Contemporary Issues

Original brick armory topped by blue onion dome with gold stars.
Coltsville National Historical Site / Image by the author.

By Nick DeLuca

A version of this post was originally published by History News Network.

On August 18, President Joe Biden nominated Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III to serve as National Park Service Director. The appointment is important for two reasons in particular: first, Sams III could be the first Native American to lead the National Park Service; second, Sams III could be the first person since the Obama administration to hold the position in an official capacity. Both are contingent on the Senate confirmation process, which is a relatively new prerequisite for the top parks job.

On the surface it seems arbitrary that Congress would decide one day in 1996 to throw out the old way of doing things and instead require the president to choose a director with consent of the Senate. Understanding how this came to be is important for understanding the current state of our national parks system and our most treasured landscapes and resources.

US national parks are supremely popular among the American people, and the National Park Service is one of the most favorably viewed of all government agencies. This might lead some to believe that the parks system sits above the political fray. However, America’s parks system has on more than one occasion served as an arena for political posturing and power dynamics, and continues to at present.

Virtually all of the national parks established by Congress prior to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 were headed up by political appointees at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior. A notable exception was Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 as the world’s first national park, which was overseen for more than two decades by the US Army.

Lamar River weaving through the foggy Lamar Valley in Yellowstone.
Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park / Image by the author.

In the case of Yellowstone, park mismanagement and unsatisfactory protection of the environment by its first superintendents in the Department of the Interior convinced Congress in 1883 to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to call upon the Secretary of War for assistance if needed. This meant using the strength of the military to preserve the land, conserve wildlife and resources, and exclude, often violently, Native Americans from entering park boundaries. In 1886 the interior department called upon the war department. The Army would occupy and run Yellowstone until 1918.

President Woodrow Wilson enacted the law creating the National Park Service in 1916, granting the interior secretary power to appoint park service directors and assistant directors. Interior secretaries would enjoy this prerogative until the mid-1990s, an 80-year span.

The shape and administration of the park service has evolved since its creation in the early 20th century. It grew in size and scope, added and recategorized sites of national historic significance, and reached into dense urban centers. But the mid-1990s brought on a more divisive brand of politics.

The Republican Revolution and Our Parks System

In the 1994 midterm elections, the so-called “Republican Revolution” ushered in the first Republican majority in Congress since the 1950s.

The Republican victory was undergirded by the Contract with America, a conservative agenda inspired by Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union speech and supported by research from the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. This legislative roadmap was meant to reinstate the Reagan administration’s goals of reducing the government’s role in private sector regulation and social safety infrastructure. Reagan’s deregulation mandate seeped into the National Park Service.

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By Marla Miller, Past@Present Editor

In Spring 2021, the Hatfield Historical Society received funding from Mass Humanities for an innovative project to explore how best to recruit and support digital volunteers; the work will unfold over summer and winter 2021-22 and conclude in early 2022.  Like many small local history organizations, the society grapples with issues of accessibility that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Digital engagement seems like a possible solution, but how might the HHS (and groups like it) engage and train mostly senior volunteers in a way that will fulfill existing needs for the Society, and incorporate the skills, interests and social needs of the volunteers?  To explore those questions, the HHS has received grant funding to consider how best to build a vibrant and sustainable volunteer program.  To contribute to the process, the HHS project will tap the experience and insight of two members of the UMass Amherst History community: alumnus Robert Forrant and Public History Program director Marla Miller.  In the interview below, Kathie Gow, curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum, Forrant and Miller discuss the project’s aims and potential, work that will surely be of interest to organizations across Massachusetts.

MRM: Kathie, can you kick us off by sharing a little bit about how you came to develop this project?  What activities will the grant funds support?

KG: When Meguey Baker (Hatfield Historical Museum Collections Assistant) and I sat down in January to discuss the coming year’s priorities — based on more general priorities set by the Hatfield Historical Society (HHS) board, which funds our two positions — we knew we wanted to do projects that would hit a lot of our goals. Those goals included engaging our community in Hatfield history, expanding our reach beyond those who already knew us, discovering and connecting stories about artifacts in the collection, and building a volunteer corps. (Oh yeah, and then add some reality in–like, we’re challenged to keep on top of collections management and project work as it is, with funds the Society has been able to raise from its generous supporters, AND, we’re in a pandemic, and no volunteers have been allowed into the museum since mid-March 2020). 

So Mass Humanities’ Digital Capacity grants couldn’t have come at a better time!

The grant will support staff time to work with a half-dozen volunteers over the coming year, plus our two Humanities scholars (you and Bob), all of whom bring great skills and experiences to the project. It will also pay for the first year of an upgrade to the Pro version of our free website builder (Weebly), which gives us capabilities we’ll need for the project, and help fund our upgrade to the paid version of Zoom, which will be our primary platform for engaging with volunteers.

This was one of the last times volunteers and visitors were allowed into the Hatfield Historical Museum in February 2020, just before Covid shut the museum down. Volunteer Wunderley Stauder is writing up artifact intake sheets with Megue Baker.

MRM:  Bob, how did you come to get involved?  What priorities will you bring to this initiative?

RF: During Covid Times I have been continuing to do research and have spent time in the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence History Center. I also exchanged frequent emails with archivists at the Massachusetts State Archives. Through the efforts of these institutions I was able to get quite a bit of work done and it made me realize how difficult the last fifteen months have been for dedicated people who care about, collect, archive, and make available the historical record for us. I had also spent a great few months working on a research project in Hatfield with boxes and boxes of materials lovingly organized by the folks at the Hatfield Historical Society. 

When I was asked about whether I would want to be involved in a project in Hatfield again, it was an easy decision. For people like me who engage in public history projects and want to utilize local history in their classroom efforts, it is incumbent that we do everything we can to support local history organizations. As a researcher and board member of the Lawrence History Center, I can add my knowledge of how institutions like this work to the project. At the same time, by being involved with a local history organization, I can learn lots about best practices for working in such organizations. It may also help me to identify how I want to volunteer when ever I decide to retire from UMass Lowell!

MRM: How has HHS been coping with the effects of the pandemic, especially around Hatfield’s anniversary year?

KG: Like for most museums and historical societies, especially small ones, it has been a challenging year, made all the more frustrating and sad because 2020 was our town’s 350th anniversary year. It was also the Hatfield Historical Society’s 50th anniversary, which should have been a great opportunity for us to promote the work HHS has been doing. It meant that most of 2020’s scheduled events got cancelled, and our opportunities to engage in person with the public disappeared.

But we did not sit idle! We shifted gears, and of course with growing pains (we are still figuring things out), we embraced the digital platform. We were delighted to be asked last fall by Bill Hosely (of Terra Firma Northeast) to participate in the Mass Historical Society Zoom program, “A Treasury of Massachusetts House Museums and Local History Orgs: Part III: Hidden Gems” (you can watch the program HERE) to introduce our organization and the collections we manage for the Town of Hatfield to their audience.

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By Allison Smith

Over the summer of 2020 I participated in the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project, hosted by Smith College, where I completed my undergraduate degree. I interviewed women in my family about their experiences making and wearing face masks, and along the way, I learned how women understood their roles in the pandemic and how they adapted to the public health crisis.

Two professors from Smith College, Darcy Buerkle and Kelly Anderson, spearheaded the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project as a way for Smith students to learn how to create historical sources. For me, this project served as a productive bridge between my undergraduate work and studying Public History at the graduate level at UMass Amherst. As a participant in the project, I could choose any topic to explore. Interested in material culture and fascinated by the changing mask fashions even in the short time from the beginning of the pandemic to the summer months, I decided to give women a space to talk about their experiences with face masks. I conducted six oral history interviews over Zoom and collected numerous survey responses from women who generously shared their experiences with mask making and wearing, pandemic life, and the political climate.

To learn more about mask making on a global scale, I also attended the Homemade Mask (Virtual) Summit in June 2020, an event hosted by Tulane University.1 During this virtual summit I realized how far-reaching this network of women was and I became even more encouraged to continue collecting oral histories. The Smith College project—which to date has preserved over 100 oral testimonies, and counting—is only one project of many, as the IFPH (International Federation for Public History) is collecting public history projects about COVID-19 in a Made By Us map.2 The COVID-19 Pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to capture history in ways that ensure diverse stories are told and women’s voices are heard. 

Patricia Stowell showing off face mask, June 23, 2020.

My grandmother, Patricia Stowell, is one of those women who rose to the challenge of mask making. She and other women from her retirement community in Punta Gorda, Florida, shared face mask patterns and debated the various advantages and disadvantages of each. Looking on YouTube for tutorials, my grandmother endeavored to find a pattern that was “loose enough to breathe, but tight enough so that I feel it’s working.”3 She also followed CDC guidelines, using two 10×6 rectangles of tightly woven cotton.4 After drafting a prototype, she located scraps of cotton she had laying around from previous quilting projects and began machine-sewing masks. Stowell not only sewed masks for herself and her husband but her children and grandchildren. After sending masks across the country to her relatives, she joined forces with her friends to make over 100 masks to donate to the local children’s hospital. The generosity and dedication of these women represent only a snapshot of the communities of crafting women across the world protecting those around them. 

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by Audrey L. Altstadt

Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that an international observer team monitored and assessed the US election of November 3. The team’s preliminary report, issued midday on November 4 noted that elections were “competitive and well-managed” and the media, despite polarization, “made efforts to provide accurate information.” The report did sound the alarm that “evidence-deficient claims about election fraud created confusion and concern” and that “Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president… harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

“What international observers?” say many Americans, voicing some mixture of doubt and shock. “How can it be? What do they know?”

Among the many international organizations of which the United States is either a member or participant is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE considers democracy and human rights to be pillars of the rule-of-law state and, therefore, matters of security. Based on that idea, OSCE offers to consult member states on their domestic processes related to democracy and human rights including the conduct of elections. Member states can invite OSCE to their elections, as the US State Department has done since 2002. OSCE teams follow a carefully crafted procedure to examine a country’s election laws and practice, to observe polling and vote counting, and publish reports explaining the election in a dispassionate way.

We who study the USSR and post-communist states are familiar with the OSCE and its election monitoring in Russia and other states formerly ruled by communist-party governments since the dissolution of the USSR in late 1991. In my studies of (and experiences living in) post-Soviet Azerbaijan, I have watched or read reports by OSCE teams as they do their complex jobs in election after election. The OSCE office that is charged with election monitoring is the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR – pronounced like “oh, dear”).

Once the host country invites OSCE to monitor its election, ODIHR assembles a Needs Assessment Team to determine specialists and numbers of observers. About two months before the election, a Core Team arrives to set up operations followed by a Long-Term Monitoring team of about 30 that studies conditions, and finally a large Short-term monitoring team is added to expand the number of observers who deploy on the days of balloting and counting. In our recent election, ODIHR deployed 102 observers to various locations as permitted by local laws in most states, though 18 specifically ban international observers including Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Texas.  (Note 101, p. 19) Among the team members are specialists in law, media, political affairs, and other areas. I have known observers who are permanent OSCE staffers or former diplomats. The team is recruited from member states of the OSCE except for citizens of the host country. The core and long-term teams examine election law and oversight structures, processes for candidate and voter registration, media coverage and campaign atmosphere, and a host of details such as themes of the campaign, and whether an incumbent uses state resources for political purposes.

Since I am most familiar with OSCE-ODIHR monitoring and reports for Azerbaijan, I will explain a few significant features of the process for that post-Soviet country. Since the1990s, ODIHR has reported that structural and practical electoral features favor the ruling party and incumbents to the extent that challenges are extremely difficult and even dangerous. Despite some reform, the Azerbaijani government does not change the features that sustain the lopsided power of the regime. Among the most egregious violations of national law and/or OSCE standards that members agree to follow are the structure of the Central Election Commission which administers elections and is packed with members of the ruling party. The ruling regime consistently uses official resources for political purposes, orchestrates biased media coverage, and threatens critics of the regime. Manipulation goes down to local levels where supervisors in jobs and schools pressure employees and even adult students to vote for incumbents.

Election day shenanigans may be the things we most often associate with stealing elections. Azerbaijan and other post-Soviet states including Russia have engaged in overt ballot stuffing, “carousel” voting when a group of voters is bussed from one polling station to another to vote repeatedly, and the failure of poll watchers to check on these fake voters thereby enabling their actions. In virtually every reporting year between 1995 and 2013, ODIHR rated about a quarter to a third of Azerbaijan’s polling stations as bad or very bad.

But the greater manipulation of Azerbaijan’s elections took place in counting. Observers reported the poorly concealed addition of pre-marked ballots to boost totals for an incumbent. In some years, as many as half the counting stations and procedures were rated as bad or very bad. That included two presidential elections casting doubt on the legitimacy of Azerbaijan’s current president.

What did the OSCE ODIHR team find in the US? On the day after polling, according to OSCE procedures, team leaders hold a press conference and post a Preliminary Report on the website. The team found that procedures were overwhelming orderly and lawful, but “evidence-deficient” claims of fraud risked undermining public confidence. (Schedule, team members, and reports for the US election are available on the OSCE website)

The 24-page Preliminary Report was posted midday on November 4, before several post-election disputes clearly emerged. The report recapped the complex US electoral structure – with elections run by states and varied levels of discretion over thousands of local jurisdictions – and thus provided detailed information that many Americans probably don’t know about their own country’s system. The general conduct was deemed to be orderly and lawful, despite hundreds of pre-election lawsuits. Most problems were dealt with quickly and in accord with appropriate laws. The campaign, however, was “characterized by deepening political polarization, extremely negative campaigning;” and “the incumbent president’s use of discriminatory and pejorative statements against individuals on the grounds of their gender and origin was of particular concern.” (p. 11)

Because OSCE focuses on democratic process, it included in this report many examples of statements that it considered threatening, specifically the president’s allegations “that the electoral process, and postal voting in particular, would be open to widespread fraud, while not providing any further information or evidence…” and his suggestion that he would not honor the outcome and commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Noted the report: “Statements of this nature by a presidential candidate risk eroding public confidence in democratic institutions and delegitimizing the outcome of the election.” (pp. 11-12)

Among the many areas addressed in the report, those on early and mail-in voting take on added significance in the days after balloting. The OSCE reported that “most states” decided to start processing mailed ballots before election day because of the large number of those ballots. It elaborated variations in Footnote 129 (p. 22), beginning with this important point: “Alabama, Mississippi, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania required absentee ballot processing to start only on election day.”  By week’s end, Pennsylvania’s continuing ballot count has become a major focal point of partisan tension.

The OSCE Preliminary Report closed with cautionary comment about the night of balloting:

“Despite the fact that the results of the election were still inconclusive, the incumbent president again questioned the integrity of the process and declared victory. Counting and tabulation are ongoing and should continue in accordance with the law and OSCE commitments. Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions.”

As the OSCE ODIHR team worries, the greatest present threat seems to be to the democratic process itself and public confidence in our elections despite the overwhelming evidence that legal procedures have been followed.

Audrey L. Altstadt

Ross Caputi, a PhD student in Modern U.S. and Italian history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is the co-author of The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History (UMass Press 2019) and the director of the People’s History of Fallujah Digital Archive. His research on U.S. military operations in Iraq originates from his military experience in Iraq: Caputi is a veteran of the Marine Corps. “Regrettably, I participated in the second siege of Fallujah in November, 2004 as a U.S. Marine,” says Caputi in an interview with Past@Present. “I didn’t understand that we were hurting innocent people at the time. But ever since I did come to understand that, I’ve felt a sense of responsibility to speak out against what we did there and to pay reparations, in whatever limited capacity I’m capable of, to the people of Fallujah. That sense of responsibility has only deepened the more I’ve come to understand the historical significance of the sieges of Fallujah. The attacks came at a pivotal moment in the occupation, and I think the sieges of Fallujah occupy an important place in our collective memory of the occupation. So, rather than opposing the war in a more general way, I’ve decided to focus on Fallujah.”

After leaving the Marine Corps, Caputi became active in the antiwar movement and formed a group called the Justice for Fallujah Project, which hosted public speaking events to raise awareness about the human costs of the operations in Fallujah, among other important initiatives. Later he joined a nonprofit organization called the Islah Reparations Project and organized a series of grassroots reparations projects with the Fallujah General Hospital.

Portrait of Ross, taken in Fitchburg, MA in 2018

Caputi is now pursuing a PhD in History, and a Graduate Certificate in Public History at UMass Amherst, concentrating on oral and digital history. He hopes that by using different media, he can bring historical perspective to new audiences. Besides coauthoring a book on Fallujah, he has written op-eds and made a documentary film, Fear Not the Path of Truth. He is currently working on a digital archive project, the “People’s History of Fallujah.” Caputi hopes that the digital archive can become a source for educators to teach students about the U.S. wars. “Through all of this work, my greatest frustration has been trying to reach new audiences,” says Caputi. “It’s been easy enough to speak with people who are predisposed to my antiwar message, but, of course, people who already agree with me are not my target audience. And it’s been a struggle to find ways to speak with people who are either supportive of or ambivalent towards the Global War on Terror.”

You’ve conducted interviews with Iraqis for your book and the digital archive project. They include five oral history interviews with refugees from Fallujah. Why did you decide to interview people from Fallujah for your project about the siege of this Iraqi city?

One thing that became clear to me the more I researched the sieges of Fallujah was that U.S. information operations were an integral part of the violence. U.S. forces went to great lengths to control the production of information about their operations in Fallujah, particularly during the second siege. This made it very challenging to write a history of these operations, because the vast majority of primary source materials were produced by this propaganda apparatus. And Iraqi voices were intentionally omitted. So, as a methodological choice, we thought that writing a people’s history and trying to recover as many Iraqi voices as possible was the most ethical way to go about telling this story.

My coauthors and I did a number of journalistic interviews with Fallujans while we were working on the book. It didn’t occur to me to try to do a more systematic oral history project until after we had already submitted our manuscript to UMass Press. And then the opportunity presented itself to begin working on this project in the winter of 2018, when the war against the Islamic State was pushing a new wave of Iraqi refugees into Europe. I met up with five men from Fallujah, who were gracious enough to tell me their stories, while they were living in Helsinki. 

How did you address the emotional challenges of interviewing individuals who experienced traumatic war events and witnessed extreme violence during the siege? What were the challenges of conducting these interviews in Arabic?

I didn’t think there was a lot I could do as an interviewer to make the sharing of traumas easier for my narrators. I expected all along that doing so would be uncomfortable for them, and sharing their stories with the public would make them vulnerable. So for me the question wasn’t “How can I make this easier for them?,” but why should they want to do this in the first place?. In other words, what stake do my narrators have in my project? And this question was led to a number of other considerations about how to relate storytelling to reparations.

Telling war stories in an ethical way is very difficult. I’m very aware that Americans are very interested in war stories and will readily consume the most sensational of war stories, if they are made available to them. In my own experience, I find that many people are more interested in hearing about my own personal experience with violence and reintegration into society than they are in hearing about my research, and I can only speculate as to why that is. At the same time, I think there is something exploitive in the way many journalists collect war stories and sell them to their publishers; and the same thing could be said about many scholars who earn their paychecks by gathering other people’s stories and recounting them. So, I began this project trying to be mindful of this double-edged sword: the fact that the stories I collect will be funneled into news feeds that invite passive consumption, and that in this transaction of stories, I’m just a middle-man. I wanted to collect stories from Fallujans, who were often being spoken for by commentators and self-proclaimed Middle East experts in the American news media. But I didn’t want to put their traumas on display, to be mindlessly consumed on social media and yield nothing more than a few likes while I earn a paycheck.

Ross in Fallujah, 2004

I have to thank Kali Rubaii, who cofounded the Islah Reparations Project with me, for helping me think through the ethics of telling war stories in this way. Kali not only came up with our model of grassroots reparations, but she applied that model to her ethnographic work as an anthropologist, calling it “reparative ethnography.” I tried to conceive of my oral history project in a similar fashion, making storytelling a means to an end (reparations), rather than having storytelling be an end in itself.

At the time, I thought that it was necessary to acknowledge that my society was still responsible for the ongoing violence in Iraq, and my primary responsibility to those men was to try to end that violence. Many of my narrators had bad experiences with journalists in the past, who took their stories to make a profit, never to be heard from again. So I began the pre-interview process by acknowledging this and explaining that I intended for these interviews to be part of a broader reparations project. Then we had a conversation about the potential risks of sharing their stories, and many of the men faced serious risks, for their families and for themselves, if they were ever forced to go back to Iraq.

Through these conversations, it never occurred to any of us that something could be done make the exchange of these stories easier, emotionally. The question on my mind was how to make it worth it to them, and the question on their mind was whether or not they could trust me. One man wanted legal assistance with his status as an asylum seeker. Another wanted help finding lost relatives in Iraq. The others just appreciated my acknowledgement that Americans owed reparations and chose to participate for that reason alone.

As far as the translation goes, it required a lot of patience from everyone involved for each sentence to be translated into both English and Arabic. It stretched what should have been a one-hour interview into three hours. But also, it became clear to me that there were a lot of differences in our uses of vocabulary to describe the war that weren’t an issue of translation. For example, the Western news media often described the period from 2005 – 2006 as Iraq’s “civil war,” but Iraqis didn’t experience it as a civil war at all. They called it the “militia war” because the violence was driven by U.S.-backed death squads. It was a striking moment to realize that, as critical as I was of the war, my understanding of it was still very much shaped by outsiders’ perspectives.

Many works have been published in English on the coalition forces attacks on Fallujah. In what ways is your book’s narrative different from other works about the siege of Fallujah and its humanitarian consequences?

The vast majority of the works published on Fallujah are military histories, written by American veterans of these operations or professional military writers. As such, the actions of American soldiers are usually the focus of these books, and the experiences of Iraqis are completely omitted or relegated to the background. What our book offers is a narrative that foregrounds the Iraqi experience. But I think we also have some original things to say about the role of information warfare and the emergence of ISIS in Fallujah.

There are a lot of clichés that get thrown around about the weaponization of information in war. But I don’t think many people appreciate how different the use of propaganda was in Fallujah. We go so far as to argue that in Fallujah propaganda truly was a constitutive element of the violence. And it created an enduring mythology, most notably in case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It’s likely that anything you think you know about Zarqawi can be credited to the propaganda campaigns leading up to the second siege of Fallujah.

And much of the media discourse about the Islamic State focused on their fanatical religious ideology as a motivator for everything they did. But we tell a different story grounded in the history of social movements in Iraq that explains how ISIS went from being a very unpopular organization in places like Fallujah to a state-like entity encompassing large parts of Iraq and Syria. We argue that it had little to do with religion and everything to do with the Iraqi government’s oppression (with American assistance) of Sunnis.

You mentioned that some of the interviews you have conducted for your book are journalistic in nature. Tell us about these interviews. How does your journalism background influence and help your research as a historian?

I call these interviews journalistic because they were more topically focused. We sought out certain individuals to gather their insights about specific topics, instead of trying to see their experiences from a historical perspective, as I would in an oral history interview. We interviewed Dr. Muhammad al-Darraji, a former member of the Fallujah City Council and an author of many human rights reports; Dr. Samira Alani, the Head Pediatrician at Fallujah Hospital’s Women and Children’s Ward; and Naji Haraj, a former Iraqi diplomat and the Executive Director of the Geneva International Centre for Justice.

I never truly worked as a journalist in Iraq. But following the work of independent journalists in Iraq is what made me appreciate the scope of U.S. information operations in Iraq, and how those operations extended the violence beyond the traditional battlefield. In many instances, U.S. forces regarded independent journalists as enemies. For these reasons, I think historians, to understand the journalism written about the occupation, need to take it in the context of an information war.

Ross interviewing Naji Haraj in his office in Geneva in 2018. Naji, who is from Fallujah, is the Executive Director of the Geneva International Centre for Justice.

Since 2003, the United States has maintained its military presence in Iraq. President Trump says that he wants to bring back the U.S. troops from Iraq and other countries in the Muslim world, like Afghanistan. This position has met with strong opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. As a public historian and journalist who has written about the U.S. military and the American role in the Middle East, how do you see this bipartisan insistence to keep the U.S. forces in Iraq? 

It’s implicit in these debates that there is an inter-imperial competition between the U.S. and Iran for influence in Iraq. There is a bipartisan consensus that withdrawing from Iraq will strengthen Iran’s position there, which is absolutely true. But I think we need to understand that, first of all, this is only possible because our experiment with regime change in Iraq created a weak, corrupt, and unstable country, and continued interference in Iraq’s political and economic life most likely will not help it become capable of managing its relationships with its neighbors.

Second, our misadventure in Iraq was not a mistake, as it is often remembered; it was a war crime. The insistence of Democrats and Republicans that we need to maintain a troop presence in Iraq is an echo of the imperial hubris of the Bush administration. A continued troop presence in Iraq would do nothing to bolster our national security, since neither Iraq nor Iran are a threat to us. But it would strengthen our position as an imperial force in the region, and that’s what this is about.

I think we need to recognize that it was this kind of thinking that led us to invade and destroy Iraq, and we need to break from this delusion of American Exceptionalism. The only thing that the U.S. owes to Iraq is reparations. Apart from that, we need to get out. 

What can your research on the U.S. military operations in Iraq teach policymakers in Washington about the U.S. policy in the Middle East and its involvement in the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria?

I hope the book instills a healthy amount of self-doubt in every policy maker and military leader. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around how it’s possible that I didn’t know I was participating in a war crime while it was happening. And through the sieges of Fallujah, all three of them, we see that kind of self-delusion again and again. It’s shocking how wrong we were about who we thought we were fighting against in Fallujah and why. And I’m willing to bet Fallujah is not an isolated incident. I hope it makes others wonder if we’ve made similar mistakes in other countries where we thought we knew what we were doing and decided to wage war.

by Kevin Young

Republished with permission from the Hispanic American Historical Review

A coup overthrew the Bolivian government. The coup was spearheaded by the country’s racist oligarchy and backed by the United States, but it was also supported by portions of the Left, the labor movement, and the middle class. The latter groups had some legitimate grievances: for instance, the regime had sometimes treated dissent with a heavy hand and had made only limited progress toward transforming the country’s economic structure. Yet it had also facilitated major gains for workers, peasants, and indigenous people. It was those gains that drew the rage of the oligarchy and its allies in Washington. And it was the oligarchy that came out on top after the coup. Once in power it unleashed massive violence against those who resisted.

The year was 1946. Although the hyperlinks above are from 2019, the description applies equally well to the July 1946 overthrow of Colonel Gualberto Villarroel. The deposed government had sponsored a historic Indigenous Congress, decreed an end to forced labor in the countryside, promoted the formation of a mineworkers’ federation, and asserted greater state control over the mining industry. It also displayed some conservative tendencies, for instance in its hostility to leftists in the labor movement and its tight fiscal policy in the midst of declining real wages. The result was an unlikely coalition of opponents: capitalists, the middle class, and the US government, but also Stalinists and anarchists. On July 21 a mob killed Villarroel and hung his body from a lamppost in La Paz’s central plaza.

The leftists initially celebrated. In a series of manifestos in the weeks that followed, the La Paz anarchist federation wrote that the Villarroel regime had “reduced the people to a state of slavery.” It decried all previous politicians, who, “without distinction, have brought ruin to this country.” Anarchist-feminists in La Paz wrote that the “Popular Revolution” of July 21 had toppled “an absolutist tyranny” and had “definitively crushed the insolence, terror, and criminality” of the “Nazi-fascists obsessed with State power.” The anarchists predicted a brighter future of “accelerated revolutionary progress,” wherein any new would-be tyrant would “be swept away by the action of the pueblo.”

They were too optimistic. The regimes that held power for the next six years were brutally repressive, and the Left was the main target. When the anarchists forged a powerful interethnic coalition to confront the landed elite, the state responded by killing scores of them and decimating their organizations. The Stalinists, too, found that Washington and the Bolivian Right soon turned on them.

There are of course many differences between 1946 and 2019. Unlike Villarroel, Evo Morales was democratically elected. Evo had a much longer presidency. Villarroel did not have to contend with thousands of phony Twitter accounts spreading fake news. And Evo has so far escaped the lynch mobs.

But the parallels are striking. In each case the forces of domestic reaction and empire were abetted by a similar cocktail of circumstances. Each coup won support from many leftists and liberals, who wagered they could get their complaints addressed by a new government while preventing the Right from capitalizing on the situation. Some went so far as to equate an imperfect reformist government with the Far Right. They dismissed other leftist voices who critiqued the limitations of the existing government but stressed that a right-wing government would be far more harmful.

The overthrown governments were also weakened in part by their own errors. Both could have done more to foster participatory governance and grassroots leadership. Both failed to address the contradictions around them in a revolutionary way. This is not to say, as some are now saying about Evo, that they “brought it on themselves.” But some of the governments’ decisions did make them more vulnerable.

I think the lessons of 1946 have been widely ignored. This isn’t the first time they were ignored: similar dynamics contributed to the coup of 1964, which ushered in 18 years of military regimes. Both leftist activists and reformist governments should consider what these disastrous outcomes can teach us about how best to pursue progressive change amid conditions not of our choosing. There is no easy answer to the question of “what is to be done,” but 1946 and 1964 offer clues about what we should avoid doing if we don’t want to empower the Right.

The most urgent task right now, however, is not to dissect the causes of November 10 but to stop the repression being carried out by the de facto regime of Jeanine Áñez. International solidarity can play a major role here. In Bolivia, courageous resistance in the face of state terror has forced the Áñez regime to backtrack on some of its most authoritarian plans, while it persists with others. The resistance has forced significant concessions, though many grassroots leftists are wary of regime promises.

The Áñez regime will end. But dozens of Bolivians have already paid with their lives. And whether there will be fair conditions for new elections is very much in doubt: the MAS party is in disarray, and the coup regime has harassed human rights monitorsthreatened journalists, and removed critical coverage from state-owned media (most of the private media is of course hostile to the Left). What sort of regime will come next, and how much freedom of maneuver it will have, is unclear.

Kevin A. Young is assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His article “From Open Door to Nationalization: Oil and Development Visions in Bolivia, 1952–1969” appeared in HAHR 97.1.

Image: Mercha a favor de Evo Morales – Buenos Aires. November 18, 2019. Photograph by Santiago Sito, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (Find the original here.)

This article originally appeared in the Hispanic American Historical Review on December 18, 2019 and was part of a forum in which historians responded to the question, “What would you say is the key piece of historical context for understanding the contemporary political developments in Bolivia?” This article is republished here with permission.

HAHR Tags: BoliviaEvo MoralesHAHRhistoryJeanine ÁñezMASMNRprotest | Permalink

Daniel Ellsberg’s Exclusive Interview with Past@Present

Daniel Ellsberg, one of the foremost political activists and whistleblowers in the U.S., is coming to the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Wednesday, October 30 to speak at the Campus Center Auditorium. UMass Amherst Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) has recently acquired his invaluable private archive which spans the late 1940s to the 2010s and includes a wealth of material providing insight into the top-secret Pentagon Papers that he leaked to the press in 1971, as well as materials on the Vietnam War more broadly, the Cuban Missile Crisis, his criminal trial, anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, and more.

The collection promises to be a watershed for historians – as well as for SCUA. “This has potential to be transformational for the archive,” remarked SCUA head Rob Cox. The acquisition emerges out of the archive’s longstanding commitment to collecting interconnected histories of social justice work “in the [W.E.B.] Du Boisian fashion of thinking about how social change actually happens,” says Cox, and from the its particular strengths in the areas of work that Ellsberg is engaged in. “There’s been a lot of excitement from researchers already,” he notes.

In an exclusive interview with the UMass History Department’s blog Past@Present, the 88-year-old Ellsberg explains why he donated his documents to the W.E.B. Du Bois Library and what they will offer to researchers and historians. “I would like people to come to realize,” he tells Past@Present, “how much is concealed, even after long periods of time, from scholars, historians, journalists, and the public, and even Congress of what our foreign policy or our so-called defense policy and arms policy really is.”

Past@Present: You donated your papers to the University of Massachusetts Amherst to become available to scholars and the public, both in person and digitally, through Special Collections and University Archives at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library. This collection, according to UMass News and Media Relations, “is so rich in material that it will take the equivalent of two years of a full-time archivist’s time to fully process and catalogue”. These documents are related to your involvement in important chapters of the U.S. history, including the Vietnam War and Watergate. Please tell us about this extraordinary collection of papers and photographs you gave UMass.

Ellsberg: Well, I’ll tell you something I haven’t had occasion to mention before. At one point, through a complicated process, the FBI got its hands on a large trove of my papers, especially sensitive ones. One of them, who was a security expert, said that “Daniel Ellsberg is what I call in our trade a pack rat”, meaning that I kept hold of notes and documents that passed under my hands in the course of my work.

My goal was to understand how the government works and to improve its performance. This was after seeing a performance during the Cuban Missile Crisis in which I was a high-level staff person. They came very close to ending most human life on Earth actually, to a nuclear war that would have destroyed civilization. I was trying to see how that came about and how it could be avoided in the future–how we could learn how the government really operates in ways that could improve our performance. And to that end, I have always thought it was essential to compare the organization working over a large sequence or a collection of incidents and not just looking very closely at one particular episode, like the Cuban missile crisis. A comparative study would enable us to see what common factors showed up there and how the systematic performance could be improved. 

For example, in 1964-65 I proposed, and it was supported by the government, a study of nuclear crises. One of those, for example, that I’d participated in as a Marine lieutenant in Alexandria harbor during the Suez Crisis of 1956, turned out to be a nuclear crisis. [former Soviet premier Nikita] Khrushchev made threats during that time of his ability to wipe out London or Paris if he chose, and he thought that his threats had a major effect on the crisis, which may or may not have been the case. That was just an incident where I had personal involvement and that led me to study that one particularly. I was given access to the State Department library shelves inside what amounted to be a backdoor, like correspondence between [the former U.S. president Dwight D.] Eisenhower and [the former Soviet Premier, Nikolai A.] Bulganin, Eisenhower and Khrushchev, and [the former U.S. president John F.] Kennedy and Khrushchev. I read a great deal of telephone conversation transcripts from that incident, which gave me a very different perspective on what had happened during the Suez Crisis. In any case, I looked at a number of cases, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and others.

After that, I went to Vietnam and saw, as a high-level participant staff, that escalation phase in 1964-65. I was there for two years and saw the horrible human impact of the very bad decision making that had gone on in the previous two years, when I was in Washington. And again, I wanted to take part in a study that would cover a long period of time and not just the period I was in, but all of it from 1945 to 1968. Again, my role, as I saw it, was to look at all the various of the forty-seven volumes of the McNamara study [the former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara’s forty-seven-volume study of U.S. decision-making during the Vietnam War], which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, so as to see what patterns of behavior arose. I’m going to be speaking about those in one of my talks for PERI [the Political Economy Research Institute].

In my professional work, I participated in two moral catastrophes: one is the nuclear arms race and the other is the Vietnam War. Of course, the latter has great relevance to the wars we’re seeing now, like the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan, which is very similar to Vietnam in many ways. So, I was really a participant observer. My purpose in all of my participation was to take notes and record my reflections and my speculations and my conclusions, as we went along for the purpose of learning lessons. Initially, I did this for the executive branch as I saw classified lessons that would help bureaucrats and officials. But then by the time I released the forty-seven volume Pentagon Papers, of course I felt I was working for the public and the Congress to reveal to them the necessity to rein in the executive branch, to use their constitutional powers as a check on the executive’s extremely bad decisions made in secret which they were badly informed about.

And so here we have not just a collection of historical notes from the period, but more than a half a century of reflections and analysis that I have done.

Past@Present: Why did you give these documents to UMass and why is archiving them important for researchers and historians?

Ellsberg: I wanted the information to be available and UMass offered the chance to do that much faster on a much larger scale. A particular attraction of UMass over a couple of other possibilities was their capacity to digitize this material and make it widely available, so that someone would not actually have to come to UMass Amherst and delve in into boxes, but could access it through the Internet. That was a very great attraction to me. I had already begun to digitize my files with another institution, but the pace was slower than I had hoped. 

Past@Present: Your collection covers many important aspects of the U.S. internal and external policies. How will scholars and especially historians benefit from the collection that you donated to UMass Amherst?

Ellsberg: A good deal of this information, nearly all of it, was classified at the time I worked with it 50 years ago. A lot of it has been declassified since. One aspect that does not generally get declassified or put out are drafts and preliminary versions of reports that show significant differences from the published in many ways from the finished classified reports. There are many objectives and considerations that are really deliberately concealed in the later report. So that’s of interest.

But in particular, I would like people to come to realize how much is concealed, even after long periods of time, from scholars, historians, journalists, and the public, and even Congress of what our foreign policy or our so-called defense policy and arms policy really is. Yes, in many ways it’s more of an offensive policy than defensive policy.

As I look in histories, in the areas that I know about and I observed or participated in, I’m so struck by how little the historians ever really came to realize about what the ultimate objectives were and how the policy was shaped to that end. So, in a way, not only the public, but even historians live with a kind of child’s version of history that they are permitted to know about, which conceals very important aspects of it.

I would like the secrecy system to be subject to a real investigation and criticism hearings, which have never been held as far as I know in Congress. The secrecy system needs investigation and drastic change to enable us to be more of a democracy in which the government is accountable to the public and the public is in a real sense sovereign. That’s not the case now. So much of this is secret. And what is striking in a lot of the decision making, as is apparent in the Pentagon Papers, is that it looks actually terrible.  It is hard to imagine that definitely intelligent men could make judgments that in retrospect are so ill advised and unsound.

That is the reason we need to know more about that [the secrecy system], so Congress and the public can have more of a monitoring and checking effect on policy. It simply is not the case that we can afford to leave these decisions policies in the hands of these relatively small number of people making the decisions in secret. It’s not the case that they are taking good care of us at all. Disasters like our Vietnam policy have been mirrored in the Middle East in the last 20 years–really terrible decision-making. It is evident in my papers that I was part of that for a long time.

A key point I’ve been trying to make since I left the government, especially with my recent book, The Doomsday Machine, is to bring out that the decision-making in the area of nuclear weapons and policy is as bad as any decision-making that has ever been made. Let’s look back at the decisions that got us and various empires into World War I and resulted in the destruction of virtually all of those other empires along with 13 million humans. That decision-making does not look good. Well, the decision-making we’re doing now, which threatens not 13 million people but 7 billion people–nearly all life on Earth–is not better than what was made by statesmen who led us into World War I. This nuclear decision-making has been among the most secretive policies of the government–secrecy comparable, let’s say, to covert operations involving assassination. But the nuclear policies, which do not threaten one or ten or a handful of men but all humans, are also super-secret, which conceals extremely bad, unsound, unwise decision-making which threatens us all.

My life is almost coincident with the nuclear era. I was born in 1931. Two years after I was born, Leo Szilard patented the concept of a chain reaction in London. I was a fourteen-year-old when the Hiroshima bombs went off. They made a very strong impression on me of danger to humanity, which I described in my book. Nevertheless, in 1958, when I was 27, I started working directly on nuclear war planning and nuclear command and control at the RAND Corporation. Four years later, I drafted the secretary of defense guidance for the annual operational nuclear war plan. The options include the general framework of a strategy which has been pretty much the framework, ever since. It was a very radical change from the Eisenhower plan.

So that’s when I was 30 in 1961.  The next year I was a high-level staff participant in the Cuban missile crisis and I followed that for the next couple of years with very intense study of that crisis. And I have a great deal of documentation from that period, including my own notes and interviews. Then in 1964, I was invited into the government, as an employee on Vietnam, precisely in order to study the government from inside, in the midst of what was called an ongoing crisis in Vietnam. At the time we didn’t think of it as a nuclear crisis. It turned out to be a nuclear crisis at several points. For the last forty-four years, since the Vietnam war ended, I have been involved in anti-nuclear activism. So I have an enormous collection of material on various anti-nuclear (and anti-war) movements, as part of my overall archive.

Past@Present: All of this is very relevant to the current situation. It seems that a new era of global arms race has started under President Trump, between the U.S., Russia and possibly China. President Trump has also pulled the United States out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, despite warnings from many experts and former national security officials. Many questions have been raised about the decisions made by the Trump Administration about these critical nuclear issues. How do you see the importance of whistleblowers and their role in revealing the process of decision-making by the president and his officials about these issues? 

Ellsberg: Well, only whistleblowers can reveal to Congress, analysts, and the public vital information that is being wrongly withheld from them, while the information is still timely and urgent. Because if you wait 40 or 30 or 20 years for this information to come out through Freedom of Information Act or trust what the government chooses to reveal then, it’s long past the time when most of that material can still illuminate current events.

Now, that’s not entirely true because these misadventures do occur so frequently in such similar ways that even 50-year old material, like the Pentagon Papers, can be very illuminating and relevant. Still, it’s very important that people make unauthorized disclosures—and that’s really the definition of a whistleblower—particularly revealing wrongdoing that will not be authorized to reveal for decades, if ever. But if it’s revealed without authorization, there is a chance to change the events while they are happening. I think my own life and the papers do bring out the essential reality of the need for whistleblowers and the need, by the way, for a change in legislation that will protect them from prosecution.

What we’re going through right now, for example, about the anonymous whistleblower and the impeachment, the way it was handled shows what happens to information that would reveal wrongdoing. Namely it gets highly classified. And of course, this information did not involve national security. [The content of President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian president] should not have been classified at all according to the regulations or the criteria for classification. But in fact, it was then locked down in the most protected classification system, the so-called code word classification system, for things like what I said earlier were the most sensitive: assassinations, covert actions, overhearing of foreign leaders, and others. Why was it concealed like that? Well, obviously, because revealing it might lead to impeachment and or prosecution of the president. So, he doesn’t want that.

Is this an abuse of the classification system? Some would say so, but what I know and what my records reveal is that it is a normal use of the classification system. It’s not an aberration. It is the system itself, which is very largely for keeping from Americans Congress, courts, prosecutors, and voters information that might lead to the public’s replacing leadership with either another party or another person. Thus, the person who is the president and has control over information generally does not want that information out.

To a major extent that is what the classification system is for, especially for the overwhelming amount of classified material that is more than several years old. Almost none of it can yet be said after that point to affect national security. But it’s kept classified for decades and more, because it might prove embarrassing. And since you don’t know which parts are incriminating in context and since you can’t know in advance which details will look worst, which promises will not be kept, which predictions will prove stupid, which projects will turn out to be disasters, you classify everything to keep it all secret. 

In fact, criminality will be classified. If you’re a whistleblower exposing criminality, you can only do it at a risk or cost of prison. That’s absurd. And that’s the situation now.

Past@Present: In reference to the whistleblower who revealed Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s leader, President Trump said, “Why are we protecting a person that tells things that weren’t true?” When you released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, you knew that you would face major consequences and risks. You were accused of theft and conspiracy. Has anything changed since then in terms of protecting whistleblowers in the U.S.?

Ellsberg: Not much, but something on the bad side. President Obama indicted three times as many people for leaking or whistleblowing as all previous presidents put together. So that was a very bad development. And the law itself has evolved since my time in a way that’s unfavorable to leaking. But there has been some extension of the Whistleblower Protection Act for intelligence operatives, which the current whistleblower is using.  That did not exist in my day. So that is a change for the better.

But people have not generally observed the following point. The president and the White House were successfully locking down that complaint [about President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian president], keeping it from Congress even though the law demanded that it go to Congress. The White House was successfully claiming, in effect, executive privilege in withholding it, in violation of the Act. It would not have gotten out without unauthorized disclosures, leaks to Congress telling them that the complaint existed, by whistleblowers who were not protected by the Act. In other words, even in this case where the original whistleblower was protected by the Act, it took unprotected leaks to get the information to Congress, which then demanded the information that the Act supposedly guaranteed them.

On the whole I would have to say things have gotten worse, because with the indictment of Julian Assange, who is a journalist, for the first time the Espionage Act is being used as an Official Secrets Act, like the British one, which incriminates journalists. That is a very ominous development. Whatever people think of Assange or what he did, he is in fact a publisher or a journalist. He is the first ever to be indicted as such for his journalism. And if he were extradited and tried here, I think he would be convicted. That would be an extremely ominous precedent for free speech and freedom of the press in this country.

Let me wrap this up. I think a tremendous amount of the material in my archive should have been available to Congress and the public decades ago. When it came across my desk or out of my typewriter, I should have revealed it. And others should have revealed it. Some of it was very little known, but a lot of it was really available to about a thousand other staffers in the Pentagon and in the field. And it did reveal illegal activity and, beyond that, extremely bad and deceptive decisions and lies. So, what my archive demonstrates is to what extent our actual foreign policy is unknown to Congress and the public, which gets a fairy tale account of what our foreign policy actually is. For example, something that’s going on today, who are our allies in the Middle East or in Syria? It’s impossible to know what the meaning of all that is unless you know what our actual covert connections to the Kurds and other combatant factions in the area have been over the last generation. 

Past@Present: I have a question about the classification system in the U.S. Do you think that the Congress and the politicians in both parties are ready to change this classification system?

Ellsberg: That’s a good question. First of all, it is certainly the case that they have not made any real effort to do that, even though there have been some resolutions in the past that would affect it. But they haven’t gotten anywhere and they were not passed. There have not been real serious hearings on the subject for at least 50 years. I don’t think they think much about it or know it as a problem. They take it for granted. They are not aware of how abusive and anti-democratic the system is. It is ignorance in the first instance. Whistleblowers are needed to reveal that.

Are they willing to change it? The members of the congress are afraid of what the FBI and the CIA and the NSA can reveal about their own private lives and their own political workings. They are definitely not eager to get in a fight with the intelligence community. They have taken it for granted that it is doing its job and has to be secret.

If this were to be raised, the current situation does provide a way in, because it is revealing so blatantly abuses both by the president and the secrecy system.  I think people would be willing to address that now in a way they wouldn’t have even a year ago or two years ago. So that is brand new.

But let me close with this thought. There were hearings on the classification system by the Government Operations Committee at the time that included testimony from William G. Florence, an official from the Pentagon who just retired after nearly 30 years of being pretty much in charge of writing the security regulations of the secrecy system. He told Congress, under oath, that in his judgment no more than 5 percent of what was marked classified, confidential, secret, or top secret deserved that classification at the time it was classified. By the way, five percent of millions of pages is still a lot of pages. But he said after that three or four years the amount to merit classification was about a tenth of that, or half of one percent, or one out of 200 pages. The Pentagon Papers were all marked top secret. When I put them out, the government was not able to prove that one sentence of the seven thousand pages actually hurt national security to be out. And these were marked Top Secret Sensitive. Nobody has noticed or remarked on that empirical demonstration of how abusive the secrecy system is.

Past@Present: You are visiting UMass Amherst in late October. You have been a political activist, author, and a champion of democracy, truth and free speech. What will you tell UMass students when you visit us here?

Ellsberg: Well, the proposed subject of my talk on the 30th is the ethics of threatening omnicide. The omnicide is the killing and really the murder of most people on earth, which is what our war plans envision. Just recently I’ve decided to make that more personal than I originally intended, less abstract and philosophical, by showing what I learned and the ethical problems I confronted at various points in my own career. So, in that sense it will be a something of a mirror of the entire archives.

I intend to illustrate what is to be revealed in that archive as a whole. Basically, that has to do with how endless wars get started and continue, like Afghanistan, and how catastrophes are prepared and come about as a result of careful planning in secret to implement reckless secret decisions.

– Interview by Mohammad Ataie


For some, Herter Hall is an eyesore. Our department’s little-loved home is a concrete monolith, one of several scattered across the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass), the flagship campus of the state of Massachusetts. Like many Brutalist buildings, Herter Hall’s concrete form seems unyielding, resistant to the very landscape it is situated in and to the individuals that make the building their academic home. We are supposed to accommodate to Herter Hall, rather than the other way around. This is a common critique of Brutalist buildings, and one that I hear my colleagues and classmates intone with frequency. Yet too often in (sometimes heated) conversations about Brutalism, we deny ourselves agency to influence and shape our built environment—especially if that built environment is concrete. But when Herter Hall was papered with recruitment flyers for a white nationalist hate group earlier this semester, a group of graduate students and faculty in the History department and the Languages, Literature, and Classics (LLC) department co-opted Herter’s concrete shell to articulate a response. Our own act of resistance aimed to transform Herter from an anonymous academic building to one that conveyed a  united front against acts of hate.

When the Coletti Brothers of Boston designed Herter Hall in 1969, they added one of a growing number of Brutalist buildings cropping up across campus. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the UMass administration hoped to shift our campus’s identity from a small state agricultural college to one of the nation’s leading research universities. Brutalism was the integral visual keystone to this process, reflecting the university’s commitment to providing modern, state-of-the-art academic facilities. Beyond simply increasing physical space to a growing university, this commitment invoked a much broader ideal of public investment in education. As a modern architectural style, Brutalism hoped to explore concrete’s “fundamental properties,” what UMass professors Marla Miller and Max Page refer to as “the search for the ‘rough poetry’ of materials in their raw state.”

While many would think Herter is “rough,” few would associate it with “poetry.” But Herter’s more poetic sensibilities resonate in the simplicity of its engineering, its interior functions laid bare upon the exterior. The building’s stairwells and classrooms protrude from the west façade, while repeating rows of windows on Herter’s east side make obvious the building’s interior functions of offices and seminar rooms. In other words, Herter Hall clearly expresses itself in a way that most observers can understand.

That Herter can be so easily “read” by those passing by or waiting to catch a bus from Haigis Mall proved fundamental in articulating a response to instances of racism and hatred. Earlier in the semester a white nationalist hate group peppered Herter Hall with recruitment posters, one of a growing number of racist and hateful acts occurring across campus. This incident deeply disturbed many of us who call Herter Hall our academic home. UMass was just the latest in a string of universities targeted by this specific group, and this racist incident was just one of many targeting people of color on UMass’s campus this fall. As soon as the posters appeared, their perpetrators disappeared into anonymity. Such an act of hatred is frustratingly nebulous; our counterparts two floors below us in LLC and those of us in the History department hoped to formulate a response as concrete as Herter Hall. Our small coalition in Herter joined a growing number of cross-campus efforts to address racism including statements from UMass chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and History department chair Brian Ogilvie, the “Hate Has No Home At UMass” campaign, and coordinated efforts from the Graduate Student Senate and Employee Organization. For our History and LLC coalition in Herter, we settled on utilizing Herter’s Brutalist form as our own canvas to reflect a unified front against hate at UMass.


LLC, located on the fourth and fifth floors, and History, located on the sixth and seventh floors, each selected phrases grounded in our own academic fields of study. LLC chose “Zivilcourage,” a German phrase historically connected to anti-fascist movements that roughly translates to “courage to stand up for one’s beliefs.” Conversations within the History department resulted in the selection of “Solidarity” and “Resistance,” two words that carry immense historical weight for a number of social movements that hoped to achieve greater equity in the world around them. We painted each letter of these phrases on large sheets of paper to hang within individual office and seminar room windows, thus utilizing Herter’s rows of windows that face out onto Haigis Mall like blank crossword puzzle lines to be filled in.

As Herter’s original Brutalist design intended to reflect its interior properties, so too have we projected our values as academics committed to rejecting racism and hatred from UMass onto the exterior of Herter Hall. Likewise, our simple mapping of words and phrases transformed Herter from a monolithic concrete block to a pliable canvas. Our own act of resistance refutes the idea that Brutalism is an architectural style unyielding to human intervention. Rather, we have agency to shape our built environment to better reflect our values as an academic department and a society. It feels as if it is no accident such a response came from within Herter Hall. Brutalism itself remains visually and historically associated with the ideals of a strong public sphere, one increasingly under attack. These ideals, while perhaps obscured behind poor maintenance and dirty concrete, still shine through in acts of resistance, however small, that help unite us in solidarity against acts of hatred.

Samuel Redman, Assistant Professor, UMass History

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A mysterious set of 9,000-year-old bones, unearthed nearly 20 years ago in Washington, is finally going home. Following bitter disputes, five Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest have come together to facilitate the reburial of an individual they know as “Ancient One.” One of the most complete prehistoric human skeletons discovered in North America, “Kennewick Man” also became the most controversial.

Two teenagers searching out a better view of a Columbia River speedboat race in 1996 were the first to spot Kennewick Man’s remains. Since then, the bones have mostly been stored away from public view, carefully preserved in museum storerooms while subject to hotly contested legal battles.

Some anthropologists were eager to scientifically test the bones hoping for clues about who the first Americans were and where they came from. But many Native Americans hesitated to support this scientific scrutiny (including tests which permanently destroy or damage the original bone), arguing it was disrespectful to their ancient ancestor. They wanted him laid to rest.

Kennewick Man’s remains had rested in the Columbia River Gorge for millennia.
Bleeding Skies, CC BY

This high-profile discovery served as an important, if maddening, test case for a significant new law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). It aimed to address the problematic history behind museum human remains collections. First it mandated inventories – many museums, in fact, were unaware how large their skeletal collections really were. Then, in certain cases, it called for returning skeletons and mummies to their closest descendant group. Since NAGPRA passed in 1990, the National Park Service estimates over 50,000 sets of human remains have been repatriated in the United States. Read More

Julie Peterson, Public History M.A., UMass History

On July 16, 2015, President Obama became the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison.  While at the El Reno medium-security facility in Oklahoma, Obama remarked on the unprecedented boom in the US prison population, and called for major sentencing reform.  This event is a defining moment of our times.  Amid police violence primarily perpetrated against people of color, and increasing rates of incarceration despite overall reduction of crime rates, the time for a frank national conversation about mass incarceration and its impacts has definitely come.  While Obama’s prison visit indicates that politicians are willing and ready to approach this conversation, museums and other cultural institutions are also making strides toward addressing these critical issues.

One such site with a growing commitment to interpreting contemporary criminal justice issues is Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The institution has embarked on a multi-year journey to incorporate the story of mass incarceration into its interpretive plan.  Originally built in the 1820s as the first penitentiary in the world to inspire true penitence in the individuals incarcerated there, Eastern State Penitentiary functioned as a prison until 1971, when it was abandoned for a number of years.  The former penitentiary began operating as an historic site with guided tours in 1994.  Since those early days of interpretation, the site has grown increasingly popular; today, Eastern State receives over 180,000 visitors per year.

This May, Eastern State Penitentiary will open a new exhibit called “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”  The exhibit builds on information reflected in the Big Graph, a dramatic sculptural feature installed in the prison’s courtyard in 2014.  This graph depicts on a huge scale the rise of incarceration rates in the U.S., how this country compares to others throughout the world, and how race is reflected in rates of incarceration.  The exhibit expands on this data, seeking to place the contemporary phenomenon of mass incarceration in historical context, exploring criminal justice policy over the past forty years and encouraging visitors to consider their own relationship to the criminal justice system.

Photo 1

The Big Graph at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. Photo courtesy of Sean Kelley.

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