Featured image created by Sam Nystrom-Costales
Jeremi Suri is undoubtedly one of the most famous historians of American foreign relations and the Cold War. In addition to his academic publications, he’s also well known for his media appearances and podcast, This is Democracy. Historifans co-founders, Alex Marino and Danielle Sanchez, sat down with Jeremi Suri to chat about his new book, Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy, and American pop culture. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
If you haven’t read Part I of the interview, you can find it here.
Alex Marino: In Part I of the interview, you said that United States President Andrew Johnson “represented a group of Tennessee tailors like himself and other small business people who were struggling.” He came to office after running as a patriotic Southerner on a National Union ticket with Abraham Lincoln. Too often, people overlook his political motives and say “Oh, you have this Southerner in charge, so of course he’s going to promote the Old South coming back.”
Jeremi Suri: He does things, as I talk about in the book, to undermine the white plantation elite. He’s about the white working class, even though he doesn’t use exactly this language. It’s actually this commitment to the white working class that, in some ways, makes him more virulently anti-black because there’s more of a threat from those communities. I’m glad you brought this up, because one of the things I learned while doing the research is that when Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, Johnson became the President and was basically a dictator until December 1865 because Congress didn’t meet until then. So the election was in November, inauguration was in March, and the new Congress wasn’t seated until that December. Johnson had all the war powers of Lincoln without Congress there to stop him. No one elected this guy. This is a major flaw in our system, and it explains so much because Congress was pushing in one direction, and it doesn’t make sense that Republicans controlled everything in Congress. Still, Johnson had all of the enforcement power and didn’t enforce anything. That’s the story. He’s one of our worst presidents… but also happens to be one of the most consequential presidents, too.
Danielle Sanchez: You mentioned Johnson’s virulent anti-blackness, so I want to talk about race. One of the major critiques of shows like Bridgerton, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, and House of the Dragon is that they’re strengthening representations of people of color, but they’re not really interrogating racism. At the same time, there are many people on the right who are freaking out about a black actress playing a mythical creature in Disney’s live-action film, The Little Mermaid. I’m curious about how the politicization of these debates on representation connect to what you are discussing in your book.
JS: These issues are front and center. One of the things I hope my book shows is that these are not new debates at all. After the Civil War, people in the North and the South were deeply uncomfortable with the idea of formerly enslaved people now having constitutional claims. It was a shock and there was a lot of resistance to what was seen as a reconfiguration of American society. People were very uncomfortable with this and it played out not simply in the politics of who got elected and who didn’t, but also in who should define what Americanness is and what the country is about. I think these issues of representation are issues of that fundamental political question. Who has a seat at the table? Who doesn’t? One of the reasons that many Confederates refused to go along with these changes was that they were culturally uncomfortable. They were deeply uncomfortable with having Black men in Congress. This vitriol was also visible when the United States elected a Black man to become the 44th President of the United States.
I try to show there was an attempt to hold onto a white image of the United States as a reaction to the ways other communities gained access to constitutional rights. Holding onto that white image of the US became even more important for many people. Something similar is happening today. Another way of putting it: It’s a sign of insecurity for those who see change happening around them to react against these representations in vitriolic ways.
AM: There aren’t a lot of movies about Reconstruction, but we have tons of movies about the Civil War and antebellum life in the South as some kind of lost ideal. Gone With the Wind is a great example of this. Before Gone with the Wind, there was the infamous film, The Birth of a Nation, which actually did discuss Reconstruction-era change–in a way that disastrously led to the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Why do you think we have so many Civil War films and so few Reconstruction movies?
JS: First off, there’s so little glamor during Reconstruction. It’s a messy time. It’s the same reason we don’t have a lot of films set during the 1930s: the 1920s are much more glamorous. The world of Gatsby is much more interesting. So much of Reconstruction was a struggle over how to rebuild cities, how to allocate land, how to repress or support the Ku Klux Klan. That just doesn’t make for interesting television or exciting drama. Reconstruction was a time of struggle and a lot of really horrific things happened in our own country. The only way you can make glory out of it is to do what DW Griffith did in The Birth of a Nation, and actually glorify the violence and racism. Thankfully most producers don’t want to do that.
DS: The idea of glorifying the violence and racism of Reconstruction reminds me of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which shows the continuation of America’s Reconstruction divide into the 1970s in Colorado Springs, which was not part of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Have you seen BlacKkKlansman?
JS: I think the film does a marvelous job of showing the legacies of Reconstruction, and Spike Lee really pulls at your strings. The character that really jumps out to me most from BlacKkKlansman is Connie Kendrickson (played by Ashlie Atkinson), who is the wife of one of the Klan leaders. She’s a white working-class woman who is navigating life in the 1970s while also trying to find love in her marriage. She wants status in society and the way she finds it is by becoming a rabid racist and joining the performance of racism. There’s even a scene where she, her husband (played by Jasper Pääkkönen), and the other Klansmen watch The Birth of a Nation after a new member induction meeting for the Klan. They cheer and throw things at the screen while watching the film. It captures one of the central themes that became clear to me while I was doing this research: racism and paramilitary violence have a crowd effect and can pull people in.
For many of the class issues we discussed before, it’s not just about race. This was and is a way of asserting your part in the in-group. It’s a way of showing that you have power. I talk a lot in the book about things like the Memphis Riot, and efforts by white communities to not simply take property from African Americans, but to rape women, to emasculate men, to do all these horrible things and the participants, many of them are just horrible rabid racists… but some of them are people who were trying to get ahead in life. The way to get ahead for many of them was to join a paramilitary unit like the Klan, and that’s a really difficult subject to talk about. There is this whole body of historical research on the Ku Klux Klan as a business enterprise, and this doesn’t mean that the Klan was making a bunch of money as an organization, but that the KKK was a way of bringing people together, forming business connections, forming what we often call “social capital.”
AM: I want to go back to Cold War pop culture, since so much of your earlier work was situated in the Cold War. We know that you are a James Bond fan. What do you think about the uproar surrounding the next James Bond, who might not be a middle-aged white guy?
JS: These contestations in popular culture tell us a lot about politics. In this case, a lot of the tensions in the US right now are connected to the fact that we are not a white male country, but we still predominantly have white male political leaders. Barack Obama was conscious of these tensions that sparked so much resistance. It truly evokes the 1870s. After Obama we went to two figures: the old male Chauvinist and the good grandpa. Where do we go next? I think Kamala Harris has struggled in this space as Vice President, representing a further step in one direction, but one that clearly people are uncomfortable with—that’s not to blame her—but it is to say how hard these things are, and how revealing popular culture becomes for us. If we can have a Black James Bond, maybe that means we can also have another black president. Whether they cast a Black, South Asian, Indigenous, or white James Bond, I am certain that we will hear a lot of conversations about the political implications of the casting decision moving forward.
Dr. Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. He’s a professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs. He’s written numerous books on American history, and particularly the American Presidency and American Foreign Relations. His latest book, Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy came out on October 18, 2022. You can purchase a copy of the book here. Twitter: @jeremisuri
Dr. Alex Marino is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College. His research focuses on the American Foreign Policy and U.S.-Africa relations. Top five fandoms: Star Wars, Star Trek, Civilization, The Sopranos, and Dune. He credits childhood favorites Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park for his interest in becoming a professor and spends his free time streaming shows and watching the Lakers and Chargers. All views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army War College, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense. Twitter: @Alex_J_Marino
Dr. Danielle Sanchez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Colorado College. Her research focuses on the Second World War in Africa, specifically popular culture, consumption, and social movements in francophone and lusophone Africa. She teaches a range of pop culture and history courses, but her favorites are Health and Healing in African History, The Empires Strike Back: From Anti-Colonial Resistance to Star Wars, and Writing Graphic Histories. Her nerdy obsessions include knitting, roller derby, Star Wars, contemporary romance novels, and the MCU. Twitter: @drdanisanchez