Listener Call 1

The hosts take a call from a listener, asking about American troops stationed around the world today, and how earlier generations of Americans might have viewed such deployments.

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PETER: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’ve reached the point in our show where we turn to listeners who have posted a website comment or question about today’s topic, humanitarian interventions. Julie’s on the line, calling from New York City. Julie, what have you got for us? Intervene.

JULIE: Well, so I was actually an army brat. In the ’80s, my dad was in the military, and we lived in what was then just West Germany. And as I’ve listened to your show, and I’ve thought about that whole experience, I kind of wondered when did we start having people sort of permanently stationed overseas on these sort of long, open-end missions where we’re not at war, but we’re not not prepared. And I just kind of wondered what the perspective would be.

PETER: Yeah. Julie’s asking about the presence of Americans overseas– Americans connected with the military. It’s not exactly humanitarian intervention, but it does represent a presence overseas. What do you say, guys?

ED: I wonder, would the Philippines be the first version of this, do you think, Brian?

BRIAN: Yeah. I’m sitting here thinking Philippines. We’re talking about the very beginning of the 20th century now, in the wake of the Spanish-American War, where troops– American troops and American administrators– remained on the ground for quite some time. And we fought a very bloody, brutal, some would say, against Philippines insurgents.

But we were doing so because we were committed to so-called humanitarian objectives. Those objectives, however, seemed to look like teaching Philippines to behave more like Americans. We went so far as to try to reform their entire legal code. But you know what, Ed? I think a more interesting answer is the South, right after the Civil War. It’s a long intervention by those Union troops.

ED: Yeah, on a scale of geography, larger the any that we’ve done until the 20th century, the American South is the size of continental Europe. And they tried to occupy it without the benefits of radio or other kinds of communication in a kind of a harrowing experiment, actually. And what we’re talking about is the Freedmen’s Bureau, which grows up immediately in the ending of the Civil War, even as the war is ending.

And the idea is that not only are there refugees who are starving, but there are also these Freedmen who need some kind of assistance in moving from slavery to freedom with nothing but the shirts on their back. It is a militarily sponsored intervention that deals with everything from crime and punishment. They have special courts to land distribution, to fostering religion– they actually helped establish churches– to fostering schools, and many other aspects of what we would think of today as humanitarian aid was doing. So in many ways, this is the most ambitious enterprise of that sort do we take on for nearly– what do you say, Brian, 80 years?

BRIAN: Yeah.

ED: Until after World War II? What’s amazing is, a, they tried it; and b, that it failed, and we forgot about. In the 20th century, when we talk about occupying Iraq, reconstructing it, people never say, let’s look at the American South after the Civil War. Let’s say, let’s look at Japan or let’s look at Germany that we rebuilt after World War II. So the parallels are interesting, but the things are kind of perpendicular to history are also interesting.

PETER: Yeah, and I think the ambivalence about projecting military power does complicate the very definition of humanitarian interventions, because the presence of the American military in West Germany during Julie’s childhood, was that to protect the free world, and that is the civilians who enjoyed the security umbrella, the benefits of that? Or is it simply the projection of power and American interests of state?

ED: So Julia, do these episodes of the past resonate with your own experience?

JULIE: Oh, they do a bit. You talk about going from humanitarian aid to military aid. After World War II, we did have to stick around just to keep things in order. And then we just stuck around for 40, 50 years, by which point it had really evolved from humanitarian aid to, yeah, over here, to keep the Communists at bay.

I’m remembering know when we first moved there, I think we were trying to station some medium-range missiles. I don’t know if they were nuclear missiles or defense missiles, but there was a great deal of controversy on the German side. So on the one hand, it’s like, yes, we want you here protecting us with tanks and machine guns, but–

ED: But could you put the missiles somewhere else.

JULIE: Exactly.

PETER: Thanks for calling.

JULIE: Thank you very much.

BRIAN: Thanks, Julie. That was great.

JULIE: Take care.

BRIAN: Bye-bye. We need to take a short break, but stick around. When we get back, a humanitarian airlift that lasted two years, and moved 60,000 tons of food– one that was run entirely by private organizations.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.