Back to Index

US Looks at Its Own History

     A prime WAIS concern is the way each country views the world. A related question is: How does every country view its own history? In fact, the various regions and factions have different, and often conflicting, views of that history, and the kaleidoscope changes constantly. This July 4 weekend is a good time to consider the case of the United States.
     When I came to the United States in 1937, the triumphalist viewpoint of George Bancroft still prevailed in the north and the west. Do not confuse the author of the massive History of the United States with Hubert Howe Bancroft, the historian of the West, who founded the Bancroft Library at the University of California. Its famous director, Herbert Eugene Bolton, a native of England, did not share this triumphalist viewpoint and annoyed some colleagues by concentrating on the Spanish heritage of California.
     The interpretation of American history was changed by Frederick Jackson Turner, who exalted the western movement as the crucible of American democracy. He spent his last years at the Huntington Library in Southern California. He had died in 1932, but the "Turner thesis" was becoming dominant. It has been succeeded by political correctness, which paints a less self-satisfied picture of the conquest of the west.
     The triumphalist viewpoint still survives, as evidenced by the White House ceremony at which President Clinton formally removed the bald eagle from the endangered list, for which all bald eagles and Americans, bald or not, must thank the Democratic Party.
     What about the South? When I toured it in 1938, I must have seemed insensitive, loutish, or even subversive. Here are two episodes among many. In New Orleans my guide was a professor of filipino origin at the Catholic University of New Orleans. Touring the suburbs in the night, we passed a building which, my host explained, was Dillard Institute (now University) for blacks. I asked to see it, and we were welcomed by a black professor from the Antilles. He had received his doctorate in Paris, and we had a fascinating chat in his room.
     When we left, it was pitch black, but I noticed my host was terribly agitated. I asked him what was wrong. He replied that I was getting him into trouble. "How?", I asked. ªYou shook hands with that black!" he retorted. To which I replied "It would have been discourteous not to, and, anyhow, no one saw us." "No matter,ª he carried on, "You obliged me to do so. If that became known, I would lose my job!" So much for Christian love!
     The other episode was in Birmingham, Alabama. I told my white hosts that I would like to attend a black church service. They stayed in the car while I went in. The preacher began his sermon in a reasonable tone, but slowly became more and more emotional, while the congregation cried "Hallelujah!" After the service he came up to me and asked me if I had liked it. I naturally was complimentary. I discovered later that my hosts had denounced me as a nigger-lover. It was I believe the church which was later torched. Birmingham was to become under Martin Luther King a focal point of the civil rights movement.
     Of course the white heroes, Washington and Jefferson, were uncritically praised. What about this year, 1999? On the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, a southern black historian, John Hope Franklin, gave a sober but telling speech about the Jefferson´s race prejudice. He spoke at a ceremony on the battlefield, which is in northern territory (Pennsylvania).
     The losers in a war often hide their resentment and humiliation. Speaking with southerners today, I have that impression. A leading Civil War historian, Shelby Foote, from Mississipi, implied this in a talk he gave. The most curious example was at the Louisiana State University at Shreveport. A well-known Lincoln specialist, Professor John Y. Simon of the University of Southern Illinois, gave a thoughtful speech. The audience was strangely subdued, but asked some good questions. One was: How could Lincoln justify a civil war to preserve the union, when the United States was born of a war of secession? Professor Simon got the point and answered bluntly: "Yes, we were rebels and traitors. The difference is that we won." A footnote on the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale. I was once invited to write a report on its Latin American program. I took a plane to St, Louis, and from there a little plane to Carbondale. In my report I stressed that regular travel to Latin America was necessary, and was not easy from Carbondale. The main program should be moved to the East St. Louis campus, which is in Illinois and not far from the international airport. I had not taken into account that East St. Louis is largely black and that the southern tip of Illinois is really southern in its attitudes. Needless to say, my report was shelved. Race relations are a minefield.

Ronald Hilton - 07/03/99