Fist Of History

1940 France Ardennes Forest Breakthrough – a.k.a. why didn’t the French see it coming?

April 16th, 2014


So the above image captures a general perception held by many, how could France, a modern military power in 1940, rely upon a forest to stop the largest armored assault in history – in many sources the French defense in 1940 is treated as a textbook example of a nation failing to properly understand the potential of German tanks and in the common teaching of the war the above joke is treated as a serious point of military history.  The conventional wisdom is “France was expected a retread of the attack through Belgium and Germany totally got the drop on them by punching through the forest which France stupidly relied on as am impenetrable barrier against tanks.”  The first thing to explain is that France, and Great Britain’s expectation of a retread of the German World War I invasion plan through Belgium was actually pretty reasonable, it was the plan the Germans were working with up until late February 1940 and the plan favored by most of the German military leadership.  (For perspective the invasion of France, Belgium, and Holland started on 10 May 1940 so a two month major change of plans was uncommon for a major military offensive.)  The original German plan was basically the World War I invasion plan beefed up with tanks and aircraft, however the problem was that the German high command, in anticipating the French and British response, expected high German causalities and the offensive winding down with the German army holding about half of Belgium.  Enter the German general Eric von Manstein with his crazy “up the center” plan to invade France.


Manstein (pictured above) suggested the famous thrust through the Ardennes forest as the major offensive effort, breaking through the French army at that location, and then pouring troops through into the open territory behind French lines and trapping the Franco-British combined armies that had moved into Belgium behind a fast moving German military movement.  The reason the rest of the German military leadership disliked this plan was it was incredibly risky, had the French facing the German military breakthrough mustered any of the following three things:  massed tank formations to crush the German armored columns, massed successful air offensive against the German leading tank formations, or French infantry with sufficient anti-tank artillery to contain the breakthrough.  Now Manstein could feel confident the first two would not happen, for reasons outlined below, but the last item was the one that was uncertain, bluntly put it would not take much French infantry with proper anti-tank weapons to delay the German breakthrough for long enough for the French and British to realize “Oh crap, attack up the center, shift reserves there” and then the brilliant lightening stroke would have turned into a nasty mess with Germany’s fine military suddenly caught in a trap of its own making.


Furthermore the French military command actually did see the offensive potential of a German breakthrough in the Ardennes forest, battles had been fought there in World War I and as early as 1938 the French high command understood the Ardennes was not sufficiently strong as a barrier to prevent German tank offensives without “special preparations in advance.”  The military commander of the French forces in World War II, Marshall Maurice Gamelin (pictured above) argued prior to the war that not only was the point that Germany later smashed through defensively weak but pushed to have it re-enforced in defense.  Specifically the town of Sedan, considered a linchpin defensive point, was found by multiple French military leaders to be insufficient to prevent a serious attack.  The problem was an easy solution was not present – building heavy fortifications would be expensive and arguing that the Ardennes was sufficient as a defensive point also helped deter French politicians from requiring the massive Maginot line be extended into the region, which would have siphoned off French economic resources for other military improvements that the French military leadership thought more critical – such as more advanced aircraft and more armor.

So what happened when Germany invaded and why, even knowing the danger in advance, did France fail to properly stem the German attack through the Ardennes forest?  That’s a story for a second installment next week…

Source:  Wikipedia articles on Manstein Plan, Battle of France, and the Battle of Sedan, the book Strange Victory by Ernest May


Lebensborn – Nazi Baby Houses

April 14th, 2014


Founded in 1935 the Lebensborn program (“Font of Life”) was a Nazi German government program designed to provide natal care and support for mothers giving birth to infants.  In particular the Lebensborn program was aimed at providing a safe space for unwed mothers to have their children away from their communities where they may have felt social shame or isolation due to their pregnancy outside of wedlock.  The program also provided assistance in the placement of infants whose mothers put them up for adoption with “suitable” families whose fathers were members of the SS.  As this is a Nazi governmental program, you would be correct to expect that there were some horrifying and creepy goals behind this program, in particular it was a part of the Nazi eugenics based ideology of promoting the breeding of “racially superior” Aryan stock.  The trick to gaining access to this program was that both the mother and father had to pass a careful screening for genetic/racial purity before being allowed access to the support provided by the Lebensborn program.

"Verein Lebensborn", Taufe

The Lebensborn program was centered around a series of maternal “houses” set up throughout Germany, and later in several occupied territories judged to have sufficient Aryan roots, where women who were allowed access to the program could get prenatal and natal care for their children.  This program was also an extension to provide social services that were felt to be needed thanks to the earlier 1932 SS Marriage order and the 1935 Lebensborn Decree, the former requiring that members of the SS get the permission of the government before marrying to ensure their “racial purity” remained intact and the second strongly encouraging SS members to have at least four children, either in or out of wedlock.  The Nazi government felt that if they were encouraging the SS to breed, and also encouraging them to breed solely based on considerations of “racial purity”, that a support network needed to be in place to support single mothers in having their infants.  This was also seen as a necessity due to the Nazi government putting incredible roadblocks in the way of Aryan women getting an abortion.


The Lebensborn program was a broader extension of the Nazi government’s emphasis upon German/”Aryan” women remaining in the home and supporting the instilling of traditional German domestic values in their children, the major emphasis being upon “racially pure” women staying home, breeding, and raising children.  One of the interesting extensions of this emphasis upon procreation came about from the League of German Girls, a Nazi organization focused on pre-teen and teenage women, with a goal of instilling into them state-approved values and outlook on life.  The League of German Girls encouraged its membership to have babies and espoused the value of motherhood, the result was a spike in teenage pregnancies and an increasing number of complaints from more conservative German parents that these efforts to instill Nazi ideology in favor of childbirth were undermining traditional German values supporting delaying sexual activity till marriage.  The Lebensborn program was designed to also deal with these issues and provide a means of allowing teenage mothers to complete their pregnancies in a psychologically supportive environment.

However even the Nazi state had its limits of tolerance for teenage female sexuality, reportedly in 1936 at the Nuremberg rally members of the League of German Girls and the Hitler Youth, the male teenage Nazi organization, were allowed to camp next to each other during the rally.  Afterwards when over nine hundred of the young women who had attended the Nuremberg rally returned home pregnant the Nazi government decreed that at future party events the two teenage organizations were not to camp next to each other.

Although the SS organized the systematic kidnapping and relocation of children throughout Europe into German homes, to focus the “acceptably Aryan” into a “proper environment” – the Lebensborn program was found after the war to have had minimal to no real role in that program.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Lebensborn and the League of German Girls, U.S. Holocaust Museum entry on “Women in the Third Reich“, German History in Documents translation of the SS Marriage Order, and Children During the Holocaust by Patricia Heberer

Cartoon and Old Ad Friday

April 11th, 2014


Title:  The Magician

Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


Source:  Life Magazine, 1890


Source:  Life Magazine, 1892


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893

The above poem is in reference to the Bimetalism Crisis of the 1890s and refers to the ambitions of farmers and western miners that the use of more freely coined silver money would allow debts taken on under tighter gold money to be paid back more cheaply.

The Deal Behind Hitler

April 9th, 2014


Adolf Hitler rose to power on 30 January 1933 as Chancellor of Germany, from there he was able to pave his way into a dictatorship of Germany.  However how he got there was due to a series of twisting political intrigues in 1932 that reflected the instability of German politics at that point, the work of the Nazi Party along with their arch (and hated) rivals the German Communist party, and how personal ambition can lead to some of the most unpleasant of political partnerships.  Franz von Papen (pictured above) served as Chancellor of Germany from June to November of 1932.  His appointment was unexpected as his party did not have a controlling influence in the Reichstag and he was a fairly minor political figure up to that point, he was appointed due to the German President Paul von Hindenburg took advice from a trusted aid, General Kurt von Schleicher.  Papen built an elitist cabinet and during his period as Chancellor was not able to build an effective coalition, due to opposition to any actions of the government by both the Nazi party and the Communist party.  (There goal was to force the government to regularly dissolve and hold new elections, both parties held a large number of seats in the German parliament and they hoped to each wrestle an eventually dominant position to reshape Germany with a legislation passing majority.)


When Papen proved unable to make an effective ruling government, Hindenburg dropped him as Chancellor and appointed Kurt von Schleicher instead in November 1932.  (Pictured above.)  This enraged Papen who sought an opportunity to return to power, his plan rested upon building a coalition between himself, the head of the German National People’s Party, and Hitler.  The key was the leader of the German National People’s Party, Alfred Hugenberg, who in combining the votes of  his minor party with those of the Nazi party could provide Hitler with a functioning coalition.  Hindenburg was initially opposed to the idea but as his most recently appointed Chancellor, von Schleicher, proved unable to muster a ruling coalition either the deal was struck.

Macht¸bernahme Hitlers

Hitler turned out to be a surprisingly cheap date in late 1932, earlier he had demanded that Hindenburg name him Chancellor and allow Hitler to create his own full Nazi cabinet, a position he felt he had earned as the holder of the largest single voting block in the Reichstag.  Hindenburg had denied him this out of a combination of personal distaste for Hitler and a distaste for the Nazi party.  However in late 1932 Hitler settled for a surprising compromise, his own holding of the position of Chancellor and a total of two posts on the German cabinet for Hitler’s appointees, the other positions could be filled by non-Nazi’s selected by Hindenburg, Papen, and Hugenberg.  Papen and Hugenberg planned to isolate Hitler entirely with a cabinet of non-Nazis, the two positions Hitler wanted were considered reasonable – Minister of the Interior and Minister of the Interior for Prussia.  Hitler, however, was able to use his office and those two offices to dismantle German democracy.  (The image above is Hitler upon being appointed honoring the crowd cheering him with is presence.)

Papen got his reward though – appointment as Vice Chancellor and Hugenberg got an appointment as Minister of Economics and Agriculture (dual appointed for both Germany and Prussia.)

When Hitler held his internal purge, the Night of the Long Knives, Papen was spared by accident and Hugenberg ignored.  Both men were marginalized when Hitler became dictator through a gradual stripping of power.  It says something that in contrast Kurt von Schleicher, the last person to hold the office of Chancellor before Hitler, was targeted and died in the Night of the Long Knives.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Alfred Hugenberg, Adolf Hitler, Kurt von Schleicher, and Franz von Papen


Operation Felix – the German Plan to Invade Gibraltar

April 7th, 2014


In 1940 Nazi Germany, under the guidance of Adolph Hitler and his core of highly competent generals, was in an excellent position strategically, by June 1940 France had signed an armistice with Germany and dropped out of the war, the British Army had been withdrawn from the continent of Europe entirely and had lost much of its heavily equipment, the Soviet Union was a near-ally of Germany, and the United States neutral.  (The alliance with the Soviet Union is less a partnership and more an agreement on non-mutual ball-kicking at this point between two powerful bullies dividing up a playground between them.)  At this point Hitler was open to new operational plans and the invasion of Great Britain, although an eventually necessary strategic goal, was not the only operational plan kicking around with Hitler’s generals, several of them advocated instead for a lightening dash through Spain and an invasion of British held Gibraltar.  spain_map

If you look closely at the map Gibraltar is the tiny city at the southern tip of Spain, located close to Morocco, and due to an interesting chain of historic events we won’t go into here, was under the control of Great Britain, which over the centuries of its occupation had invested in turning Gibraltar into a fortress settlement with a decent garrison.  It’s position at the narrow strait allowed it to dominate shipping into the Mediterranean which for Great Britain was a vital strategic issue due to its need to bring supplies in through the Suez Canal and across the Mediterranean to feed Great Britain’s economy.  If Great Britain lost Gibraltar it would end up in a position in which its economy could be badly pinched and goods shipments delayed sharply by the need to bring them around the Cape of Good Hope and expose them to many more miles of potential attacks by German submarines.  As unacceptable as this was to Great Britain it seemed an excellent plan to Hitler and he authorized his generals to begin planning for the lightening offensive, a combination of ground and airborne assault upon the British holding.  There was only one minor tricky problem to be resolved, getting Francisco Franco, Fascist dictator of Spain, to agree to allow German troops to speed through Spanish territory to launch the attack.  (He’s the one pictured at the top shaking hands with Hitler at the train station.)


Meet Wilhelm Canaris (pictured above), the head of German intelligence and the Third Reich’s resident expert on Spain who traveled in 1940 to open discussions with Franco for Operation Felix.  Canaris however was secretly opposed to the Nazi government, and Hitler, and instead of promoting the planned seizure of Gibraltar worked extremely hard to convince Franco instead to remain out of the war and reject Hitler’s demands.  Canaris warned Franco, through Franco’s brother, that Canaris believed Germany would lose the war and that if Franco joined with Germany he was risking reprisals against both Spain’s remaining few colonial holdings but also against the Spanish mainland itself.  Canaris fed Franco demands to make upon Hitler that Canaris knew Germany would never be able to fill, leading to the meeting between both dictators being a tense one when Franco insisted that before Hitler could cross Spanish territory he’d need a few things:  massive infusions of grain and oil to boost the Spanish economy, massive artillery guns Germany didn’t have and couldn’t easily make, on and Great Britain successfully invaded and subjugated first.  Hitler found the meeting unpleasant and decided to pursue other projects instead.  By 1941 thanks to Franco’s resistance and the invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Felix became a dead issue.

So the major question is, could Operation Felix have worked?  Although I am no expert I would argue probably but not as quickly as Germany hoped, the British had put considerable resources into re-enforcing their fortified strong point and would have defended it with vigor due to its critical position at the entrance to the Mediterranean.  It would have potentially come down to air power, Germany in early World War II often used dive-bombing over artillery as the means to break fortified positions and command of the air would have allowed German planes to cut supplies being delivered to Gibraltar.  However such a shift in air power might have also reduced the amount of air units that could be focused upon Great Britain during the Battle of Britain.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Operation Felix, Gibraltar in World War II, and Wilhelm Canaris

Book Review – “Imperial Cruise” by James Bradley

April 5th, 2014


It’s been a while since I’ve included one of these and I’ve been meaning to write a review about this particular book, The Imperial Cruise by James Bradley, a book which seeks to prove in several hundred pages that a semi-secret diplomatic mission planned by President Theodore Roosevelt, sending his Vice President William Howard Taft as negotiator, laid the seeds of Japanese policy in Asia and resulted in the outbreak of World War II, as well as other future conflicts.  At its kindest this book is useful in providing the casual reader with some interesting historical points many histories of the United States leave out, such as the extensive military campaign of the U.S. in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century.  It is also a very rough introduction to early Japanese policy in the Far East, specifically in regards to Russia, the Russo-Japanese War, and Japanese expansion into Korea.

Unfortunately it is also a very poor history, beyond issues with writing and tone, due to the fact that its attempts to paint the entire history of the rising conflict between Japan and the United States in the Pacific and Asia as stemming from a promise made by Roosevelt to the Japanese leadership that they would be given a free hand to pursue their own “Monroe Doctrine” in Asia.  Unfortunately drawing a link between Japan of 1902 and Japan of 1932 is a fairly pointless exercise, the odds that Japanese policy in Asia was still being shaped by a promise made thirty years earlier is a weak premise at best.  Japan by the 1930s was following a very different, highly militant course in Asia, China in particular, and the U.S. was following its own new policies in the region.  (Although under a Roosevelt again.)

Overall the book is a light read and provides some useful history but I cannot recommend it to understand the complexities of diplomacy in this region during the early 20th century and beyond.  As well the entire course of the story dealing with Alice Roosevelt is a human-interest distraction to my eye.

Cartoon and Old Ads Friday!

April 4th, 2014


Ladies – so that your feet don’t get injured by shoes

Source:  Life Magazine, 1887


Words to live by even today in my opinion

Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


Absolutely Harmless!  Key Selling Point!

Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


That is A LOT of pipe smoke

Source:  Life Magazine, 1896


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902

So this last one takes a bit of explanation – in 1902 Germany and Great Britain were involved in a debt disagreement with Venezuela, both nations had lent Venezuela considerable sums of money and also both had suffered commercial setbacks to private companies affiliated with their respective nations during Venezuela’s ongoing civil wars in this period.  Cipriano Castro, leader of Venezuela at the time, had renounced the nation’s foreign debt and refused to make payments.  Germany and Great Britain decided to force Venezuelan compliance with a naval blockade, there was concern the United States would intervene due to the Monroe Doctrine but the U.S. agreed to take a hands-off approach to the problem as the European nations were just collecting debt rather than attempting to gain territory.  (Apparently Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt had a lovely quote on the U.S. policy on the issue – “if any South American country misbehaves toward any European country, let the European country spank it.”  You can always count on Teddy for a delightful quote.)

The above cartoon references an incident during that blockade when Germany attempted to send a gunship into a Venezuelan harbor to shell a fortress, the water was too shallow and the German gunship had to retreat, the Venezuelan government then claimed victory.  This pissed off the German admiral in command of their portion of the blockade fleet who retaliated by sending in a larger German gunship that proceeded to shell the fortress into rubble and kill some nearby civilians.  The response at that point of the British, in overall command of the blockade, was to complain to Germany that the shelling was not approved and, bluntly, was not welcome.  Germany apologized.  At this point the U.S. let everyone know that it had a fleet ready to sail down and beat everyone’s head in on general principle.  (The U.S. was a wee bit more…stroppy in the early 20th century.)

The above ended with an arbitration and a new debt settlement being worked out – the international conference to settle the Venezuelan debt situation being muscled into being on the request of the U.S.

Source:  Wikipedia entry on the Venezuela Crisis of 1902-1903

US Civil War – the little state that couldn’t

April 2nd, 2014


The secession crisis of 1860 was one of the pivotal moments in 19th century United States history, the early stages of the crisis defined the civil war that followed and probably set the challenges, failures, and successes of the Lincoln presidency.  As the nation reeled under the question of what membership in the federal entity known as the “United States” was at least one state split over the issue of secession successfully, Virginia, leading to the states western territories breaking free and being admitted as a new state to the nation, West Virginia.  However Virgina was not the only southern state to face the challenge of secession with a sharply divided internal populous, the state of Tennessee went into the crisis facing the same problem.  When the crisis began Tennessee actually strongly leaned towards remaining in the Union, with most of its citizens believing that leaving the United States was a desperate solution to a problem that could be solved by other means, even the election of Abraham Lincoln was not enough to sway the majority of Tennessee citizen base towards the idea of leaving the Union.  Then Lincoln’s proclamation in April 1861 calling for an army of 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion in the South was issued and Tennessee’s position rapidly shifted to pro-secession.  Tennessee’s governor at the time, Isham G. Harris (pictured above) favored secession and worked to bring his state over into the new Confederate States of America.


However not all of Tennessee was interested in leaving the Union, Western Tennessee with its broader agricultural system, higher number of slaves, and economy based around large-scale agriculture was sharply in favor of leaving the Union.  However Eastern Tennessee, with a far smaller number of slaves, mountainous terrain, and an economy more based around mining and small-scale agriculture disagreed and held its own convention which decided that East Tennessee wanted to leave the state of Tennessee, form its own new state, and remain within the Union.  This would have taken about a third of Tennessee’s total land area away from the state, something that Harris was not going to have happen.  He ordered the commanding general of Tennessee’s own state army, Felix Zollicoffer (pictured above) to take a sizable force of troops into Eastern Tennessee to secure the region and prevent its pro-Union sympathies from coming to fruition.  This provoked a low-intensity guerrilla war by individuals in East Tennessee against the pro-Confederate, and after a short period fully Confederate, troops garrisoning the region.  In particular a mountainous region known as the “Nickajack” was a site of regular violence and efforts to undermine bridges, destroy communication lines, and ruin rail traffic moving through the state.  Although the Confederates oscillated between a light hand and spanking the region the Confederate States of America was never able to fully bring East Tennessee under control.


The situation came to an end during the Tennessee campaign in 1863 by Union General Ambrose Burnside (pictured above and yes, some believe the term “sideburns” does come from his fabulous whiskers) – who led a successful campaign to secure East Tennessee for the Union in the fall.  By the end of 1864 all of Tennessee was secured by the Union and knocked out of the war.  What, personally, I find particularly fascinating about the story of East Tennessee is the fact that it represents the very narrow view of “states rights” held by the various entities that made up the Confederate States of America – for that institution the idea of “state” was very tightly defined as the entity created by either an original charter or admitted to the United States with carefully enunciated boundaries.  Even the Confederacy, when facing the possibility of part of its own territory attempting to leave it, resorted to violence and military force to maintain its territorial integrity.  (Bonus tidbit – when Sherman led his 1864 march through the south a unit in his forces were composed of Southern men who volunteered to fight for the Union, most of that unit was made up of volunteers from Tennessee, specifically East Tennessee

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Tennessee in the U.S. Civil War, the Nickajack, Isham G. Harris, Ambrose Burnside, and Sideburns.  In addition the article “The Valley of East Tennessee” written by Ernest I. Miller, 1957.

Operation Meteorite – an early German plan to assassinate FDR

April 1st, 2014


One of the more fascinating historical “what-ifs” is a little known attempt by Nazi Germany to assassinate United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941 prior to the United States entering World War II.  The plans origins began in 1940 with a theoretical study on the issue commissioned by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (or RHSA) – the Reich Security Main Office – an SS organization built to fight enemies both “domestic and foreign” to the Nazi regime.  The main idea was to insert a highly skilled SS sniper into the United States as a sleeper agent who, working with an active Nazi spy ring in the United States at the time, the Duquesne Ring, would be kept appraised of FDR’s schedule and public appearances to allow an emergency attempt to kill the President if his increasingly supportive leanings towards the British would prove a serious threat to the German war effort.  Although historic records are unclear it appears the sniper of choice, one Erwin Konig, was successfully inserted into the United States under a cover identity by the fall of 1940.  This insertion was deemed necessary due to the collapse of France and rising evidence of impending potential U.S. support for Great Britain.  However no serious efforts were attempted to implement the plan due to the continued demands by the United States in 1940 that Great Britain pay for all its war material purchased from the United States with hard currency.  (Some within the RHSA saw this actually as a short term setback for the Nazi war efforts but long term a potentially devastating drain on Great Britain’s ability to wage war.)
German_SniperThis outlook changed in March 1941 with Roosevelt successfully signing the Lend-Lease Act into law, ending the requirement that nations fighting the Nazi regime pay for war material in hard currency, this new law allowed the United States to provide war goods to any nation on credit that the President deemed vital to the defense of the United States.  With a potentially unlimited supply of weapons and materials flowing to Great Britain it was decided by the RHSA that Roosevelt being assassinated might disrupt politics within the United States sufficiently to delay significant aid reaching Great Britain or, even more unlikely, that the Lend-Lease Act might be ended by Republican opposition.  The operation, named Betrieb Meteorit (Operation Meteorite) was to take place as soon as the possibility presented itself of the attempt having a “reasonable chance for success.”  The leader of the Duquesne Ring though, headed by Frederick “Fritz” Duquesne, considered the operation far too high risk to his carefully placed agents within the United States and deliberately delayed implementation of the operation.  However the ring did provide the RHSA with intelligence of an impending conference being planned to take place between Roosevelt and Churchill in either “July or August 1941″ – a major concern for the Nazi government due to the impending invasion of the U.S.S.R. in June 1941.  Frederick Duquesne was ordered to implement Operation Meteorite no later than July 1941 or risk replacement as head of the spy ring.   Fortunately for Duquesne he had an agent inserted in Washington D.C. who was able to learn through a leak in the White House that Roosevelt was planning to attend a dedication of a Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY, on 30 June 1941.  Erwin Konig and a handler traveled to Hyde Park in early June 1941 and began to scout the location of the impending Presidential visit, the plan was to shoot Roosevelt during a speech at the front of the library, although the shot would be over a considerable distance Konig in his memoirs argued that he could have made the shot had the operation proceeded.  Security around the President at such an event was minimal by German standards and both Konig and his handler felt they had an excellent chance to escape had the attempt been successful.  Fortunately for the United States the attempt was never made, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation had its own double agent infiltrated within the Duquesne Ring feeding them intelligence, word of the planned assassination reached the F.B.I. and they were able to successful close in on the ring and shut it down entirely in one swoop on 29 June 1941.  The dedication of the library proceeded but under much heavier security, Konig was able to escape but his handler was captured.  Konig was able to depart the United States aboard a German U-Boat sent to the East Coast specifically to intercept him.  Konig returned to Germany and took part in the later stages of the invasion of Russia, playing a prominent role in Stalingrad.Henry_A._WallaceHad the attempt actually succeeded the odds are fairly low that Operation Meteorite would have ended the Lend-Lease agreement or ultimately prevented the U.S. entry into World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  However an interesting wrinkle on these events is the Vice President at the time, Henry Wallace (pictured above.)  An unpopular choice made by Roosevelt in 1940 Wallace was seen as highly liberal and was distrusted by the more conservative elements in the Democratic Party.  As well there was almost a minor scandal around his unusual religious views at the time, Wallace was intimate with a Russia guru and believed in several spiritual ideas that many in the U.S. would have potentially found unsettling.  Had Roosevelt been assassinated it is remotely possible Wallace taking office, with his extreme leftist views, might have divided the Democratic party enough to make the Republicans able to block some of the more aggressive pre-war actions undertaken by Roosevelt in the later months of 1941.Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the RHSA, Erwin Konig, the Atlantic Charter, the Duquesne Spy Ring, Lend-Lease, and Henry A. Wallace.  In addition A Snipers Journey – Memories of an SS Sniper by Erwin Konig, 1952.

James Wilkinson – Dick or Super Dick?

March 31st, 2014


One of the fascinating things about the history of the United States is the unusual cast of characters who played decisive roles in the formation of the nation – it is fair to say that the United States was founded by a blend of rebels, dreamers, plotters, visionaries, vagabonds, and scoundrels.  Above is one who fits in the last category, if one is being kind, James Wilkinson, born in 1757 and deceased in 1825.  Wilkinson began his career with the United States during its nascent years, serving initially as a Captain, and then being swiftly promoted to Colonel, during the opening years of the American Revolution.  In 1777 Wilkinson was charged by General Gates to carry the official dispatches back to the Continental Congress informing them of the major American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in New York.  Wilkinson completed his assignment, after a small delay to handle personal matters in Philadelphia, and while providing his report to the Congress of what happened he just happened to mention how incredibly brave and awesome he was at the battle.  Incredibly brave and awesome.  Carried the day brave and awesome.  But such flat out lying is understandable in a young and ambitious twenty year old and completely justifies his being promoted to Brigadier General by the Continental Congress and enraging other, more senior Colonels.  It also helped Wilkinson took part in a conspiracy to get General Washington tossed out as the Commander of the American Army, by 1778 Wilkinson feel in position due to General Gates having enough of his activities.  The Congress made Wilkinson a general in the supply services but he resigned the position.

But his career of messing with the United States had only just begun, in 1782 Wilkinson took a job as a general in the Pennsylvania militia and in 1783 served as a state assemblyman, but in 1787 he took a “special trip” down to New Orleans.  The purpose of his mission was to negotiate access for Kentucky to the Mississippi River – at the time Kentucky being a territory that was part of Pennsylvania and the Mississippi’s mouth being under the control of Spain, which also controlled New Orleans.  (Don’t ask.)  Wilkinson took this opportunity to try to hook up a deal with Spain, if they provided him with a “consideration” (money, property, position) he could ensure that Kentucky, rather than becoming a new state in the United States, instead peeled off and became a territory of Spain instead.  Wilkinson swore an oath of loyalty to Spain where he got the cool code name Agent 13, in reference to the secret code he used to communicate with Spain.  His plans with turning Kentucky into part of Spain failed and he didn’t get his money, but Wilkinson escaped being caught in his acts of questionable loyalty and was promoted to a position as commander of the entire United States army instead.  Wilkinson held this position from 1800 till 1812 when his lack of military skill and the demands of an actual war finally led to his being put in a lesser command, and later removed from the army entirely.  (He faced a court martial after losing two battles in the War of 1812 but was, of course, found innocent.)  In 1803 Wilkinson was the official who formally took ownership of the Louisiana Territory on behalf of the United States from France (again, don’t ask) – Wilkinson took advantage of this trip to hook back up with his Spanish buddies and offer to sell state secrets in exchange for getting his pension back.  (Which he totally did for another twelve years.)


In 1804 Aaron Burr (pictured above) decided that he had had enough of his political career being in free-fall and, after serving as the third Vice President of the United States, decided to pursue his own “questionable” venture in the western territories of the United States.  Burr traveled in the Ohio Territory and the Louisiana Territory talking to people about some interesting thoughts he’d had – about how the federal government was no longer following policies that really favored the west, about freedom, and about maybe organizing some other political arrangements in the western territories.  Was Burr advocating these areas secede from the United States and form a new nation?  Well, at his treason trial it was never really clear and he was acquitted, so from a legal perspective no.  But during his time working on this project Burr made a special friend who worked to help him in…whatever he was planning, a powerful general by the name of Wilkinson.  Wilkinson though decided, when the situation didn’t seem to be going his way, to cut his losses and provide evidence of Burr’s treasonous activities.  This included a helpful letter Wilkinson wrote that he said was a “copy” of a letter Burr had sent him asking him to help in treason, an action which of course horrified Wilkinson to his core.  Sadly he had lost the original of the letter but the copy had been made at the time and was most accurate.  The courts threw the copy out and Wilkinson was humiliated for this interesting evidence admission.

Of course Wilkinson remained in command of the United States army even after this got out, personally I’m guessing because the federal government somehow lacked other people with military training.

Finally after being relieved of his command in the War of 1812 Wilkinson quietly faded into obscurity…which is of course a falsehood.  He actually wrote his memoirs trying to clear his name and in 1821 traveled to Mexico and attempted to get the government there to give him a special land grant in Texas.  He died in Mexico waiting for approval of his request.  His activities as a spy were finally proved in 1854 when a Louisiana historian found letters in Wilkinson’s handwriting documenting his activities on behalf of the Spanish crown.

James Wilkinson – definitely one of our more “colorful” founding figures.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on James Wilkinson, PBS documentary entry on James Wilkinson, Wikipedia entry on Aaron Burr.