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Collin Hansen

Because of Dixie

The peculiar role of the South in modern American politics.

In college I nearly got one of my history professors fired. At least that's how he reacted when I told him how much I appreciated the way he taught his course on World War II. I wrote in my class evaluation that I learned so much about how the war turned on national leadership and military strategy. We studied how Stalin saved his country when he deferred to his great general, Georgi Zhukov. We read about France's inept and unprepared leadership. We talked about how Hitler never acknowledged his weaknesses and misjudgments and trusted no one to share military command. Apparently these offenses can cost a young professor his shot at tenure.

This kind of history lives on in the wildly popular books of Stephen Ambrose and David McCullough. But you probably won't find their titles on your local history professor's shelves. Social and cultural history dominate there, the more obscure the topic the better. I never had a chance to study Napoleon or the U.S. Civil War, but opportunities abounded for in-depth research on queer history and feminist theory.

William Leuchtenburg knows he isn't supposed to study politics and government, but he doesn't care. In The White House Looks South, the distinguished historian and professor emeritus at North Carolina-Chapel Hill tells the story of how the South coped with poverty and reluctantly shed segregation. He heaps credit for the transformation on his three protagonists: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson. Leuchtenburg's account meticulously documents how these three men prodded the nation toward overdue justice, both racial and economic.

It's difficult to overestimate the racism that permeated the nation, especially the South, for most of the 20th century. With institutionalized hatred firmly entrenched, leaders and ordinary folk alike openly blocked black equality. Indeed, neither Roosevelt nor Truman, with their party's deep Southern roots, did much to directly advance civil rights. Roosevelt would not risk his New ...

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