Facing the past: Understanding the historical legacy of the U.S

I am not the only one frustrated by our country’s apparent inability to face its own history. Some of us have the luxury of leaving history in the past; others, especially the oppressed, recognize that those painful histories are still unfolding. Meaningful discussions between the two sides are few and far between. People who try to shed light on the United States’ legacy of colonization, slavery and other injustices always seem to run up against an impenetrable wall of defensiveness. It should be no surprise, then, that after hundreds of years our society has reached no consensus about the causes of the Civil War, the European colonization of native lands or of countless other injustices that have shaped our nation. This disconnect, I believe, explains some of today’s most severe political divisions and alienates Americans from the tangible problems that result from these histories. For the same reason, much of the patriotism I witness in this country feels cheap and immature. I sometimes feel like my fellow citizens are celebrating a country they know nothing about.

   It can be disheartening, sometimes, to live in a country that doesn’t seem to learn its lesson. President Donald Trump’s recent executive order on immigration (the “Muslim ban”) was another sobering reminder that our country has not successfully grappled with its past. I am the granddaughter of refugees. After their liberation from Auschwitz and a brief convalescence at a displaced persons’ camp, my grandparents came to the United States under the purview of the 1948 Displaced Persons Act. They were part of a globally despised religious minority, suspected of taking part in a conspiracy to undermine Western civilization. Sound familiar?

My family got in. Many people didn’t. In 1939, almost a thousand Jewish refugees on the ship M.S. St. Louis were turned away from U.S. ports and forced back to Europe, many to their eventual deaths in Nazi concentration camps. In the 1980s, the U.S. closed its doors to Central Americans fleeing political upheaval and mass killings. Today, as Trump’s order demonstrates, we are again experiencing the cowardly impulse to turn our backs on the world’s most vulnerable.

   My family always holds up Nazi Germany as the epitome of human evil. The Germany of today, however, displays a level of political maturity and historical understanding that I believe the U.S. would benefit from learning more about. Modern Germany is dedicated to honestly facing up to its historical legacy of crimes against humanity. German schoolchildren learn about the Holocaust, German laws prohibit denial of the tragedy and the German government admits refugees as an attempt to right its historical wrongs. Even my 89-year-old grandmother still receives reparation checks from the German government so she can continue living in her apartment. Can the United States say the same of those it has enslaved, exploited or killed?

   I major in history not because I love the stories. I study history because I believe in the fundamental importance of coming to terms with the past, not only on an individual level, but also as a society.  History may make us proud, sure – there are many accomplishments and innovations that might make us proud to be part of a particular family, community or group. But, we must look for more than pride. We must look back in time with an eye towards what humanity is really made of, and when we do so, we might understand that humanity is equally capable of fear, of complacency and of unimaginable evil. Let’s know who we are and prove that we can do better.

Sarah Weiser ’17 is a history and Russian double major from Merion, Pa. She lives in West.

Comments (4)

  1. I don’t know about this. There is slavery in the history of virtually all cultures and all nations. Slavery is currently still alive in Africa and among Muslim adherents. I’d feel better about this effort to trash America if it wasn’t so consistently and solely focused on undermining the pride and patriotism of Americans, especially white Americans.

  2. There are very few parallels between the Jews in 1939 and the Muslims of today. The Jews were the majority in no country and had no place to go. The Muslims are the majority in 57 countries, and they have plenty of places to go. They don’t need to come here, when other countries in the region which has the same language, religion, and culture, and plenty of wealth, could take them in, if they cared even a little about their co-religionists.

    As for America’s awful history: Compared to the rest of the world it’s actually one of the best. They all were colonialists. They all had slavery. They all fought wars. They all had racism. They all oppressed women.

    Since you are a Russian major, you might want to compare the history of Russia to that of the US and make a judgment about how bad the US has been.

    1. Hi! Thanks for your reply.

      I made no attempt to argue for a moral equivalence between the United States and other countries. This article was only about the United States. There is a lot that I love and respect about this country, and I think it would be a sign of strength to be honestly acknowledge where our weakness lie. I wrote this article as a response to forms of patriotism that, in my opinion, are myopic.

      These processes are probably unfolding in different ways in different places. I wrote about America because I’m an American – just because I think this is a great country does not mean that I believe it is somehow exempt from the political processes that affect all nations. Since you mention Russia, I’d like to point out that Russia today has a very complicated relationship with its past, one that I would argue has stunted its political evolution. I wrote this article precisely because I don’t want the United States to go down the same path. Pointing out these kinds of similarities, furthermore, does NOT mean that America and Russia are the same.

      As for the Jews of the 1930s and Muslims of today, again, I don’t intend to imply that those situations are identical. I just wanted to point out that the rhetoric of fear and exclusion has cropped up in fairly shameful ways in our nation’s past, and if we remember those events, we might think twice about allowing our momentary fears to undermine our capacity for compassion. I’m really advocating for a more long-term view of America’s future that draws honestly upon our collective past.

      I personally don’t believe that history “repeats itself,” but I do believe that human nature can.

      1. You didn’t argue for a moral equivalence, but what you did do was to critique America’s historic flaws without the comparative context necessary to understand just how bad those flaw were.

        It’s true that slavery, for one, was abominable, but it was ubiquitous. It’s true that the Indians were here first, but that is the history of most of the world’s peoples. They displaced someone who was there first. And so on. My complaint is that too many people, including educated people who should know better, actually don’t know that there were as many Europeans taken into slavery in Africa and the middle east as there were blacks taken into slavery in the new world.

        When we discuss the “rhetoric of fear” we must distinguish between justified and unjustified fears. Was there anything to fear from the Jews who wanted to escape the Nazis? Is there anything to fear from Muslim immigration? The fact that the situations are so different is what makes the comparison of the rhetoric a category error, in my opinion.

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