Thursday, June 17, 2010

17 June: a very busy day in history

Sometimes it seems that certain dates are just chock-full of historical anniversaries, at least as tabulated by the standard sites, such as those listed in the links on the right-hand column of this blog.

On the one hand, these lists are necessarily incomplete and can appear subjective. On the other hand, they're still comprehensive enough to overwhelm the average reader, leaving a sense of chaos; today's Wikipedia date page has some 40-odd entries. Many of us will be familiar with some of the events, even if we don't know the dates off the tops of our heads. For example: We've all heard of the Taj Mahal, but this was the date in 1631 (by the Christian calendar) on which Mumtaz Mahal died in childbirth, after which Mughal emperor Shah Jahan I would spend over two decades building her famous mausoleum. Recent years have seen the revival of the debate on the values of protectionism vs. free trade. Today is the anniversary of the date on which, in 1930, Herbert Hoover signed into law the notorious Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, widely seen as a provincial and stupid measure that exacerbated the effects of the Depression. Most of us, either before or after learning about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff (maybe both), took the SAT college entrance examination. It was on this date in 1901 that the College Board introduced its first standardized test. And we all (of a certain age) remember watching that infamous "televised low-speed highway chase," in the course of which police followed ("don't squeeze The Juice!") former football star O. J. Simpson and then arrested him for the murder of his wife and her friend—though we've likely forgotten that it occurred on this day in 1994.

But how many of us know of these events associated with June 17: Iceland's declaration of independence from Denmark (1944); "Sir Francis Drake claims a land he calls Nova Albion (modern California) for England" (1579); "The Wooden Roller Coaster at Playland, which is in the Pacific National Exhibition, Vancouver, Canada opens" (1958; and we should care because . . .??); President Nixon declares war on drugs (1971; yeah, that one really worked); Matsunaga Hisahide assassinates the 13th Ashikaga shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiteru (1565, by the Christian calendar). "With the death of the last individual, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow becomes extinct." (1987; the definitive extinction of a unique life-form would seem to be far more important than the birth of a roller coaster)? And even diehard vampirologists may be forgiven for forgetting that it was on this date in 1462 that "Vlad III the Impaler attempts to assassinate Mehmed II (The Night Attack) forcing him to retreat from Wallachia."

Still, the 17th of June is an important date by any standard.  Let me try, quickly, casually, and informally, to connect a few of the events within my field of modern history.

As a midwestern schoolchild, I had to learn a lot about regional history, so I was of course aware of the exploration of the upper Great Lakes region by French "voyageurs" and priests (some of our cities, counties, colleges, and streets, etc. are still named for them). It was on this date in 1673 that Father Jacques Marquette and French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet became the first Europeans to reach the Mississippi, at present-day Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. In the meantime, the English colonies were growing. After emerging victorious from a struggle with the French in the middle of the next century, they began to assert themselves against their own mother country, and it was on this date in 1775 that the famous Battle of Bunker Hill took place: a practical victory for the British, who took the heights, but a moral and psychological victory for the American revolutionaries, who held their ground longer than expected.  To the surprise of everyone in Europe, democratic and radical sentiments welled up in France in 1789, and on this date, the Third Estate—given only one third of the vote in the corporatist arrangements of the Estates-General, though representing well over 90 percent of the population—asserted that it was in fact "the nation" and declared itself the "National Assembly." It was in many ways a far more revolutionary act than the storming of the Bastille (still a month in the offing), though the latter, for better or worse, became the iconic representation of revolutionary change for nearly two centuries. The bond between the United States and France, forged during the Revolutionary era in the days of the Marquis de Lafayette, generally remained strong, the more so in the years after 1871, when republican forces in France at last vanquished the serious threat from monarchist and Bonapartist factions. It was on this date in 1885 that the Statue of Liberty, the iconic representation of the revolutionary promise, given by the French to the Americans, arrived in New York as a belated Centennial gift.  The spirit of popular rebellion did not die out in America, for on this date in 1932 the "Bonus Army" of disgruntled World War I veterans—men who had gone to fight for the liberation of France with the motto, "Lafayette, we are here"—marched on and camped in Washington, demanding benefits.  The French Revolution had introduced the guillotine as a humane means of execution, but it was only on this date in 1939 that the last public guillotining in France took place (the instrument remained in use until 1977, though behind prison doors). Exactly a year later, Allied (mainly British) troops were beginning a desperate but disciplined seaborne retreat from France, pressed by invading German forces. "The only major loss during the evacuation from western France" was the sinking of the RMS Lancastria, on this date, with a cost of 5,800 lives.  On that same day, the Soviet Union, which in 1939 had entered into a cynical pact with Nazi Germany and shared in the division of Poland, occupied and annexed the Baltic states. After the war's close, Soviet rule expanded to the rest of East-Central Europe but faced periodic moments of resistance, large and small. The first of these major episodes was the protest by East German workers in 1953, which began as an action against increased work norms, but mushroomed into a miniature rebellion that had to be put down with force by East German police and Soviet troops. As Bertolt Brecht, who managed to be both a celebrated and transgressive poet of the regime, famously and sarcastically said,
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
As a workers' protest that assumed the form of a challenge to the regime, as such, the 1953 revolt anticipated the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, and the the Polish Solidarity movement of 1980. Dissent welled up on both sides of the Iron Curtain.  In the United States, protesters against racial discrimination and the Vietnam War built on the example of the Bonus Army and marched on Washington. At the height of the debate over the war and in the midst of an election campaign, agents of President Nixon were arrested on this date in 1972 in a bungled break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington.  Two years later, he was driven from office under threat of impeachment.  In the eyes of most observers, the democratic constitutional system established by the Revolution had withstood its most severe threat.

One could of course read this—crudely and ideologically—as a triumphalist paean to liberal democracy. A fine thing though the latter system is, that is not my purpose, for that would, among other things, be unhistorical. Just as the socialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries failed to live up to its expectations or was betrayed, so, too, liberalism faced its challenges and generated contradictions and failures.  The American and French Revolutions did not in fact go so far as to provide rights for all.  Nonetheless, they established principles that generated a self-critical process eventually capable of correcting itself and expanding the range of beneficiaries.  The socialist impulse lives on within the labor and social democratic movements in the context of the industrial democracies and Socialist International.  Whether it is capable of reasserting itself there or as an independent alternative remains to be seen. Be that as it may, it has already transformed liberal democracy itself, and that may be its ultimate achievement: like the creation of the National Assembly, less visible or memorable than some other, more dramatic developments, but perhaps with deeper consequences.

And, lest we forget, the balance of history can tip swiftly and frequently:  in the 1930s and 1940s, many of the shrewdest observers wrote off liberal democracy as dead; the new dictatorships appeared as the wave of the future.  At the end of the Cold War, as many of us remember all too well, we were told that we had reached (in Francis Fukuyama's phrase), "the end of history," after which liberal capitalist democracy would be the only game in town. Didn't quite work out that way.

Stay tuned.

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