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The New Yorker essay by Dexter Filkins on Samuel Moyn’s new book, Humane, got a lot of attention already, so I want to address only one narrow, but I think important, point: Filkins seems to me to misunderstand the aims of the United States in waging its total wars—or at least, in waging the two I’ve taught in classrooms, the Civil War and World War II.

Filkins says Sherman burned Atlanta because he “believed he was entitled to do anything in pursuit of victory … against an enemy that had begun an unjust war.”

This might be called the “don’t start none, won’t be none,” doctrine, or DSNWBND for short.

While Sherman surely believed the rebels had begun an unjust war, that belief was subsidiary to his, and President Lincoln’s, aims by the latter part of 1864. Rather than exemplifying DSNWBND, Sherman’s decision to burn Atlanta was based chiefly on what we might call the “Stay Down” doctrine (SDD)—that is, he wanted the enemy to acknowledge they were beaten, and surrender. As he wrote in his memoirs,

If they want peace, they and their relatives must stop the war. I knew, of course, that such a measure woudl be strongly criticised, but made up my mind to do it with the absolute certainty of its justness, and that time would sanction its wisdom.… I knew that the people of the South would read in this measure two important conclusions: one, that we were in earnest; and the other, if they were sincere in their common and popular clamor ’to die in the last ditch,’ then the opportunity would soon come.

Lincoln took a similar view of the subsequent March to the Sea: it served the purpose of demonstrating the battlefield superiority of the United States armed forces. The rebels were incapable of continuing the fight; they should realize it, and surrender. As he wrote Sherman,

Not only does it afford the obvious and immediate military advantages, but, in showing to the world that your army could be divided, putting the stronger part to an important new service [that is, marching to the sea] and yet leaving enough to vanquish the old opposing force of the whole, [J.B.] Hood’s army, it brings those who sat in darkness to see a great light.

For Sherman and Lincoln, waging total war in Georgia wasn’t about bringing vengeance to an enemy who had begun an unjust war (DSNWBND); it was much colder: it was about showing that the United States could no longer be resisted, and that the rebels simply must surrender (SDD). As Lincoln said, the demonstration that Sherman could divide his forces, beat Hood in the field with one part, and march unresisted to the sea with the other part, should show that the rebel forces were powerless against the United States Army in the field.

The same was true of the demand for unconditional surrender in the Second World War. Roosevelt claimed it was rooted in his, and Churchill’s, understanding of the Civil War. It did have a parallel purpose; the waging of total war in both cases exemplified SDD. But as Marc Gallicchio’s recent and excellent Unconditional notes, the demand for unconditional surrender was really rooted in Roosevelt’s, and his advisors’, reading of more recent history.

In 1942, Roosevelt and his postwar advisory committee concluded they needed to seek unconditional surrender to ensure there would be no next war of German aggression. The Nazis came to power in part on the claim that, because the German army had never been defeated on the battlefield, the German nation had never been beaten. The Treaty of Versailles, they said, represented a betrayal of the German people by their elites (under the influence of Jews and Bolsheviks). This was known as the stab-in-the-back discourse.

Roosevelt’s method of preventing a repetition of that claim was simple: make sure the German people knew, this time, that they were comprehensively beaten. And the same went for the Japanese, he reasoned. Like Lincoln, Roosevelt believed that the demonstration of unquestioned superiority on the battlefield would enable a durable peace. It would not be enough to defeat the Japenese and Germany armies; Japanese and German militarism must be revealed to be fruitless.

In both the U.S. Civil War and in U.S. pursuit of victory in World War II, the tactics of total war were justified not chiefly by the nature of the enemy (DSNWBND) but by the pursuit of a definite victory (SDD), and a durable peace.

Author: Eric Rauchway

Created: 2021-09-13 Mon 13:19



The Guardian has an interview with Frank Oz, in which the main quotation of note is this one.

I’d love to do the Muppets again but Disney doesn’t want me, and Sesame Street hasn’t asked me for 10 years. They don’t want me because I won’t follow orders and I won’t do the kind of Muppets they believe in

Author: Eric Rauchway

Created: 2021-09-13 Mon 12:47


The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Manufacturers have put together a lobbying campaign to oppose parts, at least, of the $3.5 trillion plan the Democrats hope to put through Congress by the filibuster-proof process of budget reconciliation. This is the stuff that got left out of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Interestingly, the Washington Post article linked there, by Tony Romm, names some key corporations—Apple, WalMart, Pfizer, ExxonMobil, Disney—in those organizations.

The NAM’s spokesman rather wonderfully says his organization is trying to defend “manufacturing families.”

Author: Eric Rauchway

Created: 2021-09-13 Mon 12:44


Greg Sargent notes that the National Task Force on Election Crises has issued a report calling for updates to the Electoral Count Act.1 These include

  • Election Timing: setting clear dates by which states must choose their electors and defining “narrow, emergency circumstances” that would allow choosing electors after Election Day.
  • State Determinations: protecting states’ ability to resolve its own post-election disputes, without involving Congress (this gets into the “safe harbor” provision discussed in Schickler, Bimes, and Mickey; see note)
  • [what I’m calling] The Pence Proviso: making it clear that the Veep serves a limited, ceremonial role and can’t make resolve disputes.
  • Defining plausible objections: making it clear how serious an objection must be before a member of Congress raises it.
  • Process: giving clear procedures for dispute resolution in Congress.

    The Task Force notes “these updates would convey no partisan advantage or disadvantage,” which I think it would be nice to believe. But inasmuch as one party is particularly open to people who want to threaten violence if they don’t get their way, it probably would favor democrats.

    While we’re at it, we should revisit the Presidential Transition Act, whose ambiguous provision requiring the General Services Administrator to “ascertain” the “apparently successful candidate” allowed Emily Murphy to hold up the transition in 2020.



Eric Schickler, Terri Bimes, and Rob Mickey wrote about the Electoral Count Act in connection with the 2000 election.

Author: Eric Rauchway

Created: 2021-09-13 Mon 12:40


Taking the substance of Stalin’s War aside, Serhii Plokhy’s review of Sean McMeekin’s new book is a model of academic understatement and good manners.

Near the start of the review, Plokhy explains,

when you look at the war from the perspective of its end rather than its beginning, it is Stalin who emerges as the main beneficiary

Historians will recognize this remark as a warning: the book is shaped by teleology. Plokhy repeats the warning a few lines later:

The image of Stalin as consistently dominant in the war is achieved by projecting the power he acquired at the end of the conflict back into the war years as a whole.

History does not work this way. We would not call the Great War “Wilson’s War” simply because, by 1918, the United States had become the world’s premier financial and military power, and it would be nonsense to read the war backward as if it represented a triumph of Wilson’s diplomacy. Anyone who knows the history of U.S. involvement in that war knows that Wilson changed his mind, and his policy, several times in response to a world situation that would not cooperate with his preferences.

The same is true of Stalin and the Second World War, as Plokhy indicates.

The Soviet leader emerges as much more powerful than is suggested by his dismal diplomatic and military performance in the early stages of the war or by his inability to negotiate any geopolitical preferences with the western allies at Yalta beyond the territories already occupied by the Red Army first in 1939-40 and then in 1944-45.

One might add Stalin’s inability to forge an alliance with Britain in the 1930s and his refusal to heed intelligence warning of Operation Barbarossa.

Plokhy notes without comment McMeekin’s belief that Churchill and Roosevelt should have negotiated a peace with Hitler.

And he concludes by saying, “the author is … right to suggest that his is a new look at the conflict, which poses new questions and, one should add, provides new and often unexpected answers to the old ones.”

It is a most polite review.

As Joel Silbey used to say, “its motto is not ‘the paper of record,’ it’s ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’ which implies something rather more subjective.”

The New York Times ran an article by Patricia Mazzei, Benjamin Mueller, and Robert Gebeloff on Florida’s response to COVID-19 arguing that “Florida shows that even a state that made a major push for vaccinations … can be crushed by the Delta variant.”

I put an ellipsis in that quotation to make it clearer. In the ellipsis goes an inexplicable qualifier: “—Florida ranks 21st among states and Washington, D.C., in giving people of all ages at least one shot—”

Twenty-first out of fifty-one is not high.

And “at least one shot” isn’t much in terms of immunity agains the Delta variant.

The article contains these two immediately adjacent statements:

Hospitals have said upward of 90 percent of their patients have been unvaccinated. Exactly why the state has been so hard-hit remains an elusive question.

It does not seem all that elusive, given the immediately prior statement.

It is elusive as to why one should have written such an article this way. In the Florida press, one can find ample evidence that the state has not made a “major push” for vaccination. Just two days ago, the Orlando Sentinel carried this story, which begins,

Gov. Ron DeSantis has crisscrossed the state…promoting a treatment for people who already have COVID-19. But the last time he held an event specifically to encourage getting vaccinated was four months ago. Instead, he’s downplayed the vaccines…

That is, DeSantis has been promoting Regeneron monocolonal antibodies aggressively; not vaccines.

DeSantis has opposed mask mandates in schools, threatening to withhold funding and pursuing defiant local officials in court.

DeSantis also barred vaccine requirements by executive order, and was backed by the legislature, although that ban too has wound up in court.

As the New York Times article says,

Florida’s pandemic data, more scant since the state ended its declared Covid-19 state of emergency in June, reveals only limited information about who is dying.

Here too, DeSantis’s decisions have been consequential, although the NYT’s article does not mention it. As the South Florida Sun-Sentinel points out,

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration engaged in a pattern of spin and concealment that misled the public on the gravest health threat the state has ever faced.

That is, DeSantis’s administration has made that data scant and uninformative.

It is not difficult to understand why such a state should be suffering a catastrophic new wave of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths that have reached tragic and record highs.

Florida on Thursday reported 21,765 more COVID-19 cases and 901 deaths to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Miami Herald calculations of CDC data.

All but two of the newly reported deaths occurred after July 25, with about 78% of those people dying in the past two weeks, according to Herald calculations of data published by the CDC. The majority of deaths happened during Florida’s latest surge in COVID-19 cases, fueled by the delta variant.

It is the largest single-day increase to the death total in the state’s COVID pandemic history.

It is strange that the New York Times would depict the story as inexplicable.

Author: Eric Rauchway

Created: 2021-08-29 Sun 14:30


First of all, let nobody say Christopher Nolan lacks a sense of humor: for the second time, he’s kept Tom Hardy under a voice-distorting face mask for almost an entire movie. I am morally certain that Nolan understands this as a wink to the audience as well as a challenge to Hardy; the director likes a little reference, even if, say, it’s an incongruous one to nineteenth-century British literature. Which is why I’m also morally certain that if you think Nolan’s Dunkirk does not include the larger narrative of British history, you’re missing the point of the movie.

Spoilers follow, I suppose.

Read the rest of this entry »

Yesterday Dan Drezner said it was embarrassing that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions called illegal aliens “filth.” Today Drezner apologized, because while the word “filth” was in prepared remarks, Sessions didn’t say it, and because even in the prepared remarks, “The context is clear: Sessions was going to use ‘filth’ to describe MS-13 and drug cartels, not all illegal immigrants crossing the border.”

While I admire Drezner’s forthrightness in admitting a mistake I think he has made another one. He should make only the first half of this apology, because, in fact, the context is not clear—as, I can only suspect, is indicated by Sessions’s decision not to say the word aloud.

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Those of you fortunate enough to be able to pick up BBC Radio 4 on your wireless sets may wish to tune in after your lunches this week of the Trump inauguration, at 13:45 for fifteen minutes each weekday,1 to hear Trump: The Presidential Precedents, a programme hosted by UCL historian and 2015 Broadcaster of the Year Adam Smith, and devoted to US presidents who came into office promising to upend one apple-cart or another. (Presumably if you cannot tune into Radio 4 the old-fashioned way, you’ll be able to get the episodes on the Internet via streaming audio.)

At the American Historical Association annual meeting this year, I ended a pleasant conversation with a UK-resident friend of mine, who said in parting he’d be happy enough to trade Brexit for Trump. I hadn’t time to inquire after his logic, so I leave it to you to decide whether you would do likewise.

1This is just before “The Archers,” so if you want your sense of relentless continuity restored, just hang around for another fifteen minutes.

Dear unhappy voters of 2016:

We keep hearing you called populists and, to put it in your vernacular, you had one job and you’re doing it wrong.

Like you, we were concerned about an America on “the verge of moral, political, and material ruin” in which “corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress and … the bench.” We saw “universal intimidation and bribery” at the ballot boxes, and hateful news media that were either “largely subsidized or muzzled.” Worst of all, we had galloping inequality: “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few,” we observed, and we knew that this came from abuse of power—the “prolific womb of governmental injustice,” we called it.

Not only that, we knew we were suffering at the hands of unfettered international capitalist investment and, if we’re honest, a lot of us were upset by the immigration of millions of people who were culturally different from ourselves. Even if it didn’t actually hurt our economy, it made us feel as if our country was kind of vanishing in front of us. It had once been a nation of people who shared much the same fortunes, and our fathers had fought in a war to keep it that way. And now … well, it looked like a nation divided between two kinds: “tramps and millionaires.”1

So, here’s the thing we didn’t do: put the millionaires in charge. Because we knew that inasmuch as anyone was corrupting the republic by buying justice and electoral success, it was the rich guys.

We wanted power for ourselves, not for them. So we pushed for labor unions.

We pushed for public power over corporations, knowing that either “corporations will own the people or the people must own” the corporations—and we were not confused into thinking that corporations are people, my friend.

We wanted a genuinely progressive income tax, so the rich people would pay their share of the costs of the commonwealth.

And yes, we called for “restriction of undesirable immigration.” We know: it’s hard not to get played on issues of racial division. Honestly, it was the Democratic Party’s strong new commitment to white supremacy after we threatened their majorities that did as much as anything to break up our coalition.

But at least we didn’t get played on everything else.

Yours ever,

The People’s Party (aka the Populists) of the 1890s



1We hear your guy is a billionaire. We don’t know what to say about that.

Below the fold you will find what I had to say about the election before the election. This excerpt comes from a paper I wrote for a conference about the Obama presidency; the papers were due October 28. In the New York Times story about the conference, you will read that “the overwhelmingly liberal group” were, in the main, blindsided by Trump’s victory, shouting “Get me rewrite!” As you will see, I wasn’t one of those, and I generally stick by what I had to say, though it is, as a draft, a little rough.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Paddy Power is paying out to customers who backed Hillary Clinton,” I read. Reminds me of another story about election day bets that make punters sweat.

Early in the evening of November 8, 1932—election day, that year—Sam Lamport was running around Democratic National Committee headquarters in mid-Manhattan (just by Grand Central Terminal) trying to find Bob Jackson—not the judge, the other one; the judge, who would later be Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attorney general, chief Nuremberg prosecutor, and Supreme Court Justice, was known to Democrats of the day as “the good Bob Jackson,” while this one—the shrewd political operator, DNC Secretary, cultivator of attractive actresses and general Prohibition scofflaw—was known simply as “Bob Jackson.”

Lamport had a lot of money, did well in the textile business, and backed Roosevelt through the campaign. He was also a serious Ivy League jock, decent-sized guy—had played quarterback for Brown—unusual for a Jewish fellow. And in an expansive moment late in the campaign, he had bet $1000 to Jackson’s $100 that Hoover’s beating wouldn’t be so awful that the president couldn’t win more than six states.

But with early returns coming in, it looked bad for Lamport’s 10:1 bet. So he finally found Jackson, pulled out a roll of bills, and said, “I’ll give you $200 to be let our of our bet.”

Jackson didn’t get to be not-good “Bob Jackson” for nothing. Although he thought it would be “a minor crime” and perhaps preying on Lamport’s generosity, you see, to take him for $1000, he also thought it was a poor businessman who took a first offer. “Make it $300,” he said.

Lamport didn’t stop a moment, but peeled off another $100, and was glad to be shut of the bet. Good thing for him, too.

On this day, the first of February, in 1934, the New York Times carried Franklin Roosevelt’s proclamation of a new gold value for the US dollar. Previously it had been worth 25 8/10 ounces of gold 9/10 fine; now it would be worth 15 5/21 ounces of gold 9/10 fine—or, as it is more commonly said, the dollar had been valued at $20.67 to an ounce of pure gold and now it would be $35 to an ounce of pure gold. But the US was not in 1934, nor would it ever again be, on a gold standard.

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Hillary Clinton is taking flak today for her summary repetition of the white supremacist Dunning School of historical interpretation, which held that the attempt in the 1860s and 1870s to provide African Americans with their civil rights was a terrible imposition on the white folks of the South.

[Lincoln] was willing to reconcile and forgive. And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly.

But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.… let’s also think about how we do try to summon up those better angels, and to treat each other, even when we disagree, fundamentally disagree, treat each other with more respect, and agree to disagree more civilly, and try to be inspired by, I think, the greatest of our presidents.

I’ll leave critiques of the Dunning School in other hands because I think they’re obvious, sadly, and Clinton should really know better. I’ll even forgo detail on the obvious point that if you’re a modern Democratic presidential aspirant asked who’s the greatest of the US presidents, your answer is Franklin Roosevelt.1 Instead I want to focus on Clinton’s counterfactual: “had [Lincoln] not been murdered”. Read the rest of this entry »

In the current Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal Michael W. Clune1 writes about odd small episodes, “particularly ephemeral perceptual experiences” we have that may alert us to the gap between how things seem and what they are. Riffing on Rei Terada’s Looking Away, he lists mirages, after-images; “clouds taken for mountains … looking at a landscape with one’s eyes half-closed so that it appears underwater.” He notes that we have nothing to say to each other about these experiences even if we share them, but that they remain with us. They remind us that if we pay too much attention to the mechanism by which we draw meaning from appearance we attenuate that meaning. One of Clune’s examples is an imaginary exchange with a sales clerk about money.

Read the rest of this entry »

A year from today, the US will inaugurate a new president. But inauguration day has not always been thus fixed.

In the early years of the Republic, habit (rather than statute) placed the date of inauguration at March 4—though even that convention was not quite firm. In 1821, with the incumbent President James Monroe about to take the oath of office for his second term, March 4 fell on a Sunday. Monroe asked of Chief Justice John Marshall whether he could take the oath on the following day, rather than sully the Lord’s day with secular business.

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I dislike the term “Great Recession” to describe our times, for technical and political reasons alike. Technically, the severe recession ended in June 2009. But, as the NBER says there,

In determining that a trough occurred in June 2009, the committee did not conclude that economic conditions since that month have been favorable or that the economy has returned to operating at normal capacity.

And indeed it still hasn’t, six and a half years after the recession ended. In fact, as Kevin O’Rourke noted, in August of 2015

the inevitable happened: measured in terms of industrial output, our current recovery was overtaken by that of the interwar period. Pretty dismal stuff.

So now, having avoided quite so severe a contraction as the 1930s, we are suffering a less impressive recovery. What do we call this ongoing period?

“Malaise” is taken, and rather ruined, by Carter-related discourse. I’ve lately been suggesting “the great economic unpleasantness” but without, I confess, really expecting it to catch on. Krugman’s old “Lesser Depression” is looking depressingly correct.

Peter Hitchens is less well known in the United States than his late brother, but when asked to write for the New York Times, he delivers his Mail columnist goods, full-strength. Regarding Robert Tombs’s English and their History:

Even in free countries it is sometimes necessary to alter the past to suit the present. For instance, I recall the day at my English boarding school in the early 1960s when our sober, patriotic old history books were gathered up and carted away to a storeroom. In their place we were handed bright, optimistic replacements, with a good deal less to say about the empire, the Protestant martyrs or what we had been taught without embarrassment to call the Glorious Revolution.… Older English people look back fondly on 1940, when we supposedly stood alone. In fact we were a major industrial and exporting power with a global navy, more or less self- sufficient, nationally cohesive and bolstered by the tribute of a still-great empire. Now all of that is gone. Is it possible that, after a thousand astonishing years, our island story has finally come to a full stop? Will the next great history of our nation and people be written in Chinese?

Now that George MacDonald Fraser has died, the sources for such views of the empire and its history seem fewer each day.

The estimable Heather Cox Richardson sympathizes with George Will in his despair over Bill O’Reilly’s book, Killing Reagan. Will decries “today’s cultural pathology of self-validating vehemence with blustery certitudes substituting for evidence.”

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In The New Republic, Jeet Heer says that Donald Trump is not a populist, he’s “the voice of aggrieved privilege—of those who already are doing well but feel threatened by social change from below, whether in the form of Hispanic immigrants or uppity women.” Or the voice of the white American man enraged at the possibility he might lose his ill-gotten privilege. Heer doesn’t use the f-word, but it’s the elephant in the room.

Hitler elephant
A relevant elephant

For the alleged misunderstanding of Trumpism as “populism,” Heer blames the historian Richard Hofstadter, who in the middle 1950s explained he was interested in “that side of Populism” that sounded to Hofstadter a lot like McCarthyism. Hofstadter was right: there was a side of Populism, and not a trivial side, that sounded like McCarthyism—and Trumpism too. Read the rest of this entry »

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