Fist Of History

World War I Intrigue – Felix Sommerfeld in Mexico and the United States

October 22nd, 2014


The key question in World War I after the initial conflict of 1914 was resolved was what role the United States would end up playing in the conflict, for Great Britain, France, and Russia the United States was a key supplier of credit, munitions, arms, and secondary equipment needed to sustain their herculean efforts in the conflict.  In turn, for Germany, working to prevent the United States from contributing to the conflict to any greater extent, and keeping the United States from entering the conflict, were key goals until 1917.  One example of this effort is the mysterious work of Felix Sommerfeld (pictured above on the far left), who from the period of 1908 through 1918 Sommerfeld worked as a German agent in Mexico and the southwestern United States.  Sommerfeld was trained as a mining engineer and had a very colorful background prior to entering German service, including spending time in the United States as a prospector, briefly as a U.S. soldier in the Spanish-American War (he deserted), and also fighting as a German soldier during the 1900-1901 German expedition to suppress the Chinese Boxer Rebellion.  How Sommerfeld ended up working as a German agent is a mystery but from 1908 through 1917 he was very busy in Mexican politics, specifically working as an illicit arms merchant funneling U.S. weapons into the Mexican Rebellion and sending regular reports on the situation in Mexico, and U.S. policy towards Mexico, back to Germany.

In the tumult of the Mexican Revolution Sommerfeld ended up initially working for the Mexican government under President Madero (1911 – 1913) where he served as the head of the Mexican Secret Service and used that position to build a massive spy network within the United States.  He also had connections with several famous mercenary soldiers and recruited them to help suppress an uprising against Madero in 1912.  With Madero’s fall in 1913 Sommerfeld left Mexico under the protection of the German ambassador and got involved in the new movement to overthrow Mexico’s new leader, Victoriano Huerta.


As part of that effort he drummed up financial and military support for Pancho Villa, the northern Mexican military leader and political focal point of one major effort to overthrow Huerta.  The question that comes up, and cannot be answered, is did Sommerfeld have any influence on Villa’s decision to launch a raid into New Mexico in 1916 in an attempt to bring the United States into the Mexican civil war?  Villa did the raid in the hopes of dragging U.S. forces southwards into Mexico deep enough to provoke a conflict between Huerta’s forces and the U.S. military, a conflict that might destabilize Mexico and bring Villa a new opportunity at winning a leadership position in Mexico.  For Sommerfeld, and Germany, a 1916 U.S./Mexican war would have probably kept the United States tied up during a critical point in World War I and cut the availability of United States support to France, Great Britain, and Russia.  Had the plan succeeded and the United States intervened with a massive military force, it might have changed the course of the war.  As it happened the U.S. sent in a token force and the situation was defused.

Sommerfeld was arrested eventually when the United States entered the war, he fades from history after the end of the war.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on Felix A. Sommerfeld, entry in Revolutionary Mexico:  The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution by John Mason Hart, review of the book Hiding in Plain Sight by the CIA, and entry in the Life and Times of Pancho Villa by Friedrich Katz.

World War I – 1914 – Now What?

October 21st, 2014


It is 2014 and this date marks the century mark of the Great War, or World War I for those who don’t mind spoilers.  Mid-October 1914 marked the end of what was later called the “Race to the Sea”, a series of flanking maneuvers and brutal contact battles between the German Army and mainly the French army, working with the remains of the British army, in a desperate bid to get to an open point where either side could resume the offensive.  Behind both armies was left a long thin line of trenches, marking the end of easy ground maneuvering between both armies and the closing of the earlier rapid advances at the start of the war in August 1914.  Traditionally at this point most articles on the subject focus on a long series of individual brutal battles and close with an observation that by late October 1914 the French and British began their next attempt, a series of short sharp mass battles to try and break the enemy trenches before the winter closed in and ended serious campaigning between the two sides.  (Another spoiler, the French and British did not manage to successfully breakthrough and end World War I in late 1914.)


What is key to remember is the context of the Race to the Sea period, Germany had just given the Russian army on its eastern front a series of backhanded smacks that had sent the Russians reeling in late August 1914 but that victory had been due to a combination of excellent German luck and terrible Russian planning and implementation.  The Russian army remained a threat, and in late October 1914 was still lurking as a real risk that Germany, wrapped up in its major efforts on its western front, might face a sudden Russian surge that, at worse, crushed Germany and at best tied down additional German resources.  So for the German military leadership this time in October 1914 they were facing a serious strategic nightmare, on the one hand they had not successfully crushed the French, but they had captured a huge amount of valuable territory and French industrial resources, withdrawing from it would seem to signal a failure of their war efforts which, by all logic, had been successful.  Granted they hadn’t knocked the French out of the war by capturing Paris but France was severely weakened, if Germany could just hold on long enough the thought was France would not be able to maintain the war.  As well Germany still hoped in 1915 that a method for a certain breakthrough in the west would occur.

Meanwhile they would continue to smack around the Russians as needed and work with their ally, Austria-Hungary, to keep the Eastern front contained.  It wasn’t until later Germany completely shifted gears and made the major focus of the war knocking Russia out of the conflict.

But what is fascinating is by October 1914 Germany, France, and Britain were locked in a savage problem, neither one could disengage from the war but none of the three had a sure-fire technique to regain the initiative and end the war.  Germany needed to resolve the war so it could turn on Russia, out of fear that Russia would field a massive doom army that would smash Germany.  France needed the war to continue to regain its lost territories, and Britain needed the war to continue to re-ensure Belgium and Holland were independent again ending the threat of German control of the key European ports for invading England.

Yet none of these three powers had any clear means to proceed – and the trenches which were a defensive holding stance till things were figured out became the dominant factor in the western European front.

Sources:  Mental Floss article on the Race to the Sea, Wikipedia entry on the Race to the Sea and Paul von Hindenburg

Anglo-German Naval Accord of 1935 – A Perspective

October 15th, 2014


The Anglo-German Naval Accord of 1935 is, in the overall history of pre-World War II events, from a traditional perspective is probably one of the less important bits of diplomatic maneuvering in 1930s Europe.  During the same period when it was signed, the mid to late 1930s, Germany began to aggressively and openly rearm, seized and re-militarized the Rhineland, aided the Spanish Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, and eventually annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia.  Germany also successfully concluded alliances with most of its neighbors but the two that really mattered were a treaty signed with Italy and, much later, with the Soviet Union.  (Germany also signed a treaty with Japan that was diplomatically vital but in affecting the balance of power it has less impact than the other two treaties, besides making the British Empire even more prone to panic and defensive alliances.)

At its heart the Anglo-German Naval Accord of 1935 was a basic naval arms limitation treaty signed directly between Great Britain and Germany in which Germany pledged to keep its total naval strength at no more than 35% of that of the British fleet, based on tonnage, and also agreed to pursue a balanced program of naval development rather than building a “specialized fleet” – such as one oriented towards commerce raiding.  The treaty allowed Germany to build submarines again for the first time since World War I, within more generous tonnage ratio limitations.  The treaty was considered a major diplomatic success for the British government, led by Stanley Baldwin (pictured above), and for Adolf Hitler kindled hopes that this initial diplomatic success would pave the way towards a broader defensive treaty with Great Britain or, dream of dreams, an alliance that would allow Germany a free hand in continental Europe.


The core impact of this treaty though was greater than it might first appear when considered in context and factoring in national pride and human emotion, because the Anglo-German Naval Accord of 1935 was negotiated without consulting the French or Italian governments, as Great Britain had promised to do in the mid-1920s.  From the mid-1920s through the early-1930s Great Britain, France, and Italy were part of what was known as the Stresa front, an earlier alliance aimed at containing any possible German aggression by all three signatory nations – Italy, France, and Great Britain.  As a further blow for France by allowing Germany to have a larger navy, and submarines at all, this treaty refuted the Versailles Treaty, upon whose enforcement French security hopes rested in the 1920s and early 1930s.  With Great Britain renouncing that and pursuing its own private peace France was forced to consider its reliance on Great Britain to be less of a factor and reacted with its own efforts to increase its military size and preparations for war.


I would argue though for France, in particular for its leadership (symbolized by the Prime Minister at the time, Pierre Laval pictured above), this treaty underscored a more critical humiliation, France was no longer in command of its own foreign policy.  The British government could sign this major treaty that redefined French and German naval balance, ignore the French government, and then inform them of its actions.  But as France needed British support to have any chance of successfully defending itself against German aggression this treaty probably helped re-enforce feelings in France’s public and leadership of inferiority and an inability to effectively resist.  I would contend that those feelings, that emotional burden, was part of what weighted down France’s military planning and civil leadership and remained a problem for its effective ability to defend itself up till the actual outbreak of the war.  Only the actual defeat of France, and seeing the impact it really had, versus it’s imagined impact, helped galvanize France to emerge from the war with fire in the mid to late 1940s.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Anglo-German Naval Treaty of 1935, entry on the treaty in World War II at Sea: An Encyclopedia edited by Spencer Tucker

1950s United States Air Defense – put a nuke on it!

October 13th, 2014


So it’s the 1950s and you are a top military planner in the United States, and you are faced with the challenge of defending against the Soviet Menace, specifically the capacity of the Soviet Union to deploy bombers with sufficient operational range to reach the United States mainland.  (Bombers such as the powerful Tupolev Tu-95 featured above with its weapons bay open.)  The core plan is to rely on fighter interceptors, high speed jets that can reach the bombers and attempt to shoot them down before they reach their targets in the United States, but the problem is that there are simply not enough fighters to successfully prevent all Soviet bombers from reaching their targets.  Furthermore conventional anti-aircraft guns are simply not up to the challenge of shooting down these high-flying, high-speed Soviet bombers.  During World War II the army determined that a new weapons system was needed, specifically a guided missile system, and so one was developed.


The Nike Ajax missile system was a series of batteries deployed around major United States strategic sites, military bases, and major cities with the stated goal of tracking Soviet bombers entering United States airspace and shooting them down before they reached their targets.  The Nike defense system was seen as a weapon of last resort however it was also believed that used properly, in combination with interceptor fighters, it could greatly reduce the number of Soviet bombers that could reach their targets.  Although effective defense against an atomic war that prevented all nuclear damage was seen as unfeasible, this system was felt sufficient to potentially lower the damage to an acceptable level.  However as the number of potential Soviet bombers attacking the United States continued to rise and it was realized the Nike Ajax would not be able to successfully track individual Soviet bombers within large flying formations, it’s ability to destroy the bombers with its conventional warhead was uncertain.


Meet the Nike Hercules, a larger developed rocket deployed in the mid-1950s that was very similar to the Nike Ajax with one minor, key refinement, it carried a nuclear warhead aboard the rocket.  The new plan was to fire this missile into the middle of a Soviet bomber formation and detonate it, with the goal that the nuclear blast would destroy multiple Soviet bombers in one explosion.  As a bonus it also was cheaper to deploy potentially than the Nike Ajax because fewer missile silos could be used to gain the same level of anti-bomber protection.  Now the challenge in planning was the fact that a nuclear weapon with roughly double the destructive power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs would be detonated a mere seventy-five miles or so from the target it was protecting, but this was felt to be an acceptable risk in what was, again, a last line of defense weapon


Of course Soviet development, and increased reliance on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) made such a system outdated, as Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules missiles could not destroy a Soviet ICBM before it reached the United States.  Although never deployed in large numbers the United State army did rise to the challenge, with development work on the next generation of missile system, the Nike Zeus (pictured above), a massive extremely high-speed missile that could destroy an incoming Soviet ICBM.  The missile proved partially successful in the late 1950s but technical developments, and rising costs, led to the program ultimately being scrapped and the research used in new efforts in later decades.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Project Nike and a Straight Dope entry on the Nike project

Congress in Action – 1975 Church Committee

October 9th, 2014


In today’s politically charged climate, especially with an election season underway, it is often very easy for American citizens to lose faith that their Congress is actually capable of having a meaningful impact on the direction of the United States both culturally and on a governmental level.  An excellent example of what can happen when Congress does get into action, even when fueled by political motivations and popular pressures, can be found in the 1975 Church Committee.  (The committee is formally titled “The United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.”)  Chaired by Senator Frank Church (Idaho, Democrat) and with a key Vice-Chair, Senator John Tower (Texas, Republican) the Church Committee dug into a massive history of intelligence gathering operations by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The committee discovered that since the 1950s both agencies had engaged in a series of covert operations that far exceeded their mandates but also that the overall methods of governmental oversight of these agencies were woefully inadequate.  Specifically United States Presidents, from Truman through Nixon, as well as key Congressional leaders, had simply turned a blind-eye to how these two agencies collected intelligence seen as vita to winning the Cold War and instead simply focused on the results of those operations.  This combined with a strong desire by the United States political leadership to achieve plausible deniability, the much-loved phrase of Hollywood spy-thrillers but that actually was a term coined by the CIA in the 1960s and refers to the idea that “if the senior government leadership doesn’t know what we do they can then honestly say they had no idea we set babies on fire to see if it upset parents.”

The Church Committee met for seventeen months, most of its hearings were behind closed doors – due to national security concerns – and resulted in some legal and administrative reforms to the operations of both the CIA and FBI.  Key changes included:

  • The formation of two permanent committees in Congress to oversee intelligence operations – one in the House and one in the Senate
  • The limitation by law of the tenure of the director of the FBI to a maximum of ten years duration to avoid another J. Edgar Hoover fifty-odd year dominance of the agency
  • A slew of executive orders that modified how intelligence operations were conducted – the impact of which has been steadily eroded since the 1980s

A 1975 quote from Senator Church at the conclusion of these findings seem appropriate for today’s even more interconnected world:

In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left such is the capability to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.

If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.

I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.

Apparently he was speaking about the National Security Agency in this particular instance.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Church Committee, entry in the book U.S. National Security, Intelligence, Democracy on the Church Committee, U.S. Senate historical website entry on the Church Committee


The 1975 Collapse of the South Vietnamese Army

October 6th, 2014


Current 2014 headlines are tracking a growing conflict with a new irregular warfare based force known as ISIS/ISIL, and many news outlets are expressing the surprise and shock of the American public and government at the swift collapse of the American-supported Iraqi Army.  This is an interesting example of how history does semi-repeat itself, and also how a nation can collectively forget painful memories.  At the end of the Vietnam War under United States President Nixon the major strategy for reducing the involvement of American forces in Vietnam was a policy known as “Vietnamization” which focused on providing increased American arms, training, and financial support to the South Vietnamese Army while at the same time reducing the number of American troops in Vietnam.  The ultimate goal of this policy, which was achieved by the early 1970s, was to have the Army of South Vietnam taking on all combat operations in Vietnam, with occasional support by the United States Air Force to help prevent any major battle reversals.  This massive influx of arms and material created a powerful South Vietnamese Army on paper, however with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 ending the United States interest in the region the South Vietnamese Army proved a hollow force unable to meet the demands of actual combat.


Many different factors are blamed for the 1974-1975 collapse of the South Vietnamese Army, first and foremost was a major reduction in United States financial aid to the country which made it far too expensive for South Vietnam to properly maintain the massive supplies of American military equipment left behind.  Another often cited factor was South Vietnamese government corruption and instability.  Even cultural issues are blamed, with reports of subordinate commanders filing false reports to generals to avoid embarrassment as their troops deserted and of those same generals providing their own false reports, again to avoid embarrassment.  Historians even cite a general lack of popular support or belief in the nation of South Vietnam by its people as a reason, leading to troops deserting when put under combat pressure due to the feeling they were defending something not worth dying over.  But even as the causes cited vary between historians, the reality of what happened is very clearly recorded historical fact, with few exceptions when put under combat pressure by North Vietnamese military forces the South Vietnamese army repeatedly broke and ran.  Combat equipment was abandoned, uniforms were stripped, and former South Vietnamese soldiers fled to whatever safe havens they could find that would then allow them to escape to either United States naval vessels or further south to avoid capture.


It all came to an end with the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, the final holdout city for the nation of South Vietnam.  The final battle did involve units of the South Vietnamese Army offering more effective resistance but even that only lasted for a short period of time.  The Vietnam War finally ended with the capture of the Presidential Palace in Saigon – the famous image above is of a North Vietnamese tank smashing its way through the gates.  What shocked the American public though in 1975 was how rapidly the South Vietnamese Army collapsed.  They had been told by the President that it was a modern force, well equipped, massive in size, and capable of defending South Vietnam indefinitely.  So when in reality it simply collapsed under pressure and did so in a matter of months, it was a major shock.  However in 1975 the American public was in no mood to recommit any resources to the Vietnam War so the defeat was allowed to happen without any United States intervention.

This event, overall, is an excellent example of how even a well positioned proxy army, that is well-equipped and well-trained, can prove utterly unable to achieve its strategic goals when put to the test.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and Vietnamization, article on the Fall of Saigon, entry on the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in The Vietnam War, 1956-1975 by Andrew Weist

Old Ads and Cartoons Friday

October 3rd, 2014


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902

Note – one of my sample advertisements that reflect the casual racism of the times


Source:  Life Magazine, 1901

Note – another racist cartoon that is also damn weird


Source:  Life Magazine, 1892


Source:  Life Magazine 1892

Note – I welcome any thoughts on what “special South American plant” this is

Syria-Lebanon Campaign – Free France and the Middle East

October 1st, 2014


1941 was a challenging year in World War II for the Allies, in some ways it was one of the most difficult war years faced by Great Britain, until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the Japanese attack on the United States in December 1941, Great Britain faced a global war against two major opposing powers and was, at best, holding its own in side-theaters or only making minor military gains.  It’s major ally in the war, France, had been defeated in 1940 and was now an allied/puppet state of the Germans and Great Britain was facing multiple challenges to its ability to fight, including major Italian/German campaigns in the Middle East to cut Britain’s access to petroleum and goods deliveries through the Suez Canal and major challenges to its position in the Mediterranean, also vital for British supply shipments.  Finally Britain feared what would happen if Germany managed to gain access to the Middle East and its vitally needed petroleum production facilities, petroleum Britain relied upon to maintain its war capacity.

For Great Britain one nightmare scenario involving the Middle East was that the French-influenced region of Syria and Lebanon would provide a springboard for German aggression further into the region.  With Iraq having staged a coup that put a pro-Fascist government briefly in power, (but overturned by a British invasion), the concern was Syria and Lebanon would be turned over to German control or used as a mounting point for a major German push in the region.  Although nominally independent Syria and Lebanon had been under the control of France after World War I and France maintained a military presence in both countries and had the right, by treaty, to station military forces in the region.  Great Britain decided that action had to be taken to prevent this region becoming a nexus point of German pressure and launched an invasion of Syria and Lebanon in 1941, military operations took place between 8 June until 14 July 1941, when the pro-Vichy French forces surrendered to the British and allied military.


Although the British/allied forces were about equal to the French Vichy forces, the campaign went well for the British and resulted in a hard-fought but well-fought series of victories.  What is particularly impressive though is the ally of the British, the first major military action by Free French forces in the war.  Contributing a battalion of infantry this 1941 effort was one of the first cases of Free France taking part in a major action and liberating territory from Vichy French forces.  The allies though did not play up the victory in the press, out of fear of a negative reaction among the French and other nations in the region.  The successful campaign remained a minor event in the overall history of the war due to this, although had the area remained a Vichy French stronghold it might have proven an extremely valuable point in 1942.


On 22 June 1941 Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the major German/allied offensive into the Soviet Union that brought the U.S.S.R. into the war alongside Great Britain and, arguably, set the course of the rest of World War II on its path that ended with Germany defeated.  However had Syria and Lebanon remained in the hands of Vichy France, they could have provided a staging point for the Germans to launch a deep southern offensive aimed northwards, into Iraq and part of Iran, with an end goal of linking up with the 1942 push southwards by German forces in the Soviet Union towards Stalingrad.  Granted a major long shot but it could have permitted the Germans a real chance to open a second line of supply to its forces in the Soviet Union and possibly tipped the course of their 1942 campaign.  It certainly would have opened up the opportunity for Germany to find a new source of petroleum shipments.

Source:  Wikipedia article on the Syria-Lebanon campaign, entry in Bill Slim: Leadership, Strategy, Conflict by Robert Lyman

The Atomic Cannons – Full-size and Fun-size

September 29th, 2014


Meet the M65 Atomic Cannon, one of the more interesting atomic weapon deployment systems created by the United States military during the Cold War.  The M65 Atomic Cannon was developed in the early 1950s and was deployed in Europe and Korea to provide a moderate range tactical deployment method for stopping large scale military assaults with atomic shells.  The M65 Atomic Cannon fired a 240mm shell and could lob an atomic shell approximately twenty miles.  It was only actually used once with a test fire shot at the Nevada test site.  The test was successful and the weapon demonstrated it could fire an atomic shell without the “firing” part of the process accidentally setting off the nuke in the guns barrel.


The M65 atomic cannon, although technically a functional weapon, was never something considered a serious means of halting any sort of major or minor tactical movements.  The weapon was a slow-moving vehicle, it would be hard to defend in actual battle, and the number of technical situations where it would be really useful in contrast to a nuclear weapon carried by a missile or an aircraft were fairly minor.  What it was though was a big, impressive cannon that could be used to shore up local defenders feeling of superiority to a threat and scare up possible aggressors with the threat of massive atomic shells raining down.  (Hence its consideration as a “prestige weapon.”)  At a cost of $800,000 (nearly $8 million in today’s currency) each these weapons were deployed in Europe and Korea and moved around regularly so that enemy air attack, if it occurred, wouldn’t destroy them immediately.


On the other side of Cold War crazy nuclear weapons systems is the Davy Crockett, a small nuclear weapon launcher that could be either mounted on a jeep or carried by a team of infantry men into battle.  The Davy Crockett used an extremely small tactical nuclear weapon and was fairly inaccurate when fired, it’s main plan was to be used for deterrent effect and also to create pockets of lethal radiation in advancing enemy troops.  The Davy Crockett was deployed from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s and was stationed with United States troops in Germany.  In its single atomic warhead test it showed it had a firing range of about one and a half miles, making it a rather “cozy” ranged nuclear weapon.

Both weapons were a product of the broader fears in the 1950s regarding the Cold War, the United States strategically was in a transitional period, facing two competing challenges, on the one hand building a sufficient strategic nuclear force to allow war against the Soviet Union to be successfully waged and render its military capacity moot and also facing a potential tactical challenge of stopping a far larger Soviet ground military with limited ground troops in Europe.  These two nuclear weapons delivery systems were both responses to that second challenge, a lower-cost means of harnessing the “wonder of atomic weapons” to tactical battlefield use.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the M65 atomic cannon and Davy Crockett nuclear rifle

Politics and United States History

September 24th, 2014


I make it a point to carefully screen online articles these days that seem designed to stir up controversy on issues of history, but the chatter going around about conservative efforts to edit the Common Core United States history materials to promote values of “nationalism, patriotism, and American Exceptionalism” seems to be a genuine conservative element.  (Articles linking to it are here, here, and here.)  The cornerstone debate seems to hinge on several issues, one of the core issues is the argument that the AP materials move away from “Great Heroes” and towards “Social and Economic Forces” to which my response is, welcome to the 1970s!  In teaching United States history college professors, since the 1970s, have abandoned the “Great Heroes” school of teaching and moved towards social and economic forces as a means of capturing mass consent/mass movements and how they shaped history.  The most current cutting edge historical work is a blending of both perspectives, arguing that social/economic forces are critical but also often key individuals form nexus points to spark historical change.  So in that regard, the conservatives complaints are understandable, but for 17 and 18 year old students ramming into this material for the first time, no, they actually need the full “Social and Economic Forces Shape History” mind-blowing moment to properly understand United States History – the adult version.

Regarding complaints by conservatives that material should instill “patriotism, nationalism” and contain materials expressing a respect for “law and free market capitalism” – well that gets a bit more complicated.  My personal favorite example is the Boston Tea Party, 1773, which actually captures both the power of “free market capitalism” and “civil unrest” – one of the subjects conservatives wish to, at the most generous, minimize in the material.  The Boston Tea Party was due to many interconnected factors but one of the core issues was that it represented a government enforced advantage to a preferred provider (the East India Company) that was resolved by lawless behavior, throwing boxes of private property into the harbor.  (In reality also climbing into boats and smashing open the boxes with axes while the sat in the harbor, it was low tide at the time and human screw-ups are a theme throughout history.)  The Boston Tea Party is also one of the core “feel good” stories of the American Revolution, as is the Boston Massacre [more civil disorder] and the entire initial American revolution [armed insurrection against the legal authorities.]


Want to argue that those “don’t count” because they are rebellions against British law and order?  Fine – the Whiskey Rebellion, an armed uprising by western Pennsylvania farmers against what they saw as unfair taxation by the United States federal government in 1793.  That image you see above, by the way, is a federal tax collector being tarred and feathered by the farmers to drive home their point they don’t wish to pay the tax.  Why the rebellion against the tax?  Again, many reasons but at a simple core point, they felt it an unfair tax because it overly impacted the western territories which lacked sufficient political power to oppose the action in Congress and have their opposition have meaning.

Not to be crude but that is a Right-wing wet dream up there of “proper” rebellion against authority, it even depicts, again, free market forces raging against government tax tyranny.


The thing that really pisses me off though, as a historian, is the complaint by the right that the AP History material makes the United States look too evil, makes corporations look too destructive, and doesn’t present any event with a clear sheen of heroism in it.  The picture above is from the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, which the right would probably prefer to describe as a “battle” – in which when U.S. Troops of the 7th Cavalry were escorting Lakota tribal members (by “escorting” we mean “forcing back to their approved territory”) and there was an incident with a single gunshot being fired, no one is sure who opened fire.  The U.S. soldiers then proceed to slaughter the Lakota using vastly superior firepower, when several Lakota attempted to flee they were chased by the troops and shot down.   The fire was so undisciplined and the urge to slaughter so powerful far more U.S. troops were hurt by friendly fire then by the Lakota shooting at them.

By the way this was the same 7th Cavalry that in 1876 had its ass kicked by a combined force of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes – do you think there might be some possible effort in this battle to offset the sting of a past defeat?

The answer by the way, is not necessarily known, it would require assessing letters written by solders at the time, the post action report, and news coverage of the event.  It would be an involved examination of many sources of material, a careful discussion of what they might mean, and careful and thoughtful analysis by those studying the issue.  In other words, perfect fodder for AP high school students to discuss.

But make no mistake, that image, and what happened, is an ugly moment in United States history.  There are plenty of ugly moments in U.S. history.  There are also moments of amazing beauty in U.S. history.  But all of those moments have a good dollop of good and bad in them.  The realization of that fact is when you move from understanding history in a simplistic manner and shift into understanding it on a more nuanced level.

I’d like to leave you with a story from my own studies when I was getting my Masters in history – I was taking a course on the history of Modern China [1800 to 2000 for those curious] and our professor was a refugee from Communist China, so from the 1950s onwards we routinely heard stories about how stupid the Communist Chinese were/are.  Incredibly angry stories, the professor chortled over things like the Great Leap Forward.  But one thing that stayed with me was her story about how Communist Chinese historians worked very hard, and debated, to come up with an official “percentage” for Mao – the end product of their work was the officially mandated historical rating of Chairman Mao – he was, and I quote, “51% Good and 49% Bad.”  The professor then laughed and we all joined in – stupid Communist Chinese, you can’t assign percentages to history, it doesn’t work that way.

As an older man though, with more time and perspective – as well as far more study of history on my own – I think silly as the idea sounds basic history students would benefit from the challenge of having historical figures presented this way – as a mix of “Good and Bad.”  Simplistic as it may be it would help people begin to grapple with the complicated realities of history in a more meaningful way and also make historical figures, and events, more useful to students as a way to help grapple with today.  For me the goal of history is not to teach people how to deal with modern challenges, it can at best provide hints at past screw-ups and triumphs under different cases, no history has value in teaching people how to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty, by providing good examples of those in the past facing the same challenges who both rose and fell.