iv] At that time, Family: The Magazine of Army/Navy/Air Force Times published an article about the post-Vietnam expansion of women’s service opportunities titled “You’ve Come a Long Way … Maybe,” a play on the old Virginia Slims slogan. It discussed the new military opportunities for women and the negative reactions to them by some citizens and servicemen. Expressing opposition in terms similar to those used by critics of the WAC in the 1940s, opponents viewed servicewomen as either “hopeless nymphomaniacs” or “a hopeless loser or lesbian.”[v] Despite the resistance, 62 women cadets graduated from West Point in 1980. In the early 1990s, more than 40,000 American women served in the Gulf War, and Congress authorized servicewomen to fly combat missions and serve on combat ships. About 300,000 American women have served in the 21st century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In August, the first two women graduated from the Army’s elite Ranger School.[vi]

This history suggests that the opening of all combat specialties to women would be the next step in a century’s worth of progress toward gender equality in the U.S. military. But neither the Pentagon nor the president can force a change in Americans’ beliefs about who can and should fight. At the heart of some critics’ resistance to women in combat is conscription. Opponents worry that if the U.S. reinstates the draft, women would have to be subject to it because they can now serve in combat. The primary purpose of a draft is to fill infantry positions vacated by killed or wounded soldiers. Women, along with men, could be compelled to take up arms and fight. Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California and a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, put it this way: “If you’re going to have women in infantry units, if a draft ever occurred, America needs to realize that its daughters and sisters would be included. The reason you draft people is because you have infantrymen dying.”[vii] Daughters and sisters. More than questions about women’s ability to carry sixty-plus pounds while maneuvering a weapon and running, the notion that the federal government could order daughters and sisters to the front lines is, to some critics, the most troubling consequence of opening combat positions to women. This mindset is deeply rooted in the ideas that men are to protect women, especially younger women who are or could be mothers, and that the home front and the battlefront are gendered separate spheres to be controlled by women and men, respectively. If sons and brothers are drafted and subsequently killed in war, it is a tragic but necessary fulfillment of duty to the nation. If the same happens to daughters and sisters, it is a cause for outrage against the gender equality movement for upending the natural order of things.

War has proven that all of these divisions – protector versus protected, home front versus battlefront, motherhood versus military service as ultimate civic duties – are artificial. Resistance to women serving in infantry jobs remains even though servicewomen have already seen direct combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before those conflicts, in the Vietnam War, women military nurses worked in hospitals that were routinely attacked, and WACs found themselves diving into bunkers with their male comrades to ride out mortar attacks. There were no front lines in Vietnam, or in Iraq or Afghanistan. These dichotomies have been even more artificial for non-American women. My friend and Dale Center fellow, Allison Abra, explained to me that historians of Britain have argued that since the aerial bombings of World War I, opponents of women in combat could not focus as much on shielding women from the violence of war because not even civilian women were protected from harm when the home front was the battlefront. If the goal is the full integration of women into the U.S. military, the next and most difficult step is to let go of these imagined divisions and focus on measurable data when thinking about men’s and women’s appropriate roles in wartime. If a woman can graduate from Ranger School under the same standards that apply to men, why shouldn’t she serve in combat?

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).

[i] Matthew Rosenberg and Dave Phillips, “All Combat Roles Now Open to Women, Defense Secretary Says,” New York Times, Dec. 3, 2015. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/us/politics/combat-military-women-ash-carter.html?emc=edit_th_20151204&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=64532283&_r=3&referer=

[ii] Kimberly Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008).

[iii] Leisa Meyer, Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[iv] Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Beth Bailey, America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010).

[v] Stur, 226.

[vi] Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, “Women in combat? They’ve already been serving on the front lines, with heroism,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 2015. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-1204-lemmon-women-combat-20151204-story.html

[vii] Austin Wright, “Republicans raise alarm about women in combat. Their subtle warning: It could force all young women to register for the draft,” Politico, Dec. 3, 2015. http://www.politico.com/story/2015/12/pentagon-women-in-combat-republican-reaction-216412

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Dissertation Research in the Age of Social Media

by Robert Thompson, Guest Contributor

My dissertation, “More Sieve Than Shield: the US Army and CORDS in the Pacification of Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam, 1965-1972,” focuses on pacification in Phu Yen during the Vietnam War and argues  that pacification meant improving security and was ultimately betrayed by Vietnamization. Much of my research has been of the traditional archival sort and has taken me to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the Hoover Institution, McCain Library and Archives, and the National Archives and Records Administration II. From that research, I identified individuals who served in Phu Yen as members of Civil Operations and Rural Development’s (CORDS) Advisory Team 28. Thanks to social media, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, as well as blogs, I have been able to actually get in contact with some of the veterans who served in Phu Yen so that I could conduct oral histories with them. This type of “nontraditional” research has provided crucial information about the pacification process and results that are not written into the documentary record. Social media has also helped me connect with other researchers working on the Vietnam War and pacification, and this community of scholars has provided me with leads, key documents, and moral support.

Map of Phu Yen province, U.S. Center of Military History. Image courtesy of the author.

Map of Phu Yen province, U.S. Center of Military History. Image courtesy of the author.

The initial ideas for “More Sieve Than Shield” grew out of my reading of the various documents in the Frobenius (Courtney L.) Vietnam Research Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi’s McCain Library and Archives. From the very beginning of my dissertation research, I realized that to understand pacification in Phu Yen meant gaining the perspectives of the veterans who served in that province. By far the most reveling primary sources are the district reports and the monthly province progress reports. During the Vietnam War, the districts of Dong Xuan, Hieu Xieu, Song Cau, Son Hoa, Tuy An, and Tuy Hoa formed Phu Yen province. While reading the district reports, I uncovered a trove of brilliant descriptions of the poor security situation befalling Phu Yen. Between 1969 and 1970, rampant abductions of civilians by the Viet Cong made Phu Yen one of the least secure provinces in the Republic of Vietnam. The reports present pacification as a failure.

After reading the files in Frobenius’s collection, I noted the names of his superiors and sought to gain their view of events, turning to social media to track down some of the District Senior Advisors (DSA) and Province Senior Advisors (PSA). I began my search by writing a blog post on my website, ThompsonWerk.com, asking for leads. The first person to respond was Charles Varnum, who served as a DSA in 1971. From him I got enough information to track down his superior in Phu Yen, PSA Russell Meerdink, and I searched online for DSAs Robert Barron, Eugene Fluke, and Ellis Wisner, all of whom served in Tuy Hoa District. With little difficulty, I contacted Barron and Wisner. Wisner even invited me to his home, where we drank coffee and discussed the Tuy Hoa District he remembered.

Tuy Hoa district report, Frobenius (Courtney L.) Vietnam Research Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi. Image courtesy of the author.

Tuy Hoa district report, U.S. National Archives II, College Park, Maryland. Image courtesy of the author.

Finding Fluke proved a bit more challenging. Fluke’s district reports provide a wealth of information, and I was eager to speak with him. Fluke had uncovered the GVN’s hiding of Viet Cong abductions from Advisory Team 28, the CORDS team in Phu Yen, exposing what became known as “the Advisory Crisis.” This crisis involved the intervention of the U.S. Embassy in Phu Yen provincial affairs, resulting in the removal the province chief and the redeployment American troops to re-train local defense forces. So helpful were his observations—“More Sieve Than Shield” is a quote from one of Fluke’s district reports—I searched for him on social media. After combing the internet for what felt like forever, I recently found his profile on LinkedIn and gave him a call. From our conversation, I learned that the U.S. Embassy in Saigon completely supported him, and his career was untarnished by the Advisory Crisis. Indeed, Ambassador William Colby thanked Fluke during a private meeting over a bottle of Johnny Walker, a gift Colby told him he thoroughly deserved.

In addition to the Frobenius papers, the website MACVteams.org has helped me connect with veterans of Advisory Team 28. It was here that I found Ronald Thayer, a veteran who did three tours in Phu Yen and witnessed the war from start to finish. As a DSA for Son Hoa District, he participated in the little known, yet illuminating, Battle of Cung Son on June 18, 1971, the largest battle in the province after the 1968 Tet Offensive. Cung Son entailed a combined PAVN and VC force converging on the GVN district compound and Regional Force (RF ) base with the objective of ejecting the GVN out of the district. RF and U.S. helicopters eventually won the battle, demonstrating that the RF could fight so long as it could rely on U.S. airpower. The battle also indicated that the enemy still maintained a noteworthy presence in Phu Yen well into the Vietnamization period.

Social media has also allowed me to connect with others who are studying pacification. On Twitter, I have exchanged ideas over what pacification means with other doctoral students, and exchanging tweets with them has led me to reorganize my dissertation chapters and locate invaluable documents at the U.S. National Archives. Critics of province studies argue that a single province cannot explain larger trends in the Republic of Vietnam, but thanks to a contact I made on Twitter, I was able to get U.S. Embassy documents on Phu Yen indicating the importance of the province to the larger war effort. On the Facebook group, Vietnam War History Organization, established by Vietnam War scholar Erik Villard, academics and veterans share information about war, and from this group, I have obtained research leads, after action reports, and maps. In sharing my own research with the group, I have found encouragement and motivation to carry on and keep writing. From practical tools to moral support, the internet and social media offer useful tools for dissertation research and camaraderie in what is often solitary work.

Robert Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is working on his dissertation, “More Sieve Than Shield: the U.S. Army and CORDS in the Pacification of Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam, 1965-1972,” under the supervision of Dale Center Founding Director Dr. Andrew Wiest. Thompson is the recipient of the U.S. Army Center of Military History Dissertation Fellowship and the Hoover Institution Library and Archives Silar Palmer Research Fellowship. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife and two sons.

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