He arrived on the political scene in 2015 already promoting a future "great, great wall," even if it was originally no more than a "mnemonic device" invented by his handlers to remind him to bring up the issue of immigration on the campaign trail. Okay, so what? And so what if the original great, great wall to which he was surely referring -- he even spoke about it during the campaign -- can't really be seen from space, not with the naked eye? (Parts of it can, however, be made out in a photo taken in Earth orbit by a Chinese astronaut.) I'm referring, of course, to the Great Wall of China.
The Donald Trump of China, the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, ordered its construction in the third century BC from walls already in existence, although the final touches weren't completed until the Ming Dynasty in the seventeenth century. And what lessons might be drawn from its long, long history? As it happens, they're not likely to thrill President Trump, not when the original structure and the myths about it are so impressive. It was, of course, built to keep out those the Chinese thought of as "barbarians" from the steppes of Asia, just as The Donald wants to build his concrete -- or is it steel, or slats, or fencing? -- edifice to keep out of the United States those he considers the "barbarians" of the present moment, those his own country has had such a hand in uprooting and displacing.
In fact, an answer to that question about lessons isn't hard to dig up: just ask the emperors of the Yuan Dynasty (originally outside-the-wall Mongols) or the Ching Dynasty (originally outside-the-wall Manchus) how successful that wall really was. So if Donald Trump ever gets his monumental wall built, will he succeed where the Chinese failed? Check out the blitz of fortifications (often using far more modern technology than President Trump has on his all-too-concrete mind) already built on the U.S.-Mexico border in today's post. That chronology, 1945 to the present, offered by TomDispatch regular Greg Grandin, author of the soon-to-be-published The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, should make you wonder about the effectiveness of any kind of border fortifications -- if, that is, you weren't The Donald. Tom
How Not to Build a "Great, Great Wall"
A Timeline of Border Fortification
By Greg Grandin
The point was less to actually build "the wall" than to constantly announce the building of the wall. "We started building our wall. I'm so proud of it," Donald Trump tweeted. "What a thing of beauty."
In fact, no wall, or certainly not the "big, fat, beautiful" one promised by Trump, is being built. True, miles of some kind of barrier -- barbed wire, chain-link and steel-slat fencing, corrugated panels, and, yes, even lengths of what can only be described as concrete wall -- have gone up along the U.S.-Mexico border, starting at least as far back as the administration of President William Taft, early in the last century. Trump has claimed repairs and expansions of these barriers as proof that he is fulfilling his signature campaign promise. Plaques have already been bolted onto upgrades in existing fencing, crediting him with work started and funded by previous administrations.- Advertisement -
And yet Trump's phantasmagorical wall, whether it ever materializes or not, has become a central artifact in American politics. Think of his promise of a more than 1,000-mile-long, 30-foot-high ribbon of concrete and steel running along the southern border of the United States as America's new myth. It is a monument to the final closing of the frontier, a symbol of a nation that used to believe it had escaped history, but now finds itself trapped by history, and of a people who used to believe they were captains of the future, but now are prisoners of the past.
From Open to Closed Borders
Prior to World War I, the border -- established in the late 1840s and early 1850s after the U.S. military invaded Mexico and took a significant part of that country's territory -- was relatively unpoliced. As historian Mae Ngai has pointed out, before World War I the United States "had virtually open borders" in every sense of the term. The only exception: laws that explicitly excluded Chinese migrants. "You didn't need a passport," says Ngai. "You didn't need a visa. There was no such thing as a green card. If you showed up at Ellis Island, walked without a limp, had money in your pocket, and passed a very simple [IQ] test in your own language, you were admitted."
A similar openness existed at the border with Mexico. "There is no line to indicate the international boundary," reported Motor Age, a magazine devoted to promoting automobile tourism, in 1909. The only indication that you had crossed into a new country, heading south, was the way a well-graded road turned into a "rambling cross-country trail, full of chuck-holes and dust."
The next year, the State Department made plans to roll "great coils of barbed wire... in a straight line over the plain" across the open borderland range where Texans and Mexicans ran their cattle. The hope was to build "the finest barbed-wire boundary line in the history of the world." Not, though, to keep out people, as the border wasn't yet an obstacle for the Mexican migrant workers who traveled back and forth, daily or seasonally, to work in homes, factories, and fields in the United States. That barbed-wire barrier was meant to quarantine tick-infested longhorn cattle. Both Washington and Mexico City hoped that such a fence would help contain "Texas Fever," a parasitic disease decimating herds of cattle on both sides of the border and leading to a rapid rise in the cost of beef.
As far as I can tell, the first use of the word "wall" to describe an effort to close off the border came with the tumultuous Mexican Revolution. "American troops," announced the Department of War in March 1911 during Taft's presidency, "have been sent to form a solid military wall along the Rio Grande." Yes, Donald Trump was not the first to deploy the U.S. Army to the border. Twenty thousand soldiers, a large percentage of that military at the time, along with thousands of state militia volunteers, were dispatched to stop the movement of arms and men not out of, but into Mexico, in an effort to cut off supplies to revolutionary forces. Such a "wall" would "prove an object lesson to the world," claimed the Department of War. The point: to reassure European investors in Mexico that the U.S. had the situation south of the border under control. "The revolution in the republic to the south must end" was the lesson that the soldiers were dispatched to teach.- Advertisement -
The revolution, however, raged on and borderland oil companies like Texaco began building their own private border walls to protect their holdings. Then, in April 1917, the month the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law a set of sweeping constraints on immigration generally, including literacy tests, entrance taxes, and quota restrictions. From that point on, the border sharpened -- literally, as lengths of barbed wire were stretched ever further on either side of port-of-entry customs houses.
What follows is a chronology of both the physical fortification of the U.S.-Mexico boundary and the psychic investment in such a fortification -- the fantasy, chased by both Democrats and Republicans for more than half a century, that with enough funds, technology, cement, steel, razor ribbon, barbed wire, and personnel, the border could be sealed. This timeline illustrates how some of the most outward-looking presidents, men who insisted that the prosperity of the nation was inseparable from the prosperity of the world, also presided over the erection of a deadly run of border barriers, be they called fences or walls, that would come to separate the United States from Mexico.