If You Want To Know Why We Keep Fighting Wars,
Look No Further Than The South
Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
One who often reads American history can hardly avoid being constantly reminded why the historical South deserves contempt, if not sheer anger. Southerners of today dislike hearing this. They point out such truths as that the South has undergone much change; not everyone there is a yahoo; it has millions of intelligent citizens of good will; politeness and courtesy are valued there, as one wishes (forlornly) that they were valued elsewhere. Yet one is always reading -- ineluctably -- of a history so horrible that the mind boggles that this could have been America. As bad as the North was, it was nothing as compared to what went on for hundreds of years in the region that the supposedly sainted Robert E. Lee fought for -- what horrifically went on, indeed, for 100 years after he fought for it.
The latest book I’ve read that brings up this appalling history is one I’m currently in the midst of. It is “The Race Beat,” by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. The authors are not exactly chopped liver; they are eminent in their field. Roberts, among other things, was the Executive Editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer for an 18 year period in which, on his watch, it won 17 Pulitzers. He subsequently was managing editor of The New York Times. Klibanoff is the managing editor for news at The Atlanta Constitution. Their book is a fascinating history of the press coverage of the Civil Rights movement. I’m almost half way through it, and the portion I’ve read often describes, of necessity, horrid things that were daily fare in the South. The worst are the murders and lynchings -- themselves nearly daily fare in the South. With apologies to the authors for lengthy quotes describing two of the worst of these events in order to give the reader a sense of what was going on in the South, here are descriptions of the lynching of Claude Neal and the never to be forgotten murder of Emmett Till:
“In the same way that Emmett Till would become the most defining event in the childhood lives of Negro children in Mississippi , the terrifying story of Claude Neal had made an indelible impression on the lives of Negro residents in north and central Florida. Newson [an African American reporter] had been seven years old in 1934 when Claude Neal was tortured and lynched in Marianna, a north Florida town not far from Alabama and Georgia. Neal, who was accused of having killed a white woman, was scalded repeatedly with a hot iron, castrated, and dragged through the streets before being stretched and displayed in a tree. This had not been an impulse lynching; newspaper and radio stories had given advance notice of it. As Neal was being hauled by a mob from an Alabama jail to Marianna, a crowd estimated at about four thousand had time to get to the scene. By some accounts, he was forced to eat his own genitals, and his finger and toes were put on display in the town. It was a story that haunted the Negroes of north and central Florida for decades .” P. 95.
“On August 31, three days after Till was reported abducted, his tortured, bloated, and decomposed body floated partially to the surface of the Tallahatchie River. It was a ghastly sight, made all the more horrible because Till’s neck was wrapped in barbed wire attached at the other end to a cotton gin fan that weighed twice its seventy pounds because of the mud on it. The left side of the boy’s head was beaten in and “cut up pretty badly, like an axe was used,” the sheriff said. One eyeball was dangling from its socket; his tongue extended from his mouth, swollen to eight times its normal size. Behind his left ear was a bullet hole. Around one of his fingers was an oversized ring that his mother had finally agreed he could wear with a little tape to help it fit. The ring was engraved “LT,” the initials of his dead father, Louis Till.” P. 87.
“At the Illinois Central station, accompanied by Simeon Booker, other reporters and photographers for the Negro press, and scores of mourners, Mrs. Mamie Bradley [Till’s mother] waited for the pine box to arrive. Booker later wrote that when the box was handed down and opened for her to see, some of the young boy’s skull fell off and some of his brains fell out.” P. 88.
Till’s murderers were acquitted by a Mississippi jury in one hour and seven minutes. It was these kinds of things, it was the denial of almost all human decency in almost every way to almost all African Americans in the South, it was howling white mobs screaming at African American children, it was this kind of South, and Southern violence, that those of my generation in the North grew up learning about, reading about, seeing on television. And a good thing too, or it would never have changed.
But, in reality, perhaps the question is whether it all has changed. Let us put race aside, notwithstanding what appears to be in the heart of big league Southern leaders like Trent Lott, who wishes the country had followed Strom Thurmond. Let us confine ourselves to a single issue relating to violence; let us confine ourselves to regularly favoring the use of military force. Or, to put it more bluntly, regularly favoring starting and continuing wars.
The most famous Southern writer, Faulkner, said the past is not dead, it is not even past. This would seem true of the Southern attitude towards war. War has regularly been a Southern policy of choice -- not excluding the Civil War. The South wanted the War of 1812, it wanted war with Mexico , it wanted the Civil War, it wanted to invade and take over Cuba and parts of Central America. Woodrow Wilson, a Southerner, got us into World War I after saying he kept us out of war. Even Harry Truman, who took us into Korea without Congressional authorization and thereby set the stage for a militarized nation and Viet Nam, was in effect a southerner -- Missouri was a rebel leaning border state with lots of Southern feeling (and guerrillas) where Truman grew up not long after the Civil War. Lyndon Johnson was a Southerner, and so was Dean Rusk. So is the current George Bush.
It’s not that no northerners ever got us into (and kept us in) war: there were FDR and the first George Bush, after all. (The first Bush was really a Northerner even if he eventually repaired to Texas). But the fact is that Southerners have been prominent in seeking wars throughout American history. The South became militaristic at least as early as the 1830s or so if not before -- it started creating military academies to train men against the day it might be necessary to fight the North, and it never gave up its violent, militaristic attitudes. Faulkner’s point that the past is not even past would seem especially true with regard to the South’s love for war. Another way to say the same thing, a way I just heard a few days ago, is that Southerners just don’t care enough about their kids. (Which reminds me of the German nobleman type who said in the 1930s that he would give one of his sons to defeat England.)
Consider, most recently, the Congressional vote for war with Iraq in 2002, and the 50 to 48 Senate vote last week against pulling out most troops by 2008, a pullout that would have had to begin within four months.
When it came to the initial resolution authorizing the war in October 2002, the vote in the Senate was 77 for, 23 against. 23 of these yeas came from the Old Confederacy plus the three Southern Border States of Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland, while only three of the nays came from these. (Two of the three nays came from the border state of Maryland , so that there was only one nay from all 11 states of the Old Confederacy.) In the House there were 296 for and 133 against. 122 of the yeas and only 24 nays came from the Old Confederacy plus the border three. So, what is obvious is that the vote for war was overwhelming from the Old Confederacy plus the border three, with Senators and Congressmen from the rest of the country being much more divided.
Or to look at the recent 50 to 48 Senate vote against ending the war, only seven Senators from the Old Confederacy or the border three voted to end the war, while 19 voted against ending it.
These figures illustrate what has long been obvious to anyone who has studied or considered the history of the matter: they show that the South is far more inclined towards war than the rest of the nation. Naturally, there will be some objections to this view. It will be said, for instance, that the recent figures are what they are because the South is overwhelmingly Republican, this is Bush’s war, and his party members are supporting him. Well, not all party members supported him in the relevant votes. A few did not, just as some Democrats voted for war in 2002. But, far more importantly, to be in favor of war is the position of people who are conservative to reactionary (as well as some moderates). Southerners are Republicans because they are conservative to reactionary. They are not conservative to reactionary because they are Republicans. (Think of this idea as being something like Plato’s question of whether something is good because the Gods love it, or whether the Gods love it because it is good.) The South has been a conservative to reactionary stronghold (now called a red state stronghold) for at least 175 to 180 years, and that is why it is Republican today. So people who say southern support for this war is a party matter fail to reckon with the long history of conservative to reactionary, and militaristic, thinking. If the South weren’t that way it wouldn’t be Republican today and wouldn’t be supporting the war so overwhelmingly.
Then it may also be objected that the foregoing Southern votes in Congress aren’t responsible for the war, since there were plenty of non Southern votes to authorize the war. That, of course, is true. Yet is makes a considerable practical difference, when it comes to war or any other policy , if you start with a large, diehard committed bloc on your side, a bloc that will argue for you, work for you, and needs no convincing, but instead will push for you. The South is such a bloc when it comes to war. Beyond this, the Southern bloc did make a difference on the Senate vote to end the war. The resolutions would have had a majority of votes cast if you remove all the Southern votes pro and con, or even if you just split them evenly. It may not at this time have garnered the 60 needed to override a veto, but who knows what could have happened had it at least had a majority?
So we are faced with a militaristically inclined, pretty solid bloc of conservative to reactionary votes in the part of the country that has long been a one party section, for about 80 years a solidly Democratic section and now, for about 35 to 40 years or so, a solidly Republican section. The South can, through history in various fields (like civil rights) for many years did, and in future may again stall progress toward a better society. Its warlike proclivities may in themselves stall progress, because as was true in the times of Wilson, FDR and Johnson, war brings progress to an end, or at least severely limits it, because emotion and focus turn extensively to war instead of to progress. War, like death (spoken of by Oppenheimer at Trinity), is the destroyer of worlds.
The South’s tendency, even desire, for war is part of a broader problem that has been explained and discussed here at other times: the problem of the vastly disproportionate power the South has continually exercised over the political life of this country since 1789, with the sole exception of the period 1861-76. There is no easy way to solve this problem, with its militaristic component, but there is a way, one that would help make the country far more democratic than it is now.
One of the reasons for the South’s disproportionate power is the constitutionally mandated composition of the Senate, with two Senators from each state regardless of a state’s population. One really knows of no one who suggests changing this, and it is dubious that any change could be worked in less than 100 years. But another reason for the South’s political power is the winner take all system of single member districts in votes for Representatives, and the winner take all nature of state representation in the Electoral College. Neither the single member district system, nor the winner take all method used in such districts and in the Electoral College, are constitutionally mandated. In fact, to a minimal extent they either have not been or are not currently being used by a tiny number of states today. They can be changed to proportional systems of voting. The pros and cons of this have been discussed in other postings, and therefore will not be rehashed now. Suffice to say now that proportional systems of voting would mean that the votes of the millions of Southerners whose votes count for nothing now because they are totally nullified by majorities, would instead count for something. Southern progressives and liberals would be able to elect Congressmen and Congresswomen, and their votes would also count in the Electoral College. The South would no longer be a solidly conservative to reactionary bloc in national affairs. It would instead be reasonably divided, like the rest of the country is.
Of course, the use of systems of proportional representation would also mean that several states that are reliably Democratic (i.e., liberal or progressive) in elections for President or the House would elect a larger number of conservatives. For the conservative vote in those states would no longer be reliably cancelled out, reliably overridden and nullified, in such elections, just as the liberal vote would no longer be nullified, in such elections, just as the liberal vote would no longer be nullified in the South. So be it. Our major problem really is not, and as far as I know never has been, the existence of divided political power in the North. Rather, it has always been the presence of undivided political power in the South. The solid bloc South has already caused this country much disaster, including the Civil War which killed more Americans than any other war even though the country’s population was only 30 million at the time, not the approximately 140 million of World War II, or the approximately 180 to 200 million or so at the time of Viet Nam. Unless history proves to be no guide whatever -- which one would not think on the basis of Bush II's Iraq war -- we’d better find some way of ending the solidly-conservative-to-reactionary-bloc- power of the South or it will cause us disaster again in the future. That is, as I say, unless history proves to be no guide at all. Does anyone wish to argue that history will be no guide because historical patterns do not repeat themselves? If so, they will find a lot of historians to argue with.
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