Wednesday, June 13, 2018

What is the meaning- and value- of history?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  
                                                     --George Santayana

George Santayana

       The above quote by Harvard-trained philosopher George Santayana has been mentioned numerous times over the last fifty years by statesmen, writers, scholars and yes- historians- in an attempt to stress the importance of knowing something about the heritage of one's own country and how it fits into the long flow of history. Yet is is much more than that. Understanding the history of our nation is but a starting point for a long and potentially fascinating journey around the world, a trip that can provide us a connection with other cultures and a glimpse of their importance in the story of us all.

       The first question all historians are faced with is a daunting one: what does history actually mean? The old saying that "History is written by the victors" is only partially true. Each new generation of historians- whether they hail from a large, powerful nation or a smaller player in the world- gets a chance to evaluate the ebb and flow of human history, actions by politicians, kings, tyrants and warlords, along with those of unsung heroes- to determine the importance each played in bringing us all to where we are today. It is a certainty that every President, Prime Minister, scientist, philosopher, artist and inventor will be viewed differently 20... 50... 100 or more years after their own passing from the world stage than they were during their lifetime. Proof of this lies in the fact that Presidents including Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower are now ranked far more favorably than they were when they left office. It is this necessary period of reflection that allows historians- and all people- to gain a greater understanding of the importance and long term ramifications of actions and events. With a longer period for comparison, we get insights we never had before. Those insights themselves will change over time- and that is precisely the meaning of history.

       The second question is much less challenging: what is the value of history? By fully assessing a long series of events, how each one caused certain repercussions while others had minimal impact- we can all make more accurate projections about what is likely to occur in the future. Great historians like James McPherson, author of the classic Civil War narrative Battle Cry of Freedom tell us this story in a unique and effective way so as to bring new insights and new perspectives to us all. Clearly having the benefit of decades, even centuries of human activities to review rather than just a few over a short period of time provides a platform for predictions for the years ahead. Santayana appreciated that, saying: "We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past and... respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible." 

       So let's celebrate our heritage- along with that of other nations- as we gain a richer understanding of the global narrative of emperors and kings, wars, natural disasters, great inventions and the minds which created we appreciate our past... and look forward to our future...

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Remembering the Day That Saved the Free World

       On June 6, 1944, Allied forces under the overall command of General Dwight Eisenhower stormed the beaches of Normandy to take on the German troops entrenched all along the coastline of France. Called "Operation Overlord", the liberation of France with the Allied coastal invasion was the largest armada assembled in modern history, originally planned during the darkest days of World War II when the Nazis were in control of large portions of Europe with a stranglehold that appeared unbreakable. Eisenhower spoke personally with the troops beforehand, telling them all that they were embarked "on a great crusade" to save the world. His speech must have inspired thousands of them.

       The invasion was almost called off due to inclement weather. Eisenhower actually took a big chance with the operation, as he'd been given a brief window of time to launch the attack. Luckily the weather held out and the naval forces were able to land thousands of men on Omaha, Juno, Gold, Utah and Sword Beach. Repelled at first with blistering machine gun and mortar fire, the Allies finally overcame the German positions, albeit with very heavy casualties.

       Today, 74 years later, it is worth pondering what was accomplished that fateful day. The old adage: "If the Allies hadn't won, we'd all be speaking German" is not too far off the mark. The Nazi war machine was overwhelming, brutal and successful in taking control of France, Austria, Poland and several other countries. Although Hitler and his commanders made glaring overcommitments of men and assets that were unsustainable, it is quite possible that, if he had limited his troops to just one or two areas, he could have succeeded. Instead he badly miscalculated in trying to create a vast new German empire which was doomed to fail due to limited resources- and the world benefited from his error.

       The ranks of World War II veterans are thinning rapidly; the youngest person to serve, starting as late as 1945, would today be at least 90 years old. We're losing about 400 WWII veterans every day. One young man wants to make sure their stories are heard. Rishi Sharma- a 20 year old from Redondo Beach, California has made it his mission to interview every living WWII vet. He's traveled to 45 states and Canada and spoken with 870 of them over the last few years. Rishi talks with many of them on the phone, some in person, videotaping their comments to be stored in a "living history" WWII database. Although he realizes it is a nearly impossible task, Rishi persists and is determined to reach as many as he can. He documents his experiences and those of the veterans on his website 

       Tom Brokaw called them "The Greatest Generation." While all our veterans should be thanked and honored for their service, those who fought in World War II- on the beaches of Normandy, in the horrific Battle of the Bulge, in the Pacific Theater at the bloody battles of Midway, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, all across Africa and Asia- somehow deserve a very special "Thank you." Without their efforts, hundreds of millions of people around the world might have been forced into lives of desperation and tyranny. Because of them, today... we live in freedom. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

President Ulysses S. Grant- A Second Look

       The true test of the value and importance of anything- a book, a piece of music, a work of art, even a person- is time. Often it takes years, sometimes decades to discern the many nuances of actions not apparent at first glance and this period of reflection is necessary to understand those things "unseen" originally, or hidden by the interplay of personalities and tumult of the times in which they were experienced. It is almost a certainty that the actions of statesmen and Presidents will be viewed somewhat differently 20... 50... 100 years after they leave office. If only due to the benefit of a longer term perspective- and the often lengthy gap between initial action and long term consequences- historians and biographers take a "second look" at the actions of Presidents and the secular repercussions of those actions. This is why Presidents like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower- both rated somewhat poorly immediately after they left the Oval Office- are now typically rated much more favorably, often in the top ten of all Chief Executives. It is with this same perspective that this historian now takes a fresh look at President Ulysses S. Grant.

       Hiram Walker Grant (1822- 1885) had a "colorful" life. After serving with distinction in the Mexican-American War- a conflict he personally opposed- he began drinking heavily and resigned from the Army in 1854. Grant struggled through a few different jobs, but by the outset of the Civil War in 1861 was ready to get back into action and was reappointed as a Colonel of the 21st Illinois infantry. It was during the Civil War that Grant's star began to rise. Showing a fearless attitude pursuing Confederate forces in battle, he became Lincoln's favorite officer. Lincoln recognized Grant's fighting abilities and promoted him because of his many successes on the battlefield, during a period when several other Generals failed to achieve measurable success. Presiding over the crucial victory at Vicksburg and later accepting the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Grant was lauded as the greatest hero of the Civil War. By 1868, following Andrew Johnson's term, Grant was encouraged as a war hero to run for the Presidency and was selected unanimously for the nomination of the Republican Party.

       Grant served two terms as President, during a period filled with great uncertainty over the direction of the nation and his own personal struggles with scandals- five in total- that rocked his Administration, even though he was largely disconnected from the events. Historians have rated his team- and their associates- as some of the most corrupt to ever hold public office. Grant's first Vice President Schuyler Colfax was accused of accepting deeply discounted shares of stock in the Credit Mobilier company which helped in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Shortly after Grant took office, James Fisk and Jay Gould attempted to corner the market in gold with help from Grant's brother-in-law, causing the Panic of 1869. Grant's Treasury Secretary William Richardson was forced to resign over a kickback scandal related to tax collections. From the start to the end of his two terms, it seems that scandal followed Grant wherever he went, even though he was personally viewed as an honest man. The financial Panic of 1873- one of the worst in American history- did nothing to help his reputation and deepened people's suspicions concerning his effectiveness and success as President.

       After he left office in 1877, his reputation tarnished due almost exclusively to the corrupt practices of others, Grant did not have long to live. He went on a global tour around Europe, Africa and Asia which allowed him to meet Queen Victoria and Pope leo XIII. He also dabbled in politics, nearly gaining the nomination of his party in the election of 1880. In 1884- only seven years after leaving the Oval Office- he started experiencing sharp pains in his throat. Being a lifelong cigar smoker and heavy drinker, his personal habits may have played a role in his health deteriorating. Grant was later diagnosed with throat cancer. He went downhill quickly over the next year, losing his voice and dropping in weight by more than 60 pounds. He wanted to write his memoirs to allow his wife and family to survive with the royalties- but did not have much longer on this Earth.

       Determined to write an accurate account of his life, including detailed descriptions of critical Civil War battles, Grant began working on his memoirs after being offered a $25,000 advance by Mark Twain. Grant worked tirelessly over the following months to tell his life story in bold, unadulterated prose, a work that has been recognized as one of the greatest by a American President.

       In a 1962 historian's poll, Grant ranked near "the bottom of his class"- 30th out of 31 Presidents. As often happens over time, perceptions of Presidential accomplishment changed- and Grant is no exception. A 2018 poll ranked Grant 21st out of 45 Presidents- the "upper half" of his peer group- quite an improvement over the five decades. What changed? Recognition of Grant's honest and admirable character, as well as evaluation of his accomplishments during the difficult period of Reconstruction, including passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, among many other things. Grant sharply opposed people who tried to intimidate blacks against voting- notably the Ku Klux Klan- and as President authorized mass arrests of persons participating in aggressive, terrorist actions against Negroes. He created what is now known as the National Park System, with the first one- Yellowstone in 1872, so he can be considered America's first conservationist President. Grant also signed the Specie Act of 1875 supporting "hard money"- a move designed to allow the U.S. Treasury to accumulate sufficient gold reserves to accommodate any requests for conversion of paper currency into coin, a move which strengthened public confidence in the U.S. Treasury and America's currency. Grant also appointed four Justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, some of whom wrote precedent-setting opinions and served with distinction.

       Overall, despite the public perception of his links to scandal, Ulysses S. Grant is now viewed much more favorably by scholars and historians. Ron Chernow's book Grant (2017) takes a fresh look at the 18th president, granting him a much better- and fairer- review than many of those written in previous decades. 

       Time changes everything. To his credit, Grant's reputation has improved markedly in recent years. Due to his extensive service to our nation during a very challenging period of our history, Ulysses S. Grant deserves a "second look"- and at least a "Thank you" from all Americans. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

How the United States Constitution Changed the World

"Miracles do not occur at random, nor was it the author of this book who said there was a miracle at Philadelphia in the year 1787. George Washington said it, and James Madison. They used the word in writing to their friends, Washington to Lafayette, Madison to Thomas Jefferson."

                                                        --Catherine Drinker Bowen in Miracle at Philadelphia

       "We the people..." So begins the most important governing document written in the last 250 years. The U.S. Constitution was truly something new under the sun. Never before had a new nation been forged with the powerful words of the governed. For centuries, kings, aristocrats and tyrants had spoken of what the lower classes and peasants would be required to do. 

       When the 55 delegates from every state except Rhode Island met in Philadelphia in May 1787, they did not know they might produce a document that would change the course of human history. This really was a novel creation, one which outlined how people... would govern... themselves, without an overbearing King or group of wealthy aristocrats dictating the terms and calling the shots. From a notion... emerged... a new nation.

The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia

       Pennsylvanians played a special role in this process. With eight delegates including the wise and respected Benjamin Franklin, shrewd financier Robert Morris and political operative Gouverneur Morris, they had more participants and perspectives to share than any other state, even the powerful Virginia delegation, with George Washington and James Madison among their seven representatives.

Benjamin Franklin

       Several attempts at unification for the colonies were made in the decade before this meeting. The Declaration of Independence- signed in the same chamber eleven years before, while inspiring, was more of a statement of protest against the British government than anything resembling a legally binding document. The Articles of Confederation- signed in 1777, ratified in 1781 when the Revolutionary War was almost over- was a best attempt to coordinate the activities of the thirteen colonies which considered themselves completely separate, independent entities. It failed to form a true and binding union because few of the colonies wanted to grant authority to a centralized authority. 

Articles of Confederation

       When the Constitutional Convention ended on September 17, 1787 the delegates were not even sure if they had accomplished something that was "legal"- as they had been appointed only to propose changes to the Articles, "not to design a new government", as historian Pauline Meier stated in her book Ratification. The delegates shrewdly wrote in Article VII ( the ending to their document) that "the Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution..." They understood that getting all thirteen states to agree on anything so groundbreaking as a Constitution would be- like any large group deciding over where to have lunch- a major challenge.

       The seven Articles in the U.S. Constitution embodied the first time that a group of enlightened citizens spelled out exactly what rights they had as residents of each individual state and what powers a centralized government had over those states. Knowing that it was critical to have citizens delineating those powers, the very first Article they wrote details the authority granted to Congress- peopled by citizens of those states- Article II details the powers and responsibilities of the Chief Executive (President); Article III those of the Judiciary system represented by the courts.

Article I, United States Constitution

       I would not be writing these words today with the many freedoms I enjoy if Alexander Hamilton had not participated in the Constitutional Convention. Perhaps the most gifted of the Founding Fathers, Hamilton knew that the republic- any republic- would falter and crumble if it could not generate sufficient revenue to pay off its debts and provide funds for government operations. Article I, Section 8 has his fingerprints all over it. This details the powers of Congress to issue and pay down debt, regulate trade and commerce, enact taxes, duties and tariffs to generate revenue and issue coin and currency. Without Article I, Section 8, our struggling nation would have have descended into chaos and bankruptcy. It is the lifeblood of the Constitution

Alexander Hamilton

       To gauge the importance of the U.S. Constitution, take a look around the world. All those countries which enjoy the most freedoms and the greatest prosperity are, in some form, constitutional republics with representative governments outlining the responsibilities and authority of that government as well as the rights granted to its citizens. The nations which have faltered or continue to struggle which have the least freedom- Cuba, North Korea, Iran and others- are either Communist dictatorships or theocratic monarchies which deny their citizens the many rights and privileges all Americans enjoy. It is no accident that America is the freest AND most prosperous nation on Earth. The Founding Fathers got it right. Although the original Constitution was modified numerous times (twenty-seven Amendments as of this writing), it set a standard unmatched by any other country.

       The United States Constitution is the oldest continuously operating document outlining the powers and authority of government and the rights of its citizens. It remains a guiding beacon for all nations, all peoples and cultures around the world. Despite its flaws, the American system of government- and its guiding document, the Constitution- remain an inspiration to all who seek freedom and justice in an uncertain world.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Is America Still 'The Last Best Hope of Earth'?"

       In his excellent book America- The Last Best Hope, former Secretary of Education William Bennett revisits a quote from President Abraham Lincoln who said these words in a letter to the United States Congress two months after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation: "We shall nobly save or meanly lose this last best hope of earth." Lincoln was talking about the possibility that the Union could be destroyed or irreparably harmed if the Confederacy succeeded in fracturing the nation. That nation- born of noble ideas and dedicated to pursuing liberty and freedom- could easily have faltered if the South prevailed. If that had happened, the painstaking work of the Founding Fathers would have been merely a footnote in a much darker narrative where the forces of evil prevailed, our country was wounded and mankind became all the worse for it.

President Abraham Lincoln

       In a speech he planned to give on that fateful day in Dallas in November 1963, President John F. Kennedy said "We in this country are the watchmen on the walls of world freedom." More than 50 years have passed since then and both citizens and politicians have widely varying viewpoints on whether the U.S. should be involved in engagements around the globe. Yet his words remain true today. No other country commits the resources, the manpower or the effort necessary to combat brutal dictators, rogue regimes and now- terrorists- abundant on the global stage. What kind of world would we have today if brave American soldiers had not fought in World War I or World War II? How safe would the Middle East and the rest of the world be today if the U.S. had not defeated Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War and later, taken action against the terrorists who struck on September 11, 2001? For more than a century, America has "stepped up to the plate" and aided nations in need, thwarting brutal governments and other elements who tried to destroy essential freedoms enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people.

Kennedy motorcade in Dallas, November 22, 1963

       Fast forward to the year 2018. America still has troops on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and other hot spots around the globe. Why? There are two reasons: 1) they remain highly unstable areas, threatened by violence and terrorism and 2) no other country is likely to commit the resources necessary to achieve stability in these regions. The phrase "The U.S. should not be the world's policeman" generates a lot of discussion- for good reason. Peace and stability should be goals shared by all nations, yet the level of commitment to those goals varies dramatically from country to country. America has been blessed to partner with strong allies like England, France and other nations in various conflicts over the years, but it appears to some people that we always shoulder the greatest burden. Why should the U.S. perennially be the leader in fighting wars and promoting stability in countries thousands of miles away? The answer is quite simple: without our efforts, the world would be a far more dangerous place.

American soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima

       Lincoln was right. His words ring true today, more than 150 years after he wrote them. Kennedy's planned remarks are just as vital in the year 2018 as they were that day in Dallas. America IS the world's greatest superpower- and with that comes many responsibilities. If America falters, the world becomes a much darker, more unstable place, susceptible to tyrants and rogue regimes. The United States remains- and hopefully always will be- the last best hope of Earth. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Do Americans Understand How Our Government Works?

       If you've ever seen an episode of Watters' World on television, where Jesse Watters goes out on the street asking people questions about America, our government and our history, you know that many Americans are, shall we say... challenged in their understanding of those topics. Some people interviewed could not say which occurred first- the Civil War or the Revolutionary War. Some blacks interviewed surprisingly could not name the U.S.President who freed the slaves. It is thus not a revelation that many Americans do not know- or have little understanding of how our government works. 

       The Founding Fathers were an enlightened crew. They understood that a republic needed a mechanism by which it could allow itself to function while respecting the inherent rights of mankind. They also knew that the government would need to enact laws which guided the actions of its citizens. When delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia from May through September 1787, they already had a basic framework to utilize: the British Parliamentary system. Most among the group were highly skeptical of too much power or authority residing in one person or group, so they created a tripartite structure to avoid many of the pitfalls of other governmental systems around the world, notably the British system with its all-powerful King. 

British King George III

       James Madison was one of several highly intelligent delegates to the Convention. His plan for the three branches of government- the Legislative, the Executive and the Judicial Branches- allowed for "checks and balances" necessary to sustain a fledgling democracy. Many people today think that America is a pure "democracy". That is not accurate. We are a representative republic, whose citizens do not give an "up or down" vote on every issue or law, but vote for representatives who will decide those matters. Citizens concede that authority to their elected representatives and if they don't approve of their actions, citizens get the chance to vote them out of office. While some people may like the idea of having the power to make those decisions every day for themselves, such a system realistically could not function, as it would collapse under its own weight, ending in chaos.

Decision in Philadelphia, which describes the creation of the U.S. Constitution

       The Legislative Branch consists of the U.S. House of Representatives, whose members serve two year terms and the Senate, whose members serve six year terms. The House and the Senate make the laws of the land. The House was patterned after the British House of Commons, which has a direct tie to its citizens through regular elections. The Senate was patterned after the British House of Lords. The House holds "the purse strings", as all appropriations for expenditures and debt must be approved by its members. The Founding Fathers intentionally gave the House this authority because they wanted citizens to have regular input into how the country was being run. This structure allows citizens to vote every two years for those representatives who will be most prudent in their actions and spend taxpayer funds most wisely.

James Madison, considered by many as the "Father of the Constitution"

       The Executive Branch is represented by the President. He executes the laws passed by Congress, acts as Commander-in-Chief of the military and the representative of our nation on the world stage. The President holds many powers which he can use by Executive authority, including the right to make treaties (approved by Congress), appoint Cabinet officers who will oversee various areas of government and the economy and also deal with foreign powers. The Founders specifically wanted to limit the authority of the Chief Executive because they were well aware that an overbearing King could act as a tyrant, taking away many of what they considered to be God-given rights.

       The Judicial Branch consists of the Supreme Court, the District and Appellate Courts and others both in the Federal government and throughout all the states. The Judicial Branch decides what laws and actions are in accordance with the Constitution. It has the authority to decide what is, in effect "legal" or not. As anyone who's been involved in a lawsuit knows, the legal system in America can be a confusing and frustrating place. What might seem reasonable and fair to the average person can actually be illegal or disallowed under our system of justice. Example: many people believe all representatives should be under term limits, so as to prevent them from being in positions of authority for too long. Yet term limits were actually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court a while back. If you want term limits, you'll have to work for a Constitutional Amendment which puts them in place someday.

The United States Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.

       There's one problem with a democracy: someone has to get the final say on what is lawful and how the government and citizens conduct their activities. Without this ultimate authority, the republic- any republic- would quickly devolve into anarchy, as competing factions disagreed and thwarted the efforts of parties they opposed. So the Founders decided to give ultimate authority not to the President... and not even to Congress, elected by the people themselves, but to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court technically holds more power and authority than either of the two other branches because it decides what is lawful- in accordance with the Constitution. In effect, its nine Justices have the final say over what laws are acceptable, what policies can continue and in some respects, how people can live their daily lives. If they decide that a law, a policy or an action taken by a government official, a business or a person is unconstitutional, they have the power to declare it so and make it illegal. This may seem unfair to some, since the Justices are not elected by the people and have no term limits on their service... but it's the best system we have...

       Winston Churchill once said "Democracy is the worst form of government... except for all the rest." The Founding Fathers knew that those in positions of authority- like Kings- could sometimes abuse that power and take actions harmful to citizens and to the functioning of society. Alexander Hamilton stated it clearly: "Give all the power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all the power to a few, they will oppress the many." Despite its flaws, the American system of government remains the best and most effective system devised by man. It is envied by hundreds of millions of people around the world who live under despotic regimes and brutal dictatorships. The Founders understood that over time, changes to the system would become necessary. That is why they allowed for Amendments to the Constitution. The first ten of those Amendments became what is now referred to as the Bill of Rights. 

Alexander Hamilton, delegate to the Constitutional Convention

       Thomas Jefferson maintained that a republic could not survive unless its citizens were educated, well informed on the topics of the day and made their voices heard. So, if you don't like the way our government works, contact your Senators and your Congressman. Write to the President and tell him how you feel. You'll be making your voice heard... and actively participating in this grand experiment we call America. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Korea- The Forgotten War

       When North Korean forces invaded their neighbor South Korea on June 25, 1950, tensions had already been simmering for decades. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 following years of rivalry between China and Russia, both countries competing for control of the nation. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson in his book The Korean War notes that the Allied Powers during World War II had agreed to allow Korea to be free and independent with the United States overseeing operations in the South and Russia doing the same in the North, areas roughly demarcated by what became famous as "the 38th parallel". By 1948, after years of deliberation by members of the United Nations, the Republic of Korea came into existence with its government controlling the southern territory. The People's Republic of Korea came into being with the support of the Russians later that same year, controlling the northern area. That North Korean troops- supported by Russia and China- subsequently invaded the South came as little surprise to experienced politicians in the U.S. President Harry Truman would not tolerate this  and ordered American military forces there two days after the aggression.

Troops near the 38th parallel in Korea

       In 1950, many Americans knew little about Korea. Some couldn't locate it on a map. Over the next two years, they would learn not only how brutal the conflict had become, but also that the U.S. had entered a war that appeared at the time to be un-winnable. The first Winter of the war in 1950- 1951 took its toll on the American forces. In This Kind of War, author T.R. Fehrenbach stated "The cold would destroy as many men as enemy bullets." U.S. Marines took 22 1/2 hours to march just 9 1/2 miles near the area known as the Chosin Reservoir. Names like Inchon, Panmunjom and Heartbreak Ridge entered the news reports, as did word of mass killings of South Korean civilians by the Communists at Taejon. Although Americans had experienced reports of military setbacks and war atrocities less than a decade before during World War II, these new announcements, along with mixed results and setbacks for U.S. troops left many with the sense that this war was different. A world away from home- fought in a country with no direct ties to the U.S.- it was hard for many to rationalize the sacrifice of American lives.

       The Korean War influenced the political future of two of its main protagonists- General Douglas MacArthur- who'd been sharply critical of Truman's lack of aggressiveness- was relieved of command. He later gave a speech before the United States Congress in which he spoke the now famous phrase: "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away..." President Truman was widely criticized for replacing MacArthur and for lack of success in the war effort; partly due to this, he decided not to run for reelection in 1952. His "police action" was really an undeclared war- something many Americans were uncomfortable with. Citizens were also skeptical about the "domino theory"- the thinking that if one country falls to the Communists, others will follow. It was hard for people to rationalize how countries thousands of miles away and their government- far different from ours- could impact their own way of life and freedom. Added to this was the impression that- for the first time- the U.S. was faced with truly losing a war, a notion that didn't sit well with many who were war weary from the previous decade.

General Douglas MacArthur

       The Korean War ended on July 27, 1953, roughly three years after it had begun when an armistice was signed. Technically this was merely a truce- not a genuine peace agreement ending all hostilities. President Dwight Eisenhower had accomplished what Truman could not- making good on his promise to end American involvement. Eisenhower had also very wisely avoided the use of nuclear weapons, which some advisers had recommended. Total American deaths in the war were initially reported at over 50,000, but a later analysis revised that number to around 36,000- enough to cause millions of Americans to scratch their heads and ask "Why did we get involved?" Many just wanted to put this unpleasant episode out of their minds- and over the years, it was considered by some historians as "the forgotten war."

American troops fighting in Korea

       Over the more than six decades since the armistice, the North Korean Communist regimes led by a family of rulers beginning with Kim Il Sung have waged an ongoing war of propaganda and military threats directed at South Korea, the U.S. and its allies. American troops have been in South Korea since the armistice, positioned along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a region which has witnessed numerous clashes and killings over the years. In the last twenty years, North Korea has aggressively pursued a nuclear weapons program, despite warnings from the U.S. and other nations that such moves were unacceptable. Various U.S. Presidents have tried- with very little success- to entice North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and become a productive, peace-loving member of the world community. Nonetheless, North Korea has, up until recently, largely disregarded the threat of sanctions and outside military force as it pursued its nuclear strategy.

       After seeing many years of failed efforts to halt North Korea's nuclear program, President Donald Trump used more aggressive tactics. He not only ramped up severe sanctions against the country, backed in part by China- he also threatened "fire and fury" if North Korea were to attack the U.S. or any of out allies. The announcement in late April 2018 that North and South Korea had agreed to end hostilities caused political observers around the world to take note. Was this really a definitive change toward peace and de-nuclearization by North Korea, or just another bluff in its long-standing efforts to thwart the western powers? Would their aggressive moves- including numerous missile launches toward Japan and other countries- truly end? It is difficult to fully analyze at this point in time, but President Trump deserves at least some credit for ushering in this new atmosphere of peace. Skeptics might argue that North Korea is playing its hand wisely, as their nation and its millions of people are on the brink of starvation, possibly in severe financial trouble- so their move toward reconciliation is merely a method of gaining western assistance to avoid collapse. Time will tell. With President Trump scheduled to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the coming weeks, an unprecedented move for a U.S. President- perhaps we will see the skies clearing, sunshine bathing the region in warmth... and a much overdue peace. 

Monday, April 23, 2018

What Does It Mean to Be An American?

       President Reagan once said that you can go to Germany and not become a German. You can go to France and never become a Frenchman. Yet nearly a million immigrants are admitted into the United States every year- all of them wanting to become Americans. Why are they coming here- and what does this experiment in democracy really mean to them, to all of us citizens, to people around the world?

       They're coming here- to America- because our nation and system of government are the most successful in the history of mankind. Aside from the nearly one million persons admitted legally into the U.S. each year, many times that number attempt to enter illegally, most of the latter group risking their lives doing so. Some pay thousands of dollars to so-called "coyotes" to transport them across the border, often in unsanitary, horribly overcrowded trucks where their very survival is uncertain. Yet they come, year after year... the tide unending. What exactly are they coming for?

       They all come to be part of the greatest republic in the world, where they hope to pursue their dreams without an oppressive government or rogue elements usurping their rights or threatening their well being. They come to have a chance at living a better life, feeding their families, creating a better environment for their children. Despite the risks of injury or even death, the flow never stops... because they all know that America is unique in human history. Never before had citizens- with very limited resources- overthrown an overbearing mother nation and established their own republic guided by a Constitution which protected individual rights while outlining- and limiting- the powers of government. The Founding Fathers crafted the Constitution and subsequently the Bill of Rights to guarantee that citizens would be able to live their lives in freedom, without the constant threat of having their liberties taken away.

       In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville came to America at the request of the French government to study the American prison system. After traveling around the country for nine months, he decided to focus more on the American political system and way of life. He came away profoundly impressed with what he experienced, which he considered the blossoming of democracy few countries had ever seen. In his book "Democracy in America", de Tocqueville said "America is great because it is good." He recognized that America was quite unique, a very special place unlike almost any other nation. Three decades later, President Abraham Lincoln shared the same insights in his letter to Congress. In 1862, amidst the turmoil of the Civil War, Lincoln realized that it was absolutely critical to preserve this ongoing experiment in democracy, saying "We shall nobly save or meanly lose this last best hope of earth." 

       In the 156 years since Lincoln wrote those words, it has become apparent to hundreds of millions of people around the world that America really IS a unique place. Americans have greater freedom, enjoy a higher standard of living and greater economic prosperity than those in any other nation in the world. Being an American means we can enjoy numerous freedoms and benefits only dreamed about by people in other countries like Cuba, North Korea and Iran. Being an American is to be truly blessed, but that blessing comes with a responsibility. We must be actively engaged with our political leaders, voicing our concerns when they take actions that unfairly limit or threaten those freedoms. We also need to be active participants in this great experiment- so that it never fades or becomes a footnote in a history book. To ensure that this experiment does not end in failure, we all need to be a living, breathing part of our government, our society, our communities- to make this all continue... for generations yet to come...

Monday, April 16, 2018

Remembering the "War to End All Wars"

When Barbara Tuchman's book "The Guns of August" was released nearly six decades ago, it turned the world's attention on a major conflict that subsequently became dwarfed by the enormous impact of World War II. Yet the subject of her Pulitzer Prize winning book- World War I- was almost as gargantuan in scope militarily, geographically and socially, with 70 million military personnel engaged and more than 16 million persons killed in places ranging from Europe to Africa, the Middle East and China. Also called "the Great War", World War I had a profound impact upon the world order, with the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and German empires being radically rearranged or going out of existence, national borders redrawn and nine countries created or restored. 

World War I started with a spark- Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, setting off a diplomatic crisis in the Balkans, the region southeast of Europe which had witnessed turmoil for centuries. Terms like "trench warfare" and "the western front" came into use as politicians tried to describe the scope of this conflict. As nations around Europe began taking sides, it became clear that a major war was imminent. A month after the assassination, Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Germany subsequently declared war on Russia. Russia urged members of what was called the Triple Entente (which included France and Great Britain, as well as Russia) to take a military position and prepare for engagement. The Allies (including Russia, France and Great Britain) faced off against the Central Powers, led by Austro-Hungary and Germany. An interesting footnote of this conflict is the fact that both Japan and Italy joined the Allies (as did the United States, a bit later in the war). Italy and Japan would align themselves with Germany 25 years later in World War II.

The United States was a tardy latecomer to this war, as millions of Americans saw it as "a European affair" in which they did NOT want to be involved. President Woodrow Wilson had a platform running for reelection in 1916 using the slogan "He'll keep us out of war." However, when the British ship Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat, killing over 100 Americans, tensions in the U.S. rose to a boiling point. Later sinkings of several American merchant ships- and the interception of the "Zimmerman telegram" from Germany linking help from Mexico in the war with later assistance to gain back territory held by the United States- caused President Wilson to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Some of the largest and most devastating battles in world history occurred in World War I, including the Battle of the Marne and the Battle of the Somme, the latter producing a nearly unthinkable one million casualties (killed and wounded). Chemical warfare reared its ugly head for the first time, mustard gas and other agents causing soldiers to gasp for breath as they dug into their trenches for protection. The war also produced dramatic advances in weaponry as tanks were used for the first time, bringing a new element onto the battlefield. 

By 1918, the casualties on all sides were staggering. Germany was finally defeated and ready to come to the negotiating table. The Treaty of Versailles signed on November 11, 1918 attempted to treat all parties fairly, but it had many critics. British economist John Maynard Keynes felt the treaty was unduly harsh towards German and he predicted it would sew the seeds of another war. Keynes was right. Political leaders in Germany felt they had been singled out and treated unfairly. The German economy deteriorated sharply; the deutschmark experienced hyperinflation to the point where citizens were unsure of their nation's future and the economy sank into a downward spiral. These conditions led a disgruntled artist named Adolf Hitler to help form a new political party which would take control in the 1930s. 

All those who fought in this great conflict have long since passed from the scene. They're no longer around to teach us its lessons. So, what have we learned from World War I? At a minimum, we should now realize that massive global conflicts cause irreparable damage to families, to communities, to entire nations. In the 21st century, most civilized countries now recognize that chemical weapons are unacceptable tools of warfare. It is unfortunate that some leaders like Syria's Bashar Assad do not subscribe to this line of thinking. Perhaps the war has taught most nations that such weapons must finally be eradicated from the face of the Earth, but that assumption may be too optimistic. It is hoped that today- a century after this war ended- all political leaders around the globe will think twice before engaging in conflicts which could negatively impact the entire world. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Why do Americans continue to be fascinated with the Civil War?

       The Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, but millions of Americans continue to buy books, see movies and attend lectures concerning this period in our history. Thousands of narratives have been written on this conflict, with hundreds on the Battle of Gettysburg alone- and there appears to be no end in sight to this continuing avalanche of material. Why? Perhaps it is because the Civil War truly IS one of the most interesting and thought-provoking times in our heritage,when brother fought against brother, the nation was being ripped apart and this experiment in democracy almost came to an end- but managed to survive despite long odds. 

The American Civil War

       The Civil War began on April 12, 1861 when Confederate soldiers fired upon Federal Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The real "break" came months before, when several southern states seceded after the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860. South Carolina was the first, followed by others as they attempted to form a new nation devoted to allowing slavery to survive. The abomination of slavery had been around for thousands of years- since Biblical times- but by the 19th century, many nations around the world began reconsidering their support for the atrocious practice. As the economy of the southern states was largely dependent on agriculture- and slaves supplied very inexpensive labor to support those activities- slave-owning plantation owners considered anyone promoting an end to slavery a direct threat to their sovereignty and way of life. Numerous events including those in "bleeding Kansas" pitted slave owners against abolitionists, the result being ever rising tensions as the nation seemed to be veering toward anarchy. Politicians in southern states openly stated their desire to form a separate country where they and their constituents would be free to own slaves- mere chattel, in their view- to pursue the lifestyle they desired. Thousands of abolitionists throughout the country- mainly in the North- felt slavery was a horrific stain on human dignity and had to be ended.

The Battle of Fort Sumter which started the Civil War

       When the Confederate States of America was formed, it was a "nation" unlikely to survive. Roughly 90% of the manufacturing capacity of the country was in northern states, as was the bulk of our railroads and telegraph lines. No politicians in the newly formed Confederacy had ever run a Treasury before and few of them had any legal experience writing a Constitution. The shots fired in April 1861 may have seemed like the sounds of freedom to those rebels in Charleston, but little did they know how much misery and mayhem they would portend. The Confederacy did manage to get one of the very best Generals ever to serve in the U.S. Army- Robert E. Lee, who agonized over the decision to fight against his own country. Yet the Confederacy was really doomed from the start with limited money, natural resources and industrial capacity to fight such a conflict. It is astonishing that the Confederacy managed to survive for four years before that slave-owning experiment came to an end.

Dead soldiers on the field of battle at Gettysburg

       By the time Lee decided to surrender- April 9, 1865- the Confederacy was in a shambles, the southern economy ruined, hundreds of millions of dollars of land and equipment damaged or destroyed through the course of the war. Roughly 600,000 persons or 2% of the population was killed during the Civil War; today's equivalent would be more than 6 million people- an unthinkable number. Southern politicians supporting secession likely had little idea that their efforts would not form a new country- but nearly destroy their own way of life. By 1895- 30 years after the war ended- the economic output of just one northern state- New York- equaled the entire economic output of ALL the southern states combined. After the war, northern states thrived as railroads and new technology helped business to boom, new markets to develop and commerce to thrive. By contrast, southern states were merely trying to heal the wounds opened decades before.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox

       As we look back on this episode in our history, it is helpful to note that it was not all bad. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified due to what happened during the Civil War. In the decades following these Amendments, laws allowing blacks to freely live their lives, own businesses and become productive citizens were adopted around the country. Some of the first black representatives in Congress came from southern states, eager to participate in this experiment we call America. So instead of thinking of this period as a disaster, perhaps we should consider a rebirth of freedom, a necessary conflict that produced many great accomplishments which we enjoy today. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Who is Your Favorite President?

       Most people when asked are eager to state their favorite President, but few of them know the details which make- or don't make- a particular President well respected among his peers. The "Presidential Club" is an elite group with a limited number of members- only 45 so far- and getting into this club takes an enormous amount of skill- or sometimes luck. Some men have taken the office upon the death of a sitting President, others have striven for many years and finally attained the lofty position. This essay will not attempt to analyze each one of these men, as such an analysis would be far too comprehensive for this narrative. Instead, I will simply list those who I- as a professional historian- feel merit the "Top Ten" ranking.

       1. George Washington regularly is ranked at the top of the list of American Presidents or easily within the top three by most historians. Why? There are numerous reasons, but among the most important is the fact that he functioned well in a very difficult environment- a young, struggling nation- with no precedents, limited resources and many opportunities to fail. Instead, his calm demeanor and intelligence managed to get the country on a firm footing and allow him to "pass the baton" to the next man who took office without controversy or anarchy in the streets.  

       2. Abraham Lincoln also receives high marks from most historians and in some polls out- ranks Washington. Lincoln also took office at a very challenging time- the nation was literally fracturing- and he served the country well, winning the Civil War and ending the abomination of slavery with his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln held great promise for a second term, but was assassinated before he had a chance to further his successes. 

       3. Thomas Jefferson is often regarded more for his penning of the Declaration of Independence than his time in the Oval Office, but his tenure did produce enormous benefits for America. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country and brought a vast amount of land and resources to the growing nation. Although his embargo nearly crippled the country, Jefferson's crowning achievement with this purchase remains one of the most important acts by a Chief Executive.

       4. James Polk is not a well known name outside of scholarly circles, but he had a huge influence on the course that America took. His success winning the Mexican-American War from 1846- 1848 allowed the negotiation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that brought another enormous land purchase into our realm, again doubling the size of the nation by adding territory in what is now the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, California, Colorado and Wyoming, with vast reserves of gold, silver, lead, zinc, copper and other metals that helped fuel the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution. This purchase helped America rise to the top tier of world powers in the following decades. Polk is also well regarded for something that few Presidents do- keeping his promise to run for only one term.

       5. James Madison is often thought of as the "Father of the Constitution" and this moniker would normally be enough to rank him among America's greatest statesmen, but his time in the Presidency did bring another major accomplishment- winning the "Second War of Independence" from England. The War of 1812 was not popular- some northeastern states even threatened to secede- but it did prove that America was a power to be reckoned with. Even though the war ended in roughly a stalemate, it proved that our nation was strong, could defend itself and rank among the "power players" in the western hemisphere.

       6. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is often ranked by historians in the top five- sometimes the top three Presidents, but here I give him sixth place for a few reasons. He did take office at a horrendous time- the midst of the Great Depression- and he managed to keep the country functioning through a variety of programs, some well liked, others harshly criticized. Roosevelt did manage to get us through the Depression- even though it took a ramp-up for World War II to do it. He also gave people hope when so many millions were without it. He built up the military when it was sorely needed and managed to appoint a great General- Eisenhower- to help win the war, which he did. Despite the fact that unemployment was still at 14% in 1940- seven years after he took office- Roosevelt helped move the nation through two of its greatest crises successfully.

       7. Theodore Roosevelt was a relative of FDR and is often ranked among the top ten U.S. Presidents for good reasons. He helped bring the nation into the twentieth century and was not shy about telling people who we were and what we stood for. "Walk softly and carry a big stick" was one of his favorite phrases and he was proud to use America's growing power and prestige to accomplish great things- the construction and opening of the Panama Canal being just one of them. 

       8. Harry Truman left office thinking he might be forgotten, but his accomplishments have been lauded as some of the best of any American President. He successfully took the reigns when FDR died and steered the nation to victory over Japan, ending World War II. His use of the atomic bomb still draws harsh criticism from some scholars, but it was warranted and the right thing to do in saving perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives. Truman also broke down the "color barrier" in the military and was, like Teddy Roosevelt, not shy about his feelings. Truman's "star" got a huge boost when the book "Truman" by David McCullough was released and he has remained in the top tier ever since.

       9. Dwight Eisenhower was ranked in the bottom third of American Presidents when he left office in January 1961, but has since risen dramatically in ranking, now regularly rated in the top ten. Why? Eisenhower presided over an economy that was healthy and strong, with few periods of weakness, he established the Interstate Highway System which helped revolutionize transportation around America- and he shepherded in two states- Alaska and Hawaii. Eisenhower also successfully ended the Korean War, following Truman's questionable handling of that conflict. "Ike" is now a favorite among historians and for good reason- he deserves a top ranking.

       10. Ronald Reagan was often derided in the media as a weak intellect, a "B-movie" actor with few talents and limited understanding of how to run a government. Yet he showed his critics they were all wrong. Not only had he successfully run our largest state (by population) California- he took office knowing exactly what he stood for and wanted to do. He also surprised his critics by NOT starting a war (he actually signed the first comprehensive nuclear weapons treaty with the Soviet Union) and managed to serve at a time of general economic prosperity and progress for the country (despite a nasty recession in 1983). Reagan was regularly underestimated- and he was proud of showing his critics what he could accomplish. His famous words "Mr.Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" are now part of Cold War history and proof that he could win this- the longest of any American "war" -without firing a shot. 

       People today often rank John F. Kennedy among the very best Presidents, but his accomplishments were mixed (he presided over the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and also allowed the Berlin Wall to go up without a struggle; he did successfully "stare down" Cuba and the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis). The facts about "Camelot" are now regularly debated, as are his many extramarital "flings" while President. It is this historian's view that Kennedy gets an "Incomplete" grade as President, simply because we'll never know what he could have accomplished had he lived. Other Presidents, including Lyndon Johnson are often given high marks, but have numerous shortcomings in my view which will prevent them from being ranked among the greatest in that office. It is hoped that this brief review at least opens the eyes of some Americans and gets them to think about our nation- and the men who have helped make it great.