Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Was the American revolution a real revolution?

July 4, 2020

I just got finished reading Gordon S. Wood’s THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Wood said the American revolution was a real revolution, which brought about profound social changes, but was different from what the Founders had in mind.

As Wood saw it, the revolution proceeded from Monarchy, which the Founders overthrew, through Republicanism, which was their goal, to Democracy, which they did not intend.  For the first time, the expression, “this is a republic, not a democracy,” makes sense to me.

The core principle of the old regime in all Western countries in the 1700s was patriarchy.  The supreme authority was God, imagined as a Heavenly Father.  Next under God were kings and emperors, then various levels of aristocrats down through commoners and servants.

Society was a series of interconnected extended families, each ruled by a father-figure over women, children (Including grown children), servants and other dependents.

Aristocrats were expected to live a life of luxury, display and conspicuous consumption, because that made them job creators.  Their servants plus makers of luxury goods were a big part of the work force.

Master craftsmen also were patriarchs of extended families, ruling wives, grown children, journeymen and apprentices in extended households.

Only people of a certain social rank were entitled to live a life of luxury.  The poor were expected to be humble, frugal and unostentatious, and could literally be punished for getting above themselves.

Most people were born into specific roles, which they normally would be expected to play through life.  It was possible to rise in life, but only through patronage.

Rich and powerful people did favors for the poor and humble; they were expected to give loyalty in return.  You could see a modern example of this principle in the opening scenes of “The Godfather,’ where Don Corleone gives help in return for submission and the promise of a favor someday in return.

It was possible to rise in rank by making yourself useful to some patron.  At the same time, you spread your own influence by patronizing those who needed your power and influence.

 Patronage networks exist in almost all societies in all periods of history, including the contemporary USA, Russia and China, but in those days, patronage was not something below the surface.  It was a principle for organizing society.

Interestingly, riots and violent protests were common in 18th century England and its colonies.  The upper classes took them in stride.  They regarded them as a way that the lower classes could blow off steam.  They didn’t really threaten the social order.

In the 18th century, the British were probably less subordinate to hierarchies of birth than any other European people, and the British colonists in North America were more free than anyone else in the British Empire.

But their freedom, going back to Magna Carta, consisted of rights granted by the British crown to its subjects and enshrined in law.  They stemmed from law and precedent, not any theory of universal human rights.  This was what the British statesman Edmund Burke meant when he said he knew nothing of the “rights of man,” only of the rights of Englishmen.

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A brief history of objectivity in American news

June 16, 2020

[This is a replacement for my half-baked, deleted comment on the previous post.]

We talk about objective news reporting as if it were an age-old professional standard that everybody had always accepted.  In fact, it is a fairly recent development, very much related to economic considerations.

Most people in the 19th century USA would have been surprised to be told that journalists should not be opinionated.  Newspapers typically were organs of political parties and got their revenue from government printing contracts when their party was in power.

Other newspapers were organs of the local business community, or of churches, or of political reformers.  Others made money from being sensational or entertaining.

That doesn’t mean that all journalism of that era was of a low quality.  The Federalist Papers were first published as newspaper articles.  The Lincoln-Douglas debates were published in full in newspapers.  Mark Twain got his start as a newspaper reporter.  The muckrakers of the early 20th century exposed corruption in government and politics, and provided ammunition for the progressive reform movement.

Adolph Ochs’ New York Times made a point of separating news and opinion.  He saw his mission as providing accurate information that people in business could use as a basis for making decisions.

So did the Associated Press.  The AP served a consortium of newspapers.  Its mission was to provide news that could be run in any newspaper verbatim, no matter what the newspaper’s political slant.  This meant (1) a high standard of accuracy and (2) no opinions that differed from the consensus view.

I started working on newspapers in late 1958 when this was the standard of professionalism. Ideally, nobody reading an article would know what the reporter’s opinion was.

Getting a byline over a news article was rare because, in theory, good reporters would all report the news in the same neutral.  The byword was, “You report what you know, you don’t report what you think.”

Opinion belonged on the the editorial page, not the front page (although many readers didn’t know the difference).

This was good discipline for reporters starting out.  I bent over backwards to be fair to views I thought were clearly wrong and later, when I learned more about the topic, I was very glad I did.

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Piketty’s stats and the problem with class conflict

May 28, 2020

The late Saul Alinsky used to say that politics is a struggle among the haves, the have-nots and the have-a-littles.  He said the outcome usually depends on which side the have-a-littles choose.

Reading Thomas Piketty’s big new book, Capital and Ideology,  reminded me I’d forgotten this important truth.

The USA and much of the rest of the world is governed in the interests of a political and economic elite and not a majority of the public.  I want a politics that represents the interests of the majority of the population.

But there are objective reasons why this is harder than it seems.  If you look at economic class in terms of a top 10 percent in income or wealth, a middle 40 percent and a bottom 50 percent, you see that there is a difference between the middle class (the have-a-littles) and the lower class (the have-nots)

I had come to think that the big problem of American politics is that so much of it is a conflict of the top 0.1 percent of income earners with the next 9.9 percent, leaving the rest of us behind.

The top 0.1 percent, in this interpretation, are the millionaires and billionaires that Bernie Sanders denounces.  The next 9.9 percent, very roughly speaking, are highly paid professionals, the “professional managerial class,” who tend to be more socially liberal, but whose economic interests are different from the majority.

Matthew Stewart wrote a good article about this in The Atlantic a couple of years ago.  The conclusion is that we the American majority have to stop thinking we have to choose between the plutocrats and the PMC and unite in our own interests.

That would make sense if economic inequality were the same as it was in Britain, France or Sweden around the turn of the previous century, as reflected in the chart above (taken from Piketty’s book)

But it’s not.  There is now a big middle class, in between the top 10 percent and the bottom 50 percent, as shown in the chart below (taken from an article co-authored by Piketty).

Click to enlarge.

In western Europe and the USA, the middle 40 percent aren’t doing too badly.  They’re open to the politics of a Margaret Thatcher or a Ronald Reagan.

Instead of claiming a larger share from the haves, they’re told they need to worry about the claims of the have-nots.  Even in parts of the world where economic inequality is greater than in Europe or the USA, there is a middle class with something to lose.

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Piketty on the sacredness of property rights

May 27, 2020

When English settlers first dealt with American Indians, there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of property rights.

The Indians had no idea of buying the exclusive right to use a tract of land, keep everybody else off it and sell the land to someone else.

Thomas Piketty pointed out in his new book, Capital and Ideology, that, in fact, this was a fairly new idea even for the English and other Europeans.

The idea of absolute property rights did not exist in the European middle ages. Someone might have a hereditary right to grow crops on a certain tract of land, a second person the right to 10 percent of all crops grown on the land, a third person the right to grind grain produced on the land for a fixed fee, and so on.

Furthermore the right to land use was not so much bought and sold as inherited.

Medieval France was what Piketty called a “ternary” society—a society in which political power and property ownership were divided between a hereditary noble class who “fought for all” and a priestly class who “prayed for all,” leaving very little for a lower class who “worked for all.”

The “ternary” system existed in the Islamic world, India and many other parts of the world, and it casts its shadow over the present world.  Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (mostly Sunni) are ruled by hereditary monarchs while Iran (mostly Shiite) is ruled by clerics.  In India, the descendants of Brahmins (priests) and Kshatriyas (warriors) are richer and more influential than the Vaishyas (farmers, craftsmen and traders) and Shudras (laborers).

In Europe, uniquely, priests were celibate.  They could not found dynasties.  This mean that the Roman Catholic institutions had to be corporations.  They had to have a continuing existence that was independent of who was in charge.  It’s not accidental that business corporations originated in Europe.

The French Revolution overthrew hereditary property rights and established what Piketty called “proprietarianism” or “the ownership society”—the idea that property rights were sacred, provided that the property was acquired through legitimate purchase.

The accepted story in France is that the revolutionaries divided up the aristocrats’ estates among the peasants and turned France into a nation of small landowners.  In fact, according to Piketty, the revolutionaries made arbitrary distinctions between land that was owned through hereditary privilege and land acquired through voluntary contract, and, in many areas,  property ownership remained almost as concentrated as before.

Piketty wrote that the revolution was one of history’s “switch points.”  He thinks it could have been more radically egalitarian than it was.

In fact, concentration of wealth in France at the beginning of the 20th century was even greater than at the time of the French Revolution.

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Looking back on the influenza pandemic of 1918

April 8, 2020

Click to enlarge. Source: Our World in Data.

I managed to acquire a copy of THE GREAT INFLUENZA: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry before the libraries and bookstores closed.

It tells the story of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the deadliest in history in terms of absolute numbers.

Nobody knows for sure how many died.  The old consensus estimate was 20 million; the new one is 50 million.  Barry believes that the virus killed at least 35 million and probably between 50 and 100 million people.

In the USA, the estimated pandemic death toll was 675,000—more Americans that were killed in battle or died of wounds in all the wars of the 20th century..

One of the worst things about the pandemic is that its highest death rate was among people in their 20s and 30s, the young and healthy whose immune systems over-reacted to the ‘flu virus.

If the highest estimate of the death toll is correct, from one in 10 to one in 12 of the world’s young adults may have died, according to Barry.

The influenza pandemic arose in a world at war, and spread because of the war, just as the coronavirus pandemic spread because of a globalized world economy.

Barry said the first cases of the new influenza were reported rural Haskell County, Kansas, and then in Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kansas, in March, 1918, where draftees were being trained and readied to be shipped overseas.

A short time later it appeared in Camps Forrest and Greenleaf in Georgia, and rhino in 24 of the 36 U.S. Army camps.  It was reported in Brest, France, a short time after American troops arrived there.  Soon it spread to all the nations and colonies that participated in the war. and then over the whole world.

At first, it was no worse than ordinary influenza—the “grippe,” as people called it.  But a second, deadlier wave arose during the summer, a mutant form of the first.

It killed in frightening ways.  Some turned blue or black, because of lack of oxygen in the blood.  Some spurted blood from their noses and even eyes and ears, for reasons nobody yet understands.

There were some who had air migrate from congested lungs to air pockets under the skin, which made a crackling sound when bodies were turned over.  One nurse said she could never eat Rice Krispies again.

The United States in which the influenza arose was more of a police state that it has ever been, before or since.  When war was declared on April 6, 1917, every American and every American institution was expected to be fully committed to the war effort.

There was a spy network, a propaganda network and a war bond-selling network, all reaching into every American town and neighborhood.

A Food Administration, Fuel Administration, Railroad Administration and War Industries Board had absolute power to carry out their missions.

But there was no Health Administration, only a relatively powerless U.S. Public Health Service.  No federal or state agency had responsibility for fighting the pandemic.  A volunteer organization, the American Red Cross, filled that vacuum, along with municipal health departments, private physicians and a few dedicated scientists.

What federal authority did do was try to protect civilian morale by suppressing news of how bad the pandemic was.

The seriousness of the pandemic was only acknowledged in the last month or two of the war, and that was in the context of charging Germany with waging germ warfare.

Censorship also suppressed news of the pandemic in Britain, France and Germany.  The first news accounts came from Spain, a neutral country.  From this people got the idea that the ‘flu originated in Spain

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Social distancing in the 1918 pandemic

April 8, 2020

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge

LINKS

How they flattened the curve during the 1918 Spanish flu by Nina Strophic and Riley D. Champline for National Geographic.

What the 1918 flu pandemic can teach us about COVID-19 by Sara Chodosh for Popular Science.

Rochester, NY, and the 1918 influenza pandemic

April 8, 2020

Alex Zapesochny, publisher of the on-line Rochester Beacon, wrote an interesting article about how Rochester, N.Y., coped with the 1918 influenza epidemic.  He pointed out that our city did much better than its peers.

Source: Rochester Beacon

Source: Rochester Beacon

Zapesochny went on to explain how Rochester public officials and business leaders acted promptly, before the pandemic was upon them.

Shortly after being warned by the state that a possible influenza epidemic was coming, Rochester began preparing, even though it had only two unconfirmed cases at the time.

A separate ward to take care of potential patients was set up at Rochester General Hospital.

By Oct. 9, Rochester’s commissioner of public safety announced the closure of all schools, as well as theaters and skating rinks.

Next, the city and the Chamber of Commerce asked manufacturing and retail business to stagger hours to prevent overcrowding on trolley cars.

Soon after the city closed churches, bars and “ice cream parlors.”  

In the meantime, five makeshift hospitals were set up around Rochester to augment the capacity of local hospitals, which would otherwise have been overwhelmed by the 10,000 influenza cases that occurred in October 1918.

Toward the end of October, as the number of cases started falling, residents and workers pushed the health commissioner to quickly lift the restrictions, especially to help those whose livelihoods were being affected.  

Despite being sympathetic to their request, the health commissioner acted carefully again, waiting another week before finally lifting the restrictions.

In other words, local officials in 1918 were doing many of the same things we see being done in Rochester today.

And while each epidemic has its unique dynamics, the one thing 1918 clearly teaches us is that different approaches by local officials can yield very different results. 

LINK

A lifesaving lesson from 1918 by Alex Zapesochny for the Rochester Beacon.

The Cold War, Bernie Sanders and me

March 5, 2020

The divided world of 1980. Click to enlarge. Source: Wikipedia

A lot of politics consists of argument about who was right about conflicts of the past.

The rights and wrongs of the Civil War were a dividing line in U.S. politics for more than a century after it ended.  U.S. intervention in World War One and the Vietnam conflict were issues for a generation or more after those conflicts ended.  So it is with the Cold War, which more than 30 years ago.

When the Cold War began, many people, myself included, saw it as a conflict between freedom and totalitarianism.   Over time, increasing numbers of people, evidently including Bernie Sanders, saw it as a conflict between capitalism and revolution.

Joseph Stalin’s USSR killed millions of its people through purges and through famines caused by government policy.  Mao Zedong’s China did the same.  Their goal seemed to be to seed the world with little junior replicas of themselves.  To me, the danger was clear.

As what was called a “cold war liberal,” I was in good company.  My fellow anti-Communists included many liberals and social democrats, including the great George Orwell, and disillusioned ex-Communists, who had come to realize that Soviet Union was the opposite of their ideal of a good society.

But the opposing view had support, too.  It had support from George F. Kennan, Dean Acheson, John J. McCloy and the other architects of Cold War policy, who in fact saw their mission as the defense of capitalism against revolution.

In their correspondence among each other, they did not express fear of the nightmare vision of Arthur Koester’s Darkness at Noon or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Their fear was that revolutionary movements would cut off American business from access to markets and raw materials.

Here’s how Kennan, who was head of the State Department’s policy planning staff, explained U.S. priorities in 1948:

We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population…. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.

Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction….

We should cease to talk about vague and…, unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization.  The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.  The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Source: Noam Chomsky.

They didn’t think the U.S. public was willing to accept such harsh truths.  They agreed it was necessary to frighten the American people—to be, as Acheson put it, “clearer than the truth.”

So which side was right—the anti-Communists or their opponents?  Both had facts on their side.  Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China really were murderous dictatorships.  U.S. foreign policy really was more cynical than Americans were led to believe.  The question is: Which facts were more significant?

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How U.S. foreign policy is like 1930s Germany’s

January 10, 2020

I am careful about using the words “fascist,” “Nazi” and “Hitler,” and I do not think that what’s left of American freedom and democracy is equivalent to Nazi Germany’s totalitarianism.

But there are good reasons why other nations view the USA as the same kind of threat to international order as the Axis powers posed in the 1930s.  We Americans need to try to see ourselves as others see us.

I recommend you click on the links below.

LINKS 

On Rogues and Rogue States: Old, New and Improved by Fred Reed.

Reclaiming Your Inner Fascist by C.J. Hopkins for Consent Factory.

A history of interest rates through the ages

December 2, 2019

Double click to enlarge

What this chart shows is how government debt became a source of income, like ownership of land, and then how governments in recent years tried to use interest rates as a way to guide the economy.

The theory is that low interest rates generate cheap money, which stimulates the economy, but also leads to inflation, while high interest rates do the reverse.

The problem with the theory is that we in the USA and UK have been in a period of unprecedentedly low interest rates for years, but that this has neither stimulated productive investment nor led to runaway inflation.

Something’s wrong that isn’t being fixed by tweaking interest rates and the money supply.

LINK

The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years by Nicolas LePan for Visual Capitalist.

The making of the Oxford English Dictionary

November 2, 2019

The Oxford English Dictionary, which attempts to encompass the whole English language, was and is an epic achievement.

Commissioned in 1857, begun in 1879 and completed in 1926, it consisted of 12 volumes containing 414,825 words and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations, most of them in type set by hand.  New editions and updates of the OED continue to this day.

This unflagging commitment to a purely cultural project, of no monetary or military value, is truly remarkable.  It is like the construction of the medieval cathedrals that were begun with the knowledge they would take a century or more to complete.

I learned about the background of the OED by reading Simon Winchester’s book THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1998, which my friend Jan Hickman gave me.

The professor was James Murray, the chair of the committee overseeing the compilation of the dictionary.  He was a Scot who dropped out of school because of poverty at age 14, but was respected as an expert on philology, having taught himself multiple ancient and modern languages, including Roma, the gypsy dialect.

Because of the immensity of the project, the OED depended on volunteers to contribute definitions and examples of word usage.

One of the most prolific volunteers was one Dr. W.C. Minor, who submitted tens of thousands of definitions and turned out to be an inmate of an asylum for the criminally insane. He had murdered an innocent man whom he thought was part of a plot to assassinate him.  Murray liked and respected Minor, and visited him regularly.

Minor’s distinctive contribution was to collect centuries-old books and read them through, not out of interest in the content, but simply to find early usages of words and how the definition would change.

By day, he was a scholar,  By night, he felt he was being tortured by enemies coming out of the walls and floor.  His performance, under the circumstances, was heroic.

Winchester remarked that it is too bad that mental illness was not understood back then as it is now.  But if Minor had lived 50 or 100 years later, he might have been subjected to lobotomies, electric shock treatments or mind-altering drugs. We still do not know to what extent mental illness is biological in nature and to what extent it is due to life experiences.

Instead his keepers treated him kindly and simply prevented him from wandering off and tried to prevent him from harming himself or others.  Of course good treatment was encouraged by the fact that his family was immensely rich.

I put down the book with increased respect for these Victorian men—their strength of character, their devotion to learning, their determination to carry through what they had committed to do.  I also appreciated the great individual dictionary makers—Samuel Johnson in 18th century England and Noah Webster in the 19th century USA.

What project could be started today that people would still be committed to carrying on a century or more from now?

LINKS

Simon Winchester’s website.

Blog | Oxford English Dictionary.

Contribute to the OED | Oxford English Dictionary.

What I think about historic wrongs.

October 23, 2019

My friend Hank Stone summarized my ideas on this topic better than I did myself.

  1. Changing history is not the goal because here is where we are and the platform from which we can go forward.  
  2. We don’t need collective guilt, but we do need to remember and understand the past.  
  3. Going forward, we in the USA need to find ways to live together in justice and peace.

U.S. history from the viewpoint of the Indians

October 21, 2019

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s disturbing An Indigenous People’s History of the United States is, in the author’s words, the investigation of a crime scene.

She told a story of a nation that broke treaty after treaty in order to engage in unprovoked military aggression, ethnic cleansing and genocide in order to gain living space.

Settler militias and government troops burned crops, demolished homes, and paid bounties for the scalps of Indian men, women, and children. The buffalo were deliberately destroyed to deny sustenance to the Plains Indians

British General Jeffrey Amherst practiced germ warfare against the Pontiacs in colonial times.  US army personnel skinned Indian victims to make bridles for their horses.  The buffalo were deliberately destroyed in order to deny sustenance for the Plains Indians.

General William T. Sherman, who headed the War Department under the Grant administration, famously said that the only good Indians he ever saw were dead.

I see an obvious analogy.

What happened to the Indians was not happenstance, Dunbar-Ortiz wrote.  It was a result of both government policy and the core values not only of American culture, but of European civilization as a whole.

These policies and values shaped U.S. military tradition and its way of waging war today, she wrote.  U.S. troops still call occupied territories “indian county.”

I kind-of, sort-of, in-a-way vaguely knew much of the contents of the book, but it never fully registered on me until I read it.  Having all these facts concentrated into one 236-page indictment has an impact I can’t forget.

∞∞∞

When Columbus sailed in 1492, there was a flourishing native American civilization.  Dunbar-Ortiz said it was wiped out not only by the unplanned spread of European diseases, but also as deliberate policy.  European and native American civilizations were incompatible.

Europeans believed in the “doctrine of discovery,” which is that Christians have the right to claim territory they discover for their own, regardless of the non-Christian inhabitants.  This is still part of U.S. law, she noted.

The Puritan settlers of New England were Calvinists, like the Boers in South Africa.  They believed that they, like the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament, had made a covenant with God that entitled them to the land they settled and that the existing inhabitants were to be killed, subjugated or driven out, like the Canaanites.

In the South, the economy was based on plantation agriculture worked by forced labor, which poor whites couldn’t compete with.  They became frontiersmen instead.

The settlers’ goal was to own land individually, to exploit or sell as they saw fit.  The Indian nations could never accept this.   The varied Indian cultures all believed that land was a common inheritance that could not be alienated.

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An interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

October 21, 2019

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, published in 2014.  She gave an interview about the book to the Real News Network.

In the first part of the interview, she told of her childhood as a poor sharecropper’s daughter in Oklahoma and how she became a scholar and Indian rights’ activist.

In the second part, she talked about the colonial origins and foundational myths of the United States and Andrew Jackson, the great Indian fighter.

In the third part, she talked about how James Fenimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln and other writers and statesmen created the ground for ethnic cleansing of the Indians.

Lessons of The Killing Floor

October 13, 2019

I saw a great movie Friday night – a remastered version of the 1984 movie, The Killing Floor, which is about the fight of slaughterhouse workers in Chicago in the 1910s to establish a union and how they were divided and defeated by racial conflict.

It is a reminder of a history we Americans shouldn’t forget and carries lessons for labor and social justice struggles today.

All the characters are based on real people, who supposedly did approximately the same things that the movie shows.

The viewpoint character is Frank Custer, an illiterate sharecropper from Mississippi, who at first is grateful just to find work and doesn’t want to get involved in what he sees as a conflict between white people.

But when Bill Bremer, a German-American union leader, sticks up for him, Custer begins to realize that people of a different race and heritage are not necessarily his enemies.

The union local reflects the culture of the immigrants from central and eastern Europe who make up the majority of its members.  Speeches by union leaders are translated into Polish, and union meetings are following by polka dances.

The white ethnic leaders welcome Custer into their midst, and rely on him and a handful of other black organizers to bring African-American workers into the union.  He becomes a respected member of the leadership.

This was a huge, huge thing for white people to do in the 1910s, when extreme racism was the norm not only in the United States, but throughout the Western world.

But the white leaders do not do what Custer did—get out of their comfort zone and make contact with people who are culturally different from themselves.

Instead they depend on him to represent the union to the black workers, and to represent black workers to the union leadership.  In the end, this proves to be too much to expect.

Custer’s best friend meanwhile goes off to serve in World War One, and comes home to scorn any idea of alliance with white people.  He trusts only his fists and his revolver.

Another black worker, Heavy Williams, resents Custer for the power and prestige he has gained by allying himself with white people.  He helps to sabotage the union’s fragile racial amity.

Following the end of World War One, the United States was torn with race riots—not race riots like today, which consist of black people going on rampages, mainly through their own neighborhoods.

The race riots of the “red summer” of 1919 consisted of armed white gangs shooting up black neighborhoods and wrecking property, while police looked the other way.

A race riot in Chicago was touched off by the stoning to death of a black man for trespassing on a white beach area.  White gangs in blackface set fire to Polish and Lithuanian homes.  Black Chicago neighborhoods are terrorized.

The meat packers used the end of wartime prosperity and the need to create jobs for returning veterans as an excuse to lay off union workers.  Many white union members saw African-Americans as a threat to their jobs.  Many African-Americans saw working as strikebreakers as the only way to get jobs.

The union was defeated temporarily, but gained recognition and a contract in the 1930s.

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Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red

September 23, 2019

I finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, last week.  Published in 1998 and translated from the Turkish in 2001, it is an interesting oddity—a historical novel, a love story, a murder mystery and a novel of ideas.  Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature.

The chapters have various narrators, all addressing the reader in a conversational style.  The narrators are not just the principal characters, but the two dead murder victims, their anonymous murderer, illustrations of a dog, a horse, a tree, two dervishes, Satan and Death, an unnamed man imagining himself as a woman and the color red.

Islamic Empires. Click to enlarge

The setting is 1591 Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled north Africa, western Asia and the Balkans. a territory as extensive as the Roman Empire.

The Ottomans were eventually left behind by modern civilization, but at the height of their power, some Europeans admired their government, in which administrators were chosen for ability and disinterested loyalty, not noble birth, wealth or connections.

By the standards of the time, the Ottoman Empire was notably tolerant in religion.  It gave refuge to persecuted Jews and heretical Christians, including unitarians.

In the novel, Sultan Murat III commissions an illustrated book to celebrate the glories of his realm.  The problem is that he wants it painted in the European style, which many of his subjects consider contrary to Islam..

Pamuk’s artists see art is a form of mysticism.  A picture of a horse should be an ideal horse, a horse as God sees it, not a recognizable image of a particular horse.  If an artist has a unique style, that is an imperfection in his art.  The works of the greatest artists should be indistinguishable because they converge on a true vision.

I don’t know to what degree actual Turkish and Persian artists of the time thought that way and how much is Pamuk’s invention.

The two murders in the novel are a product of the murderer’s fear that the artists will be attacked by fanatic religious mobs if knowledge of their project gets out.

Two characters. the master miniaturist Osman and the apprentice Black, are given 72 hours to solve the second murder.

If they fail, the Ottoman judicial system will revert to its default procedure, which is to torture all suspects (in this case, including Osman and Black) until someone confesses or offers evidence of guilt of someone else.

To be fair, judicial torture was part of the judicial systems of Europe and China at the time, and the Ottoman system was used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its hunt for terrorists following the 9/11 attacks.

I’m sure Pamuk planted enough clues to identify the murderer in advance, but I did not figure out who he was until the end.

Black is in love with the beautiful Shekuri, daughter of the illustrator Enishte, who is in charge of the Sultan’s manuscript project.  He has returned from eight years of wandering and found that she is married and the mother of two young sons.

Her husband is a warrior who has been missing in action for four years, and she lives in the house of her domineering father-in-law and lustful brother-in-law.  So she sees Black as a possible solution to her problem.

The two female characters, Shekuri and Esther, the Jewish neighborhood matchmaker and fixer, are the only ones who are able to think two or three steps ahead.  All the male characters are prisoners of passion and illusion..

There are fables within the main story and many, many allusions to how various illustrations related to Turkish and Persian literate and folklore.  I found this part of the novel tedious because I don’t know the background.

My Name Is Red would not be to everybody’s taste.  I found it interesting for its characters.  They operated under very different cultural assumptions from mine, but still reflected universal human nature in unexpected ways.

The world of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

September 12, 2019

I enjoyed reading Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  Published in 1849, the novel is set in Yorkshire in 1811-1812 at the time rebellious factory workers were fighting the introduction of labor-saving weaving machinery.

The title character is Shirley Keeldar, a rich, beautiful extroverted heiress who, in the absence of either father or husband, comes as close to being free and independent as was possible to any woman in that time and place.

By good-humoredly refusing to conform to the expectations for women in that era, she gets the men to accept her as a kind of honorary man.  She isn’t a rebel against society; she just wants to be a full participant.  She enjoys managing her estate and organizing charities.  She gets a number of proposals of marriage from rich suitors, which she turns down.

The Shirley character was the orphan daughter of a man who wanted a son and raised her as a boy—which was in fact the background of many accomplished women of that time and later.

Shirley was then a man’s name; it may have become more of a woman’s name because of the novel.

The emotional core of the novel is the intense personal friendship Shirley forms with the introverted and penniless Caroline Helstone, who lives as a tolerated poor relation of her uncle, Matthewson Helstone, an Anglican rector.

Rev. Helstone thinks he is doing his duty by Caroline by giving her food, shelter and a place to sit and do her sewing until some man comes along who is willing to marry her.

She is unhappy with these limitations, but the only choices for an upper- or middle-class woman of that time would be to find a suitable mate or live a marginal life as an old maid.   There was long before women could become school teachers, nurses or typists.

The only occupation open was governess, which is being a nanny and tutor to a rich family’s children.  Only educated women from genteel backgrounds are eligible to become governesses, but their lives were constant reminders that they are servants and social inferiors of their employees.

The older characters all regard Caroline’s discontent as girlish foolishness.  Their view is that life is not supposed to offer you love or happiness.  It is a grim test in which you prove or fail to prove your worthiness to enjoy eternal happiness with God in Heaven.

Caroline is attracted to her cousin, Robert Gérard Moore, a half-Belgian factory owner, who has affectionate and protective feelings toward her.  She accepts the fact that marriage is out of the question because she has no money.  Moore in turn has a platonic, intellectual friendship with Shirley.

Moore is in the forefront of the struggle against the “frame breakers,” workers are fighting mechanization of the weaving industry.  Brontë depicts them as criminals and terrorists who have successfully intimidated magistrates and other industrialists by threat of riot and assassination..

Moore alone has the courage to fight back.  He brings in troops to protect his factory, tracks down rebel leaders and sees to it that they are sentenced without mercy to transportation to Australia.  This is at great personal risk because at one point he is shot and nearly dies.

Rev. Helstone and the other Anglican clergy are all on Moore’s side.  They do not attempt to be peacemakers.  Methodist and Baptist preachers are depicted as part of the rebellious riffraff.

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‘Woke-ness’ vs. Americanism: a religious conflict

August 30, 2019

As I think about what’s called ‘woke-ness’ as a quasi-religion, I better understand the attacks on the symbols of American patriotism.

I’m thinking of the removal of the Betsy Ross flag from Nike sneakers, demands for removal of statues of Thomas Jefferson and the recent New York Times magazine edition that said the true founding of the United States was not in 1776, but in 1619 with the arrival of the first slave ship.

Americanism is also a quasi religion.  What’s going on is the attempt to substitute a new religion for an old one.  The attacks on symbols of American patriotism are like the early Christians’ attacks on statues of the pagan gods or the early Protestants’ attacks on images of Catholic saints.

‘Americanism’ is an odd word.  Nobody I know of speaks of Canadianism or Mexicanism.  It reflects the fact that being a patriotic American has always implied adherence to a creed—although we Americans have always fought over the definition of that creed.

Debates in American history have generally taken the form: “I am a true American and you are not.”  Both sides in our Civil War believed they were the champions of liberty and self-government as defined by our nation’s Founders (with a capital “F”).

We Americans historically have regarded the Declaration and the Constitution as like Holy Writ, equivalent to the Bible, and criticism of these sacred documents as equivalent to blasphemy.   We settle arguments by citing these documents.

The Pledge of Allegiance is a sacred ceremony.   The American flag is a sacred object.  Criticize them at your peril.

Americanism provides a sense of community.  Trying to be a good American can give life a sense of meaning.  Americanism can also provide a rationale for persecution.

The advantage of Americanism is that, in principle, it is open to any believer, regardless of race, creed or national origin.  No matter where you were born, you are in principle eligible to become an American. [1]   This isn’t true of China or most other countries.

I have always thought of myself as a patriotic American and an adherent of the best ideals of American history and culture.[2]

The triumph of “woke-ness” as a quasi-religion requires the displacement of Americanism as a quasi-religion.  Reverence for the old is an obstacle to creating reverence for the new.

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When did American democracy lose its way?

August 28, 2019

The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use, and be authorised to use, in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.  

He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen.  He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call the Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.

==Dick Cheney, Fox News, Dec. 21, 2008

We Americans live under a government whose executive has the power to attack foreign countries, order assassinations and kidnapings, imprison people without trial, commit crimes and prosecute those who reveal those crimes.

When did this start?  The historian Garry Wills, in his 2010 book BOMB POWER: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, argued that it began with the Manhattan Project.  The creation of the atomic bomb set the pattern for exercise of vast power in secret, without legal authority, with national security as the justification.

General Groves, the organizer of the project, operated without authorization from Congress and outside the norma military chain of command.  He spent billions of dollars back when that was real money.  He authorized major industrial facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, plus the research and test facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico.  All this was done without knowledge of the public (although spies told the Soviet government about it.)

The original purpose was to develop an atomic weapon before Hitler’s scientists did.  When Germany was defeated, that purpose became moot. The purpose became the justification of the project’s existence.

If Groves had not had a uranium bomb to drop on Hiroshima and a plutonium bomb to drop on Nagasaki, he might have been court-martialed, or at the very least, subjected to a congressional investigation, for usurping power and wasting the government’s money.

On the contrary, the atomic bomb became the core of postwar American military strategy.  Congress lost its authority to declare or refuse to declare war.  A decision to respond to an attack, nuclear or otherwise, had to be made within minutes.

Only the President controlled the Bomb and, by extension, the fate of the world with no Constitutional check.  The President came to be regarded not as Chief Executive of one of three branches of government, but as Commander in Chief of the whole nation.

The secret Manhattan project set a precedent for the vast secret powers of the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and the rest of the national security state.  Congress’s power of financial oversight was shut off by a veil of secrecy..

It is true that the U.S. government has a history of suspending civil liberties in times of war, but, prior to World War Two, life returned to normal after the war ended.

 In the nuclear age, the shooting war against Germany and Japan morphed into a global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.  And when the Soviet Union fell apart, the Cold War morphed into a supposed war against terror that had no defined enemy.

The wartime footing became a constant in American life.  Only the designated enemies changed.

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What if Hitler had been assassinated in 1930?

August 21, 2019

What if Adolf Hitler had been assassinated in 1930?  How would history have been changed?

I believe there would have been no Second World War in Europe.  The more than 20 million troops who died in battle and more than 20 million civilians who were killed would have lived out their natural lives.  But the consequences after that?  A mixture of both good and bad..

Some say history might not have been changed all that much.  They say some other Nazi, such as Goebbels or Goering, would have stepped into Hitler’s shoes.   And that leader, they add, might not have made Hitler’s mistakes.  A more capable leader might have won the war.

Adolf Hitler

I don’t think so.  The Nazi party was organized around the cult of Hitler’s personality.  It wouldn’t have been so easy to find a substitute with his charisma.  I don’t think any of the others would have had his ability to maneuver his way into the chancellorship, then leverage that power into absolute dictatorship and lead a reluctant German officer corps into war.

In the absence of Hitler, Germany might well have become an anti-semitic right-wing dictatorship anyhow, like Poland, Hungary and other European countries.  The German government might have included a few Nazis.  Germany certainly would have re-armed and resumed its place among the great European powers.

But the German generals did not want to go to war with Britain and France.  We now know they would have attempted a coup if the Allies had resisted the remilitarization of the Rhineland or the annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.  If Hitler had not tamed them, they would not have consented to starting a general war in Europe.

After the war, the German generals claimed they might have won if Hitler had not rejected their advice on strategy and tactics.  But Hitler had a better strategic sense than they did.  He recognized that without a dependable source of oil, the blitzkrieg tactic would have stalled, because it depended on large numbers of motorized vehicles moving quickly.  He prioritized the invasion of Ukraine and the Caucasus, but the main objective of his tradition-bound generals was Moscow, the enemy capital.

 No Hitler, no Second World War in Europe.  What follows from that?

There would have been no atomic bomb in 1945 or perhaps.  Without a Hitler, there would have been no reason to undertake such a project.

Only the United States had the wealth and industrial power to undertake the Manhattan Project, and even then, the project would not have succeeded without the help of European refugee scientists.

There probably would still have been a Pacific War between the United States and Japan.  The cause of that conflict was the U.S. oil embargo against Japan to enforce a demand that Japan withdraw its forces from China.

Rather than comply with that demand, Japan seized the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the only important source of oil in the Far East.  The Japanese attempted to neutralize British and American forces by conquering the Philippines, capturing Britain’s Singapore base and bombing the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Even though the United States would have lacked an atomic bomb, there would have been no need for an American invasion of the Japanese islands.  U.S. forces could have bombed and starved the Japanese into submission without an invasion and without nuclear weapons, probably with as much or more loss of Japanese lives than in the actual war.

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If you had your life to live over…

August 19, 2019

Sometimes I like awake in bed going over the many times in my life when I’ve been foolish, weak or blindly selfish, and rewriting the script so that I behaved as I wish had I behaved.

What would it be like to actually have the chance to live your life over?  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is about a women who had that chance, not just once, but many times.

Her heroine, Ursula Todd, dies or is killed at least 15 times, including once in childbirth in 1910, four times in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and three times in the London Blitz in 1940.  On each new iteration of her life, she has a dim memory of having lived before.

She learns to survive the ‘flu epidemic by pushing a family servant girl, Bridget, down a flight of stairs and making her break her arm the night before she would have gone into town and gotten inflected.

In later lives, she achieves the same result by telling Bridget lies that cause her to break up with her boyfriend, thus depriving her of the reason to go into town.

But no matter how many times she lives, she can never realize all possibilities.

During one iteration of her life during the Blitz, a man sitting next to her on the Tube (subway) notices she is good at working crossword puzzles, gives her his business card and says he is recruiting “clever girls.”  She decides to follow up on this, but loses the card.

We the readers know, as she does not, that she has lost a chance to be a codebreaker at Bletchley Park.  That chance does not come again.

The Blitz is the “dark beating heart” of the book, Atkinson wrote in an afterword.  She was born in 1951.  “During the war we were weighed in the balance and not found wanting.  The more I read about the war, the more I think that … we really were at our best then, and I would have liked to have known that.”

The book is “about being English,” she wrote.  “Not just the reality of being English, but also what we are in our own imagination,” she wrote.   Yet Ursula lives one of her lives in Germany and dies in Berlin in 1945.

Ursula decides to change history by assassinating Hitler.  In the following life, she learns German and marksmanship, makes the acquaintance of Eva Braun in 1930 and is introduced to Hitler.  She pulls a gun out of her handbag and gets off one shot, because being shot down by his bodyguards.

This is the end of the book. It is where I, as a long-time reader of science fiction, would expect the novel to begin.

What does she do next?  Will she do the same thing in all her subsequent lives—devote herself to preparing to kill Hitler, dying in a hail of bullets at the age of 20, and never knowing for sure what effect her sacrifice had? Or perhaps, in repeated lives, perfect her technique so that she can kill Hitler and get away with it?

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George Alfred Townsend’s The Entailed Hat

August 10, 2019

Time for something a little lighter!  I recently finished reading a literary curiosity, THE ENTAILED HAT, or Patty Cannon’s Times: a romance by George Alfred Townsend.  It was published in 1884 but is long out of print.  

Set on the Eastern Shore of Maryland around 1830, It has two plots.  One is a beauty-and-the-beast story about how circumstances cause a beautiful young woman to wed an ugly man who wears a very ugly hat.  The other is an action-adventure story, which graduallly takes over the novel, about an attempted rescue of victims of a criminal gang that kidnaps and sells black people, both enslaved and free.

George Alfred Townsend

The author was a best-selling writer of his time.  He was reportedly the youngest correspondent to cover the Civil War and achieved fame for his reporting of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth.

Later he become one of the first syndicated newspaper columnists and a fiction writer.  He used the pen name Gath, based on the Biblical version, “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not on the streets of Askalon.”

The Entailed Hat is considered his best novel.  His character Meshach Milburn of Princess Anne, Somerset County, wears a hat passed down by his family through the eldest sons since the 17th century.  It is extremely ugly and makes him an object of ridicule, but he stubbornly continues to wear it out of family pride.

One day a pretty little girl, Vesta Custis, gives him a rose to put in his hat.  He is so touched that he falls in love with her and waits for her to grow up  so her can marry her.  

Although an uneducated backwoodsman (a “forester”) low on the social scale, Milburn quietly builds up a fortune over the years.   

At the same time, Vesta’s father, Judge Custis, invests the family fortune in a failed enterprise to smelt iron from low-grade “swamp ore.”   He finally gets to the point where he uses the same property twice for security on different loans, which means that he is in jeopardy of criminal charges as well as bankruptcy.

Milburn buys up all the judge’s IOUs and offers an exchange—a write-off of all his debts in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  The judge refuses.

Here the novel takes an unexpected turn.  Vesta interviews Milburn, evaluates the situation and concludes that he would be an adequate, non-abusive husband and that the benefits of marriage would exceed the costs.

Soon after the marriage, Milburn falls ill with fever and Vesta takes charge of his affairs.  She also takes charge of her father’s affairs.  Her example causes her father to reform and give up his bad habits.  She teaches Milburn social graces to make him acceptable in polite society—although she can’t persuade him to give up his hat.

About this time some of Vesta’s slaves and Milburn’s free black employee, Samson Hat, are kidnaped by members of Patty Cannon’s gang.  Patty Cannon was a real person, and her gang, operating near the Maryland-Delaware border, was once the terror of the Delmarva Peninsula.

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Lessons from Hitler’s rise to power

August 6, 2019

Benjamin Carter Hett’s THE DEATH OF DEMOCRACY: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic is a month-by-month account of the politics of the years leading up to the Nazi conquest of power in Germany.

Hett described how Hitler went from 2.8 percent of the popular vote in the 1928 elections to 37.6 percent in 1932,  how he leveraged Nazi voting strength to make himself chancellor by legal means in 1933 and how all pretense of legality ended in the “night of the long knives” in 1934.

That was when Hitler destroyed all remnants of legality by simply ordering the execution-style murder of his opponents, including dissidents in the Nazi party.

Adolph Reed Jr. said in an Interview that Hett’s book is not only good in itself, but it throws light on contemporary U.S. politics.  In fact it does have lessons for the present-day United States, although not in a straightforward or obvious way.

A number of European countries, following defeat in World War One and with middle classes threatened by powerful Communist movements, became right-wing dictatorships.  Fascist Italy led the way.

Germany followed a different path.  A Communist revolution was crushed by a government supported by Social Democrats.   Socialists then joined forces with the Catholic Center Party and moderate conservative parties to form a democratic government.

The democratic coalition worked for a number of years.  The economy recovered.  Inflation was curbed.

Germany became a model for democratic socialism.  Labor unions were powerful.  The government provided compulsory wage arbitration and a strong social safety net.  Homosexuality and abortion were legal.

But, like today’s USA, Weimar Germany struggled with the issue of globalization vs. economic nationalism.

One big issue Weimar Germany had in common with the present-day USA was the question of globalization vs. economic nationalism.

The governing coalition accepted the need to pay reparations for Germany’s supposed guilt for starting World War One and to back their currency with gold.  Both were seen as the price of participating in the world economy.

The right-wing nationalists, including the Nazis, objected to these policies because they denied Germany the means to pay for rearmament and a large army.  They also objected to globalization on principle.  The Nazis wanted to end reparations, abrogate international trade treaties, limit foreign trade and make Germany as self-sufficient as possible.

The refugee crisis was another big issue.  An estimated 1.5 million refugees entered Germany between 1918 and 1922.  Most of them were Germans from former German territory in France and Poland, and many were refugees from Bolshevik Russia, but a lot of them were Jews.

Many Germans worried about their country’s inability to secure its borders. The Nazi position was to expel all refugees and also all Jews, refugees or not.

Weimar Germany had its own version of identity politics, which however was based on social class and religion rather than race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.  By identity politics, I mean politics based on an affirmation that your own group is good and other groups are bad, rather than politics based on getting what you and your group want.

The identity group to which the Nazis and other right-wing nationalists appealed were the rural and middle-class German Protestants.  The American and British image of Weimar Germany is based on Berlin, but more than a third of Germans lived in villages of fewer than 2,000 people.  Rural Protestants tended to be highly religious, respectful of authority and nostalgic for the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm.

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Hitler lost WW2 because he ran out of gas

July 12, 2019

I came across an interesting history video that explains how access to oil was Adolf Hitler’s main goal in World War Two, how it determined his strategy and why his failure to achieve that goal doomed Nazi Germany to defeat.

It provides good food for thought, both about history and today’s geopolitics.  Here is an outline of what it said.

Adolf Hitler believed that Germany could not be a powerful or even an independent nation so long as it depended on imports for food and energy.  His long-range goal was to acquire the farmland of Ukraine and the oil of the Caucasus for Germany.

Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 was a step toward that goal.  If Britain hadn’t declared war on Germany in 1939 or had agreed to a truce in 1940 or 1941, he might have succeeded.

The United States during that period produced 70 percent of the world’s oil.  Most of the rest came from the USSR and Venezuela.  Even after Germany conquered most of Europe, including the oil fields of Rumania, the British blockade remained in place.  Germany was cut off from the oil of the USA and Venezuela and the USSR did not supply enough to meet its requirements.

Germany’s blitzkrieg strategy depended on tanks and other motorized vehicles operating on a broad front.  But Germany lacked enough oil of its own to conduct long campaigns.

The German army “demotorized” in order to provide enough fuel for the tanks.  It used horse-drawn vehicles to move supplies.  Messengers rode bicycles rather than motorcycles.  It also used an expensive process to synthesize oil from coal, even though coal supplies also were limited.

This meant Germany had a limited time in which to invade Soviet Russia and obtain the oil it needed.   Otherwise it would run short of the fuel needed to power its tanks and trucks.

That is why Hitler did not plan for a long campaign, and why he wanted his generals to concentrate on the Caucasus rather than Leningrad and Moscow.

The 1941 invasion failed.  After that Germany had one last chance of victory—by using what fuel reserves it had in 1942 to make one last stab at Maikup and Grozny in the Caucasus while conquering Stalingrad so the Soviets could not transport oil up the Volga River from refineries in Baku.

Lack of fuel was why Hitler ordered troops to stand fast and hold the line at all costs rather than allowing his generals to engage in a war of maneuver.

If the Nazis had succeeded, Russia would have been cut off from both the oil of the Caucasus and the Ukraine breadbasket.  Soviet forces would have been hard put to find the means to keep on fighting in 1943 and 1944.

But the Nazis failed.  From then on, Germany’s only goal in fighting was to prolong the war in hope of a negotiated peace.

All this shows that while Hitler was evil, he was not a madman—at least not where military strategy was concerned.  He understood strategy better than his generals.

It also shows the British blockade and American oil were as important to victory as the actual fighting by the Red Army.  If Winston Churchill had not become Prime Minister in 1940, Britain might have made a separate peace with Germany, and the German army would have had the fuel it needed to blitzkrieg Russia.

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How George Washington crossed the Delaware

July 4, 2019

If General George Washington had not led American troops across the Delaware River on Christmas, 1776, and defeated Hessian troops in Trenton, American secession from the British Empire probably would have failed, and the United States would not have become an independent nation when and how it did.

I recently finished reading Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, which tells the story of that victory— how it was achieved, what came after and why it mattered.

By describing events in fine-grained detail, drawing in letter, diaries and reminiscences of many individuals on both sides, he drew a vivid picture of what it was like to fight in that era, and also showed how differently the two sides viewed the war.

Fischer’s history begins with the British driving the Continental Army out of New York City in the summer of 1776, and then winning victory after victory until they occupied all of New jersey.  He ends with the turning of the tide in a way that showed how Americans would win ultimate victory.

In grade school, I was taught to think of the British redcoats as fools, who marched in formation while Virginia and Pennsylvania riflemen picked them off from behind trees and stone walls.

The fact was that the British troops who occupied New York City in the summer of 1776 were veterans of regiments who, a short time before, had won battles in every continent in the Seven Years War against the French Empire.  They were backed up by the British fleet , which commanded not only the high seas, but the waters around Manhattan island.

They out-fought and out-maneuvered the inexperienced American troops, driving Washington’s troops out of New York and south through New Jersey.

By Christmas, the British and their Hessian allies had every reason to think they had all but won.   Washington’s desperate plan to attack across the Delaware River involved coordinated crossings at three different locations.   Two of the crossings failed.  Washington failed to make his crossing on schedule or as planned, but he pressed on to the attack anyway.

He pressed on and won.  As a schoolboy, I also was taught that he caught the Hessian garrison hung over from a drunken Christmas Eve party the night before.  Not so!  The Hessians were tough and well-disciplined troops who put up a brave fight, but were defeated in the end.

Fischer gives a powerful account of what it was like fight in those days, marching and pushing wagons through knee-deep mud and freezing rain, and fighting on despite hunger, exhaustion and lack of adequate shoes or clothing.  I can’t even imagine what it would be like to march through mud that was literally knee-deep or worse.

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