Soldiers and Social Change


Military personnel are rarely placed at the centre of analyses of social and political change in the twentieth century. The growing consensus that the wars of the twentieth century ‘laid the basis’ for important reforms, most notably the birth of the modern welfare state, has been driven almost exclusively by studies of the home front in war; too rarely have scholars investigated how citizens at the battlefront have affected change. This significant historiographical omission appears anomalous in the light of the central place occupied by the citizen soldier in the western democratic tradition.

By exploring the contribution of service personnel to New Zealand’s great experiment in social citizenship in the Twentieth Century, in a new paper in The English Historical Review, I take a step towards filling this gap in the historiography. The article outlines the contentious background to the 1943 New Zealand general election and investigates the role of soldiers, airmen and seamen in the Labour Party’s success. Labour’s victory ensured that party politics remained active and confrontational in New Zealand for the duration of the Second World War. With a strong majority, Labour had a mandate to run the country and the war as it saw fit; it was able to continue its social and economic agenda, including nationalisations and social and employment reform. This third successive electoral victory for Labour ensured that the balance in New Zealand politics lay firmly to the left. In the decades following the war, National (the opposition) adopted Labour’s social welfare agenda and became increasingly inclined towards a policy of full employment. So great was the significance of the victory in 1943, that Robert Chapman has argued that successive Labour triumphs in this period ‘set the terms of political debate and action [in New Zealand] for the next forty years’.

The election, however, was a very close affair, a much narrower contest than Labour’s ultimate majority of 12 seats indicates. In fact, with the civilian votes counted, it appeared that the Government was very close to defeat in six key seats. It was only when the armed service votes were added to the domestic totals that the Government survived by narrowly holding on to all six seats. Had National won these constituencies, the House would have been split evenly between the two parties and there is every chance that the Government would have fallen, with profound implications for the war effort and the shape of the post-war political economy of New Zealand. Peter Fraser, the incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, later commented, ‘it was not only North Africa that the Second Division had saved’.

That the soldiers’ vote saved Labour in 1943 is well documented in the historiography. However, to date, in spite of a growing corpus of work on voting behaviours in New Zealand, there is no in-depth study of the factors that may have affected why the soldiers voted overwhelmingly for Labour. In a series of posts in Defence-in-Depth, I will engage with the key findings of my new article and argue that a spirit of social cohesion emerged from the exigencies of combat cohesion, with profound results for the soldiers’ voting preferences.

In the first of these posts, I will outline one of the main outputs of the study – a social class profile of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF); the first statistically robust social class profile, as far as this author is aware, of any army in the Second World War. Such information is usually considered essential to understanding voting behaviours and social change.

In a second post, I will explore in depth the hopes, aspirations and political views of the 2NZEF. This will be done by using reports based on the censorship of soldiers’ mail and by studying the detailed returns that show the number of votes recorded for each candidate at each polling-place in the election. The weekly and bi-weekly censorship reports describe in detail the attitudes and state of morale of the 2NZEF. They were compiled from roughly 7 per cent of the total number of letters sent home by New Zealand soldiers during the war; thus, they provide a reliable documented insight into the concerns of the 2NZEF and can be considered analogous to sources such as Gallop Polls and Mass Observation studies in terms of their significance for historians of social and political change in the twentieth century. The detailed returns of each polling-place in the general election offer a rare opportunity to gain insight into the dynamics of the military, as opposed to the civilian, franchise at a key moment in the political and social evolution of a country.

War, as George Orwell wrote, ‘above all … brings home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual’. The posts on Defence-in-Depth to follow, will demonstrate that parties, such as Labour, which harnessed this ideal and emphasised the role of the state in arbitrating between sectional interests in society were better placed to benefit from these dynamics than those which emphasised personal freedoms and the market economy. For the soldiers who fought, and the communities they represented, the meaning of the war went far beyond victories and defeats on the battlefield. In the case of New Zealand, Labour’s great experiment in social citizenship in the twentieth century could have foundered had it lost the 1943 general election. The votes of service personnel politicised by their experience of the Second World War proved decisive. A spirit of social cohesion emerged from the exigencies of combat cohesion, with profound results for the future of New Zealand.

Image: Lieutenant General Edward Puttick accompanying Prime Minister Peter Fraser on a tour of the NZ Divisional Supply Company and men of the Divisional Petrol Company in the Volturno Valley area in Italy, during World War II. Photograph taken circa 30 May 1944 by George Robert Bull, via Wikimedia commons.

History & Policy


As the annual Advanced Command and Staff Course at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom progresses toward its conclusion, the students will shortly divide into three separate modules for the final term. One of those, the ‘Ends’ module, will draw the students into deeper consideration of the dynamics and processes underpinning the formulation of policy and strategy. Having already been exposed to more abstract considerations of these subjects earlier in the course, the intention behind this phase of the course is to revisit these ideas and to understand their formulation and implementation in a more practical sense. Exposure to concepts will be reinforced by their application to case studies, and there will be a particular emphasis upon aspects of strategy and policy as yet untouched by the course, notably understanding (to an extent) the range of psychological and cognitive influences upon decisionmaking and which are such a crucial aspect of how states choose to exercise power in the international arena.

One thing the students will be asked to consider is the relevance of history to contemporary policymakers. How, exactly, does a grasp of historical precedence inform decision-making in a useful sense? How does a knowledge of the past inform one’s understanding of the present, and the future? – particularly when the past is such an ideologically contested morass of rival interpretations. These debates strike to the heart of a debate of growing significance within the academic discipline of history itself – that of the utility of history to policy and to government.

There are many both within and beyond the profession to whom the notion that a study of the past can inform debates about the present appears deeply problematic, if not entirely fanciful. If historians have not yet reached consensus over the causes of the First World War, the notion that they can point to the future with any degree of certainty seems highly dubious. Facile statements along the lines that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them are complicated somewhat by Christopher Bassford’s pertinent observation that even those who learn from the mistakes of the past are also destined to repeat them; such frailties being a fundamental aspect of human behaviour as explained by a number of cognitive and psychological constraints.

But history has a role, surely? Otherwise, as Niall Ferguson laments, the international arena is ceded in perpetuity to the political scientists, the economists, the lawyers and the tech-geeks, who will continue to grip the attention of the policymaking elites. An elite, moreover, whose numbers will less and less be drawn from history departments as that subject slowly eats itself in the solipsistic cosmos of the modern university. Thus, as Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations in Obama administration observed, hugely important decisions as to how the US will choose to confront the rising power of the Chinese, for example, will be taken in policymaking environments where,‘[H]istory is not present enough in senior decision-making discussions, there is just not enough knowledge of history in the room’. Her point, ultimately, was that the expertise required to ascend to senior policymaking positions is rooted in alternative intellectual traditions that may not necessarily suit such situations.

And one might argue, if noting the objections above with respect to ideological contests and the often facile tendency toward crude and simplistic comparisons across time, that history is rightly shut out of the room lest the historians within engage in lengthy yet ultimately profitless intellectual sparring. But if one steps back from the pointless requirement to identify the concrete ‘lessons’ of history and instead adopts the perspective offered by the French historian Marc Bloch, then a far more profitable intellectual approach offers itself. As Bloch himself states, ‘the traces left by past events never move in a straight line, but in a curve that can be extended into the future’. The emphasis then should be not upon seeking to understand direct similarities between specific events past and present, but to discern the themes across time that underpin their direction of travel.

An illustration of this is superbly illustrated by a gifted young historian, Martin Bayly. Nephew of the great Imperial historian Christopher Bayly, Martin’s PhD on the subject of early British involvement with Afghanistan (written while at DSD) was subsequently published in 2016 in the form of Taming the Imperial Imagination: Colonial Knowledge, International Relations, and the Anglo-Afghan Encounter, 1808-1878 (Cambridge University Press). So, what might possibly be the relevance of that particular period to contemporary policymakers and analysts considering, say, the problems of Afghanistan and Iraq post 9/11? Or perhaps the problems of Syria and Libya today? Popular understanding would suggest that the utility of history in this instance lies in providing lurid warnings of the ‘Graveyard of Empires’, the inherent resistance of indigenous peoples to external actors, and the impossibility of imposing political control over an ethnically and tribally stratified society. Such observations are not entirely misplaced, but they are hackneyed. They also obscure facts that lend an entirely different perspective of matters if one takes Afghanistan as the historical template. For example, the British may have suffered military reverses in Afghanistan on a number of occasions, but they protected and indeed enhanced their strategic interests over decades of engagement with that country. Similarly, although portions of the Afghan population were highly resistant to the British presence, significant segments were entirely receptive and the ‘popular’ revolt of 1841 was caused not by widespread xenophobia but by the economic turmoil of military occupation and the disenfranchisement of specific elites by British advisors. Lastly, the trope of a perpetually unruly people must somehow account for the four decades of calm and stability under the Shah regime 1933-73. Too often then, crude and ill-defined stereotypes of past events are invoked by the unthinking to provide ‘lessons’ going forward.

But such basic correctives are not the value of Bayly’s contribution to the debate. His is a far more discerning and thoughtful reflection on the experience of the early Anglo-Afghan encounter and its impact upon the machinery of government. As a consequence he captures ideas of relevance to any modern or future policymaker. These might centre upon the way in which powerful States conceptualise ‘unknown’ spaces and, in their attempts to subsequently conquer and control such spaces, the ways in which complex understandings are simplified for policy ingestion, thus converting knowledge into a form of ‘policy science’. Additionally, one might wish to consider his portrayal of the growth of ‘knowledge communities’; networks of ‘experts’ articulating the seemingly simple cause and effect relationships of highly complex problems, helping the state identify its interests and framing the issues for collective debate. Consider too his unveiling of the way in which renewed interest in the regions in which these experts specialised, and their courting by the policy elites, meant that the manner in which they presented their work might be deliberately crafted to attract such policy attention. All of these issues were not only symptomatic of the early British encounter with Afghanistan, but are the sorts of timeless observations – examples of Bloch’s historical ‘curve’ into the future – that genuinely matter in the way that we interpret undertakings of the sort seen in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and visualise those to come. This is the sort of informed understanding of the past that really matters to those in the corridors of power, those who will always be prone to believing that it doesn’t apply to them.

Roll on the Ends module!

Image: group of Afridi fighters in 1878, via wikimedia commons.


Watching the Start of a New American Era from the Edge of the World


On November 8 – the second Tuesday of November – I found myself in Anchorage, Alaska watching the poll counts climb state by state while the minutes passed. As polls closed and states on TV monitors lit up as either blue or red, ebullient celebration or quiet resignation crossed the faces of those around me at the public house. Having been at Shrivenham during the Brexit vote before embarking on a previously planned trip to Edinburgh the following Friday morning, I saw echoes of the same disbelief (both excited and disappointed in nature) that I had experienced during that train trip north as I caught flights home across the 4,900 miles separating me from my home after the presidential election.

I was asked if I’d be interested in writing this piece almost two weeks ago, and since I felt that I was still forming an opinion on how the election had played out, I hesitated to do so. However, just over two weeks later with the news settling in and finding myself back on the U.S.’s east coast for the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve had some time to reflect on events that have transpired since the electoral college awarded the win to a president-elect who, as of earlier this week, had lost the popular vote.by nearly 2 million votes, but succeeded with 290 electoral votes to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s 232.

Throughout his campaign, President-elect Trump challenged the world order’s commitment to international trade, alliances, and collective defense, as well as core tenants of the American experience such as inclusion and diversity. While future policy decisions (and political appointments) will indicate how the incoming administration intends to address these issues, there are more pressing issues that the American electorate must focus on surrounding public discourse and behavior.

For instance, a friend of mine who works with immigrant youth in the Washington, DC area helped to translate a parent-teacher conference two days after the election. The second question asked about their son by the parents was, “Is he kind to all of his classmates?” – a question that, surely, they must hope all of their son’s classmates’ parents are asking as well. His schoolmate, an 8th grade white boy, was crying in the hallway the same week because he has two moms, and has witnessed the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric espoused by some of Trump’s supporters. Children’s behavior is often cued by their parents’, which might give us a bit of insight fears harbored by parents in a highly diverse, inner city school located in the nation’s capital.

One of the things that moved me most to write this piece, though, was seeing the gathering of Neo-Nazis – apparently rebranded as the “alt-right” – giving Nazi salutes in the Ronald Reagan Building of Washington, DC. Having heard that the gathering took place at the Reagan Building complex was quite surprising, given that it is situated neatly between the White House and the Capitol, is home to USAID (the USG Department of State’s Agency for International Development) and the Environmental Protection Agency, houses Customs and Border Patrol screening facilities, and plays hosts to diverse conferences whose topicality (and attendees) would be directly threatened by the views of those giving Nazi salutes to President-elect Trump. (Perhaps the only place that these activities would have had a more alarming host would have been across the street, where Trump properties recently reopened the Old Post Office Building – a longstanding DC landmark). While freedom of expression is an important basis of the American experience, that doesn’t mean that blatant xenophobic and anti-Semitic movements should not be called out for the acts of hate that they are.

Although a vote for Trump doesn’t necessarily mean that the voter is a racist, xenophobic, misogynist, or bigot, it is difficult to think that not holding any of these as a deal-breaker when voting for a President does admit a certain level of acceptance of these values. Diversity and pluralism are what make America strong, and they must have a place within the new administration if that administration is to truly represent Americans. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of each American to make their neighbors and their communities feel inclusive. As one email I recently received commented, “If a swastika is drawn on a sidewalk, there is a big difference between community members cleaning it up in two hours and the city cleaning it up in two days.”

The months ahead will show if Americans intend to use this outcome as an opportunity to draw together and support one another while demanding a government that represents our values, or if we will succumb to the vitriolic rhetoric that colored much of Trump’s campaign to divide the electorate into “us” and “them”. Misogyny, white nationalism, isolationism, and intolerance are not the values that America wants to show the world.

Image: Donald Trump on the campaign trail, via flickr.


The Better Angels of America’s Nature: Hate, Hope and the 2016 US presidential election


Like many people, I began this year dismissing the possibility that we could end the year with the UK having left the European Union and Donald Trump in the White House. I, like many others, have been blind to the very real fears and anxieties that saw a political earthquake shake the British political and intellectual establishment in June, and which may yet unleash another one on the other side of the Atlantic tomorrow. For those of us for whom the unthinkable – Donald Trump in the White House – has become frighteningly possible, we are faced with trying to understand how so many people not only support his candidacy, but in the process are so venomously hostile to his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The US stands on the verge of electing its first female president yet instead of celebrating the possibility of shattering the greatest glass ceiling of all, the narrative that has dominated Clinton’s path to the White House is of a power-hungry, corrupt woman ruthless in her ambition to occupy the Oval Office. This has been a campaign of hate, violence, smears, lies, and levels of xenophobia and misogyny unseen in the modern era. The prospects for America have never looked bleaker; that is not hyperbole – in the 20 years I have been studying the US never has the country stood so divided over what America stands for, what America is.

So how did it get to this? Trump, it has been argued, represents the latest incarnation of American populism, a political movement that emerged in the late 19th century but whose legacy lives on, through the fears and anxieties of predominantly white working-class Americans who increasingly reject a political establishment that no longer speaks to their needs and concerns. The issues and ideals that inspired the populist movement of the 19th and early 20th century were often genuinely progressive, hailing the cause of the ‘common man’ and seeking to defend the interests of the hard-working farmers and labourers from the greed and corruption of government, industry and big business in America’s ‘Gilded Age.’ But it has always been a more complex political movement, tainted by the shadow of racism and xenophobia, and its advocates – from Theodore Roosevelt to William Jennings Bryan and even Franklin Roosevelt – have themselves often fallen prey to the corruption and scandal they sought to oppose.

One of the most iconic embodiments of progressive populism was not a real-life inhabitant of the White House, but a fictional representation: Jefferson Smith, in Frank Capra’s famous, glorious movie Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). James Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, leader of the Montana Boy Rangers, who unexpectedly finds himself appointed a US Senator and winds up in Washington. There, his youthful idealism encounters the realities of a corrupt US political system that seeks to destroy his plan for a bill that would create a national boys camp. Demoralised, but not defeated, Mr Smith fights on; in the film’s climax, Smith takes to the floor of the US Senate and in one of the most famous filibusters in American history, gives an impassioned defence of liberty and democracy. Jefferson Smith was perhaps director Frank Capra’s most iconic populist hero. Capra was writing at a time of enormous unease and uncertainty, amidst the tumult and turmoil of the Great Depression at home and mounting fears over war in Europe. By his own admission, Capra wanted to make films that gave hope to the American people in an era dominated by fear, hatred and anxiety over the future, to capture the hopes and fears of the ‘hard-pressed Smiths and Joneses.’

Trump is no Jefferson Smith, but does he give voice to the ‘hard-pressed Smiths and Joneses’ for whom the political establishment has become the embodiment of all that is wrong in 21st-century America? Trump certainly appeals to many for whom the government and political classes are seen as the problem, not the solution. He is not afraid to stand up, to ‘think and to speak’ many of the fears and worries that are at the roots of populism’s rage. Trump professes to embody the fears and beliefs that dare not be spoken, to voice what thousands of people in America’s heartlands – that great swathe of rural America beyond the Beltway – think and feel but which have for too long, in their view, been dismissed as politically incorrect by the liberal intelligentsia. Although they appeal to difference audiences, explicitly distancing themselves from the philosopher-king intellectualism of Barack Obama – which has proved such a turn-off for many Americans – has been an important source of legitimacy both for Trump, and left-wing populists like Bernie Sanders.

But Trump’s populism is of the most dangerous kind, far removed from the moral idealism of Jefferson Smith. Trump’s appropriates the language of freedom and democracy to mask an authoritarianism that seeks to take America back to a simpler, ‘purer’ (read: whiter) past, one untainted by multiculturalism, equality and pluralism. His candidacy is not the first to do this. As Michael Kazin notes in his article on Trump and Populism for Foreign Affairs, as populism evolved in the 20th century it became increasingly intertwined with racism and xenophobic nationalism; even in the 1880s, parts of the movement sought to ban imported Chinese and Japanese labourers resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Although the Populist Party led by William Jennings Bryan collapsed and never saw the inside of the White House, populism as a political force lived on. By the 1920s, the Klu Klux Klan had become the most visible and extreme manifestation of the socio-cultural populism that increasingly demonised the ‘other’ – from Japanese-Americans interned during WWII, to African-Americans denied the rights fought for during the Civil War, to annual quotas on immigrants. It found its voice in the campaigns of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater in the 1960s who fought for states’ rights and to overturn the hard-won gains of the Civil Rights movement, and in Pat Buchanan in the 1990s with his isolationist platform for the presidency that sought to build a ‘sea wall’ to stop immigrants from ‘sweeping over our southern borders.’ Sound familiar?

If Bernie Sanders represents a more traditional, economic populism, then Trump is the manifestation of its worst, and most dangerous excesses. Yet never has this strain of American populism come so perilously close to the White House. Lyndon Johnson succeeded in defeating Republican challenger Barry Goldwater largely by branding him as a dangerous extremist; Hillary Clinton’s attempts to do the same appear to be floundering. Why? Clinton, for all her qualities as a champion of women and children’s rights, is the archetypal Washington insider, the very embodiment of a political establishment and personal dynasty that is feared and loathed by so many. Trump has undoubtedly used lies and manipulation to smear and tarnish Hillary, but allegations of corruption have followed the Clintons from Arkansas to Washington. The email scandal that has tainted her campaign was, for many, just the latest scandal in a sordid Clinton-family saga of power and corruption. Many, myself included, will celebrate her victory if she does indeed become America’s first female candidate but, like Barack Obama, her triumph may expose more wounds than it heals.

As a recent study showed, feminism and women’s equality is a seen as a threat to many white, working-class males, living in a post-industrial economy which poses challenges to traditional gender roles and Trump has tapped into this angst with frightening ease. While many Republicans have come out to vociferously oppose the sexism and misogyny at the heart of Trump’s campaign, hostility towards women is, sadly, one of the strongest predictors of support for Trump. A defeat for Trump may send him packing from Washington, but the sentiments he has manipulated and exploited will remain long after he has gone. A Clinton presidency – through policies designed to help close the gender pay gap, provide for affordable childcare and paid leave, and increase the minimum wage – may go some way towards the ‘unfinished business’ of greater equality and opportunities for women Clinton’s former advisor Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote about. But as Slaughter herself recognised, many of the problems facing women in America today are ones shared by their male counterparts who have parental and caring responsibilities and who face many of the same challenges in navigating the personal and the professional in the 21st-century. This helps explain, in part, why Hillary has strong support amongst college-educated white males; non-educated white males, however, have shown overwhelming support for Trump. She may not need their votes to gain the White House, or to stay there, but neither can she dismiss the needs and fears of the ‘angry white men’ who feel left behind by the advances in feminism, multiculturalism and civil rights of the last few decades.

Where then, will America be left on November 9th? Polling suggests that Clinton will likely prevail in the electoral college (this is a process whereby each state has a certain number of electors appointed, reflecting the number of members in that state’s congressional delegation – both House and Senate – so the larger and more populous a state, the more votes are up for grabs. Each state bar Maine and Nebraska adopts a winner-take-all approach, and to win the presidency you must win 270 electoral college votes). But, as Brexit reminded us, polls can be fickle things and there are a number of key ‘swing states’ crucial for any president to win the electoral college – Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia – that remain up for grabs. Early voting is showing strong support for Clinton yet her overall poll-lead over Trump has declined from 14-points prior to the FBI’s recent decision to re-open the investigation into Hillary’s emails, to a mere two points in the last few days.

Whatever happens, America’s wounds will not heal easily. It may seem naive to hope that a modern-day Jefferson Smith can rise from the ashes of this campaign and fight for the ‘Smiths and the Joneses’ without recourse to the demagoguery, racism, sexism and violence that Trump embodies. The problem for America is that, as many have pointed out, this is where America is in 2016. It is a nation where demagoguery, lies, hatred, racism, sexism, xenophobia and even violence have found a home and a voice. And Americans are having to live this election and all that is represents; as one social media user commented: ‘To the bystanders who think this election is a train wreck. We. Are. On. The. Train.’ But this is also an election that is bearing witness to the extraordinary belief that America is better than this, that America remains a country where pluralism, diversity, inclusivity, tolerance and hope can and do thrive; to cite one of Barack Obama’s favourite quotes from Martin Luther King, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.’

Fearing the fall-out from making a film so critical of the US political system at a time when the nation’s political leaders were facing momentous challenges, Frank Capra questioned whether he ought to even make Mr Smith Goes to Washington, but concluded that ‘the more uncertain are the people of the world…the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals…It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom’s bell.’ If ever there was a time to reclaim all that is great and good about America and its democratic ideals, that time is now. As America stands poised on the brink of one of its most vitriolic and consequential elections in modern history, we should be reminded of one of America’s most beloved and revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln who, in his first inaugural address, spoke to a nation divided: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’

Image: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016 via wikimedia commons.