Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
Unpublished Manuscripts by William Appleman Williams
Page 10

Harvey Goldberg and The Virtue of History

Harvey Goldberg Memorial Lecture, Madison, Wisconsin, October 22, 1987. Goldberg (1922-1987) was an historian and activist who earned his Ph. D. at the University of Wisconsin and taught in Madison for over twenty years.

William Appleman Williams. 1984.
William Appleman Williams. 1984.
Photo by Ira Gabriel for CLA Alum (Oregon State University).

We have wept and bawled our tears; and drunk too much booze too long after midnight. Now is the moment to dance our way back from the cemetery to Harvey's soaring rhythms: "Didn't He Ramble," "You Rascal You," "Shake It and Break It," "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," and "God Got Plenty O' Room for You."

Time now to celebrate Harvey Goldberg's legacy to us about the Virtue of History and the Truth of Community.

I propose to tell you a story or two or three about Harvey and then offer some thoughts about that subject dear to his soul: saying No to Power in order to say Yes to Community.

It is easy to remember Harvey as a softie. He was an unusually loving human being. But intellectually and politically he was an extremely tough dude: he had the head smarts to go with the street smarts.

From the very beginning he reminded me of a world-class bowler in cricket. We all know that Harvey loved baseball, but I think that cricket is the more appropriate idiom for Harvey. I don't know how much you know about the game of cricket. It is a contest that appears at first glance to be effete and boring, perhaps the worst entertainment of an upper class weary with itself. Probably even more dreary than riding to hounds.

Harvey Goldberg.
Harvey Goldberg.
Image courtesy of the UW-Madison Harvey Goldberg Center.

But look again. With the debatable exceptions of soccer and basketball, cricket is played by more people of various colors, ideologies, and talents than any game in the world. Think on it: England, Australia, India, Pakistan, South Africa, the West Indies - and even Harvard. Beyond all that, it is a very subtle and demanding game dangerous even unto death. Only one man of 11 is allowed to wear gloves, and he is the one who handles the ball as it comes in from the bowler. No fielder wears gloves. And yet the bowler can hurl the ball at about 110 miles per hour and hit the ground spot on the mark in front of the batter's shins. Or swerve it in at about 80 miles per hour and have it spin off in any direction. If you as a batter, or you as a fielder, think mostly about protecting your family jewels, you can easily lose the match. Cricket is a very tough game.

The point of this apparent digression is that having a serious intellectual discussion with Harvey was a bit like batting (or even fielding) against somebody bowling at 125 miles per hour with spin on the ball. Actually, Harvey averaged about 130 with the cricket equivalent of a knuckle ball. Hence one seldom hit a six (meaning a home run) off Harvey.

But there was this once, just this once as Count Basie used to say, when I hit a clean winner. It was a beautiful autumn Saturday afternoon in Ohio, warm with a flirty breeze. We were sitting on the grass outside a small old barn converted into a cozy home where I lived married with a woman who was my dearest friend. She was wise enough to treasure her friendship with Harvey almost as much as I honored mine. (And, truth to tell, Harvey had a bit of a crush on her.) Now and again, off in the distance, we heard the primitive sounds of 85,000 women and men breaking wind about a football game. We three were sipping bourbon without too much water to spoil the taste.

I asked Harvey what he thought about the Virtue of History.

"Where'd you get that idea?"
"I stole it from William Carlos Williams."

William Carlos Williams, author of In the American
William Carlos Williams, author of In the American Grain.

Silence for a few moments, then: "You mean that doctor who writes poetry on prescription pads? What poem's that in?"

"Harvey, you're out of it. This guy writes everything: poems, novels, prescriptions and essays. That's from a book about American History called In the American Grain."
"You got it?"
"Get it and read me that line."

I got the book, along the way adding a nip to the drinks. "It's not a one-liner, Harvey, so you got to listen."

"Just read the stuff."

So on a delightful October afternoon some 36 years ago I read from William Carlos Williams to Harvey Goldberg. It was from an essay about Aaron Burr called "The Virtue of History."

"History that should be a left hand to us, as of a violinist, we bind up with prejudice, warping it to suit our fears...."
"Again," commanded Harvey.
"History that should be a left hand to us, as of a violinist, we bind up with prejudice, warping it to suit our fears...."
"Is there any more like that?"
"Read it."
"This is kind of tricky, Harvey."
"Just read it."
"Near the end of Burr's life a lady said to him: 'Colonel, I wonder if you were ever the gay Lothario they say you were?' The old man turned his eyes, the lustre still undiminished, toward the lady - and lifting his trembling finger said in his quiet, impressive whisper: 'They say, they say, they say. Ah, my child, how long are you going to use those dreadful words? Those two little words have done more harm than all the others. Never use them, my dear, never use them.'"

The three of us were quiet sitting there on the grass on that October afternoon in Ohio. Finally Harvey got up and gave the woman a hug and then gave me a hug. "I'm going home [to] think about the virtue of that left hand that is History. And to Hell with what they say." We did not finish our drinks; swished them out to nourish the dandelions of our choice.

During the subsequent weeks and months and years, Harvey and I talked many times about freeing the left hand that is History. It was a somewhat disjointed dialogue. For one thing, we were often separated by thousands of miles, and he was not one of the world's ten best letter-writers. Even when we shared an office in Bascom Hall, we were sometimes so tired from our investments in students and research that we gave each other a hug and wearily walked our separate ways home.

But the fire was always there. Sometimes we talked about how neither of us were at ease with - never quite trusted - Abraham Lincoln; or, for that matter, never thought that the monument itself was the appropriate symbol of American idealism. At other times we worried about the failure of contemporary American leaders - or their critics - to create any intellectual or moral capital. One way and another we were always seeking a way to free that left hand that is History. Near the end of our time together in Madison, we spent a long night talking in and about my remark that I felt that I had done the best I could with American imperialism; that I wanted to find and contemplate a culture that had the capacity to say Yes to imperial power, but which instead chose to say No. I remember Harvey saying: "Well, what about Sweden and Norway?"

As usual with Harvey, it was a very perceptive suggestion. But the mind is not a mainframe computer. It creates its own unprogrammed dipsy-doodles. Mine told me to go home to the sea rather than investigate the relationship between Sweden and Norway. (As you may know, many years later Jane Jacobs wrote a provocative essay about the reality and implications of the connections between those two countries: The Question of Separatism.)

In any event, my decision to return to the sea seriously annoyed Harvey. It did not rupture our friendship, but the fire was banked for many years. For me, and I think for Harvey, that was a painful hiatus. But the realities of the memories were alive and creative. We continued to share the concern to free the left hand that is History.

One day while surf fishing in my front yard it all came clear to me. If you look west over the Pacific at about the 45th parallel, you see nothing but ocean until your eyes find Japan, Russia and China. Ah, China: that focus of the American lust for empire and also its chaste romantic dream. As I lost a fine red snapper just as it came through the last breaker, I realized that the key to imperialism was the ability to create and deploy intercontinental missiles. You might say that I was a slow learner, that only then did I truly understand what the Naval Academy was all about.

I calmed down enough to catch a couple of sea perch for lunch, but my mind was elsewhere. I was thinking about three very special people. One was Joel Hedgpeth: he was the classic old-time oceanographer, a man who knew Steinbeck, a master of the intertidal systems, and a fellow Welshman who played the harp and wrote bawdy songs and poetry. He never allowed me to forget that everything is connected to everything else. Another was Edward Hallett Carr, an austere British aristocrat who was at ease with small children and along the way taught me how to ask very subtle questions of Clio. And there was Joseph Needham, the world-class biologist turned world-class historian, a man Carr told me I must read from start to finish.

There was Harvey, haunting me through the walls of estrangement and over the mists of time and distance.

So I took a suitcase to the library and came home with all the volumes of Needham's study of Science and Civilization in China. Gracious sakes alive: if only Fred Harrington, William Best Hesseltine, and Harvey Goldberg knew what they had started!

A few of you know what I discovered, and I trust you will be kind and generous about my thoughts about how it all bears on the central question of freeing the left hand that is History. I hope the rest of you will find this as fascinating, disturbing, thought-provoking, and as relevant to our current predicament as I do.

We must begin with the concept of intercontinental missiles being essential to imperialism. Forget the ICBM image of intercontinental missiles. Consider instead this more meaningful definition: an intercontinental missile is a vehicle capable of transferring goods, ideas, values, people - and death - from one continent to another without recourse to overland transport. Such a missile is a potent instrument for the projection of power by one people over another people. Marco Polo made that point when he reported that in 1290 (1292?), he was returned from China to the West in a convoy of 14 "great ships, everyone of them having four masts.... [And] in every ship there were 600 men, and provisions for two years."

Until very recently, however, and even largely today, most Western historians have presented the development and deployment of such intercontinental missiles as the special achievement of European genius. This is history at its ethnocentric worst. Phoenicians reached England, and very probably circumnavigated Africa, long before the properly certified Western Europeans managed to escape the great lake known as the Mediterranean. As for the Arabs, they built fine ships with far more sophisticated sails - and reached India and China - long before Prince Henry the Navigator created his school of oceanography on the southwestern tip of Portugal. Indeed, Henry's graduates needed an Arab navigator to guide them to India.

Such facts carry us beyond the issue of how Western racism has fostered and institutionalized ignorance. Consider this comparison. On the one hand, Bartholomew Diaz reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1488; ten years later Vasco da Gama reached India; and then came Alfonso d'Albuquerque, one of the most ruthless and bloody captains of Western intercontinental missiles. During the years 1506-1515, he took Goa, Malacca and, on the second try, captured Ormuz. If you respond to conquest and empire in the name of profit, gore, and virtue, it is an uplifting story.

On the other hand, we no longer have to trust Marco Polo's report about those Chinese voyages to the Near East and Africa. Recent maritime archaeological explorations have dated such trips back to the Song Dynasty between 960 and 1279. That is, give or take a few years, more than half a century before the voyage of Diaz. But let us here concentrate our attention on the seven major voyages conceived and carried out between 1405 and 1433 under the leadership of Annam Yongle and Admiral Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty. They dispatched and commanded largely self-sustaining fleets of 250 to 300 ships carrying upwards of 30,000 people, at least one of which mapped what we call the Cape of Good Hope more accurately than the Portuguese. Altogether, Diaz, da Gama and d'Albuquerque mustered less than 66 ships.

Scholars still debate the size of the Chinese vessels. We know that some of them carried rudders of 400 square feet that could be raised and lowered as centerboards. That is the size of an upper middle class suburban living room. For what it is worth, I conclude that they must have averaged about 350 feet long. And their lug sails, which could be reefed from the deck, were the most aerodynamically efficient ever designed by humans. An Arab of those years summarized it as well as any historian: "These are the best ships, and more of them, than we have ever seen. Each one is worked by 1,000 men - 600 sailors and 400 marines."

The temptation to digress about various aspects of such an achievement, such a display of intercontinental missiles, is almost endless and irresistible. Just for a moment, imagine what it means to train and feed and house all the thousands of people required to build and man and service those ships. It is truly awesome. It is a bit like going to the moon before John F. Kennedy. But we must concentrate on the purpose of the venture. I suggest that we can factor that into three variables: Curiosity, Commerce, and Conquest.

Zheng He did fight some battles, defeating pirates and winning other skirmishes here and there. Also, by the simple majesty of his fleet, he established a Chinese presence in Malacca, Sumatra, and Ceylon. During his third voyage, he defeated the forces of the de facto ruler of Ceylon in a battle that engaged some 5,000 warriors. But the Chinese Court ruled that the captured leader should be returned to his homeland. In any event, a presence is not a colony, not even a satellite or a client state. Even a rather supercilious Western historian (who puts the word marines in quotation marks, as if the United States had invented shipboard infantry) acknowledges that the Chinese did not use their intercontinental missiles to create an overseas territorial or economic or ideological empire in the idiom of Western Europeans. Unlike Caesar, or d'Albuquerque, or Admiral Dewey, the Chinese came, saw, and went home.

We are left, therefore, with Curiosity and largely incidental Commerce. After all, transporting giraffes from Africa to China is hardly the stuff of making it into the Fortune 500. The Chinese example does make one wonder if there is not a significant difference between a culture that considers itself The Center of the Universe and one that views itself as The Savior of the Universe. Harvey and I used to discuss that in moments of great good humor, and I can report that he felt that both of those options left something to be desired.

All this talk about Chinese intercontinental missiles is not a digression. We are still with Harvey, concerned with saying No to Power in order to say Yes to Community.

Despite the enormous power at their disposal, the Chinese did say No to an overseas imperial empire. Historians will no doubt argue forever about which of the reasons for that decision was the most important. One of them involved the territorial borders of the heartland, another was pragmatic (such as the most effective allocation of resources), and of course we must consider bureaucratic and dynastic politics. But I suggest that it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of a position paper written in 1426 by a neo-Confucian advisor during the height of the debate over policy.

"Arms are the instruments of evil which the sage does not use unless he must. The noble rulers and wise ministers of old did not dissipate the strength of the people by deeds of war.... Your minister hopes that your majesty would not indulge in military pursuits nor glorify the sending of expeditions to distant countries. Abandon the barren lands abroad and give the people of China a respite so that they could devote themselves to husbandry and to the schools."

Tell it any way you wish, weigh the variables as you choose, it remains an impressive story. Not even Henry Kissinger can evade the truth that the Chinese said No to the imperial use of their intercontinental missiles.

I would like to have talked more with Harvey about that truth. We did enjoy that kind of dialogue. I think we could have done more with China than even Jane Jacobs did with Sweden and Norway - even Quebec.

A moment missed.

But Harvey and I did talk very seriously about my suggestion that we Americans have upon occasion understood and acted upon the moral of the story about Zheng He. It was a delight to talk with Harvey about serious matters. We had both benefited from our education at Wisconsin. I had to learn some European history, and he had to learn some American history. So we had learned how to learn. And hence we could rag each other with footnotes even as we talked about the central issues. It was fun. I loved the man.

As radicals, Harvey and I shared a basic respect for very honest and tough conservatives. He liked my grudging affection for John Quincy Adams and Charles Evans Hughes. I remember Harvey saying: "Well, they did what we should have done."

It does go back a long way. We need not digress into the relationship between neo-Confucianism and neo-Puritanism to recognize the affinity of wisdom offered by Adams on the Fourth of July 1821. He was fighting against the imperial drive into Latin America that was using the rhetoric of democracy and liberty and prosperity and progress. He said it all very simply: "America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.... She well knows that.... She might become the dictatress of the world; she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit."

John Quincy Adams.
John Quincy Adams.

Adams lost that battle. American intercontinental missiles became the magic wand that turned conquest into freedom. Or so they say. One remembers those words of Aaron Burr: "They say, they say, they say."

A long time later the ghosts of Adams and his unknown Chinese ancestor evoked a moment of sanity. It happened at the end of World War I when the United States, Great Britain, and Japan, recently allies, appeared to be embarking upon a mad competition to build the world's greatest fleet of intercontinental missiles.

As sometimes happens, even in our own time, a few military leaders understood the insanity better than most civilians. General John Joseph (Black Jack) Pershing warned that it was time to stop the "plunge headlong down through destructive war to darkness and barbarism." His most sophisticated aide, General Tasker H. Bliss, insisted that the United States had a moral responsibility to offer a "reasonable proposition tending to remove mutual fear."

But it did happen. On a cold November day in 1921, the civilians acted. Harvey Goldberg and I used to laugh and weep about the incongruity of it all. There was Warren G. Harding, a man we considered inane at best, speaking these words:

"We are but freshly turned from the burial of an unknown American soldier.... Whether it was spoken or not, a hundred millions of our people were summarizing the inexcusable cause, the incalculable cost, the unspeakable sacrifices, and the unutterable sorrows, and there was the ever impelling question: How can humanity justify or God forgive?"

You must remember that those words - "How can humanity justify or God forgive?" - were not spoken at a showcase ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Harding was opening a major disarmament conference to reduce and control intercontinental missiles. Harvey ragged me every now and again about whether or not Harding wrote those moving words. I always told him that I would like to think so, but that I simply did not know and doubted that anyone else did, either - not for sure. Maybe they were written by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, who most certainly did write his own scorcher of a speech to the representatives of those powers who flaunted their intercontinental missiles.

Hughes was in some ways a kind of reincarnation of John Quincy Adams. He had principles - such as defending the right of socialists to take their seats in the New York legislature. He was pragmatic. And he did his homework. As he prepared for the disarmament conference, for example, he not only talked with the Senator William E. Borah, that Wild Jackass from Idaho, but also spent many hours politicking with the younger, more flexible officers of the line in the United States Navy. He stunned the assembly of notables with the bold simplicity of his proposals, and thereby set the tone of the conference.

We are here, he began, to respond to "humanity crying for relief and craving assurances of lasting peace. A world staggering with debt needs its burdens lifted." Then he turned the screw. "Is it not plain that the time has passed for mere resolutions.... We can no longer content ourselves with investigations, with statistics, with reports.... The essential facts are sufficiently known. The time has come for action."

"Competition," he concluded, "will not be remedied by resolves with respect to the method of its continuance. One program inevitably leads to another, and if competition continues, its regulation is impracticable. There is only one adequate way out and that is to end it now."

That proposition is so tightly argued, and in essence so radical, that it warrants repetition.

"Competition will not be remedied by resolves with respect to the method of its continuance. One program inevitably leads to another, and if competition continues its regulation is impracticable. There is only one adequate way out and that is to end it now."

There you are: it is possible to say No. Not just by those strange Chinese, but also by those strange Americans.

[It is often argued that the Washington Naval Disarmament Conference left America ill-prepared for World War II. That is a myth. The United States scrapped ships that were old and poorly designed. When it began to build to treaty limits (during the 1930s), it enjoyed the benefits of leap-frogging in the design and construction of destroyers, cruisers - and especially aircraft carriers. If you prefer to be a bit cynical, then argue that the best thing that happened at Pearl Harbor was the sinking or disabling of all those ancient battleships. As for Hitler, he was no more a creature of the Washington Naval Disarmament Conference than Shakespeare was a creature of Francis Bacon.]

Hence we are back with Harvey Goldberg saying that we must not only say No, but that we must sustain the No and go on to say Yes to a better culture. Therein lies the essence of Harvey's legacy: the freeing of the left hand that is History.

I leave it to others to debate and decide whether or not the Chinese made a creative use of saying No to overseas empire. Harvey and I were always more concerned about whether or not Americans have the staying power to continue saying No to such empire, and whether or not we can imagine and then create a more humane and equitable alternative to empire.

Harvey Goldberg faced that challenge as candidly, as thoughtfully, and as courageously as any human being I have known. The only way I know how to honor Harvey is to stay out there on the barricades and embrace each other at dawn as well as at midnight.