(June 26, 2017) Earlier this month the foremost authority on intersectional trade during the Civil War, Ludwell Johnson, passed away. Although his work is cited in nearly all studies of such inter-belligerent trade, I am unable to find any remarks among prominent historians commenting upon his death. His passing shamefully goes unnoticed within the academy because he was among the first to challenge the presently dominant “Southerners were devils” interpretation of the war.
Johnson’s works and and bibliographies provided many of the sources I used in researching my own book, Trading With the Enemy. Although modern historians may consider him a pariah for opposing political correctness, they will also likely rely upon his works and bibliographies for years to come. His Red River Campaign, which was written during the 1950s, is still in print.
Twenty-three years before he died, Johnson wrote the article below for Southern Historian, in which he objected to political correctness. As he presciently summarized:
All this [political correctness] is unnervingly reminiscent of official histories in totalitarian countries, and indeed of George Orwell’s 1984, wherein an axiom of the rulers stated that “who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” By distortion, invention, and excision, the past is to be changed at the behest of the present in order to shape the future.
The past—what we believe happened and what we think it means—can be a very slippery customer. Even the recent past can be elusive. In the early 1950s, when I was a student at Johns Hopkins, C. Vann Woodward gave an amusing but provocative talk called “Can We Believe Our History?” He pointed out that what we think we know was true can very suddenly seem to have been not true after all. For example, he reminded us that during the Second World War, then just a few years in the past, Americans knew that the Japanese were Oriental monsters of unspeakable brutality, whereas the Chinese were our little brown brothers. Yet very quickly all that changed. In the wake of the Communists’ victory in China and Chinese intervention in the Korean War, the Chinese became Oriental monsters of unspeakable brutality and the Japanese were now our little brown brothers.
The same thing happened in Europe. During the war against Hitler, the United States Office of War Information described the Soviet Union as our gallant ally and one of the “freedom loving democracies,” whereas Germany was a loathsome tyranny and deadly enemy. Then came the Cold War right on the heels of the hot war, and suddenly the Soviets were a loathesome tyranny and deadly enemy, whereas West Germany, our recent enemy, became our first line of defense against our recent ally, the Soviet Union.
All this is confusing enough, this chameleon-like quality of other nations, but adding to our confusion as the years passed was a growing uncertainty about what kind of nation we were. The Cold War had allowed us to reaffirm our long-standing belief that, as Jefferson and Lincoln had said, we were the last best hope of earth, now become the righteous defenders of the free world against aggressive monolithic Communism. But then came the Vietnam War, riots in our cities, surging violence and crime, the drug epidemic, Watergate, and so forth, until it was a little harder to see ourselves as a unique repository of human virtue. Briefly, of course, Ronald Reagan led us back into dreamland, standing on the bridge of resurrected Second World War battleships and telling us we were still the righteous guardians of mankind this time against the Evil Empire.
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