[‘There are to be sure a number of useful axioms in History; but, Fascism is not necessarily the sole destiny of the forthright’ — BW]
[“Up here we all just thought he was such a awful little shit!” — Flossie Andersen, Oshawa Town, Nicollet County, MN (1969)]
by Emmett R Smith
An old classmate, Mr Tom Snell, has written to ask: Who — or what — was Huey long, populist or fascist?
So, how should an historian think of biography? That is the bigger question. It is at the core of any consideration of the story of Louisiana’s Huey Long, The Kingfish indeed. Not a few consider biography with its exemplary literary possibilities to be the best form of history-making. I incline thusly. Others are suspicious of the imposition of latter-day interpretations, not to mention an undue personalism that falsifies the actual direct power of persons, over the material events of economics, politics, war.
“Individual” motives and purposes are after all collectively and, indeed, historically conditioned.
That is to say, HOW would Hitler — given the condition of being a particular and, indeed, a definite Hitler determined twice over — have been the shit he was an he were not pushed by circumstances into being the Head German Nazi Sulky Schoolboy With A Greasy Forelock?
My speculation here and in other writings about Long’s “inferiority complex” in any case is itself a speciman of psychological jargon, which however was making the rounds at least in more sophisticated circles than The Kingfish’s perhaps, but anyhow during his own time. So — again perhaps — it is a little less anachronistic, even though it forms the stuff of a kind of psycho-history which only emerged — please, forgive my saying so — only long after Long’s time.
The foregoing is but a small sample of the self-adorative haggle of postmodernist academic historians, over the “permissible” vocabularies (!) of interpretation; certainly, the postcontemporary American “university” is today a hotbed of politicized and terminological, nonstop, dispute. Whether that struggle between cramped aspergic folk permanently shut out of the Democrat Party mainsteam is of much value to the field is questionable, but there have been at least gains in social historianship.
To return to the human factor, I am not so sure that actors can be exclusively called “free” agents, but they certainly confront admittedly always-limited ensembles of moral choice.
Motives and purposes, the push of the past and the pull of the future as historian emeritus John Lukacs puts it, mean that (if the historian may take his own case as normative) a personality is aware often of maybe many drives that (momentarily at least) converge. That is simply a human fact. So after having done some reading and thinking about him, I now think that Huey Long was a sometimes timorous little boy who saw things sometimes that hurt his feeling as a small child, he at least began with that kind of unmediated empathy which for little children makes them, they themselves, be the stray puppy, the evicted neighbor sharecropper family. This is far different, too, than matters with the socially-protected, the cocooned, the often-irreal Roosevelt, who perhaps had to have had polio in order to develop some of the warmth that he could later in his career click on and off. In common then after all, both in the face of the ordinary terror of life and the threat of impossibility in any form, both men arrived at the career political solution of egotism in the cause of the righteous.
To add to this, I expect that Long, on a low social level (but, of a family of remembered distinctions) also was more exposed to the raw adult anger of that vulnerable layer.
So, be it paradoxically enough, I think that participatory emotions of sympathy — and social rage — in childhood could have made the adult Long as much a fascist as a populist, or “socialist,” leader.
In which case participation should necessarily have trumped “compassion.”
Like Hitler, The Kingfish was very much a bullhorn personality and simply said — over and over out loud what a decisively many were thinking and saying over and over, in private anyhow. As Mr Bodwyn Wook commented to me, in discussing the parts of this article, a true speaker for a people does not however “need” to be a Nazi. There are to be sure a number of useful axioms in History; but, the fascisms are not necessarily the sole destiny of the forthright. The more well-off classes, the self-announced speakers FOR “the poor,” certainly feared this about Long, just as their heirs and assigns often feared Dr Martin Luther King. But, he was deemed to be a “communist.” It was and it is, to wax psychological again, the kind of name-calling that the somewhat counterfeit, or at least more self-consciously ethically elaborated and professionalized, personality often goes in for instinctively when confronted by the crude form of personal power and magnetism.
Huey Pierce Long began as a populist, but since it was rather obviously a matter of “us” and “my people,” this could have veered toward a nationalistic socialism of some sort.
It did not, and not only because Long was shot, there were actual fascistic hetmen jabbering about “eliminating” the Jews in America in those days — none of them gained decisive traction. Ironically, Long, who was allegedly shot by a Jewish physician, seems not to have gone in big for this gambit of antisemitism, he after all had Standard Oil to go after.* The real question of the American late-1930s and 1940s, however, is whether in the event a President Huey Long would have gone to war with anyone else, besides Japan in the Pacific?
This to suppose, of course, that an event such as Pearl Harbor should even have then occurred. My perception for what it is worth is that a Long State Department would probably have continued (an early instance of the late-modern curse of professionalism, then still class-conditioned) to be a preserve of the Anglo-American East Coast elite. But, it would have been the conservative & business-as-usual wing of that moiety.
They wouldn’t have been as interested in irking “the Japs” in the way Roosevelt was, just because Long himself wasn’t that interested, either in the world or for that matter England. Long was urgently interested in the emotional satisfaction to be derived from caring for “his” people and that is probably as far as it ever could have gone. For good long time too — pardon the pun — The Kingfish delivered the goods.
But when push came to sham, Long also shammed “his own” people from time to time. This is an instance of the force of circumstances. Circumstance, however, is but the amplification of the prior arrangements of men. My view is that Long’s condition was such that he might have been the more easily involved in a war with Japan, less so with Germany. In his own political career The Kingfish was reproved for not having swallowed the patriotic hook of the First world War; rescuing “democracy” seemingly stood in a distinct second place to saving his own neck, be it for sake of the political needs-to-come of the folks back home. But on the other hand the possible implications of Japanese activity in Mexico — there were such doings throughout the 1920s and 1930s — could have been the inkle in the same way the Zimmerman telegram was earlier meant to be, by an anglomane East Coast establishment in 1916. However, an America free to devote undivided military attention to Japan in the late 1930s and 1940s would have become the Pacific colossus indeed of the last decades of late-modernity, and with no Cold War the story of China would be very different, also. In short, my answer is that Huey Long’s America at least not as easily would have been embroiled in the entire second part of the twentieth century’s “Thirty (it was only 29!) Years’ War.”
In that case, America at least would not have as prematurely gotten stuck at trying to make come true the “global” big idea, and meantime there would have been no Cold War, no Vietnam.
On the other hand, domestically, while there would not have been great strides in civil rights which also evaded Roosevelt (Truman, not Roosevelt, integrated the Army only after WW II) there might have been a national healthcare system at least attempted (Truman, however, also tried this.)** To conclude, therefore, the fascinations of historical biography are many, and character is decisive, that is the point — to a point — but a nation’s conduct and the end of its potential story remains the averaging out of a broad range of finally irremediable characters. In this world of decay that much of the story is just entropy.
So, by way of making a lame and entirely less-than-satisfactory ending and all other things being equal, please, let me ask this:
Were Huey Long to have been the only big difference in the story of late-modern America, and the American Presidency, would things be so very greatly different for us today?
In view of the fact that for example President Truman’s commonplace but solid-enough empathy at its heart was more akin to that of The Kingfish’s than FDR’s or even JFK’s, I for one tend to think not, not on the face of it. Long in his time indeed did speak for “the” people, but really only for those who were already his. And, in any case, he could not have gone any farther than any other President, Harry S Truman again for instance, in saying — or trying to pull — much of anything that wasn’t already being thought and said at the same time by a decisively many of Americans.*** Therefore, had The Kingfish become The President and the war only with Japan taken place, regardless of Huey Pierce Long’s final fate, the United States would today in 2009 stand truly declared victorious after the Japanese war, still astride the wide Pacific sixty-four years on — and, awaiting still the challenge that might next see it emerge as a true global superpower.
Regardless of the Presidency, America in the early 1940s could and would have beat Japan everytime.
As it was, America with one hand tied behind its back in fighting beside England to liberate Europe first nonetheless beat Japan soundly in the Pacific in the three years and nine months between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. Without the distraction of England’s war with Hitler, that American Pacific victory might well have come sooner — possibly without the atomic bomb.**** The only difference then in history would have been that President Huey Long was not an anglomaniac. But that, after all, is a pretty big difference with which our electronic present humdrum lives might well have been undergirded.*****
And Huey Long today, that stubbornly little and yet pugnacious spirit, doubtlessly would be doing just as he grandiously now is, namely kicking up ashes in Hell with Lyndon Johnson and Woodrow Wilson and Mussolini, sneezing in the sulfur and playing rocky horse on the Devil’s knee, saying “Daddy, tell me a story!”
* — Let me be honest, it has been awhile since I read Williams; however, any allegations of antisemitism as such about Long are not what stand in my recollection. I am willing to stand corrected in this.
** — Huey Long studiously made it clear in Louisiana politics that he was not /particularly/ for the Negro, but studiously also implied that black voters would see their fortunes improve under a Governor Longate. The question, then, of under what circumstances a President Long might have turned more decidedly toward Black Americans in national politics is fascinating — suffice it to say that Huey Long, both an outsider and an extravert who wanted above all to be liked, and even more to be admired, just might have hauled off and done this!
*** — The American President no longer leads or breaks new ground simply because we no longer have that kind of an elite, and the “progressive” base is only a shattered amalgam at best, of a bankrupt credentialism that can neither accurately diagnose the woes of nor prescribe any remedies for the world’s still-wealthiest society. For the fear of death after all there be no cure, but death.
**** — Caveat lector. It is not impossible that there is a higher power, as the islamic Sufis for example contend, and that things work out for the best in this crude molecular world. Suppose the American war with only Japan had only gone quickly enough that there was deemed no need for a Manhattan Project. Next suppose the German Nazis had gotten such a weapon. They were working on this and with no Allied strategic bombing who knows how far they might have come? I am no communist, but the fact is psychically the Nazi outbreak in the midst of an authentic high civilization was the gust from Hell, and not even the fact that Joseph Stalin perhaps killed millions more can change this. Communism is a travesty of christianity, the attempt to take heaven by storm; Nazism, the annihilation of mankind.
***** — It is so, there was no “victory” for America (and “the West”) in the Cold War, only the exhausted crumbling to a standstill of a worn-out rival bureaucracy with a bad business plan; such “victories” do not convey conviction to bystanders.
[Emmett R Smith
[all rights reserved & all other rights revert to holders
[11 September 2009]