LinkedIn tracking pixel


America is the only country in the world that is exploring the idea of compensation to a portion of its people for  behavior in history by another portion. The innocent people make up around twelve percent and are all African-American; the guilty percentage was minuscule at the time and has disappeared. These are called “reparations” and hold the potential to split an already-divided people to nearly the breaking point. Why does anybody want to do that?

The issue is always presented as slavery, but that is not real. The issue is culpability, and why should there be compensation for behavior already over? Slavery is but one of dozens (hundreds) that can be cited in the long tragic history of the human race. To put it personally: if my great uncle murdered his neighbor, why should I pay the neighbor’s children?

The real issue is human responsibility or logic vs. emotion. The argument for reparations is almost always couched in emotional terms, and that is why it may win out.

Reparations and History

A major item on the current agenda is reparations to African Americans for the centuries of slavery they endured in this country. It is a legitimate issue of interest but, to say the least, popular only in certain circles. The notion goes beyond race and, at bottom, defines the oft-neglected subject, history. The idea of reparations, unintentionally, brings history alive more than any classroom, TV show, textbook, seminar, or library section could possibly do.

In effect, reparations introduces history to modern society and includes all (repeat “all”) as participants in its momentum by defining them as responsible for what occurred, without restrictions on time, place, or circumstance. This represents a revolution in the long odyssey of human conduct: people are held responsible for behavior that actually precedes their own birth, whether they are even aware of this behavior or not. Quite the opposite, their existence alone is sufficient for culpability, a definition of “group identity” in its vast extreme. If something bad happened in 1750 and you were born in 1950, any association automatically renders guilt. Pay up!

At first, this may seem to the unaware as both irrational and incoherent. Not only will it not “solve” ancient realities but it may just as well renew them. Nor is it even slightly reasonable to hold one responsible for conduct committed by someone else, especially those long-since deceased. Placed in an individual context, it seems ludicrous, absurd. My grandfather robbed a bank, should I go on trial ?   

The Result of Reparations in History: War

On the surface, one wonders why the subject even exists. Is it only here or is it universal? Neither, it is rare indeed but not without precedent. Almost always in history, reparations followed war (“indemnities”) but rarely settled anything. After World War I, reparations almost assured World War II.

In 1919, the allied victors of World War I included the “war guilt” clause in the Versailles Treaty, holding Germany as “solely responsible” for the origins of the war. It is fair to say that never before, or since, has a single sentence condemned so many to such a record of death and destruction as that single line. The line, Article 231, not only guaranteed the rise of Nazism, bitter revenge of an entire people, but the greatest scale of human destruction in the annals of history, an estimated 76 million dead twenty years later in the Second World War.

Not only were the reparations, as they came to be called, almost impossible to enforce, they condemned subsequent generations to the futility, year after year, of efforts to make them pay, regardless. The whole affair remains a living testimony to the folly of “human nature” in its self-contained craze to “draw blood from a stone.”

The motivation was not financial (that was the “Roaring Twenties”), it was revenge, pure and simple! During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, temporary moratoriums were announced. No matter, Adolph Hitler cancelled all German debts and tore the Versailles Treaty to pieces. German historian Bernadotte Schmitt wrote that reparations “poisoned the post war world for so many years,” while British historian AJP Taylor wrote that “reparations … kept the passions of war alive.”

The U.S. itself, was instrumental. A delegate on the U.S. team, one John Foster Dulles, helped draft the treaty language. The U.S. also demanded the same from the allies. Both Britain and France had compiled huge “war debts” from American banks and industry, to the tune of $33 billion ($439 billion in today’s currency). President Calvin Coolidge was as adamant that they pay as Hitler was that Germany would not. “They hired the money” he famously (or infamously) declared. During and after World War II, the U.S. came around to reality: both Lend Lease during the war and the Marshall Plan afterward were offered without debt obligations.

Reparations Within and Between Countries

While reparations between countries are common, reparations within countries are rare. The current American debate on reparations for slavery represents a near-unique case when one generation of a people ask compensation for behavior done long ago by previous generations of the same people. This makes slavery reparations more symbolic and theatrical, divorced from any experience either suffered or initiated. Nor is it expected to improve current or future generations; there is no supervision on spending.

Some former colonies have recently brought up the reparations issue against “Mother” countries. As colonialism is a form of “political servitude,” they would have a justification equal to historic American slavery. This would make the list of “slaveholders” practically the whole European continent: Britain, France, Germany, Russia, The Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Ottoman Turkey, Spain, Portugal. Then there is Belgium’s King Leopold, who personally owned the Congo Free State in the nineteenth century and reportedly killed fifteen million natives while extracting diamonds.

In Asia, Japan once ruled almost the entire continent, from Vietnam, China to Korea. Just recently, South Korea demanded that Japan compensate for its long occupation, history of atrocities, and forced labor. Japan reacted indignantly, refused to either apologize or compensate and restricted exports to Korea. Now, relations are severely strained between these two U.S. allies.

In the American slavery case, the “plaintiff” is asking that 330 million citizens pay for the behavior of a small percentage of dead people in the old South. Relatively few southerners owned slaves. Accurate statistics are difficult, but “slaveholders” in the 1860 south numbered around 300,000, in a population of seven million. True, slavery was a shared institution, but it was on “death row” and could not possibly have lasted into the Twentieth Century.


A related question is the “selectivity” of proposed reparations. This presumes that the near obsession of the issue declares that slavery was the only institution on earth that can be targeted. Such an assumption is not only presumptuous but masks a deliberate and flagrant insult to the people, of all colors, religions, origins, and cultures who found life on American soil to be harsh, bitter and, with soldiers, deadly in the hundreds of thousands. The Civil War ended slavery and killed 720,000 white soldiers from both sides, nearly 3% of the population (three percent today is about nine million). What’s the price tag for that reparation?

Is there compensation for child labor, twelve-hour work-days, slums, and tenements? Indeed, the nineteenth century was a hard one for most people. Who are the “deciders”?

A final question is the time period. Is there a cut-off, or is everything fair game? And if not, why not? If current Americans are to pay for slavery, why shouldn’t they pay for the Indian Wars (four centuries), imported diseases, inequalities and atrocities of all kinds ? Why shouldn’t today’s France pay for Napoleon, Italians for Mussolini, Germans for Hitler, Russians for Stalin, and Chinese for Mao? These regimes killed in the tens of millions and enslaved in the hundreds of millions. “ … and Justice for all.”

We might be living in a land of shared fantasies, but a tiny glance at the notion of reparations for old wrongs will show that reparations are not really history. Au contraire, they guarantee that history never ends.


Please note that the views expressed by our faculty, research fellows, students, alumni, and guest lecturers do not necessarily reflect the views of The Institute of World Politics.