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Regarding troops in the streets, Trump had history and precedent on his side

The lessons of history are lost on far too many of us. But perhaps the problem is that they were never taught in the first place. 

The recent uproar at The New York Times over an opinion column is illustrative.

James Bennet was forced out as the Times’s editorial page editor after publishing an op-ed by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton. Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and an Army combat veteran, had seconded President Donald Trump’s vow to use troops to help local authorities quell the violence in the streets wrought by the killing of George Floyd, the black Minneapolis man who died in police custody on Memorial Day. A poll showed 58 percent of Americans supported Trump and Cotton on this issue. 

Black journalists at the Times claimed, without evidence and with little logic, that publishing Cotton’s piece put their lives at risk. Some more malicious critics on social media spread the lie that Cotton was calling for troops to violently turn against the citizens they have volunteered to protect.

A better understanding of our own history, and from not that long ago, might not have saved Bennet’s job, but perhaps it would have curtailed some of the mindless hysteria Cotton’s column created.  

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Almost immediately, black communities in more than 100 American cities erupted in mayhem and violence. Some of the worst of it was in Washington, D.C.

Writing on the 50th anniversary of the riots, Drew Hansen of the Washington Business Journal summed up the rage that sent the nation’s capital spiraling out of control:

“Over the days following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on April 4, 1968, more than 1,100 buildings in the District were damaged or destroyed by an estimated 20,000 rioters. More than 1,200 fires were recorded. A dozen people died in the flames or at the hands of others, including the police. … More than 1,000 people were injured and 6,100 were arrested. Thousands of businesses were looted and destroyed.”

What helped bring order from the chaos? Soldiers. And lots of them. 

As Hansen noted, “Roughly 13,600 federal troops made their way into the District, marking the largest occupation of an American city since the Civil War.”

And who ordered those troops into the streets? President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat. 

In the wake of the Floyd riots, Arizona State University history professor Kyle Longley recalled that time in a May 31 op-ed for The Washington Post. Of LBJ’s decision Longley noted: “To some extent, this was actually an attempt to lessen bloodshed, because the president feared the lack of discipline of the local police or the National Guard. That included in Washington, where troops soon arrived to pile up sandbags and station machine guns around the White House and on the steps of the Capitol.”

Longley also pointed out that Johnson’s demand for strict restrictions on the use of force irked some Democratic senators, like Sen. Robert Byrd, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, who, as Joe Biden recently suggested in promoting police training reforms, favored shooting looters “in the leg,” and Sen. Richard Russell, whose close working relationship with the current Democratic nominee came back to haunt Biden during the campaign, who failed to understand why some troops were not issued live ammunition.

After Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary, railed against the president for his response and his rhetoric to the recent riots, Jeffrey Lord, one of Trump’s biggest boosters, took Mattis to task by reminding him of LBJ’s play. 

“What Americans are seeing right now in one city after another — all of them run for decades by Democrats — is a rerun of what happened in Washington, D.C., in April 1968,” Lord wrote in the American Spectator. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but the city officials of Washington in 1968 were completely unable to restore order by themselves. They in fact very much needed those 13,000 troops LBJ sent in to ‘dominate’ the ‘battlespace’ their city had become.”

Trump was not crafting some unprecedented diabolical scheme to turn America into a Third World dictatorship. Rather he sought to invoke a 213-year-old law to help local authorities regain control, and had a Democratic president for his precedent.

We might have understood that better were it not for bad history teachers in failing government schools and race-baiters at The New York Times. 

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