In the Name of God and Country


Book by Michael Fellman; 2010, Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, 288 pp.


In the 1960s, in response to condemnations of black rioting in the ghettos, radical activist H. Rap Brown commented that violence was "as American as cherry pie." In a provocative new book, In the Name of God and Country: Reconsidering Terrorism in American History, historian Michael Fellman of Simon Fraser University demonstrates that Brown was on the mark. Both anti-state and state violence have been a central feature of American history, often exemplifying the intense racial and class struggles engulfing the society. State terrorism has been most pervasive, a crucial mechanism for the expansion of governmental authority and power, both domestically and in the international realm.

Challenging the liberal school of U.S. historiography, Fellman provides five case studies of violent social conflict in U.S. society. The first examines John Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry in which Brown sought to extirpate the evils of slavery through violence. Brown’s aim was to ignite a slave uprising. It instead resulted in a backlash among white southern planters who brought the full weight of their authority to bear on him. In essence, Brown’s was the first death in the Civil War, a conflict marred by vicious extralegal violence and brutality, rationalized as each side sought to create its unique vision of a Christian commonwealth. The confederacy was most cruel in hunting down and executing black Union soldiers, basically as a matter of policy, and also repeatedly terrorized the populations in regions in which they passed through. The Union army meanwhile engaged in abuses of prisoners of war and horrendous assaults on civilian populations, ravaging much of the contested territory in the upper-South. Fellman writes that "in the heat and haze of combat, war merged into terrorism."

Fellman’s third chapter focuses on the extensive state terrorism carried out by white southern redeemers following the breakdown of Reconstruction. He chronicles how racist stereotypes of blacks as lazy, corrupt, and prone to criminality served as a justification for the advent of Jim Crow and for the violent intimidation of those who sought to challenge the status quo. The KKK and other white terrorist groups received full-fledged support from prominent politicians and community leaders to carry out lynchings and other acts of violence designed to ensure white supremacy. White reformers who had previously stood up for black civil rights were among the victims. According to Fellman, many KKK rallies went hand in hand with the evangelical revivalism of the period. The North acquiesced to the advent of apartheid, owing to a growing preoccupation among political and economic elites with capitalist accumulation and quelling labor unrest.

Fellman’s fourth chapter examines the infamous Haymarket case, which he argues served as a microcosm for the violent labor and class struggles of the so-called Gilded Age. He shows how leaders of the anarchist movement in Chicago were scapegoated for the killing of several police officers in retaliation for police abuses against striking workers, with four of the eight sentenced to hang after a blatantly rigged trial. The mainstream press and the middle and ruling class generally favored harsh police crackdowns on the working class as a result of rampant anti-immigrant sentiments and the stereotyping of minorities, as well as the fear of an organized mass uprising. For them, he writes, "the higher goal of maintaining social order by any means necessary trumped the Anglo-Saxon tradition of liberty for all…. Eighty years before McCarthyism, the American tradition of repressive anticommunism was born, a tradition that can embrace other enemies as well, for example, Islamo-fascists."

Fellman’s final chapter shows how state terrorist practice played a crucial role in expanding U.S. power at the turn of the 20th century, as exemplified in the American conquest of the Philippines. The U.S. intervention there was driven by a quest for markets and a missionary-like impulse to export the "beneficence" of American civilization to a peoples seemingly unfit for self-government. President William McKinley wrote in his memoirs that he was instructed by "God" to carry out the invasion. Leading politicians and generals, including Arthur McArthur, subsequently claimed (similarly to policymakers and generals during the Vietnam and Iraq eras) that the war was conducted with "as much humanity and self-restraint as any in history." Much documentary evidence, however, including letters from soldiers, confirms that the U.S. army was responsible for carrying out myriad atrocities, including the burning of villages and torturing of prisoners of war through the "water cure" (now called water-boarding). Much like during the Vietnam War, many Marines drew analogies to Indian warfare, hunting, and sport while failing to distinguish between insurgents and civilians who predominantly supported the nationalist cause.

Fellman concludes the book by tracing a continuity from the 19th century to the 20th centuries through the present. The American state during this latter period, he notes, has consistently promoted terrorism in the service of reactionary ends, including against the peasants of Indochina during the Cold War, against black citizens under the so-called War on Drugs, and against Muslims under the guise of the War on Terror. One common thread has been the driving influence of a deep-seated racism, ultra-nationalism, and religion.

On the whole, Fellman has written a provocative and engaging book, well-grounded in both primary and secondary sources. Not only does he provide an important challenge to conventional historiography, he forces us to rethink the implications of the War on Terror. While mainstream commentators constantly warn, without providing any historical context, about the "threat" of terrorism and other foreign enemies to America, Fellman reminds us that the real threat is within and from us. 

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Jeremy Kuzmarov is assistant visiting history professor at Bucknell and the author of The Myth of the Addicted Army.