Heather Cox Richardson from Letters from an American <email@example.com>
August 25, 2021
Heather Cox Richardson
[Soldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.), awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919. Image from NARA.]
Today the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol asked eight federal agencies for records. The chair of the committee, Representative Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), gave the agencies two weeks to produce a sweeping range of material that showed the committee is conducting a thorough investigation of the last days of the Trump administration.
Thompson sent letters to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which keeps the records for the government; the Defense Department; the Department of Homeland Security; the Interior Department; the Department of Justice; the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); the National Counterterrorism Center; and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
While the House had previously asked the National Archives for all the records it had covering the events and federal actors involved in the events of January 6 itself, the select committee is using a much wider lens. It has asked the departments not just for records covering January 6, but also for those reaching back as far as April 1, 2020, to see if the Trump administration had plans to contest and ultimately, should he lose, overturn the election.
The committee has asked the departments for any records about plans to derail the electoral count, organize violent rallies, declare martial law, or use the government positions to overturn the election results. It has also asked for any “documents and communications” about foreign influence in the 2020 election through social media and misinformation.
And then there was this tidbit. The last items the committee asked NARA to produce were: “All documents and communications related to the January 3, 2021, letter from 10 former Defense Secretaries warning of use of the military in election disputes.”
That letter, which was published in the Washington Post and signed by all ten of the living former defense secretaries, warned that “[e]fforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory. Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.” The letter reminded then–acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller and his subordinates that they were “each bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration, and to do so wholeheartedly. They must also refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election or hinder the success of the new team.”
It was an extraordinary letter, and its authors thought it was important enough to write it over the holidays, for publication three days before the January 6 electoral count. The driving force behind the letter was former vice president Dick Cheney.
Cheney’s daughter Liz Cheney (R-WY) sits on the House select committee.
Trump has threatened to invoke executive privilege to stop the release of the documents.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said the committee’s action proved it is not looking for truth but rather is engaging in politics. The committee asked NARA for records of communications between the president and “any Member of Congress or congressional staff.” This will sweep in McCarthy, who had a heated conversation with Trump on the phone as rioters invaded the Capitol. “They come for members of Congress, they are coming for everybody,” he said.
But, in fact, such a sweep is precisely how scholars actually figure out what has happened in historical events. Limiting research before you know the lay of the land simply obscures the larger picture.
Just such a limiting view is on the table for the Republicans right now as they are proposing to investigate President Biden’s exit from Afghanistan if they regain control of the House in 2022, saying it “makes Benghazi look like a much smaller issue.”
The first days of the evacuation after the Afghan army crumbled and the Taliban swept into control of the country in nine days were chaotic, indeed, but since August 14, the U.S. has evacuated more than 82,300 people, bringing out 19,000 people yesterday alone. It has evacuated at least 4500 U.S. citizens and has sent more than 20,000 emails and made more than 45,000 phone calls to Americans who had notified the embassy they were in the country (since Americans do not have to register with the embassy, it is unclear how many citizens are there). A rough estimate says there are probably 500 U.S. citizens who want to leave, while another 1000 are not certain or want to stay.
Today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a press conference pointing out that the evacuation “is one of the largest airlifts in history, a massive military, diplomatic, security, and humanitarian undertaking,” and noted that “[o]nly the United States could organize and execute a mission of this scale and this complexity.”
Blinken said that the success of the airlift to date has been “a testament both to U.S. leadership and to the strength of our alliances and partnerships.” He reiterated that the Biden administration is not abandoning Afghanistan but is shifting its focus from military power to diplomacy, cybersecurity, and financial pressure. He said that the administration has worked hard to build alliances and that the U.S. will continue to work with allies both in Afghanistan and elsewhere going forward. He pointed out that the Taliban has made both public and private assurances that they will continue to allow people to leave the country, and that 114 countries—more than half of the countries in the world—have warned the Taliban that they must honor that commitment.
Tonight, it appears the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Russia, which backed the Taliban in its struggle against the U.S. and which originally said Taliban control would restore stability to Afghanistan, has begun to evacuate its citizens from Kabul. And tonight, the U.S. government warned of security threats and urged U.S. citizens to leave the area around the airport immediately. According to a State Department spokesperson: "This is a dynamic and volatile security situation on the ground.”
When asked by a reporter about investigations into the evacuation, Blinken said he and the president accepted responsibility for it. He seemed fine with scrutiny of the last few months but suggested that that period should not be looked at in isolation if we are going to learn from our experience in Afghanistan. “[T]here will be plenty of time to look back at the last six or seven months, to look back at the last 20 years,” he said, “and to look to see what we might have done differently, what we might have done sooner, what we might have done more effectively. But I have to tell you that right now, my entire focus is on the mission at hand.”
Today, President Biden signed into law H.R. 3642, the “Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act,” giving the Congressional Gold Medal to the 369th Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” in recognition of their bravery and outstanding service during World War I.
In that war, the 369th Infantry was made up of 2000 Black men, 70% of whom were from Harlem. Since many white men in Jim Crow America refused to serve with their Black comrades, army leaders assigned the unit to the French Army, where, although they still wore the U.S. uniform, they were outfitted with French weapons.
Sent into the field, they stayed out for 191 days, the longest combat deployment of any unit in the war. At the Second Battle of the Marne and Meuse-Argonne, the unit had some of the worst casualties of that mangling war, suffering 144 dead and about 1,000 wounded. “My men never retire, they go forward or they die,” said their commander, Colonel William Hayward. Germans called them the “Bloodthirsty Black Men.” The French called them “hell-fighters.” A month after the armistice, the French government awarded the entire 369th the Croix de Guerre.
And now, in 2021, the unit has, at long last, been awarded a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal.
Sometimes it takes a while, but accurate history has a way of coming out.