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Gentlemen’s Agreement

Gentlemen’s Agreement

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The Gentlemen’s Agreement between the United States and Japan in 1907-1908 represented an effort by President Theodore Roosevelt to calm growing tension between the two countries over the immigration of Japanese workers. A treaty with Japan in 1894 had assured free immigration, but as the number of Japanese workers in California increased, they were met with growing hostility.

In August 1900, Japan agreed to deny passports to laborers seeking to enter the United States; this, however, did not stop the many workers who obtained passports to Canada, Mexico, or Hawaii and then moved on to the United States. Racial antagonism intensified, fed by inflammatory articles in the press. On May 7, 1905, a Japanese and Korean Exclusion League was organized, and on October 11, 1906, the San Francisco school board arranged for all Asian children to be placed in a segregated school.

Japan was prepared to limit immigration to the United States, but was deeply wounded by San Francisco’s discriminatory law aimed specifically at its people. President Roosevelt, wishing to preserve good relations with Japan as a counter to Russian expansion in the Far East, intervened. While the American ambassador reassured the Japanese government, Roosevelt summoned the San Francisco mayor and school board to the White House in February 1907 and persuaded them to rescind the segregation order, promising that the federal government would itself address the question of immigration. On February 24, the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan was concluded in the form of a Japanese note agreeing to deny passports to laborers intending to enter the United States and recognizing the U.S. right to exclude Japanese immigrants holding passports originally issued for other countries. This was followed by the formal withdrawal of the San Francisco school board order on March 13, 1907. A final Japanese note dated February 18, 1908, made the Gentlemen’s Agreement fully effective. The agreement was superseded by the exclusionary Immigration Act of 1924.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Telangana History The Gentlemen’s Agreement February 20,1956

The Gentlemen’s agreement of Andhra Pradesh has a precedent in the Sribagh Pact of 1937 which was between the leaders of Rayalaseema and Coastal Telugu speaking districts of Madras State to provide assurances for Rayalaseema in return for their willingness to join Andhra State. This unbind¬ing pact was largely forgotten probably because of the large political representation of the region has had in the state governments since independence When the Hyderabad State led by the Nizam of Hyderabad was invaded by India in Operation Polo, there was a debate in the Telugu-speaking districts of the Hyderabad State (1948-56) whether to join the newly formed Andhra State, carved out of Telugu speaking districts of Madras state.
States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) recommended that “the Telangana area is to constitute into a separate State, which may be known as the Hyderabad State with provision for its unification with Andhra after the general elections likely to be held in or about 1961 if by a two thirds majority the legislature of the residency Hyderabad State expresses itself in favour of such unification”.

Victor Metcalf, Secretary of Commerce and Labor

An image of the typescript letter is available at the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University.

In the fall of 1906, the San Francisco school board decided to send all their Japanese-American children to a segregated school. The Japanese government objected strongly to Japanese nationals and their descendants being treated with the same kind of racism that Americans applied to the Chinese.

Diplomatic negotiations between Japan and the United States resulted in the "Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907": the United States refrained from passing laws that specifically excluded Japanese immigration or discriminated against Japanese Americans, and Japan agreed to prevent its working-class citizens from leaving for the United States. The agreement was not a single document or treaty but an understanding between the two governments worked out in a series of notes and conversations. This letter comes from early in the process.

My dear Secretary Metcalf,

Let me begin by complimenting you upon the painstaking thoroness and admirable temper with which you have been going into the case of the treatment of the Japanese on the coast. If our treaty contains no "most favored nation" clause then I am inclined to feel as strongly as you do that we had better take no action to upset the action of the Board of Education of the City of San Francisco. I had a talk with the Japanese Ambassador before I left for Panama read him what I was to say in my annual message, which evidently pleased him very much and then told him that in my judgment the only way to prevent constant friction between the United States and Japan was to keep the movement of the citizens of each country into the other restricted as far as possible to students, travelers, business men, and the like that inasmuch as no American laboring men were trying to get into Japan what was necessary was to prevent all immigration of Japanese laboring men - - that is, of the Coolie class - - into the United States that I earnestly hoped his Government would stop their coolies, all their working men, from coming either to the United States or to Hawaii. He assented cordially to this view and said that he had always been against permitting Japanese coolies to go to America or to Hawaii. Of course the great difficulty in getting the Japanese to take this view is the irritation caused by the San Francisco action. I hope that my message will smooth over their feelings so that the government will quietly stop all immigration of coolies into our country. At any rate I shall do my best to bring this about.

A Concise History of Germany’s Autobahns

The autobahn. Germany. Take a poll, and you'll likely find that just about every gearhead dreams of driving on autobahns, Germany's speed-limit-free, no-holds-barred highways—though driving them isn't necessarily the experience you might expect. How did these famed road networks come to be, why are there no speed limits, and what's it really like to drive at any speed you like? Cinch up that seat belt and let's find out.

Early German Autobahn History

The world's first limited-access highways—ones on which vehicles could only enter or exit at designated points—were built in New York in the early 1900s. In Germany, construction on the first controlled-access highway began in 1913, though World War I delayed its opening until 1921. The Automobil Verkehrs und Übungsstraße (Automobile Traffic and Training Road), built just outside of Berlin, doubled as a race and test track. It was basically two straightaways bracketed by banked turns, but its divided roadways and limits on other types of traffic made it Germany's first modern highway. It remains part of the roadway network to this day, complete with the original wooden grandstand.

Hitler's Reichsautobahn

Germany's planning for an inter-city highway network began in the mid-1920s, with a Cologne-Bonn road opened in 1932, but it wasn't until the Nazis came to power in 1933 that construction began in earnest. The Nazi party initially opposed a highway network on the grounds that it would primarily benefit the rich aristocrats who could afford a car. It wasn't until Adolf Hitler realized the propaganda value of individual mobility—a nation-wide road network and an affordable "people's car" to populate it—that the Nazis embraced the idea. The project would become the world's first high-speed road network.

Construction on what became known as the Reichsautobahn proceeded rapidly, with an emphasis on east-west and north-south connections, and routes that showed off the German scenery. But working conditions and pay were poor, and by the late 1930s, with armament manufacturers offering better jobs, labor was becoming difficult to find. The onset of war detracted from construction efforts, and the Nazis didn't see the road network as much of a military asset, though some sections did have their center medians paved so they could be used as airstrips. Work on the Reichsautobahn was halted in 1943, by which time about 1,300 miles of roadway were completed.

Post-War and Post Unification Renewal and Expansion

Following Germany's defeat, the road network that would soon be known as the Bundesautobahn (Federal Highway) was in bad shape. Many sections were never completed, others were damaged by Allied bombs, and several bridges had been destroyed by the retreating German army. Ironically,

the autobahns in Germany proved more useful for Allied military forces than for their domestic forces.

Repair of the existing road network began in earnest, and by 1953 the West German government began to focus on expanding it. By 1964, the system had grown to 1,865 miles, and in 1984 it exceeded 4,970 miles. German reunification in 1990 expanded the system to 6,835 miles, though poor conditions of the highways in the former East Germany—many of which had narrow medians and no shoulders, just as they were in 1945—put the emphasis back on repair and modernization. By the turn of the century the German Autobahn System was growing again, and in 2004 it became the third-largest superhighway system in the world, behind the U.S. and China. Today, there are some 8,078 miles of autobahn in Germany.

Is There Really No Speed Limit on Germany's Autobahns?

The notion that there are no autobahn speed limits isn't entirely true: About 30-percent of the network has speed limits that range from 80-130 kph (50-81 mph). Some of these limits are static while others are dynamic, changing based on traffic and road conditions. Some roads have night-time or wet-weather speed limits, and some classes of vehicles, such as heavy trucks, have their own speed limits.

For cars and motorcycles traveling the bulk of the autobahn, there is an "advisory" speed limit of 130 kph (81 mph). It's not illegal to go faster, but in the event of a crash, a driver's liability may increase based on speed, even if the driver was not at fault. German automakers have a "gentlemen's agreement" to limit the speed of their cars to 250 kph (155 mph). Some lower-performance models have lower speed limiters in order to avoid exceeding their tires' limitations.

The autobahns also have a minimum speed requirement: Vehicles must be able to maintain 60 kph (37 mph) on flat terrain. Some stretches have minimum speeds of 90 kph (56 mph) or 110 kph (68 mph) in certain lanes.

Autobahn Germany: History of Speed Limits

The Nazi government passed the Road Traffic Act in 1934, limiting speeds to 60 kph (37 mph) in urban areas but setting no limit for rural roads or autobahns. In 1939, responding to fuel shortages, the government lowered the limit to 40 kph (25 mph) in town and 80 kph (50 mph) on all other roads. The West German government did away with all federal speed limits in 1952, ceding authority to the individual states. An appalling rise in traffic deaths led to a country-wide speed limit of 100 kph (62 mph) in 1972, though autobahns remained unrestricted.

In December 1973, the oil crisis prompted the West German government to set an autobahn speed limit of 100 kph (62 mph). The measure was instantly unpopular and was repealed the following March. The advisory speed limit was adopted in 1978. Legislation to set a hard speed limit (usually 130 kph/81 mph) comes up on a fairly regular basis and is always defeated.

Building (and Maintaining) For Speed

If you live in places where road construction and/or maintenance leaves something to be desired—Los Angeles and Detroit come to mind—German Autobahns are designed for high-speed driving. Freeze-resistant concrete or asphalt is laid over a heavy roadbed, with a combined depth in the neighborhood of 30 inches. Curves are gentle and slightly banked, and grades are limited to 4 percent. The roadways are split with a center median that features dual guardrails or concrete barriers. The routes generally avoid large cities, which are accessed by spur roads.

At high speeds, pavement irregularities can become fatal obstacles, so Germany's autobahn roadways receive frequent and detailed inspection. Repair generally involves replacing sections of the roadway rather than patching, which sounds like a dream here in the U.S.

Autobahn Germany: What's It Really Like to Drive?

Driving the high-speed sections of the autobahn in Germany is not a matter of simply flooring the accelerator and watching the speedo climb. Speed limits come and go, especially near cities, and high-speed sections are punctuated by speed-limited sections enforced by photo radar. Lane discipline is strict (though not as well observed as you might expect, especially nowadays), tailgating is frowned upon, and passing on the right is strictly forbidden.

When driving on an unrestricted section of autobahn in Germany, you must look far down the road—you may be bombing down the highway at 180 kph (112 mph) when a car doing 130 pulls into the left lane in front of you to pass a truck limited to 80 kph. You also have to keep one eye glued to the mirror for Porsches and big Mercedes coming up fast from behind—they really do seem to materialize out of thin air. While the Germans are fanatical about road inspection, there's no guarantee they will find a pothole before you do, so you also need to keep a careful eye on the road condition ahead

The end result is that driving fast on German autobahns can be an exhausting experience, a sharp contrast from the more relaxed driving style common on American highways. The concentration you must exert rises exponentially with speed it's an adrenaline rush for sure, but once you've tried it, you'll understand why so many autobahn drivers in Germany cruise at more sedate speeds—or just take the train.

Moments in Car History: The Japanese Gentleman’s Agreement

For almost two decades, Japanese automakers were engaged in a state of informal, unstated mutual restraint, where no car that they produced would have higher than 280 horsepower. There are a few reasons suggested for this, but sources seem to agree that it was mostly about safety.

According to The Japan Times, this informal agreement had roots back in the mid-’70s, when Japan was beginning to have a real problem with groups collectively called the bosozoku—street gangs on motorcycles and cars who would ignore traffic rules and raise havoc.

To fix this problem, the Japan Automobile Manufacturer’s Association (JAMA) suggested that Japanese auto makers put a speed-limiting device on all future Japanese vehicles to restrict speed to 180 kph. When the public showed support for the idea, auto manufacturers implemented the limiters. Unfortunately, although gang activity was limited, the bosozoku gangs still exist today.

So, when a new crisis came about in the late ’80s, Japanese automakers were ready to take action. In the 1980s, Japan’s road fatalities were rising to alarming levels, peaking at more than 10,000 in 1988. JAMA once again stepped in, asking carmakers to limit engine power to around 280 horsepower, since they believed that high speeds and road deaths were directly linked.

Timed as it was to coincide with the release of the Nissan Fairlady Z (which had exactly that many horsepower), the suggestion was taken to heart—following this suggestion, safety- and image-minded automakers brought in better and better engines, but all with the 280 horsepower tag.

The Datsun Fairlady Z (the Datsun company is owned by Nissan)

By the mid- to late-’90s, though, as safety features like airbags, pretensioner seat belts, and antilock brakes were introduced, road fatalities began to drop, making some wonder whether horsepower really had anything to do with it.

At the time, car manufacturers must have been wondering the same thing. Although vehicles coming in still bore the 280-horsepower tag, many, such as the Skyline GT-R, were already breaking the rule—as Jalopnik’s Doug DeMuro recently found, it actually produced something more like 320 horsepower.

Dissent grew further as foreign manufacturers built stronger and stronger cars, limiting the Japanese car market abroad, until the pivotal (and surprisingly recent) year of 2004. In July of 2004, Former JAMA Chairman Itaru Koeda went before the press to tell them the truth—JAMA had found no relationship between speed and road fatalities. Koeda called for an end to the gentleman’s agreement.

This also happened at the same time as the release of a vehicle that would start the trend—the Honda Legend, which produced 300 horsepower. Since then Japanese horsepower has climbed, and climbed, and climbed until it has joined the rest of the world.

Thanks goodness, too, because with that limit, there is no way that we would have ended up with our beloved 550-horsepower 2016 Nissan GT-R. That isn’t a world we want to live in.

It just wouldn’t be worth it

Before you purchase a new car it is best practice to get a full history check to ensure the car doesn’t have a hidden history. Good history checks include financial data, theft status, mileage concerns, finance outstanding, plate transfers, color changes, ownership information and more. Companies like CarVeto provide such services and include both free and paid background checks.

The News Wheel is a digital auto magazine providing readers with a fresh perspective on the latest car news. We’re located in the heart of America (Dayton, Ohio) and our goal is to deliver an entertaining and informative perspective on what’s trending in the automotive world. See more articles from The News Wheel.

Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907-1908

Rather than enacting racially discriminatory and offensive immigration laws, President Theodore Roosevelt sought to avoid offending the rising world power of Japan through this negotiated agreement by which the Japanese government limited the immigration of its own citizens.


Harper's Weekly

Government letters Journal articles

Discussion Questions

How does President Roosevelt propose the two countries avoid “constant friction”?

What class of immigrants does President Roosevelt wish to block?

What long-term impacts might this law have on Japanese communities in the United States?


Increasing levels of Japanese immigration, in part to replace excluded Chinese agricultural workers, met with concerted opposition in California. To appease Californians and avoid an open breach with the rising world power of Japan, President Theodore Roosevelt brokered this diplomatic agreement whereby the Japanese government assumed responsibility for sharply restricting Japanese immigration, particularly that of laborers, so that Japanese American children could continue to attend integrated schools on the west coast. Family migration could continue, however, as Japanese American men with sufficient savings could bring wives through arranged marriages (“picture brides”), their parents, and minor children. Consequently, the Japanese American population was more gender balanced than other Asian American communities and continued to grow through natural increase, leading to more pressures to end their immigration and further diminish rights for those in residence.


President Theodore Roosevelt letter to Victor Metcalf, Secretary of Commerce and Labor (1906)

My dear Secretary Metcalf,

Let me begin by complimenting you upon the painstaking thoroness and admirable temper with which you have been going into the case of the treatment of the Japanese on the coast . . . I had a talk with the Japanese Ambassador before I left for Panama read him what I was to say in my annual message, which evidently pleased him very much and then told him that in my judgment the only way to prevent constant friction between the United States and Japan was to keep the movement of the citizens of each country into the other restricted as far as possible to students, travelers, business men, and the like that inasmuch as no American laboring men were trying to get into Japan what was necessary was to prevent all immigration of Japanese laboring men – – that is, of the Coolie class – – into the United States that I earnestly hoped his Government would stop their coolies, all their working men, from coming either to the United States or to Hawaii. He assented cordially to this view and said that he had always been against permitting Japanese coolies to go to America or to Hawaii . . . I hope that my message will smooth over their feelings so that the government will quietly stop all immigration of coolies into our country. At any rate I shall do my best to bring this about.

Oral Agreement

A gentleman's agreement is an informal agreement based on casual communication and/or physical actions between the two parties, without any formal written documentation. The terms of the agreement are implied or expressed in the dialogue exchanged between the parties. The agreement may not form a legally binding contract which can be upheld in court. The situation often presents a "he said, she said" dilemma. If the two parties agree on certain facts in the gentleman's agreement, a legal expert can apply a contract analysis to determine if a legally binding contract was actually formed.

When 'Gentleman's Agreement' Made Jewish Oscars History

Sixty-five years ago, in 1948, when the cinematic version of her story, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” received the Oscar for best picture, Laura Z. Hobson was a 47-year-old, divorced, Jewish single mother living in Manhattan. The success of “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which was serialized in Cosmopolitan in 1946, published by Simon & Schuster in 1947 and produced as a film by 20th Century Fox later that year, had made Hobson into a wealthy and famous woman.

She wrote eight more books, found a Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park, accoutered herself at Bergdorf Goodman and sent her boys off to Exeter and Harvard, respectively, at a time when doing so belied the notion of the most damaging of “gentleman’s agreements.”

“Gentleman’s Agreement” told the story of a non-Jewish reporter, Phil Green, who pretends to be Jewish in order to investigate anti-Semitism. That someone as all-American as Green, played by Gregory Peck, succeeded in masquerading as a Jew was the story’s feel-good premise. It was a twist on the traditional “passing” story, and it implied that Jews, finally, really were just like Christians.

Throughout her life, Hobson attracted people seeking to move beyond the categories and labels imposed on them by birth. Many years later, and before his own passing story became public, literary critic Anatole Broyard wrote admiringly of Hobson’s life and work in a New York Times review of her autobiography.

In 1944, when Hobson first floated her idea to her publisher, Richard Simon of Simon & Schuster, he objected. “Readers will not believe that a gentile would pose as a Jew,” he said. A Jewish New Yorker and a graduate of both the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and Columbia University, Simon could not fathom a world in which a non-Jew would willingly assume a Jewish identity it sounded like a fairy tale.

Hollywood, however, grabbed up Hobson’s story even before the novel was published.

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“Nothing could have made me more happy than the reviews we received on ‘Gentleman’s Agreement,’” the film’s non-Jewish producer, Darryl Zanuck, cabled to Hobson in November 1947, after the movie’s premiere. “When you consider that we were pioneering in a new field…. It is truly amazing that we have come off as beautifully as we have…. Again, many thanks for writing a wonderful book and giving me an opportunity to bask in a little sunshine.”

Zanuck was lauded for his courage in taking on a subject that made Jewish Hollywood skittish: Laura Z. Hobson was the not-quite-famous author (she had published only one other novel) with a not-quite-Jewish name, to whom readers and movie viewers wrote, inquiring coyly: Are you a Jewess?

Did it matter? Hobson thought not, and she chided her fans for suggesting otherwise. What had been the point of “Gentleman’s Agreement,” if not that Jews and Christians were capable of the same emotions, behaviors and appearances? (Actually, some walked away with other ideas. Famed writer Ring Lardner Jr. quipped, “The movie’s moral is that you should never be mean to a Jew, because he might turn out to be a gentile.”)

When Phil reveals his true, gentile identity to his aghast secretary, he says: “‘Look, I’m the same guy I’ve been all along. Same face, nose, tweed suit, voice, everything. Only the word ‘Christian’ is different. Someday you’ll believe me about people being people instead of words and labels.’” It was a lovely sentiment, and one that Peck embodied more than a decade later when he played his most famous role — Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

In part, readers wanted to know Hobson’s religion better to judge her audacity. The assumption at the time was that it was doubly courageous for a gentile author to take on the fight against anti-Semitism. These readers knew little about the audacity that had already characterized Hobson’s life. They did not know, for instance, that Hobson had put herself through Cornell — a school where neither Kappa Kappa Gamma nor Phi Beta Kappa welcomed a young woman by the name of Zametkin or that Hobson had been the first woman that Henry Luce hired at Time to work in a nonsecretarial capacity (Hobson wrote promotional material for Time Inc.).

And what would readers have made of the knowledge that her husband, Francis Thayer Hobson, president of William Morrow, had left Hobson abruptly, after five years of marriage and in the midst of their efforts to conceive a child?

Or that, a few years later, Hobson made a solo trip out to the same Evanston, Ill., adoption agency to which Al Jolson, Bob Hope and Donna Reed turned in order to adopt her first son? Or that she gave birth, in her early 40s, to her second son, choosing not to tell the father, with whom she’d had a dalliance?

What was bolder — but really, very typically Laura Hobson — was her staging, with the help of a few close friends, of a fake adoption so that her older, adopted son might feel none of the pain of being different or lesser.

Was there anything to which Hobson was more sensitive than that pain that came with feeling different? It’s unlikely. It had been stamped onto her earliest memories of being Laura Zametkin of the Jamaica section of Queens, daughter of Russian Jewish radicals Michael Zametkin, an editor at the Forverts and Adella Kean, a columnist at Der Tog. At the time of the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Laura’s parents draped their house in black bunting.

There were ways, however, of moving beyond that history even the troublesome last name could be surmounted. Contemporary women may feel that by keeping a maiden name, they are holding on to an identity or publicly declaring spousal equality, but Hobson had always done things in her own inimitable way, and assuming the surname of her Greenwich Village live-in boyfriend, Tom Mount, was her choice. “Laura Mount” had a nice ring to it, the young writer decided, and so her first New Yorker story — a subtle treatment of anti-Semitism in polite society — appeared under that byline in 1932.

Later, her husband, provided another suitable option. This time, his wife tucked her Z in the middle. “The Z is for Zametkin, my maiden name,” she wrote in the first lines of her 1983 autobiography, “and I have clung to it through all my years, because it held my identity in tact before that Anglo-Saxon married name of Hobson.”

Hobson’s decision to write a novel about American anti-Semitism was more daring than it may seem today. When, in February 1944, she read an article in Time magazine about Mississippi Rep. John Rankin calling Walter Winchell a “kike,” Hobson was outraged, and even more outraged to read that nobody in the House of Representatives had protested. Hobson kept the clipping in her scrapbook, which is now housed in the Columbia University archives with the rest of her papers. She wrote about the Rankin episode in her first draft of “Gentleman’s Agreement.”

Hobson’s friend Dorothy Thompson, “the first lady of American journalism” and the first American journalist expelled from Nazi Germany, remained skeptical that writing a novel about anti-Semitism was the proper way to fight the problem. Furthermore, it seemed a shame to Thompson that Hobson was not planning to write about the actual experience of being a Jew, but instead only about someone pretending to be Jewish. After reading the synopsis that Hobson had mailed her, Thompson wrote back. Though she had known few Jews when she was growing up in a Puritan, Anglo-Saxon community, she said she could “vividly remember that my first impression of Jewish homes was that the kids had a hell of a lot better time in them than we did… I also thought that they ate marvelous and vastly more interesting food!” Might not Hobson add a little of that ethnic-religious flavoring to her novel? She demurred that wasn’t really her thing.

Simon was less interested in a more Jewish book than he was in a book that sold. Throughout 1944, he and Hobson corresponded about the possibilities for a novel about anti-Semitism. He was not enthusiastic. Sales for Hobson’s first novel, “The Trespassers” — a story of Nazi refugees — had been less than stellar. “I do think the cards are stacked terribly against this project,” he warned Hobson.

“Dick, let’s skip it for now,” she wrote back, not quite dismissing Simon’s four-page letter that had outlined “heartbreak possibilities” for Hobson if she went forward with her novel. Why not simply return to advertising and a reliable salary and “security for my boys if I am going to give up a book merely because it might bring me heartbreak? Because I can’t see what the hell is the use of enduring the chancy insecurity of being an author unless you write stuff that you yourself find a deep satisfying rightness in.”

“Maybe this is not the book,” Hobson wrote. “Maybe it will smell ‘tract’ to high heaven.” If so, Hobson promised, she’d give it up, “because it’s no satisfaction to keep writing a lousy tracty book.” Still, she wouldn’t know “unless I try about six chapters…. Maybe those first chapters would be so different from what you expect, so fascinating and interesting, that you will yourself urge me to go on.”

In the end, what had once seemed a fantastic idea — that a gentile would pose as a Jew and fight anti-Semitism — was so convincingly told that it now seems banal.

Watching “Gentleman’s Agreement,” today, it is hard to make out what had seemed so path-breaking about Peck’s character declaring himself a Jew, as though words themselves — the names we call ourselves and the stories we tell about ourselves — have the power to create new realities. But that was the triumph of Hobson’s story: It had become part of America’s story, complete with a Hollywood ending.

Rachel Gordan is a postdoctoral fellow in American Judaism at Northwestern University.

The Gentleman’s Agreement That Ended the Civil War

One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, on April 9, 1865, a lone Confederate horseman violently waving a white towel as a flag of truce galloped up to the men of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry near Appomattox Court House and asked for directions to the headquarters of Major General Philip Sheridan. On orders from generals Robert E. Lee and John Gordon, the rider, Captain R. M. Sims, carried a message requesting a suspension of hostilities to allow negotiations of surrender to take place. He made his way to General George Armstrong Custer, who sent the rider back to his superiors with the following reply: “We will listen to no terms but that of unconditional surrender.”

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The South’s Army of Northern Virginia was in its final hours. The Union army, led by General Ulysses S. Grant, had relentlessly pursued the Confederate troops—this time, there would be no possible escape. Lee and his men were famished, exhausted and surrounded. “There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant,” he told his staff that morning, “and I would rather die a thousand deaths.” Messengers, racing between the lines, carried communiques between the two camps, to halt the fighting and arrange a meeting. Generals Grant and Lee agreed to convene at the home of Wilmer McLean at Appomattox Court House to stop the fighting between their two armies. The most punishing conflict ever fought on American soil was coming to an end.

The Civil War was entering its fifth year. Nothing in America’s experience in the past or since had been so brutal or costly. The toll on the nation had been enormous, and few had escaped its impact. More than 600,000 Northern and Southern soldiers had died, hundreds of thousands maimed and wounded billions of dollars had been lost and destruction of property was widespread. The war at times seemed to have no resolution. But the previous December, General William T. Sherman had completed his destructive march to the sea the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, had fallen earlier in April and now the once great Army of Northern Virginia was decimated and surrounded.

Lee arrived at the McLean house first, wearing a crisp gray uniform and dress sword. Grant entered a half hour later, dressed informally in what he called a “soldier’s blouse,” his boots and pants spattered with mud. Grant’s staff officers crowded the room. The two commanders sat across from each other in the home’s parlor, Lee in a tall caned armchair and Grant in a swivel chair with a padded leather back next to a small oval side table. They made some small talk before Lee asked on what terms Grant would “receive the surrender of my army.”

Many within the Union considered Confederates traitors who were personally responsible for this tremendous loss of lives and property. Lee’s own army had threatened the nation’s capital and had to be driven back in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. The terms of surrender, however, would be a simple gentlemen’s agreement. Healing the country, rather than vengeance, directed Grant’s and the Lincoln administration’s actions. There would be no mass imprisonments or executions, no parading of defeated enemies through Northern streets. Lincoln’s priority—shared by Grant—was “to bind up the nation’s wounds” and unite the country together again as a functioning democracy under the Constitution extended retribution against the former Confederates would only slow down the process.

The Army of Northern Virginia would surrender their arms, return home, and agree “not to take up arms against the Government of the United States.” At Lee’s request, Grant even allowed Confederates who owned their own horses to keep them so that they could tend their farms and plant spring crops. A Union officer wrote down the terms. Grant then signed the document on the side table next to his chair and passed it to Lee for his signature. Firing of salutes spontaneously rang out as news of the surrender reached nearby Union lines. At once, Grant sent out the order, “The war is over the rebels are our countrymen again and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field.” Other Southern forces remained in the field further south, but few would continue fighting when they learned of the outcome at Appomattox. With Lee’s surrender, the war effectively came to an end.

On April 9, 1865, a lone Confederate horseman violently waving a white towel (above) as a flag of truce galloped up to the men of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry near Appomattox Court House and asked for directions to the headquarters of Major General Philip Sheridan. (National Museum of American History)

Those present at Appomattox knew this was a historic moment. Over McLean’s objections, Union officers snapped up his furniture as trophies, leaving behind gold coins as payment. General Sheridan took the side table, Brigadier General Henry Capehart removed Grant’s chair, and Lieutenant Colonel Whitaker obtained Lee’s. Sheridan gave the table to Custer as a present for his wife, Elizabeth, who would also receive from Whitaker a portion of the surrender towel the Confederate rider used earlier that day.

Over the decades, as if by some force of nature or history, the trophies of war removed form McLean’s home reunited at the Smithsonian. Capehart had given the Grant chair to one of his officers, General Wilmon Blackmar, who bequeathed it to the Institution in 1906. Whitaker would donate Lee’s chair to a Grand Army of the Republic charity event, where it was purchased by Captain Patrick O’Farrell and later donated to the Smithsonian by his widow in 1915. In 1936, Elizabeth Custer, whose late husband is better remembered for his last stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn than his role in the Civil War, gave the side table and her portion of the surrender towel. United again, these common everyday objects—a red striped towel, a couple of chairs, and a side table—document an extraordinary moment in history, when the Civil War effectively came to an end, and, though dramatically remade, the nation would be preserved.

Reconciliation after the war would not be as easy or painless as many of the individuals who crowded into the McLean parlor on that spring day had hoped. While finding a path to reunite the nation might have been the goal of some, others turned to the struggle over political, social and economic power in the post-war era that saw tremendous and far-reaching changes. Reconstruction was a slow and at times violent undertaking, and Lincoln’s wish that the nation shall have a new birth of freedom would largely be deferred. The Union was saved, but the intersections of race and legacy of slavery, which was at the core of the Civil War, continues to confront Americans today.

These objects from that day a century-and-a-half ago act as silent witnesses to remind us of a truly remarkable time when two generals helped choreograph an unusually understanding armistice between two war-weary combatants.

Harry R. Rubenstein originally wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian Institution and Zócalo Public Square.

The “gentlemen’s agreement” - A Relic of Austin’s Racist Past: Or, why did we need to change the system, anyway?

Until the passage of 10-1, Austin, Texas used an at-large ‘places’ system to elect city council members. “At-large” means every voter votes for every council member – and that means none of us had a council member that represented our neighborhood. We were the largest city in the country without geographic representation. (The ‘places’ don’t refer to geography or location at all -- just when a council member is up for re-election.) In a city the size of Austin, that means that each council member represented all 800,000 citizens.

At-large elections are a system where communities of color or of lower-income levels have the cards stacked against them. Citywide elections are expensive to run and in Austin, all elections were city wide before 10-1. Regular folks didn’t have the money to compete. But, we’re Austin. There’s no way that we would intentionally set-up a system that oppresses members of our community? We’re progressive, right?

Ignorance and Influence: Austin, Texas in the ‘50s

Austin’s recent at-large council system was founded in racism. In 1951, after WW2, Arthur B. DeWitty, an African-American, ran for Austin City Council. DeWitty was the President of the NAACP and a leader in the growing civil rights movement. DeWitty almost won under the system then in place, infuriating the white majority. The next year, city council changed the way Austin held its elections by creating at-large council seats, making it impossible to elect a person of color to council. The new at-large ‘places’ system required that all Austinites approve all councilmembers. That meant that the 1950’s white majority controlled who won council elections.

The racist at-large system created in the 50’s was the same system we had in Austin until 10-1, with the addition of the 1970’s “gentlemen’s agreement” to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

So … What’s the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’?

In the early 70’s, after City Council’s racist history with DeWitty, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) forced Austin to allow minority representation. However, the white power elite found a way to maintain control. Rather than abolish the racist at-large system, Austin’s moneyed interests committed to only support an African-American for Place 6 and an Hispanic for Place 7.

The ‘agreement’ went something like this: To make sure that people of color were elected to council, rich, Anglo business leaders in town vowed to hold 2 seats on the council for people of color: 1 for an African-American and 1 for an Hispanic.

How could they be sure that Austin would consistently elect a minority to those seats? Easy. The power elite promised not to give money to anyone who was Anglo and ran in those spots. That commitment satisfied the VRA, but kept all the power in the hands of the moneyed interests and out of the minority communities.

How did the power elite remain in control? Simple. All council seats were at-large, which meant that all elections remained expensive to run. This also meant that the Anglo majority had to approve all council members – even those two reserved “minority” seats.

Since that time, 15 out of the last 17 mayors and a full 50% of council have come from 4 ZIP codes in downtown and West Austin. The Anglo majority still controls city council, and even controls which minority candidate “represents” the minority communities.

Shockingly, this is how the Austin City Council had maintained minority representation until now. There is history in the making in the 2014 City Council elections. Each corner of the city will have a designated council member, of their choice, on the city council, which means better representation and a better chance of being heard.

Be a part of making history by electing your first Austin City Council District Representative. Vote early … and don’t forget to vote local at the end of the ballot!

Gentlemen’s Agreement - HISTORY

In order that the best results might follow an enforcement of the regulations, an understanding was reached with Japan that the existing policy of discouraging emigration of its subjects of the laboring classes to continental United States should be continued, and should, by co-operation with the governments, be made as effective as possible. This understanding contemplates that the Japanese government shall issue passports to continental United States only to such of its subjects as are non-laborers or are laborers who, in coming to the continent, seek to resume a formerly acquired domicile, to join a parent, wife, or children residing there, or to assume active control of an already possessed interest in a farming enterprise in this country, so that the three classes of laborers entitled to receive passports have come to be designated "former residents " "parents, wives, or children of residents " and "settled agriculturists."

With respect to Hawaii, the Japanese government of its own volition stated that, experimentally at least, the issuance of passports to members of the laboring classes proceeding thence would be limited to "former residents" and "parents, wives, or children of residents." The said government has also been exercising a careful supervision over the subject of emigration of its laboring class to foreign contiguous territory.

Watch the video: Gentlemans Agreement (August 2022).