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review 2020-09-23 12:46
Eugene Debs and the arc of American socialism
Eugene V. Debs: Citizen & Socialist (Working Class in American History) - Nick Salvatore

In the first two decades of the twentieth century the Socialist Party appeared to be a growing force in American politics. As Socialist agitators and newspaper editors denounced the evils of the expanding capitalist system, organizers mobilized laborers into unions and Socialist candidates throughout the country won offices at the city, state, and even federal level. Yet by the early 1920s the Socialist Party was in a decline even swifter than their rise, with its membership riven by infighting and marginalized by the increasingly conservative mood of the nation.

 

No figure better personified the trajectory of the Socialist Party’s fortunes during this era than Eugene Victor Debs. As the party’s five-time nominee for the presidency of the United States, Debs was buoyed by rapidly increasing voter numbers during his first four campaigns for the office. When he ran for the final time in 1920, however, he did so from a federal penitentiary in Atlanta thanks to a wartime conviction for sedition. It was a testament to Debs’s appeal that even while incarcerated he received over 900,000 votes, though as a percentage of the vote is was little more than half of the total he had received in his last bid for the office. No subsequent Socialist party candidate was ever able to improve upon that result, however.

 

In his biography of Debs, Nick Salvatore makes it clear that a major reason why none of Debs’s successors could duplicate his achievement was because none brought what he did to the party. As a longtime labor leader, Debs possessed an unmatched credibility with working-class Americans, his sacrifices on behalf of whom was part of his appeal. Yet as Salvatore explains, the basis of Debs’s approach to socialism was far more complex than that. The son of French immigrants, Debs left school at an early age to work for one of the local railroad companies. In 1875 he joined the Brotherhood of Local Firemen, and quickly distinguished himself with his tireless activism on the organization’s behalf. It was as a union leader that Debs became nationally famous, as he worked to establish an industrial union in response to the growing centralization and corporatization of the railroad business in Gilded Age America.

 

The demise of the American Railway Union (ARU) in the aftermath of the Pullman Strike in 1894 convinced Debs of the inadequacy of unionization as a response to business concentration. While in jail for violating a federal injunction, Debs began reading texts advancing socialist ideas. Upon his release, Debs pushed the remnants of the ARU to join with others to create a new political party advocating for socialist policies. Debs’s prominence as a labor activist made him a natural choice as their presidential candidate in 1900, a task he accepted reluctantly but threw himself into with determination. Salvatore devotes as much attention to history of the Socialist Party during this period as he does to Debs himself, detailing the infighting that shaped its development. As he had as a labor leader Debs stayed clear of factional disputes, preserving his appeal within the fractious party but at the cost of allowing the personal and ideological disagreements to fester.

 

Though Salvatore describes the issues that divided Socialist Party leaders, he emphasizes that these were of secondary concern to Debs. Unlike the doctrinaire approach of many of its members, Debs grounded his Socialist advocacy in the Protestant theology and republican ideology he had inculcated since his youth. By positing socialism as the path towards realizing the nation’s democratic and egalitarian ideas, he made it far more appealing to American voters than abstract theories ever could have been. Coupled with Debs’s bona fides as a labor leader and his earnest and effective style of speechmaking, he became the party’s greatest asset for advancing its vision for a better tomorrow.

 

Yet Debs was far from the only critic of industrial capitalism in these years. As Salvatore notes, other presidential candidates were also denouncing its excesses and offering political solutions in an effort to win voters. While each election seemed to bring the Socialist Party closer to a breakthrough, the 1912 presidential election proved a high-water mark for their fortunes. As Progressive era reforms and the outbreak of war in Europe shifted the public discourse to other matters. Debs’s criticisms of the Wilson administration eventually resulted in his arrest and conviction, while his subsequent prison term proved detrimental to his frail health. Released after President Warren Harding commuting his sentence, Debs spent his final years as a shadow of his former self, trying to navigate a fractured socialist movement that struggled for relevance in the Roaring Twenties.

 

By situating Debs’s life within the context of the developing capitalist economy, Salvatore conveys insightfully the factors in his subject’s own transformation from a respected trade unionist and promising Democratic politician into the leading Socialist figure of his age. As a result, Debs goes from being a marginal political figure in the nation’s history to one at the heart of the choices faced by millions of Americans as values and social structures evolved in response to industrialism and the changes it brought. It makes for a book that is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in learning about Debs, and one that is unlikely ever to be surpassed as a study of his life and times.

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review 2020-08-31 06:37
The general who built an army
George C. Marshall: Ordeal and Hope: 1939-1942 - Forrest C. Pogue

As the fifteenth Chief of Staff of the United States Army, George Catlett Marshall oversaw the transformation of the United States Army from a modest constabulary into an organization capable of waging war on a truly global scale. Though such a metamorphosis was due to the efforts of thousands of people working over the course of many years, as Forrest Pogue demonstrates in the second volume of his biography of the general and statesman Marshall’s contribution was key to the development of the Army into a force that would play a vital role in defeating the Axis powers and establishing the United states as a global superpower.

 

This was no small achievement, nor was it an easy one. As Pogue notes, Marshall would regard his two years of service as Chief of Staff as the most difficult of his tenure, far more so than the four years he spent in the post during the war itself. Much of this had to do with the dimensions of the task before him. When Marshall took up the post in September 1939, the Army was both under-funded and under-strength, limited by postwar disillusionment and financial constraints. Nor did the outbreak of war in Europe suddenly change everyone’s thinking. As late as April 1940, members of Congress questioned the need to expand the ground forces, believing that the low-intensity “phony war” that developed after the fall of Poland was easily avoidable. Only after their invasion of Denmark and Norway made German intentions clear did Congressional opposition to spending for a larger force finally evaporate.

 

Yet Marshall gained his money at the expense of time. In short order he was expected to develop a fighting force capable of deterring or defeating any German threat. Nor did the now-expanded budget solve the Army’s problems, as Marshall had to cope with the competing need to support the British in their ongoing war against Germany for weapons production. Even more problematic was the widespread reluctance of many Americans to serve in the rapidly-expanding Army for one moment longer than they were required to by the draft, a sentiment to which many powerful politicians were sensitive. So how did Marshall surmount these challenges?

 

Pogue makes it clear that foremost among Marshall’s attributes was a Herculean work ethic, as he dedicated nearly every day to the duties of his office. To the task he also brought considerable diplomatic skill and a sensitivity to the limits of what was possible, enabling him to navigate skillfully the formidable politics that were part of his job. Finally, there was his eye for talent, as he had an extraordinary ability to identify men of ability and a determination to place them in the posts where they could make the best use of their skills. Often this meant promoting them over older men of longer service, many of whom Marshall knew personally. That Marshall was willing to turn friends into enemies in order to prepare the Army for what lay ahead is perhaps the best evidence of his determination to succeed in his mission.

 

These efforts, though, were outpaced by events. Pogue spends a considerable amount of space detailing Marshall’s role in the events leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with the goal of rebutting the claims that he was part of a conspiracy to bring the United States into the war. Nevertheless, Pogue acknowledges the limits of Marshall’s conceptualization of the Japanese threat, noting that he overestimated the Army’s Hawai’ian defenses and underestimated the ability of the Japanese to attack him. The months that followed were especially tragic, as Marshall watched with despair as the Army units stationed in the Philippines were defeated by the Japanese. Yet this did not deflect him from his commitment to the “Germany first” focus adopted before the war, as he worked strenuously to launch a second front in France as early as 1942. Though Marshall was frustrated in this by the British (whom, as Pogue notes, would have borne the brunt of such an early effort), by the end of America’s first year of the war he could look with hope to the victories he knew would soon come.

 

Benefiting from interviews with Marshall and his contemporaries as well as considerable archival research, Pogue’s book serves as an effective monument to his subject and his achievements as Chief of Staff. Though focused on detail, it provides more analysis of its subject than Pogue’s previous volume, Education of a General, which helps to explain Marshall’s motivations and the thinking underlying them. While further analysis would have made for an even better book, given Pogue’s proximity to many of the key figures he describes he may have felt a little too constrained to offer the sort of judgments the facts he describes seem to demand, Nonetheless, his book is a valuable resource on both Marshall and his achievements, one that will likely remain required reading on the general for many years to come.

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review 2020-07-26 02:27
The changing meaning of the American Revolution
A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination - Michael Kammen

When the musical Hamilton premiered in 2015, it was hailed as a bold reimagining of the events surrounding the founding of the United States. What most audience members probably didn’t appreciate, though, was that it was only the latest in a long line of reimagined interpretations of the events of American independence. Those who did likely benefited from reading Michael Kammen’s book on the subject. In the first of a trilogy of studies he wrote on various aspects of the American historical imagination, Kammen recounts the evolving ways in which Americans remembered their revolution and what these changes reveal regarding the nation’s attitudes about its legacy for them.

 

Kammen begins by considering what he terms “the problem of tradition,” that problem being the absence of one throughout much of America’s existence. To outside observers living within the well-worn grooves of generations of traditions, Americans seemed to lack one. Though this would change, that change was gradual, and initially it was focused on the first defining event in the new country’s history. Though a natural choice it was not a conscious one, as Americans grappled with their revolutionary origins only as they began to slip away from them.

 

Kammen divides this process into stages. The first of these began with the Revolution itself, as its participants argued over the meaning of what they were doing. George Washington’s death in 1799 foreshadowed the passing of the “founding fathers,” and with them any firsthand verification of their intentions and goals. Though the last of the signers of the Declaration of Independence wouldn’t pass for another third of a century, Americans began to reflect more on their achievements and their legacy. The celebration of the Fourth of July was an integral part of this, but it evolved in the 1790s into a partisan tradition which persisted until the demise of the Federalist Party after 1815 ended their conflict over what the Revolution achieved.

 

By the 1830s, there was a general reverence for the Revolutionary generation and a common desire to maintain what their sacrifices had earned. Exactly what it was that they had earned, however, remained a subject of dispute. The burgeoning sectional crisis increasingly infected this debate, as again warring sides played up different aspects of the Revolution to suit their vision for the country. By the mid-1870s, the ebbing of this conflict led people to find within the Revolution a common point of unity, with considerations of its political meaning dropped in favor of celebrations of a hazy nationalism. This ebbed and flowed over the course of the twentieth century, with the scholarly consideration of the Revolution’s place in American tradition increasingly distant from popular (and apolitical) consideration of the Fourth July as little more than a national birthday.

 

Kammen recounts the developing place of the American Revolution in a series of chapters considering its presence in art, poetry, and fiction. These are presented separately by subject, making the book less of a sustained narrative than an interconnected collection of essays that can be read separately. On nearly every page he offers an intriguing detail or a perceptive analysis that reflects both his immersion in this legacy and his thoughtful consideration of it. Though some of his conclusions may seen dated with the passage of time, his book still rewards reading for its account of the development of American nationalism and how this was reflected in the nation’s culture over the first two centuries of its existence.

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url 2020-07-01 15:53
Podcast #188 is up!
Horace Greeley: Print, Politics, and the Failure of American Nationhood - James M. Lundberg

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Jake Lundberg about his biography of the American newspaper editor and presidential candidate Horace Greeley. Enjoy!

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review 2020-06-20 20:32
A useful narrative that misses the greater significance
The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia - Wilcomb E. Washburn

In the summer of 1677, a group of English colonists rose up against the colonial government of Virginia. Led by Nathaniel Bacon, a plantation owner who had moved to the colony just a few years previously, the rebels intimidated the government leadership into passing laws that restored suffrage rights to landless freemen and empowered Bacon with military command. When the longtime governor, William Berkeley, sought to reassert control, Bacon's forces marched on the colonial capital of Jamestown, burning it down after a short siege. With Bacon's death from dysentery, however, the rebellion soon collapsed, as Berkeley reasserted his authority and meted out punishment of the remaining rebel leaders.

 

Bacon's Rebellion is one of the most famous events in American colonial history, and was long held up as a precursor to the American Revolution a century later. Yet as Wilcomb Washburn explains at the start of his book, such an interpretation ignores the role that relations with the Native Americans played in sparking events. His book, which originated as Washburn's Harvard University doctoral dissertation, draws from the documentary record of the era to chart the development of the rebellion in an effort to explain its origins and how it came to be interpreted by contemporaries in the aftermath of its suppression. In a series of compact chapters, he recounts the events of the rebellion, starting with the growing tensions between the colonists and the Native Americans in the Potomac River valley, which was then undergoing settlement. Though the settlers wanted an aggressive response to the natives' attacks, Governor Berkeley sought a more defensive approach that would be less expensive than a military campaign. Into this vacuum stepped Bacon, who championed the setters' cause in the face of official indifference to their interests. Washburn sees Bacon as driven by ego and vanity, with Berkeley an underappreciated figure who managed events as well as he could given the circumstances against him. Recalled to England after the rebellion's end, Berkeley's death soon after his return denied him the opportunity to respond to the charges leveled against him, which left his reputation tarnished for generations afterward.

 

Washburn's book offers readers a extremely useful account of Bacon's Rebellion that details nicely the events immediately surrounding it. By examining both the role tensions with the local natives played in events and the goals pursued by Bacon and the other rebels, he succeeds in refuting the interpretation of the rebellion as an early democratic reform movement. Yet Washburn's focus is frustratingly narrow, as he both skirts the question of why relations with natives were at such a boiling point and fails to consider the long-term impact of the rebellion on the region. As historians such as Edmund S. Morgan would later explain, the growing unavailability of land for newly-freed indentured servants was a key factor in the deterioration of colonial policy towards the Native Americans, with one of the most important legacies of the rebellion being a greater reliance instead on slavery for plantation labor. That Washburn never addresses these issues limits the utility of his book, which provides a good description of the events of the rebellion while missing its greater significance for American history.

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