Manifest Destiny and white identity

American Progress, by John Gast 1872

Manifest Destiny was an idea long before it had a name, and what it was really about was not the “white man’s burden,” but an Anglo-American one, the idea that the arrow of civilization and mantle of world leadership had passed from the British Empire to the emerging Anglo-American Empire. The accession of Mexican lands and the Philippines, adventures in Central America, and most importantly for our own national history, the Westward Expansion that displaced Indians and seized tribal lands across the continent, were all part of a grand idea that Anglo-American civilization was destined to lead the entire world.

From the founding of the United States forward, Anglo-Americans were in political control: immigrants from other European places grouped themselves in Eastern city neighborhoods and on Midwestern farms—Greeks, Irish, Scandinavians, Bohemians, Slavs and Jews from Central Europe and more. German immigrants—the largest share of all immigrants between 1850 and 1900—built factories and Midwestern cities. They were white, but not Anglo-white, and while the Irish and Italians ran their neighborhoods and Germans made beer, Anglos ran national politics. Thirty-eight of our Presidents trace ancestry to the British Isles, Eisenhower was the first German-American, Kennedy the first Catholic.

The West was historically a sparsely populated region whose natural resources and agricultural possibilities dazzled and attracted people from the “United States” and countries around the world. Spaniards, Mexicans, and Indian workers dealt early in tallow and hides. The Chinese came to build railroads and work in mines, and Filipinos and other Asians came to Hawaii to work in fields, and then hopped to the Mainland. In other words, from territorial days and Mexican, Russian, and British claims forward, the West was more colorful than the East, but not as politically powerful.

European westward settlement proceeded over decades; twentieth century wars transformed the country in months. Especially World War II, a bi-coastal war that brought tens of thousands of young American men from across the country to camps in California and Washington on their way to war. Men, and women too, moved to shipyards on the West coast, and thousands came to Los Alamos and Hanford to work on the atomic bomb. In 1994, historian Richard White told an Oregon Fishtrap audience examining change in the West that “prior to WW II the West was a hard-scrabble place looking for population, capital, and an industrial base. WW II gave the West all three.”

African-Americans came too, but the military was strictly segregated (until 1948), as were shipyards and Hanford workers barracks. So while Anglo-Americans and Italian-Americans, Scandinavians and even Jews served together, lived and mixed together in war and at home, blacks were firmly separated.

At that same Fishtrap conference, historian Alvin Josephy, who had been a Marine Corps journalist in the Pacific, said that WW II didn’t unite the country—the G.I. Bill did. What we didn’t talk about, and what seems clear to me now, is that WW II and the G.I. Bill that followed united “white America,” and laid the ground for what is dividing us now.

African-Americans, who’d traveled north and west to work in urban factories since the early 1900s, found no place in the emerging post-WW II suburbs, where William Levitt, his followers, and the GI Bill used federal money to build tract homes for the mixed ethnic bag of white WW II veterans. Federal money supported suburban infrastructure while it ignored deteriorating urban infrastructure in city cores which were becoming increasingly black; and federal policy winked or ignored redlining as suburbs stayed white.

But WW II showed blacks other worlds too, and soon baseball and the military were integrated, a Civil Rights Bill was passed, and the reign of Anglo presidents finally gave way to the Irish, to a poor white Southerner, and, finally, to an African-American.

Today, the old ethnic and “tribal” identities are jumbled and waiting for DNA counts to tell us who we are—or were. Families are split across the country. There are more and more boxes on government forms—and the easy response from far too many is to scream “White!”

Maybe in New York City, long a landing place for new immigrants, and here on the West Coast, where soldiers have long settled down with war brides and wars have deposited millions of Asian refugees, where opportunism and intermarriage have stirred the pot harder, a new multi-cultural identity is growing. But here and everywhere there are too many pockets of Supremacists, people who want the white back they thought they always had, people who lost their own anchors of place and “ethnic identity” sometime around 1944.

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Some thoughts on the new racism

I believe that Manifest Destiny was the nineteenth century idea that the United States of American—led by Anglo-Americans—was picking up the mantel of world leadership and the white man’s burden from the British Empire and would become greater than its predecessor.  I think it was an idea that began decades before its formal declaration, and continues in some diminished way to the present.

I think that Manifest Destiny was not about white Greeks and Bohunks, Irishmen, and Swedes. I think that “white” didn’t become a standard classification to include all Americans of European ancestry until after WW 2, when Bohemians and Swedes, Greeks, Italians, and Irishmen all served together.  Until then—even through the Dutch-American Roosevelts, Anglo-Americans were the ideal, and the story of Manifest Destiny their story of crusading against and bringing Civilization to a vast wilderness. (Which of course leads to totally ambivalent attitudes towards American Indians—but that is another story.)

If you look at one factor only, the ethnicity of our presidents, fully 38 of the 44 Presidents’ backgrounds, and 39 if you count Trump’s maternal side, are from the British Isles. Until about 1950, Scandinavians were farming; Germans were brewing and baking and doing business. National political leadership was left to or taken by Anglo-Americans.

27 English
2 English/Scottish
2 English/Welsh
4 Scottish
1 Scottish/Irish
2 Irish
3 Dutch
1 German
1 African
+ Trump—German-Scottish

Eisenhower was our first German American President, Kennedy the first Irish—and Catholic—President. The clump at the top of this chart doesn’t really break apart until after WW 2.

The other whites. The vast majority of early non-Anglo European immigrants to the U.S. came to Northern cities and Midwest farms. Northern cities were made up of ethnic neighborhoods, where Italian, Polish, Irish, and other non-Anglo European-American groups clustered. Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics often attended their own churches in adjoining neibhborhoods.

In my Minnesota birth town several Lutheran churches ministered to their unique immigrant communities. The German Lutheran Church still used the German language; the Swedish Lutheran Church used Swedish. The largely Scandinavian population who had fled farms too divided to maintain and sustain found farms in Minnesota and the Dakotas that had some resemblance to country they had left.  Willa Cather found Bohemian farmers in Nebraska in the same circumstance.

But, you say, under Jim Crow, Southern restaurants, public restrooms and drinking fountains said “whites only” and not “Anglo only”? Although I do not have experience in the South, my reading is that Southern culture was long dominated by Anglo-Americans—maybe beginning with Jamestown. That domination hiccupped during the Civil War and Reconstruction, then continued until the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.

At a church meeting in Washington D.C. in 1968, not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King, I heard a white woman from South Carolina—and significantly, I do not remember her name or ethnic identity—describe herself as “white trash.” She said that that she and her kind were looked down on by the region’s leaders, but given racism as a way to make them feel superior to someone while keeping them in their place. If this is true, “whites only” was a crude tool left in the wake of failed “Reconstruction” to keep the original, largely Anglo slave owners in control.

To bolster my theory about the impact of WW 2 on homogenizing white in America, remember that troops were totally segregated through the War; the military was integrated by President Truman in 1948.

I think one can also argue that ethnicity had, from the 19th century on, through the period noted as Manifest Destiny, been of less concern on the Frontier. People left old homes and alliances to move West—and the intermingling was almost immediate. In Wallowa County where I live, there were not enough French Canadian DeBoies and Beaudoins to keep intermarriage of that ethnic group sustained.

We should also remember that the Great Migration of Southern Blacks is recent; 1916-1970 are the normal given dates. And Blacks did displace some ethnic neighborhoods as whites moved to GI housing in all-white but ethnically mixed suburbs.

All of this is to say that the renewed concern about race in America is different from racist attitudes of other days. And that my hunch is that WW 2 kicked off the new divisions that have worked their way to Trump and some of his angry followers.

So today, many whites of all stripes feel threatened—and united in their fears—by sixty years of Civil Rights legislation, legal immigration from many continents, and the economic jostling at the southern border that just might have started with the Bracero program of WW 2.

And by the advent of an African American President.

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Chester Nez, Indian Patriot

The last of the original 29 World War II Navajo code-talkers, Chester Nez, passed just weeks ago at the age of 93. The cruel ironies in his story are many, but the greatest of them haunted Nez to the end: “All those years, telling you not to speak Navajo, and then to turn around and ask us to help with the same language,” he told USA Today in 2003, “It still kind of bothers me.” 
I’ve known for years that the enlistment rates for American Indians in the armed forces are higher than for any other definable group, and that the standard interpretation is that “warrior culture” still flourishes in the tribes. Maybe true—though it seems we’ve made a bad habit of lumping all Indians together without considering historical realities of some tribes being more war-like and some tribes being known for peace-making skills. And we haven’t taken into account gender roles in tribal cultures—another area of great diversity—that might also influence warrior behavior and enlistment rates.
This thinking brought me back to Alvin Josephy’s first “Indian book,” Patriot Chiefs, published in 1961. In the Foreword, Josephy says that “from the first coming of the Europeans to America, the Indians were faced with the gravest threats that men face: challenges to freedom, right of conscience… and life itself.”
“There were some cowards,” he continues, “some weaklings, some bargainers, some appeasers and compromisers; some were confused and frightened, some confused and very brave, and many were strong and unwavering patriots.”
When traveling with Alvin on his last book tour in 2001 (A Walk Towards Oregon), he always looked to see where his books were shelved. In the early days, he said, “they were hidden with books on insects and dinosaurs.”  Indians, in other words, were not a part of history and didn’t have biographies. Indians knew different, and in 1961 they told Josephy that no one had ever called them “patriots,” no one had recognized that they were always fighting and struggling for their land and their ways of life. 
Chester Nez again: “when joining the Marine Corps, I thought about how my people were mistreated, but then I thought this would be my chance to do something for my country.” So Chester (his Indian name is lost; Chester given him by whites after President Arthur) and 28 other young Navajos, at the instigation of a WW I vet and son of missionaries on the Navajo reservation named Philip Johnson, used their once forbidden language to build a code that the Japanese never cracked. (Navajo was the basis, but the code was sophisticated enough so that regular Navajo speakers could not understand it.) By War’s end some additional 400 Navajos had joined the original 29, and, Indians from other tribes had used their languages as codes in the European Theater as Chester and tribe toiled in the Pacific.  
I discovered the business about other tribes and codes in Chester Nez’s NYT obituary—another case of Indians lost in our history—and heard again how at War’s end they came home unwanted and mistreated in their own lands. 
Late for sure, but the Navajo code-talkers have entered American history now in books and film: the New York Times headline on Chester Nez announced that a “Native Tongue Helped to Win the Pacific War.”
I wished that Alvin had lived to see that headline. “Some of the Indians’ greatest patriots,” he said in 1961, “died unsung by white men, and because their peoples also were obliterated, or almost so, their very names are forgotten” Alvin’s Patriot Chiefs—Hiawatha, King Philip, Pope, Pontiac, Tecumseh, Osceola, Black Hawk and Keokuk, Crazy Horse, and Joseph—“were big men, as much a part of our heritage as any of our other heroes, and they belong to all Americans now, not just to Indians.”
And Chester Nez was a big man—and a patriot. He didn’t die forgotten, but embraced by Indian and white alike. He helped to win a war, and maybe to make it possible for his heirs to speak their own language again. 
Patriotism might be the real key to understanding the Indians’ high enlistment rates and their readiness to die for land and culture. In ways that white immigrants may never understand, this is Indian country still, and Indians are patriots still. And maybe, ever so slowly, they are entering “American history” as well. Alvin would like that. 
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Remembering WW II at the Josephy Center

Here’s a “blog break” from Indians and Western American History and affairs.
Last Friday was D-Day, and the opening of our special WW II program at the Josephy Center. The program owes in part to the late Jack McClaran, a local rancher and strong friend of Alvin Josephy’s who followed the D-Day landing onto the mainland and fought across the Rhine and into the Nazi heartland as a tanker. He saw half of his battalion decimated, waited for new tanks for a couple of weeks, and got back in—“the hardest thing I ever did was get back into a tank… Tankers weren’t afraid of death, but of being  cooked inside a tank.”
And then they liberated Buchenwald. And due in part to Alvin’s urging—“there are people in the world who don’t believe concentration camps existed; we have to tell our stories” –Jack agreed to tell his, and over 100 people showed up at the local Oddfellows Hall a few years back to hear his calm, reflective, and brilliant account of the War.
Alvin Josephy and Jack McClaran
So Jack passed this spring, and it occurred to me—and to many others of course—that the generation that fought in and lived through that War is leaving us. So we determined to have an exhibit, and to interview the vets and Rosy the Riveters and home-front parents and wives and children who planted crops, bought War Bonds, saved rubber and waited for homecomings. We put out the call, and people responded.  
Alvin’s own war story—something I have touched on briefly but not really explored—is incredible and, I believe, the defining time in his life. It fueled a desire for true, gut-level, untarnished accounts of what really happened to and with tribal peoples and the Euro-American fur traders, missionaries, settlers, and speculators as they threaded their way across the continent. It informed his actions as historian and advocate for Indians for the next 60 years.
On the weekend I listened to the edited—and sanitized—15 minute version of Alvin’s recording of the Guam landing. It was the version that played on national radio networks two weeks after the invasion, cut from 110 minutes that included more graphic accounts of the men who were hit as they waded ashore and on the beach as they dug in under the Japanese pillboxes. I re-read the chapter on Alvin’s recruitment into General Denig’s Marine Corps journalism and public relations crew, marveled again at him wrestling recording gear (a 50 pound machine that recorded on movie film), batteries, Hermes typewriter, weapons and other gear across the country, across the Pacific to Guadalcanal and then into battle on Guam and Iwo.
Alvin must have written and relayed thousands of dispatches for publication in local newspapers in Marine hometowns across the country. And the Library of Congress holds 62 recordings from Guadalcanal, Guam, and Iwo. We have ordered the first four, and intend to get all of them eventually. But I want the newspaper accounts too! This exhibit lit that fire and I will go to the Marine Corps or wherever to find them. If anyone out there has hints, let me know!
The exhibit includes pictures and uniforms of Alvin, of Jack McClaran, of Rob Kemp’s father who weathered 30 missions as a nose-gunner (which put me in mind of Joseph Heller and Yosarian), of Biden Tippett and Ivan Roberts and many others. Sadly, we’ve missed interviews—Bud Stangel passed away last week after he said he was ready to talk about it all, and others have passed or are became too weak to tell their stories now, as we put the exhibit together.
William Stafford
But we have what we have. And we shared it with Joseph students this week and are sharing with scores of locals and visitors, rekindling memories and kindling new thinking about war.
I will always remember Jack McClaran’s late-aged wondering about the brutality that he bore witness to at Buchenwald—“Rich,” he said, “the Germans were educated, and local citizens knew in their hearts what was going on in those camps… How can we humans do this to each other.”

Jack became a skeptic of all war, which brings to mind another Veteran, the poet William Stafford. This year is the centenary of William Stafford’s birth. Stafford told his Kansas draft board chair that it was he, his Sunday School teacher, who had convinced him that he should be a conscience objector. He spent the War in Forest Service C.O. camps, and spent a lifetime –many years as Oregon poet laureate, a few as the U.S. poet laureate—writing against war and for peace.

From the Wallowas to Germany and Buchenwald in WW II–Jack McClaran remembers

When I traveled to bookstores, libraries, and museums with Alvin Josephy after the publication of A Walk Towards Oregon, the chapter that drew the most consistent comment was the one on the War. Fellow marine and navy vets came up with their own memories of Guam and Iwo and Guadalcanal. They sometimes whispered, and tears from 80 year-old men with rough hands and 50 year careers as preachers and farmers were not uncommon.

Among Alvin and Betty’s closest Wallowa County friends were Jack and Marge McClaran. The McClarans had a ranch in Snake River country, and for most of their friendship, Betty was the summer mainstay on the Wallowa front while Alvin split his time between American Heritage in New York and the ranch on the Wallowa Lake moraine. The two couples were involved in a summer educational day camp, one to which Betty recruited, housed, and fed Indian kids from Lapwai. And when Alvin was here, they visited McClaran ranch sites and traded stories—Alvin’s later disagreement with Ed Abbey over cows probably owes to his “education” from Jack.

I don’t know when I first learned that Jack had been an army tanker who was in on the liberation of Buchenwald. Maybe in my bookstore days, when Jack would come in to talk philosophy and buy Christmas presents. Over the years I heard bits of it and suggested to him that he needed to share it with a wider audience, that today’s students and, increasingly, most of the adult population, are removed from WW II, that personal memories of the War and the Holocaust are being lost every day.

In 2009, I had stepped aside as Fishtrap director and Rick Bombaci convinced Jack that it was time to give his talk. Both Josephys were gone and his experience was 55 years old, but his memories were as sharp as cheese. Over 150 people showed up at the Odd Fellows Hall in Enterprise to hear Jack McClaran’s talk.

It started with Alvin, who had encouraged Jack with his own book and talking about their responsibilites to the next generation. Jack encouraged vets in the audience to share their own stories. Gearing up, he quickly went from his high school graduation and immediate induction in June of 1944 to 16 weeks of basic training in Texas and then to Germany and getting tanks across the Rhine River in the follow-up to the Normandy invasion. There was still plenty of war going on—after a temporary retreat for replacement tanks and troops, Jack remembered being one of 43 survivors in a force of some 100 or 110. Getting back in a tank, he said, was probably the hardest thing he had ever done.

He was just 19, and Buchenwald and Ilse Koch’s work and a post war year in Germany were all ahead of him. I am going to leave it here, because Janis Carper has figured out a way to load an audio of the talk on our web site, and I want those who can to hear Jack speak. (If this does not work, let me know, and we will work something out.)

I listened again last week, and visited with Marge and Jack, now nearing 90, in their home. The story—and the mystery—that holds him still is how and why humans can be so brutal to other human beings. Buchenwald and over 100 other concentration camps were not the work of uneducated or underprivileged people from a left behind country, but educated “civilized” European people leading and being led to do inhuman things right in the heart of Western Europe.

As we talked, Jack’s thoughts returned to the mystery again, and to the question of the masses of German people who had denied any knowledge of the horrors in their back yards—the stench alone, Jack says, remembering still, should have told them.

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Click for the audio of Jack’s talk:

click for my blog re Alvin and WW II:

Who was Gwen Coffin?

Gwen Coffin grew up poor in Colorado, made his way through college and law school in Chicago, married a teacher named Gladys, and, in 1941, moved to Wallowa County to buy a newspaper and practice law. He never got around to the law practice, though he did make some law while serving briefly in the Oregon Legislature. He was still going newspaper strong at the Wallowa County Chieftain when I got here in 1971, taking on Johnson and Nixon and the Vietnam War, promoting conservation and wilderness.

Oh—and Gwen was the man Alvin Josephy called, and the Coffin House in Enterprise was the house that Alvin came to on his first trip to see Joseph’s Nez Perce homeland. They ate lunch and Gwen gave Alvin his first tour of Wallowa County. That would have been mid-1950s, shortly after Alvin came upon the Nez Perce story that changed his life–and in turn has changed many others.

Fishtrap lives in the house now. It was purchased with generous help from the Coffin daughters, Nancy Ormandy and Gail Swart, who grew up in it and like all the things that tied their parents and this house to writing and living in Wallowa County (Gladys had become a Fishtrap regular in her 80s!)

This editorial, which appeared in the April 8, 1943 edition of Gwen’s Chieftain, at the height of the Second World War and just 48 years ago next week, says a lot about Gwen Coffin. He supported the war efforts in Europe and the Pacific, but, as you will see, he questioned the conduct of business and government at home….

April 8, 1943

When historians sit down to write the history of the present war we venture a guess that the government’s treatment of the Japanese in this country will come in for some pretty severe criticism. There is very little to be said in favor of what has been done so far.

In the hysteria of the first few weeks after Pearl Harbor the army decided that the presence of thousands of Japanese in the Pacific coast region constituted a threat to the safety of the country and a policy of wholesale deportations to concentration camps was decided upon. No effort was made to determine who were loyal Japanese and who were disloyal or potentially so. All were given short notice to dispose of their homes and their businesses preparatory to being moved to hastily improvised camps where thousands were crowded into barracks with few facilities for maintaining life on anything like a normal basis.

The whole business is foreign to our conception of fair play and orderly process. Had the procedure adopted been necessary the picture of families being torn from their homes and mode of life and sent to distant internment camps would not have been quite so pathetic. But it is highly doubtful whether the policy was ever really necessary.

We have not felt obliged to send German and Italian nationals to concentration camps in wholesale batches, although it would e exceedingly difficult to make out anything like a convincing argument in favor of a more lenient policy toward these people than toward the Japanese. There are no doubt disloyal and traitorous Japanese in this country but probably they represent no greater a proportion of the total Jap population of the U.S. than the proportion of disloyal Italians and Germans in the total population of those tow national groups. It should have been possible to have segregated the Japanese known to be loyal to this country from those who were known to be disloyal or about whom there might be doubts. The loyal Japanese should have been given every chance to contribute toward the successful prosecution of the war instead of being immediately branded as outcasts and thrown in with the know traitors and shipped off to detention camps.

Besides being an undemocratic process the whole business is unsound economically a Senator Chandler of Kentucky has decided in introducing a bill in Congress calling for the release of loyal Japanese form detention camps so that they may return to useful occupations furthering the war effort and cease to be charity wards of the Untied Sates government. Senator Chandler estimates that more than $50,000,000 a year would be saved if this segregation were made. Much of the resentment on the West Coast toward the Japanese was not the outgrowth of the war but arose during peacetime as the Japanese achieved some success and prominence in their pursuits of agriculture and trade. Many employers preferred to see the Japanese remain in the ranks of low paid wage earners. Others were resentful at the sight of Japanese prospering better than many Americans.

It is foreign to our conceptions of democracy, however, to distinguish between peoples on the basis of color or nationality. There should be only one test for the right to share in the opportunities which this country provides and that is the test of belief in our democratic ideals and government, and a willingness to work with other Americans to further those ideals and to support this government.

Gwen Coffin, editor and publisher, Wallowa County Chieftain

(1986 photo of Gwen Coffin, Senator Bob Packwood, and Wallowa County Chamber President Gerry Perrin at Toma’s Restaraunt in Enterprise.)