When Wall Street Became the Capital of the World

Book Note: The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order by Adam Tooze

by Jim Bratt.

Cover of the book The Deluge by Adam ToozeI was going to read Marilynne Robinson’s Lila over the semester break but I got waylaid by history instead. Of all the books on World War I published in its centennial year, it looked like Adam Tooze’s The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (Viking, 2014) might be the most interesting. So I dipped into it and got swept away by its remarkable tides and cross currents, with the result that there was no time left for Robinson. I’ll get to her someday, I promise. But since many more of you are going to get through Lila than The Deluge’s 500+ pages of text, I thought I’d reflect a bit on the highlights of this history, with a moral for its importance today.

Adam Tooze is British by background and taught some years at Cambridge, focusing on German history, before moving to Yale where he succeeded Paul Kennedy (author of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers) as director of Yale’s program in International Security Studies. This eclectic background, with immersion in the points of view of several different countries, helps lift The Deluge above the nationalist partisanship that can still mark this field. Then too, Tooze’s grand architectonic scale shows him well suited to succeed Kennedy on the heights of geopolitical interpretation.

With all its complexity, The Deluge tells as gripping a story as any novelist can wind, and achieves the nuance, color, strategic suspense, and finally tragedy of the best of them. It’s not a page-turner because there’s too much detail to be tracked, but on our deliberate pace through the volume, we can see again and again the stakes at risk, the choices to be made, some wonderful possibilities in play, and the machinery of calculation, now reasonable, now vengeful, that ultimately will control the board and lead to the doom that we, in retrospect, know is on the horizon.

No small part of the drama stems from Tooze’s choice of boundary dates. The conventional tale about World War I starts with Sarajevo in 1914 and ends with the negotiation of the Versailles Treaty in 1919. Tooze begins instead in the middle of the war on the strategic question of America and its money, and he ends with the world-historical catastrophe of 1931, when decisions about that money turned the banking crisis of 1929 into the Great Depression of the 1930s, at the same time abetting the triumph of the militarists in Japan over the peace and pro-American party that had held sway in that country for most of the previous decade.

For Tooze the key development, and legacy, of World War I was the migration of the center of world finance from London to Wall Street and the inability of Europe and the USA alike to adjust their politics, and even more their mythologies, to that cardinal fact. We see the mighty empires of Britain and France mounting incredible military efforts on the Western front of the war and just as mighty propaganda exploits at home, conducting a crusade that they insist will bring them glory, save their honor, and somehow lead on to a rich harvest of material rewards. All the while they were beggaring their treasuries and becoming absolutely dependent on American loans to tide them over for the next six months. In fundamental ways these were hollowed-out states left tempermentally confused when military victory brought much less than advertised. Even worse was the situation in Italy, proportionately the hardest pressed of the victors and the first to turn to fascism after the disappointments of peace. Likewise in Germany, where incredible sacrifice had ended in defeat at the front and near-starvation at home. Worst of all was Russia, where war gave over to two revolutions, bi-coastal invasions, and a civil war.

Tooze’s gift is to interlock developments at all these sites, and in China and Japan to boot, in a dynamic drama whose central question is, time after time—in each year of the war but then again in 1919, 1921, 1929, and 1931—“what would America do?” The longed-for answer in each case was two-fold: (1) forgive some of the debt that its allies had incurred so that these could lighten up on the reparations they were demanding from Germany so as to pay said bills; (2) to regard itself as a nation no more innocent or exceptional in character—however blessed by historical circumstance—than those whom they took as allies or enemies. The actual answer, Tooze demonstrates, was a consistent twofold negation of those hopes. First, the US insisted that all its loans be repaid, German economy and French strategic anxieties be damned. If this entailed as well radical deflationary policies or draconian tariffs that crippled world trade and prosperity, the Wall St.-Washington D.C. nexus cared not a whit. Second, the US prided itself—and Tooze shows this to have been true as much of the supposedly ‘realist’ Republicans as of the ‘idealist’ Woodrow Wilson whom they succeeded in power—on being above the play of interests and logrolling to which Americans attributed Europeans’ putative lust for war and revenge. Wilson first, but Herbert Hoover and Charles Evans Hughes (the 1920s’ most important Secretary of State) after him, simply believed that the United States did, should, and could run by different rules than everyone else.

The root of the tragedy of this long and definitive episode of world history, Tooze concludes, was not that the United States entered World War I, for perhaps it had to. Nor that, after the war, it became ‘isolationist,’ for it did not. The real problem was, as Reinhold Niebuhr would detail twenty years after the deluge of 1931 descended, that Americans entered deeply into the mess of world affairs believing themselves to be pure and above the fray. Unable to see themselves straight, they couldn’t see the world straight and so alternately passed by golden chances for really accomplishing a good turn or made things worse than they had to be.

A hundred years later, is it any better?

A version of this post originally appeared in The Twelve: Reformed Done Daily.

Jim Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College, where he teaches courses in world and American history. The focus of his current research is American religion before the Civil War. He recently published a biography of the Dutch theologian and political leader, Abraham Kuyper, who has had an enormous influence on the history of Calvin College. Jim also blogs regularly for The Twelve: Reformed Done Daily.

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Christianity in Cuba after Normalization of Relations

by Dan Miller.

Students holding flags with fists raised in celebration

Students celebrated in Havana after news that Washington had released three Cuban spies in a prisoner exchange.

Even those of us who try to keep up on news from Latin America were surprised by the announcement on December 17 that the US and Cuba were going to resume normal diplomatic relations. Evidently, representatives of the Obama administration and the government of Raul Castro had been discussing such a move for eighteen months previous, assisted, it was said, by the good offices of Pope Francis. The changes announced mean that there will be an exchange of ambassadors. (The US has not had an embassy in Havana since 1961, currently it conducts its relations with the Cuban government by way of the Swiss embassy in Havana.) President Obama also announced that some restrictions on trade and travel would be relaxed. The embargo, which was imposed by Congress in the early 1960s in reaction to the Cuban revolution, will continue to restrict trade with Cuba.

Whether these changes will lead to greater political and economic openness on the part of the Marxist government of Cuba is being hotly debated. One aspect of the situation that is of special interest to me is the impact of the new relationship on the churches in Cuba.

President Obama shaking hands with Pope Francis at the Vatican

Pope Francis and President Obama shake hands during a private audience on March 27, 2014 at the Vatican, where their talks focused in large part on improving US-Cuban relations.

US policy toward Cuba (the embargo, efforts to topple or assassinate Fidel Castro) have placed Cuban churches that have a connection to US denominations, including the Christian Reformed Church in North America, in an awkward position vis-à-vis the Cuban government. Early in the communist period they lost outside funding; mail and telephone contacts with their North American co-religionists were also cut off. After the Bay of Pigs invasion, Fidel declared himself and his revolution to be irreversibly Marxist/Leninist and government policy became openly hostile to religious activity. All Christian schools were closed and many church buildings were confiscated by the government.

Cuban Christians responded in a variety of ways to this challenging situation. Attendance at religious services dwindled as many Christians left the island while others stopped attending for fear of losing their jobs which required adherence to the atheist communist party line. Some Christians just tried to stay below the radar of the government, worshiping at home and keeping their convictions to themselves. Pastors and priests were defined by the government as “social parasites” and pressured to abandon ministry. Well over half left the island. The ones who remained recognized that they had to adapt to the new situation. Some did so by embracing a progressive theological perspective that gave great weight to issues of social justice including a vigorous critique of US imperialism, and they launched ambitious programs of social service to poor and marginalized groups as expressions of Christian caring. Their leftward turn was assisted by the fact that the National Council of Churches was one of the few organizations that was able to send resources to the island’s Christians via its “Cuba Project” which encouraged ecumenical cooperation and socially progressive programs. It is tempting for North American Christians to think of these developments as capitulations to Marxist pressure but to be fair, the cultural and political captivity of US churches, most of which give unquestioning support to every US military adventure and whose members appear very comfortable with a consumerist lifestyle, give us little reason to feel superior. In fact, Cuban pastors of a progressive bent would say that the Revolution compelled them to reexamine the fundamentalist theology they inherited from North American missionaries and when they did so, they realized that it was seriously deficient because it ignored deeply biblical themes of justice and social concern.

Pope John Paul II shakes hands with Fidel Castro at an airport surrounded by crowds of onlookers

Pope John Paul II met with Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1998.

In the 1980s Cuban churches began reknitting their ties to North American denominations. Quietly at first, North American pastors and religious teachers began going to Cuba to conduct training, and after a few years Cuban pastors began traveling outside the island seeking material assistance and theological training. In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies to the Cuban economy, churches on the island became essential conduits for imported medical supplies and other scarce goods and dispensers of social services that the government could no longer provide. As a consequence, the government was compelled to relax its anti-religious rhetoric and policies. Christians were permitted to join the Communist Party and gained a small but significant influence over government policy. Church buildings could once again be repaired and new ones built. The number of Christians who worshiped openly on Sunday began to grow rapidly. The restoration of a broader array of international denominational links and the weakening ability/willingness of the government to suppress religious expression also led to a resurgence of theologically and socially conservative expressions of Christian faith and a corresponding decline in the influence of progressive church leaders. Currently Pentecostalism is growing rapidly in Cuba just as it is elsewhere in Latin America.

Congregation with hands raised in song.

Worshipers at a Free Evangelical Church in Havana.

In light of that history, I think that the new approach by the US government towards Cuba will probably have less impact on the churches than on some other sectors of Cuban society such as the economy and the political system. Cuban Christians are probably somewhat ambivalent about the recently announced relaxation of relations. The conservative ones in particular may view it as a concession to the Cuban government without sufficient recognition of what the island’s religious community has suffered and still suffers in terms of discrimination and persecution. On the other hand, Cuban Christians of all stripes are eager to deepen their connections to theologically congenial Christians in North America and elsewhere and so they will undoubtedly welcome the opportunity to travel to conferences and meet with other Christians for mutual encouragement and worship. I’m sure that Cuban Christians also expect that greater access to the internet and new technology will facilitate their work. At the same time, their perception of North American culture is not entirely positive and so there is probably more than a little concern that Cuba could experience a flood of morally objectionable media in a culture whose isolation has limited access to such things in the past. That’s something that both progressive and conservative Cuban Christians would agree on.

A 20m tall statue of Christ on a green hill, overlooking low buildings along the bay

The Christ of Havana sculpture overlooking Havana Bay. The statue was inaugurated on December 24, 1958, just fifteen days before Fidel Castro entered Havana during the Cuban Revolution.

Looking to the future, I think that the experience of Chinese Christians may suggest some possible directions. Most of China’s churches were established by missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries like the Protestant churches in Cuba. And they too experienced an almost total cut off of foreign contacts after the Marxist revolution. The Three Self Movement churches are probably the ones most analogous to the Progressive churches and seminaries in Cuba. The House churches more resemble those Cuban denominations and churches and believers who hunkered down and passively resisted the whole Marxist discourse and which are now reemerging to a prominent place on the religious scene. In China, I believe that the two types of churches were very alienated from each other but are beginning to cooperate and learn from each other. My hope for Cuba is that the same sort of thing can happen there: that Cuban Christians can combine the best of each wing of the church—the prophetic vision and practice of the progressive Christians and the faithfulness and courage of the conservative Christians. Frankly, I think that Cuba’s Christians can teach us much more than we can teach them about what it means to be faithful followers of Christ.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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Historians and Doctors: Getting the Facts Straight

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.

Agent Joe Friday with the text "Just the Facts, Ma'am"“Just the facts, ma’am.” Popular history says that for years Sgt. Joe Friday (LAPD, badge 714) intoned this refrain as he gathered clues and information to solve each case. The perpetrator always finished the show looking guilty as sin, while the faceless narrator recited the catalog of charges and the sentence. The facts, and justice, prevailed, once again. “My name is Friday, and I wear a badge.”

Some people would like to think that history should be “just the facts,” a catalog of events in chronological order, with no insights or interpretation provided. Unfortunately history’s facts are not fixed stars. Instead they are shards of glass in a kaleidoscope shifting into new configurations as the cylinder turns. Circumstances will pull events out of the accumulated pile and set them before us to be seen in a new context. The old events take on a new look. Some headline or personal experience will shift the old shards to create a new picture with a new focus, and a different background.

I like to stress this historical fact (yes, ma’am, that’s all I need) throughout the semester, especially in classes inhabited by non-history majors. It provides a useful reminder that as life moves along, our views of the past change. While some events will remain prominent for a long time, others will lose their importance–maybe for good, or maybe just for a while. Forgotten facts will sudden re-emerge in this same process.

My recent medical problems certainly shifted the shards for me. Doctors and nurses have been crowding out the immigrant stories and statistics that usually dominate my view of vision. In looking at what medical people do, I have noticed a tension between those who catalog symptoms and expect to diagnose maladies “by the book” and those who cling to the older notion that experience and intuition should be the default setting for treatment. I know that that loud thudding sound you may be hearing is nuance crashing to the floor; but hear me out and I will pick most of them up before this is finished, and we will sterilize them before reattaching them to just the facts I want to highlight for now.

two young men in surgical scrubs in an operating room.

Dr. Charlie Mayo, left, and Dr. Will Mayo. Source: http://www.mayoclinic.org (Click the picture for more.)

The Mayo brothers were great medical cataloguers. Will and Charlie first learned medicine by traveling with their father to isolated Minnesota farmsteads to visit his patients. Broken bones, childbirths, lacerations, old age, childhood diseases, the Mayos saw them all, and treated them all. And then there were the cases that defied the common medical wisdom of the time. How should those patients be treated? Somewhere along the line the brothers hit upon the idea that treatment would be vastly improved if doctors could consult a catalog of symptoms. The more extensive the catalog, the more accurate the diagnosis. Theoretically, the catalog could become so large that in time there would be no symptoms that could not be found in their collection of just the facts. With that catalog of knowledge, the Mayo brothers built a clinic, and a reputation for being able to treat the most difficult of medical conditions.

William Osler quizzing a student at Johns Hopkins Hospital, 1902 or 1903.

William Osler quizzing a student at Johns Hopkins Hospital, 1902 or 1903. Source: NIH US National Library of Medicine (Click the picture for more.)

Sir William Osler, a contemporary of Will and Charlie Mayo, also believed in having the medical facts at his disposal as he patrolled the wards at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, with his medical interns in tow. Coincidentally, Osler came to the attention of the medical world with an article he published during the 1880s—the topic endocarditis, the condition that has laid me low this fall. He insisted on something else beyond the facts. He taught his students that each patient was a person with an individual history. He also believed that doctors could improve their diagnostic skills with a firm grounding in the classics, books that would teach them how to both see life in a larger context and analyze each case. In Osler’s medical world, experience rooted in the facts was the essential ingredient in good medical care. No two cases were exactly identical, since no two people were exactly identical.

Good history, like medicine, requires informed intuition. Analogues and algorithms certainly come in handy when there is information to collect, quantify, and catalog. But these essential ingredients are inherently unreadable, until they are processed into decent prose. This requires analysis, thought, editing–intuitive stuff that the historian brings to table. Dates, locations, quotations, and personalities are the symptoms historians measure to diagnose historical questions. The stories are the cures. And as with doctoring, the historical cures are never complete. There are always side effects, either immediate or long term, that keep us occupied, intrigued, and employed. Time will inevitably reshape the picture and call the cure into question. What looked like good medicine one hundred years ago looks primitive today. Historical conclusions that looked so certain in era of the Mayos and Osler, now look quaint, at best. Time has taken a toll on both medicine and history, and improved them, at least in our own eyes.

I have never considered myself the sort of person who wore a lab coat while doing my work. But maybe I have been, without realizing it. Historian as diagnostician–that’s something to think about for a spell. Getting the facts right so the prescription will be effective, or at least do no harm, should be the historian’s version of the Hippocratic Oath, something to separate reputable practitioners of the historian’s craft from quacks and charlatans.

That reminds me of one more fact. Sgt. Joe Friday never said his most quoted line. And that’s a historical fact.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his eleventh year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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