Eric Foner es uno de los grandes historiadores estadounidenses. Profesor de Columbia University y ganador de premios tan prestigiosos como el Lincoln, Bancroft y  Pulitzer, Foner ha dedicado su  carrera al estudio del Partido Republicano,  la esclavitud, la guerra civil y, sobre todo, la Reconstrucción. Es a este periodo posterior a la guerra civil que Foner dedica su último libro, Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (Norton, 2019). Enfocado en el significado de las tres enmiendas constitucionales aprobadas entre 1865 y 1870 (XIII, XIV y XV), Foner plantea que la Reconstrucción cambió radicalmente el ordenamiento político estadounidense. Al acabar con la esclavitud, definir la ciudadanía y garantizar el derecho al voto, tales enmiendas, propone Foner, conllevaron un renacer de la nación estadounidense.

Comparto con mis lectores la transcripción de una entrevista que el  historiador Ed Ayers, del podcasts Backstory, le hiciera a Foner sobre su último libro y otros temas. La entrevista se puede escuchar aquí

February 18, 1865 Harper’s Weekly cartoon depicting celebration in the House of Representatives after adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. Source: Internet Archive.



If you turn on the news, you’re likely to find a heated debate about big issues, from citizenship to voting rights. For Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner, these issues are at the heart of what are often called the “Reconstruction Amendments”: the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution. They were passed in 1865, 1868 and 1870, respectively. And if you ask Eric, they’ve been misinterpreted and overlooked for generations.

On this episode, Ed sits down with Eric Foner, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, to talk about public perceptions of Reconstruction, the landmark amendments to the Constitution and how they have the power to change the country today. Foner’s new book is The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.



Download a pdf of the full transcript here.

Speaker 1: Major funding for Backstory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for The Humanities and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial foundation.

Ed Ayers: From Virginia Humanities, this is Backstory. This is Backstory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Ed Ayers. If you’re new to the podcast, my colleagues, Joanne Freeman, Brian Balogh, Nathan Connolly, and myself are all historians and each week we explore the history of one topic that’s been in the news.

Speaker 3: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for a crime shall exist within the United States or any place subject to [crosstalk 00:00:48]-

Speaker 4: All persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein [crosstalk 00:00:58]-

Ed Ayers: What you’re hearing are portions of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US constitution.

Speaker 4: Which shall outweigh the privileges or [crosstalk 00:01:02]-

Speaker 3: No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.

Speaker 5: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Ed Ayers: They’re known as the Reconstruction Amendments passed in 1865, 1868 and 1870 respectively. And if you ask Pulitzer Prize winning historian Eric Foner, they make up a second founding of the United States of America. The amendments are so important, Eric has made them the subject of his brand new book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. He says they have the power to bring progressive change on deep seated issues from citizenship to voting rights if only we’d give them their due. So today on Backstory, we’re bringing you a feature interview I did with Eric about his new book. It joins a host of others he’s written including Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, and The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. We talked about many things from public perceptions of Reconstruction to what Eric and I learned about the period when we were in elementary school. But I started our conversation by asking Eric why he felt we needed a book about the Reconstruction Amendments right now.


Eric Foner

Eric Foner: Two things; one the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, I argue and I think many scholars would agree, really transformed the constitution and are essential to understanding the Civil War era and indeed our current situation today, and yet they are not widely known or understood. Even though they really are central documents of American history, they don’t occupy the same place in our historical imagination as other key documents such as the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation. Your man or woman in the street has probably never heard of the people who wrote these amendments, people like John Bingham and James Ashley and Henry Wilson. They’re not part of the Pantheon of key figures in American history. I just wanted to draw attention to why they’re important, why those people are important, why the amendments are important.

Eric Foner: But secondly, as I said, I lecture a lot, as you do, to all sorts of audiences within the university, outside, or people who are just interested in history and I’ve found that there’s very little understanding of what these amendments were attempting to accomplish. Even in law schools, I hate to say it, I’m not a lawyer or a law scholar, I find that there’s a lot of misconception and even, dare I say it, on the halls of the Supreme Court. One of my arguments is that there’s a long history of what I can think of as misconceived Supreme Court decisions that are still embedded in our jurisprudence. If my book can help nudge the nine members of the Supreme Court toward a more expansive vision of these amendments, then I think that would be all to the good.

Ed Ayers: Yeah, that would be quite a return on your investment here. So you talk about being out in the world talking about Reconstruction, and I find that people don’t even claim to know anything about Reconstruction. My joke is that Reconstruction happens over the winter break and between volume one and volume two, and that it-

Eric Foner: They don’t reach it in the first semester if you’re teaching the survey of American history or if it’s the beginning of the second. They scoot right through it because there’s a heck of a lot of history coming along afterwards, but that’s a step forward Ed. You and I know that not that long ago when you mentioned Reconstruction, people knew “about it.” What they knew was that it was a period of misgovernment, corruption, the lowest point in the saga of American democracy. And that the reason for that was one, vindictive Northern radicals who wanted to fasten their power on the South, but also the former slaves who were just incapable of exercising democratic rights. They were manipulated by whites. They were childlike, and that giving them the right to vote was a disastrous mistake.

71DfIQ9brpL._SY741_Eric Foner: That played an important part in the ideological edifice of the Jim Crow era. The supposed horrors of Reconstruction were part of the justification for taking the right to vote away from black men in the late 19th, early 20th Century. That people no longer generally hold that view and actually know little is better. That at least now if people are interested, they can go at it with a fresh, a clean slate rather than having to disabuse themselves of a lot of mythologies.

Ed Ayers: That’s a very optimistic interpretation. I like that. Now it’s my sense that a lot of people still take their general idea about Reconstruction from Gone with the Wind, in which we have this great saga of that in which the victim is a slave holding white woman from the South. We’re sympathetic with her and it creates the impression that Reconstruction began immediately after the end of the war and the devastation there. Is this your experience? Do you think that people are still filtering this through … What do they think they know about Reconstruction? Where does it come from?

Eric Foner: Yeah. Well certainly Gone with the Wind or if you want to push back further Birth of a Nation, which of course is even much more pernicious because it’s a direct defense and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, Gone with the Wind is probably the most popular American movie ever made and it’s constantly being shown on Turner movie channels. Look, people don’t watch Gone with the Wind for a history lesson on Reconstruction. They watch so they can trace out Scarlet O’Hara’s ups and downs. But yes, the Klan is in there, the whole idea that black people were just ignorant and incapable of taking part of democracy is in there. Whether it’s that or just what you learned in school.

Eric Foner: I’m old enough to have learned in high school, and this was in Long Island, the suburbs of New York. I learned the old Dunning School view that Reconstruction was the worst period in all of American history. I think today most scholars see Reconstruction, or at least I’ve tried to argue, as a important moment in the history of democracy, the first effort to really make the United States an interracial democracy, which it had never been before the Civil War and then would not be again that until our own era. The tragedy of Reconstruction is not that it was attempted, but that it failed, and that left to subsequent generations, including our own, this question of racial justice in America.

Ed Ayers: Yeah. I should say in full disclosure, you learned about Reconstruction on Long Island in New York. I learned about it at Andrew Johnson Elementary School in East Tennessee, and I’m not kidding. There’s only two in the United States, and I was at one of them, but I had my students and for a class here at the University of Richmond go online and say, “What do we think about Reconstruction? What’s the general sense that you get?” And they came back with one word; failure. That’s a word that you used, a description right now. And so what’s the consequences of thinking of Reconstruction as failure? It’s been a great continuity, as you’re saying that people who hated Reconstruction defined it as a failure and people who admire it defined it as a failure. Does that have any cost?

9781912128228Eric Foner: I think that’s a great question and I will withdraw my word failure. You’re absolutely right. It is so embedded. That idea is so embedded that it’s just impossible to avoid. The problem with declaring Reconstruction a failure is that then it makes the question at hand why did it fail, rather than what it seek to accomplish and how much of that was accomplished? If you define Reconstruction as the effort to create a utopian society, it failed. We haven’t had one yet, and certainly if you go a little less expansive than that and just say the effort to put into the laws and constitution and to enforce them, the basic rights of citizens for all Americans, including African-Americans, well it’s not exactly that it failed, but it didn’t become secure enough that later on these rights couldn’t be taken away.

Eric Foner: But of course Reconstruction was many, many things and not all of them were a failure. Reconstruction saw the creation of the black church as really a major, major institution throughout the country. That’s still here and as you well know, the black church has been the springboard for all sorts of activism among African Americans. Schooling, which was denied to almost all black people before the Civil War, this is when the public school systems of the South were created. This was when the black colleges were created. Those survived and so the black family, which had been it really disrupted in many ways by slavery now is consolidated and becomes the foundation of black communities. That didn’t go away when Reconstruction ended.

Eric Foner: So yeah, we should amend failure at least to say, well, in what realms did it fail and in what realms did it succeed? Because my definition of Reconstruction is not a specific time period, let’s say 1865 to 1877 or other people have other dates, but as a historical process. How does the United States deal with the end of slavery?

Ed Ayers: As we’re thinking really about the place of Reconstruction in the current American imagination, we have seen signs of awakened acknowledgement and interest in it. You and I both were fortunate to be in the Henry Louis Gates series on the Reconstruction on PBS, and people seem to really engage with that. So where do you think this interest is coming from?

Eric Foner: Well, I, like your students, I look around and say, “Well, how is …” I look particularly at how Reconstruction is referred to in the press by journalists almost offhandedly. It’s not that long ago. I remember in the 1990s, a distinguished, I’m not going to name any names, but a pretty distinguished journalist for the New York Times wrote a little article about the Bosnian Civil War. And he said, “Well, I hope that after the Bosnian Civil War is over that the victorious side just doesn’t wreak vengeance on the losers as happened in the United States in Reconstruction.” And I, as a complainer, I send him a note. And I said, “You’re not writing about Reconstruction really, but I think it’s important to know that that’s not how historians view it anymore. You’re reinforcing the idea that giving rights to black people is an act of vengeance against white people, which is a really dangerous idea.”

920x920Eric Foner: He wrote back and said, “You’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t have said that, but my wife is from South Carolina,” and I’ve heard this all the time. And I said to myself, “That’s a funny way of running journalism.” You put in your article what your wife told you over breakfast. But be that as it may, you don’t see that anymore. I think what now, if Reconstruction pops up is Tim Scott is the first black Senator from South Carolina and the first ones were in Reconstruction. I think Reconstruction is being seen as a time when positive things happened even though negative things happened as well. So I think it’s good. And of course the Gates series was very important as you well know, that there’s now a national park site being developed in Beaufort, South Carolina to highlight the history of Reconstruction. So I think Reconstruction is, people are encountering it in all sorts of venues and I think in a more modern form than the old what we call Dunning School approach.

Ed Ayers: Well you were modest before in walking away from the word failure, but in many ways you came up with the right word back in 1988 with your great book on Reconstruction; unfinished revolution. Are you willing to stand by that phrase still?

Eric Foner: Yeah, I am. That was the very last words of the Gates series, if you may remember. Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw got the very last word in Reconstruction was an Unfinished Revolution. So I said, “Oh, look at that. That’s nice. My phrase still reverberating out there.” The funny thing is that that wasn’t the title of the book. The title of book was just Reconstruction, and the day before it finally went to the printer, my editor called me and said, “People here don’t think anyone’s going to buy that book. It needs a good subtitle. By tomorrow morning, give us a subtitle.” And I thought, “Gee whiz.” And I thought and thought and thought and suddenly this popped into my head, The Unfinished Revolution and I told it to him. So it wasn’t something that had shaped the way I wrote the book or anything like that.

Eric Foner: But anyway, yeah, it’s unfinished, and particularly, when you talk about the legal and constitutional aspects, yes. The Reconstruction put forward a whole set of ideals, a whole set of principles for our society and they weren’t fully accomplished, certainly. I want to give the impression of something that’s still ongoing, that Reconstruction is not just the dead past. It’s still happening in the sense that the issues of Reconstruction; who should be a citizen? Who should have the right to vote? How do we deal with terrorism and others? These are on our agenda today. So that debate is still unfinished.

Ed Ayers: Your new book, let’s talk about the title of it. The Second Founding. So why did United States need a second founding? What was it about the first founding that was inadequate?

Eric Foner: Well, as you well know, there’s a lot of debate among historians about exactly what the relationship between the constitution and slavery was. I don’t want to get into that right here. The abolitionist movement debated that forever, but I think we would all have to say that slavery in some form was embedded in the original constitution. We had the Fugitive Slave Clause, which required the return of those who managed to escape to freedom. We had the Three-Fifths Clause, which gave the slave South added representation in the House of Representatives by counting part of their slave population. So we needed a second founding to cleanse the constitution of slavery and to clarify issues which the constitution had left undecided.

Eric Foner: Number one, who is a citizen of the United States? One of the funny things is the constitution refers to citizens all over the place, but it never defines who is a citizen. What do you need to be to be a citizen? My view of Reconstruction, I use this phrase, a modern phrase, I didn’t use it back then, is this is regime change that’s going on. A pro-slavery regime is being replaced with what? With some kind of antislavery regime and you’ve got to rewrite the constitution in order to cleanse it of the remnants of the pro-slavery regime.

Ed Ayers: And that regime wasn’t just in the South. The whole nation was a regime based on slavery.

Eric Foner: Absolutely. That’s why Lincoln in his second inaugural address referred to it as American slavery, not Southern slavery. Lincoln always said that, that we are complicitous in the North. We don’t own slaves right now, but we are complicitous. We profit from slavery.

Ed Ayers: So as you know from out giving talks, people think that the Civil War itself ended slavery and that the 13th Amendment was just a codification of something that had already happened with the Emancipation Proclamation and so forth. So I thought that was one thing that was interesting about the Lincoln movie focusing on the 13th Amendment. So why did we need the 13th Amendment if the Civil War ended slavery?

GatewayEric Foner: Well there were still slaves on the ground when the Civil War ended, quite a few of them. People who had gotten to Union lines or where the Union Army had come and established control, yeah. Part of their job, part of the Union Army’s job once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, was to protect the freedom that Lincoln had announced. But legally speaking, emancipation and abolition are not quite the same thing. Slavery is created by state law, not federal law, state law. States can abolish slavery as the Northern states did soon after the American Revolution, but freeing individuals does not abrogate the state laws that create slavery. That’s why Lincoln’s, even though you wouldn’t quite see this in the movie. That’s fine. It’s not a historical treatise. Lincoln’s preferred route to the end of slavery during the war was state by state abolition.

Eric Foner: Even after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he was pressing Southern states. If any of them wanted to come back in the union, they would have to abolish slavery. That’s how you get rid of slavery on the ground, by having the state laws abrogated. But that couldn’t really happen in the Civil War very much, and so by 1864, many people particularly abolitionists are saying the simpler way is just to have this constitutional amendment. That will completely abrogate slavery everywhere in the country. We won’t have to go state by state and let’s do it that way. Lincoln got onboard of course, and as the movie shows, twisted a lot of arms in January, 1865 to get some people in the House of Representatives to vote for the 13th Amendment, so to completely get rid of slavery. It’s certainly true. The war disrupted slavery. Many people fled. Some states like Maryland, a border state and Louisiana where Lincoln was trying to push a Reconstruction plan, they abolished slavery on the state level, but there were plenty of places slavery was still existing when the Civil War ended.

Ed Ayers: Well, why would Lincoln have to twist so many arms if the United States awakened to the great injustice of slavery during the war and mobilized 200000 African American men to be soldiers and sailors? Why was there still resistance to it as late as 1864 and early 1865?

Eric Foner: Yeah, well, of course the first time they tried, the 13th Amendment failed in the House of Representatives. Remember, it needs two-thirds vote in the Congress, which is often not that easy to get. The Democratic Party was still there. It was still, if not pro-slavery, it was still resistant to abolition. The border slave states, the people there were quite adamant that they didn’t, Kentucky, Maryland said they didn’t want this constitutional amendment. They were still in the union, but it took arm twisting because the 13th Amendment gets lost in the shuffle in a way. We talk about the 14th and 15th much more for complicated reasons, but the 13th Amendment was really a constitutional revolution in and of itself.

Eric Foner: Never before had the constitution been written or amended to just abrogate a whole type of property. Some of the people in Congress said, “Wait a minute. If we’re going to say this kind of property is gone, next year there’ll be demanding that we confiscate the factories of New England.” It also completely reversed the position and that was traditional, but from the constitution arm, with the ratification of the constitution arm, that this was a state matter. Now it’s a, “Forget it. I don’t care what the states want. No slavery anymore in this country, do supersede.” That is a fundamental shift of power from the states to the federal government. And then the second clause. The first clause, abolition of slavery. The second clause, Congress shall have the power to enforce this amendment. A lot of southerners, once the war is over and Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction plan is moving along, a lot of white Southerners say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Yeah, slavery is dead. We understand that. We’re not going to have slavery back, but this second clause seems to give Congress the right to legislate about anything they want.”

Eric Foner: How do you enforce the abolition of slavery? Do you give black people the right to vote? Yeah. People said that’s what they need if they’re going to be free. Do you give them land? That’s what African Americans wanted. In other words, it’s very open-ended. Enforcing the abolition of slavery is a very complicated idea. Unfortunately, for very complex legal reasons, it has never really been implemented. The Supreme court has barely ever used the 13th Amendment as a weapon against the racial inequality that is, of course, tied up in slavery.

Ed Ayers: Yeah, so the 13th Amendment, it’s a breakthrough in thinking about what the nation is as well as ending slavery right?

Eric Foner: Right.

Ed Ayers: Does that help explain why the 14th Amendment comes so quickly after the 13th after there have been decades, really, without constitutional change?

WhoEric Foner: Yeah. The 14th Amendment, I would say, is working out the consequences of the 13th Amendment as well as the consequences of the Civil War. I see the 14th Amendment as putting the Northern Republicans understanding of what they had achieved in the Civil War into the constitution. Some of it has something to do with race or slavery, for example, that Confederate bonds are never going to be repaid. If you patriotically loaned money to the Confederacy, forget it. You’re never getting that back. It has to do with various other things related to the war. But the first section, which is the key one, is really henceforth because of the abolition of slavery, everybody born in the United States is a citizen of the United States.

Eric Foner: You needed that because the status of citizenship was still very uncertain and then more important, all those citizens are going to enjoy the equal protection of the law. The original constitution said nothing about equality among Americans, nothing. It’s the 14th Amendment that makes the constitution as it has been in our own time, a vehicle through which all sorts of people can claim greater equality. The gay marriage decision a few years ago was a 14th Amendment decision. They weren’t thinking of gay marriage when they were writing the 14th Amendment, but they were thinking of how do you make people equal before the law?

Ed Ayers: The last amendment you talk about of course, is the 15th, which I think often tends to be seen as a footnote to the 14th but was that also a hard fought battle to create that?

Eric Foner: That was very hard fought because the principle that the states controlled the right to vote was deeply embedded North and South. There were plenty of Northern states that were nervous. In Congress, they were those who said, “We want an amendment that just says every male citizen age 21 has the right to vote.” If they had gotten that through, just think of all the trouble that would have been avoided. Even today when we’re debating voter IDs and all that, a positive statement. Now they weren’t willing to give women the right to vote and the women’s movement was very outraged by that. But Northern states, the Chinese couldn’t vote in California. Immigrants couldn’t vote on the same basis as a native born in Rhode Island. Massachusetts had a literacy test for voting. They didn’t want to give up their control of the rights. So instead of a positive amendment, it’s what you might call a negative amendment; that no state can deny anyone the right to vote because of race.

Ed Ayers: Well, it’s a work-around in a way, right? It’s-

Eric Foner: It’s a work-around and it has a serious flaw, which is any other limit on the right to vote is not prohibited right? You can have a literacy test. You can have a poll tax. When the Southern states, as you well know, took away the right to vote, they didn’t do it by saying, “Hey, black people can’t vote anymore,” because that would’ve violated the 15th Amendment. What they did was put all these other qualifications and then understanding clauses. You’ve got to prove to the registrar that you understand the state constitution, but the Supreme Court allowed this to happen. They said, “Well, look, they’re not talking about race actually. This law says nothing about race so it doesn’t violate the 15th Amendment.”

Ed Ayers: Well and there’s other parts of these amendments that have come back to haunt us in some ways. Perhaps you could talk a little bit about the clause about involuntary servitude and the 13th Amendment?

Eric Foner: That’s been highlighted a few years ago by the documentary of, the Hollywood documentary, 13th. 13th Amendment, the language is taken just about directly from the Northwest Ordinance of Thomas Jefferson, and it says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime, can exist in the United States.” That criminal exemption. Now this is not a conspiracy as some people think, “Oh look. They were looking ahead to mass incarceration, to convict labor, to the exploitation of the labor.” They were hardly any prisons in 1865. There was a little bit of a history of convict labor to help pay the cost of prisons, but it wasn’t a mass system. But this little, this exemption, which was not even debated in Congress, nobody even mentioned it except Charles Sumner, the abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts. It wasn’t debated in the press. I looked through the newspapers. Nobody mentions it.

Eric Foner: It’s just boilerplate language really. But nonetheless, inadvertently, it created this loophole through which the Southern states particularly drove this Mack truck in the late 19th century of massive convict labor, either within prisons or leasing out of convicts to work in mines and plantations and on roadwork and stuff like this, under terribly oppressive conditions. The courts have persistently ruled that the 13th Amendment allows the requirement, the involuntary labor of people convicted of a crime. And then after Reconstruction, Southern states began making almost anything a felony. You steal a chicken, it’s a felony, and you’re eight years in jail and you are sent out pretty soon to labor on some guy’s plantation who has rented the labor of the prisoners from the federal government. So it’s disastrous really in Southern history later on, but it was inadvertent almost. What it shows you is people talk a lot about the original intention. Sometimes unintended consequences can be just as important as the intended consequences of an amendment.

Ed Ayers: You talked before, Eric, about the way that even though women played such a crucial role in bringing about these amendments; petitioning Congress during the war and afterwards, that they were excluded from this. How about the place of American Indians in all this? Who’s been born in this country more than American Indians? So why is that a blind spot in these laws of the post Civil War era?

Eric Foner: The legal status of Native Americans was murky, to say the least. You still had the remnants of the idea that they were not Americans. They were members of their own tribal sovereignties. People talked about the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw Nation. You are not a citizen of the United States. You were a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Now, of course, by this time, the power of the Indian nations in most places had been broken, and it wasn’t as if you had the United States government dealing with equal nations on the other side. But the people who wrote the [inaudible 00:29:15] did not, their aim was not to make Native Americans citizens. The exemption in the 14th Amendment says, “Anybody born in the United States or naturalized coming from abroad except and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.” And the idea, well Native Americans are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. They’re subject to the laws of their own national sovereignties.

ForeverEric Foner: So Indians were not citizens and it’s not until 1924 that Congress enacts a law making all Native Americans, regardless of where they are living, regardless of what tribe they in, citizens of the United States. So yeah. These amendments had exemptions, they had loopholes, they had serious flaws. Women, as you said, certainly objected to the 15th Amendment, which didn’t give them the right to vote, and the second clause of the 14th Amendment, which introduces the word male for the first time into the constitution. These measures were compromises. They were worked out after long debate and amendments and ups and downs in Congress. There’s no single mind behind the 13th, 14th or 15th Amendments. They were the result of all sorts of negotiation and controversy. Nonetheless, the basic principles are pretty clear. The abolition of slavery, the establishment of a universal notion of citizenship, despite without the native Americans and of equality among those citizens and the vast expansion of the right to vote.

Ed Ayers: And they are alive in today’s political and legal culture. What do you see as the issues that are most salient right now on either being contested or helping drive forward some kind of change?

Eric Foner: Well, sadly, yeah. Many of these issues are still unresolved and I’d have to say sadly, our Supreme Court has adopted an increasingly narrow definition of the implications of these amendments. The most notable was a few years ago in the Shelby County decision, which overturned a very important part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That’s a law passed under the 15th Amendment. It was passed with virtual unanimity in Congress, forcing jurisdictions in the South that had a long history of discrimination and voting to get prior approval from the federal government before they changed the voting rules. Supreme Court a few years ago said, “Well that’s a violation of federalism. It treats some states more harshly than other states.” Well, these are states that had slavery and not every state did. And also these are states that had consciously removed the right to vote over many years.

Eric Foner: But anyway, so their narrowing the 15th Amendment. Who should have the right to vote is a hot issue in our politics as you well know, with gerrymandering, with various ID and other voter suppression laws. Citizenship, how relevant can you be on our border today? This is being debated all the time. Who has the right to be an American citizen? For example, does the child born in the United States of a undocumented immigrant, is that child automatically an American citizen? Well, language of the 14th Amendment is pretty clear. Yes. Any person born in the United States. Your parents can be bank robbers. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be a citizen of the United States. But President Trump, among other things, has said that he feels he has the right as president to abrogate the first sentence of the 14th Amendment, the birthright citizenship sentence for the children of undocumented immigrants.

Eric Foner: I don’t personally think the president can all by himself eradicate part of the constitution, but some people have tried to do that. So these issues are certainly on our political agenda today and I think an understanding of how the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were enacted, what they were intended to accomplish, can help us think through the implications of that today.

Ed Ayers: Eric Foner is professor emeritus of history at Columbia University. His latest book is The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. That’s going to do it for us today, but you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find this at backstoryradio.org or send an email to backstory@Virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter at Backstory Radio. Special thanks this week to Jerry [inaudible 00:34:10] and Katie Gary.

Ed Ayers: Backstory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial foundation, the Johns Hopkins University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those that the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Speaker 6: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia Humanities.

impeachmentEl actual proceso de residenciamiento del Presidente Donald J. Trump ha provocado una serie de interrogantes no sólo políticas, sino también históricas. Debe recordarse que en más de doscientos años de historia de la república estadounidense, esta es la tercera vez que un residente de la Casa Blanca es residenciado (el triste honor lo comparten Adrew Johnson y William J. (Bill) Clinton).

El residenciamento de Trump contiene un elemento innovador, pues las acusaciones en su contra provienen de un informe redactado por un agente de inteligencia, preocupado por el comportamiento del Presidente y sus implicancias para la seguridad nacional de los Estados Unidos. Las denuncias de este whistle-blower (informante) podrían costarle la presidencia al magnate neoyorquino.

En el siguiente texto, la periodista Olivia B. Waxman analiza el origen de esta frase y el papel que han jugado los informantes en la historia estadounidense.

Before the Trump Impeachment Inquiry, These Were American History’s Most Famous Whistle-Blowers

Olivia B. Waxman

The episode that now has President Donald Trump staring down a House impeachment inquiry began, as many important moments in American history have, with a whistle-blower.

A U.S. intelligence official has accused Trump of urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to seek out evidence of wrongdoing on the part of former Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner to face Trump in the 2020 presidential election. The claim relates to calls that took place in July and August, and the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community Michael Atkinson alerted House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff about the complaint on Sept. 9.

Trump has called the conversation he had with Zelensky a “very friendly and totally appropriate call,” but as Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, the whistle-blower’s complaint has been made public — and it will be up to lawmakers to decide if they agree.


While the whistle-blower’s identity is still not publicly known, he or she has been praised in the court of public opinion. Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe hailed the decision to bring the complaint as an act of “incredible courage.”

America’s history with whistle-blowers is as old as the country itself, but the popular idea that they are courageous hasn’t meant whistle-blowing isn’t still risky, says Tom Mueller, author of Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, out Oct. 1. And in the intelligence community, where sharing secrets is a loaded idea, whistle-blowing is even more complicated.

The origins of the term “whistle-blower” are murky — one theory holds that it’s a reference to the whistle blown by British policemen when they saw foul play, and another says it’s a sports reference to the whistles blown by referees — but the principle dates back to medieval England by way of Roman law. Central to the existence of whistle-blowers is the concept that sometimes individuals, not governments or law-enforcement, need to be the ones who raise the alarm about wrongdoing.

At a time when there was no national police force, people who noticed transgressions could report them to the King’s representatives, under what was known as the qui tam provision. (That name comes from the phrase Qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte sequitur, meaning “He who sues on behalf of our Lord the King and on his own behalf.”) To incentivize this kind of whistle-blowing, and in recognition of the negative social consequences that might come with it, the government made it a lucrative proposition: if a conviction followed, the person who did the reporting got some of the bounty. The earliest known example of the application of qui tam is King Wihtred of Kent’s 695 declaration: “If a freeman works during the forbidden time [i.e., the Sabbath], he shall forfeit his healsfang [i.e., pay a fine in lieu of imprisonment], and the man who informs against him shall have half the fine, and [the profits arising from] the labor.”

Esek Hopkins

Esek Hopkins

These English provisions about whistle-blowing carried over to the British colonies in North America. The federal government, even in its early stages, recognized whistle-blowing and the need to alert Congress as soon as possible about wrongdoings by people working with or for the government. On March 25, 1777, Marine captain John Grannis told the Continental Congress that he and nine other sailors saw the commander-in-chief of the continental navy, Esek Hopkins, treating British prisoners inhumanely aboard the USS Warren, and that the commander would refer to Congress as “a pack of damned fools.” On July 30, 1778, legislation was passed declaring that anyone who served the U.S. had the duty to tell Congress as soon as possible about any “misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors” committed by others in government service.

But the major case that shaped American whistle-blower law came during the Civil War. The rush to outfit the troops for war led to shortages of horses, wool and gunpowder — and a rush for companies to make money by selling shoddy goods to the needy Union Army. New York Congressman and abolitionist Charles H. Van Wyck questioned hundreds of witnesses to such fraud, putting together a report that led to the 1863 passage of the False Claims Act. The law established fines for contractors who cheated that system, and said that a whistle-blower who started a False Claims suit — the person this law termed “a relator” — would get 50% of the money if the case was successful.

“It has this qui tam provision that allows an individual, a private citizen, to become a private attorney general and actually prosecute the case on behalf of the ordinary people,” says Mueller.

The law was nicknamed “Lincoln’s Law” after President Abraham Lincoln said he hoped it would empower a different kind of army of “citizen soldiers,” or whistle-blowers, to keep a watchful eye. This law is still on the books.

Defense contractors succeeded in weakening the False Claims Act during World War II, claiming it would hold up the production of matériel — but during the 1960s and 1970s, as trust in government plummeted, several high-profile whistle-blowers, both within and outside government, reminded Americans just how much of a key role whistle-blowers could play.

Ernest Fitzgerald testified that Lockheed Martin was overcharging the government by billions of dollars. Frank Serpico exposed bribery in the NYPD. Karen Silkwood, who was killed in a car crash en route to deliver documents in the case, exposed hazardous conditions at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant in Crescent, Okla. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, secret documents revealing that the government was mismanaging the Vietnam War and lying about it, to the New York Times. And of course, the Watergate informant known as “Deep Throat,” Mark Felt, helped bring down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Mark Felt

Mark Felt

Hollywood movies about whistle-blower cases, such as 1976’s All the President’s Men and Meryl Streep’s 1983 turn in Silkwood, further increased awareness and public respect for whistle-blowers.

Reacting to sweetheart deals being cut between the government and defense contractors at the height of the Cold War, Congress strengthened the False Claims Act in 1986. Penalties for making false claims were increased, requiring offenders to pay triple what they overcharged the Treasury. Since then, over $60 billion in ill-gotten tax dollars have been returned to the Treasury via whistle-blower complaints filed through the law.

While the False Claims Act mostly pertains to people in the private sector who work with the government, it’s been more complicated for people in the intelligence and national security field to come forward. The Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protections Act of 1998 established the process that the whistle-blower who raised concerns about Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president went through, in that he filed a complaint that was routed to the U.S. Inspector General’s office.

However, despite having “protections” in the name, people who work at national security agencies who have gone through this process have not always felt as if this process is a secure one for them. For example, in 2002, Tom Drake and Bill Binney were part of a group that reported to the Inspector General’s office concerns that government efforts to monitor Americans’ Internet activity would invade their privacy. When news came out related to their allegations, the FBI raided their houses.

Tom Mueller interviewed about 200 whistle-blowers for his book and found that the “overwhelming majority” haven’t been able to work again because they were blackballed in their industries; perhaps the most famous recent American whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, is still in exile in Moscow. “It’s career suicide,” he says, arguing the treatment of whistle-blowers in real life is more of how society views them, versus the praise they receive at a distance or on a screen. He argues there’s a two-faced attitude towards whistle-blowers in American society.

“We have a completely dual attitude,” he says. “We applaud them in the theater but we go home and allow industries and governments to destroy them, their careers, their health, their lives.”

And yet their influence is undeniable.

Cynthia Cooper

Cynthia Cooper

TIME made three whistle-blowers Person of the Year for 2002 — WorldCom accountant Cynthia Cooper and Enron executive Sherron Watkins for exposing corporate fraud, and FBI agent Coleen Rowley for her memo to then FBI Director Robert Mueller about the mishandling of security threat warnings before 9/11 — for risking everything “to bring us badly needed word of trouble inside crucial institutions” and because they believed that the truth is one thing that must not be moved off the books, and for stepping in to make sure that it wasn’t.”

“We shouldn’t need a special word, some weird legal status, for doing the right thing, for doing our jobs. The fact that we have that [term] is a bad sign. Whistle-blowing is democracy,” Tom Mueller says. “It’s freedom of speech. It’s independence of conscience — the kinds of things the framers had in mind.”











V5La década de 1970 fue un periodo muy duro para el pueblo estadounidense. Divididos por una guerra lejana, los estadounidenses eligieron a un nuevo presidente, Richard M. Nixon, que prometió acabar con la participación de su país en la guerra de Vietnam y lo hizo, pero que también violó la ley y abusó de su poder, comprometiendo la imagen y la confianza del gobierno de los Estados Unidos. Tras miles de muertos y miles de millones de dólares invertidos, los últimos estadounidenses fueron expulsados de Vietnam en 1975. Esta derrota –la primera en la historia de Estados Unidos– sumió al país en un periodo de indecisión y duda. Para complicar las cosas, los gastos de la guerra, unidos al aumento en los costos de la energía, llevaron a la nación a una profunda crisis. Todo ello llevó a muchos a pensar que la decadencia del poderío y riqueza de los Estados Unidos era algo inevitable.

Nixon y Vietnam

            Al llegar a la Casa Blanca, Nixon buscó acabar la guerra ampliándola, es decir, aumentando su alcance y su intensidad para presionar a Vietnam del Norte. Pronto el Presidente entendió que eso no era lo que el pueblo estadounidense quería y cambió de estrategia, proponiéndoles a los norvietnamitas una retirada simultánea de tropas de Vietnam del Sur. Para convencer a Hanoi, Nixon ordenó el bombardeo secreto y clandestino de Camboya, un país  vecino y neutral por cuyo territorio los norvietnamitas enviaban y suministros y tropas a Vietnam del Sur.

Nixon también inició la llamada vietnamización de la guerra, es decir, el retiro gradual de tropas estadounidenses y el incremento de la participación de soldados survietnamitas en el conflicto. Esta nueva política no acalló las voces de los opositores de la guerra, que en 1969 llevaron a cabo manifestaciones masivas, como una marcha en Washington que reunió a medio millón de personas. Para complementar la ofensiva aérea en Camboya, Nixon ordenó la invasión –también secreta– de ese país. El Presidente quería destruir las rutas y bases de aprovisionamiento de los norvietnamitas, pero en el proceso lo que logró fue desestabilizar a Camboya, lo que permitirá que los Jemeres Rojos  (“Khmer Rouge”), una guerrilla maoísta, tomase el control  del gobierno camboyano. Bajo el liderado de un dictador despiadado llamado Pol Pot,  los Jemeres cometerán un terrible genocidio contra el pueblo camboyano.

En 1970, el periódico The New York Times hizo públicas las acciones encubiertas del gobierno estadounidense en Camboya, desatando una ola de indignación y rabia entre los opositores de la guerra. En varias universidades del país se llevaron a cabo huelgas y protestas. El 4 de mayo, la Guardia Nacional abrió fuego contra una muchedumbre de estudiantes en Kent State University (Cleveland), matando a cuatro personas.  El 14 de mayo dos estudiantes negros del Jackson State College en Misisipi murieron en un enfrentamiento con la policía y la Guardia Nacional. Ambos incidentes provocaron una serie de huelgas y cierres de universidades a lo largo de todo el país. Más de 450 universidades cerraron sus puertas y hubo problemas en cerca del 80% de los campus universitarios.  Curiosamente, una encuesta realizada para esta fecha reveló que a la mayoría de los estadounidenses les preocupaba más los disturbios en las universidades que la guerra en Indochina. Otra muestra del conservadurismo que imperaba en amplios sectores de la sociedad estadounidense.


Kent State University , mayo 1970

A pesar de la apatía de la mayoría de los estadounidenses, la insatisfacción con la guerra siguió aumentando. La invasión de Camboya cayó muy mal entre algunos miembros de Congreso. En junio de 1970, el Senado votó a favor de repeler la Resolución del Golfo de Tonkín y de cortar los fondos de las operaciones militares en Camboya. Entre  los soldados también se manifestó el malestar contra la guerra, pues aumentó el número de deserciones.

Para complicarles las cosas a la administración Nixon, en 1971 salieron a las luz pública las atrocidades cometidas por un grupo de soldados dirigidos por el Teniente William L. Calley.  Aparentemente siguiendo órdenes de sus superiores, Calley  y los soldados bajo sus órdenes asesinaron, en marzo de 1968,  a 350 civiles vietnamitas en la villa de My Lai.  Gracias al trabajo investigativo del periodista Seymour Hersh, la historia de la masare de My Lai fue publicada por el New York Times en noviembre de 1969.  Calley fue acusado de asesinato y  sometido a una corte marcial en 1971, que le encontró culpable y le condenó a cadena perpetua. Considerado por unos como un héroe y por otros como un criminal de guerra, Calley sólo cumplió tres años de arresto domiciliario.


Masacre de My Lai

Tras los incidentes de mayo de 1970, las protestas contra la guerra comenzaron a perder fuerza por varias razones. El movimiento sufrió divisiones internas que le debilitaron. Agencias federales como el FBI y la CIA infiltraron y desactivaron los grupos más radicales de la lucha contra la guerra. El programa de vietnamización redujo de forma dramática el número de soldados estadounidenses en Vietnam. De igual forma, Nixon prometió acabar con el reclutamiento forzoso para el 1973 y convertir así al ejército en una fuerza de voluntarios, lo que le quito un importante argumento a los opositores de la guerra, debilitando aún más al movimiento en las universidades.


Protesta estudiantes de la Universidad de Columbia. Crédito: Patrick A. Burns/The New York Times

Mientras se protestaba en los Estados Unidos, el Secretario de Estado Henry Kissinger llevaba a cabo negociaciones con representantes de Vietnam del Norte. En 1972, estadounidenses y norvietnamitas firmaron un tratado que permitió la retirada de los Estados Unidos del conflicto vietnamita. Nixon había  cumplido su promesa de poner fin a la guerra de Vietnam. Sin embargo, la salida estadounidense no acabó con el conflicto entre Vietnam del Norte y del Sur. En 1975, Vietnam del Sur terminó siendo derrotado y con ello finalizaron más de treinta años de guerra en esa parte de la península indochina.

El legado de la guerra de Vietnam

            El conflicto vietnamita es, después de Afganistán, la guerra más larga en la historia de  los Estados Unidos. Entre 1961 y 1973, millones de estadounidenses pelearon en las selvas indochinas para frenar lo que sus líderes vieron como una agresión comunista. Unos 58,000 estadounidenses murieron y otros 300,000 resultaron heridos. Aún aquellos que regresaron sin heridas físicas sufrieron severos traumas psiquiátricos y psicológicos.

Para los veteranos de Vietnam no hubo paradas ni recibimientos de héroes, sino rechazo por haber participado en la guerra más impopular en la historia estadounidense. Víctimas del estrés postraumático, su reinserción social fue muy dura. Los veteranos enfrentaron problemas con las drogas y el alcohol, problemas familiares (divorcios) y problemas económicos (desempleo). Muchos de ellos recurrieron al suicidio como salida.

Dong Xoai June 1965

Civiles vietnamitas, Dong Xoai, junio de 1965

Para los indochinos, la guerra fue una gran tragedia. Se calcula que 1.5 millones de vietnamitas murieron. La infraestructura física y económica de la región fue devastada por la guerra. Países vecinos como Laos y Camboya también sufrieron las terribles consecuencias del conflicto. El caso camboyano es particularmente trágico porque allí los Jemeres Rojos mataron, entre 1975 y 1979, a 2 millones de sus compatriotas en una campaña genocida. Además, la guerra produjo unos 10 millones de refugiados y una buena parte de ellos emigraron a los Estados Unidos.

V3La derrota en Vietnam afectó la visión que tenían los Estados Unidos de sí mismos, pues les obligó a reconocer los límites de su poder. El país entró en lo que ha sido denominado como el síndrome de Vietnam, es decir, una menor propensión hacia las intervenciones militares en segundos y terceros países. En 1973, fue aprobada la Ley de Poderes de Guerra, obligando al Presidente a informarle al Congreso cualquier uso de la fuerza en las primeras cuarenta y ocho horas de haber ocurrido. De no haber una declaración de guerra, las hostilidades sólo pueden durar sesenta días.

La guerra afectó duramente a la economía estadounidense. Con un costo total de $150 mil millones; el conflicto consumió importantes recursos económicos que pudieron haber sido usados para enfrentar los problemas domésticos de la nación. La gran víctima de la guerra fueron los programas sociales de la Gran Sociedad del Presidente Johnson, cuyos fondos fueron severamente afectados por los gastos militares asociados al conflicto. Además, la guerra aumentó el déficit del gobierno federal y la inflación.

A nivel político, la guerra acabó con el consenso liberal desarrollado en la posguerra. Millones de estadounidenses cuestionaron la política exterior de su país y los discursos a favor de la guerra fría. Una de las grandes víctimas de la guerra de Vietnam fue la confianza que tenían millones de estadounidenses en su gobierno.  Las mentiras, las manipulaciones y los escándalos asociados a la guerra produjeron la desconfianza entre millones de ellos.  El cinismo creció y el descrédito de los liberales fortaleció a los conservadores.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez

Lima, 7 de octubre de 2019




La guerra de Vietnam  marcó la historia de los Estados Unidos. Por casi diez años los estadounidenses pelearon en las junglas vietnamitas contra lo que consideraban una muestra del peligro del expansionismo comunista liderado por la Unión Soviética. Esta guerra tuvo serias consecuencias para los Estados Unidos, pues dividió profundamente la sociedad estadounidense. La oposición a la guerra fue severa y provocó brotes de violencia, sobre todo, en las universidades.

38e06199610ac078f5e08b2e8ca7cdc2En la segunda mitad del siglo XIX, los franceses establecieron su control sobre una vasta zona al sur de China que denominaron Indochina Francesa. La actual república vietnamita formó parte de esa colonia hasta que en la década de 1940 los nacionalistas indochinos aprovecharon el vacío de poder generado por la guerra mundial para declarar su independencia. Una vez finalizada la guerra, los franceses pretendieron retomar el control de su antigua colonia asiática, provocando una sangrienta guerra.   Los vietnamitas lograron derrotar a los franceses en 1954, pero vieron cómo la guerra fría determinaba el futuro de su país. En una conferencia de paz celebrada en Ginebra en julio de 1954, se decidió dividir   a Vietnam en dos hasta la celebración de un referéndum en 1957 para que  los vietnamitas decidirían si se mantenía tal división. Al norte existía un gobierno socialista aliado de la Unión Soviética y al sur se organizó un gobierno anti-comunista aliado y apoyado por los Estados Unidos. El referéndum nunca fue celebrado y Vietnam se convirtió así en un escenario importante de la guerra fría. En el sur surgió el Frente de Liberación Nacional (FLN) o Vietcong, un movimiento político-militar apoyado por el norte que buscaba la reunificación. El inicio de una guerra civil fue cosa de tiempo. Tanto soviéticos como estadounidenses apoyaron a sus respectivos aliados con armas y dinero. Sin embargo, el compromiso estadounidense fue mucho más profundo que el de los soviéticos, pues miles de soldados estadounidenses fueron enviados a pelear a Vietnam.  Las autoridades estadounidenses –Republicanos y Demócratas por igual– decidieron convertir su apoyo a Vietnam de Sur en una muestra del compromiso y la voluntad de los Estados Unidos en la lucha contra el comunismo. Para ellos, el prestigio y la credibilidad de los Estados Unidos estaban a prueba en Vietnam y, por lo tanto, era inevitable que los estadounidenses aceptaran el reto. Además, estaban convencidos de su superioridad moral y militar, y no contemplaron la posibilidad de un derrota


Kennedy y Vietnam

John F. Kennedy dio gran a importancia al Sudeste Asiático, pues decidió enfrentar lo que él interpretaba como la expansión comunista en la región. De ahí que ordenara envíos masivos de armas y aumentara el número de soldados estadounidenses en la región. Unos 7,000 soldados estadounidenses estaban destacados en Vietnam al comienzo de su presidencia. Tres años más tarde, ese número había crecido a 60,000 soldados. ¿Por qué JFK aumentó el compromiso estadounidense en Vietnam? Por varias  razones. Primero, su deseo de mantener una postura fuerte ante la expansión comunista. JFK veía al comunismo internacional como una fuerza monolítica controlada por los soviéticos y los chinos, y fue incapaz de ver que lo que ocurría en Vietnam era una guerra civil, no una agresión internacional. Además, JFK era un ferviente creyente en la famosa teoría del dominó, es decir, la idea de que la victoria del comunismo en un país generaba un efecto multiplicador en los países vecinos. En otras palabras, JFK creía que si los Estados Unidos permitían una victoria comunista en Vietnam, sería inevitable que países vecinos como Tailandia, Camboya o Laos terminasen  también bajo el control comunista. Kennedy quería evitar ese escenario aun a costa de aumentar la intervención directa de los Estados Unidos en el conflicto vietnamita. Segundo, el temor al costo político de una derrota en Vietnam. JFK tenía  muy claro que sus acciones en Vietnam podían ser usadas por los republicanos para atacarle políticamente en los Estados Unidos y, por ende, no podía dar señales de debilidad o de fracaso.  Todo ello llevó a aumentar la presencia militar en el Sudeste Asiático.

Kennedy no sólo tenía que estar vigilante de la situación política reinante en los Estados Unidos, sino también  en su aliado Vietnam del Sur. El gobierno estadounidense apoyó la división de Vietnam y se convirtió en su principal aliado. Esa alianza resultó problemática ante la ausencia de un liderato survietnamita eficaz. En 1963, el gobierno de Vietnam del Sur estaba bajo el control de un carismático líder católico llamado Ngo Dihn Diem. El presidente vietnamita mantuvo una política represora, que desató una rebelión de los monjes budistas. Varios  monjes  se inmolaron quemándose vivos en protesta contra el gobierno de Diem. Las imágenes de monjes convertidos en antorchas humanas no cayó bien entre los funcionarios de la administración Kennedy. Ello unido al nepotismo, la corrupción y la  incapacidad del gobierno de  Diem para gobernar al país, llevaron a las autoridades estadounidenses a  promover su salida por medio de un golpe de estado. En noviembre de 1963, Diem fue capturado y asesinado por un grupo de militares survietnamitas, lo que dio paso a que Vietnam terminase controlado por varios gobiernos militares corruptos e incapaces de enfrentar al Vietcong. La inexistencia de un interlocutor político valido en Vietnam del Sur obligó a los estadounidenses a asumir el peso del conflicto.

Una de las grandes preguntas de la historia contemporánea de los Estados Unidos es qué hubiese hecho JFK en Vietnam de no haber sido asesinado en noviembre de 1963. Sus simpatizantes alegaban que Kennedy no habría empujado a los Estados Unidos al abismo en que se convirtió la guerra de Vietnam. Otros más escépticos creen que JFK habría mantenido su política anticomunista y que empujado por la teoría del dominó habría continuado la expansión del compromiso militar estadounidense en Vietnam. No hay una contestación definitiva a esta pregunta, pero algo es indiscutible, al ampliar el compromiso estadounidense en Vietnam, JFK  dejó a su sucesor con un serio problema en las manos

Johnson y la pesadilla vietnamita

end2Con la muerte de JFK la responsabilidad sobre qué hacer en Vietnam pasó a manos del Presidente Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ).  Aunque éste consideraba  a Vietnam un país poco importante, temía que una retirada estadounidense abriese las puertas a una intervención de los soviéticos o chinos. Johnson tampoco quería que los Estados Unidos parecieran una nación débil y/o vacilante. Además, el Presidente temía el costo político de una retirada de Vietnam, pues sabía que los republicanos  le atacarían acusándole de ceder ante la amenaza comunista. Empujado por sus temores domésticos e internacionales, LBJ optó por ampliar el compromiso estadounidense en Vietnam, llevándole a niveles impresionantes y peligrosos.

Johnson pretendía pelear una guerra contra el comunismo en Asia y poner en marcha la Gran Sociedad  en los Estados Unidos.  Este programa de reformas buscaba trasformar al país combatiendo la pobreza y  la injusticia racial. Creía que el poderío y la riqueza de los Estados Unidos le permitirían ganar en ambos frentes –el doméstico y el vietnamita– pero la historia demostró que estaba equivocado. La escalada de la intervención estadounidense en Vietnam llevada a cabo por la administración Johnson se convirtió en un hoyo negro que se tragó a la Gran Sociedad, y destruyó la carrera política de  Johnson.

La Resolución del golfo de Tonkín

En agosto de 1964 se desarrollaron unos confusos incidentes entre barcos de la Armada estadounidense y botes patrulla norvietnamitas en el Golfo de Tonkín. Alegadamente, unas lanchas norvietnamitas atacaron al Maddox y el Joy Turner, dos destructores de la Marina estadounidense. Aunque estos ataques no fueron del todo confirmados, fueron usados por el Presidente Johnson para conseguir una resolución legislativa autorizándole a “tomar todas la medidas necesarias” para proteger las fuerzas militares estadounidenses desplegadas en el Sudeste Asiático. Tal resolución fue aprobada en el Senado con 88 votos a favor y 2 en contra, mientras que en la Cámara de Representantes no hubo un solo voto en contra entre sus 406 miembros. Para LBJ, la Resolución del golfo de Tonkín se convirtió en una autorización legal, de duración indefinida, para intensificar y aumentar la participación estadounidense en la guerra de Vietnam.  En otras palabras, un cheque en blanco que le permitiría atacar a Vietnam del Norte y aumentar el número de soldados estadounidenses en el sur. Sin embargo, la resolución también se convirtió en un cuchillo de doble filo, pues al estar basada en un supuesto ataque norvietnamita que nunca fue confirmado del todo, los opositores de la guerra la usarán para acusar a LBJ de haberle mentido al Congreso.

En 1965, el Presidente ordenó el bombardeo de Vietnam del Norte por la Fuerza Aérea estadounidense. La idea de Johnson, era obligar a los norvietnamitas a negociar y cortar la ayuda que éstos brindaban al Vietcong.  De esta forma pensaba alcanzar la victoria Entre 1965 y 1968, los Estados Unidos dejaron caer unas 800 toneladas de bombas diarias sobre Vietnam del Norte, tres veces la cantidad lanzadas en la segunda guerra mundial. A la par, Johnson aumentó el número de soldados estadounidenses en Vietnam de 185,000 en 1965 a 385,000 en 1966. Sin embargo, los estadounidenses no pudieron quebrar la voluntad de lucha de los vietnamitas, quienes  sabían que los Estados Unidos no podrían pelear una guerra indefinida en el Sudeste Asiático. Además, contaban con el apoyo y la ayuda material de la China comunista y de la Unión Soviética. LBJ y sus asesores nunca entendieron que la guerra civil en Vietnam del Sur no era producto de una agresión comunista internacional, sino una manifestación del nacionalismo vietnamita. Ello les condenó al fracaso.


La oposición a la guerra

La escalada de la guerra provocó la reacción de varios sectores de la sociedad estadounidense. Los primeros en reaccionar fueron los universitarios. En diversas  universidades del país se desarrollaron protestas contra la intervención estadounidense en Vietnam. Estudiantes y profesores desarrollaron debates y discusiones abiertas sobra la guerra, cuestionando la posición de LBJ. En 1966, las protestas contra la guerra en las universidades se desarrollaron a gran escala con la participación de miles de estudiantes. Intelectuales y religiosos se unieron a los estudiantes en la lucha contra la guerra. En 1967, varios personas prominentes se expresaron abiertamente en contra de la presencia militar de los Estados Unidos en el Sudeste Asiático.  Políticos demócratas como Robert Kennedy, William Fulbright y George McGovern, el escritor Benjamin Spock y el líder de los derechos civiles Martin Luther King criticaron la política belicista del Presidente Johnson.

Los críticos de la guerra resaltaron la injusticia social que escondía la guerra, pues eran los pobres y las minorías quienes cargaban con el peso del conflicto. El sistema de reclutamiento militar estadounidense favorecía a la clase alta y media porque eximía de ir a la guerra a quienes  estaban matriculados en alguna universidad. Dado que la mayoría de  los universitarios eran miembros de la clase media, estuvieron en una mejor posición para evitar ser reclutados y enviados a Vietnam. Por ello no debe ser una sorpresa que el 80% de los soldados enviados a Vietnam eran  pobres  o  hijos de familias trabajadoras.


La cobertura televisiva de la guerra abonó al desarrollo de la oposición a ésta en los Estados Unidos. Noche tras  noche, los estadounidenses podían ver en la pantalla de sus televisores los efectos de la guerra: los bombardeos, el uso de napalm, los civiles muertos o mutilados, etc. Con horror, muchos estadounidenses vieron como las tropas de su país quemaban las villas y pueblos de los vietnamitas a quienes supuestamente estaban protegiendo del comunismo. Noche tras noche, los estadounidenses podían ver en las pantallas de su televisores los nombres de los estadounidenses muertos en Vietnam.

Es necesario aclarar que a pesar del desarrollo de un oposición activa, la mayoría de los estadounidenses continuaron apoyando o simplemente no adoptaron una posición con relación a la guerra de Vietnam.  Para finales de la década de 1960, la guerra había polarizado a los Estados Unidos  y lo peor estaba por venir.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez

Lima, 5 de octubre de 2019



Acaba de ser publicado el número 17 de la revista Huellas de Estados Unidos con un dossier dedicado a la escritora y traductora argentina Márgara Averbach. Este número incluye, además, un ensayo analizando la doctrina Trump, una reseña de The Denial of Antiblackness: Multiracial Redemption & Black Suffering de João Vargas, comparando las raíces del racismo en Brasil y EEUU ,y un estudio sobre el largo metraje Lincoln (2012), entre otros.

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El  Grupo de Trabajo Estudios sobre Estados Unidos del Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales  (CLACSO)  acaba de hacer público su segundo boletín, titulado Trump en su tercer año: incertidumbre e irrupción. Coordinado por Leandro Morgenfeld, Marco A. Gandásegui y Casandra Castorena, este boletín contiene cinco ensayos dedicados al análisis de la política exterior de Donald Trump, con un énfasis en América Latina. Los autores de estos trabajos son estudiosos latinoamericanos de la nación estadounidenses, especialmente, del Centro de Estudios Hemisféricos y sobre Estados Unidos (CEHSEU) de la Universidad de La Habana. Quienes estén interesados en estos temas puedan acceder al boletín aquí.


Aeon_LogoAeon es una revista digital que se publica desde del año 2010, dedicada  a la producción y diseminación “of the most profound and provocative thinking on the web.” Semanalmente publican artículos de temas muy  variados, donde destacan la filosofía, las ciencias y las artes.

En su edición del 8 de agosto de 2019, Aeon comparte con sus lectores un documento de gran utilidad para entender los debates raciales y sociales en la sociedad estadounidense de la década de 1960. El 26 de octubre de 1965, el escritor y activista afroamericano James Baldwin y el intelectual conservador William F. Buckley debatieron en la famosa Cambridge Union Debating Society. La discusión giró alrededor de una de las preguntas claves de la historia estadounidense: Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro? Este interrogante va directo al papel que jugó la esclavitud en el desarrollo de lo Estados Unidos.


La Cambridge Union Debating Society fue fundada en el año 1815, y desde entonces ha sido una foro para la discusión y debate de ideas. En  sus más de doscientos años de vida, la Union ha contado con figuras como Anthony Eden, David Lloyd George,  Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Jawaharlal Nehru, el Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Judi Dench,  Vanessa Redgrave, Stephen Hawkings, entre otros.

El debate entre Baldwin y Buckley se da en el contexto de la lucha de los afroamericanos por sus derechos civiles, la guerra de Vietnam y el desarrollo de la contracultura. Buckley y Baldwin reflejan las grandes diferencias en como los progresistas y  los conservadores entendían (y entienden)  la historia estadounidense, la justicia social y el racismo. 

No puedo dejar de citar a Baldwin, que con la claridad que los caracterizaba señaló lo siguiente:

This means, in the case of an American Negro, born in that glittering republic, and the moment you are born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone and every face is white. And since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose that you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, or 6, or 7, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. (1)

Los interesados en esta joya pueden acceder aquí.

(1) https://www.rimaregas.com/2015/06/07/transcript-james-baldwin-debates-william-f-buckley-1965-blog42/