There’s always something new going on in the History Department.
There’s always something new going on in the History Department.
Harry Smith, under the name of Jay Silverheels, was a Mohawk actor who famously portayed Tonto on The Lone Ranger.
Remember Tonto and the Lone Ranger? You might recognize my book cover with Harry Smith, aka Jay Silverheels, ready to grab his gun. I am a citizen of Cherokee Nation and an Assistant Professor of History and Native American and Indigenous Studies at Indiana University. My book has just been released entitled, Picturing Indians: Native Americans in Film, 1941-1960.
In this book, I draw attention outside the frame of the films we watch from this era and remind readers that the movie sets were workplaces. Although I was interested in all aspects of work on the sets, including makeup artists, costumers, and the food prep people, just to name a few, I look in particular at those playing Native American characters, especially Native people playing Native characters. This comprises both actors and extras. With actors, I am invoking union guidelines around speaking parts and time on screen, and Native actors never took the lead role. This meant that supporting or minor parts were the highest-level Native workers achieved at the time.
Some of these men included Harry Smith, or Jay Silverheels, who graces the cover of Picturing Indians. Harry was a Mohawk man from the Six Nations Reserve in Canada, as is Gary Farmer, the actor who appears in many films, including Powwow Highway and Dead Man. Smith had over 100 film credits, with a commanding film presence even in the limiting roles he was offered. In spite of working non-stop for decades, generating tremendous wealth for the many studios where he worked, Harry struggled financially his entire life. In LA he rented a one-bedroom apartment near the corner of Sunset and Bronson. He passed away with massive legal debts, suffering from medical malpractice and dragging himself through a legal battle until the day he passed.
Like Harry Smith, Daniel Simmons, a member of the Yakama Nation, used Chief Yowlachie as a name that would define and present him as a Native American to casting agents and the American public. He too has over 100 film credits, but as far as I know never owned a home in Los Angeles. In fact, he rented a granny flat in East LA where he received his meager checks from the studio.
There are several other Native men who worked regularly in supporting roles and I go over this in the book, but let’s move onto those who worked as extras. Again, I use union terminology, emphasizing that extras are people working in front of the camera with no lines. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of Native people who appeared in movies of the 1940s and 1950s according to the studios’ archives. Sometimes I know their names, such as Plain Feather, a Crow man who worked as an extra in Warpath and Donald Deer Nose, also Crow, who worked in Warpath as well. Often extras went unidentified in photographs taken by the studio. Only from archival materials would I know, for instance, that the woman in a studio photograph is Diné or Navajo. Perhaps now that the book is out, I will be able to identify her and stop referring to her and others as anonymous extras.
To be clear, Picturing Indians is a behind the scenes look at movies of the 1940s and 1950s. Initially I believed the movies and the film sets ran in parallel tracks, separate and uninformed by each other. Yet the more I looked at the archival materials alongside the films themselves, the more I saw just how oppositional they are. What I mean by that is the films recreate American history in a particular way, usually with complicated plot devices for white characters, extremely simplistic ones for Native characters, and the constant of Indian violence and white innocence. Yet the materials from the sets where Native people worked tell something very different.
For instance, an image from the set of Drum Beat of two Apache women being photographed taking a photograph of Charles Bronson in Indian costume, leaning back seductively in a chair, seems to be saying something about Native women finding Charles Bronson attractive. Yet this film is about hundreds of white soldiers and volunteers hunting down and surrounding Modocs then executing their leader.
Or another example comes from an image of an Apache male extra taking a photo of a beaming William Holden on the 1953 set of Escape from Fort Bravo. A studio photographer photographed this moment, staged or spontaneous, which seems to indicate pleasure and camaraderie, yet this film made by MGM tells a story about deeply divided northern and southern whites during the Civil War, who come together when faced with violence from Apaches.
The last example I will give of this disjuncture and perhaps the most stunning comes from the set of Far Horizons in 1955. We see tribal chairperson Herman St. Clair with a number of Eastern Shoshone men offering Donna Reed a fishing permit, invoking their sovereign fishing rights to give her the right to fish on their waters. They have maintained these rights by way of the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868. Yet St. Clair took this action, perhaps nothing more than a stunt, on the set of a film that has nothing to do with tribal sovereignty. Instead the film tells the story of settler colonialism with Lewis and Clark as heroes.
There are so many moments I wish more people knew about, especially those who know and love these movies. But Picturing Indians maintains a steady analysis of the exploitation of Diné and their land by the movie industry. Monument Valley is Navajo land, yet it came to embody the West and the filmic West through the economic exploitation of the Diné. I document this quite precisely in the book in terms of how they were paid by John Ford and other filmmakers of the era. To better understand Diné today I would strongly recommend several movies for people to watch such as The Return of Navajo Boy, Basketball or Nothing or Drunktown’s Finest.
But more than anything, I want my readers to see that Harry Smith and other Native American actors gave Americans tremendous entertainment value with very little in return. Warner Bros. owns nearly all of the images in the film archives. Yet they gave permissions for me to reproduce them, then revoked that permission at the last minute as we went to press. My publisher pulled the cover image of Harry Smith for the cover from public domain. Smith’s family earns nothing from this and has no rights to the image. Yet the studios possess the rights and refuse to allow anyone to reproduce the vast numbers of images they hold of Native people who worked in film. Harry Smith made the studios a small fortune, but died with just about nothing.
Postcard of Charleston High School, 1910. Postcard Collection (UALR.PH.0105), UA Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture.
If you watched the Republican National Convention at all, you were probably struck by the expressions of fear that permeated the proceedings—namely, the fear that any failure to re-elect Donald Trump as president of the United States would result in the collapse of the American experiment, if not the dissolution of civilization itself. Words to that effect were spoken many times over; Trump himself, accepting the nomination, said, “This election will decide whether we SAVE the American Dream, or whether we allow a socialist agenda to DEMOLISH our cherished destiny.” (The capitalization is original to the transcript.) But can we take their expressions of concern at face value, or does the Republican Party’s rhetoric conceal another fear entirely?
If we roll back several decades, we find that those who opposed school desegregation similarly warned of the collapse of civilization if black and white students were allowed (or “forced”) to study in the same buildings. But reality proved them wrong. The very first school district in the former Confederacy to desegregate following the 1954 Brown v. Boarddecision was that of Charleston, Arkansas, although it did so rather secretly. This small school district in the western part of the state had been paying to bus black students to Fort Smith for their education, and so the decision to desegregate was as much economic as it was moral. Local leaders did not seek to attract national attention to the fact that eleven African American students were admitted on the first day of classes on August 23, 1954, and desegregation went off with very little opposition.
The first reported school desegregation in the former Confederacy occurred in Fayetteville in the northwestern corner of Arkansas. Seven black students entered Fayetteville High School in September 1954. The only opposition was one lone woman with a placard, despite the district having announced publicly their intentions. And although black students did report instances of harassment and the use of racial slurs during the school year, a certain camaraderie seem to have formed between black and white students. Many local schools refused to play the integrated Fayetteville football team, and when Coach Harry Vandergriff gave his players the option of benching black players or forfeiting the games, they chose the latter.
By the following year, however, segregationists had apparently had enough with the success of school desegregation efforts, drawing a line in the sand at Hoxie, a small town in northeastern Arkansas. As at Charleston, school district officials pursued desegregation to save the money of having to bus black students to the city of Jonesboro, but also because such an act was, in the words of Superintendent Kunkel Edward Vance, “right in the sight of God.” And so on July 11, 1955, all school facilities at the local white school were opened up to black children. Everything seemed to be going okay for the next weeks, but later that month, Life magazine published a pictorial essay highlighting the success of desegregation and showing white and black children playing and studying together. Soon, outsiders began flooding into the town, raising the threat of violence. Although they were not successful in rolling back desegregation at Hoxie, they developed the techniques of harassment and intimidation that would come into play two years later in the much-publicized desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, when the federal government was forced to call out the National Guard to restore order after nine black students attempted to enter the school. Finally, segregationists could point at the violence they created and assert, with much more confidence, that letting black and white students study together would disrupt civilization as we know it.
Segregationists insisted that difference between black and white was unalterable and would necessarily produce violence conflict if the proper hierarchy were not maintained. Interestingly, as the battles over school desegregation were raging in America, the study of primatology was coming into its own, giving us a glimpse into the deeper realities of human nature. The first overview of the subject was Irven DeVore’s 1965 Primate Behavior: Field Studies of Monkeys and Apes. In this book, DeVore insisted that aggression in savannah baboons “is an integral part of the monkeys’ personalities, so deeply rooted that it makes them potential aggressors in every situation.” But later studies called this “fact” into question. In the 1980s, Robert M. Sapolsky was studying a particular baboon troop when a neighboring troop began foraging at the garbage pit of a nearby tourist lodge, which provided a wealth of high-energy foods, such as discarded beef and chicken and sweets. Soon, certain members of Sapolsky’s troop began going over to this garbage pit every morning to fight over these new resources. As Sapolsky writes in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, these baboons typically “were male, big, and aggressive. And morning is when baboons do much of their socializing—sitting in contact, grooming, playing—so going for garbage meant forgoing the socializing. The males who went each morning were the most aggressive, least affiliative members of the group.”
However, some of the meat over which these baboons were fighting came from tubercular cows, and soon TB wiped out not only most of the troop that had found the garbage pit, but also those males from Sapolsky’s troop who were going there. He returned to his troop some years later and discovered that the culture had changed radically. Not only were levels of aggression lower across the board, but “there was minimal displacement of aggression onto innocent bystanders—when number three lost a fight, he’d rarely terrorize number ten or a female.” And the social culture was being transmitted. Adolescent males typically leave their own troop, and those who entered this one were greeted with affiliative overtures by the less-stressed females, such as grooming or sexual solicitation, much earlier than in other troops, and soon assimilated to this new culture themselves.
What does all of this talk of school desegregation and primatology have to do with the rhetoric coming out of the RNC? Simply this—that our culture can change in egalitarian ways without threatening our survival. The previously thinkable can become simply an everyday reality for us, and quickly, too. Black and white children can attend school together without conflict, even in some godforsaken corner of a state not known for its progressive worldview. Those appealing to the power of tradition must create conflict in order to prove their point. Natural hierarchies are anything but; they are not written in our DNA. The study of more “primitive” species illustrates that fact.
In other words, Donald Trump and his Republican Party are not afraid that Joe Biden’s election will destroy America. They’re afraid that it won’t. They’re afraid that Joe Biden’s election won’t herald the end of our American experiment in a widening gyre of violence and chaos. They’re afraid that a turn toward egalitarian thinking won’t unravel the survivability of our troop and thus herald our doom. They’re afraid that equality might prove a strength rather than a weakness. And so between now and November, they will create as much chaos as possible in order to prove themselves right. Just as their forebears did at Hoxie sixty-five years ago when they saw black and white children playing together, as happy as they could be.
Last month hundreds of people marked with moxie the 50th anniversary of the August 29th, 1970 Chicano Moratorium in East Los Angeles. To protest our nation’s war in Vietnam, racism, and police brutality, starting at 9 am that day nearly 30,000 ethnic Mexicans and their allies from all over the Southwest took to the streets in a 3-mile peace march through the boulevards of Atlantic and Wilshire.
Among many slogans, they chanted and held signs expressing, “¡Raza Si! ¡Guerra No!,” “Our Fight Is Not in Vietnam, “Chicano Power,” and “Stop Chicano Genocide!”
In the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement since George Floyd’s killing by now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin this May, the protests of Chicanos today concentrate on law enforcement’s abuse of power.
In 1970 Chicanos protested how US casualties in Vietnam disproportionately consisted of young men from their communities in the Southwest. Dr. Ralph Guzmán documented that from 1961 to 1967 their brothers and friends made up 19.4 percent of those killed in action, when this group was only 10 to 12 percent of the national population.
Now, they protest the killings of Latina and Latino soldiers. Army Private First Class Vanessa Guillen stationed at Fort Hood being one and Specialist Enrique Roman-Martinez of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg another. Roman-Martinez’s sister and mother delivered impassioned speeches at Atlantic Park in East L.A. before the commencement of the 50th-anniversary march this past August 29th. They criticized the Army for its less-than-transparent investigation and decried only having received Enrique Roman-Martinez’s partial remains.
In 1970, the Brown Berets of Los Angeles, along with UCLA student Rosalio Muñoz and others formed the National Chicano Moratorium Committee and organized many demonstrations in Southern California. But the August 29th march and rally at the then-named Laguna park was the granddaddy of them all.
Then tragedy struck. With the pretext of a responding to a robbery at a nearby liquor store, Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies and police stormed the peaceful assembly with batons and teargas. The law enforcement-instigated riot resulted in three deaths and hundreds arrested and abused. Ruben Salazar, a former Los Angeles Times reporter turned KMEX-TV news director, considered the voice of the Chicano community, was one of the slain as he stopped at the Silver Dollar Bar far away from the melee, on Whittier Blvd, to decompress from law enforcement’s merciless assault.
After several contradictory official explanations, it was found that Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy Thomas Wilson killed Salazar with a 10-inch teargas projectile designed to pierce walls. Many in the community contended then, and believe now, that the powers that be in Los Angeles conspired to assassinate Salazar due to his refusal to temper his reportage of law enforcement misconduct.
In adjacent Ventura County, the Chicano community also viewed Salazar’s homicide as the system’s culling of its leadership. In a September 3, 1970 letter to the Ventura County Star-Free Press titled, “Siesta Is Over!” Arthur Gómez of Santa Paula addressed Governor Ronald Reagan and local elected officials when he stated, “Yes, the siesta is over! The siesta was broken by the murder of two innocent Mexican nationals in a Los Angeles hotel and the 10-inch projectile that shattered Ruben Salazar’s head… One day we shall not have our leaders murdered. One day we shall not have our children made ashamed of being part Mexican. One day we shall have justice and dignity.”
Intrepidly, Chicano men and women conducted a peace march in Oxnard on September 19th, twenty-one days after law enforcement’s rampage in East Los Angeles. Approximately, 1,000 marchers from all walks of life, different communities, and a span of generations again took to the streets.
In their planning that started weeks, if not months, in advance of the August 29th tragedy, the organizers declared the community’s goal of liberation as well as the end of Chicano genocide in Vietnam and police brutality.
To avoid an August 29th-like catastrophe, the Brown Berets of Oxnard, the Ventura County chapter of the Mexican American Political Association, and MEChA representatives from local colleges and high schools met in advance with law enforcement.
The week leading up to the “La Raza” (the People’s) peace march, men and women of the Brown Berets leafleted neighborhoods to promote the demonstration and, to further ensure amity at the event, disseminated a code of conduct to the public, the Oxnard Police Department, and media.
On the day of the demonstration, people paraded boldly through the streets La Colonia barrio from La Virgin de Guadalupe Church and the downtown district with a coffin that symbolized 8,000 ethnic Mexican servicemen killed in Vietnam. The procession ended at the city’s Community Center. There, as national chairman for the Chicano Moratorium Committee, Muñoz characterized the Vietnam War as the “systematic murder” of Chicanos.
La Raza Moratorium Committee’s communication with law enforcement and the press garnered the community’s goodwill for the event’s achievement. Indeed, the Oxnard Press-Courier commended the organizers in an editorial as it acknowledged the disproportionate ethnic Mexican casualty rate in the Vietnam War. It also complimented in a backhanded manner law enforcement in general, for its “diplomacy and restraint.”
Fifty years later, Chicanos are proud of being ethnic Mexicans. But with the controversial homicides of Latino soldiers and civilians such as PFCs Guillen and Roman-Martinez on the one hand and Andres Guadardo, shot in the back by a LA County sheriff’s deputy, on the other, we, Chicanas and Chicanos, still await justice.
American cemetery, Aisne-Marne. Photo by author.
With controversy swirling around President Trump’s decision in 2018 not to visit Aisne-Marne, a World War I cemetery for American soldiers located some fifty miles outside Paris, one wonders why some American war dead from the Great War were left behind in France, and why some were brought home. A president from the time provides the answer, one who referred to fallen Americans not as “losers” but as “the noble dead.”
Warren Harding, our nation’s twenty-ninth president, not only received the first flag-draped wooden coffins to be returned from Europe after the war, he was also the Chief Executive who dedicated the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
On May 23, 1921, two-and-one-half-years after the end of the fighting in Europe, 5112 coffins, containing bodies of soldiers, sailors, marines and nurses, newly returned from France, were carefully set out in a shipyard at Army Pier 4 in Hoboken, New Jersey. The rows of coffins stretched for city blocks. President Harding, who had just taken office in March, arrived via the presidential yacht, the USS Mayflower. While onboard, he composed a short address that reflected the solemnity and the expected shock of seeing so many caskets arrayed in one place.
“There grows upon me,” he said from a bunted platform erected in front of a single, representative coffin, “the realization of the unusual character of this occasion.” Because this simple ceremony had been hastily arranged, President Harding and First Lady Florence Harding appeared in front of what one correspondent described as “a pitiful little handful of soldier relatives while a guard of honor, grim in khaki and trench helmets, stood frozen at attention over their comrades.”
Harding recognized that “our Republic has been at war before, it has asked and received the supreme sacrifices of its sons and daughters, and faith in America has been justified.” But this display was different, unparalleled. “We never before sent so many to battle under the flag in foreign lands,” he said. “Never before was there the spectacle of thousands of dead returned to find their eternal resting place in the beloved homeland.”
The decision to bring remains home from foreign soil was a complicated, extended and negotiated affair. America had no established precedent to consult. When it became clear that there would be a staggering death toll during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed a law authorizing the creation of national cemeteries (which would include a cemetery at Gettysburg). For years after the war, the remains of Northern soldiers hastily buried near battlefields were exhumed and reburied in venerated cemeteries. And in the handful of small wars where Americans died overseas, sometimes remains were recovered, sometimes not.
Makeshift gravesite, France c.1918
World War I created a dual challenge. Nearly 75,000 Americans were buried in temporary graves in France and the cost to recover that many bodies was daunting. Moreover, leaders in France did not relish the idea of endless trains bearing disinterred remains of American dead rumbling through the countryside to ports for shipment back to the United States. France had its hands full with the staggering work to reclaim dangerous and devastated land, not to mention millions of corpses, from a war that had been waged mostly on its soil. So, France banned the repatriation of any bodies from January 1919 until January 1922, though it relented from the three-year ban in response to American pressure. Hence, it fell to Warren Harding, elected 100 years ago in November 1920, to meet the first returned.
In the United States many families demanded a return of their loved one’s remains, worried that they would be forgotten in unmarked or untended graves. The government decided to let families decide whether to seek the return of remains or to leave them where they had fallen, either in existing graves or in nearby official American cemeteries established in France. Ballots were sent to over 80,000 families to discuss and debate the decision. In the end, about 40,000 bodies were returned and 30,000 were left, buried almost exclusively in American cemeteries.
The names of dead and missing are engraved on a chapel wall near Belleau Wood. Photo by author.
Enter Aisne-Marne. This American cemetery is the final resting place for nearly 2,300 Americans. Built at the base of a hill on which stands Belleau Wood, the site of one of the most monumental battles of the war. This is where the Marines helped stop the German advance towards Paris in the summer of 1918. The Americans arrived just in time and the cost in human lives was severe. The Marine Corps venerates Belleau Wood as sacred ground, no doubt the reason that John Kelly, then chief of staff to President Trump, made the trip to Aisne-Marne even when the president bailed, allegedly because of weather.
Kelly was a retired 4-star general of the United States Marine Corps. His son Robert, also a Marine, was killed-in-action in Afghanistan in 2010. John Kelly knew the importance of visiting Aisne-Marne on the one-hundredth anniversary of America’s pivotal engagement in the war; he understood the duty to the families of those buried overseas in American cemeteries to remember and honor “the noble dead.”
Six months after Harding welcomed home the remains of the first 5,000 returned from Europe, he dedicated the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. On November 11, 1921, the third anniversary of the Armistice, Harding said it mattered little whether the unknown was “a native or adopted son.” The sacrifice was the same. “We do not know the eminence of his birth,” he added, “but we do know the glory of his death.”
Warren Harding and William Howard Taft observe the Unknown Soldier in state, U.S. Capitol.
President Harding expressed the gratitude of the nation for the ultimate sacrifice of the warriors, what Lincoln called at Gettysburg the “last full measure of devotion.” But he challenged his fellow citizens to do more than to pay tribute to the fallen hero in the unknown tomb. He asked that every American “unite to make the Republic worthy of his death for flag and country.”
Just as Americans visit and revere the graves of those in Arlington and other national cemeteries in the United States, it is important to remember that the nation made a solemn compact with the families of those who were lost in the First World War. The government promised that the sons or daughters of those gold-star families would be buried in American cemeteries, cared for and tended to by Americans, so that no one would forget them or their sacrifice and so that Americans, when overseas, could locate and venerate their honored dead.
Richard Haass is the President of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as senior Middle East advisor to President George H.W. Bush and as Director of the Policy Planning Staff under Secretary of State Colin Powell and is the author of fifteen books, most recently The World: A Brief Introduction. He discussed the work and the importance of historical understanding with HNN Contributing Editor David O’Connor.
David O’Connor: Can you share the story of how a fishing trip sparked your interest in writing this book on history and international relations?
Richard Haass: The idea for writing The World: A Brief Introduction was sparked on a summer’s day fishing with a friend and his nephew in Nantucket. The young man was about to enter his senior year at Stanford and would graduate with a degree in computer science. As we began talking, it became clear that he had been exposed to little history or politics or economics and would leave the campus with almost no understanding of why the world mattered and how it worked. When I got back to my office, I began looking into this issue and realized that a young American could graduate from nearly any high school or college in the country without taking as much as an introductory course on U.S. history, international relations, international economics, or globalization. To be sure, there are distribution requirements at nearly every college or university, but a student can choose to narrowly focus on one period of history or one region of the world without ever taking a survey course that provides a framework for putting it all together. I decided to write The World to provide that foundation for students or even people who had graduated from college decades ago but need a refresher. A democracy requires that its citizens be informed, and it was evident far too many citizens in the United States and other countries could not be described as globally literate.
Are you an advocate for universities and colleges to mandate a core curriculum? If so, what courses would you want to see included in it?
I am a firm believer in a core curriculum. Students (and their parents) should know before choosing to attend a particular institution just what it is they will be sure to learn. Would-be employers should know what a degree from a particular institution stands for. I believe a core curriculum should at a minimum include courses devoted to promoting critical skills (analysis, writing, speaking, teamwork, digital) and knowledge (world history, civics, global literacy). Such a core would still allow every student to have ample opportunity to specialize.
How have you and your colleagues at the Council on Foreign Relations encouraged those who are not in college to learn about world history and current international events? Which efforts do you think have been the most successful?
We continue to publish Foreign Affairs, which releases a print edition six times per year and remains the magazine of record in the field. The magazine contains articles that present fresh takes and new arguments on international issues - the magazine published the famous “X” article by George Kennan that introduced Americans to the concept of containment, for example. Its website, ForeignAffairs.com, publishes shorter pieces every day more closely tied to the news cycle. On CFR.org we publish a host of backgrounders that aim to provide what a person needs to know to get up to speed on issues ranging from global efforts to find a vaccine for COVID-19 and U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the role of the IMF and the U.S. opioid epidemic. We have also produced a series of award-winning InfoGuides on China’s maritime disputes, modern slavery, and refugees, among others. We have a series of podcasts, including The President’s Inbox, which each week focuses on a foreign policy challenge facing the United States, and another titled Why It Matters, which takes issues and as its title suggests explains to listeners why they should care about them.
Just as important, a few years ago I created an entirely new education department at the Council. Its mission is explicitly to teach Americans how the world works. Its flagship initiative, World101, explains globalization, including climate change, migration, cyberspace, proliferation, terrorism, global health, trade, and monetary policy, regions of the world, the ideas basic to understanding how the world operates, and, as of early 2021, history. Each topic includes videos, infographics, interactives, timelines, and written materials. It also includes teaching resources for teachers who want to use the lessons in their classrooms. We have also created Model Diplomacy, which helps students learn about foreign policy and how it is made by providing free National Security Council and UN Security Council simulations.
You begin this book with an explanation of the Treaty of Westphalia, one that many people don’t know very well. Why did you start your study in 1648? How have the concepts and practices established in the Westphalian system endured?
I started with the Treaty of Westphalia because the principles enshrined in those arrangements created the modern international system. The treaty (in actuality a series of treaties) established the principle of sovereignty that increased respect for borders along with the notion that rival powers ought not to interfere in the internal affairs of others. These agreements helped bring about a period of relative stability, ending the bloody Thirty Years War that was waged over questions of which religion could be practiced within a territory’s borders. More important for our purposes, they put forward the principle of sovereignty that remains largely unchanged to this day. When you hear the Chinese government declare that foreign powers have no right to criticize what happens inside of China’s borders, they are harkening back to Westphalia. At the same time, as I argued in my book A World in Disarray, this conception of sovereignty is inadequate for dealing with global challenges. For issues like climate change, global health, terrorism, and migration, what happens inside a country’s borders has huge ramifications for other countries. For instance, Brazil’s decision to open up the Amazon for commercial purposes and deplete this natual resource has negative implications for the world’s ability to combat climate change. China’s failure to control the outbreak of COVID-19 has caused massive suffering around the world. I introduced the concept of sovereign obligation to capture the idea that governments have certain responsibilities to their citizens and the world, and if they do not meet those obligations the world should act. The challenge will be how to preserve the basic Westphalian respect for borders (something violated in 1990 by Iraq in Kuwait and by Russia in Ukraine more recently) and at the same time introduce the notion that with rights come obligations that must also be respected.
How did Wilsonian idealism at the Versailles Conference propose to reform the Westphalian model? Why did the effort fail to prevent another world war a couple decades later?
Wilson famously declared the United States had entered World War I because “the world must be made safe for democracy.” This was a decidedly anti-Westphalian statement, as he was in essence calling for the United States to transform other societies and influence their internal trajectory. The Treaty of Westphalia, as I mentioned above, emphasized that a country’s internal nature was its own business, and countries should instead focus on shaping each other’s foreign policies. It is too much to say that Wilson’s approach failed to prevent another world war. World War II was the result of a convergence of forces, including the Great Depression, protectionism, German and Japanese nationalism, U.S. isolationism, and the weakness of international institutions, above all the League of Nations. What I would highlight about Wilsonianism is that it remains an important strain of American political thought. To this day, there is a school of American foreign policy that emphasizes the promotion of democracy, and, in some cases, the transformation of other societies. My personal preference is to focus our efforts mostly on shaping the foreign policies of other countries.
I found your coverage of what you call China’s “century of humiliation” to be one of the most interesting parts of the book. What were some of the key developments that led to this troubled period in China’s history? How do you think this “humiliation” affects Chinese domestic and international policies today?
As I mention in the book, the “century of humiliation,” as the Chinese term it, began with the Opium Wars and closed with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It was mostly the result of the internal decay of the Qing Dynasty, which was in large part brought on by its inability to grasp the changes that were going on around it and adjust to the new reality. While Japan, following Commodore Perry’s mission, modernized and attempted to catch up with the West in areas where it had fallen behind, the Qing Dynasty remained set in its ways, convinced that the world had nothing to offer China. More important, this “humiliation” shapes the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) narrative and how it wants Chinese citizens to think about the world. In the CCP’s telling, only a strong government can prevent foreign powers from taking advantage of China, while a fractious and weak country invites foreign aggression. Of course, what the CCP then claims is that only it can provide the stability and strength that China needs and uses this take on history to justify one-party rule and the repression of civil liberties.
Though you do not deny the hardships and missteps that occurred during the Cold War, you do offer a rather positive evaluation of the stability in the decades-long bipolar contest between the US and Soviet Union. What were some of the features of the Cold War that helped manage the tensions between the superpowers and prevent the outbreak of a hot war? Can some of these be applied to the current Sino-American relations?
We should not discount the role that nuclear weapons played in keeping the Cold War cold. Simply put, the specter of nuclear war kept the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union bounded, as any potential war between the two powers could have led to a nuclear exchange that would have decimated both countries and the world. Many international relations scholars argue that a bipolar world is inherently more stable than a multipolar one, because it is easier to maintain a balance of power and stability more broadly when there are only two centers of decision-making. I would add that the United States focused most (although not exclusively) on the Soviet Union’s international behavior and did not seek to overthrow the regime. There was a measure of restraint on both sides. Finally, there were frequent high-level summits, arms control agreements, and regular diplomatic interactions. These all helped set understandings for each side and communicate what would not be acceptable to each side.
In terms of Sino-U.S. relations, I believe nuclear deterrence will work to lower the prospect of war between the two countries. I am concerned, though, that we do not have a real strategic dialogue with China. We need to be able to sit in a room with each other and at an authoritative level communicate what we will not tolerate in areas like the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait. The chances of miscalculation are too high. I also believe we should focus less on China’s internal trajectory and more on shaping its foreign policy. We cannot determine China’s future, which will be for the Chinese people to decide. We should continue to call out the government’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and its dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms, but we should not make this the principal focus of our relationship. Instead, we should compete with China, push back against its policies that harm U.S. interests, and seek cooperation where possible with China to address global challenges.
In the Cold War era, both Europe and parts of Asia experienced tremendous economic growth, peace, and prosperity. What role did the United States play in facilitating these positive outcomes? Are there lessons from Europe and East Asia that can be applied to other parts of the world today?
First of all, we should give credit to the people of Europe and Asia for their tremendous economic success. In terms of the U.S. role, there was of course the Marshall Plan in Europe that provided the funding Europe needed to get back on its feet and rebuild after World War II. In Asia, the United States gave significant aid to its allies. The point I would make is that this aid was not done purely out of altruism. Instead, it furthered U.S. interests. It ensured Western Europe did not go over to the Soviet Union and that U.S. allies in Asia could be stronger. Foreign aid continues to be an important tool in our foreign policy toolbox, and we should continue to use it to further our interests. For instance, with China extending its reach around the globe through the Belt and Road Initiative, the United States should respond with a better alternative that would provide funding for infrastructure in the developing world but make it conditional on the infrastructure being green and on the countries undertaking necessary reforms. Trade can also be a powerful tool for promoting development.
What are some of the key developments that undermined the great hope that followed the end of the Cold War?
In many ways, the Cold War was a simpler time for U.S. foreign policy. The country had one adversary, and it could devote most of its resources and the bulk of its foreign policy apparatus to addressing it. After the Soviet Union collapsed, containment lost its relevance, and U.S. foreign policy lost its compass. The United States enjoyed unparalleled power, but no consensus emerged as to how it should use that power: should it spread democracy and free market economics, prevent other great powers from emerging, alleviate humanitarian concerns, tackle global challenges, or something else? I’ve begun calling the post-Cold War period of U.S. foreign policy “the great squandering” given that U.S. primacy was not converted into lasting arrangements consistent with U.S. interests.
I would point to a few U.S. missteps that set back its foreign policy agenda and undermined the hope you refer to. First there was the mistaken 2003 invasion of Iraq, where the United States initiated a war of choice in the hope of transforming the country and the region. The Iraq War, and the nation-building effort in Afghanistan, soured many Americans on their country playing an active role internationally. Simply put, they believed the costs of such a role outweighed the benefits. Now, as the United States faces challenges from China to Russia, Iran, and North Korea, Americans are weary of getting involved. Relations with Russia soured, some would argue at least in part because of NATO enlargement. The 2008 global financial crisis raised doubts worldwide about U.S. competence, as has the American response to COVID-19. In short, the relative position and standing of the United States have deteriorated.
After World War II, the United States helped construct what you call the liberal world order. What are the key features of this order? What do you consider its greatest strengths and weaknesses?
The liberal world order is an umbrella term for the set of institutions the United States helped to create in the wake of the Second World War, including the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization). It was rooted in liberal ideas of free trade, democracy, and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and was also liberal in the sense that any country could join the order as long as it abided by its principles. It was never truly a global order during the Cold War, as the Soviet Union and its satellite countries opted out of many of its elements.
The great strengths of the liberal world order are that it has promoted unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom. But increasingly it is being challenged. Its liberalness is rejected by authoritarian regimes. Many governments or non-state actors are not prepared to hold off using force to advance their international aims. In addition, the order has had difficulty adjusting to shifting power balances (above all China’s rise) and in developing collective responses to global challenges such as climate change, proliferation, and the emergence of cyberspace.
China’s emergence as a world economic power has greatly challenged this liberal world order and efforts to get it to conform to some of its basic principles have come up short. How can other countries persuade and/or pressure China to adhere to the practices and rules of institutions (e.g., the World Trade Organization) dedicated to upholding the order?
First, it is fair to say that some institutions, such as the WTO, were not set up to address a country such as China, with a hybrid economy that mixes free market enterprise with a large state role. And the WTO failed to adjust sufficiently to China’s rise. The United States should be working with its allies and principal trading partners to bring about a major reform of the WTO. More broadly, the single greatest asset that the United States enjoys is its network of alliances. China does not have allies, whereas the United States enjoys alliances with many of the most prosperous and powerful countries in Europe and Asia. The United States needs to leverage those alliances to present a united front in pushing back where China does not live up to its obligations. It should also work with its allies to develop an alternative 5G network, for example, and negotiate new trade deals that set high standards and would compel China to join or risk being left behind. In the security realm, it should coordinate with its allies in Asia to resist Chinese claims to the South China Sea and make clear to China that any use of force against Taiwan would be met with a response.
Despite the fact that the US was a driving force behind establishing and maintaining this liberal world order, many Americans have grown weary of the costs involved and fail to see how it benefits them. Indeed, this was a key feature in President Trump’s 2016 campaign message and continues to influence his foreign policy. How can policymakers who want to continue American leadership in this order persuade Americans that the system actually benefits them?
Policymakers need to be more explicit in highlighting the benefits of the liberal order and contextualizing its costs. We avoided great power war with the Soviet Union and the Cold War ended on terms more favorable to the United States than even the most optimistic person could have imagined. Global trade has skyrocketed, and America remains the richest country on earth. Alliances have helped keep the peace in Europe and Asia for decades. In terms of the costs, defense spending as a percentage of GDP is currently well below the Cold War average, which was still a time Americans did not have to make a tradeoff between butter and guns. We can assume a leadership role abroad without sacrificing our prosperity. On the contrary, playing an active role internationally is necessary in order to keep America safe and its people prosperous. The United States may be bordered by two oceans, but these oceans are not moats. Even if we choose to ignore the world, it will not ignore us. Both 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic have made this abundantly clear.