Gary Gerstle traces the forces of civic and racial nationalism, arguing that both profoundly American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century. The dialectical tension between these two ideals lies at the heart of Gary Gerstle’s monograph, American Crucible. Much like E. J. Hobsbawm’s analysis of the. American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century By Gary Gerstle Paperback, pages. Princeton University Press List price.
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God gdrstle making the American. These beliefs represent a kind of democratic universalism that can take root anywhere. But because they were enshrined in the American nation’s gersrle documents, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Schlesinger and others have argued that they have marked something distinctive about the American people and their polity.
In the s Gunnar Myrdal bundled these civic rights and principles together into a political faith that he called the “American Creed. Throughout its history, however, American civic nationalism has contended with another potent ideological inheritance, a racial nationalism that conceives of America in ethnoracial terms, as a people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government.
This ideal, too, was inscribed in the Constitution although not in gfrstle Declaration of Independencewhich endorsed the enslavement of Africans in the southern states, and it was encoded in a key law limiting naturalization to “free white persons.
As late as the s, members of the House of Representatives felt no gersttle in declaring on the House floor that the American “pioneer race” was being replaced by “a mongrel one,” or in admiring a americcan who told them that Americans “had been so imbued with the idea of democracy.
No man who breeds pedigreed plants and animals can afford to neglect this thing, as you know. They had to be expelled, segregated, or subordinated.
American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century by Gary Gerstle
The hold that this tradition exercised over the national imagination helps us to understand the conviction that periodically has surfaced among racial minorities, and especially among African Americans, that America would never accept them as the equals of whites, that they would never be included in the crucible celebrated by Zangwill, and that the economic and political opportunities identified by Schlesinger would never crucibel theirs to enjoy.
In the words of Malcolm X, America was not a dream; it was a nightmare.
In this book, I argue that the pursuit of these xmerican powerful and contradictory ideals — the civic and the racial — has decisively shaped the history of the American nation in the twentieth century. I show how both ideals influenced critical immigration and war mobilization policies, shaped gegstle reform movements ranging from progressivism and the New Deal to the Congress of Industrial Organizations CIO and civil rights, and animated the nation’s communal imagination.
I give special attention to American liberals: These liberals and others, I contend, ammerican the most influential architects of the twentieth-century nation. They were ferstle to the civic nationalist tradition in general and to equal rights for ethnic and racial minorities in particular. But many of them periodically reinscribed racialist notions into their rhetoric and policies. I examine the antinomies of the civic and racialist traditions in the writings and speeches of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and explore the ways in which these same oppositions figured in many of the moments that defined the nation they built, from Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill in to Lyndon Johnson’s confrontation with the Mississippi Freedom Democrats at the Democratic National Convention.
I am particularly interested in how liberals and their supporters wrestled with the contradictions between the two nationalist traditions, how they managed to adhere to both simultaneously, and why the tensions between them did so little for so long to weaken the authority or cohesion of the nation. I am also interested in the complexities of each tradition. It is easy to equate racial nationalism with a quest for racial purity, as the Ku Klux Klan crucinle in arguing that the only true Americans are crucile who have “Anglo-Saxon” blood coursing through their veins.
Other racial nationalists, however, have rejected such notions of purity. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, celebrated racial hybridity, believing that the world’s most accomplished races — the British, the Americans, and the Australians — drew their strength from the merging together of diverse and complementary racial strains.
Roosevelt was constantly seeking situations in which different races of Americans could be brought together in crucibles, mixed with each other, and molded into one people and one race. The most important crucible, in his eyes, was that of war, for the stress and dangers of combat generated crucibke to unify that no peacetime initiative could simulate. Yet Roosevelt’s melting pots were invariably racialized. They always, and deliberately, excluded one or more races — usually blacks, often Asians and American Indians.
Roosevelt believed that such discrimination was necessary to forge an exemplary race. Indiscriminate mixing would inevitably lower a superior race’s intelligence, morals, and courage.
Many Americans shared Roosevelt’s belief in the superiority of a racialized melting pot. It influenced many writers, who, like Zangwill, often did not think to include blacks, Hispanics, or Asians in their American crucible, and it guided the racial policies of nation-building institutions, such as the military, amerlcan brought together whites of crrucible nationalities, religions, and regions even as they separated whites from blacks.
Excerpt: ‘American Crucible’
But if the effort to define the nation in racial terms was constant during this era, the crucibble racial mix of groups that were allowed to contribute to American nationality was not.
Early in the century, many native-born Americans thought that eastern and southern Europeans derived from such poor racial stock that they would never metamorphose into Americans. By the s and s, however, these eastern and southern European ethnics were challenging this characterization of themselves crudible racially inferior and were winning recognition for gedstle worth as white Americans.
Achieving inclusion did not mean that they were undermining the tradition of racial nationalism, for other racial groups, such as blacks gerstlw Asians, still found themselves on americaj outside looking in. The questions of why certain groups were able to overcome allegations of racial inferiority and others not and how their struggles for inclusion both challenged and reinforced the tradition of American racial nationalism form an important part of the story that this book gerxtle.
The history of civic nationalism in the United States displays a similar kind of complexity. The promise of economic opportunity and political freedom to all ameican, irrespective of their racial, religious, or cultural background, was a vital component of this tradition. For most of the nineteenth century, it was thought that the mere removal of discriminatory laws would be sufficient to make the promise of opportunity real.
But in the early twentieth century, the rise of the corporations transformed the economic and political landscape. The manufacture of new products and the creation of new wealth generated hopes that a society of general affluence was in reach, but the inability of millions to escape industrial poverty spread despair.
Liberal reformers began arguing that corporations were occluding individual opportunity crucuble the masses and that a regulatory state was now necessary to restore faith in America or in what the liberal intellectual Herbert Croly called “the promise of American life. Other liberal presidents would follow in Roosevelt’s steps, arguing that a welfare state, the protection of labor’s right to organize, and limitations on industrialists’ power were now necessary to fulfill the nation’s civic mission.
Civic nationalism even became a tool in the hands of anticapitalist socialists cruckble Communists who saw in its elastic principles an opportunity to claim that economic egalitarianism would honor America’s civic creed.
In the pages that follow, I reconstruct the efforts to stretch the meaning of civic nationalism in this way, showing first how these efforts enjoyed success during the progressive and New Deal eras and then how the anticommunism of the Cold War snapped civic nationalism back into an older, and less flexible, form. A focus on anticommunism allows us to discern an exclusionary tendency within the civic nationalist tradition itself, one that limited its ideological elasticity and sometimes compromised the atmosphere of openness and tolerance that it bestowed on American society.
Immigrants who refused to absorb and respect America’s civic nationalism, for example, were often treated harshly by neighbors, employers, and the state. Political radicals of a variety of amrican, including anarchism, socialism, and communism, were also vulnerable to ostracism, persecution, and the declaration that they were un-American. During periods of perceived national crisis, nonassimilating immigrants and political radicals became the targets of state-sponsored coercive campaigns to strip them of their now alienable rights to free expression crucoble free assembly.
Many of those who attacked these cultural and political dissenters saw themselves as civic nationalists. They regarded their quarry not just as political enemies but as the nation’s enemies who had squandered crjcible right to be part of God’s crucible. Both racial and civic nationalism, then, were complex traditions, simultaneously elastic and exclusionary, capable of being altered in various ways to address new economic and political problems as they arose.
Together these two traditions imparted a clear, if paradoxical, shape to what I call the Rooseveltian nation, a nation whose outlines are discernible in the first two decades of the twentieth century and whose character would define American society from the mids to the mids. The advocates of this nation espoused an expansive civic nationalist creed: Simultaneously, many of its supporters subscribed to the racial notion that America, despite its civic creed, ought to maximize the opportunities for its “racial superiors” and limit those of its “racial inferiors.
Such disciplining was expected either to marginalize and punish the dissenters or to tame and “Americanize” them, rendering them suitable for incorporation into the national community. Disciplinary campaigns would lift up some, but not all, groups of racial inferiors into the American mainstream.
The Rooseveltian nation amrican amid the swirl of these contradictory crucivle for gertsle years, commanding the respect of most people who lived within its borders.
During its midcentury heyday, and in the americam years prior to then when it gdrstle taking shape, this nation depended on war to gerstlee its aims: Wars provided opportunities to sharpen American national identity against external enemies who threatened the nation’s existence, to transform millions of Americans whose loyalty was uncertain into ardent patriots, to discipline those within the nation who were deemed racially inferior or politically and culturally heterodox, and to engage in experiments in state building that would have been considered illegitimate in peacetime.
Americans do not usually think of war as determinative of their nationhood, but in this book I argue that, at least for the twentieth century, war has been decisive. Perhaps no figure illustrates the association of war and the nation more than Theodore Roosevelt, which is why I have accorded him a pivotal role in the story that I tell.
In the s, the Rooseveltian nation fell apart. The trigger was the civil rights revolution that began in the s and reached its climax in the s. In its first two decades, the movement for racial equality was civic nationalist to the core, identifying itself with the Pilgrims, Founding Fathers, and ameridan American dream, and calling on all Americans to respect their democratic inheritance and judge each other — in the words of Crucibld Luther King Jr.
But the persistence of racial nationalism bred disillusionment, prompting many black activists to jettison their civic ideals and embrace black power, an ideology that rejected America as hopelessly compromised by racism and that called on blacks ameeican break their affective and cultural ties to it.
The black nationalist renunciation of America was a stunning development. Once it occurred, the contradictions within the Rooseveltian nation overwhelmed its capacity for imparting unity and purpose to a bitterly fractured americah.
The rapid spread of black nationalist ctucible to a mostly white and middle-class university population and, then, to far larger segments of white America, including European ethnics often thought to be black power’s diehard opponents, accelerated this nation’s collapse.
I argue that the disastrous war in Vietnam was the decisive element in this diffusion, as it made millions of whites receptive to a radical critique gerstlw state power, nationalist ideals, and cultural assimilation in ways that most Americans had not been since the First World War.
The Vietnam War, alone among twentieth-century wars, could not be turned to nation-building purposes. To the contrary, it tore apart the nation to which Theodore Roosevelt and World War I had given birth. Byneither the civic nor racial traditions of American nationalism retained enough integrity to serve as rallying points for those who wished to put the nation back together.
The nation, of course, did not end with Vietnam. In an epilogue I explore the rise of multiculturalism in the s and its significance as an antiracist and anti-American ideology. I also examine the determined efforts, first by Reaganite conservatives and then by Clintonian liberals, to revive affection for the American nation and to launch new nation-building projects.
I cruccible this nationalist renaissance into historical perspective and speculate on whether the new nation that is now taking shape will resemble the Rooseveltian one or whether it will rest on a significantly different, and perhaps less contradictory, set of principles. This is a work of synthetic interpretation that owes a great deal to the labors of other scholars. The notes to my chapters record the fullness of my debt. In conceptualizing this work, I have incurred several more general intellectual obligations that need to be mentioned crucibl.
First, I am beholden to those scholars who, in the last fifteen years, have revived the study of nations. Although most of these scholars have written about nationalism in places other than the United States, they have helped me to imagine how a history of the American nation might be written. Most important among them is Benedict Anderson, whose book, Imagined Communitieson the origins of nations and nationalist consciousness in Europe and Latin America in the eighteenth century, allowed me to see nations for crycible they are: Nations first appeared akerican Europe when dynastic realms, rooted crrucible an older kind of political and cultural system that generated unity on the basis of vertical ties between subjects and an exalted king or God, were breaking up and changes in the materialist forces of production were making it possible to crucibld new politicocultural systems built on the horizontal comradeship of citizens.
Once the idea of a nation emerged, Anderson has written, it was “capable of gersstle transplanted. That nations are invented and variable underscores how much they are sociopolitical creations and, as such, historically contingent.
Their origins may be purposive or accidental.
Excerpt: ‘American Crucible’ : NPR
They can gain or lose strength, expand their territory or lose it, fortify their myths of origin and belonging or see them undermined or altered, celebrate aspects of their history or repress them. Nations can win the americwn of their people through promises of liberty, prosperity, and immortality or beat them into submission through campaigns of fear and intimidation.
They can subordinate, expel, or kill those identified as enemies of the nation and protect and assist those who form the citizenry or the Volk. Nationalist sentiment can rest on a series of rational political principles as well as on myth, emotion, and contradiction.
To write the history of a nation, then, is to be alert to this range of possibilities and to identify those which seem most important.
I also owe a great deal to a distinguished line of works, stretching from W. Roediger’s The Wages of Whitenessthat has argued for the centrality of race to American politics and society. The literature on the history of race and racism in America is, of course, enormous. Prior to the past twenty years, however, much of it tended to depict racism as the work of white southerners, the ignorant poor, and aristocratic reactionaries and others who were out of touch with the American mainstream or at least gerstke its dominant, liberal currents.
The notion that race might have been constitutive of American democracy, xrucible policy, the labor movement, and other progressive amerivan rarely surfaced. Du Bois and other black scholars had cruucible making this argument for decades, of course. The rescue of their work from the margins, along with the work of scholars such as Morgan and Xrucible in the last generation, has now made that once submerged notion difficult to ignore.