Essay by Keith Rankin.
There is more than one useful perspective on the present Russian war in Ukraine. None of these put the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin’s Russian war machine in anything other than an egregious light; Mr Putin is a geopolitical warrior of the worst order. He believes that he is waging a war against the treasonous secession of a territory that, in the view of him and many other Russians, should be an integral part of a Russian/Slavic ethno-political union.
(It is important to note that the western coalition of countries has a very different view. In the western view, the Soviet Union was dissolved, giving birth to fifteen sovereign, unaligned and autonomous nation states. The objective reality for almost all countries is of course some point in between full independence and some subjection to a higher or bigger authority.)
Putin’s badness does not however make good all those who would wage rhetorical or physical war against Russia. Further, most of history is scripted by the winners of conflicts. And as time passes, particular agendas come to the fore, reflecting ephemeral cultural concerns which inevitably influence different generations of historians.
One of today’s most prevalent cultural concerns is racism, and rightly so. A result, though, is that historical events come to be seen almost entirely through an ahistorical lens; in the case of 2020, the liberal anti-racism lens. Thus World War Two (WW2), more than ever, is understood as a fascist racist genocide against Jews; and that ‘the liberal west’ were fighting tooth and nail against the racist fascist Nazis because they were racist and fascist. Likewise, the United States’ Civil War of 1861-1865 is understood by many as a simple battle of good versus evil, black versus white; an anti-racist North fighting to the death against the racist slavers in the South, in order to free the ethnically African slaves.
In reality, both of these tumultuous conflicts were principally about something else; though the ‘bad guys’ were infused with self-serving views of racial superiority. War crimes were committed aplenty by all sides in these conflicts. In WW2, the principal motivation of the German aggressors – under the sway of both the Nazi government and substantial grievances carried over from WW1 – was ‘lebensraum‘, a desire to expand the greater German nation into the ‘Slavic’ territories to Germany’s east, including an expansion into Ukraine’s wheatlands and Russia’s oilfields beyond. Thus the central component of Nazi racism was the convenient belief that Slavs were an inferior people; a natural labouring caste. In the West, we continue to be unaware – through convenient ignorance – that WW2 (and WW1 for that matter) were principally struggles between Teutons and Slavs. (With the proviso that WW2 was also made up of another war of Japanese imperialism, in which Japan’s elite had also granted itself a conviction of ‘far-eastern’ racial superiority.)
The Jews on the other hand were not presented as racial inferiors; rather, they were presented by German nationalists – and by just about all other ethnically-European peoples including the Slavs – as a ‘devious but clever’ ethnic/religious people. The Jews were the ever-present scapegoat ‘race’ who have inherited that role for much of the history of Christianity. Many of the worst pogroms against Jews took place around the time of the Black Death in the fourteenth century; Jews were accused of poisoning the water-wells as a means to genocide, and suffered brutal backlashes as a result of those easily disprovable claims. In the fifty years from 1875 to 1925, the worst anti-Jewish pogroms took place in the western parts of ‘greater Russia’, including the early Soviet Union. And they continued in the Baltic States and Ukraine before the Germans arrived. The West – including the English-speaking West – was generally unsympathetic; many liberal westerners believed in the anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and, on that point at least, had some empathy towards the German Nazis.
Wars of Secession
The conflict that I will most focus on is that of the American ‘Civil War’. But we should note that secessions from de jure or de facto political unions are angst-ridden and usually violent affairs. Working backwards, Brexit was certainly angst-ridden, though was fortunately achieved without warfare. Other recent secession states also substantially avoided bloodshed: Slovakia and Slovenia, for example. And the three ex-Soviet Baltic States did manage to shift into both Nato and the European Union, again without bloodshed. Other secessions from ex-Soviet states did take place, militarily though successfully. The attempted secession of Chechnya from Russia was an unsuccessful and bloody affair.
Outside of the former Soviet Union, the secessions from the former Yugoslavia of Bosnia and Kosovo were bloody, and are still incomplete. The attempted secession of Catalonia from Spain failed. The secession from Sudan of South Sudan was a bloody success, though the new country continues to have many problems including tribal division.
Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1991, after a long war of independence. Sadly, Eritrea continued to be entangled with wars in Ethiopia. And it descended into becoming what might best be described as the ‘Stalinist’ state which it is today. Eritrea voted with Syria and Belarus in the UN General Assembly in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the mid-2010s, Eritrea – per capita – was a very significant source Mediterranean ‘boat people’ refugees.
In the 1970s, the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan was a successful though bloody affair. The attempted secession of Biafra from Nigeria was a bloody failure. Much more recently, the long Sr Lankan Civil War – a failed secession attempt by northern Tamils – ended in a bloodbath. The successful secession of Algeria from France in the 1960s was also a very bloody affair.
In the Caribbean, a number of countries seceded from their quasi-American de facto colonial realities: especially Cuba and Nicaragua. Two other attempted secessions were put down militarily through United States ‘gunboat diplomacy’; Grenada in the 1980s and the Dominican Republic in the 1960s. Across the Pacific, Philippines suffered similarly in 1900.
In the late 1910s and early 1920s, Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom, a secession which included a rebellion and a civil war. Similar events occurred in Finland around the same time, as that country seceded from Russia. (Finland, by the way, could have been the model for Ukraine, in the early 2020s. An opportunity tragically squandered.)
A final country worth mentioning is Haiti, which successfully though bloodily (and with the help of an epidemic disease, yellow fever) seceded from France 220 years ago. Haiti’s secession was an uprising of plantation slaves; of Africans, transplanted into the ‘new world’, creating a neo-Africa which (like Eritrea) has been unable to live up to the aspirations of its founders. In all parts of the world, the road to post-secession success is commonly riddled with disappointments.
The US Civil War: The Confederate Secession
In 1860 the ‘Union’ of the United States of America was made up of 33 semi-autonomous states, divided informally into southern and eastern ‘slave states’ and northern and western ‘free states’. Seven of the former states seceded from the Union as the ‘Confederacy’ in February 1861, just weeks before the inauguration of newly elected president Abraham Lincoln. Hostilities began in April with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, a major Union military site now in Confederate territory.
Thus, Lincoln’s hand was somewhat forced in the direction of suppressing the secession. But it’s unlikely that Lincoln could have tolerated the secession for long, even had the Fort Sumter attack not taken place. After Lincoln called for troops to put down the secession, four more slave states joined the confederacy, including Virginia, adjacent to Washington DC. Washington itself was surrounded by slave states, with Maryland and Delaware – slave states to the north of the federal capital – showing divided loyalties.
By 1860, before the Civil War, the two-party political divide had become established, with the Democratic Party (founded by Thomas Jefferson) prevailing in the slave states, and Lincoln’s Republican Party prevailing in the free states. Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, had been a Democratic president.
The Civil War that followed lasted for four years and cost more lives in the United States than all other wars (before and after) combined. Latest estimates give an overall death toll of 750,000 in a country of just over 30 million people. The accepted number of civilian deaths is 50,000; although it was almost certainly higher. The demographic technique used to raise the death toll to 750,000 from 620,000 was based on comparisons between the 1860 and 1870 censuses, and focussed only on additional male deaths (using females as a control).
The Civil War was pursued by Lincoln as a war against secession, not a war against slavery; although of course the ‘right’ to maintain slaves was at the core of the secessionary movement. We should not presume that this was a war of northern anti-racists versus southern racists. Indeed the problem of ideological racism in the imperialist west was really only getting started in the 1860s, as the ideas of Social Darwinism took hold. Racism was becoming endemic throughout the western world; and, as well, it should be understood that tribalist and sectarian forms of racism were pretty much endemic in the non-western world.
Slavery was understood in 1860 as essentially a labour issue, rather than as a race issue. The division between north and south reflected divergent economic development, with the south taking a liberal free trade position (seeing its future in agrarian terms), whereas the north was pursuing a protectionist model of economic development through industrialisation and its need to stablish a strong domestic market for locally produced manufactured goods.
The Civil War became a particularly nasty war, fought mostly on Confederate territory, which became for a long time a military stalemate. From a Confederate point of view, this was a war of defence; defence of their territory from the destruction and depredation being inflicted by an invading force, a force superior in numbers but inferior in passion.
The Confederates miscalculated, in the sense that they hoped for much more support – including direct military support – from the United Kingdom and possibly France; the United Kingdom in particular was committed to the liberal free trade cost-competitive model of economic development. Nevertheless, the Confederate armies put up an amazing fight.
What were the counterfactuals? If Lincoln had withdrawn after Fort Sumter, and accepted the secession of the original seven states, then the savagery could have been avoided, and the slave issue would have been eventually resolved, probably as it was resolved in Brazil in the 1880s. But a display of apparent weakness on Lincoln’s part might have encouraged the remaining eight slave states to join the secession, leaving Washington DC – the Union capital – as a geographical enclave. And such apparent weakness could easily have led to further secessions in the mid-west and far-west. Had the secession succeeded, the USA today might have just been Pennsylvania, New York and New England.
An import part of the Civil War, and its brutality, was the ‘scorched earth’ deployment of Union troops through Georgia in 1864 – General Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’. Many wars of attrition have since followed that model of wanton destruction of land and people. The Georgia campaign may have been, literally, overkill. Could Lincoln have suppressed the secession with a lesser level of destruction?
What if Lincoln’s troops had lost the war? Today he would be zero rather than hero; known as a maker of widows. Perhaps a war criminal in light of the Georgia campaign? Washington would have become capital of a US Confederate state which would have gained international recognition soon enough; and slaves would have been freed eventually, decades later. Once matters get taken so far, there is no going back; there’s only victory or ignominy. Abraham Lincoln, like Julius Caesar, crossed his Rubicon.
Epilogue: The Great American Political Realignment
The origins of the Democratic Party lie in the southern plantations and in Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian dream of white liberal yeoman autonomy. The Republican Party – and its forerunner, the Federalist Party – began with Alexander Hamilton’s commitment to industrialisation and grew with the subsequent development of big business in the northern states. Jefferson was a libertarian slave-owning patrician. The more conservative Hamilton was of humbler origins, born in the British West Indies as the result of an ex-nuptial union; rumours that his mother was of ‘mixed race’ have not been substantiated. (Certainly, Jefferson had children of mixed race.) Hamilton would almost certainly have become an early American president; that is, had he not been killed in a duel.
A quick purview of the 1920 presidential election results shows a substantial win to the Republican Party. The alignment of red (Republican) and blue (Democrat) states very much reflected the conflicting origins of the two parties. The 2004 election, again a Republican victory, shows a near complete geographical switch. All the blue states in 1920 were red in 2004. And all the blue states in 2004 were red in 1920. The geographic switch largely happened in the 1970s and 1980s, though Bill Clinton being a southerner raised the Democrat vote in the 1990s in the south to higher levels than might otherwise have occurred.
Yet the Democrats continue to be the party of liberalism (although some aspects of the meaning of ‘liberalism’ in America have changed), and the Republicans continue to be the party of conservatism. As the party of liberalism, the Democrats have always been the party of internationalism, hence the greater and ongoing propensity of the Democrats to participate – or at least align – in international conflicts. Historically the more nationalist Republicans have taken a more neutral stance than the Democrats with respect to conflicts in Europe and Asia, preferring not to get involved.
The American Civil War was, in part, a desire on the part of the South to remain internationally connected; to sell cotton and tobacco to Europe, and to buy goods – and labourers – on the world market. The South paid a very high price in its quest to maintain its version of the good life. The North won a great victory, and then freed the slaves; Abraham Lincoln won his venerated place in history.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.