A SMALL SLICE OF AMERICAN HISTORY
(The following was posted on my Facebook page of February 11, 2021. I thought it might be of interest to a wider audience, the recipients of these weekly “News & Views.”)
I recently completed a long but enjoyable reading of Joy Hakim’s book, “Freedom: A History of US” (note that is US, not U. S.). The book was published by Oxford University Press in 2003 and was a good read of American history. For some time I had been wanting a refresher course on the history of our country. This book was in our local library and I found it quite fascinating. While I think the author sometimes reflected a bias (as I suspect all writers do), overall I think it was an excellent work. The book is 400 pages long, with the last pages being devoted to a publication of “The Declaration of Independence,” four of the articles attached to the Constitution, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, followed by six other amendments to the Constitution. The book is almost “coffee table” size and is rather heavy and somewhat cumbersome to physically hold for enjoyable reading. However, the contents make it well worth the read. It has many pictures and other graphics accompanied by explanatory statements. I read every one of the notes. Following is a series of excerpts that may help us to better understand some of our present day circumstances. They begin with the turbulent 1960s and bring us forward. All history is valuable and often repeats itself. We need to learn from it.
”Dr. King is preparing for the Poor People’s Campaign when the garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee go on strike. They need help, and King agrees to lead a march on their behalf. It has hardly begun—King is in the front row—when teenagers at the back of the line begin smashing windows and looting stores.
”King is upset. ‘I will never lead a violent march,’ he says. ‘Call it off.’ But the police and the rock-throwing youths aren’t finished. By the time the violence is over, 155 stores are damaged, sixty people have been hurt, and a sixteen-year old boy has been killed by police gunfire. It is the first time anyone has been killed in a march Dr. King has led….
“The (Johnson) administration is becoming unglued. The (Vietnam) war has become a costly killing machine with victory nowhere in sight. At home, antiwar protests are ugly. College campuses are in turmoil. Cities are erupting.
“The night before his trip back to Memphis, King turns on the television. President Johnson is making an announcement. He is cutting back on the bombing and will try to get a settlement of the war. The president says something unexpected and stunning: ‘I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.’ The man who wanted to be the greatest of all presidents, who wanted to end poverty, is giving up. The war has claimed yet another victim.
”The very next evening, on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Dr. King talks to a huge crowd at a church rally. He doesn’t have a written speech; he just speaks from his heart. (As Hakim had earlier noted, his training as a preacher kicked in and he spoke extemporaneously, hf). ‘I would like to live a long life. But I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I‘ve seen the Promised Land…’
”The following evening, on April 4, King steps out onto the balcony off his room at the Lorraine Motel. His friend Ralph Abernathy hears something that sounds like a firecracker. It is no firecracker. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been shot. He is thirty-nine years old….
”Brash Bobby Kennedy, the tough kid in his brother’s administration, has been changed by his brother’s murder and by the idealism at the core of many of the movements shaking the nation…A long-shot candidate for president in 1968, Kennedy has a vibrant following, especially among the young and the disaffected. He is a product of affluent America….
”Bobby Kennedy calls his campaign the ‘Impossible Dream,’ after a popular song. He is walking through a hotel kitchen, shaking hands, when a twenty-four-year-old Jordanian busboy, Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, angry about Kennedy’s support of Israel, pulls out a gun and fires. For many it is the end of a dream….
“Richard Nixon, elected president in 1968, has a first-class intellect, but perhaps the most unfit temperament of any of those who have held the office….
“But there always seem to be two Nixons: one is highly capable, the other is combative and deceiving. When he becomes president, he brings his dual personalities with him…Running for president, he claims he has a plan to end the war; but he keeps American soldiers fighting and dying in Vietnam for almost five more years (he’s reelected in 1972)…The antiwar demonstrations were bad when Johnson was president; they’re worse under Nixon. When protests erupt at Kent State University, National Guardsmen open fire and four students are killed. Given campus uprisings, turmoil in the African-American and feminist worlds, a war sending young men home in body bags, rising drug and other crime problems, and three shocking assassinations, the nation is angry and polarized….
”Then Nixon goes to Moscow, the first American president to do so. A historic arms-control agreement comes of that initiative. But the solid accomplishments of this complex president will be made insignificant by his own actions….
”On June 17, 1972, four Cubans and an ex-CIA man wearing sunglasses and surgical gloves break into Democratic Party headquarters at Washington’s fancy Watergate apartment complex. They are employees of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) and they have been engaged in a crime—breaking, entering, and planting eavesdropping equipment. They are caught by the local police….
”On March 22, 1973, speaking to his four top aides, Nixon says, ‘I don’t give a s*** what happens. I want you all to stonewall it. Let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover-up or anything else, if it’ll save it—save the plan. That’s the whole point’….
”Nixon chooses to leave the presidency rather than face almost certain impeachment in the House and then a trial (and probable conviction) in the Senate. He resigns his job, the only man ever to do so. Anthony Lewis, writing in the New York Times, says, ‘Those who manage the delicate institutions of government have a special responsibility to represent the law.’ In England, the editor of The Spectator writes that the U. S. presidency has gone from George Washington, who could not tell a lie, to Richard Nixon, who could not tell the truth.
”There are positives in the calamity. Given a free press and some intrepid civil servants, our governmental structure works in a dignified manner to discover and remove those who have abused the public trust. Watergate shows, unequivocally, that in the United States everyone, even a president, is accountable to the law. Senator Sam Ervin, known for pithy comments, has a final word: ‘One of the great advantages of the three separate branches of government is that it is difficult to corrupt all three at the same time.’” (pp. 364-377).
The book continues through the presidencies of Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush. (It ends before Obama, Trump, Biden, and the global upheaval caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, all of which have had a more immediate impact on our history). Mention is made of the fact that Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist had finished first in his class (1952) at Stanford Law School and that Sandra Day O’Connor (the first woman on the Supreme Court) had finished third in that same class.
At the end of the book Hakim writes: “So here we are in the twenty-first century, the richest people the world has ever known. Opportunity abounds. Freedom reigns. That old bear, Russian communism, is dead and buried. A majority of the world’s peoples now live in at least nominal democracies. So why aren’t we cheering? Maybe it’s because we’ve come to realize that democracy isn’t easy. You have to work at it. And keep working. There are no guarantees….
”We Americans are often accused of hubris, of believing that we are special. But most of us realize that it isn’t that we are special; it’s our place in world history that is unique. We are heirs to that simple idea: people can govern themselves. We don’t need kings, shahs, mullahs, or czars to tell us how to live. It was given to us to try something that hadn’t been done before. But the self-governing part only works with people who are educated for the process…The government is not some unresponsive ‘them’; it is us. If it doesn’t work as well as it should, the solution is to change things by getting involved…We don’t understand our heritage and our responsibilities. Many of our high school graduates can’t place Abraham Lincoln in the right half century” (pp. 396-397).
All in all, it was a great read. I would encourage all to do a re-read of an up-to-date history of the United States. You will be amazed at how much you have forgotten! And you might gain some insights into why we are where we are today. Santayana the Spanish philosopher was right when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
April 27, 2021