Blinken’s America

At the end of last month, after Joe Biden had announced him as his choice for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken gave a speech that included a short version of a story that he had grown up with and has told many times before. After four years in a Nazi concentration camp, Blinken’s stepfather, Samuel Pisar, escaped from a death march. In the woods somewhere in Bavaria, he came across an American tank, which turned out to be from the 761st Tank Battalion – an African-American unit that formed part of General George S. Patton’s Third Army. Blinken has said before that a black American soldier “lifted him into the tank, into America, into freedom”. (Pisar tells the story himself here, though he does not say the soldier was black.) This time Blinken concluded by saying: “That’s who we are. That’s what America represents to the world, however imperfectly.”

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American power and racism

Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, I have been reading a lot about the American Civil War, which suddenly feels extremely relevant – especially after Charlottesville. In my last post, I mentioned David Blight’s Race and Reunion, a study of the memory of the Civil War in the fifty years following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It brilliantly shows how, during that period, a sectional reconciliation took place that was based on Southern terms and thus entrenched racism in America. But as a foreign policy analyst, I was particularly interested in Blight’s discussion of American imperialism at a time of worsening race relations in 1890s, which it seemed to me raises difficult questions about the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and race relations in America.

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The meaning of Appomattox

In February 2017, a month after the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, the veteran U.S. diplomat Dan Fried gave a much-covered retirement speech that included the following line: “The option of a White Man’s Republic ended at Appomattox.” It was an extraordinary thing for a senior American diplomat to feel the need to say in 2017 and the line was on my mind a lot as I read more about the American Civil War in the months that followed and visited Appomattox last autumn. But increasingly it seemed to me that Fried was wrong. The “option of a White Man’s Republic” should have ended at Appomattox. But what was happening in America, and in particular what happened in Charlottesville (60 miles from Appomattox) in the summer of 2017, showed that it hadn’t – at least in the minds of some Americans.

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