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Today's New York Times Magazine contains an essay on the lessons of reconstruction. Excerpts follow. New York Times, May 29, 2005 The First Occupation By EDWARD L. AYERS For more than a hundred years now the United States has been one of the great agents of social transformation in the world. From the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century to Iraq at the beginning of the 21st, this country has sought to remake other nations. The reconstructions of Japan and Germany after World War II stand as the great successes, mixed among other interventions in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. As Americans try to understand our role in the world, we seldom turn for instruction to our own history of Reconstruction of the South in the 1860's and 1870's. That is partly because the South is hardly a foreign country and partly because ''Gone With the Wind'' and other popular stories have told us that Reconstruction was a horrible mistake, a misguided, hypocritical and deluded effort by zealots to force an unnatural order on a helpless South. Modern historians have exploded that story but agree that Reconstruction failed to deliver on its promises, abandoning African-Americans to poverty, lynching and segregation. Despite its limitations and failures, however, Reconstruction is worth our attention -- not least because it represented America's first attempt to transform a defeated society through a sustained military occupation. As such, it would foreshadow significant parts of American foreign policy over the next century and a half. During the Civil War, the leaders of the North argued among themselves about what should be done with the South when its subjugation was complete. They were still arguing when the war came to an end and Lincoln was assassinated. The question before the United States in 1866, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass argued, was whether a postwar devotion to black freedom would redeem the war or whether the loss of more than 600,000 people would ''pass into history a miserable failure, barren of permanent results -- a scandalous and shocking waste of blood and treasure.'' America's Reconstruction would witness a desperate competition between the spread of democracy and the restoration of political, economic and racial stability based on prewar foundations. White Southerners, unrepentant after their military defeat, treated their conquerors with contempt. They unleashed riots in Memphis and New Orleans, created the Ku Klux Klan and enacted legal codes that reinscribed as much slavery as possible. White Southern resistance, in turn, provided the fuel and the rationale for Radical Reconstruction, which began in the spring of 1867 and sought to recast the political and social order of the defeated South through direct military control, free elections and state-sponsored economic development. Those who cooperated with the Republicans found themselves denounced in the South as ''scalawags''; those who came from the North to help rebuild the South were sneered at as greedy ''carpetbaggers.'' Most white Southerners never accepted the legitimacy of Reconstruction. They crushed black voting and other freedoms through violence, terrorism and fraud. When Reconstruction was driven from the South 12 years after it began, the white Southern majority rejoiced that true law, true justice, had returned. Confederate soldiers were lionized and a culture of defiance flourished. Over the next half-century the white South waged, and won, a propaganda war over the meaning of Reconstruction. Disdain for the South's Reconstruction continued through the isolationist years of the 1920's and 1930's, but victory in World War II changed American assumptions about the possibilities of reconstruction. The United States found itself once again an occupying power, this time in Japan. This reconstruction proved more satisfying for the American people than any that had come before or any that would follow. In the wake of unimaginable loss, the Japanese lay completely at the mercy of the occupying Americans. Japanese soldiers returned home in disgrace, and the Japanese people denounced the political leaders of the old regime. Gen. Douglas MacArthur ruled the defeated nation with wide-ranging authority. Japan became an ally of the most benign and helpful sort. Even so, American occupation stirred up animosities. In 1949, the Japanese made ''Gone With the Wind'' a best-selling novel, imagining themselves in the place of Scarlett O'Hara, living in a strange new world led by outsiders. he pattern of the South's Reconstruction, more than the pattern of Japan's, has anticipated occupations elsewhere -- above all in Iraq, where some supporters of the old regime participate in a campaign of terror even as a long-oppressed and newly enfranchised group struggles to claim power. What are the lessons of our own self-reconstruction? 1. Reconstructions tend to partake of all the dislocation, confusion and corruption of the wars they follow. Defeated people's memories collapse the suffering of war into the suffering of reconstruction. White Southerners have long conflated Sherman's march with an imagined devastation that Reconstruction, among the mildest of military occupations, did not in fact bring. 2. Reconstruction often creates a coherence, identity and solidarity among the reconstructed people they did not possess before. In the South, Reconstruction rather than the Civil War became the true object of contempt and hatred by postwar whites, the object of self-righteousness and retribution. Reconstruction displaced any guilt white Southerners may have felt for secession and ameliorated the shame of losing the Civil War. 3. Reconstructions foster steadfast defenders of the old order. A quest for purity, for return, for the respect of the fallen fathers, drives counter-reconstructions. When things go wrong, as they inevitably will, the opponents of reconstruction can always claim that things were better under the old regime. The ''old South,'' an imagined land of gentility and paternalism, was invented by the new South to justify a rigid racial order in a region increasingly filled with towns, railroads and factories. 4. Quarantining greed is hard. Reconstructor nations can easily be seen as carpetbagger nations, preying on a vanquished population for profit. The white South used every instance of Northern self-interest as proof that all of Reconstruction was a false front, a mere ploy to advance Yankee greed. 5. Conflicts of interest and power tend to be imagined as problems of race, religion or civilization. Both sides look for sweeping explanations of their opponent's motives and failings. White Southerners made imagined racial characteristics of African-Americans the bedrock of their counter-reconstruction. All involved in Reconstruction thought that Christianity, rightly understood, supported their position, and they took strength from that belief. 6. The clock is always ticking. Reconstructions are races between change and reaction; they cannot last long before they seem to be another form of oppression. Reconstructions must make their changes quickly or they are not likely to make them at all. The two years lost in the South before Radical Reconstruction began in 1867 proved fatal. 7. Reconstructions often go further and in different directions than their creators intended. Black Americans proved to be hungrier and better prepared for full participation in politics than even many Radicals expected. Advocates for women's rights seized upon Reconstruction to demand that the movement for inclusion and full citizenship apply to women throughout the United States. Labor unions in the North marched under the same ideals of equality and freedom that the Republicans promoted in the South. 8. ''Freedom'' is a pliable word. Everyone involved in America's Reconstruction spoke of freedom, but all meant different things by that word. The Northern white advocates of freedom meant the freedom for former slaves to make a living by the sweat of their own brow. The black advocates of freedom meant the freedom to build independent lives for themselves and their families. The opponents of Reconstruction appealed to home rule and self-determination. An appeal to freedom can be an appeal for any action and can drive counter-reconstructions as well as forward-looking change. 9. Finally, and perhaps most important, reconstructions can fall victim to their own ideals. Flush with military victory, furious with the rebels, appalled at the conditions of slavery they saw firsthand in the defeated South, the Radical Republicans announced that they would settle for nothing less than the utter transformation of the South. They proclaimed that if their plans came to pass in the South, ''the wilderness shall vanish, the church and school-house will appear . . . the whole land will revive under the magic touch of free labor.'' Combining every dream of social reconstitution -- prosperity, justice and equality -- was dangerous enough by itself. But Republicans ignored the segregation and disfranchisement of African-Americans that marred their own Northern states, demanding a standard for the South they refused to apply to themselves. White Southerners hammered away relentlessly on this inconsistency of their would-be reconstructors, claiming that it nullified the moral standing of the white North. They held up every isolated instance of Republican bribery or malfeasance as an example of the moral bankruptcy of all Republicans everywhere. Republicans portrayed themselves not only as agents of democracy but also as agents of economic transformation. They would remake the South along Northern lines, with shrewd and farsighted investments in railroads, levees and roads. They bragged that their Yankee business acumen would make the South prosper in a way it had never prospered under the leadership of the lazy and incompetent slaveholder regime. When railroad financing collapsed in the Panic of 1873 and states defaulted on their payments, the Republicans suddenly appeared as bumbling and corrupt incompetents rather than as astute modernizers. By speaking of social progress as the seamless installation of democracy, capitalism and disinterested virtue, the Republicans put every part of their agenda at risk and would pay the price. After the disputed election of 1876, and the back-room deals that followed, the nation settled on an exit strategy. A hard paradox lies at the heart of all reconstructions: the reconstructor must transform a society in its own image without appearing selfish or self-righteous. An effort at reconstruction, our nation's history shows us, must be implemented not only with determination and might, but also with humility and self-knowledge -- and with an understanding of the experience of defeat that attention to Southern history can give us. Otherwise, America risks appearing as the thing it least wants to be, a carpetbagger nation. Edward L. Ayers is dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. This essay is adapted from his book ''What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History,'' which will be published next month by W.W. Norton.