History may be written by the winners, but only as a first draft—a feel-good, simplistic, triumphalist view of the past. What about the history that endures? That’s all about asking tough questions, doing hard digging, and acknowledging stubborn complexities.

Two Duke-trained historians, Tracy Campbell Ph.D. ’88 and Claudio Saunt Ph.D. ’96, are reaching for that enduring impact. Campbell won the most recent New York Historical Society American Book Prize—given each year to the best work in American history or biography—for The Year of Peril: America in 1942 (Yale University Press). Saunt’s 2021 Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy is for his Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (W.W. Norton).

Saunt, who teaches at the University of Georgia, focuses on the 1830s and chronicles the forced migration of Native Americans across the Mississippi River. This was one of the first state-sponsored mass expulsions in the modern world; it would be a turning point for indigenous peoples and for the country, he writes. “The geographical segregation created a westward-moving frontier, and as the United States expanded toward the Pacific over the course of the nineteenth century, the army maintained that frontier by killing native people or concentrating them on marginal lands.”

For Native Americans, “the risks posed by relinquishing the land and rendering useless the accumulated multigenerational expertise in its flora and fauna were enormous.” In addition to their well-founded fears of starving in the West, the journey itself meant a mortality rate between 3 and 10 percent. And what would be their future political and legal status?

To muster support in Congress, Saunt says, advocates of dispossession clothed their policy in “a gauzy humanitarianism,” as an expression of natural law; they argued that moving the residents hundreds of miles west was in the best interest of the victims of the policy. “I’m sure some people who made this argument actually believed it, but many others were clearly deeply cynical and were merely seeking cover for their desire to convert Native farms into slave plantations.”

Peter Wood, now a history professor emeritus, recalls Saunt’s coming to Duke from studying Renaissance history in Italy. “As can happen with Americans, the year spent in Europe prompted him to think harder about our culture’s complicated origins. So, he arrived in Durham with a fresh interest in colonial American history, even though that field still had a justified reputation as being narrow and hidebound.” But the field was changing, and Wood had just published a demographic overview of the European, African, and Native American populations of the colonial South.

Another sign of change: a graduate seminar taught by Wood that looked at all of North America in the era of the American Revolution. Saunt found the seminar readings—from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to Cabeza de Vaca’s Narrative, recounting travels through the American South in the 1520s and 1530s—crucial for raising “so many fascinating questions about the early centuries of North American colonization.”

Saunt notes that, for scholars of Native American history, one persistent question is how to recover Native voices. He was able to draw on the correspondence of several literate Native leaders, including the Choctaw Peter Pitchlynn and the Cherokee John Ross. He also dug into the administrative records held by the office of the Commissary General of Subsistence, which oversaw the logistics of the deportation. Those records “capture some Native voices as well as offering a fascinating perspective on the small but dedicated federal bureaucracy that shaped the operation,” he says.

That bureaucracy served the deeply intertwined causes of dispossession and slavery. “Both generated enormous profits; both earned the support of Northerners who were sympathetic to the cause of white supremacy and often personally invested in the oppressive polices; and both generated a vocal opposition in Congress that remained a minority, in part because the three-fifths compromise skewed representation in favor of the slave South.”

It’s understandable, Saunt writes, that Andrew Jackson, a slave-holding, land-speculating war hero, who led U.S. troops against the Creeks and the Seminoles, has come to represent the era. “But there was plenty of blame to go around, starting with Southern planter-politicians, who imagined that they would come to dominate the Union, the continent, and even the hemisphere, if they were able to expand their empire of slave-labor camps to the shores of the Pacific. Poor whites in the South were also implicated, since they wanted cheap land and decided that the likeliest source belonged to Native peoples. And Northern bankers also sought to profit from the situation. They invested millions of dollars in indigenous land.”

A different era, a comforting story of national unity in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. But Campbell, in The Year of Peril, complicates the narrative. A class on recent American history with William Chafe, now professor emeritus, planted the seeds for the book. “In the first week, as we covered the American home front during World War II, he challenged so many of the political, economic, and social assumptions of the war years that I didn’t realize were deeply ingrained in my head. It set in motion a fascination with this critical moment in the life of the nation that stuck with me through the years.”

A source of division was the perceived overreach of federal agencies. One example: the Biscuit, Cracker, and Pretzel Subcommittee, seen as controlling the livelihood of bakers. Then there was the pushback against a proposal (never adopted) that would have taxed incomes above $25,000 at 100 percent—a “maximum wage.” The Wall Street Journal saw it as “a device capable of being used to liquidate—economically, not physically—a group of citizens.” But the policy that brought the stiffest resistance, particularly from Western states with their long-distance- driving needs, was gas rationing. (It was needed not because the country didn’t have enough gas, but to save rubber.) What may have been “the final straw” for some was a ration of a different sort: one pound of coffee per citizen every five weeks, or about one cup per day.

The myth of wartime unity completely overlooks Black Americans. That fact was brought home to Campbell, now at the University of Kentucky, by the late Duke historian John Hope Franklin. “I took his last class, and one day we were chatting, and I brought up World War II in the usual kind of heroic context. He quickly alerted me that my images of the home front in the 1940s were at odds with what he experienced. He kindly replied, ‘That might be your war, but it wasn’t mine.’ ” (In the book, he recalls Franklin’s “outrage as someone who wanted to serve, but because of his race was treated with contempt by draft boards and other officials.”)

Campbell writes about an African-American man, Willie Vinson, who was arrested in Texas for the attempted rape of a white woman; he was said to have “resembled” the presumed perpetrator. When the sheriff came to arrest him, a scuffle ensued and Vinson was shot. While hospitalized, he was grabbed, chained to the back of a truck, and dragged for miles before the mob hanged him from a cotton-gin winch. In response to such incidents, fifty-seven African-American leaders gathered in (remarkably) Durham. “In an hour of national peril, efforts are being made to defeat the Negro first and the Axis powers later,” they said in a statement. They called for reforms that would represent a chapter in a later American history, such as voting rights, a federal anti-lynching law, an end to all-white juries, and Social Security benefits for domestic-service workers.

Misinformation—some of it rooted in racism—targeted an anxious public. There was the rumor that African-American women were organizing “Eleanor Clubs,” named after the first lady, with the aim of organizing Black domestic workers to “force white ladies into their kitchens.” (Then there was the rumor of a woman who worked in a bomb factory, went to her hairdresser for a permanent wave that left an explosive residue in her hair, and subsequently passed near a heat source that blew her head off.) Before working on the book, “I had no idea that the Office of War Information undertook to systematically fight misinformation with the War Rumor Project,” Campbell says. “Officials concluded that highlighting rumors only served to spread them more.”

Saunt, in Unworthy Republic, debunks the idea— promoted by contemporaries and even by some historians—that the federal policy of forced relocation was inevitable. Campbell wrestles with the inevitability of democracy itself. If a different kind of politician had been in the White House, constitutional government would have been in jeopardy. “Self-government is necessarily fragile,” he says.

What if the president in 1942 had not been Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but rather been someone like Senator Theodore Bilbo, for whom extending voting rights to Blacks would be nothing less than an existential threat for his Mississippi constituency? Or Representative Martin Dies, chair of the Special House Committee on Un-American Activities, who had pushed for the mass detention of Japanese Americans?

“Then all bets are off.”

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