The Civil War, as everyone knows, was a fight about the South’s desire to keep their slaves and the North’s desire to free them. That statement should surprise just about nobody.
Except, of course, the people who fought the Civil War.
In 1861, the Northern soldiers, overwhelmingly, said in their letters and diaries that they were fighting to preserve the Union. The Southern soldiers said they were fighting to keep the Northern majority from taking control and imposing their will upon the South.
Officially, the North disclaimed any desire to do anything to interfere with the rights of private property. They promised to faithfully enforce the existing laws.
This led to some bizarre events.
Slaves, hearing and believing the Southern propaganda about the abolitionist Northerners, tended to run away whenever a Union army unit got close enough for them to reach. Southern owners would indignantly follow their fugitives to the Union lines and demand to speak to the man in charge.
If the Union were really fighting to preserve the Constitution and laws, they said, then that included the Fugitive Slave Laws. It was, therefore, the army’s sworn duty to find and return their ambulatory property.
The Union army meekly complied, capturing and returning their enemy’s slaves. (Until, that is, one of the most devious men ever to wear a uniform, Benjamin Butler, adjudged the fugitives “Contraband of War” as a legal excuse to keep them…but that’s another story)
Later in the war, as they invaded the Deep South, the Union soldiers found themselves followed by tens of thousands of helpless, ignorant runaway slaves with nowhere else to go. The Union soldiers saw them…and they weren’t impressed. The Union letters and diaries of this period are filled with the sort of corrosive comments one would expect from the most virulent Southern redneck. The idea that they were fighting for this human flotsam filled them with indignation.
It was only towards the end of the war, when Lincoln had transmuted “Fighting for Abolition” into “Fighting for Freedom” that the Northern soldiers embraced the idea.
The real story about the Civil War is how it evolved from a conflict where both sides avoided the slavery question into a war that had somehow become all about the slavery question. But this story of the process of how it got to its end is obscured by the ending itself.
And that, you see, is the problem. Our memory looks at history backwards, from today back to then. This lays a trap for us. We tend to remember how things end and paint the whole event with that memory.
For another example: The Vietnam war divided the nation and the generations as never before. The angry, rebellious, long-haired younger generation resisted the war, drove Lyndon Johnson from office and spat on returning soldiers. The press showed body bags on TV every night, turning the rest of America against the war. This is another summary that should surprise just about nobody.
Except, of course, just about anybody in 1961, ‘62, ‘63, ‘64, ‘65…
We do not remember, today, just how widespread the support for the war was in its beginnings. The American people, united as never before by their success in World War II and by the pressures of the Cold War, stood solidly behind a government that it trusted. (I once tried to explain to a younger friend how at one time we all believed our government told us the truth. She couldn’t believe it.)
We also do not remember that in the early sixties the fashion for young people was a crew-cut, Ivy League look. If young people did not exactly want to follow in their parents security obsessed foot prints, they had a great confidence that they would have the opportunities to make their own way. This is not the stuff of either anger or rebellions.
How did the young become angry and rebellious? How did an immensely patriotic people come to mistrust and finally oppose their own government?
It took years of lying.
First off, it took the U.S. government breaking its own promise about giving the Vietnamese free elections and then lying to us about it. It took the endless praise of our “democratic” ally and his unified, “freedom-loving” people followed by the sight of monks setting themselves on fire and the bloody corpse of Ngo Dinh Diem followed by our government’s slavish praise of the successor “democratic” regime. It took the transparently dubious Gulf of Tonkin Resolution being stretched into a legal justification for the whole war. It took years of “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel” speeches and Saigon press briefings so inaccurate they became known to all as the “Five O’clock Follies.” It took the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Note that date. The Tet Offensive took place in 1968. That event, which many consider the turning point in America’s opinion of the war, took place only after years of unwavering public support.
The real story about American public opinion during the Vietnam War is the story of exactly how it progressed from unquestioning support to gradual skepticism to outright opposition. But, again, the process of how it got to its end is obscured in memory by the ending itself.
As a final example (if a dangerous one), let me point to the Holocaust.
In this case, it was an ending so horrific that it still colors everything we know about those times.
But the “Thousand Year Reich” lasted twelve years. And it grew out of and was shaped by the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and the Depression. Were Hitler and the Nazis always bore-sighted on the extermination? Was that their original intent and goal from 1919? The Nazis talked for those years about the Endlosung (the Final Solution). Did it always mean the extermination of the Jews?
There are lots of Holocaust historians who say so. The majority, in fact.
But there is no question, from the historical record, that the term Endlosung went through a progression of other meanings.
Early in the regime, the Final Solution meant to get all of the Jews off German soil — by convincing them to emigrate. The phrase was used over and over again in memos and diaries planning how to get the Jews to leave the Reich voluntarily. The Nazis were deeply frustrated by the stubborn refusal of the Jews to leave in the face of discriminatory laws and public bullying.
Later on, as Germany found herself more and more isolated internationally and thereby faced with fewer and fewer countries willing to cooperate with her policies by accepting Jewish emigrants, the Endlosung became a plan for forced expulsions of Jews into the territories the Reich expected to conquer in the East.
It was not until World War II had actually begun, in 1940, that the German rulers of some districts of Poland began to imprison and even kill Jews as a matter of policy (it made room for transplanted Germans who were meant to Germanify Poland as the new upper class). But it was never a uniform policy. Some satraps imposed it and others opposed it.
Only with the invasion of the Soviet Union, in 1941, did special military units begin to appear behind the lines, following the army. Their assignment was to kill captured Commissars, Gypsies and Jews.
Eventually, of course, the extermination of Jews (and other proscribed groups) became so much a matter of government policy that the transport of the condemned to the death camps consumed enormous amounts of railroad stock that was desperately needed by Germany’s over-stretched armies. The Reich had become so lunatic that killing its internal “enemies” was more important than victory or defeat.
The real story about the Endlosung is not how it was always a hidden agenda of the Nazis for extermination. Rather it is how its meaning changed from having voluntary immigration to having extermination as the goal. By the end, the evolution of the psychotic logic of the Endlosung would capture tens of thousands of ordinary Germans and make them participants in wholesale murder.
Problem is, we can’t see that evolution. Any more than we can see the Civil War evolve into a war about emancipation or the Vietnam War evolve into a faith-destroying monster. We are condemned by some quirk of our collective psyche to look at history backwards and to remember how things ended rather than how they happened.