Fist Of History

The Great Stagflation and Modern America

December 22nd, 2015

The-United-States-Energy-CrisisThe United States has faced a series of major economic issues in its history, the two most commonly discussed are the Great Depression (1929 to 1942 arguably) and the Great Recession (2008 – 2009 officially) but between those two is a lumpy, difficult to fathom, general economic decline that ran from 1971 until roughly 1982 which could be considered the Great Stagflation.  It was the hallmark of the 1970s United States economy, with a solid impact on the British economy as well.  Within the United States it was caused by an intersection of several different policy issues, economic impacts, and major events, such as the two oil shocks that took place in that decade as OPEC reduced oil production in response to the United States’ position towards Israel.

nixon-elvisNixon, who had a very loose concern for domestic economic issues, made the problems worse when facing the gold crisis of 1971.  Briefly the United States pegged the dollar to a fixed conversion rate and other currencies were fixed to the United States dollar.  During the early 1970s the dollar ended up being worth less in actual goods and services than its fixed gold value, leading to other nations beginning to convert their dollar holdings into gold.  Nixon nipped that problem by simply ending the gold conversion of dollars “temporarily” and then imposing price controls to take the sting out of the sudden devaluing of the United States dollar as foreign governments dumped their now non-convertible dollars.  This was fine for Nixon, he was facing re-election in 1972 and he simply wanted domestic voters to feel that their paychecks remained the same, it didn’t matter to him what happened to the economy post-1972 as much, he simply planed to fix it then.

win_sloganOne of the impacts of this, and other factors such as rising foreign competition that cut the United States share of global trade, spiked inflation rates.  This combined though with an unusual factor, as rising inflation eroded the buying power of domestic wages in the United States, organized labor was powerful enough to demand wage increases from companies to offset the inflation.  This reduced the amount of capital available for investment and the economic instability and uncertainty that rising inflation caused discouraged many businesses from entering into any major investments.  This led to economic stagnation, the production of goods and services simply didn’t expand to meet the growing money supply, which caused shocking inflation rates.  (During the height of the crisis inflation rates of 10% were not uncommon in a single year.)

prop13_ballotNormally economic cycles tweak the system, but the events of the 1970s reshaped the United States economic and political landscape.  First, rising inflation pushed up the tax brackets which working and middle class employees were taxed at, as the brackets were not indexed in the 1970s to inflation.  So although the relative buying power of a paycheck remained the same, the bite taken out by state and local taxes went up for many workers, reducing their overall net pay.  This combined with many states reporting record surpluses due to the revenues taken in, and a resistance by those state governments to return the surpluses to the voters.  (California was notorious for this, socking away much of the surplus for future anticipated shortfalls or new programs once the economy settled down.)  Property taxes shot up as well, as the paper value of homes skyrocketed due to inflation and people saw their property tax bills rocket upwards, further reducing their buying power.

prop13The result was a general tax revolt across the United States as citizens, in state elections and in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan and a Republican Congress, demanded their tax burden be lowered.  What made this shift particularly unique though was that prior to the late 1970s and early 1980s the United States populous had been less leery of inflation, and higher taxes, and more leery of the government reducing its safety nets.  By the height of this crisis the United States citizenry had changed their demands, inflation control and lower taxes were more critical to them than safety nets, especially safety nets that seemed to re-route funds from middle class pockets to the poor, minorities, and immigrants.

the-time-is-now-reagan-posterWhich state governments, and the federal government, responded to with great gusto.  The federal government, and state governments, slashed social welfare programs aggressively and changed the regulatory client to make the government more pro-business.  This combined with a focused effort to reduce the power of organized labor and allowing unemployment to spike, and a sharp early 1980s recession, to crush inflation.  In many ways since then the United States as a nation has not looked back, and other nations have followed its model, focusing on tight government services, reduced social support for the lowest portions of society, and keeping the tax burden controlled.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on stagflation, the Nixon Shock, and the 1973-1975 recession, Investopedia article on the Great Inflation of the 1970s, Dollars and Sense article on the 1970s economic crisis, and chapters from The Seventies:  The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics by Bruce J. Schulman

American Fascism and Anti-Foreigner Movements [OPINION]

December 7th, 2015

An armed protest outside the Islamic Center of Irving

The tagline on the above photo is that it is an “armed protest” outside a Muslim civic center in Texas, it’s just one part of a broader series of incidents outlined in an article on Islamophobia written up in Vox.  As readers of this blog know I’m always a cautious one to draw links between Nazism and other movements, mainly because so many use Nazis and Nazism as a quick “go to” for concepts of evil, violence, or reactionary politics by extreme right-wing factions.  For me though reading about the current policies, including the sweeping series of new legislation going around various state governments outlawing “foreign law” for having any impact within their territories, and “protests” like the one above, smack of a similar mindset to early Nazi anti-Jewish activities.

Nazi-Boycott-1933-dThis is a classic image from 1933, put up during the mostly symbolic one day national boycott of Jewish shops and businesses organized by the Nazi party shortly after Hitler became Chancellor.  Historians debate how much impact it had on Germany’s economy, many German citizens simply ignored the boycott and shopped as normal, or deliberately sought out to patronize Jewish owned businesses as a form of protest.  But it featured large numbers of armed, uniformed figures in the SA (the Nazi party’s semi-unofficial military army of the party) standing outside businesses that had been vandalized to discourage people from going in and shopping.

Nazi_Boycot_1933_BThe Nazi boycott had a uniquely German feel to it, the storm troopers didn’t carry pistols or rifles, they wore snappy brown uniforms, and they used visual intimidation to complete their action.  But I look at the photo at the top of this blog post and I cannot help but see a parallel, although the “protest” photo at the top carries a uniquely American outlook.  But is armed men wearing jungle camouflage with an American flag that much of a difference than the Nazi storm troopers.  Both are using symbols of recognized organization and power, and both are drawing links to traditional images of power.  (The storm troopers wore the high boots used by the German military and their caps were modeled to look police or military in style.  The same with the belts.)  Some of the men in that “protest” shot could be considered to be using the imagery of the American military in making their stance.

What more deeply concerns me personally though is the legislative action being carried out by state governments.  According to the Vox article a good percentage of Americans feel that being Muslim should disqualify an individual from the office of President.  On 7 April 1933 the German government, under the control of the Nazi party, passed the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” – a law that ended employment in the civil service for “non-Aryans” – Jews – employed by the German government.

My worry is could such a law be passed in the United States?  I would like to think no, that such a thing could not happen in the United States, but I honestly wonder if some state governments might not pass a law like this on their own.  Furthermore I wonder if the federal government would crush such laws or let them go as “state privilege.”

American Nazi organization rally at Madison Square Garden, 1939A final note, for those out there who see Donald Trump and wonder if his rallies and his supporters touch on some of the same efforts and concepts of the Nazi party, you don’t have to seek that far.  The image above is a 1939 rally by the German American Bund, a genuine pro-Fascist Nazi party operating in the United States prior to World War II.  The image above is from their high-point rally, when 20,000 people attended Madison Square Gardens to see their rally.  I just post this because it shows how extremism, and even Fascism or its American equivalents, can wrap itself quite effectively in the flag of the United States.

Sources:  Vox article on American Islamophobia, US Holocaust Museum entry on the Jewish Business Boycott of 1933, Wikipedia article on the Jewish Business Boycott of 1933, Wikipedia entry on the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service of 1933,US Holocaust Museum entry on several early anti-Jewish Nazi laws,  Wikipedia entry on the German American Bund, and finally a blog post entry on the German American Bund

MS St. Louis and Syrian Refugees

November 19th, 2015

SS_St_Louis_Meme_Yeah!So this is doing the rounds on Facebook these days and within the online community, for me this is a perfect example of why context is so critical to properly understanding history.  Let’s start with the immediate, the facts as listed on the meme are correct, the MS St. Louis did indeed sail to Florida as part of its trip, it was technically turned away from Florida, and up to half those on board might have died in the Holocaust.  However between these facts are some key tidbits that need to be considered.

First the ship was originally traveling to Cuba, with its load of Jewish refugees, who were planning to enter Cuba under legally acquired tourist visas.  These visas had been provided by Cuban diplomatic officials in Germany, however the Cuban government changed its mind and rejected the visas during the ships trip over the ocean.  There are several reasons for the Cuban change of heart, mainly though it was most likely due to concerns about the impact waves of European Jewish immigrants would have on Cuba’s economy.  Most of the immigrants had no intentions of staying in Cuba but saw it as a step on a longer path to gaining entry to the United States.

SS_ST_LOUIS_CartoonUpon departing Cuba the MS St. Louis departed Cuba and sailed nearly to Florida, reportedly within sight of the lights of Miami.  The MS St. Louis was escorted by two United States Coast Guard vessels, and their purpose there is ambiguous.  Some historians contend they were there to prevent the ship attempting to land or beaching so that the Jewish refugees could then climb onto U.S. soil.  The U.S. Coast Guard contends that the ships were there to ensure safety for those on board.  The truth probably contains both.  The MS St. Louis then attempted to land in Canada, but was turned back.

Returning to Europe its captain, Gustav Schroder, along with others was able to negotiate non-German points of departure for his passengers into four European nations, Great Britain, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands.

GSchroederAntwerpThis is where the first point of context becomes important – these events took place between May to June 1939.  World War II had not yet broken out, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939.  In fact the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 wouldn’t be signed until August 1939, so France and Great Britain in June 1939 anticipated that in the event of a war the Soviet Union could be swayed to their side, which would make a German triggered war unlikely.  (A view backed up by Hitler’s reluctance to invade Poland until the Soviet Union was brought to their side.)

So in June 1939 the events of the MS St. Louis looked like a win for the Jewish refugees aboard.  They hadn’t had to go back to Germany, they all had safe homes, and the crisis had been averted.  It wasn’t until 1940 that three of the four nations taking them in were conquered by Germany and not until 1942 that most of the refugees on the MS St. Louis died.

CalvinCoolidgeimmigration3Furthermore the restrictions against Jewish immigration into the United States were based on a 1924 Immigration Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by Calvin Coolidge with the racial theory goal of keeping the United States a mono-racial nation.  (Specifically on the idea that Nordic Europeans were key.)  The law was based around quotas of immigration assigned based on the U.S. population in 1890.  It was a solidly racist law but it also set up the barriers that impacted the refugees in 1939.

Key issue though, Germans were actually on the preferred list of immigrants.  In 1939 the problem was that the United States has a list with a multi-year waiting period for immigration visas from Germany, the list had both German Jews and non-German desperate to enter the United States.  Allowing in the refugees on the MS St. Louis would have bumped others further up in the list back.  The U.S. administration under Roosevelt was also opposed to allowing Jewish refugees into the country and put up unofficial barriers, for racist/ethnic reasons.

fdr_cigaretteEven United States President Franklin Roosevelt was unwilling to waive the rules and allow the passengers of the MS St. Louis to land, he was considering his pending run for a third term in 1940 as President and the strong domestic concerns about immigration.  The U.S. was still in the Great Depression in 1939 and although the economy was recovering the citizens of the U.S. were not ready to welcome masses of immigrants who they feared would compete for scare jobs.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1987-0928-501,_England,_Jüdische_Flüchtlingskinder_cropWhich was an issue, as appeared in the Evian Conference of 1938 at which no real resolution appeared to the growing potential Jewish refugee crisis due to Nazi policies in Germany.  The Dominican Republic at that conference had agreed to take on 100,000 Jewish refugees but the MS St. Louis for unknown reasons made no attempt to avail itself of that offer in 1939.  More critically, Hitler when speaking on the conference stated:

“I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

In other words had the United States taken in the refugees it would have invited a potential flood of Jewish refugees from Germany, shipped over by the Nazi government, on the assumption that if the U.S. would bow to taking in one shipment, they would take in more.

Now the Syrian Refugee Crisis is its own unique situation – it is due to a multi-part war, persecution, and desperation.  Using an analogy to the Jewish refugee crisis of 1939 makes for a fine emotional “sound bite” but it doesn’t really link, and more critically, the meme at the top does not really teach a valid lesson on a very complex issue.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the MS St. Louis, the Evian Conference, and US Immigration Act of 1924, a BBC article on the voyage of the MS St. Louis, entries in the United States Holocaust Museum on the MS St. Louis and the US Policy towards Jewish Refugees


George Wallace and the 1968 U.S. Presidential Election – spoiling for a fight

September 24th, 2015


The thing about third party politics in the United States is that often the efforts are wedge issue politics designed to enrage a population, and bring out the vote.  Such is the case in 1968 with the United States Presidential campaign of George Wallace, who ran for the Presidency as the official candidate of the American Independent Party.  The American Independent Party was a conservative party with fairly extreme views, Wallace ran on a platform aimed at addressing the social issues of 1968, with its central theme being a movement against racial integration, social justice, and civil rights expansions taking place throughout the United States.


Running under the slogan “Stand Up For America” Wallace campaigned throughout the United States but aimed to gather his strongest support in the southern United States.  Wallace had no pretensions he’d actually win the 1968 United States Presidential election, his goal as a third party candidate was instead to run a “spoiling campaign” – gain enough votes to prevent either of the two major candidates getting the necessary votes in the Electoral College and then having the Presidential election be decided in the House of Representatives.  Had his strategy worked Wallace hoped to use the votes of Southern Representatives to sway one of the two candidates political parties – most likely Republicans – to agree to block further racial integration legislation in the United States south.


Wallace ran with Curtis LeMay, a retired Air Force general who had strong views on foreign policy, Wallace lost supporters as the race advanced due, in part, to LeMay making statements about how Americans should not fear nuclear weapons and that the United States should use nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

Overall Wallace did not achieve his goal of “spoiling” in the 1968 election, but he did poll very well.  His sharply racist rhetoric combined with comments on declining American prosperity resonated with Southern voters in the United States, overall he captured 13.5% of the popular vote and carried five Southern states for a total of 45 solid electoral votes.  Wallace got an additional vote from a “faithless elector” in North Carolina who cast a vote for Wallace despite being sent to vote for Nixon.


Wallace’s campaign played to racism and the call for law and order in a restless period in the United States.  Some prime quotes:

When asked the biggest domestic issue facing the United States he replied  “It’s people—our fine American people, living their own lives, buying their own homes, educating their children, running their own farms, working the way they like to work, and not having the bureaucrats and intellectual morons trying to manage everything for them. It’s a matter of trusting the people to make their own decisions.”

Wallace also stated that to his eye “What are the Real issues that exist today in these United States? It is the trend of the pseudo-intellectual government, where a select, elite group have written guidelines in bureaus and court decisions, have spoken from some pulpits, some college campuses, some newspaper offices, looking down their noses at the average man on the street.”

Wallace polled most strongly with males, with strong support from Southern males and also lower class Northern white workers, with an odd appeal to unionized labor.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the 1968 United States Presidential Election, George Wallace’s 1968 campaign, George Wallace himself, and finally on the American Independent Party

When elected officials kick ass in letters

September 18th, 2015


Currently making the rounds for the 2016 United States Presidential Election is this letter from the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, to Dr. Ben Carson on the subject of global warming.  In short it informs Dr. Carson that there is evidence of global warming, and that an example of that evidence is included on the pictured thumb drive for his convenience.  Although polite snark is always fun to see spread around, this reminded me of an earlier moment of snark that took place in 1976 in the state of Alabama, when a staunchly pro-civil rights and human rights Attorney General named Bill Baxley got to play with a supremacist organization.

The incident that sparked the confrontation was Baxley announcing he was reopening a closed investigation into the 1963 16th Street Church bombing – specifically because Baxley was convinced there was more than enough evidence to actually prosecute the individuals responsible for the attack.  In response he got this charming letter:


The part where he is named “an honorary NIGGER” is an extra level of charming.  This letter came in 1976, when the tumult of the 1970s was winding down but the nation was still struggling with very real internal stability issues from the early 1970s.  Bluntly put, it was not unreasonable for Baxley to fear for his life.  The extremist organization that sent this letter was connected to violent groups, mainly the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, so his response was rather brave and utterly delightful.


What makes it doubly wonderful for me is the fact that he put it onto the official stationary of the Attorney General’s office and logged it publicly as a formal communication.

Oh and Baxley did successfully complete his prosecution.  I believe on the grounds he was a solid government official and a damn brave one, I’ll close with a period image of him.


Sources:  Wikipedia entry on Bill Baxley, blog entry on Letters of Note

Victory Liberty Loan and “Little Zeb”

September 14th, 2015


With the end of World War I the United States federal government faced a bit of a dilemma, it had borrowed significant amounts of capital to finance the United States war effort and with the war concluded it needed a bit more borrowed capital to square things away.  The U.S. federal government also wanted to borrow the money at attractive interest rates, to bring in financiers, but to do so without the risks of borrowing on the open capital market in what experts thought might be an economically difficult post-war transition period.  Hence the final liberty loan drive, the so-titled “Victory Liberty Loan.”


Begun in April 1919 the goal of this bond run was for the U.S. federal government to raise a total of $4.5 billion with gold-backed bonds, paying 4.75%, and redeemable in four years.  (The government had an option to snap them back after three years if it wished.)  As a bonus all interest paid on these bonds was exempt from income taxes.  The bonds sold well, aimed mainly towards businesses and wealthier individuals look for save havens for their money, but the campaign was considered lackluster by people of the period.  Previous liberty bond issues had posters oriented towards patriotism, showing individuals fighting, striving, surviving and the evil Hun being blasted or defied.  As the top example shows, this bond run was more emphasized on a “Eh, I could get behind that” outlook.


However the United States federal government, leaning on the army, did have one particularly darling promotional effort that did capture the hearts of the American people, “Little Zeb.”  “Little Zeb” was a Renault FT of French construction, deployed with American forces in World War I, that was shipped around the country by train to roll around the countryside and get people excited about buying the final bond issue.  The tank was used to not only drum up enthusiasm but also get small towns involved – “Little Zeb” put in several appearances in Colorado where pictures were snapped of it.


“Little Zeb” though was also more than a promotional piece, it was a window into the future of warfare, although few realized it at the time.  The Renault FT, and later US M1917, represented a revolution in tank design.  Prior to these vehicles tanks in World War I were based around the core of ideas of “big, heavy, massive armor, multiple guns, slow.”  The Renault FT was conceived of as a light tank, built and designed by the French, and to be used in “swarm tactics” to overwhelm the enemy.  It was more lightly armored, faster than other tanks, had a turret in which was mounted its main gun, and carefully designed tracks that could operate more effectively over difficult terrain.


Take a good look at that design, although obsolete by World War II this light tank was the defining look for what a “tank” would become and its roots are still present in modern armor design.  The tactics also used for this vehicle were the opening examples of what would later become the modern version of Germany’s “war of movement” using armor in World War II.  (The misnamed “blitzkrieg” model of warfare.)

On a final note, although obsolete by World War II this tank was still in use by many nations in the early 1940s, it had been copied, both legally and illegally, the world over because it was a charming little tank.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on Liberty Bonds, the Renault FT tank, entry in “Birth of a Market” on U.S. securities, and Images of America, Early Glenwood Springs by Cynthia Hines and the Frontier Historical Society, pp. 120

Mexican “Repatriation” – an old idea surfaces again [Opinion]

August 27th, 2015


The current election news is being dominated by the proposed plan by Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump, who is calling for the deportation of between 11 to 12 million “illegal aliens” within the United States.  This policy is mainly targeted toward Hispanic individuals within the United States, overwhelmingly Mexicans, combined with a call for increased border security on the US-Mexican border, specifically a massive “wall” along the border.


Unsurprisingly this idea is not new and was actually attempted during the 1930s as a method of combating the impact of the Great Depression on several southwestern United States state economies, specifically Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.  The process, now known as Mexican Repatriation, was undertaken as an organic process coordinated between local, state, and federal officials.  As deportation was solely the province of the United States federal government, a new term, “repatriation” was coined to allow states and counties to undertake these quasi-deportations.  The effort was done using a combination of scare tactics, mass roundups, and paid little regard for due process or legal requirements of existing immigration law.  Furthermore officials in these states worked on a simple principle, deport anyone who looked Mexican regardless of their legal status.


It is unknown how many individuals were deported, local and state governments get deliberately vague records, but the number ranges between 800,000 to 2,000,000.  A large number of those deported were legally within the United States, either as citizens or with permits to be within the country, but in the face of a massive economic disaster local officials simply pushed out a population easily targeted based on racial profiling.  The human and emotional cost was staggering, with families divided, property seized, and individuals being tricked into waiving their legal rights on vague promises they could “re-enter when conditions were better.”


But bad ideas never crop up only once, during World War II the United States desperately needed additional cheap labor to fuel its war industry and struck a labor-sharing agreement with the Mexican government.  The two nations would work together, Mexico would provide laborers to the United States through a legal temporary residency program and also work to keep illegal immigration to a minimum.  Mexico agreed to this plan because of its own need for cheap labor to help develop its domestic economy.  However the higher wartime wages, and post-war prosperity, combined with United States agricultural companies ignoring the labor-contracting system to avoid government administration and oversight, led to another huge surge of illegal immigration.


So in 1954 the United States undertook “Operation Wetback” – yes that was its real official government name – with the aim of deporting huge numbers of illegal Mexican workers back across the border.  This coordinated federal and local action resulted in around 1,000,000 Mexican workers being shipped back to Mexico, this time deeper into Mexican territory with the goal of making it both harder for their return and putting Mexicans into portions of Mexico in need of additional labor.

Mixtec Immigrant Picking Strawberries

The challenge is, each time such mass deportations occur, an interesting thing happens, United States agricultural companies begin to complain that they have no cheap labor force to harvest their products.  United States workers won’t take the jobs at the prices being offered and the agricultural companies have a driving need to keep their costs as low as possible.  Then, like magic, suddenly the border restrictions get looser and the United States federal government, along with state and local governments, suddenly lose their interest in “protecting American jobs.”

Till the next economic crunch comes along of course.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on Mexican Repatriation, Wikipedia entry on Operation Wetback, Digital history entry on the Mexican Repatriation

Eugene V. Debs – Socialist Candidate Extraordinare

August 12th, 2015

Sanders-021507-18335- 0004

As the 2016 election cycle for the United States gets solidly underway the left is currently charmed with a Socialist-Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders, a long-serving Senator and solidly left/progress candidate running for the Democratic nomination for President.  Many argue Sanders is not really a viable candidate, but it seems an excellent time to remind the nation of the great “unifying candidate for the Socialists” of the early 20th century, Eugene V. Debs.


Eugene V. Debs began his political career with a short term in 1894 with a successful run as a Democrat for the Indiana State Legislature, but he grew disillusioned with politics under the conventional parties and slowly shifted towards support of Socialism as both a political ideal and a political party to support.  Debs had been on the radical side of politics for his entire life, as a founding organizer for various labor groups, a major leader in the Pullman Strike of 1894, and by 1900 a candidate for President running with the newly fledgling Socialist Party of the United States.


Debs lost, of course, getting only around 89,000 votes or 0.6% of the total popular vote.  Debs ran again in 1904, 1908, 1912, and his last Presidential run was in 1920.  The number of popular votes he gained during that period rose, by 1912 he topped out at over 900,000 votes, winning approximately 5.99% of the total popular vote.  Debs all time high vote count was in 1920, when he again topped over 900,000 votes, an impressive vote total considering his entire campaign was run while he was serving a ten year sentence in federal prison for violating the Espionage and Sedition Act of 1918.


Debs overall was an unsuccessful candidate and was released from prison in 1921 by the winner of the 1920 election, Warren G. Harding.  Debs though throughout his campaigns was known as a fiery orator, a passionate believer in the cause of social equality, and with the Socialists Debs was able to put significant pressure upon both the Republican and Democratic parties to embrace reform in several key areas including:

  • Voting rights for women
  • Child labor laws
  • Workers right to organize unions

Overall Debs, and the Socialists, successfully performed the role of gadfly for the elections of 1912 and 1920, pushing both parties slightly more towards the left than they otherwise might have moved, and in the 1912 election taking part in one of the most complicated elections in modern United States presidential history.


I’d like to close though by focusing your attention on the 1912 and 1920 elections – in which Debs got over 5% of the total popular vote.  According to the regulations of the current Federal Election Commission:

Minor party candidates and new party candidates may qualify for partial general election funding, based on their party’s electoral performance. Minor party candidates (nominees of parties whose Presidential candidates received between 5 and 25 percent of the vote in the preceding election) may receive public funds based on the ratio of their party’s vote in the preceding Presidential election to the average of the two major party candidates in that election. New party candidates (nominees of parties that are neither major parties nor minor parties) may receive public funds after the election if they receive 5 percent or more of the vote. The amount is based on the ratio of the new party candidate’s vote to the average vote of the two major party candidates in that election.

If Debs had run as successful a campaign today as he had run in 1912 and 1920, a period when his vote gains were based solely on public rallies, whistle-stop tours, and newsletters the Socialist party would have fun public support, and media access, under current rules.  Furthermore the Socialist Party was denied access to the mass media super-star of the day, radio, and still managed to gain enough votes with a progressive sharp-left platform to be noticed on a national level.

The moral of this entry – and the moral each entry in this series will return to – minor parties can make a difference, and more critically, can have a real impact in United States politics.

Sources:  FEC regulations, Wikipedia on Eugene V. Debs, entry on Eugene V. Debs in the Debs Foundation, PBS entry on Eugene V. Debs


Why you have to be careful with history – the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918

July 27th, 2015


I’m a sucker for “pop history” and I make it a point to read interesting looking books when they come up, doubly so when they are focused on United States history.  I grabbed the edition of the Untold History of the United States for young readers, to enjoy a quick read and get a handle on the material being presented to teenage readers.  One item in particular I found interesting was the report that in 1918 to help deal with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the United States, the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 was passed that allowed “loose women” to be forcibly detained for examination for STIs and forcibly quarantined in the event of their being found to have an STI till it was cured.  The author claimed that over “20,000 women were so detained” – a factoid I found repeated on various websites talking about the act.


Now the US did launch a sizable media campaign against STIs during World War I, including efforts like the lovely poster above, and it appears probable that women were detained under the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918, but if you dig below the surface outrage you’ll find a more complex picture.  The Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 actually was one of the first federal block grants for public health research, a funding bill that included a sizable chunk of money distributed to various states to study STI spread, treatments, and provide education about STIs.  The grant required state boards of health that took the money to have their state legislators pass laws that met several minimal requirements including:

“The spread of venereal diseases [STIs] should be declared unlawful”

“Provision to be made for control of infected persons who do not cooperate in protecting others from infection”

“The travel of venereally infected persons within the State to be controlled by State boards of health by definite regulations that will conform in general to the interstate quarantine regulations”

All nasty provisions and, probably, all enforced against female prostitutes or other women suspected of “loose morals.”


The problem though, is that this is not a clean story of “evil federal laws passed that incarcerated women with STIs” as the book above, its original documentary, and online sources would like to argue.  Instead it is a patchwork of laws and enforcement actions undertaken by states that voluntarily took money from the federal government.  Therefore these actions need to be examined on a state-by-state basis, a more detailed and demanding analysis that would require a more careful examination of local histories, archives, and realities.  It also though changes the narrative from “evil federal expansion of powers” which the original book presented it as and instead shifts it towards “states, with incentives, using the far broader powers to arrest individuals for activities we today find uncomfortable to consider crimes.”


My key point to all this is actually pretty simple – the act did exist but its reality is more complicated and requires a more careful discussion than sources put forward.  To my eye the larger issue in this is the broader authority states have to pass laws such as this, and how in the 1910s and 1920s it was socially acceptable for such regulations to be passed by states.  It ties into broader, and less comfortable, discussions that impact us today about federalism and state power versus the more constrained federal power, as well as the position of governments in the space of regulating public morality and public health.

But that doesn’t square with a nice “evil federal government” story so the nuance is lost in the interest of shock value.

On an unrelated note, I think that last STI poster is my personal favorite.

Sources:  Google Books Landmark Legislation entry mentioning the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918, actual text of the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918 at JSTOR, article that mentions the law by a professor of law at Duke University, NIH timeline entry confirming the passage and high-level purpose of the law



Alternative Versions of Christianity – Gnostics and More

June 29th, 2015


One of the fun things you learn when reading history is about unusual side paths and concepts that didn’t quite take off.  As it turns out there were several different versions of early Christian thought that battled for dominance in the growing faithful from the death of Christ till the early 700s or so.  Let’s begin with the winner:

Apostolic Christianity

  • Grounded in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Luke, John, Paul)
  • Eventually support the idea that the divine is equally made up of three parts – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
  • Christ was the divine manifest on Earth, who died for humanities sins on the cross, rose after three days, and ascended to Heaven after liberating the wrong condemned souls in Hell
  • Peter was the inheritor of the Church and the Papacy represented the ultimate authority on Earth for Christians.  (Note this tenant did not hold – see Orthodox/Catholic split and later Protestant movements)


Alternate Version #1 – Valentinianism

  • Created by leading early Christian theologian named Valentinus
  • Holds the same core tenant about the validity of the four primary gospels outlined above
  • Believe in traditional sacraments but also believe that behind the public rituals of the Christian faith were secret teachings Christ had shared with an elite and those teachings were passed on to a new elite
  • Potentially practiced a second baptism to welcome those with secret elite knowledge to the inner Christian faith

Alternative Version #2 – Basilidianism

  • Created by a Christian philosopher named Basilides
  • Believed Christ was entirely divine and could not die on the cross and instead switched places with Simon of Cyrene
  • Some accounts state faith believed Christ laughed at Simon of Cyrene’s death
  • Held a complex cosmology that believed in 365 separate heavenly paradises, one for each day of the year
  • Believed in two divine beings – Abrasas – the pious and divine deity that sent down Christ and Yahweh, an evil Jewish deity
  • Held that only a select few would be allowed to enter the divine paradises


Alternative Version #3 – Carpocratianism

  • Believed that to attain salvation a soul must pass through every condition and experience of life
  • Supported sin and sexual indulgence on a grand scale
  • Was recorded historically as believers who “have intercourse where they will and with who they will”

Lion-faced_deityAlternate Version #4 – Sethiansim

  • Opposed to most aspects of Apostolic Christianity
  • Believed the Hebrew divinity, Yahweh, was evil
  • Honored Adam and Eve as good for eating the Fruit of Forbidden Knowledge
  • Honored the Serpent in the Garden of Eden for opposing the above evil deity
  • Believed the Eucharist was an abomination
  • Believed the Crucifixion was an abomination and on par with child sacrifice

Source:  Finding Jesus, David Gibson and Michael McKinley, chapter “The Gospel of Judas”