Two things make up a nation, said Ernest Renan, the great analyst of nationalism, in an 1882 lecture at the Sorbonne: “One is the common ownership of a rich legacy of memories; the other is today’s agreement, the wish to live together, the will to continue to validate the undivided heritage we have inherited…. That is the social capital on which a national idea is based.” In the same lecture, though, he also said, “Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is a necessary part of a nation’s formation,” and “the progress of historical research is often dangerous for nationalism.” He was thinking of France’s violent past, the wars between its regions, and religious conflicts papered over by gauzy historical myths taught to children and part of popular memory.
So here we are in an America at its most divided since the Civil War. Along with the many differences from which we suffer—ethnic splits, growing inequality, class and cultural resentments, deciding how to best address our major problems—there is the even deeper fact that we no longer have a common history. That is not simply an artifact of division but a root cause. If it is not remedied, we will not overcome today’s chaos. In the long run, not having a unifying history can permanently cripple a nation’s ability to cope with major crises.
Renan believed in the French nation, and in others, too, though he knew that despite their claims of ancient lineage, they were relatively modern creations. Tribes, states, kingdoms, empires—these were very old institutions; but large, solidary, popularly accepted states in which most inhabitants felt some sort of common bond were newer. Nations had, over time, created a sense of moral community; but Renan ridiculed the notion that national boundaries were in any sense geographically “natural” or based on common primordial ethnicities. Wars, political bargains, and chance determined almost all international boundaries. Then, national feelings had to be nurtured. As Massimo D’Azeglio, a key architect of mid-19th-century Italian unification, wrote in his 1866 memoir, “Italy has been made. Making Italians remains to be done.”
Particularly noxious to Renan was any notion that a common cross-border ethnicity or language justified irredentist claims. Wide application of such an idea, he said, “would destroy European civilization. As much as the principle of the nation is just and legitimate, that of the primordial rights of races is narrow and full of danger for true progress.” He was thinking of the then-recent German annexation of Alsace and the fact that such claims were spreading across Europe. Unfortunately, he was right; but who, then or now, listens to learned academics with unpopular views? What Renan feared came true in the 20th century; and though Europe did not destroy itself, it came close.
The laughable claims by Balkan nations that they were ethnically pure and legitimate occupiers of territories larger than those they actually controlled led to the terrible Balkan wars of the early 20th century and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Even worse, because Germany was so powerful a country, were similar claims made by Germans until they were badly defeated in World War II. Nor were such destructive claims limited to Europe. But to what extent were such stories necessary to create nationalist solidarities that were crucial in uniting people—and getting them to die for their countries?
The Importance—and Danger—of Forgetting
All of Renan’s complex reasoning applies as much to the United States as to nations that claimed, or still insist on, millennial primordialism. America cannot claim origins in antiquity; but it has its own mythologies, replete with willful forgetting.
Take, for example, the reconciliation of the American North and South after the Civil War. The rapprochement was based on the narrative that the South had a legitimate reason to fight for its genteel, patriarchal, less commercialized, and less greedy way of life. Sure, slavery was not right, but was it all that bad if Blacks were biologically inferior?
Overcoming the deadly division of North and South, then, was based on a complete historical fabrication that continued to justify the suppression of African-Americans’ rights. The claim that the Civil War was an unfortunate misunderstanding between White brothers who were subsequently reunited came at the expense of the former slaves and their descendants.
That this disingenuous myth lasted so long is astonishing. The old South was a brutal autocracy that rested on the suppression of Black slaves and the hoodwinking of its mostly poor Whites by stoking racist paranoia, and the Confederacy was created to keep it that way.
We should reverse the old saying that history is written by the winners, because the converse is true: It is those who write history who are the winners. The South lost the war on the battlefield; but until the last decades of the 20thcentury, it managed to win the history war. That was what many Whites—and not just Southerners—believed. Many still do.
Unfortunately, Renan’s question about the need to forget becomes this one: Could the United States have survived as a nation without forgetting to some extent the reality of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the reversal of Reconstruction? Could there have been a more just history, based on a common adherence to the Enlightenment ideals of the Declaration of Independence? Abraham Lincoln hoped so; we, too, must think so. Yet for more than a century, that was not the idea that much popular White historical mythology promoted.
A good deal of forgetting is now being remembered. It is hardly fresh news that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and, indeed, all our early presidents except for John and John Quincy Adams were slave owners. That fact was never literally forgotten, of course; but it was subtly elided in school history books and the general popular mind. Furthermore, the new historical research doesn’t just remind us of what was already known, but shows how much more deeply slavery and many other injustices penetrated our nation’s construction.
So why is this perception changing now? Does the change endanger the national solidarity that has more or less held Americans together for generations because the historical truth deeply offends much of America’s conservative public opinion? Was it necessary to forget, or at least sanitize, true history? Renan was right. Real history is dangerous, but honest historians cannot deny it.
All over the world, fresh false myths are created and old ones reworked and modernized. No, China’s unity is not five thousand years old; its present boundaries are more or less based on conquests by the non-Chinese Manchu dynasty in the late 17th and 18th centuries (Including Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet). But the Chinese Communist Party believes that a mythology of ancient Chinese harmony and borders is essential to legitimize itself and hold the country together. Every nation has similar lies.
States without strong, at least partly mythologized historical binding narratives have trouble surviving because they lack unifying nationalisms. Lebanon, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iraq, and former colonial entities like Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo barely survive as political entities. They are racked by civil war, dysfunctional governments, and chaos that leave them prey to not just internal disorder but outside interference. In the past, states ruled by elites but peopled by mostly illiterate peasants, who did not need to be educated or mobilized to defend the state, could survive. Today that is impossible: States must perform many more functions and must be defended against enemies that do mobilize their entire populations.
The Value—and Danger—of Unforgetting
The American story—of a nation based on Enlightenment rationality, religious tolerance, devotion to democracy, and willingness to integrate immigrants—was inherently more benign than the ethno-linguistic one more common elsewhere. Reformers could look back to our ideal to demand something better than the racism, cruelty toward indigenous people, and imperialistic bullying that marred the past and were swept under the rug. Yet, if so much is now being unforgotten, can the nation survive?
The United States is not about to dissolve. We are not the Austro-Hungarian Empire of 1914 or the tottering Soviet Empire of the 1980s, much less Yugoslavia in 1989. But our deep divisions will not heal unless a new, more viable history comes to sustain national unity.
The traditional historical story was not all myth; its problem was that it left out too many contradictions and exceptions. America was indeed a refuge for immigrants who sought more freedom and economic opportunities; but assimilation was always difficult and contested, and it entirely excluded some people. The rule of law and promotion of individual human rights were real enough—except for those who didn’t qualify because of their ethnicity or religion. There really was unparalleled social and economic mobility—but, again, not for everyone; and what there once was is no longer true. The United States rejected European states’ imperialism and colonialism except when it didn’t, by making war on Mexico, murdering indigenous Native Americans, bullying Caribbean and Central American states, then seizing its own colonies. For every piece of the national myth of goodness, there were both real accomplishments and exceptions and hypocrisies. On balance, the unifying myth and artful forgetting held America together and even persuaded much of the world to admire us.
The mythical deceptions have been stripped away largely through historical accounts that more accurately portray the marginalization and persecution of groups, including not just African-Americans but Native American, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and others. Each case has its own historical account, buttressed by new evidence and reminders of half-forgotten outrages. At the same time, new histories show that sexual minorities and women in general were not given equal rights at all. True, the United States has hardly been the world’s worst; but in our self-image, we were so much better than everyone else that we had no past sins for which to atone.
Unfortunately, all the new remembering and discovery cannot recreate an alternative historical unity. For one thing, almost all of it is highly particular. Black history, feminist history, gay history, and others can make valid points, but their enterprise is deconstruction. They demand correction or restitution but do not constitute a revised unifying history. Yet a new historical synthesis should not try, as some conservative voices would have it, to deny the problems raised by new awareness of past wrongs. Simple forgetting is not an option, but some measure of forgiveness and understanding of human complexity and frailty are.
Take the George Washington case: As Renan pointed out, a nation cannot survive without heroes. If George Washington and the “Founding Fathers” are dismissed as nothing but slaveholders who led the American Revolution primarily to preserve their own interests, most Americans will reject any new historical synthesis that leaves out the good and so fails to keep the best of the past while recognizing its flaws.
American conservatives have their own mythical histories, many of them old. The Confederate myth has not died. The even older myth of America as a Christian nation entrusted by God with the mission to enforce an anti-Enlightenment version of religious intolerance has returned with a vengeance. This despite the Founders’ deep and well founded suspicions of religious dogmatism. They were well aware of how much bitter conflict that had caused in England, France, and elsewhere in Europe.
Even the obvious—that the United States has always relied on immigrants and that its 19th- and 20th-century growth was spurred not just by capitalism but also by publicly financed scientific research, infrastructure, and technology—is now questioned by some conservatives to a degree not seen for a century.
So, what remains? On the left, we have an aspirational history that is too particularistic to allow for a new, necessary, unifying common history. On the right, we have conservative myths that refuse to recognize how much forgetting we have done. That is the pretense of the Trump Administration’s recent “1776” project. An even more extreme anti-Enlightenment mythology claims that America was never meant to include those outside the narrow criteria of the right faith, ideology, and race.
The historical visions of left and right cannot be bridged because they are based on drastically different histories.
Creating a usable common history will be difficult. We do need heroes, and many good recent biographies provide them. David W. Blight’s nuanced history of Frederick Douglass has helped make Douglass a complex but more central hero, who is now widely accepted as such. David McCullough’s bestselling biographies of notable Americans do a similar job. Fredrik Logevall recently published a biography of John F. Kennedy that makes no attempt to hide Kennedy’s many flaws and errors but manages to emphasize his best, and at times heroic, qualities. As a longtime Kennedy skeptic, I was pleased that Logevall’s balanced account restored my youthful admiration of him.
Still, biographies are not enough. It is harder to write more general and popular common histories that synthesize the new findings and reminders of our faults while revalidating our Enlightenment traditions. Yet as Jill Lepore, herself a great historian, recently emphasized in Foreign Affairs, the task is essential to national reunification.
The process will be long and contentious; it will take at least a generation and will depend on political leaders willing to accept and promote such history. Let us hope it is still possible—because without such a foundation, attempts to reconcile the parts of our divided society will fail. So will the nation.
Daniel Chirot, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is the Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Henry Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.
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