Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Echoes from another era

A week or so ago, my friend Jamie Galbraith brought a remarkable story of our parents' generation to my attention.  Parts of it, at least, have already been published, but I want to share it because of the light it throws on the United States in which I grew up.

Andreas Papandreou was the son of a liberal Greek family, born in 1919.  In the late 1930s he got into trouble with the military dictatorship that ruled his native land and managed to emigrate to the US.  He earned a Ph.d in Economics at Harvard.After joining the Navy and becoming a US citizen, Papandreous began a distinguished career in various American universities, becoming the chairman of the Economics Department at UC Berkeley during the 1950s.  In 1959 he returned to Greece and eventually joined the government of his father George, a leading liberal. He became a target of the right wing.

In 1967 the Greek political crisis culminated in a military coup.  (These were the events that were the basis for the magnificent French film Z in 1969.)  Andreas Papandreou was arrested, and press reports suggested that he might be shot.  Economists around the country contacted their colleague John Kenneth Galbraith, who had served in the Kennedy Administration but was now back at Harvard, to see what he could do.  Galbraith had written speeches for President Johnson early in his tenure, but he hadn't spoken to him for two years because he opposed the Vietnam War,   Galbraith called the White House and managed to get his plea to intercede with the Greek government to save Papandreou's life through to LBJ through an aide, Joe Califano.

Walt Rostow, the National Security Adviser, was also a Cambridge-based economist, and Johnson asked him what he knew about Papanndresou.  Rostow replied that he was not very nice, and that he had left some poker debts and "angry women" behind when he left Berkeley.  Johnson--who had made some women angry himself--was not impressed. "That's not a reason to kill a man," he said.  Lste that night, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach called Galbraith and read him a note he had received from the President.  "Nick: Call Ken Galbraith and tell him I've told those Greek bastards to lay off that son of a bitch, whoever he is."  Papandreou was eventually released on condition that he leave the country.  After the military regime fell in 1974, he returned and became Prime Minister.

The story fascinates me because of the light it sheds on the nature of the Democratic Party from approximately 1933 until 1968 or so--a party that crossed geographical, political and cultural lines, bringing together certain constituencies that had very little in common in pursuit of certain important goals.  At or near the center of that coalition for most of the period 1938-68 was Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Johnson was certainly a bundle of contradictions that reflected the very diverse nature of the United States.   He came from Texas, a state of the old Confederacy, but he had worked in a New Deal agency and won election to Congress and the Senate as a New Dealer.  In 1940 he may have saved the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives by raising money from Texas oil men and funneling it to Democratic candidates around the country.  Johnson's views on civil rights early in his career, as Robert Caro has shown, were not advanced even by southern standards, and even in the White House, I can testify, he referred to "niggers" occasionally when talking to fellow white southerners.  (The editors of the transcripts of his phone conversations changed the word to "nigras," but I heard at least one tape myself and I know what he said.)  But Johnson by 1957, when he was Senate Majority Leader, knew that as a presidential candidate he had to make some kind of a civil rights record for himself, and he shepherded two rather tentative civil rights bills through Congress in 1957 and 1960.  He did not secure the nomination in 1960, of course, but he became JFK's Vice President because he represented the Deep South, where Kennedy needed critical electoral votes to win.  He got them.  Then, in November 1963, Johnson became President.

An omnibus civil rights bill calling for equal access to public accommodations was then before the Congress, and Johnson used both his legislative skills and the nation's grief over JFK to get it through by the next summer. In the spring of 1965 he followed that up with the Voting Rights act.  Meanwhile, he was pushing through the Great Society, including Medicare, a poverty program, aid to education, and a new immigration act.  The Voting Rights Act was about to shear white Southerners off from the Democratic coalition for generations to come, but for the time being, at least some Southern Democrats could still cooperate with Johnson on economic and social legislation.

The Democratic coalition, meanwhile, also included intellectuals like John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard and Walt Rostow of MIT.  Their generation of economists turns out to have been almost unique in American history, insofar as they believed in a vigorous fiscal role for the government to maintain economic growth and high employment.  Today their counterparts at Harvard and MIT would probably be either conservatives or neoliberals like Larry Summers.  Johnson was no intellectual.  He had read very few books in his life and he felt at an intellectual disadvantage in front of Kennedy's team. But he knew intellectuals could provide important help, not least because they could write good speeches for him.  He could also grasp the key elements of economic questions, as I heard listening to taped discussions between him and his economic advisers.  Johnson trusted Rostow--most of all because Rostow loyally supported the Vietnam War--and he respected Galbraith.  That helped save Papandreou's life.

Today the Democratic Party has been eliminated from the government in Washington and from a vast majority of states.  It remains for than ever the party of American intellectuals, but any link between them and the mass of the people outside of the two coasts appears to have been severed.  And the retreat from the New Deal that began in the 1970s, combined with the reaction to the Civil Rights movement in the white South, destroyed the possibility of an interregional coalition.  There is not one Democratic Senator now, liberal or conservative, from the whole Deep South.  In particular there is no one remotely like Lyndon Johnson, whose racial attitudes certainly evolved and who made his career serving as a bridge between Texas oil men and construction magnates on the one hand, and northern and western liberals on the other.

Today's Americans demand purity from their politicians, both among Republicans and Democrats.  They would rather keep their tents homogeneous than enlarge them.  Given that we have certainly not eliminated white racists from American political life, is it really better than virtually all of them now vote for one party?  That is also what happened on the eve of the civil war, and it is very bad for America. Both parties seem wedded to the idea that those who oppose fundamental aspects of their party ideology do not count.  That attitude will only dig us deeper into the hole that we have dug.


Bozon said...


This is a very informative and engrossing post. There is one point I want to discuss briefly, since you still think that most white racists have always been in the South.

You appear to say that they were in only the Democratic Party, in the South, as they are seemingly now only in the Republican:

"...Given that we have certainly not eliminated white racists from American political life, is it really better than virtually all of them now vote for one party? That is also what happened on the eve of the civil war, and it is very bad for America...." DK

This seems to be what most people, not just you, in the US, have been taught since the Civil War itself and still think as an article of faith.

That was not at all the case, back then, even if it is more so, perhaps, now.

One can look, for example, at the fine book, "The Unexpurgated Lincoln-Douglas Debates".

Lincoln made extensive use of Northern white racism, white racist fear, worse even than Southern white racist fear of emancipation, based on a supposed conspiracy to nationalize slavery,to get elected, although he lost the senate election, the subject of the debates,to Doublas.

Look especially at the Index, Slavery, Conspiracy to Nationalize. It was this fear among Northern whites, of racial mixing, stirred up by politicians and preachers like Lincoln, probably more than anything else, that later got him elected President. He literally traded on and won the Presidency based on Northern white racism.

All the best

Energyflow said...

If I consider my father and his generation, mostly dead now, mid 90s in age, a certain grudging acceptance of black colleagues, working class as he was and from north but certainly a democrat working class type. My mother, from an educated middle class background probably considered his attitudes in many senses like racial concepts to be primitive but was certainly more conservatiive politically. So political attitude was basically a class/ education/income matter. Nowadays it has become a regional/racial matter. My brothers are divided liberal/conservative according to current scheme and I vote interests of time. I believed Obama was good but became disappointed.I did not suddenly turn into a hillbilly racist to support Trump. Rather I believed that the establishment was against the population. A realignment is taking place now once again against the parties in power if Trump and Sanders are any indication of trends. Republicans have opened themselves reluctantly to this new trend, democrats have cordoned themselves off and are suffering electorally accordingly. Cultural divisions are not artificial at all bu, as in the previous era, must notneccessarily define political allegiance. Class warfare, after the end of communism, seems old fashioned, outdated so ethnic/regional/religious sensibilities define who we are. This is the case in Europe, Middle East, India, etc as well. Rationalism and education had a peak in 1950s. Perhaps dumbing down of population through TV made people lazy mentally. At any rate we are reverting to type. Working class previously was a culture of hard labour from birth or school leaving at least. Nowadays everyone goes to college, can sit at a dek job, drive a nice car, have a house belive they are middle class. Class is a state of mind. If I live in a cool area, cut hair, eat ethnic food, read poetry but am poor I believe I am elite. A UAW factory worker inTennessee earning much more might be culturally far away from that. Now those factory jobs are disappearing the divide culturally becomes a fight for power, survival. So maybe only money distributed evenly acrioss whole spectrum or a feeling of wealth through cultural benefits kept the peace. Now everyone is suffering and mutual stereotypes become regional hatreds. So, like the EU, America is not really a country, but a concept, waiting for a crisis to show up the contradictions.

Unknown said...

Interesting glimpse into a different time. The past seems more than ever like a foreign country!

Society is at its strongest when the intellectuals and the masses are politically aligned. This was achieved during the High of the post war period, but began to fracture during LBJs tenure. The Atlantic had a great article recently on this: "How the Left Losr its Populist Roots".

Unknown said...

Thanks Mr.Kaiser, this article just prompted me (a millennial) to read up on LBJs "Great Society".

It seems that this vision set the groundwork for much of modern Leftism and Democratic policy since... Racial equality, National Public Radio, Environmental Protection, Arts and Humanities, etc..

Right at the outset of the Awakening, 20th Century Political Leftism was being forged into policy...?