Thursday, 30 January 2014

Taming Disaster: Fatalism and Mastery in American Disaster Management, 1800-2013

Yesterday, 29th January 2014, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Gareth Davies (St. Annes College, Oxford University) to the seventh of the Centre’s 2013-2014 seminar series. In what was a truly thought-provoking lecture, Dr. Davies discussed ‘Taming Disaster: Fatalism and Mastery in American Disaster Management, 1800-2013.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Marine One above the decimated city of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, 2005

When President George W. Bush flew over flood-ravaged New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, opting not to land for a closer look, it fuelled public sentiment that his administration was not being proactive in the disaster that had taken lives and destroyed so much property. Bush acknowledged as much in his memoirs. Indeed, as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 illuminated, when both presidential candidates effectively had to cancel planned campaign stops and all eyes pivoted to how President Barack Obama would respond, Presidential visits matter in times of disasters. But has this always been the case? Has it always been the federal government’s responsibility to react with all the resources at its disposal when natural disasters strike?

According to Dr. Gareth Davies in his ‘Taming Disaster’ talk, the answer is no. In the Early American Republic there were very few tools to draw from to combat catastrophe and the lack of communications and governmental structures meant that response was limited. For example, in the 1811-12 Missouri Earthquakes, which remain the most powerful earthquakes to hit the eastern United States in recorded history, territories were decimated and the extreme ruralness of these rugged frontier lands meant that word of it got out slowly. There was no expectation of governmental assistance at the time but rather it was religious groups, believing these disasters to be the work of God, who would raise money and assist when they could.

After the Civil War, the federal government began to take a larger role in disaster prevention and assistance, but the expectation was still on local organisations and philanthropic efforts. Thus, the government played a role as part of a massive national collective, with the growth in newspapers raising awareness and the strides in technology improving prevention tools. By the Progressive Era, people began to turn to local governments to respond. For example, following the 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane that destroyed one third of the property in the area, many people were dissatisfied with the way local governments responded, but people did not turn to the federal government or the president. Instead, the hurricane triggered the mobilization of an important movement to reform local government since it was viewed as the locus of response. The Red Cross too increased its role, playing a massive part in assisting those affected by the 1927 Mississippi floods. So then, when did the people start looking to the President to provide leadership in response to disasters? Although President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives begin to bureaucratise the nature of disaster prevention and response, even President Dwight Eisenhower did not visit the Louisiana coast in 1957 when Hurricane Audrey wreaked havoc, killing some 500 people, nor did he feel compelled to do so. As Dr. Davies argued, it was during the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon presidencies that the decisive change took place.

Accordingly, one of the key turning points in expectations that the President respond to disaster was following Hurricane Betsy in September 1965. Although initially disinclined to visit the site, but eventually persuaded to do so based on political considerations by Louisiana Senator Russell Long, who had recently become the Senate Majority Whip, President Johnson’s response was unprecedented. Betsy was a Category 4 storm with wind gusts near 160 mph that came ashore on September 9, 1965. New Orleans was hit with 110 mph winds, a storm surge around 10 feet, and heavy rain. After the storm passed, Senator Long called Johnson and urged him to tour the devastated areas. Long told Johnson of the severe damaged done to his own home that had nearly killed his family. Johnson, along with the heads of the Office of Emergency Planning, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the Surgeon General, arrived in New Orleans five hours after talking to Long. After seeing the dreadful suffering and damage from his plane, Johnson said upon arrival, ‘I am here because I want to see with my own eyes what the unhappy alliance of wind and water have done to this land and its good people.’

Indeed, within hours of Betsy, Johnson was in the city, making surprise visits to shelters, offering encouragements to the city’s newly homeless residents, saying:

Today at 3 o’clock when Senator Long and Congressman Boggs and Congressman Willis called me on behalf of the entire Louisiana delegation, I put aside all the problems on my desk to come to Louisiana as soon as I could. I have observed from flying over your city how great the catastrophe is that you have experienced. Human suffering and physical damage are measureless. I’m here this evening to pledge to you the full resources of the federal government to Louisiana to help repair as best we can the injury that has been done by nature.

As Dr. Davies highlighted (with a rather spot on attempt at LBJ’s voice), when making one particular visit, and by illuminating his face with a flashlight, Johnson told the audience, ‘I’m your president and I’m here to help.’

Dr. Davies argued that although Johnson’s response to Betsy probably did not significantly affect the expectations that Americans in general had of presidential disaster leadership, it did set significant precedents including the allocation of federal funds to relieve individual disaster victims and a massive, federally funded hurricane defence system for New Orleans. Both measures were included in the ‘Betsy Bill’ drafted by the Louisiana delegation following the disaster, which likely would not have passed without Johnson’s backing. Dr. Davies then drew an interesting parallel between Johnson’s response to Betsy and George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina – which Bush admits in his autobiography was severely lacking in comparison. Here is an insightful op-ed about ‘LBJ’s political hurricane’ from the NY Times.[1]

Moreover, Dr. Davies demonstrated that amidst the height of the presidential campaign in 1972, Richard Nixon was sharply criticised for his response to Hurricane Agnes that affected numerous eastern states, particularly Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Milton Shapp, Democratic Presidential Candidate George McGovern and others seized on the opportunity to criticise Nixon for what they called the government’s incompetent response. Nixon moved quickly to mitigate the damage, but was only able to do so when he took the reins and choreographed the government’s response from the White House. With this politicisation of the government’s response, the President had now effectively become the ‘Responder-in-Chief.’

This expectation of presidential response has only increased with time, and ultimately can have an adverse effect on a president’s image depending on how he reacts. For example, in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of Florida, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton toured the most devastated portions of Florida, getting media coverage as he hugged and shared tears with people made homeless by the storm. President George H.W. Bush visited, as well, though media reports said Bush didn't come close to displaying the 'feel your pain' empathy Clinton did. Here then, one is able to see an example of the importance and development in the politics of disaster response over time.

Throughout his talk, Dr. Davies used the changing responses to natural disasters over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to explore how, why, and when American expectations of government have grown, ending by highlighting that the President’s role as ‘Responder-in-Chief’ has only really assumed grand proportions in the modern presidency. By interweaving both politics and natural disasters, Dr. Davies’ work represents the best form of historical enquiry, and the ability to use natural disasters as a way to unveil a narrative on the changing nature of the federal government is both illuminating and intriguing. With Dr. Davies currently turning this research into a book, the finished product is bound to be nothing but fascinating.

By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr. Eithne Quinn (University of Manchester) ‘In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967) and Racial Politics in Post-Civil Rights Act Hollywood.’ This will be held on Wednesday 12th February 2014 in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Rise of Horse Racing and the Endorsement of Slavery in Kentucky, 1780-1830

Yesterday, 15th January 2014, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Catriona Paul (Dundee University) to the sixth of the Centre’s 2013-2014 seminar series. In what was a thoroughly enjoyable and highly informative talk, Dr. Paul discussed ‘The rise of horse racing and the endorsement of slavery in Kentucky, 1780-1830.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Kentucky, known for its two best exports – the Kentucky Derby and bourbon – has a rich history of horse racing and rearing. With this, Dr. Paul argued that by focusing on horses and what they meant to society, we can learn a lot about the development of Kentucky. Indeed, horses were vital to Kentucky becoming established as a viable economic entity. Settlers relied on horses for transportation to travel the vast openness of the state and to get their goods to markets in the east, and by the year 1800 taxpayers owned 90,000 horses in the state, with 87% of all householders owning at least one horse. Moreover, horses were used by settlers to defend their homeland against Native Indian raids as the state began to take shape in the rough frontier of early America.

As Dr. Paul highlighted, from the beginning of the 19th century, Kentucky was acquiring a reputation for producing good quality riding and racing horses, and from this history grew a sense of pride in Kentucky-bred horses and a sense of identity which Kentucky still revels in today. Indeed, Dr. Paul opened her talk by showing the audience the above image of Kentucky’s state slogan ‘Unbridled Spirit’  incorporated into marketing materials, government stationary and license plates since 2004 – to show the importance of the animal to the state’s history and development.

However, although Dr. Paul acknowledged the importance of these positive associations, it was the deeply negative aspects of slavery and its relation to horse racing that formed the focus of her talk. Breaking it down into three main arguments, Dr. Paul sought to show (i) how horse ownership helped Kentucky elites (many of whom were coming from Virginia) to promote themselves and their views of slavery, (ii) how horse ownership was used to claim that other forms of ownership were acceptable (thus, legitimising the pro-slavery argument), and (iii) how theories of horse breeding were applied by these elites to propagate a vision of purity among white human beings.

As Kentucky was entering statehood, there was a crucial battle being waged among its settlers over whether it would become a slave holding or Free State. Dr. Paul’s argument was that horses played a pivotal role in this. For the reasons highlighted above, elites used horses in various ways to convince the state’s population that slavery was a positive thing. According to Dr. Paul, the elites went on a ‘…charm offensive’ in order to do this. At this crucial juncture in the state’s history, elites brought thoroughbred horses to the outskirts of the frontier to announce their status and sponsored race events that brought the whole community together, with numerous race courses opening up quickly and jockey clubs forming all over the state. Kentuckians from across the social spectrum took an interest in racing even though the majority could not afford to run a horse personally, and by the 1820s, gate tolls were even introduced due to the popularity of these events.

And many who owned, breed, and raced horses also held political office as the state developed and thus played a key role in wielding public opinion. For example, Henry Clay was an early patron of the sport of horse racing, as were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Attached here is a detailed article about ‘Henry Clay’s Legacy to Horse Breeding and Racing.’[1] These elites then made the argument that horse ownership was the same as slave ownership, with John Breckinridge saying that: ‘…Where is the difference whether I am robbed of my horse by a highwayman, or of my slave by a set of people called a Convention?’ Slaves were bought and sold much the same way as horses at the time – key determinants being age, fitness, ability etc., – and one should see both these as related in how they became deeply entrenched in Kentucky culture.

In highlighting the last thread of her argument, Dr. Paul used a quote by Thomas Jefferson to show how ideas of ‘purity’ were used in similar ways to think about horses and humans:

The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, (1787)

So in what was an insightful and fascinating lecture, Dr. Paul unravelled the histories of both slavery and horse racing in Kentucky to show how they are interconnected in important and often unacknowledged ways. Shedding light on the origins of Kentucky’s ‘unbridled spirit’ slogan helps us appreciate better a crucial historical time period and Dr. Paul’s focus on horses brings an interesting and welcomed dynamic to the history of the early American republic.
By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr. Gareth Davies (St. Annes, Oxford University) ‘Taming Disaster: Fatalism and Mastery in American Disaster Management, 1800-2013.’ This will be held on Wednesday 29th January in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!