NEW YORK — Americans love to rank their own greats. One recent example is “the 100 most influential Americans of all time” that The Atlantic monthly compiled from the views of 10 historians. The list appears in its December issue, with a brief summary of what distinguishes each person.
Such lists fascinate me. For one thing, I can measure how much American history and culture I’ve learned since I arrived in this country in the late 1960s. In this particular lineup, I was disappointed not to be able to recognize nine figures, four of them in the top 50: Eli Whitney (27), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (30), Jonas Salk (34), and Susan B. Anthony (38).
For another, this kind of exercise allows me to see my changing views of American figures, past and present. When I arrived here, for example, President Lyndon B. Johnson was a butt of ridicule, most unforgettably in “Initials Lyrics” in the musical “Hair,” in which he was jumbled with FBI, CIA and LSD. LBJ certainly struck me as a repugnant man who was blindly trying to bludgeon the poor Vietnamese into submission. How repulsive he looked, especially coming right after the universal charmer that was President John F. Kennedy!
Yet I have completely reversed my views of the two presidents since, so that I feel that the 10 historians chosen by The Atlantic are wrongheaded in ranking LBJ a grudging 44th, though it is a relief that they don’t include JFK in this list. In many surveys of the U.S. presidents, Kennedy outranks Johnson.
But the magazine’s sum-up of LBJ — “His brilliance gave us civil rights laws; his stubbornness gave us Vietnam” — is a bit of a mystery in its second half. It was President Dwight Eisenhower who moved toward America’s intervention in Vietnam, with the infamous “Domino Theory.” Kennedy had allowed the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem, of South Vietnam, a few weeks before his own assassination. If the military expansion is the issue, that by President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser (and later secretary of state), Henry Kissinger, was worse than Johnson’s.
Are the historians saying LBJ gets low marks because he botched in Vietnam? Probably. They rank President Woodrow Wilson 10th for making “the world safe for U.S. interventionism.” American interventions themselves are commendable, not condemnatory.
Is there a hint of sarcasm here? I guess not. They rank James Polk 50th because the 11th president’s “Mexican War land grab gave us California, Texas, and the Southwest.” No wonder they rank John Quincy Adams below Polk, at 55th. Adams, who devised the Monroe Doctrine, famously declared, “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” that is, to spread democracy.
Placing Polk above JQA appears to be no fluke. Since Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. started presidential surveys in 1948, Polk seems to have been ranked above JQA almost consistently. Does this mean most historians are true believers in America’s Manifest Destiny as well as its divine right to mess with other countries? Probably yes.
That brings us to the first half of Atlantic’s summary of LBJ. His achievements in civil rights remind me of the ambivalence I’ve developed over the years with regard to Abraham Lincoln. In ranking the 16th president first, The Atlantic sums up: “He saved the Union, freed the slaves, and presided over America’s second founding.” Few Americans will contest this proposition, but I have a couple of nagging questions: Was “saving the Union” worth the stupendous human sacrifice? Did not Lincoln’s decision to resort to war contradict the Declaration of Independence?
The number of soldiers who were killed in action or otherwise died in the Civil War is put at 558,000, much greater than the corresponding number in World War II, which is 407,000. In proportion to the overall population, the Civil War created five times more war dead. As for the Declaration of Independence, doesn’t it clearly recognize the right “for one people to dissolve the political bands . . . and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station”?
Worse, the aim of achieving racial justice rapidly lost its force in the years following Lincoln’s assassination. So by about 1900, “national conciliation” — between the whites in the North and the whites in the South — was complete. The indispensable part of this process was the South’s nullification, with the Supreme Court’s connivance, of the 13th Constitutional Amendment that prohibits slavery.
It was as though white-dominated America took to heart Lincoln’s famous statement to Horace Greeley, president of the New York Tribune, on Aug. 22, 1862: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” In other words, emancipation was not the real issue.
I was reminded of this regressive process recently when I read the history of Berea College, in Kentucky, one of the many admirable educational institutions in the United States. Started in 1855 by John Fee, who believed in racial and sexual equality, the college had to give up accepting blacks in 1905 when the Kentucky legislature banned teaching blacks and whites together. Yes, such things were done as late as 1905. And in Kentucky, that law was not changed until 1950.
As a matter of fact, not long after I came here I began to notice “Civil War buffs” — people apparently interested in the war between the North and the South purely as a matter of military contests. The Civil War buff quality is discernible in The Atlantic’s list as well. It includes Robert E. Lee, ranked 57th, because he “was a good general but a better symbol, embodying conciliation in defeat.” In the commentary that goes with the selection, editor Ross Douthat adds another general of the South, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, as someone who “might have won the war for (the Confederacy) had he lived past the Battle of Chancellorsville.” Lee and Jackson fought on the side of secession or slavery, but that doesn’t matter.
Lincoln was a great, moral man. Reading just a few pieces from his copious writings and speeches is enough to tell you how risible it is for the current president to bring him up for comparison with himself. Yet I can’t help remembering what Henry Adams, John Quincy’s grandson, wrote as he looked back on the onset of the Civil War half a century later. Thinking of “a million young men planted in the mud of a lawless world,” Adams mused, “one could only shake one’s white beard in silent horror.”
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