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The Lessons of History | The Nation

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The Lessons of History

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AP ImagesJohn Hope Franklin attends to one of his many orchids in the greenhouse behind his home in Durham, NC, October 2005.

About the Author

John Hope Franklin
John Hope Franklin is the James B. Duke professor emeritus of history at Duke University and for seven years was...

The great historian John Hope Franklin passed away this morning at the age of 94. The first African-American department chair at a white institution and the first African-American president of the American Historical Association, Franklin, the author of the seminal From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, was an integral part of the team of scholars who assisted Thurgood Marshall to win Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that outlawed the "separate but equal" doctrine in the nation's public schools. Here we repost a powerful speech by Franklin we published originally at TheNation.com in 2006. It came on the occasion of his receipt of the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.

It is a signal honor to receive the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. Franklin D. Roosevelt was my hero when I was in college, and I shall always remember my unsuccessful effort to chase him down during my senior year in the attempt to enlist his aid. As president of the student body, I sought the aid of President Roosevelt as the students protested the lynching of a young African American lad who had been seized from a house near the campus, taken to an adjoining county, castrated, and lynched for an alleged crime for which he had already been exonerated in a court of law. I was unable to reach President Roosevelt at his Warm Springs retreat. More accurately, the president of my college did not fulfill his promise to put me in touch with President Roosevelt.

Historian John Hope Franklin delivered the Arthur M.
Schlesinger, Jr. Lecture at the New-York Historical Society on October 17. It is published here as part of The Nation's ongoing Moral Compass series, highlighting the spoken word.

The following year, 1935, I acquired a new hero in the person of Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. in whose seminar I was enrolled. At the very first meeting of the class, Professor S., as we were to call him affectionately, invited his seminar to his home. There I met his family, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. who, by this year, 2006, has been my valued friend for more than seventy years. My relationship with the family placed me in a good position to observe and admire Arthur's meteoric rise in the academy and subsequently in the world of public service. One can only say that he has been as distinguished and diligent as a public servant as he has been as an original and outstanding scholar in the academic world.

I wish to talk, albeit briefly, about what appears to be happening in the world and, especially, what seems to be happening in our country as we face one of the most difficult periods in our history. Those in a position to speak for the country and to outline its current mission insist that we citizens are undertaking to share with the world the blessings of a free and prosperous society and to spread democracy throughout the world. Under the most favorable circumstances, this would be a remarkable mission; and it is not too much to argue that these are not the most ideal times for such an undertaking. Before we enter upon such an ambitious mission it is well to remember that we ourselves are still in the process of becoming democratic, and it has taken us more than two hundred years to arrive at this stage. A democracy is a government where power is vested in the people, all of the people, and one in which the power is directly exercised by the people all of whom enjoy social and political equality.

At the outset, we did not even claim to be democratic, and it was not at all clear that such a state of political and social grace was one to which we seriously aspired. Indeed, it became quite clear as early as the meeting of the Constitutional Convention in l787 that a real concern of a considerable number of the delegates, for example, was that the direct election of the president, by popular vote was much too democratic, and it would be much better, they thought, to have wise electors who would know much better than the general population who could best govern the fledgling republic. Consequently, the electoral college was established, and for the past two hundred years, the American electorate has not had the pleasure or the privilege of choosing directly the president of the United States.

This indirect election of the president by an electoral college has established the practice not only of adhering to the notion that the populace cannot be trusted with the difficult and complicated task of choosing the chief executive, but of regarding the undemocratic electoral college as the most democratic method of electing the president. Thus, we have placed ourselves in the peculiar position of various Americans, at times a former president of the United States, of monitoring elections in other parts of the world. These monitors want to make certain that the people, all of the people, participate in choosing their leaders directly, when we ourselves do not engage in the same practice. In the last two presidential elections in the United States, the contest has been fiercely fought; and the dispute over the outcome reflects a lack of confidence in the entire electoral process. We all recall, of course, the election of 2000 that was not settled, if it ever was, by the United States Supreme Court that made a decision regarding the validity of the ballots in the state of Florida, which determined the outcome of the election. One can still hear reverberations stemming from the decision that the Court handed down, thus awarding the presidency to the candidate who, incidentally, did not receive a clear majority of the popular vote. Thus, he would not have become president if we had not had the electoral college because he did not receive a clear majority of the popular vote. It is clear that many among us would be upset and resentful, of course, if any sovereign nation would dare suggest that presidential elections in the United States are not fair or democratic and should be monitored to make certain that even if they are not truly democratic, every citizen should have the opportunity to cast a direct ballot for the nation's chief executive. Turnabout is fair play, however, and we ourselves should practice what we expect of others. Surely, if we undertake to spread democracy throughout the world, we must make certain that our own institutions, especially the presidency, are democratic.

We did not have a national army until the Civil War. Before that time we had, as provided by the Constitution, a militia that, most of the time, depended on enlistments through the states. In April, l86l, President Lincoln, just after the firing on Fort Sumter, called for a 75,000-man militia, after which much of the military force of the United States consisted of federal volunteers. When that proved inadequate, the Congress passed a new Militia Act. It provided that the militia should include all male citizens between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, after which President Lincoln assigned quotas to the states and ordered a draft through the states to fill any unfilled quotas. These were preliminary steps to the more comprehensive democratic conscription law in March, l863, that made eligible all male citizens between the ages of twenty and forty-five, after which president Lincoln assigned quotas to the states liable for military service upon call by the president. On the basis of this, and in due course, all males could be called up for military service. At long last, the United States could boast that it had a citizen army to which any and all male citizens could be drafted. This practice remained the basis for a democratic military force from the time of the Civil War until after the conflict in Vietnam.

This so-called citizen army was far from democratic, however. In a country whose population consisted of Europeans, Africans, Asians, Spaniards, and native Americans, the extent of the democratic nature of the citizen army depended on attitudes on the part of the powers that made socio- military policy and had little to do with democracy. For example, black volunteers were rejected by George Washington when they pleaded for an opportunity to serve in the army during the War for Independence; and they were not admitted until the grave military situation drove Washington to seek and accept warriors wherever he could find them. During the Civil War, President Lincoln thanked and sent home the early black volunteers who were anxious to fight for freedom as well as for what they hoped would be their country. Only after the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation and recognized that the free blacks and former slaves could indeed be an asset in the struggle against the Confederacy did he take steps to democratize the army by accepting African Americans into the armed forces.

In the twentieth century this country moved haltingly and spasmodically toward assembling a democratic army; and as it did, the military and civilian leaders gave ground grudgingly. During World War I, the military accepted blacks, and despite their remarkable valor, not one of them received the Medal of Honor, despite their proved bravery under fire and under incredible circumstances. Perhaps that was because the American forces wanted nothing to do with them and assigned them to their French allies. The French, in turn, treated the African American soldiers so well that white Americans, civilians as well as the armed forces, did not welcome them on their return to the United States after the armistice was signed in l9l8.

It was much the same during World War II. Early in l942 I volunteered for the United States Navy following the attack on Pearl Harbor after the United States issued desperate calls for volunteers. After viewing my qualifications the recruiting officer indicated that I had all of the necessary qualifications except color. One wonders what people in other parts of the world - during the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II - thought of the nature of the democracy that this country was espousing with a jim-crow, all-male military force that was fighting to "save the world for democracy."

There is serious question of how democratic the armed services are today. Its recruits are lured by powerful and persuasive appeals, especially to the very young and the very poor. They are offered every possible lure, ranging from candy and chewing gum to fancy enlistment bonuses for those who require greater persuasion. Meanwhile, by holding the minimum wage to just over five dollars per hour, the military becomes more attractive than the workplace for impoverished and untrained day laborers. It can be argued that the United States is attempting to spread democracy throughout the world through the use of a poor man's army taken from a class that has virtually no voice in policy making in general and surely no voice in the making or execution of military policy. As we all know and as we have witnessed during the conflict in Vietnam, the families of privilege and the families of means could maneuver to keep their sons out of the draft through their connections. Today, as the war drones on in Iraq and Afghanistan, they do not even have to make the attempt. They can sit on Wall Street or connect themselves with the war-time suppliers of goods and services or the oil magnates and make their fortunes while the poor recruits fight to extend so-called democracy throughout the world.

As part of the rise of democracy in the United States, women have fought vigorously and males in a position to yield have somewhat begrudgingly granted them an improved place in the social order. To be sure, women in the United States have been as American as the men and as democratic, if not more so, as the men. Thus, it is not surprising that they have had to fight for equality before the law, equality at the ballot box, and equality in the workplace. Only in recent years have there been women in high places in the government and only more recently in the board rooms of the great American corporations. We comment in the most condescending, if solicitous, manner about the lowly place occupied by women in the Middle East and in certain parts of Southeast Asia. We fail to see the steady rise in the status of women even in those places, to say nothing of Europe and other parts of Asia and the Americas. When we recall the instances in which women have risen to the very top of their governments in Great Britain, Germany, India, the Philippines, and Liberia, we should speak with the greatest humility about spreading democracy throughout the world. After all, the so-called weaker sex in the United States would be skeptical of an American democracy that places ceilings on how high they can go in many areas of American life.

At the end of World War I, many people in various parts of the world, Americans among them, believed that the only hope for establishing and maintaining peace in the world was through an international organization with sufficient authority to enforce international commitments. When some nations balked at the suggestion that the only way to maintain international peace was through a League of Nations in some form, President Woodrow Wilson warned them that if they did not move toward that obvious need, they would make themselves "the most conspicuous and deserved failures in the history of the world." If he persuaded the great powers of the world regarding the truth of his statement, he was unable to persuade his own colleagues and fellow citizens in the United States. Democracy in the world, and indeed, in the United States, might have come sooner had the United States seen fit to join the League of Nations after World War I, but the conservative, nationalist, isolationist element in the United States steadfastly refused to have anything to do with an international organization. A world organization without the United States not only doomed this country to steadfast and stubborn isolation, but the rest of the world to the kind of bickering and misunderstanding that would lead to yet another world conflagration. In the nineteen twenties and nineteen thirties, the United States was not only isolationist but needlessly aloof from developments in other parts of the world. Consequently, it had no voice of any consequence as the world drifted toward yet another conflagration.

What is remarkable is that as the United States entered the war in l9l7 to save the world for democracy, it moved significantly away from democracy in several important ways. Not only did it reject large numbers of volunteers solely on the basis of color, but it also established policies of racial discrimination that kept the military units significantly segregated and undemocratic while they fought to preserve democracy elsewhere. In the postwar years, segregation persisted almost everywhere, while the raids conducted by Attorney General Palmer, presumably searching for communists and other "traitors" who sought to strip Americans of their freedoms, in turn stripped their victims of every semblance of civil liberty and other rights that presumably they would enjoy in a so-called democracy. These "official acts" by the United States government were insufficient to distract the country from the shameful race riots that broke out, among other places, in Washington, Chicago, Omaha, Knoxville, Elaine, Tulsa, and Rosewood.

Meanwhile, in the decades following World War I, the status of African Americans deteriorated to the point that it would be difficult to describe the United States as approaching or even moving clearly in the direction of an egalitarian existence. Lynching abounded; and everywhere there was racial discrimination in employment, housing, education, and political participation. Even as Hitler sought to create an Aryan race in Germany, there were those in the United States who competed with him in the search for racial purity. They did so by seeking to define the blood composition of a Negro. Sixty years after the end of slavery and thirty years into the twentieth century the state of Virginia defined a Negro as any person in whom there is ascertainable "any quantum whatever of Negro blood." In a country where the interest in the blood content of human beings would serve as the basis for privilege and equality its people could hardly have been seriously interested in democracy.

By the end of the twentieth century the United States had made some significant strides toward democracy. We were not yet there, but there were clear indications that we were on our way. The position of women had improved substantially. They had begun to hold high political offices. They were governors of states, members of both houses of the Congress, and mayors of important cities. They had become presidents of major corporations and presidents of colleges and universities. African Americans began to make their belated climb toward equality. The struggle was sometimes bitter, even violent; but even the courts endorsed their arguments that under the Constitution, they were entitled to equality. Vast numbers of white Americans were bitterly opposed to extending equality to the descendants of former slaves, and when the United States Supreme Court ordered the end of segregation in the public schools, a considerable number of members of the United States Congress issued a manifesto bitterly denouncing the high court's unanimous decision. This decision was followed by congressional legislation issuing to African Americans the same political and civil rights that other citizens enjoyed. Indeed, there was widespread sentiment supporting the view that African Americans should enjoy the affirmative action that white Americans had enjoyed for centuries. This privilege was extended to African Americans slowly and begrudgingly, and there were white citizens who felt that in such instances equality had stepped beyond acceptable limits. This was because some African American students were admitted to colleges and universities for no better reason than those whites who were admitted because their parents were alumni or were important contributors, or simply were white.

It is not too much to say, then, that we are moving toward democracy, but we are not there yet. One way of knowing that we are not there yet is that the sages of the land are modest about what we have achieved. We need to have a credible program of political, economic, and social goals that are clear, and we need to have an agenda for reaching them. We need to remember that so many of our national elections are characterized by uncertainty, disputes and turmoil. Do we really want to commend our noisy, boisterous, and ludicrous arguments to the rest of the world as worthy of emulation? Do we want to spread practices around the world that have developed here, such as a full blown institution of lobbying that is about as powerful as Congress itself? These and other practices have developed here out of the experience of those who are in or near the political arena. Some say that they are a part of the political culture that flow naturally from the practice of politics as we have experienced it over time. Many say that the practices here, regardless of whether they are good or bad, come from the experience of the people of the United States, and it is as impossible to export them as it would be to export the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving Day.

I am distressed, as many others are, about what we do export and its impact of such exportations on the people in places where we do display our wares, our culture, our hubris, if I may say so. A few examples will suffice. Some years ago, I was having lunch with some friends in a rather tony restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey. I was a bit startled to hear a sharp, reprimanding, and loud unmistakably American male voice. He shouted at an innocent looking Turkish waiter, "How dare you bring me a can of warm coke and a glass of shaved ice, when I told you that I drink my coke out of a can!" He then described in a crude, tasteless manner how the warm coke tasted. The waiter respectfully apologized and sought quickly to make amends for his error. I wondered what the waiter and the other European and local Turkish patron thought of this boisterous, bullying American who was imposing his will and his power over a hapless subordinate.

On another occasion, when I was traveling in South Asia as chair of our Fulbright Board, I visited Sri Lanka. I had known a junior cultural officer there since she was a graduate student in one of our prized southern institutions. She had come a long way since emerging from a West Virginia high school and had graduated from college. When I encountered her in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I congratulated her for having made such great strides. She thanked me and then apologized for not having been able to stage for me a really grand dinner with a dozen or more guests. She said that she wished she could have done more than a small luncheon, but she was down to her last two servants. When I observed at the luncheon how she treated them, I wondered how or why she had any servants left.

Another example is from a different part of the world. On one occasion my wife and I were traveling in the Soviet Union, where I was lecturing. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a person in the audience asked me quite frankly how rich I was. I told him that I was not at all wealthy. He then asked me how I had obtained an education in the United States if I had no wealth. He understood, from information and observation, that only wealthy Americans could obtain an education. That gave me an opportunity to explain the system of scholarships and other benefits, aside from public education, that were available in the United States. It was clear to me that the distorted impression abroad was that in our "class ridden" society, wealth and privilege were all-important in moving from one level to another. While it was in the interest of the Soviets to promulgate such false doctrines, we unfortunately contributed to them by the way we acted and the manner in which we were willing to "pull rank" at the slightest opportunity.

One final example of Americans exporting their cultural baggage will suffice. One day in Athens we, along with a score of others, largely American, were taking a tour of the Parthenon. As the guide was explaining the history of the ancient structure, one American woman who asked another person in her party if that was the Athens Hilton Hotel that they could see from the Parthenon. When the reply was in the affirmative, the woman said that she much preferred to return to the hotel and would attempt to get one of her stories--read soap operas--on television. I very much doubt that the Athens Hilton carried American televised soap operas, and I am certain that the other people on the tour had notions about the level of her interest in Greek history and culture, since everyone on the tour who understood English was made aware of her cultural preferences.

These incidents add up to a very distorted picture of the American abroad, ugly or not. I have often wondered how many Turks--or, indeed, how many people anywhere--harbored some hostility or animosity toward the people of the United States on the basis of the boorishness, crudity, or all too conspicuously rich Americans traveling abroad. As some of the British observers described American soldiers during World Wear II: "Overpaid, over sexed, and over here!" Perhaps these views of Americans are distorted, exaggerated, even inaccurate. They, nevertheless, contribute to the overall opinion of Americans that so many elsewhere hold, and that inform and shape their positions and policies where Americans are concerned.

These attitudes are reinforced by official policies that we pursue. When I was a delegate to the Belgrade UNESCO conference in l980, I was proud to see the United States as a normal participant in a world policy-making body for nurturing and fostering cultural, educational, and scientific policies and practices for the benefit of mankind in general. Four years later the United States had withdrawn from UNESCO; and for eighteen long years we had no palpable connection with the one international body that had been created for the specific purpose of promoting the common good, based on man's intelligence and his commitment to improving his well-being at every level. After a long hiatus we rejoined that world body and hopefully we will remain full and active participants in this important international organization. Only then can we effectively and constructively criticize and assist countries whose health, educational, and cultural policies appear to us to be out of line with what we think they should be.

This leads me to wonder if our imperiousness and our aloofness are the most effective ways to move our own agenda forward, if indeed our agenda is worthy of such consideration. Meanwhile, we have steadfastly declined to participate jointly and constructively in the search for solutions to problems that are very important, even critical to the future of the world in which we hope to live. Just think of the several critical areas in which we take no position or are opposed to any action or ignore them altogether. For years the United States has steadfastly refused to ratify the treaty that would control and ultimately eliminate the use of land mines that result in the killing and maiming of thousands of innocent human beings each year. For what reason do we turn our backs on eliminating weapons that kill children and other innocents? Could it be that United States manufacturers make and sell more land mines than any other country? Moreover, we simply ignore the signs that indicate that the entire globe is gradually warming. If we do nothing to control the emission of deadly gases for which we are more responsible than any other country on the planet, we shall be engulfed in such a catastrophic destruction of our planet to the point that it will no longer be inhabitable. Indeed, we shy away from any movements or proposals that provide some semblance of environmental protection or control over pollution of the places we inhabit, presumably in the mistaken belief that our resources are without limit. Consequently, we need not fear their exhaustion within the lifetime of the planet, and therefore we do nothing about it!

Although the United States adheres to the general principle of international courts of justice, this country has refused to agree to a court that will try citizen soldiers of this country for violations of the laws of the wars in which they participate and stand accused of criminal acts. In other words it is quite all right to try military personnel from other countries for violating the law, but citizens of the United States must remain above the law and must remain immune from prosecution for allegedly violating the law. It is most difficult to see how the United States can function in an international environment if it exempts itself from the laws that it expects other nations to obey.

Then, there is the matter of our participation in the United Nations as a full-fledged, dues-paying member. When the United Nations came into being in l945, many of us hoped that it would be the peace-keeping body of all times. And the prospects for its playing such a role were bright indeed. We remembered our own isolationist role in the old League of Nations, following World War I, and we seemed determined that we would not be guilty of doing that again. There would be difficulties, of course, since member-nations represented every conceivable view and philosophy on the political spectrum. When the senior United States senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms, became chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, the United Nations was immediately targeted as an object of disdain. It was criticized for its policies and activities. When the international body did not bend to the wishes of Senator Helms, the United States began to withhold its dues. Within a few years the United States was millions of dollars in arrears in its dues at a time when we were becoming more critical and more demanding of the United Nations. After several years of isolationist obstruction, Senator Helms relented somewhat; and the United States began to make some payments on its delinquent account. Even so, this country remained in arrears for some years to the extent of more than 800 million dollars, that was finally paid. Meanwhile, this country remained active and relentlessly critical before and after we paid our dues.

There is something incongruous about the richest nation in the world ordering an international body such as the United Nations to take action, such as inspecting the status of weaponry in, say, Iraq, when that action would involve the expenditure of funds coming from dues paying countries such as Chile, Timor, Rumania, and Iceland but none from the United States. There is something quite undemocratic about advocating "regime change" in various parts of the world, in actions that bring no great credit to this country or its traditions. Only in the current crisis have we openly declared as our objective a "regime change" in Iraq in a process that is obviously undemocratic and even revolutionary. I have an eery feeling even in discussing a regime change as if it were a mere routing operation of throwing out one leader for a so-called better one to be selected by the powers that change the regime. This is a ghastly renunciation of the very principles that we claim to espouse. A country that prides itself in being democratic or even striving toward democracy should take the utmost caution in even thinking about changing the government of a country in another part of the world with a history and culture profoundly different from its own.

And in any relations with others, even with our so-called enemies, there are codes of conduct that so-called democratic countries cannot ever violate. A so-called democratic country cannot, must not, engage in practices repulsive to democratic policies and traditions. One of them is called "extraordinary rendition," the seizing of a person by a sovereign power, detaining him for as long as the power wishes to detain him without notifying his government or his family, and charging him with no violation of the law, and then sending him to a so-called neutral country for interrogation. The rendition is not even to a friendly power, and the interrogation is reportedly savage and brutal, including beating, starving, and threatening the victim with death. During the current crisis that practice has become all too common. One of the classic cases is the young Canadian citizen who, while passing through New York, en route to Canada from a vacation, was seized, sent off to Syria, the land of his birth, and interrogated, beaten, and tortured for more than a year, and finally returned to Canada after having received no useful information with which to accuse him of some unspeakable crime.

All of us are familiar with the notorious detention of hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba without indictments of any kind, without an opportunity to communicate with relatives or even counsel, or even learning anything about why they are detained. We are also familiar with the current practice of detaining so-called enemy combatants in several places and, in violation of international law, keeping them without making any charges against them, and denying them any rights under the Geneva Convention or any other form of international protection. The United States has engaged in these practices in connection with its objectives of spreading democracy throughout the world. Although these practices have gained no support throughout the world, this country clings to them, even in the face of judicial challenges and, in some cases, judicial condemnation.

Far back in the past, around the year 200l, all of five years ago, some Americans had hoped that the crisis could have been resolved without an all-out war. That was not to be, especially since the United States insisted without conclusive proof that Iraq had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. We, of all countries in the world, know what it is like to unleash weapons of mass destruction. As the only nation in the world to have used such weapons not once but twice, not on a lonely Pacific island to demonstrate what their use would be like, but on two of the most densely populated cities on the face of the earth, we know! We also know that it should not, must not happen again!! If that is the way to spread democracy throughout the world, perhaps we should resolve not to attempt it.

There is much good for all of us to do in the world. There are hungry mouths to be fed. There are diseased bodies to be healed. There are deranged minds to be delivered of their demons by corrective treatment. There are oceans and rivers that can bring much to mankind in terms of food and drink as well as avenues over which we can share our resources or be brought together as one family. There are deserts to which we can bring the life-giving waters for the benefit of all mankind. There are forests to be brought into use for the protection and shelter of mankind. There is mankind himself and herself, capable of self-control and also capable of lending her and his wisdom and strength in the cause of real freedom and genuine democracy.

We deserve the opportunity to pursue our goals in a peaceful manner and not pursue some goals of which we have no need or cause to pursue. If we would only pursue peace with the same vigor and enthusiasm that we pursue war, perhaps we could stumble into a period of calm that would be so constructive that we would be persuaded that we have a prize--a prize of peace of which we could all be truly proud.

I hope that the United States, having already experienced or witnessed numerous holocausts in the past century, can get through this next century with a peace that surpasses all understanding and that it can show the world that while there may be something great about winning a war, there is something much, much greater about learning to use the tools of peacemaking and peacekeeping for the building of a better world--a democratic world, if you will--in which we can all live in peace as one great human family.

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