Sunday, January 22, 2017

The 2017 Inauguration in Historical Context

The 2017 inauguration has stirred America’s emotions to its core. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is unlike any other individual to assume the mantle of the Executive Branch. He embraces a new breed of nationalistic populism and many Americans find his blunt manner (no matter how curt) refreshing in contrast to the more typical public façade of career politicians. Both he and Bernie Sanders challenged the establishment—informing the citizenry that your leaders in Washington tend not to work for your well-being, but their own. (Although, the ideology and presentation of Trump and Sanders otherwise are vastly different.) One can judge Trump for his complete lack of political experience, yet the historical record reveals that some of our worst presidents (James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson included) had over two decades of solid résumé-building credentials under their belts.

Despite the heated animosity of the 2016 campaign, I think it is important that we listen and dwell upon the words of our elected officials—especially their inaugurations. Swearing-ins are moments to start with a clean slate, move beyond contentious races, be gracious, and state one’s vision. Simultaneously, all presidential inaugural speeches should be taken with a grain of salt. Rarely do presidents adhere to all of the ideals they proclaim to the world on January 20. In this context, I find it helpful to compare and contrast the themes of Donald Trump’s opening remarks as commander-in-chief with those chief executives who have gone before him. We just might learn something about our present as well as our past. My commentary is marked in italics.

On American Exceptionalism:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.”

I found these words extremely reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s  farewell address of 1989. Whether we are discussing Bush, Obama, or Trump, notions of national exceptionalism as well as spiritualism are infused in the rhetoric of the presidential tradition. Our presidents convince us that we are a special breed of the human race as the purveyors of democracy. While invoking the Pilgrims or the Founders is not without its inherent historical flaws in this sense, it sells an alluring sense of nostalgia about the American Dream:

Ronald Reagan, 1989:
“And that's about all I have to say tonight, except for one thing. The past few days when I've been at that window upstairs, I've thought a bit of the 'shining city upon a hill.' The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined.”

On Fear:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected.”

Let’s face it. An abundant number of Americans are concerned and divided about the country’s direction. As president-elect Trump prepared to take office, his approval ratings were only 45%--the lowest in the twenty-five year history of that poll. Perhaps up to a half million protesters marched on Washington the day following the inauguration while demonstrations occurred simultaneously across the planet. Additionally, Trump's threats to limit the free speech of the press does not reinforce his statement here. Yet, the above quote speaks to Trump’s verbal effort to at least temporarily assuage the fears of at least some of his critics. Franklin Roosevelt warned us against fear as he took office amid the Great Depression, as we see below. The irony is that with these paternalistic remarks, both FDR and Trump essentially say, “The government will look after you.”

Franklin Roosevelt, 1933:
“This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

On Globalism:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.”

Do not expect President Trump to be using the phrase “global citizen” anytime soon. He was explicit in his critiques of globalized society. Other countries are not necessarily to be perceived as partners but entities who will potentially steal our jobs, drain our military, and diminish our cultural identity. (With the exception of Russia, this notion was seemingly greeted with hostility overseas. Even despite the proceedings of “Brexit,” protestors held a demonstration on London’s Tower Bridge proclaiming, “Build Bridges, Not Walls.”) Elsewhere, proposals are already afoot to remove the United States from the United Nations and the World Health Organization. These notions stand in stark contrast with those ideals of Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration.

Dwight Eisenhower, 1953:
“[Our principles include] appreciating that economic need, military security and political wisdom combine to suggest regional groupings of free peoples, we hope, within the framework of the United Nations, to help strengthen such special bonds the world over. The nature of these ties must vary with the different problems of different areas. . . . [It also includes] respecting the United Nations as the living sign of all people's hope for peace, we shall strive to make it not merely an eloquent symbol but an effective force. And in our quest for an honorable peace, we shall neither compromise, nor tire, nor ever cease.”

On Employment:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. . . . We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American. We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

While Mr. Trump attempts to rebound slightly from his isolationist views in this segment, the truly noteworthy aspect to highlight here is his desire to invest in internal improvements—something that historically has been falling upon individual states. Indeed, Trump perceives himself as a builder, and this is just what he wants to do—even if it conflicts with his own party’s fiscal agenda. This statement, above all else, foreshadows Trump’s unpredictability and likely future clashes with his own party. By contrast, such infrastructure projects may be one of the president’s few agendas Democrats will widely support. After all, Americans heard a similar promise three years into the Great Depression:

Franklin Roosevelt, 1933:
“Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. . . . The basic thought that guides these specific means of national recovery is not narrowly nationalistic. It is the insistence, as a first consideration, upon the interdependence of the various elements in all parts of the United States—a recognition of the old and permanently important manifestation of the American spirit of the pioneer. It is the way to recovery. It is the immediate way. It is the strongest assurance that the recovery will endure.”

On the Military:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“For many decades we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”

While one can debate if and how the American military has been depleted, we nonetheless see here the continuing evolution of the military purpose in national consciousness. “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all,” said Trump of his vision for the Military Industrial Complex (which Eisenhower also warned us about). While Mr. Trump wishes to invigorate America’s image of defense with large scale military parades down Pennsylvania Avenue, presidents of centuries past had a vastly different mission for the military. The first generations of America’s leaders feared a standing army, worrying it would lead to tyranny. The lack of a standing army was also a primary reason for the crafting of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

Andrew Jackson has been compared to Trump by several journalists and his own pundits due to his populist rhetoric, his desires to shrink the influence of government, his willingness to relocate ethnic minorities, his distrust of the establishment, and his colorful, unorthodox persona. Jackson's inaugural, however, departs from Trump's when it comes to matters of the military.

Andrew Jackson, 1829:
“Considering standing armies as dangerous to free governments in time of peace, I shall not seek to enlarge our present establishment, nor disregard that salutary lesson of political experience which teaches that the military should be held subordinate to the civil power.”

On Optimism:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.”

Here is another point of separation from most presidential inaugural addresses. Much like his campaign itself, Trump’s words are burdened with negativity. While he offers promise, blame is cast upon others (although not the corporations themselves). Compare those sentences with these of conservative hero Ronald Reagan in his own first inaugural:

Ronald Reagan, 1981:
 “[T]his administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work. Ending inflation means freeing all Americans from the terror of runaway living costs. All must share in the productive work of this ‘new beginning,’ and all must share in the bounty of a revived economy. With the idealism and fair play which are the core of our system and our strength, we can have a strong and prosperous America, at peace with itself and the world.”

While some of those barriers remained (especially in inner cities), Reagan spoke of a universal commonality that did not cast censure. Indeed, a sense of patriotic optimism is a factor that endears Reagan to many Americans to this day. The fact that Trump is one of only five American presidents to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote might have warranted a lighter tread. Trump would have been better served had he used more language as he did here:

“We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.”

On Political Parties:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. Jan. 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

Trump here again demonstrates his antipathy of the political establishment—a belief that gained him many votes with the mantra of "Drain the Swamp." While many of these constituent concerns are incredibly valid, we also must underscore the importance of conversation, negotiation, compromise, and a degree of civility between parties—something that many scholars consider a bedrock of our democracy. Republican Herbert Hoover (who, despite his shortcomings in the Depression, was considered one of the great humanitarians in the world at the time of his inauguration) reminds us of this.

Herbert Hoover, 1929:
“In our form of democracy the expression of the popular will can be effected only through the instrumentality of political parties. We maintain party government not to promote intolerant partisanship but because opportunity must be given for expression of the popular will, and organization provided for the execution of its mandates and for accountability of government to the people. . . . The animosities of elections should have no place in our Government, for government must concern itself alone with the common weal.”

On Protection:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“We've defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own and spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”

Trump’s inclination to be a builder of great things and prioritize the American economy once again makes him echo the “shovel ready” projects of the Depression era. I wouldn’t expect him to adopt any social welfare programs, however.

Franklin Roosevelt, 1933:
“Through this program of action we address ourselves to putting our own national house in order and making income balance outgo. Our international trade relations, though vastly important, are in point of time and necessity secondary to the establishment of a sound national economy. I favor as a practical policy the putting of first things first. I shall spare no effort to restore world trade by international economic readjustment, but the emergency at home cannot wait on that accomplishment.”

On Welfare:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“We will get our people off of welfare and back to work rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.”

Given the conservative revolution that blossomed in the 1970s and 1980s, the parallels between then and now regarding welfare are not surprising. This talking point will continue for years to come.

Richard Nixon, 1973:
"Let us remember that America was built not by government, but by people--not by welfare, but by work--not by shirking responsibility, but by seeking responsibility."

On History:
Donald Trump, 2017:
“One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world. But that is the past, and now we are looking only to the future.”

As far as I could ascertain, this is unfortunately the only reference President Trump made to history or the past. He mentions no other presidents other than the ones sitting behind him. This, too, is unprecedented. Going back to the early days of the republic, we can see presidents who utilize the past (and much more) as a moral compass, if not a solid guide for contemporary policy:

Andrew Jackson, 1833:
“A diffidence, perhaps too just, in my own qualifications will teach me to look with reverence to the examples of public virtue left by my illustrious predecessors, and with veneration to the lights that flow from the mind that founded and the mind that reformed our system. The same diffidence induces me to hope for instruction and aid from the coordinate branches of the Government, and for the indulgence and support of my fellow-citizens generally.”

Abraham Lincoln, 1861:
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Theodore Roosevelt, 1905:
“We in our turn have an assured confidence that we shall be able to leave this heritage unwasted and enlarged to our children and our children's children. To do so we must show, not merely in great crises, but in the everyday affairs of life, the qualities of practical intelligence, of courage, of hardihood, and endurance, and above all the power of devotion to a lofty ideal, which made great the men who founded this Republic in the days of Washington, which made great the men who preserved this Republic in the days of Abraham Lincoln.”

Ronald Reagan, 1985:
“History is a ribbon, always unfurling; history is a journey. And as we continue our journey, we think of those who traveled before us.”

George W. Bush, 2001:
“After the Declaration of Independence was signed, Virginia statesman John Page wrote to Thomas Jefferson, "We know the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?" Much time has passed since Jefferson arrived for his inauguration. The years and changes accumulate, but the themes of this day he would know, ‘our nation's grand story of courage and its simple dream of dignity.’”

Barack Obama, 2009:
“For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.”

We need history. We need the humanities. We need to think critically. We should not believe every internet meme we encounter. We need to vet the sources we read—including this one. We need presidents who have knowledge of and can learn from the past. Without that knowledge, we are lost—and we prove it to ourselves continuously. I earnestly hope all who will live the White House now and in the future eventually come to that realization. Otherwise, we will have nothing more than reality show presidents for reality show generations. That would be one sad chapter for American democracy.

In the interim, we should seek counsel from another inaugural speech which noted, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds. . . .” Will we listen?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Hell of Hacksaw Ridge

Over Veterans' Day Weekend I ventured to the movie theater with some fellow history buffs to view director Mel Gibson's latest historical tale of violence and redemption. As many of you know, Hacksaw Ridge is based upon the real life story of Army medic Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who earned the Medal of Honor for saving seventy-five comrades during the bloody struggle for Okinawa in the spring of 1945. Every war movie that has been released over the last eighteen years is largely measured by the Saving Private Ryan barometer of carnage and quality. While Gibson never quite reaches Spielberg's mastery of combat orchestration, Hacksaw Ridge is certainly on par with the level of bloodshed. The opening shots of the cinematic battle unfold a constant cacophony of whizzing bullets and incoming shells that is not for the feint of heart.

Like Full Metal Jacket, the film is essentially three different stories combined into one. In this case, those narratives include 1) a home front story of love and family struggle, 2) basic training and a testing of spiritual conviction, and 3) the triumph of that conviction tested by the hell of the Battle of Okinawa.

To offer some insight (and potential spoilers) of what the film overlooks or condenses, we first need to examine the life and beliefs of protagonist Desmond Doss (portrayed admirably by Andrew Garfield, who very well may receive an Oscar nomination for this role.) Born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1919, Doss grew up a Seventh-Day Adventist and became a devout pacifist at a young age. As a youth, Desmond witnessed his father's arrest following an altercation between the dad and his brother-in-law. Only after Desmond's mother interceded did the father relinquish the pistol in his hand. Desmond never wanted to hold a gun after witnessing that violent episode within his own family. Later, he worked at a Newport News shipyard during the outbreak of World War II.

Doss's religious conviction earned him much grief after being drafted in the Army in April 1942. Contrary to what the film shows, he was never beaten by comrades who thought him cowardly, even if they did consider him an impediment to unit cohesion. Mockingly referred to as "Holy Joe," he campaigned to do no work or drill on the Sabbath. This certainly did not gain him celebrity in the ranks. His non-commissioned officers sought to give him a Section 8 for discharge, claiming he was mentally unbalanced. However, the ruling officers determined that religious tenets alone were not grounds for dismissal. While Doss was threatened with court-martial, formal charges never proceeded as the film depicts.

The film makes a big chronological jump between the second and third acts. The movie completely overlooks Doss's experiences on Guam and Leyte, giving the audience the false impression that Okinawa was Doss's baptism of fire. A member of the 77th Infantry Division, Doss had undergone multiple Pacific Campaigns and had likely warmed up to his initially suspicious comrades by that point.

Nonetheless, the film excels at presenting the bleak landscape of Okinawa. One of the best accounts of this battlefield comes from Marine Eugene Sledge, whose With the Old Breed itself became the basis for Hollywood interpretation with HBO's The Pacific. Sledge wrote that the island was "the most ghastly corner of hell I had ever witnessed. . . . Every crater was half full of water, and many of them held a Marine corpse. The bodies lay pathetically just as they had been killed, half submerged in muck and water, rusting weapons still in hand. Swarms of big flies hovered about them." Everywhere were "maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool." Gibson captures this grim vista in the most realistic of ways. Rats devour rotting human flesh. Combatants embrace in violent death throes. It is as bloody as a war movie can be.

As the title would suggest, the pinnacle of the film is the struggle for "Hacksaw Ridge," a cliff that seems to loom over 100 feet above the division's staging area. (In actuality, it was about forty feet high). According to the West Point volume The Second World War: Asian and the Pacific, "On April 29, when the 77th Division replaced the 96th, [Andrew D.] Bruce's troops began a bloody, close-in, demolition battle with the determined Japanese; but as the Americans advanced, the local Japanese commanders launched vicious counterattacks to recover lost ground. This pattern of close attacks typified the fighting in the Shuri defensive area. In this close battle, which caused heavy casualties on both sides, tanks were often the key to success." Time and again, the Japanese sought to funnel in the Americans through this relatively narrow gap in order to maximize casualties. As the film accurately shows, Japanese troops intentionally targeted medics to deprive the wounded of treatment. The Maeda Escarpment, known thereafter as "Hacksaw Ridge," was finally captured on May 6 after incomprehensibly brutal fighting.

See the real Okinawa and Hacksaw Ridge. Featured here is Ernie Pyle before he was killed by a Japanese sniper as well as a snippet of Doss standing atop the escarpment.

The 77th Division estimated it had killed some 3,000 Japanese in a seven day time span. During and following that time, Doss lowered seventy-five wounded comrades down the cliff with an improvised pulley system. He was wounded four times by both grenade fragments and sniper fire. For his efforts, he was awarded the Medal of Honor that October by Harry Truman. Undoubtedly, Mel Gibson was drawn to this story of faith and adversity as he tries to redefine his own life and career in the wake of his past scandals. The movie is as intimate as his The Man Without a Face, as grand as Braveheart, and as gut-wrenchingly gruesome as The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto. Needless to say, the film possesses far more strengths than weaknesses.

Yet, as both an historian and cinema aficionado, I would be remiss not to mention some of the film's stumbles. Beyond the super picky material culture flubs such as green GI t-shirts, undubbed boots, technical bungles, and some continuity dilemmas, the movie is rife with some of the most repeated war movie clichés: lots of tough guys with Brooklyn accents, grenade pin pulling with teeth, firing mortar rounds off helmets a la Saving Private Ryan, and more. Most heinous of all, one soldier picks up the blown-off upper body of a comrade and uses him as a shield as he simultaneously fires a twenty-four pound Browning Automatic Rifle one-handed. Come on, Mel.

While Hacksaw Ridge falls short of the power of All Quiet on the Western Front or Platoon, it nonetheless wields its own sense of importance and stands proudly within the canon of anti-war films. Above all else, it reveals to us that amidst these divided times that a little bit of empathy and compassion goes a long way. Most poignant of all is actual footage of Desmond Doss at the film's finale. In Doss's own estimation, the Medal of Honor was not the greatest award he ever received. He notes, "You can't always win, but when your buddies come to you and say they owe their life to me, what better reward can you get than that?" Who could disagree?

The real life Desmond Doss passed away in 2006.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The White Lady of Wopsy

Finding the Historical Roots of a Pennsylvania Ghost Tale

Painting by Joe Servello.
As Halloween approaches, tales of ghostly occurrences and mysterious happenings invariably drift into our popular consciousness. With its rich history spanning multiple centuries, Blair County, Pennsylvania certainly does not lack legendary stories of the supernatural. One of the most persistent of all tales revolves around the so-called “White Lady of Wopsy.”

The celebrated story first appeared in a Halloween 1973 issue of the Altoona Mirror, which stated, “The White Lady of Wopsy [the nickname for Wopsononock Mountain] wanders the misty wooded lookout area atop Wopsononock Mountain, seeking revenge. Neither man nor woman is safe as the ghost floats on the dark, mysterious mountain breezes, venting her wrath on unsuspecting individuals.” The “legend claims that she was the victim of an auto crash and fire after being left waiting at the altar on her wedding day. She avenges herself on all who see her three times by causing horrible death. Some couples vow they have heard her scratch on the car roof.”

The traits of the tall tale vary depending upon the storyteller. In some renditions, the apparition committed suicide because of the death of her newborn. In other instances, the bride hurled her carriage off the road (with her husband onboard) after she learned of his infidelities on their honeymoon at the Wopsononock Resort (destroyed by fire in 1903). One question remains, however: From where did this story originate? I am certainly no believer in paranormal activities yet the legend has long intrigued me, as it has many others from my region. Granted, many tragic accidents have occurred on the perilous curves of the Buckhorn Road descending from Wopsy. Yet, one particular incident from 1926 stands suspect above all others.

Shortly after midnight on October 11 of that year, Margaret Gray and Chester Troutman (a WWI veteran) were presumably returning to Altoona when their large touring car skidded on the meandering highway. In September 2016, Gray’s great-grandson, Greg Sheets, noted that according to family legend, “she was supposedly running moonshine from Cambria County” with Troutman. Such activity on the remote mountain roads of Central Pennsylvania was not uncommon. 

Six years prior, the Volstead Act forbade the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating beverages. Pious and law-abiding citizens fully supported the measure amid the tumultuous era known as Prohibition. Preacher Charles Bame said in an impassioned sermon at Juniata’s Park Church of the Brethren the same year as the Gray-Troutman accident, “We have too many older folks who make their bodies a swill-pail for rot-gut booze, robbing their families and society of the help they ought to give.” Meanwhile, some blue collar workers desired nothing more than a frothy glass of beer after a day in Altoona’s railroad shops or mills.  Others were opportunists who saw a chance for illegal profiteering or daring entertainment. Gray and Troutman likely fell within that latter category.

Near the aptly-named “Devil’s Elbow,” where the “White Lady” presumably roams, their vehicle rolled down the ominous embankment on that night of October 11. Gray suffered a compound depressed fracture of the skull, among other injuries. Admitted to critical care at the Altoona Hospital at two in the morning, her injuries were beyond repair. She succumbed to her wounds at 11:10 that morning.

The Gray-Troutman accident is steeped in mystery. First and foremost, the female passenger was married to another man, John Gray. He was apparently not aware of her late night cruising with Troutman. According to newspaper reports, “the family was under the impression that she had gone to Gallitzin to meet a [visiting] woman relative.” Troutman, who suffered only minor abrasions and dizziness in the accident, later claimed to be returning Gray home that night.

Additionally, the circumstances of the wreck itself were unusual. For these reasons, Troutman was brought up on manslaughter charges a week later. According to court testimony, Troutman contended that he and Gray stopped and switched seats multiple times coming down the Buckhorn and that she was the one who lost control of the vehicle. He said this despite the fact that in his initial hospital interview he claimed he was passing another car at the time of the accident. Regardless of this conflicting testimony, Troutman was acquitted of any wrongdoing by the jury. Troutman married Olive Pearl Jones in 1937 and likely tried to move on to the next chapter of his life. He was highly involved in local veterans’ organizations and lived until 1965. Naturally, these were luxuries Gray could not enjoy. Accordingly, this unfortunate anecdote of lost love, death, and a possible miscarriage of justice represents all the ingredients of a classic ghost story.

Does Gray’s spirit roam the woods in which she was mortally injured? This article cannot claim to answer or promote that. However, one can carefully speculate that she did have important tasks remaining in her incomplete life. She left behind five children.

Margaret Gray pictured at left. In 1962, local WWI vets held a reunion at Altoona's Penn Alto Hotel. Chester Troutman is the last man on the right--seen thirty-six years after his fateful Wopsy accident. The Gray photo is courtesy of Greg Sheets, Gray's great-grandson. The WWI veteran photo is courtesy of David Seidel.