01 May 2008

Nicholson Baker's World Wars - Part 3

Foreigners seeking to comment on American phenomena neglect the history of the United States at their peril. Much of the historical criticism about Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke seems oblivious of American history outside of the tropes presented by Hollywood and television. The "American History Highlight Show" usually leaps directly from the Revolution to the Civil War with, if we're lucky, a nod to Manifest Destiny.

This all overlooks the vitally important period between the end of the War of 1812 (in 1815) and the Slavocracy Crisis of the 1850s, when the real fundamentals of the American national character were laid down. The Melting Pot really began in this period. The democratic ideals of America bore real fruit with the ending of established churches in the states, of property qualifications for office-holding and voting, and the creation of political machines to ensure party control of offices throughout a community. The American fascination with cults and social experiments also blossomed, especially in New England and upstate New York, and the cultural outliers of this area in northern Ohio and Michigan.

The New York Peace Society was founded in August 1815, arguably the first organized peace movement in modern history. Similar societies emerged elsewhere (notably Massachusetts and Maine) and banded together in 1828 as the American Peace Society. (Elihu Burritt is characteristic of those who sparked this movement.) This peace movement was thoroughly Christian (usually of evangelical bent) and believed that a system of international law would be the best preventer of war. A speech by Charles Sumner, the famous abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, who embraced some of the principles, made it clear that the main objective was to establish a system of international arbitration to resolve disputes.

The peace movement, which came to include the Universal Peace Union, founded in 1866, was profoundly influential both in the United States and in the rest of the world. The Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 owed much to the efforts of peace campaigners both in the United States and in the rest of the world. The United States under both Republican and Democratic administrations signed a number of arbitration treaties during 1908-14, although the Senate often hedged them with conditions that effectively emasculated them.

In the 1930s, the neutrality acts passed by Congress attempted to address what the peace campaigners might have regarded as their greatest betrayal, when Woodrow Wilson rode Republican support to take the United States into the First World War. The Neutrality Act developed in the wake of the great Democratic victory in the Congressional elections of 1934. (A rare occasion of the incumbent president's party actually gaining seats in mid-term.) At first it was limited to six months duration, then extended for a year, then made permanent in 1937. Although these acts are traditionally associated with "isolationism", they attracted the support of pacifists in the American tradition.

The Second World War as Plumbian Past, as opposed to scientific History, caricatures these isolationists as an inchoate group of Nazi sympathizers or useful idiots and utopian idealists. Yet Baker's interviews show that he is in reviving a point that was very relevant to the world of 1937-41, but has been obscured by post-1945 events.

(to be continued)

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