Listen To Article

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth: April 17, 1919. Centennials naturally call for reminiscence and reflection, and some of this, especially in a parent-child relationship, must remain personal. But some of it’s public, and in this case worth more than a little thought. If there ever was a year fit for Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” it would be 1919. My dad was born under a most portentous star.

Future Stars

Dad was surrounded by a lot of future earthly stars, it would turn out. In fact, I first got to thinking about this a couple months ago when the media noted the 100th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s birth (January 31). Hmmm, Dad was born the same year as Jackie Robinson! For that matter, so was George Wallace, who came into the world that August across the state line in Alabama. Auguries of big changes on the racial front.

That got me looking for other famous births in 1919. Writers J. D. Salinger, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (still alive!). Singers Pete Seeger and Nat King Cole. Notable international political figures: Eva Peron, Pierre Trudeau, and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran. The latter would become involved with epochal events for the United States. So would McGeorge Bundy, born in Boston two weeks before my dad to Grand Rapids native Harvey Hollister Bundy and Katherine Lawrence Putnam, she with Lowells, Cabots, and other Brahmin elites in her lineage. Bundy rode this pedigree and his bright brain into the highest echelons of the Ivy League, American government—and the folly of Vietnam.

Back to that birthday list. Edmund Hillary of Mt. Everest, Malcolm Forbes of the big money, Jimmy Cagney of the silver screen (prohibited in my father’s youth), and Rex Humbard in religion (this option Dad had the good catechesis to reject). Then there was Liberace. Liberace and Lawrence Ferlinghetti—a turn in public sexuality over which my father remained, ummm, unenthusiastic.

Tumult in Asia

All these births portended things in the future. Big events in the year itself had immediate effect. The explosion closest to my dad’s birthday happened earlier that week at Amritsar, India, where British troops opened fire upon a peaceful protest of Sikhs gathered in an enclosed courtyard. The fire—some 1700 shots over ten minutes—was directed at the gates through which people were trying to escape. The hundreds killed and hundreds more wounded that day were the immediate casualties, but it turned out that whatever good faith lay behind British rule in India suffered a mortal wound that day. It was the beginning of the end for the empire in South Asia, and eventually around the world.

The months either side of Dad’s arrival saw fateful explosions in East Asia. The new birth of Korean nationalism dates back to March 1, 1919, when mass demonstrations erupted against Japanese rule. The protests were politically thwarted for the moment but engendered a cultural awakening that proved essential for the longer-term achievement of independence. This “March 1 movement” was paralleled by China’s “May Fourth Movement” two months later, which began with student protests in Beijing. These soon spread across the country and gave rise to a new generation of leaders, more radical in their anti-imperialist politics and culture. From them would grow the major lines of resistance to foreign dominance that, winding through the Japanese invasions of the 1930s and the civil war of the 1940s, would culminate in the Communist triumph of 1949.

The Versailles Peace Conference

The coincidence of these protests was, in fact, no coincidence at all but tied back to the Versailles Conference which met from January 18 to June 28, 1919 to settle accounts after World War I. US President Woodrow Wilson, who unprecedentedly attended the Conference in person, had raised great hopes around the world with his declaration of “Fourteen Points” upon which a new world order would be designed. Among these principles was the right of “self-determination”—that each people would live in a nation of their own and direct it by their own lights.

Versailles applied that principle only to Europe, as it happened, and with no few complications there. But Wilson’s ideal fired the hopes of people around the world, including many living under European imperial rule. Thus, demands for independence arose not only in Korea and China but in Egypt which had its own “1919 Revolution.” The young Nguyen Tat Thanh, then working in Paris, earnestly tried to get an audience with Wilson to plead the cause of freedom for Vietnam, but couldn’t even get in the door. He returned home smartened up and determined to seize independence if it would not be granted. Under the new name of Ho Chi Minh he led a struggle that took 56 years, but prevailed.

It would take “only” thirty years for a colony much closer to home, the British Empire’s very first. A circle of Irish leaders declared independence on January 4, 1919, beginning a three-year war with Britain, followed by a long struggle among their own factions. Full independence would arrive the same year as in China, 1949. W. B. Yeats launched a poem out of this process, entitling it “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.”

Yeats’s more famous poem from the year, “The Second Coming,” has been cited often for capturing the great turning of the times, the “widening gyre” whose “center cannot hold.” Politically, a “blood-dimmed tide” had indeed been “loosed upon the world.” Four great empires had collapsed—the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and German—necessitating drastic redrawing of maps for central and eastern Europe, for the Middle East, and for parts of Africa. And not just maps but the principles of rule. Republics of various sorts were launched over vast and complex territories that had never known them before. Russia was torn by civil war and invaded that year by Poland, Finland, Britain, and the United States. Germany saw the radical-left Spartacists arise and get crushed, in part by extreme right-wing “free-corps” militias. There were general strikes called in Germany as in India; perhaps in a preemptive move, Britain and France instituted the 8-hour day.

The American Scene

And in my new-born father’s land? In June Congress passed the 19th Amendment instituting women’s suffrage and, in October, the Volstead Act implementing Prohibition. There was a general strike for five days that February in Seattle and a nationwide steel strike in September. The Boston police walked out that month too, and Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge’s stern response proved to be the making of his career. That fall Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer raised alarms about a purported leftist conspiracy, kicking off the “Red Scare” that would deport hundreds and be the making of J. Edgar Hoover.

They might have better attended to the real assault on life and liberty roiling the country in 1919, a wave of white-on-black “race riots,” some forty in all, that constituted the worst outburst of racial violence since the end of Reconstruction. The most famous episodes occurred in Chicago and Washington D.C., where African Americans fought back. The worst slaughter happened out of media sight in little Elaine, Arkansas, where white mobs killed between 100 and 250 people trying to organize a farm-workers union. President Wilson didn’t care much, as he set out September 3 on a great speaking tour to take his case for the Versailles Treaty—especially its provision for a League of Nations—directly to the people, over the heads of obstinate senators. His crusade ended a month later with a stroke that left him crippled for the remainder of his term. The treaty went down in the Senate on November 19.

Outside of Politics

Outside of politics, 1919 saw the great influenza epidemic finally wind down, though the Stanley Cup finals had to be cancelled in early April. May 1 saw the introduction of legal Sunday baseball in New York City; and if that was in my father’s family a very sorry development, the new home-run record that Babe Ruth would set that season (28!) was a fit harbinger of Dad’s lifelong passion for the game. That Ruth was traded from the Red Sox to the Yankees that Christmas showed the type of ownership follies that would leave Dad chagrined if not surprised. The greater scandal that year was the fixing of the World Series, as the Chicago White Sox became everlastingly tarred as the Black Sox. Draconian measures ensured that corruption of that magnitude never struck major league baseball again, and if one consequence down the road was a lifetime ban on Pete Rose, Dad was quite ok with that. He never liked the punk anyway.

So it was amid all this tumult and shouting, the fall of great empires and the rise of no-one-knew-what, that a new one arrived in a very modest house in Holland, Michigan, to parents of very modest means and most conservative habits. He was the sixth child in the family and the last, launched upon the blood-dimmed tide in an out-of-the-way place. He did nothing in his life to merit inclusion in the annals I’ve charted above. But as all the tides of his times washed over him—world war and Cold War, racial and sexual revolutions, Red Scares at home and emerging nations abroad—he remained faithful without exception to his family, friends, and calling as he saw it. And all unto the Lord. The tumult and the shouting need their chroniclers, but it is in faithfulness like Dad’s, and perhaps only there, that the world can go on.

Rest in peace, Dad. April 17 is truly a red-letter day.

[If you’re interested, the New York Times is currently running a series on “1919: The Year of the Crack-Up”. Worth your time.]

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

11 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Rest in peace and rise in glory, paterfamilias of people that I love.

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    Absolutely lovely – what a remarkable exercise to chart the global context of a most ordinary event – many thanks.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    What a great tribute and reminder of the societal upheavals for which that time was known.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    This is simply a terrific piece of writing, Jim. Thanks.

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    Jim, Thanks for this wonderful memorial. I must take issue with one of your statements. It’s the one about what your dad did to merit inclusion in the annuls you listed. Retrospectively, maybe so, but with a look to the future, it must be pointed out that he had an impact on lots of lives including my own. He helped develop in me a love for history, he was an example of love and dedication to his faith and profession but most importantly, he raised a small batch of brilliant kids who carry his name and who carry on in his footsteps, whose teaching and writing will continue to mold many. He would be proud.

    • Ruth Vis says:

      Ditto, Ron. I too learned to love history under Bert Bratt’s tutelage, but he also taught and modeled much about honesty, integrity, and faithfulness, qualities our world could use more of. Sometimes the real impact of one’s life may not be immediately apparent. But I too see it in his kids.

  • James Schaap says:

    Thoughtful and heart-felt. Thank you.

  • Donna Stelpstra says:

    Thank you for this. This piece is particularly relevant to me because my dad also was born in 1919–June 27. When I think of my dad’s birth year, I think the world must have been simpler, kinder, easier somehow than today’s world, but your article demonstrates that it was not. My father, like yours, was also born to a very humble, modest and conservative household in Manhattan, Montana. He also stayed true to God, his family, his friends, and his calling as a farmer. Thank you for helping your readers recall that kind of faithfulness that gives us hope for each new day.

  • Mary VanderVennen says:

    What a lovely and thoughtful way to celebrate your father’s birthday and life! It’s too easy to slide through our everyday lives without recognizing the world-changing events happening around and to us and in which we sometimes are privileged to take a small part. We need thoughtful retrospectives like yours here to remind us that ordinary, faithful lives matter. I sometimes think that one of the privileges of getting old is that you gain the ability to see more of how the story unfolds, or sometimes ends.

  • Wm Byl says:

    “and his children rise up and call him blessed”

  • […] Last time I wrote about the centennial of the birth of my father. Today I’m reflecting on the death last month of one of my Doktorväter, David Brion Davis. To be clear, Professor Davis was only an official reader of my dissertation, not its director. Still, that gave me the direct benefit of his council and instruction. […]

Leave a Reply