Archive for category History ahead

100 Days…. of Opposition


Tax Day Demonstration, Pittsfield MA

Tired of the 100-day review of Donald Trump’s Presidency?  You should be, with one exception.  The drama, ambition and accomplishment in the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency lie not in his record, but in the resistance to this President.

Ever since Franklin Roosevelt pushed through major legislation in his first 100 days in office, newly elected Presidents have had their early record measured against the same 100-day standard.  Donald Trump has called this threshold “ridiculous” and “artificial,” which would probably be an accurate statement except for the fact that he used the same 100-day timetable during his campaign to lay out an action plan portraying his ability to achieve a plan as bold and far-reaching as FDR accomplished.

The country was in a very different place in 1933, well into its third year of economic crisis, following the stock market crash in October 1929.  Unemployment levels moved from 4 million people in 1930 to 15 million by the time Roosevelt took office.  Thousands of banks had failed and industrial production had fallen by half.  The crisis demanded action, and demanded it on a fast timetable.

Roosevelt delivered in a way that re-shaped the nature of how Americans view government, addressing through emergency legislation and executive action all aspects of relief, recovery and reform needed to reverse the direction of the economy.  It was the nature of the crisis that dictated the unprecedented nature of FDR’s first 100 days.

That’s why this 100-day standard makes little sense.  Trump, despite his rhetoric indicating he inherited a mess, actually took over the reins of an economy in recovery, certainly better than the one his predecessor inherited in 2009.

What has been more akin to FDR’s dramatic first 100 days in 2017 has been the unprecedented nature of the opposition to Trump.

First, there are the protests.  They started before Trump took the oath of office and then swelled in the first 24 hours of his Presidency.  There were other demonstrations greeting newly inaugurated Presidents, from the 5000 women who marched before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration demanding the right to vote, to the anti-war protesters at both Nixon inaugurals and the thousands who marched to express their opposition to the election of George W. Bush in 2001.

What was different this time was the size of the demonstrations, not only in Washington DC, but around the nation and in cities in other countries.  Everyone but Trump and his inner circle acknowledge that the women’s march on the day after the inauguration surpassed the crowd attending his inauguration.  Another difference is that the protests continue, against Trump’s efforts to ban Muslims from entry into the U.S., to build a wall on the southern border, to repeal health care, to refuse to release his taxes, to disregard the science of climate change.

Second, despite the control of both the executive and legislative branch by Trump’s party, the opposition has been surprisingly successful in derailing the pledges that the Republicans ran on, most notably the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.  Funding for the border wall is a non-starter, tax reform has been reduced to a public relations one-page set of principles, and there’s no sign of a massive infrastructure program.  Republican party unity did help ensure that all of Trump’s nominees for Cabinet, except for the two who withdrew, were able to pass through the Senate, which also confirmed his nominee for the Supreme Court position, left vacant for over a year when the Republicans refused to grant a hearing for President Obama’s selection.

A third unprecedented focus of the opposition has been the speed with which courts have responded to requests to halt President Trump’s executive orders.  Both of Trump’s executive orders to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. have been thrown out, as has his administration’s threat to withhold federal funding from cities refusing to deputize their local police forces as deportation officers.   One organization – Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, CREW – has filed a lawsuit alleging Trump’s conflicts of interests violate the Constitution and another, American Civil Liberties Union is preparing a second such suit.

Fourth, the reaction to Trump from beyond the borders has been an unprecedented rejection of what he is trying to impose here and abroad.  Not only do people outside the U.S. in the numbers of millions continue to join the protests, but voters in the Netherlands rejected the candidate who looked like Trump, and French voters will likely follow suit, worried about what they are seeing on this side of the Atlantic.  Far from acting as a global superpower, the U.S. is on the receiving end of lectures from world leaders like Theresa May and Angela Merkel on Russia, Justin Trudeau on trade and Xi Jinping on North Korea, all viewing perhaps Trump’s self-proclaimed penchant for unpredictability and flexibility as euphemisms for incompetence and lack of strategy.

Fifth, despite obstacles from the White House and certain Republicans, investigations within the Department of Justice and Congress were launched to look into the role played by the Russian government in helping Donald Trump get elected.  The implications for American democracy of any connection between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government in that effort necessitates a patient and thorough investigation and compilation of the facts.

Finally, a new, invigorated civic and political activism has sprung up to unprecedented levels.  Across the country, citizens are mobilizing to make their voices heard through town hall meetings where members of Congress are seeing attendance rise tenfold since January 20.  The volume of phone calls to Congress are setting records, reaching 1.5 million calls to the Senate alone.  Ad hoc groups have formed to partner voting districts across the red-blue political divide, to address redistricting that favors Republican candidates, to refuse to shop at businesses owned by or supporting the President and his family, to join voter registration drives.

When FDR set the standard for 100 days of accomplishment by an incoming President, he did so in the face of an acute crisis.  The crisis facing the country now is not any external mess, but is all that the new President stands for.  Addressing that crisis through a sustained opposition has been the real story of the first 100 days.


This article originally appeared in History News Network and The Berkshire Eagle.


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The Doughnut Tour

Two summers ago, as part of a volunteer project for the Berkshire Historical Society, I created a virtual driving tour of some of Pittsfield’s old mills (   The site and tour highlights these majestic 19th century buildings that shaped Pittsfield as an industrial city, a city of immigrants and a national leader in the production of wool, silk, paper and even clocks.  These buildings still dominate our landscape.  We drive by them, mostly unaware of the stories they tell of our ancestors – men, women and children who heeded their bells and put in their 60-hour work-weeks and make a living.  Some of these structures have a new lives as residential housing or office space for businesses like the Berkshire Eagle.

Cafua Realty, which owns over 200 Dunkin Donuts franchises, recently presented its plans to the zoning board for a new one where St. Mary’s stands on Tyler Street. I fast forwarded to the year 2066 or 2116 and imagined the historian’s task in creating a virtual tour to depict life back in 2016.  That tour might be called

The doughnut tour could start with the Dunkin Donuts on First Street, a good model that would explain the concept of a drive-through, and show how, here, the space was so small that rush-hour traffic was often blocked.

Then, we would proceed less than a block away, and stop at the site of the old Plunkett School that Cafua opted to tear down for another Dunkin Donuts franchise.  Our passengers could learn that the lot lay vacant for years, since Cafua razed the 100 year-old building before they could get their drive-through plan approved.   What motivated Cafua to tear down the school would remain unmentioned since there was no record of an explanation.  Perhaps there would be an interpretive panel explaining that the school was named after a leading 19th century businessman who ran a mill and a bank but also found time to give back to the city through his leadership of the Berkshire Athenaeum.  The inquiring future reader might be able to find out why a second Dunkin Donuts was needed less than a block away.

The map would direct the tour-taker north on First Street before turning on Tyler Street.  Perhaps there would be a photo of the stately brick and stone church that was the center of community life, torn down for the smart brown, pink and orange of the new “religion.” The map would once again show two Dunkin Donut restaurants within walking distance.  Our grandchildren might wonder how many people actually stopped at each doughnut shop in the same outing.

We could then head further north to the edge of the city and take in The Donut Man shop on the shore of Pontoosuc Lake.  Plaques might tell how this actually was a Dunkin Donuts at one time, before the franchise owner broke with the company and started his own business.  Our tourists who might wonder about the logic of spoiling the view of the lake with a doughnut shop would learn that patrons could take their coffee and pastry to a gazebo behind the shop to eat and gaze at the water and the hills above.

Many historic tourists at this point might want to jump off of the doughnut tour, but they will be happy to know there’s more.  They can head down to East Street, and read about this Dunkin Donuts catering to high school students on their lunch breaks and for after-school munchies, creating a life-long habit of unhealthy-eating.  If future historians would want to get out and walk, they could find that the high school is actually equidistant between this Dunkin Donuts and its sister shop that was our initial stop on First Street.  Students starving after a morning of classes had doughnut choices!

The tour would then proceed down Elm Street where our inquisitive participants would check out the three different establishments selling coffee and pastries within two blocks.  But, they would marvel that not one of them is a Dunkin Donuts, but are all locally owned and operated.   The map would then direct the drivers to gas stations on South Street and West Housatonic Street where Dunkin Donuts has set up shop inside the convenience stores, a heads-up model where patrons could fill up on gas and doughnuts.

At different stops, there might be recorded oral interviews with employees who could talk about their wages that start (on average) at $8.39 an hour but could go all the way up to $11.06 as an assistant manager.[1]  Next to that, there could be the text of the Boston Globe article on the Cafuas, who owned 215 stores, some of which were pulling in $40,000 a week. [2]

Perhaps the tour might end with photos of other towns that seem to have convinced Dunkin Donuts to adopt designs that are more attractive, and conform to the surroundings better, like New London, New Hampshire (courtesy Googlemaps).

I have to confess, somewhat shamefacedly, that I personally know each of these doughnut establishments, including the one in New London.  I even enjoy the 77-year tradition of  National Doughnut Day (June 3).  My own waistline shows it, as does my frequent doughnut card.  I’m not against doughnuts and coffee, nor am I against people making money or people working hard to earn cash when there are not enough alternatives.  That’s what the 19th century mill owners and workers did – make money and eke out a living.  The one exception is that those mill owners displayed a sense of civic responsibility and left the city a museum, a library, a town hall, a hospital, churches and schools.

While not anti-doughnut, I am convinced that one very obvious attraction that this city holds for its residents and visitors lies in the beauty of the 19th century brick and stone buildings on Park Square, and on the streets and lanes spreading out in all four directions.  We owe it to the next generations to leave them this heritage and history – not one of doughnut shops.




This story originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle.

Tearing down the Plunkett School to make way for doughnuts. Photo, the author

Tearing down the Plunkett School to make way for doughnuts. Photo, the author

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Getting to the future history of ISIS

US EmbassyOttawabarriers

U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. Photo, Google Eearth

“One day those barriers will come down.”  I was referring to the big concrete, jersey barriers surrounding the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa.  Since they took up a lane of traffic in the downtown area, they were the target of criticism by the city’s residents whose commutes were delayed.  This security precaution was needed, though, as the Embassy building stood wedged in between two busy streets.

I had added this phrase to the Ambassador’s remarks for the ceremony we were planning to mark the fourth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.  History was my guidance, specifically the memory of Ronald Reagan at the Brandeburg Gate in 1987, demanding that Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the wall separating East from West Berlin. Reagan’s remarks seemed preposterous at the time, a sound-bite that would have no effect on the Soviets, even if Gorbachev had been pursuing seeking an opening with the west at the time.

A young speechwriter named Peter Robinson had inserted the “tear down the wall” words into Reagan’s speech, admitting decades later in Prologue, the National Archives magazine, that he practically stole them from a German woman at a dinner party.  She had told the gathering, “If this man Gorbachev is serious with his talk of glasnost and perestroika, he can prove it. He can get rid of this wall.”

Robinson included those words in his drafts, and, he encountered resistance in the clearance process throughout the bureaucracy, all the way up to the most senior levels.  The State Department and the National Security Council objected, preparing as many as seven of their own drafts.  Robinson recounted that the objections clustered around that phrase: “It was naïve. It would raise false hopes. It was clumsy. It was needlessly provocative.”   These words had the potential to derail progress; now Gorbachev could never tear down the wall, or he would seem to be acquiescing to Reagan’s demand.  But, it was the one line in the speech that Reagan himself liked, and it stayed in.

That line did become the sound-bite for the speech, an in-your-eye poke at the Soviet Union.  Initially, it was nothing more than that, a throw-away line designed for one evening’s news.  Its perception as naïve vanished when three and a half years later, the wall did fall, torn down not by Gorbachev, but by citizens on both sides of the barrier.

Most of all, Reagan’s phrase articulated the unthinkable.  We had lived with the Berlin Wall for decades; the Cold War and nuclear threats for longer.  That was our present, and we lacked the vision to imagine a different future.  Call it naïve or grandstanding, a one night line, but Reagan had painted a future that did not have to be a continuation of the present.

Back in Ottawa, the phrase in the Ambassador’s speech seemed naive as well.  Inside the Embassy we debated whether to use the image, with our security officers adamant that it would only remind residents about the barriers and their delayed commutes, opening up again the clamor for their removal.  We ended up using it, but fourteen years after 9/11, the jersey barriers still surround the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa.

The attacks in Paris last Friday mean that the prospects of removing those concrete barriers are further away than at any time since they were installed.  Those attacks mean there is no alternative right now other than to ramp up security, to work with our partners in defeating the threat that ISIS poses.

Yet, my memories of Ottawa and the lessons of the Berlin Wall speak to our present situation, instructive in helping us imagine a different future.   Those barriers will not always be there. ISIS will one day take its place in history books alongside the Barbary pirates. Does anyone really doubt that?

But there are alternatives right now, different from turning our back on our values, on the very ideals that we time and time again forget in moments of crisis.  As we imagine how historians will write about this era in 50 or 100 years, do we want that narrative to compare our gut reactions to refuse entry to refugees from Syria and elsewhere with our failure to accept Jewish refugees in World War II. They are fleeing Syria because of ISIS, because of unending war.  Historian might compare our willingness to trample on privacy and free speech rights with the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 or the Sedition Act of 1918 or Joe McCarthy in the Cold War.

Historians in the future might also identify the impact of our enduring values that still hold out hope to those beyond our borders.  Yes, the failures to live up to those ideals are real, but so are the tools to reveal those failures and to seek redress.  We have to remember it was these ideals, much more than Reagan’s six words, that ultimately led people to tear down the Berlin Wall, in their pursuit of a different way of life, of an open society, with opportunities and freedoms.  We need confidence in those ideals to lead the way towards the alternative vision that ISIS paints.  Call me naïve.

This post originally appeared on History News Network

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E-mails, history and diplomats

Imagine the conversation that Hillary Clinton had with her Information Technology people when she started her job as Secretary of State.  First of all, she probably didn’t have one, but her staff did, on behalf of her wishes.  “The Secretary does not want to have an official account on the State Department system,” they would have said.  “She will use her own private e-mail and server for her electronic communications.”

Loyally, like most in the Department, the professional IT folks nodded and went to work to MAKE IT HAPPEN.   Their concerns, if they voiced any at all, would have fallen in the security arena.  What they likely did not say was anything about the need to keep a historical record.

The reality is that for most of the communications coming from the Secretary’s office, she relied on her staff who probably all had official accounts, as well as their own private mail.  As Gail Collins points out in her op-ed in the New York Times, the former Secretary’s reference to 60,000 e-mails during her tenure turns out to be roughly 40 a day.   It’s not inconceivable that her many staff churned out more than that on her behalf in ten minutes.  All of those messages are, we can assume, on the official system.

The problem with the exclusive use of private e-mail that many of her would-be detractors are focusing on is, incredibly, Benghazi, and then security.  However, by deciding what the public should and should not see, the former Secretary simply leaves to the imagination what will not see the light of day.  Ms. Clinton says it is personal material, and undoubtedly there are plenty of those.  Likely there are also messages related to her past and perhaps future status as a politician, interacting with the large retinue of friends and donors, responding to their requests for favors, small and large.  Not unusual for any politician holding any government office.

Surely Ms. Clinton or someone on her staff must have realized the historic value of her documents, if only for her memoir that she was sure to (and did) write.  Why save documents only for her book?  She makes the claim that her business e-mails to those in the Department could be accessed through the recipients, but she did not send e-mails to just other State Department officials.  Further, if her staff were using official accounts in sending e-mails to carry out her instructions, it is unclear who would know which of these messages were valued for the historic record.

It’s not just the absence of the former Secretary’s communications that presents a challenge to future historians.  While no one is suggesting this as a reason for her foregoing the State Department server, the chilling effect of leaks (such as Wiki-leaks or Snowden cases) on official communications is taking a toll on the written record.  Rather than write cables, the use of e-mail is more pervasive and when the issue is very sensitive, phone calls are taking over as the medium of choice.

With Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade in 2013.  Photo, department of State

With Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade in 2013. Photo, department of State

What Secretary Clinton’s private e-mail use also encapsulates is the broader issue of how the Department of State does not take full advantage of its own history in the conduct of the country’s foreign relations.  To their credit, it was staff in the Office of the Historian that first brought this issue to light, in seeking to gain access for its archives to these documents.  That Office and their on-line presence, through its series on Foreign Relations of the United States, has made available 450 volumes of primary source documents that have been declassified and, most recently, has begun to include material from other foreign affairs agencies.   These represent an invaluable resource for scholars of U.S. foreign policy.  However, it is mainly academics who mine these documents for their research.  Based on my experience in the Department few of us working the multitude of issues confronting the nation in our overseas relations, drew on that resource.  We did not have the time, the inclination, the skills to mine those documents as another source of “intelligence” to analyze the countries or the topics we were handling.  The fact that the Historian’s Office is located in the Bureau of Public Affairs is a tip-off that its focus is external, not to inform current foreign policy issues.  Perhaps the Bureau of Intelligence and Research where reports could be made for policy makers?

Our military devotes incredible effort and resources to learning its own history, and values history in its academies and its in-service training.   They read the communications of soldiers in the preparations for battle as well as on the battlefield to understand the decisions taken.  Our diplomats deserve the same attention to their history, to equip them to understand the complex, messy terrain of our relations around the world.


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Obama and Netanyahu Differ on History, Not Just Iran

The differences between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama extend beyond their views of the current negotiations to limit Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons.  The two leaders draw on fundamentally different lessons from history as they shape their country’s respective positions in regards to a nuclear Iran. In fact, their whole approach to using history in making their case on whether or not to engage Iran diplomatically differs.

Speaking before the Joint Meeting of Congress, the Prime Minister engaged in historical selection in looking backward to predict what might lay ahead.  After the obligatory political thank you’s, Netanyahu started his speech by citing the Old Testament story of Esther, a “courageous Jewish woman” who warned the Jewish people of a plot to destroy them conceived by a Persian viceroy.  He drew the direct line from the religious holiday of Purim commemorating the story of Esther to what he sees is yet another plot by a Persian ruler to destroy Israel and he cites the sitting Ayatollah’s tweets as evidence.  Another Old Testament figure that Netanyahu chose to ignore is the Persian King Cyrus who ended the Babylonian captivity, called for the rebuilding of a “house of God” in Jerusalem and restored the religious vessels that his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar had taken when he destroyed the temple and the city.

Netanyahu also cites more recent history in highlighting the case of North Korea, when it reneged on its commitments to an international agreement hammered out through diplomatic negotiations to forestall the acquisition of a nuclear bomb.  North Korea, like Iran, was a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement.  To date, North Korea is the only country to have withdrawn from the agreement, and all obligations under it to limit nuclear technology to peaceful purposes and prevent the development and spread of nuclear weapons.  Here again, another historical selection overlooked by Netanyahu is South Africa, which abandoned its nuclear weapon program and signed the non-proliferation treaty in 1993.

The point is not that the appropriate historical parallels ought to be Cyrus and South Africa, but that historical precedents abound and can land on any side of a political debate.

President Obama, on the other hand, uses his understanding of history not to find past precedents but to look for present, transformative opportunities that could reshape history, as understood only by looking backward years from now.

Obama certainly knows of such historic moments.  It’s not hard to anticipate the histories 50 or 100 years from now, citing his election and re-election as the first African-American President.  They may also include his willingness to open a new chapter in U.S. relations with Cuba or to tackle the issue of affordable health care in this country, just to mention two.  In announcing the opening of diplomatic talks with Iran in September 2013, Obama looked ahead and envisioned the possibilities of not only “a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” but also one that would “help us to address other concerns that could bring greater peace and stability to the Middle East.”

Obama also recognizes that individuals who seek such opportunities run enormous risks, not just for their own political careers but for their nations that they lead.  It’s why he is leaving the door open for tougher sanctions and even the use of military options should Iran decide to use these negotiations as a cover to work towards producing nuclear weapons.   He does not want those histories in the future to write of him as another architect of appeasement.  The roads he has chosen to walk are littered with obstacles and critics.  However, he also acknowledges that the alternatives on Iran, however politically expedient they may be in dealing with crises, do not offer to resolve them, simply delay them, perhaps for another President or Prime Minister.  His model, after all, is Lincoln, not Buchanan.

Both leaders take a long view of history, but while Netanyahu’s view goes backward, Obama’s looks forward.  When Netanyahu looks forward, he sees only weeks, to the next election in Israel on March 17, or to inject himself into the current political stalemate in Washington.  David Remnick’s profile of Obama in the pages of the New Yorker in January 2014 quoted aides repeatedly discussing Obama’s sense of understanding his actions under the long telescope of history.  Obama told Remnick that “at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

The two leaders in the Oval Office, September 2013.  Photo, White House

The two leaders in the Oval Office, September 2013. Photo, White House

There is a great distance to go before reaching any accord with Iran over its nuclear program and its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and an even greater distance to restoring diplomatic relations with Iran.  But history is the story of change, and that change does not happen without taking the first steps, as risky as they might seem.  Netanyahu uses history to avoid the first step; Obama looks way down the road to see where that first step might lead.

This post originally appeared on History News Network.

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