This week’s post is the last of five parts of a fictional narrative tracing out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse. As a bankrupt and divided nation stumbles toward its destiny, the question that remains is whether anything can be salvaged from the American experiment.
Within hours, thanks to news media reporting minute-by-minute from St. Louis, word of the proposal to dissolve the Union circled the globe. The most common reaction was to dismiss it as an edgy joke. One pundit wrote hopefully that the prank might finally bring the convention to its senses. A few articles profiled the two delegates who had written the measure, giving them their first fifteen minutes of fame—they were back in the news two years later, on the occasion of their wedding—and then the media tried to move on to what it considered important news.
Over the days that followed, however, the proposal took on a life of its own. Across the country, in bars and living rooms and grange halls, people talked about little else; public meetings and rallies drew huge crowds, and with each passing day more of them backed the proposal. Meanwhile the online forum set up for comment on the convention’s debates crashed three times in as many hours, flooded by posts about dissolving the Union. By October 4th, the day that the proposal was scheduled for a vote on the convention floor, comments on the forum were running ten to one in favor of dissolution.
Politicians and pundits were discovering to their horror what more perceptive observers had noticed long before—that the United States had long since broken apart culturally, and stayed together only because the power of the federal government put disunion out of reach. Now, though, the unthinkable was an option. Every region saw a chance to get what it wanted without wrestling with the country’s yawning cultural chasms; western states in which up to 90% of the land was owned by the federal government, and thus exempt from state taxes and fees, ran the numbers and saw how easily they could balance their budgets once all that real estate fell into their hands; ambitious politicians on the state level began to dream of leading new nations; and the thought of getting out from under the massive Federal debt, by the simple expedient of dissolving the government that owed it, was on many minds. For them and many other Americans, dissolution seemed to offer dazzling possibilities, and few considered the massive downsides.
On the night of October 3rd, opponents of the measure counted heads and found that they lacked the votes to stop it. Parliamentary maneuvers kept it off the floor the next day, but that unleashed a popular reaction that convinced even the most sanguine observers that something drastic was afoot. Rallies had already been called for the 4th, and they exploded in size as word got out that the vote was delayed. Across the country that night, crowds gathered and slogans sounded in the firelit dark. St. Louis saw one of the biggest demonstrations, with shouting crowds marching past the convention center for more than three hours. Delegates looked down at the sea of faces, and wondered where it would end.
The proposal to dissolve the Union finally came to a floor vote on the 6th. Despite impassioned pleas from opponents, it passed by a large majority. Another vote abandoned the amendment that would have stopped unfunded mandates—in the absence of a federal government, the point was moot—and a third brought the convention to a close. The moment the final gavel came down, the floor erupted in angry words and more than one shoving match, but the thing was done: what would be, if it passed, the 28th and last amendment to the constitution was on its way to the final test of ratification.
Now Congress’ decision to require amendments to be ratified by state conventions rather than state legislatures came back to haunt the Washington establishment. The power struggle between the states and the federal government had suddenly been overtaken by the people, and if the delegates they elected to the ratifying conventions supported dissolution, there was no way under the constitution to stop them; by law, a US constitutional amendment took effect the moment it was ratified, with no need for enabling legislation or anything else As the crowds marched, though, at least one person was thinking about ignoring the constitution—and he had, in theory, the power to make that happen.
* * *
Admiral Roland Waite, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paced down a Pentagon hallway to “the tank,” the soundproof conference room where the Joint Chiefs met. The Vice Chairman and the heads of the service branches were there, but so were the DCI and DNS, directors of the CIA and NSA respectively, along with key officials from elsewhere in the executive branch. Most of the federal government’s remaining power to make things happen was concentrated in that one room.
“You’ve seen the president.” This from General Mendoza, the Marine Corps commandant.
“Yes.” Waite settled into a chair at the long table in the room’s center. “Every time I go there these days, I wonder if I’m the only adult in the building.” That got an uneasy laugh. “He’s still dead set on a military response,” Waite went on, and the laughter stopped. “Today he ordered me—his word—to get things rolling: troop movements, logistics, everything. He’s got Justice working on the legal excuses.”
“They’ll need ‘em for martial law,” said General Wittkower, the Vice Chairman.
“It’s not just martial law.” Waite leaned forward. “He wants the whole country under military rule. Homeland Security’s working on a list of people to round up, internment camps, that sort of thing.”
“Jesus,” said Wittkower. “He’s talking coup d’etat.”
“Do you think we can make that stick?” Mendoza asked.
The DCI answered. “Best case scenario, yes, but we get a major insurgency out West backed with arms and money from China—no way will Beijing be dumb enough to miss an opportunity like that. Worst case? The National Guard and some Army units side with the states, and we get civil war, again with China backing the other side. Could we win? Heck of a good question.”
“That got asked a lot in 1861,” said Mendoza.
“In 1861,” said Wittkower, “one region wanted out and the rest of the country said no you don’t. Now? The North wants to get rid of the South just as much as the South wants to get rid of the North, and let’s not even talk about the western states. I wish I could say we could count on the Army, but what I’m hearing from our security people isn’t good—and the National Guard is worse.”
“There seems to be a lot of money backing dissolution,” said Waite. “Chinese money?”
“Heck of a good question,” the DCI said again. “America’s made a lot of enemies, and China’s only one of them. We’ve tried to trace the funds, but whoever it is knows how to hide their tracks.”
“What does Wall Street think?” This was from Wittkower.
“Depends on who you ask,” said one of the civilians, a career bureaucrat from Treasury. “Some firms are scared to death of dissolution and some are eager to cash in on it. Military government? That’s no problem, they know they can work with us. Insurgency or civil war is another matter. Even if we win, they’re saying, that’ll trash what’s left of the economy and hand the rest of the world to Beijing. If we don’t win, they’re going to be hanging from lampposts and they know it.”
“Right next to you and me,” Mendoza said. No one laughed; they all knew the commandant was right.
“Here’s the question that matters.” Waite looked from face to face around the table. “Do any of you think we can make it work?” Nobody answered. After a long moment, Waite said, “Well.” He got to his feet. “I think we all know what comes next.”
* * *
P.T. “Pete” Bridgeport showed up at eight the next morning for his weekly talk with the president. A genial fixture in the Senate for three terms, he had been an obvious choice to take the vice presidency after Weed resigned. He neither liked nor trusted Gurney, but politics was politics and a job was a job; he put on his friendly smile and went through the door. He found the president staring at a flat screen with a face the color of putty and the expression of a man who had just been strangled.
“Good God, Lon,” Bridgeport said. “What is it?”
The president kept staring at the screen and said nothing. Bridgeport came around to see for himself. A TV newscast showed Admiral Waite in uniform in one of the Capitol briefing rooms. ADMIRAL: GURNEY PLANS MILITARY COUP was splashed across the bottom of the picture. “—a terrible idea,” Waite was saying, his face bland. The words at the bottom of the picture shifted: RESIGNS AS CHAIRMAN OF JOINT CHIEFS. “But if this is how the American people decide they’re going to exercise their constitutional rights, the military’s job is to salute and say, ‘Yes, sir; yes, ma’am.’”
“Lon,” Bridgeport said quietly, “did you?” He had been told nothing of the military planning, but the president looked at him, and Bridgeport could read the answer in his face. “You’d better pack your bags,” he told Gurney then; his smile was gone, and his voice was suddenly that of the experienced politician explaining realities to a clueless junior. “They’re going to have your guts on toast.”
A president with strong public or Congressional backing could have survived the news, but Gurney had neither. At ten o’clock that morning, the Speaker of the House, ashen-faced, announced that other business would be set aside to consider a bill of impeachment. By the end of the day, nobody doubted that the bill would pass, and a head count of the Senate showed that conviction would follow. That night, Gurney had his press secretary read his resignation and fled the country on a private jet.
President Bridgeport took the oath of office a few minutes before midnight on November 12th, and his inaugural address called on Americans to join together and make the nation work again. Though his personal popularity was high, his message fell on deaf ears. For a great many Americans, Gurney’s failed coup had been the final straw, and Bridgeport’s efforts to rekindle a sense of patriotism were openly compared in the news media to Gorbachev’s attempts to relaunch Communism in the Soviet Union’s last days. Even his executive orders bringing the last US troops home from overseas and scrapping the nation’s obsolete carrier fleet did nothing to shift the terms of the debate.
There was little else Bridgeport could do, because the federal government was dissolving around him. The collapse in the dollar made federal salaries worth next to nothing, when plunging tax revenues allowed the government to pay them at all, and most federal employees simply walked off their jobs. Meanwhile, as the US dollar moved closer by the day to its ultimate value of zero, a pragmatic mix of barter, state scrip and Canadian dollars became the medium of exchange across much of the country.
The first state to ratify the 28th amendment, in a fine piece of irony, was South Carolina, the first state to secede in 1861. The ratifying convention met in Charleston on December 6th, and it took them less than three hours to pass through the formalities and vote for ratification; crowds sang “The Bonny Blue Flag” late into the night. Two days later Colorado met, and though it took longer—a loyalist faction fought hard—the results were the same. Before Colorado voted, Michigan met, and startled observers by voting against ratification. The next day, Iowa and New Mexico met, and voted to ratify.
That was the way it went, day after day, week after week. A handful of states bucked the trend, but only a handful, and the count rose steadily toward the crucial number of 38 states, three-quarters of the total. On January 29, when the Nebraska convention assembled in Lincoln, the count stood at 37 for and 9 against. It was a quiet, businesslike meeting. Once the delegates had been seated and the preliminary business taken care of, by unanimous vote, the convention closed debate and went straight to a roll call vote. By 118 to 32, the 28th amendment was ratified and the United States of America ceased to exist.
* * *
Three weeks later, Pete Bridgeport walked to the Capitol for lunch, greeting passersby on Pennsylvania Avenue as he went. The Capitol doors were unguarded these days; he went to the elevator and punched the floor for the Senate lunchroom. That was a restaurant now, serving the famous Congressional bean soup and sandwiches named after dead presidents to help keep the lights on in the old building. He knew the regulars at lunch, but this time Bridgeport spotted a crowd of unexpected faces.
“Pete!” A senator from Pennsylvania—former senator, Bridgeport reminded himself—waved him over. “Your timing’s good,” she said. “We’re inventing a country.”
“No kidding.” He ordered a bowl of soup and half a Harry Truman, paid in Canadian dollars, and went over to a long table where a dozen former senators and representatives sat over half-eaten lunches. The senator’s words were no surprise. New England had just declared itself a republic, nine southern states had delegates in Montgomery hammering out what wags were calling Confederacy 2.0, the republics of Texas and California had been proclaimed, and word was that Florida would follow shortly
The senator filled him in. “We’ve been at the Senate Office Building on the phones with the states all morning. The seven eastern states that voted against ratification are in. So are Ohio and Delaware—they called off their conventions once Nebraska made it moot. New Jersey only ratified because of Trenton; they want in, and Kentucky talked it over and decided they’d rather be with us than with the South. So what we’re saying is, okay, the rest of you don’t want the Union, that’s fine; we still do.”
“Thinking of using the old name?” Bridgeport asked.
“It’s got a nice sound to it, doesn’t it? Here, take a look at the map.” She handed him a printout: the old United States with a new border, marking off twelve states across the eastern core of the continent: from New York and the mid-Atlantic westward through Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky to Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, linking the Atlantic, the Great Lakes, and the upper Mississippi. It was, Bridgeport realized, a viable nation.
The senator looked past Bridgeport, waved. “Hi, Leona. Care to pull up a chair?”
Leona Price had been the District of Columbia’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, and was a lunchtime regular at the Capitol. The senator filled her in, and asked, “How about the District of Columbia?”
“How about the state of Columbia?” Price replied.
That stopped conversations at the table for a moment, but only a moment; the district’s aspirations to statehood had been common knowledge in the old Congress. “Rhode Island’s gone,” said an Ohio congressman down the table, “so, yeah, we’ve got an opening for a little state. You want the position?”
Price grinned. “Have to put it to the citizens, but I’m guessing yes.”
“Just a moment,” said Bridgeport. He left the table, found another lunchtime regular, a former Senate staffer, and talked to him in a low voice. The staffer left the lunchroom and was back five minutes later with a bundle of cloth. Bridgeport stood up, and said, “Can we clear some space in the middle here? This might be useful.” He and the staffer unrolled the bundle. Thirteen stars in a circle, thirteen red and white stripes: a tourist-shop copy of the original US flag lay spread in front of them.
“It was a pretty good country,” said Bridgeport, “back when there were just thirteen states, and we weren’t trying to run the rest of the world. It could be a good country again.”
“It’ll take a lot of hard work, Mr. President,” said the senator from Pennsylvania. She emphasized the last two words. “A lot of hard work.”
They were all looking at him, Bridgeport realized: not just the senators and representatives, but people all over the lunchroom. “I know,” he said. “What do we need to do first?”
End of the World of the Week #46
If you’re going to be wrong, there’s something to be said for being wrong on the grand scale, and the redoubtable Edgar Cayce certainly managed this when it came to his predictions of apocalypse. A devout if eccentric Christian with a talent for self-hypnosis, Cayce would put himself into trance and provide intuitive readings for clients. The practical advice that came through these sessions was often remarkably sensible—clients who asked about investments all through the 1930s and 1940s were urged to buy and hold stock in electronics and technology companies, a tip that made millions for those who took it—but his scorecard when it came to the end of time was not quite so impressive.
Not that Cayce’s narratives were dull—far from it. According to him, a cataclysmic sequence of earth changes would ravage the planet between 1958 and 1998. The earth’s poles would shift, bringing tropical temperatures to areas that are now frozen; vast tracts of the western United States, Europe, Japan, and other places would sink beneath the seas, and new land would rise out of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; Atlantis would return to the surface in 1968 or 1969; finally, the Second Coming of Christ would take place in 1998, the battle of Armageddon in 1999, and a Utopian future of perfect peace and enlightenment would dawn with the new millennium. It was a grand image, and formed the usually unmentioned backdrop for a great deal of the New Age movement’s more lurid fantasies of the future; it seems almost cruel to point out that none of it happened.