After grueling talks, the United States and its U.N. allies have reached a historic deal with Iran on the future of its nuclear program, and Cuba and the U.S. reopened embassies in each other’s capitals. Some observers say these agreements are inching America closer to a full reconciliation with these longtime foes.
On this week’s show, we dig up buried hatchets and dust off a few of the country’s best and worst efforts at making amends, from the Revolutionary War to the Cold War. How have Americans tried to restore ties and move beyond strain and strife? When does it work? And what are the limits of reconciliation?
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BENJY MELENDEZ: Benjy, we heard what they done to your boy. You give us the OK, andwe’ll take these guys.
BRIAN: And learn how some gangs made peace, not war. We’re going to take you to Hiroshimain 1945.
SHIGEKO SASAMORI: When I became conscious, then I look around. I couldn’t see anything–pitch black.
BRIAN: And hear how one survivor made the unlikeliest of friends.
CLIFTON TRUMAN DANIEL: The teacher said, wasn’t your grandfather president of the UnitedStates? And I said, I don’t know. It’s news to me.
BRIAN: This week marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re marking theoccasion with a look back at stories of Americans’ efforts to make up and move on– a historyof reconciliation, today on BackStory. Don’t go away.
PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University ofVirginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Joseph and Robert Cornell MemorialFoundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided byWeinstein Properties; by The Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities,and the environment; and by History Channel, history made every day.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the AmericanBackstory hosts.
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh. And I’m here with my buddies, Peter Onuf–
PETER: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: And Ed Ayers.
ED: Hey, Brian.
BRIAN: In 1989, Karen Van Lengen was working as an architect in New York City. ThatNovember, she was immersed in the final phase of a competition to design a public building inWest Berlin.
KAREN VAN LENGEN: I was in my office working, and someone had a radio on. And the newscame across the radio that the border at the Brandenburg Gate had been opened. It was ahuge shock. I was so surprised that we went and found a television.
DIANE SAWYER: (ON TV) At this moment, we are taking you live to the Brandenburg Gate andthe Berlin Wall.
TOM BROKAW: (ON TV) Brandenburg Gate, of course, is in East Berlin. And the sound that youhear, and what you’re seeing tonight, not hammers and sickles but hammers and chisels, asyoung people take down this wall–
SAM DONALDSON: (ON TV) This is really a scene of happiness. The wall is still standing, asyou see. But the wall is political rubble. Because today, the government of East Germanyannounced that its borders are open.
BRIAN: That announcement, it turns out, was a bit premature. Earlier that day, East Germany’sleaders had decided they would soon ease travel restrictions between East and West. Theywanted to stop street protests, and they also wanted to slow down an exodus of East Germansto the West through Hungary.
But the spokesman tasked with announcing this news hadn’t been fully briefed. And hemistakenly told reporters that the changes would take effect immediately. Within hours,thousands of East Germans were swarming the walls’ checkpoints. No longer ordered to useforce against the people, the guards had little choice but to let them through.
ED: One week later, Karen Van Lengen was living in a loft apartment next to the Western sideof the wall. Five floors up, she could look out across the no-man’s land on the Eastern side thathad, for almost 30 years, separated the two sides of Berlin.
KAREN VAN LENGEN: And my very particular memory of that period is at night, listening topeople chipping away at the wall. It’s a tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. So you end up two orthree days later finding these small holes all over in the wall.
ED: There was nothing inevitable about this remarkable chain of events. It came as a completesurprise to people on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Earlier that year, the East German leader,in fact, had predicted the wall would stand for another 50 years at least, maybe 100.
And so when the wall did fall, Berliners were absolutely ecstatic, as well a surprised. For weeks,all-night parties raged in the streets.
BRIAN: But at the same time, it was becoming clear that the profound social and economicdivisions between East and West were not going to fall away with the wall. Karen tells one storyabout the cars that East Germans were accustomed to driving.
KAREN VAN LENGEN: There were these small German cars that were called Trabies. And theywere very, very simple cars. And if you saved up your money and you had a slightly better job,then you could get a car. And it was a very prestigious thing to have a car.
BRIAN: And then came November of 1989.
KAREN VAN LENGEN: And suddenly, they drive to the West and see these super-duperMercedes. And they feel ridiculous in these small little two-button cars. You turn it on, you turnit off. There’s a windshield wiper.
And so each month that I went, I’d hear another car story or another story like this, wherepeople were trying to adjust to becoming someone else– something else.
ED: Today, Berlin really is a unified city. You’d be hard pressed to find anything but smalldifferences between East and West. But reunification was a process, one that took its toll onboth sides.
Westerners were shocked to discover the level of deprivation that their fellow Berliners hadfaced for years. Easterners, for their part, were also disoriented. They found themselves in acity that was both familiar and foreign.
KAREN VAN LENGEN: There was a lost generation in there of young people who were comingof age in the East– had grown up in the Eastern system of education and training for jobs thatwould not be there anymore. And some of them make it, and some of them are able to adapt.But a lot of people were not, and it was very hard on them– very, very hard.
BRIAN: Conflicts like the Cold War– conflicts that span generations– they can take on kind ofa lifeless quality in the history textbooks. But in the immediate shadow of these conflicts, lifehas gone on. Children have grown up, shaped at least to some extent by the narratives ofconflict that surround them. And so what happens when those conflicts end? How do peoplelearn to live alongside their former enemies and, in a sense, to live alongside their formerselves?
ED: These are questions we’ll be considering for the rest of the hour today. We’re marking the25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a show about reconciliation– and its limits–through an American perspective. We’ll consider the difficult process of reconstructing theSouth after the Civil War and consider the relationship between Reconstruction andreconciliation. We’ll hear about a detente between two New York City gangs and about whatthat truce enabled. And we’ll discuss reconciliation with a person who survived the atomicbombing of Hiroshima and still remembers every moment of that terrible day.
PETER: But first, a story about reconciliation in the wake of the American Revolution. Now thisis not a story about Yankee Patriots and British Redcoats, but rather about Americans whosided with the Revolution and other Americans who sided with the enemy. Those Britishsympathizers were known as Loyalists and amounted to as much as one fifth of the population.In many senses, the War for Independence was a civil war, with neighbors taking up armsagainst neighbors.
And nowhere was the brutality more pronounced than in the South, where militiamen on bothsides roamed the back country looking to settle personal scores in a virtually lawlessenvironment. In many cases, these men were acting more out of camaraderie with their localleaders than out of any deep ideological commitments. But still, the violence was real.Homesteads were destroyed, women were attacked, and prisoners of war were murdered, allwithout a Redcoat in sight.
And so you might expect that when the war ended in 1782, retribution for atrocities committedby Loyalists would be swiftly meted out by the Patriot victors. But this was not the case.Historian Rebecca Brannon has written about the reintegration of Loyalists in South Carolina.She told me what that state’s leaders did with the men who had taken up arms against them.
REBECCA BRANNON: For 200 and some unlucky men, they confiscated all their property, andthey banished them forever from the state. They withdrew their citizenship.
PETER: Ooh, that sounds pretty severe. Yeah.
REBECCA BRANNON: That’s pretty severe. And for another 62, I believe the number is, those62 have to pay a one-time levy or tax on the entire value of their estate. And it ranges betweenabout 12% and 25%, depending on how punitive the legislature wanted to be.
PETER: Well, this is legislation that pretends to be punitive but actually offers terms. (LAUGHS)Let’s talk.
REBECCA BRANNON: Yes.
PETER: Let’s negotiate.
REBECCA BRANNON: And then, most of the people named on those lists petitioned, andthose petitions are usually successful. The few who don’t manage to get away from thispunitive legislation, it’s usually because there’s very specific damaging information about thingsthey did. Like one cooper who deliberately made bad barrels so the meat to defend Charlestonfrom the British would go bad. And then he bragged about it.
PETER: Whoa. Foolish man.
REBECCA BRANNON: Foolish man, yes.
PETER: You know, this legislation really only sounds punitive in retrospect. Everybody in 1784agreed that had it been applied, it would’ve been punitive for the few people to whom itapplied. (LAUGHS)
REBECCA BRANNON: Right.
PETER: That doesn’t sound like a nasty, and vicious, and vengeance-driven Reconstruction.
REBECCA BRANNON: And then in the next two years, the Loyalists themselves really decide tomake a case for reintegration. And they apologize. Even if they’re not very good at it– even ifthey find it painful, (LAUGHS) they apologize to their neighbor.
PETER: Tell us about these apologies. It sounds extraordinary. I’m sorry that we pillaged yourplantation and–
REBECCA BRANNON: Oops.
PETER: –killed various relatives.
REBECCA BRANNON: (LAUGHS) To be fair, they don’t usually admit to anything criminal–
PETER: Oh, OK.
REBECCA BRANNON: –in their apologies.
PETER: So they don’t really apologize, do they?
REBECCA BRANNON: Some of them don’t really apologize. You get these occasional letters.So you’ll get 50 neighbors who will sign a petition to the legislature saying, this former Loyalist,he’s a good guy. He’s made up with us. We think he’s a really good, dependable neighbor. And50 of us are willing to sign our name to this.
PETER: (LAUGHING) Rebecca, why–
REBECCA BRANNON: (LAUGHING)
PETER: –would 50 neighbors who identify with the revolution be willing to forgive some jerkwho pillages the neighborhood and kills people? Explain it.
REBECCA BRANNON: At its heart, they decide that a society that’s obsessed with punishingpeople is a society that’s not what they want.
REBECCA BRANNON: There’s this 1784 story where William Drayton is traveling through theback country. And he stays with a local landlord, who casually tells him, well, you know, I’mactually packing to move. And Drayton asks why. And he says, well, the neighbors are still madat me. Uh, why?
OK. Well, during the Revolution, I killed three of my neighbors. And it’s not entirely clearwhether he actually killed them on the battlefield or whether they were trying to surrender. Andthis may be the issue.
And then he starts talking to Drayton, this hardened Loyalist (INAUDIBLE). Oh, but I could havegotten a lot more shots. I should have. I mean, I really didn’t do well that battle. If you get thisidea, this incredibly battle-hardened man.
PETER: Unrepentant, yeah.
REBECCA BRANNON: Unrepentant. And you could tell this story one way, and say, oh, god, ofcourse they’re going to threaten him with lynch law. And they threatened, we’re going to killyou if you don’t leave. But the other way to understand this is they gave him until 1784 toapologize for what they thought of as war atrocities.
PETER: Rebecca, let’s step back now and–
REBECCA BRANNON: Sure.
PETER: –see if we can get the moral of the story. And what happened after 1782, very quickly,is that neighborhoods, in effect, forgave the transgressors. The winners declared a peace. Andthose people who had been identified as neighbors were forgiven. What do you draw fromthat?
REBECCA BRANNON: That a sense of neighborliness and a citizenship as lived obligation toother people that you have to demonstrate over time has been part of the United States a longtime, that it’s part of the vision. For every great word the Founding Fathers spoke aboutindividual rights, they also had in mind the individual obligation to the whole.
REBECCA BRANNON: That’s what Loyalists were able to use to convince the victoriousPatriots to let them back in. And then it has staying power.
PETER: Right. So it’s the forgiveness, which you’ve suggested is kind of a model forreconciliation. But could it also be argued that it’s a sense that the entire community had fallenapart, that there was no order, and there was a desperate need for order? Is that the samething as reconciliation? Or is that, everybody has, in effect, a bad war in South Carolina. Thesooner you put it behind, the better?
REBECCA BRANNON: I certainly think there are moments where they are all haunted by therealization of just how thin the veneer of civilization can be.
REBECCA BRANNON: I certainly think that they worked very hard to excise any mention of theLoyalists and any mention, therefore, of disunity in the Revolution. And they do it by not talkingabout it. It’s not talked about in public.
And it’s remarkable. When they choose the battles to commemorate, they don’t necessarilychoose the battles that were most militarily interesting or were the hardest to win. They choosethe ones that seemed to emphasize unity.
REBECCA BRANNON: And this works. Because then the next generation, and the generationafter it, have forgotten that there were Loyalists. And occasionally, the descendants of Loyalistsare, themselves, aware of this fact. But it’s not clear the people they interact with every day areor think about it.
PETER: Invoking that contemporary idea of truth and reconciliation, modeled in South Africa, inSouth Carolina, you have reconciliation without truth.
REBECCA BRANNON: Yes. Absolutely, and it appeared to work really well.
PETER: Right, until it didn’t.
REBECCA BRANNON: Until it didn’t. (LAUGHS)
REBECCA BRANNON: I do think there’s a way in which– and I should emphasize, this is whiteSouth Carolinians.
PETER: Yes, of course.
REBECCA BRANNON: For those black people who chose the British cause, they had to leave.But for white South Carolinians, they do a really, really good job of, as you say, (LAUGHS)forgetting, and forgetting the truth while they’re at it.
REBECCA BRANNON: So much so, that they actually used the American Revolution and thelegacy of the American Revolution to talk themselves into the American Civil War. Obviously,there’s other reasons for the American Civil War. But when you read what they wrote, theyalways see themselves as preserving the true legacy of the American Revolution, that they areall the Patriots now.
And it’s hard for me not to find chilling echoes of the way that they’ve managed to forget whathappens when you rip the top off Pandora’s box.
PETER: So you sound deeply conflicted to me and ambivalent–
REBECCA BRANNON: Yes. (LAUGHS)
PETER: About (LAUGHS) your subject. And that is on the one hand, you admire the speed withwhich apologies, forgiveness, reconciliation healed– or at least put a big bandage– over thewounds of war in South Carolina. But then you say, down the line, there may be a price youpay for that kind of a speedy reconciliation.
REBECCA BRANNON: I think I am, because I think that they lost the chastening voice thatreminded them why you don’t court civil war.
PETER: Rebecca Brannon is a history professor at James Madison University. Her book, due out soon, is Burying the Hatchet in South Carolina– Healing the Wounds of Revolutionary CivilWar. Earlier in the segment, we heard from Karen Van Lengen. She’s a professor of architecturehere at the University of Virginia.
BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.
We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: I’m Ed Ayers.
PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, stories about reconciliation– and its limits– inthe wake of war.
BRIAN: Peter, Ed, we’re telling about reconciliation. And, of course, the big enchilada ofreconciliation is Reconstruction after the Civil War.
BRIAN: But frankly, being a 20th-century guy, I think about what happened after World War II.America’s mortal enemies seem reconciled with the American economy and American way oflife– buying Coca-Cola– and really, most importantly, American military protection. I mean,Germany becomes a key part of our alliance in Europe. And we depend on Japan as an ally,and East Asia.
And what really strikes me about all that, in contrast to the Civil War, is it happens seeminglyovernight.
BRIAN: I mean, it’s quick. And then in Germany in 1989, the wall comes down. Oh my God.What are we going to do with these two different systems– East Germany, West Germany?Well, within a few years, really, they are relatively united as one country. That just seems sodifferent–
PETER: Yeah, and Brian,–
BRIAN: –than the Civil War.
PETER: –my only problem with this is that’s not reconciliation. That’s capitulation. (LAUGHS)That is, the reconciliation is–
BRIAN: Something you would never do, Peter.
PETER: (LAUGHS) No. It’s on American terms. You’re not reconciling with a people who madewar against you. You’ve purged Germany of the Nazis. And of course, the Nazis’ pervasivepower throughout German life means that this is a wrenching, profound change. That’s notwhat you have in America after the American Civil War.
BRIAN: So Peter, you’re saying that the problem in America is we were dealing with the samedarn people as before.
PETER: And we said, it’s OK to be the same darn people. Because we had this myth of anational wholeness. We’re one people.
Well, in these wars, you’re talking about our good war– World War II– and the war againstcommunist oppression. Well, we don’t think that we’re reconciling with those systems. We’vedestroyed them.
ED: And you’re exactly right. In the South, we have reconciliation. Because it is literally thesame people who were on the battlefields fighting against the Northern soldiers who arerunning everything–
PETER: Yes, exactly.
ED: –in the South after the war. Now here’s the interesting twist, of course. The North thinksthat it is reconstructing the South–
BRIAN: Yeah, we call it that, don’t we?
ED: –in what is called, of course, Reconstruction. And what we actually call Reconstruction isto do something not unlike what happened after World War II, and even after 1989, Brian–rewrite the constitutions so that it’s not the same people, right Peter?
ED: That you have the people who were enslaved.
PETER: Well, literally, yeah.
ED: Right? Enslaved men are now enfranchised voters. You see that nowhere else in themodern world. And so our Reconstruction had the capacity to be one of the greatreconstructions– the most thorough going– in world history. But it fails by the end ofReconstruction. That is rendered moot. They are not able to vote.
The Constitution says they can. But by basically terrorism on the ground, black men are notable to vote.
BRIAN: And Ed, doesn’t that underscore Peter’s point, that in fact, we literally end up with thesame people, or end up excluding the same people, now by disenfranchisement, rather thanslavery?
ED: Yes. And compared to the remarkably rapid transformation you’re talking about, Brian, thistakes decades to unfold. It’s not until around 1900 that the South actually comes up with waysin its constitutions to say, hey, yeah, we know we can’t preclude black men from voting. Buthey, you have to have literacy. You have to pay a poll tax.
And so, Brian, it’s painfully long in the South. And it’s never really reconstructed. The South hasslavery knocked out from underneath it. Black people are given nothing to rebuild new lives.The Southern economy’s given no support, and the South suffers in poverty for generations.
BRIAN: So Ed, what is reconciled, at least on the surface between North and South?
ED: Ah, they would’ve said, hey, what are you talking about? Brian, Peter, we’re reconciled.
ED: Look at all these monuments. We get together for reunions. We shake hands.
You know, the soldiers on both sides are perfectly reconciled. Hey, good fight, guys.
ED: You fought really well. We fought really well. And you fought for what you thought wasright, and it turned out to be wrong. But, hey, what are you going to do?
PETER: Well, and we can all embrace this one great nation myth– we are a people. And thatcomes into clear focus when we go out across the world to make war–
PETER: –when there are enemies out there who are un-American. So there is a bond ofnational solidarity that’s based on sustaining the fiction that we became a great people in 1776,and we’ve been charging forward ever since. The Civil War was unfortunate.
I’m all with you, Ed. I think you needed a genuine transformation of Southern society if youwere going to achieve the promises of the Declaration of Independence and of theEmancipation Proclamation and the new constitutions.
ED: And the equivalent of the wall falling, Brian, are the Voting Rights Act and the Civil RightsAct of 1964 and ’65. And now, we are just seeing again in slow motion the same kind of socialtransformation that began with World War II, and the Marshall Plan, and then later, the fall of the Berlin Wall. You’re just now having the South being rebuilt on an inclusive basis.
Something I’ve said is Martin Luther King did more for the economic development of the Souththan anybody else ever did. By removing the burden of the equivalent of the Berlin Wall, whichwas segregation, from the South, it now has all these German and Japanese car companies–(LAUGHS)
ED: –are now setting up shop in the South.
BRIAN: Ah, but I’m going to push back a little, Ed.
ED: All right.
BRIAN: Because I would argue the rebuilding and true reconstruction of the South starts withWorld War II, when all of these federal defense plans begin going into the South. And the Northuses that as a lever to begin demanding, slow as it was, the kinds of changes that are going tolead to the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.
ED: So I’m going to push back on you pushing back on me. Because you are exactly right. Theeconomic history of the South is transformed by World War II and that massive defensespending. But it is black Southerners, themselves, who take the opening provided by that.
The North never brings integration to the South. That is something that black Southerners,themselves, do.
BRIAN: We are agreed on that.
PETER: And it seems to me the sequence is important here. There’s a kind of reconciliationthat, as human beings respective of the rights of all peoples, we see taking place now in thewake of a belated transformation or reconstruction of Southern society.
ED: I think that’s great, Peter. And the reconciliation we see today is that now the South is themain magnet for black in-migration. You know that some kind of reconciliation is taking placewhen black Americans say, you know, I’m going back South. It is now our home again.
PETER: In 1911, a Native American walked out of the wilderness near Oroville, California. Hedidn’t speak English. He wore few clothes, and he didn’t know much about the Westernizedmodern world. He was the last survivor of the Yahi tribe.
BRIAN: Local authorities handed him over to a group of anthropologists at UC Berkeley. Theycalled him Ishi, and housed him in, of all places, a San Francisco Museum. That’s where Ishilived as both a janitor and, well, a kind of living exhibit, showing throngs of visitors how to makearrowheads. He was a sensation. He was known as America’s last Stone Age Indian.
But just five years later, Ishi died from tuberculosis. His body was cremated and placed in anurn in a San Francisco cemetery.
PETER: And that’s where our next episode of reconciliation begins. It picks up almost a centurylater in the late 1990s. It was then that a group of Native Americans banded together to giveIshi a proper burial in his ancestral homeland.
Anthropologist Orin Starn, who was writing a book about Ishi, traveled to Oroville to meet withthe Maidu tribe and had heard something intriguing.
ORIN STARN: One of the men there told me that he had heard a rumor that Ishi’s brain hadbeen removed from his body. In other words, that when Ishi cremated, his brain wasn’t part ofthe human remains that were put in that jar in that cemetery. He said that he had heard a rumorthat Ishi’s brain had been pickled, preserved for science, that it was on a museum or hospitalshelf somewhere, he didn’t know where.
PETER: So Starn decided to do a little digging. If the brain was really out there are somewhere,he wanted to find it. After going through some old correspondence between anthropologists,he discovered the rumor was true.
BRIAN: Yep. Strange as it might seem, science in the late 19th century was in the throes of abrain craze. Scientists preserved brains and used them as evidence for their ideas about racialhierarchies. By 1916, the brain fad was on its way out. But it hadn’t disappeared altogether,which helps explain why Ishi’s brain was taken from his body– taken, says Starn, despite thefact that the idea would’ve horrified Ishi, himself.
ORIN STARN: In Native Californian culture, and particularly in Yahi culture, there was a quitestrong idea that the dead should be handled as little as possible, that once death happened,the body should be buried right away, and that any kind of extended contact between the livingand the dead was dangerous to the living and was also the wrong thing to do by the dead, thatit hindered their journey up into the second level of the cosmos. So for Ishi, the idea of anautopsy was something that horrified him and that violated the very basic principles of his ownYahi cosmology. So it’s almost certain that he would not have wanted an autopsy to have beenconducted.
BRIAN: Well, tell us how this comes out. Did you end up finding the brain?
ORIN STARN: Well, what happened was that Ishi’s brain, because the idea of studying brainswas going out of fashion, was never studied. It stayed in a jar and then a tank with a bunch ofother brains in a Smithsonian warehouse, ultimately in Maryland.
BRIAN: Is that what they call a “think tank” in Washington?
ORIN STARN: They may call it a think tank, indeed. They may, indeed. These brains werefloating in a stainless-steel vat.
BRIAN: Now that’s sounds like Brookings.
ORIN STARN: (LAUGHS) They were there through into the 1990s. They called it the wetcollection. There’s a special part of the Smithsonian warehouse where they keep all the pickleddolphins, and the dog embryos, and the brains. It’s the stuff of a crazy science fiction movie or a horror movie all in itself.
And so what happened was I gave these letters that I had found showing that the brain hadbeen sent to the Smithsonian to the Indian activists in northern California. And they went to thepress.
BRIAN: And what year is this, Orin?
ORIN STARN: We are talking 1999, 2000– about 15 years ago now. And so this became a minilittle national story on All Things Considered, and the New York Times, and the WashingtonPost– “brain of legendary California Indian found in steel tank in Washington.” And theSmithsonian was really quite embarrassed. They initiated, right away, an investigation to figureout how to return the brain.
And ironically, they decided that the Maidu tribe– the tribe that had begun the whole crusadeto bring Ishi’s body back to northern California– were not the closest living descendants ofIshi’s Yahi. And instead, the Smithsonian chose two other tribes– the Pit River Tribe and theRedding Rancheria. And to their credit, the Pit River Tribe and the Redding Rancheriaanswered the challenge.
And they picked a delegation of elders and spiritual people– about eight of them. And they flewout to Washington. This is right before 9/11. And they wrapped up Ishi’s brain in a sacred deerskin, and they took it back as carry-on luggage, back to California.
And they drove up into the canyon of Deer Creek, five hours from San Francisco, and they helda ceremony. And they buried Ishi’s brain and his ashes there in a spot that will remain secretforever.
BRIAN: And at this point– we’re talking about roughly 2000– what did you think returning Ishi’sbrain would accomplish?
ORIN STARN: Well, you have to put this in the context of the so-called repatriation movement,which really gathers force in the 1990s. And this is the movement of Native Americans todemand back the skeletons and the sacred objects that had been dug up and stolen from themover the past 100 years.
BRIAN: Well, so it’s a part of a larger reconciliation effort, if you will.
ORIN STARN: It’s part of a larger effort at reconciliation. The US government passes NAGPRAin 1990, which is a long name for a law that obligates museums to return human remains andsacred objects to their tribal descendants. And you have to imagine that Ishi became a verypowerful symbol for Native Californians. Because his tribe was exterminated. His brain, againsthis will, we removed from his body.
So many Native Californians came to see Ishi as a symbol for all of the terrible things that weredone to them. So doing the right thing by Ishi– reburying in his homeland– became, for manyNative Californians, a way to try to reconcile themselves with a history in which they’d beenvery much mistreated and victimized, and which Ishi, himself, had been mistreated andvictimized– his tribe wiped out and his body desecrated after his death.
BRIAN: So once the dust settled, was there some sense of closure on the part of NativeAmericans here?
ORIN STARN: Well, I have a very personal perspective on this. I went in 2000– in September of2000. It was a beautiful fall weekend up by Mount Lassen. And I went to the memorialceremony– the public memorial ceremony– that the Pit River Tribe and the Redding Rancheriaorganized after they had done the secret burial of Ishi’s remains.
And so they held this ceremony out in the shadow of Mount Lassen, with the beautifulCalifornia light, in a meadow. And they invited everybody who wanted to come. So people flewabout from the Smithsonian. People like me, who had been involved, came. Some of the Maiducame. Some people came up from White Sand, Indians from the central valley of California.
And so we had this memorial ceremony there in the meadow to remember Ishi and to reflectupon his life and what meaning it might have for all of us. So this was, for me, a powerfulceremony, a powerful example of the effort at reconciliation– the effort to try to recognize theterrible things that have happened in the past– the terrible things that may still be happening inthe world today– and to acknowledge those together. But Native Californians, and NativeAmericans in general, are realistic. They don’t imagine that a repatriation ceremony are going tofix the problems of poverty, and alcoholism, and marginalization. So I think for NativeAmericans, reconciliation, repatriation is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle that we,together, still haven’t managed to solve.
BRIAN: Orin Starn is an anthropologist at Duke University. He’s the author of Ishi’s Brain– InSearch of America’s Last Wild Indian.
PETER: It’s time for another break. But stick around. When we get back, the surprisingconsequences of a gang truce on the mean streets of New York.
ED: More BackStory coming up in a minute.
BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.
PETER: I’m Peter Onuf.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re marking the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s destruction with an hour exploring the American history of reconciliation.
PETER: By 1971, street gangs in New York were grabbing national headlines. The South Bronxwas seen as the epicenter. The New York Times called it “the capital of teenage gang power.”There were at least 85 gangs there, the Times noted, with membership in the thousands.Violent turf battles between warlords routinely left young men dead in the streets.
But at the same time, a story was unfolding that’s not often told. Some of these feared gangswere attempting to settle their scores peacefully and in the process, ended up changing a lotmore than just the South Bronx. Our producer Andrew Parsons has the story.
ANDREW PARSONS: It all started with a guy named Black Benjy. His real name was CornellBenjamin. He joined a gang called the Ghetto Brothers in April 1971.
BENJY MELENDEZ: I see him interacting with young people in the community. And I said, I likethe way this guy conducts himself.
ANDREW PARSONS: This is Benjy Melendez, a different Benjy– founder of the GhettoBrothers.
BENJY MELENDEZ: We’re going to drop “the warlords,” and we’re going to make this guypeace ambassador of the Ghetto Brothers.
ANDREW PARSONS: Melendez had formed the gang a few years earlier, at the age of 13. Bythe early ’70s, it was one of the biggest in the South Bronx, with memberships stretching to allfive boroughs. And it was then, in the height of the turf wars, that a Black Panther approachedMelendez about using the Ghetto Brothers to help cut the violence.
So Black Benjy became the peace ambassador. One of his first assignments came thatDecember.
BENJY MELENDEZ: So a Ghetto Brothers scout runs into the Ghetto Brother’s club, and hesays, Benjy, there are three gangs coming down from Hunts Point. They’re coming around yourturf to get the Roman Kings. That was another club that was close to us.
And I looked at Black Benjy, and I said to him, Benjy, go. Take some Ghetto Brothers. He nevercame back.
ANDREW PARSONS: Black Benjy was reportedly beaten to death after trying to negotiate withthose gangs. The killing of an unarmed Ghetto Brother pleading for peace incensed gangsacross the borough. Many called for war.
BENJY MELENDEZ: I see all these gangs in front of the Ghetto Brothers club. I mean, theywere waiting for the biggest war. Yo, Benjy, we heard what they done to your boy. You give us the OK, and we’ll take these guys.
ANDREW PARSONS: Melendez didn’t take the bait. Instead, after a visit with Black Benjy’smother, the Ghetto Brothers announced that all the gangs in the South Bronx would hold asummit meeting to hash out the situation.
On December 7, 1971, more than 100 South Bronx gang leaders crowded into an auditorium ofa local Girls & Boys Club. Young men and women were frisked as they entered. Local reporterswere there, and police snipers set up across the street in case anything got out of hand. Theyweren’t the only ones concerned.
BENJY MELENDEZ: My eyes kept on roving around every member of that place. I kept onlooking around. And I was walking in circles and looking– looking at their hands, looking attheir legs, looking on the side of their jackets.
ANDREW PARSONS: So what were you worried about?
BENJY MELENDEZ: That somebody there must have snuck in with a gun and do anassassination thing– oh yeah, these are the guys. Boom– shoot the guy right there. And thenall hell– all hell would’ve broke loose.
ANDREW PARSONS: The meeting was tense. It lasted for hours. But before long, thediscussion had turned from who had wronged who to the root causes of gang activity. In thetape of the event, you can hear passionate testimonies about the lack of social services in theSouth Bronx, the crumbling infrastructure, the feeling of abandonment.
BENJY MELENDEZ (ON RECORDING): –this district. The whiteys don’t come down here, man,and live in the (BLEEP) up houses, man. The whiteys don’t come down here, man, and have noheat in the (BLEEP) wintertime, you understand? We got to make it a better place to live, youunderstand? We do, Jack. So therefore, like wh–
ANDREW PARSONS: Towards the end of the meeting, Melendez took advantage of the mediaattention and made a passionate and very public plea for peace.
BENJY MELENDEZ (ON RECORDING): The thing is, we’re not a gang anymore. We’re anorganization. We want to help black and Puerto Ricans to live in a better environment. Youdon’t want us to become a gang again, right? Because I know–
ANDREW PARSONS: Venting and mediation worked. The gangs agreed to a truce.
AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: It helped to slow down a lot of beef.
ANDREW PARSONS: This is Afrika Bambaataa, one of the founders of hip-hop in an interviewwith photographer Joe Conzo a few years back. He was at the peace meeting in 1971 and saysthe truce actually improved the situation in the Bronx. It wasn’t easy. There were still smallfights, but overall, it held.
AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: So it took a lot of stress and sticking together to keep all these differentgroups under their whole family the truce that the Ghetto Brothers’ brother Benjy has putforward for everybody to come under.
ANDREW PARSONS: A survey of teenage gang activity by the US Justice Department confirmsby the mid-1970s, violence in the South Bronx had declined. But the peace meeting hadanother legacy, says Julian Voloj, author of a graphic novel about this period. One of thetreaty’s rules required gangs to loosen restrictions on walking through others’ territory.
JULIAN VOLOJ: For the first time, if you were a member of a gang, you could leave yourterritory, go to a territory of another gang, and not be beaten up, not have your colors takenaway. Your world widened, in a way.
ANDREW PARSONS: One of those ways was music. You see, the Ghetto brothers weren’t justa gang. They were a band.
(MUSIC – GHETTO BROTHERS, “GHETTO BROTHERS POWER”)
JULIAN VOLOJ: The Ghetto Brothers were starting their own street parties. Benjy and hisbrothers loved music. They were playing music all the time. And they invited others to the streetparties.
They were making their music. People came. They danced, had a good time. So if you were aGhetto Brother, you could hang out with a girl from the Black Spades and not get beaten up forit. So that really started it.
(MUSIC – GHETTO BROTHERS, “GHETTO BROTHERS POWER”)
ANDREW PARSONS: There had been street parties before the truce, but they were mostlyattended by members of the same gangs throwing them. Suddenly, these street parties wereallowing for a new kind of musical cross pollination.
In the lore of hip-hop, there’s one infamous party that supposedly started it all. West of wherethe Ghetto Brothers ruled, DJ Kool Herc spun records at two turntables back and forth, whilekids from across the borough danced and took in a new blend of sounds. This was only a yearand a half after the peace treaty.
(MUSIC – AFRIKA BAMBAATAA, “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU’RE FUNKING WITH?”)
JULIAN VOLOJ: Basically, the foundation of hip-hop was created, thanks to this peacemeeting. There was this exchange of ideas, exchange of creativity. And hip-hop– everythingdeveloped during that time– Bambaataa, in the east.
(MUSIC – AFRIKA BAMBAATAA, “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU’RE FUNKING WITH?”)
JULIAN VOLOJ: Grand Master Flash, further north.
(MUSIC – GRANDMASTER FLASH, “THE MESSAGE”)
JULIAN VOLOJ: They could travel there and see what was happening there.
(MUSIC – GRANDMASTER FLASH, “THE MESSAGE”)
ANDREW PARSONS: No one knows what would’ve happened if the Ghetto Brothers hadn’tcalled that peace meeting in 1971. The ’70s were still rough. These were the years thatspawned the line, “the Bronx is burning.”
Then the crack epidemic of the ’80s brought a new generation of violent gangs. But even then,you could hear the influence from the truce years. Yes, the lyrics echoed the concerns of thegangs in Benjy’s meeting, but the tone reflects the result. It’s fun– almost relieved.
(MUSIC – BOOGIE DOWN PRODUCTIONS, “SOUTH BRONX”)
PETER: Andrew Parsons is one of our producers. You can read more about this story on ourwebsite, where we’ll link to Julian Voloj’s forthcoming graphic novel, Ghetto Brother– Warriorto Peacemaker.
(MUSIC – BOOGIE DOWN PRODUCTIONS, “SOUTH BRONX”)
BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory, and we’re talking today about instances ofreconciliation in American history. We’re going to end with a story that really stretches the limitsof reconciliation.
SHIGEKO SASAMORI: Hello, my name is Shigeko Sasamori. I was born in Hiroshima, Japan.And I was 13 years old when atomic bomb drop in Hiroshima. And now, I’m living in Americamany years.
CLIFTON TRUMAN DANIEL: Hi. My name is Clifton Truman Daniel. I’m Harry Truman’s oldestgrandson. I’m also the honorary chairman of the Harry S. Truman Library Institute inIndependence, Missouri.
SHIGEKO SASAMORI: Yes?
BRIAN: Tell me what you remember of the day that the bomb was dropped.
SHIGEKO SASAMORI: Yes. That was August 6, 1945– such a hot day, and a beautifulsunshine, and blue sky. I heard the airplane. I look up at the sky. It was a silver shining airplane,had a long white tail and looks beautiful.
So I told my classmate next to me, look up the airplane. And just I point out up at the sky, I sawthe white things coming down. Then, almost same time, I had a very strong force knock medown.
Then when I became conscious, then I look around. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t hearnothing– pitch black. And then, pretty soon, the blackness going away like a heavy fog’s goingaway.
Then first things I saw was the people moving. Some are under the houses. Some are on thestreet. And people are hurt– everybody hurt, and ashes all over, and skin. That time, I didn’tthink that was skin.
Some are clothes hanging down. And everybody look like pink. And that moment, I couldn’tfigure out why they are like that– look like a– horrible to explain.
BRIAN: Shigeko, herself, was horribly disfigured. One fourth of the skin on her head, neck, andchest was severely burned, like toast, she said. And her fingers were fused together. Hermother found her days later, lying in the darkness on the floor of a school auditorium, wherehundreds of victims were sheltered.
At first, she didn’t recognize her own daughter.
SHIGEKO SASAMORI: She had a candle. Was saying my name, Shigeko, Shigeko, Shigeko.Then she heard me, very weak voice, saying, here I am.
And then she looked down. And then, Shigeko? And I say, here I am. Yes, I am. She couldn’trecognize me.
BRIAN: Truman’s decision to drop the bombs remains controversial. Historians debate whetherusing the atomic bombs was really necessary to end the war. What we do know is that thenuclear arms race that began in the years following World War II would come to define globalpolitics for generations.
What memories do you have of your grandfather, President Harry S. Truman?
CLIFTON TRUMAN DANIEL: Mostly, he was Grandpa.
CLIFTON TRUMAN DANIEL: I didn’t know that he’d been president until I was 6 years old, andI found out when I went to school one morning. One of the teachers in first grade asked me.
CLIFTON TRUMAN DANIEL: (LAUGHS) The teacher said, wasn’t your grandfather presidentof the United States? And I said, I don’t know. That’s news to me. For the 15 years that I knewhim, he was my grandfather.
BRIAN: Did you ever talk to him about the Second World War?
CLIFTON TRUMAN DANIEL: No. Nope. I learned about the bombings of Hiroshima andNagasaki the same way you did– from my history books in class.
BRIAN: It would take many more years before Clifton truly connected to the events of August1945. When his son was 10, he came home from school one day with a book about a differentgirl from Hiroshima named Sadako Sasaki. This was the story– you may have heard it– of agirl suffering from radiation poisoning.
Sadako sets out to make 1,000 paper cranes, hoping– in accordance with Japanese lore– thatshe’ll be granted a great wish. That wish was to be cured. But she died of leukemia at the ageof 12, nine years after the bombing.
CLIFTON TRUMAN DANIEL: That story– Sadako Sasaki’s story– was the first time I had everseen a personal story– a human story from either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And it has a lot ofpower, because you put a face on it. In my history book, it was numbers.
You’ll find a picture of the mushroom cloud. There will be casualty figures. It doesn’t tell you ina lot of detail what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
BRIAN: One day, Clinton got a call from Japan. A man came on the line and told him that hewas Sadako’s older brother. A few years later, he invited Clifton to visit Japan.
CLIFTON TRUMAN DANIEL: My family and I attended the memorial ceremonies in Hiroshimaand Nagasaki in 2012. And we met with more than a dozen survivors. Each one of them askedonly one thing, and that was to please keep telling their stories so that everybody on Earthwould understand what it’s like to live through a nuclear explosion, in the hope that we do notdo it again.
BRIAN: That was two years ago. Since then, Clifton has devoted himself to telling those stories.And in the process, he met and developed a friendship with Shigeko Sasamori, who now lives in LA. They’re both involved in a project that brings Hiroshima survivors to speak at Americanhigh schools and that advocates for nuclear disarmament.
CLIFTON TRUMAN DANIEL: The common enemy here– the enemy is atomic weapons, period.
SHIGEKO SASAMORI: Yes.
CLIFTON TRUMAN DANIEL: The indiscriminate nature, the radiation– just the power. And theweapons that we have today, each one of them is hundreds of times more powerful than thebomb that exploded over Hiroshima. You really begin to realize just what we could all visit onourselves if we’re not careful, and if we don’t get rid of them.
SHIGEKO SASAMORI: That’s right. See, I think no matter what, atomic bomb is, to me, like ahorrible poison, a sort of a dynamite. A lot of people holding dynamite right now. Everybody getthe damage.
Once war started, we are not survive. No one survive. That, I feel.
That’s why I feel very urgent to people to open eye, open their heart, to teach each other aboutwar– what happens once war started. The people all over the world– the people together–can’t we help this Earth? That, I wish.
BRIAN: That was Shigeko Sasamori, a survivor of America’s nuclear strike on Hiroshima, alongwith her friend, Clifton Truman Daniel, Harry S. Truman’s grandson. The advocacy project theyboth work on is called Hibakusha Stories. You can read more at hibakushastories.org.
PETER: That’s going to do it for today. But we’re eager to hear your thoughts about today’sshow. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, andTwitter at BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
BRIAN: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, AndrewParsons, Kelly Jones, and Robert Armengol. Our digital producer is Emily Gadek, and JamalMillner is our engineer. We had help from (? Coley ?) [? Elhi. ?] BackStory’s executive produceris Andrew Wyndham.
Special thanks this week to Kathleen Sullivan and Bo Jacobs.
ED: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia,the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Joseph and Robert Cornell MemorialFoundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional funding is provided byWeinstein Properties; by The Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities,and the environment; and by History Channel, history made every day.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onufis professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers ispresident and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created byAndrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
MALE SPEAKER: BackStory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.