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Historian Christopher Foss on His New Book, COVID-19, and US Politics

April 13, 2020

Foss CoverIn the interview below, Chris Foss, author of Facing the World: Defense Spending and International Trade in the Pacific Northwest Since World War II, discusses his motivation for writing the book, the coronavirus crisis, and his hopes for the future of US politics.


Ashley: Why did you decide to write a book on this particular aspect of Northwest history?

Chris: This book began during my frantic search for a dissertation topic, as I was coming to the end of my graduate coursework at the University of Colorado and a deadline loomed for me to decide on my project. I read an article in the academic journal Diplomatic History by Andy Fry, a history professor at UNLV, who argued that historians of US relations with the world should also consider how different regions of the US were impacted in unique ways by US foreign policy. I had one of those "light bulb" moments when I read that article. I'm from Portland, and I had read and heard about Wayne Morse, Mark Hatfield, Henry Jackson, Tom Foley, and others in some of my coursework already. It seemed like many of these Pacific Northwest politicians played an outsized role in US foreign policy during the post–World War II period. I set out to understand why this was.

Over the course of my research, I found out that the reason was, to be blunt, power. These men (and a few women) wanted to gain and maintain political power. I don't think they sought to be malevolent in their use of this power, however. They sought to be responsive to their constituents. In an era in which the US was highly involved in global affairs, senators, congressmen/women, and even governors particularly saw defense spending and international trade as arenas both for undertaking the national mission of bettering America as a whole and the local mission of taking care of the constituent by "bringing home the bacon" in terms of defense contracts, forging new trade agreements, and so on.

I found all of this really fascinating because I had never thought of Northwest politicians as merging domestic and foreign policies in this way. We either think of Mark Hatfield working on behalf of Oregon's infrastructure on the one hand, and against the Vietnam War on the other hand, but my contribution is to show how his various foreign and domestic policies were intertwined. Same with the other figures I spend an extensive time talking about in the book.

Ashley: Why do you think it’s important that we recognize the intertwined nature of foreign and domestic policies?

Chris: Because, especially as current events (i.e., the rapid global spread of COVID-19) have demonstrated, there is increasingly little difference between so-called "foreign" and "domestic" policies. Almost any policy enacted, even at the local level, will have some sort of ramification beyond US shores. Even during the Cold War, this was often true. It seemed like Americans saw almost everything through the prism of fear of international communism. The political figures I discuss in Facing the World recognized this, and seized on the growing importance of foreign affairs to the American public to gain support for their pro-defense, pro-trade policies.

Ashley: There are a lot of public crises that the US is currently facing, many of them—like COVID-19—hitting the Northwest particularly hard. You write about Senator Mark Hatfield's efforts to redirect national security funding to health, especially to the National Institutes for Health and OHSU. What can we learn from Hatfield’s warning that you discuss in your book—that "viruses are coming, and they're here"?

Chris: Hatfield understood, in ways that most politicians—and, I dare say, most Americans—fail to understand, that research and thinking in the long run about tomorrow's problems are important. He also understood that public health is an arm of national security. Hatfield was not against national security, per se. He was against military adventurism, such as in Vietnam, where the US mission was unclear and all we were doing was shooting and bombing. To him, however, disease was a clear national security threat. How could you have a functioning society, he wondered, if you didn't have a healthy people? Those ideas informed his support for OHSU and the NIH over the decades.

Critics accused him, in terms of OHSU, of being a pork-barrel spender, bringing Oregon goodies and not taking the needs of the nation as a whole into account. But when OHSU is on the front line fighting COVID-19 in Oregon, I doubt anyone is going to think of it as a waste of money anymore. Hatfield wasn't able to build up the health infrastructure of the US and Oregon as much as he would've liked, though; merely saving the NIH was the best he could do on a national level. Even before he died, the SARS and H1N1 pandemics threatened the US; Ebola and Zika followed right after his death, yet the American people and leaders were complacent. He's probably looking down at us right now and saying, "I told you so!"

Ashley: What do you think Hatfield would be advocating for today, in the midst of the current pandemic?

Chris: Hatfield would be demanding more widespread COVID-19 testing to help protect the public and provide more knowledge about the outbreak, and he'd be trying to speed money through Congress to give healthcare providers more tools to fight the outbreak: more masks for the doctors and nurses working with sick patients, more hospital beds, more money to convert nonmedical facilities to become temporary hospitals. Given his knowledge and expertise, he'd become the de facto expert in Congress on COVID-19. In addition, he would also be a calming voice to a rattled public. Hatfield was very good at public speaking and at connecting with people, and while he'd relay honest information, he would also, I think, want to let us know that we'll be OK in the long run. He survived the Great Depression and fighting in the Pacific theater of World War II, after all.

Ashley: Broadly, what do you hope readers will walk away with after finishing Facing the World?

Chris: I hope the big takeaway for readers is that politicians can be effective, and that they can work for the public good. It's easy today to become jaded and cynical about politicians and to think that they are only out for themselves, that they're only out to win the next election, that they pander/cater to special interests and put those interests above the citizenry, that they are hyper-partisan. That may all be true to an extent today, but Facing the World covers a period of time in which all of those elements were somewhat muted in American society, particularly partisanship.

Bipartisan thinking pervades the work of these politicians. Henry Jackson relied on conservative support to bolster his Senate campaigns, even though he was a liberal. Tom Foley was a liberal congressman in a conservative part of Washington State. Mark Hatfield was a liberal Republican, an extinct species even by the time of his 1996 retirement. Wayne Morse was first a Republican, then an Independent, then a Democrat who supported Hatfield's first election campaign. Vic Atiyeh was perhaps the most partisan of the individuals I focus on, but even he was a moderate by today's standards–he held strong pro-civil rights credentials, he helped form the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, and he hired a female chief of staff (Gerry Thompson) when that was unheard of, to have a woman in that high of a position of authority in the governor's office.

Unfortunately, we're in a different time now, and I'm not too optimistic that we can get back to the kind of civility (to start with), but also the set of particular historical conditions, either regionally or nationally, that allowed for bipartisan figures like Hatfield and Morse to gain power.
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