American Democracy in Trouble? Not if You’re a Student of American History!

To anyone who believes we’re living in the most turbulent times in our history, I would contend that he/she doesn’t know or understand American or world history. The events of January 6th, while a terrible day in our country for sure, pales in comparison to McCarthyism, Japanese internment camps or separate but equal for people of color. I’m not even going back to pre-13th Amendment, when owning human beings was legal. So, let’s limit the melodrama. We have always lived a history of turmoil surrounded by brief periods of calm. To those who declare the end of democracy in this country, I give you a very short but turbulent history of the 20th century.

Let’s begin the 20th century with the assassination of President McKinley in 1901. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes President. In 1912, the year the Titanic sank, there was an assassination attempt on Theodore Roosevelt while campaigning for the Presidency in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Despite being shot, Roosevelt went on with his speech, stating that “it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose”, hence the Bull Moose Party. In 1917, the US enters WWI. There are greater than 116,500 American casualties. The 1920’s may have been “roaring” but short lived. In 1929, the Wall Street Crash signaled the beginning of the Great Depression. Women finally received the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

The 1930’s were dominated by the Depression, when 24.9% of Americans were unemployed. Food lines, homelessness and a general malaise were all too present, according to what my grandparents described. The US essentially stays out of WWII, providing only military assistance at first. The Holocaust or Final Solution escalated following Kristallnacht in November 1938, when the Nazi’s systematically exterminated six million Jews, while the US did nothing. In fact, FDR and others in the State Department, claiming the Jews could be German Nazi spies, rejected Jews seeking asylum in the US. Seven million non-Jews would also die in the Nazi concentration camps. It should also be noted that that the decade marked the worst drought in American history in the Plains, pre climate change. The once arable soil turned to dust and was blown away by wind. Hence the term “Dust Bowl”.

The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, was our entrance into WWII. With the economy still in shambles, being drafted or enlisting all but assured “3 squares” as my father, a WWII Navy veteran used to say. For Japanese Americans it meant being sent to camps by none other than FDR, following his signing of Executive Order 9066. It was intended to prevent espionage on American soil. It didn’t matter that they were Americans. Two things the war did for the country in addition to saving the world from tyranny, is unify it and help bring about the end of the depression. More than 405,000 Americans lost their lives in WWII. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, playing in Ebbets Field. But it was to be a hard-fought battle until he was fully accepted in all of the ballparks around the League.

The 1950’s, ushered in another war, this one in Korea, (1950-1953). A war that ended without any conclusion but sacrificed over 36,000 young, brave lives. An assassination attempt, the second attempt on President Harry Truman, was made at Blair House while the White House was being renovated. McCarthyism: a campaign primarily carried out between 1950-1954, by Joseph McCarthy, a Republican, US Senator from Wisconsin, when almost anyone could be accused of being a Communist. People lost their jobs and were blacklisted despite very little evidence to prove their association with the Communist Party. It was essentially a “witch hunt”, an assassination of human and Constitutional rights. People of color were still forced to ride in the back of the bus and use separate facilities. Change began in 1954 with Brown vs. Board of Ed and Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus in 1955, which launched the Civil Rights Movement.

The 1960’s, perhaps our most turbulent decade, saw us enter, or more correctly escalate us, in to yet another war. The conflict actually started in the mid 1950’s and was undeclared. Our involvement in Viet Nam, which claimed another 58,200 brave soldiers, was based on the notion that we needed to stop Russian expansionism and therefore the spread of Communism. The Draft was reinstated and off to war we went. It continued and escalated until the body bags of our young soldiers started returning home. The Bay of Pigs debacle which precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis, was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. November of 1963, President John F Kennedy, assassinated in Dallas. February,1965 Malcolm X assassinated in Manhattan. April,1968 Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in Memphis, TN. June,1968, Presidential hopeful, Bobby Kennedy assassinated in Los Angeles, CA. At the same time, the Civil Rights Movement, Peace Movement, Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, and Muhammad Ali refusing to report for service in Viet Nam as a conscientious objector, saw this country more divided than at any other time in its history, including today. Can’t leave out murderer Charles Manson who terrified the entire nation by his and his follower’s heinous acts.

The 1970’s brought an end to the Viet Nam War but also the resignation of President Nixon due to the Watergate break in coverup. With the election of Jimmy Carter there was renewed hope but instead the country experienced out of control inflation, 20% interest rates, and high unemployment. That was followed by another devasting event in US history, the Iranian hostage crisis in November of 1979. Our Iranian Embassy staff was held in captivity for 444 days. The medical treatment and refuge provided to the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, after he was forced from power, precipitated the Hostage crisis.

The 1980s brought in new hope with a new president, Ronald Reagan. He was what the country needed at the time and made us believe once again, that America was the greatest country on earth. The US Hockey team won Gold at the 1980 Olympic Games. The economy vastly improved. Everything seemed to be going well and then people stated dying from a previously unknown auto immune disease, termed AIDS. I lost a number of friends, and it was so tragic because if you tested positive for HIV in the early days of the virus, it was a death sentence. No possibility of parole. AIDS created turmoil because it was an excuse for homophobes to show their hatred. With Ronald Reagan riding an unprecedented wave of approval, having won 49 of the 50 states in the 1984 election, the Iran Contra Affair was brought to light. To those unaware, the US was selling arms to our enemy, Iran while there was an embargo in place. We were going to use the proceeds from those arms sales, to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, so they could fight the Socialist Sandinistas. It was a scandal and left a scar on Reagan’s Presidency.

I will end with the 1990’s and the first Gulf War, because I believe I’ve made my point. Once again, we were engaged in combat as we shipped off our brave young men and women to defeat Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait. It was the correct thing to do, but another conflict followed by another war in Iraq. In 2001, the world changed forever. To this day all anyone need say is 9/11 and you will be understood around the world. It was the start of a new era. There’s a before and after 9/11.

I could have easily expanded this list, but it would have required many pages to do so. I didn’t mention the Civil war when over a million Americans lost their lives and is still the bloodiest war in our history. So before deciding that our Democracy is near collapse and the radical right or the radical left are trying to bring down our Democracy, you must remember that throughout our history, we have been faced with greater challenges than what we’re facing today.

The US hasn’t instituted a military draft in almost 50 years. The fact that we’re dealing with issues like gender, demonstrates how far we’ve come, not how long we still have to go. We’re not there yet, but far from the end of our Democracy. Historically, we have always surfaced from the deepest depths and emerged stronger than before. This will continue to be the case as future generations are born into a world made better by previous generations.

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