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

Monday, 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



Operation Nickle Grass and the modern Middle East

Friday, May 8th, 2015


One of the nice moments in historical work is when you find a mundane picture, like the one above, and discover that it marks a profound shift in history.  In this case the image above is from 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, when Israel faced off against a simultaneous invasion by Syria and Egypt.  This was particularly unique in Israel’s history as it featured an initial few days of defeats inflicted upon the Israeli military and what the Israeli leadership considered an existential threat to Israel itself.  The war also represented a minor proxy war in the Cold War period, both Syria and Egypt had been equipped, and economically supported by, the Soviet Union while Israel was seen as a demi-client of the United States at the time.  The events of this war permanently shifted the position of the United States in the Middle East, tied the American government more closely to that of Israel, and exposed the vulnerability of the United States to external oil pressures.


Israel at the greatest point of danger during the war, under the overall leadership of its Prime Minister Golda Meir (pictured above), ordered the raising of short-range ballistic missiles to be prepared.  This was done in a very public and slow manner, to ensure the United States was aware of the fact that Israel was preparing its Jericho missile systems for possible launch.  This is particularly critical because these were the missiles that Israel was expected to use to launch nuclear weapons and, without nuclear tips, were kind of useless as weapons in the ongoing war.  Furthermore it was to send a signal to the United States government that Israel’s government considered the situation gravely dangerous to the nation and would use any means to prevent the collapse of Israel.


Richard Nixon, the United States president at the time, under the advise of the United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, ordered that United States military equipment be transferred to Israel to replenish its diminished stockpiles and ensure Israel could continue fighting and go on the offensive.  The threat of nuclear escalation was only part of Nixon/Kissinger’s decision to intervene – the Soviet Union had declared its intention to resupply Syria and Egypt at roughly the same time, the need to stave off Soviet influence expansion in the Middle East, and Kissinger arguing that by supplying Israel the United States would have a stronger hand in the post-war settlement, all sparked the push for the United States to intervene.  But in doing so, although the war ended in an Israeli victory, a few other complications set in.

Country’s fuel shortage led to problems for motorists in findi

The Arab members of OPEC declared an oil embargo on the United States, the first of two such “oil shocks” to the United States economy.  Limitations in long range United States air power were exposed, sparking a stronger interest in the United States for establishing air bases around the world to extend the range, and decrease the response time, of its air forces.  But most critically it paved the way for the closer connection between Israel and the United States, which in turn led to the modern shape of the Middle East, including the successful efforts of the Camp David accords to broker peace between Egypt and Israel, regular United States military aid to Israel and Egypt, and the current close connection between these two states.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Yom Kippur War and Operation Nickle Grass, working paper on Israel’s probable nuclear weapons, New York Times editorial on Israel’s nuclear weapons potential and the Yom Kippur War.

Sacred Sword of the Patriots League and Paradise Island

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014


During the Vietnam War one of the more interesting creations of the United States military was an unusual psychological warfare operation called the Sacred Swords of the Patriots League (SSPL).  This propaganda effort was started in 1963 and operated till 1968 and was focused primarily upon the idea of spreading propaganda to create the illusion that there was a powerful, domestic counter-government force in Northern Vietnam.  The SSPL was a creation primarily of cartoons, leaflets, and propaganda radio broadcasts aimed at North Vietnam, the radio broadcasts being particularly ingenious.  Careful efforts were made to design programming that sounded nearly identical to legitimate broadcasts from North Vietnam radio stations, including “piggy backing” on actual broadcasts – where a U.S. controlled radio station would use the call sign, formatting, and nearly identical voices to a legitimate North Vietnamese radio station after the first station signed off, to jamming North Vietnamese radio stations and having a U.S. controlled radio station at nearly the same frequency that listeners might stumble onto instead.


The SSPL was part of a broader psychological warfare effort carried out by Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Operations Group (MACV-SOG), which was basically the organization of spies and irregular warfare experts that the United States maintained in Vietnam for the duration of the conflict.  The MACV-SOG was responsible for a large number of unusual and deadly covert operations in the Vietnam War, the SSPL was just one of their many projects, but it was one that showcased a high degree of creative thinking.  A small example of this was MACV-SOG would distribute carefully constructed Japanese transistor radios to North Vietnamese civilians that were automatically tuned to SSPL radio stations and would also block access to North Vietnamese broadcasting.  MACV-SOG also through the SSPL ran a campaign to discredit top North Vietnamese officials and military leaders by sending them compromising fake mail from the SSPL from abroad and assuming the North Vietnamese government would open the mail and react to it with paranoia.  Some reports indicate these efforts had modest success.  Perhaps the most elaborate  MACV-SOG program was one that specialized in kidnapping Vietnamese fisherman from their ships and taking them to a fully constructed mockup of the SSPL central headquarters.


The facility, nicknamed “Paradise Island”, was designed to look like a large, functional military base on the coat of North Vietnam, an area supposedly liberated from North Vietnamese control, in reality a small island located in the waters of South Vietnam.  There the kidnapped fisherman were given high calorie foods, false histories of the glorious SSPL movement, new clothing and consumer goods, and sets of radios tuned to SSPL broadcasts.  They were usually given up to three weeks in “captivity” on the island before being taken back to North Vietnam, with a gift basket or two, to spread the “message” of the SSPL and recruit new individuals to the “movement.”  MACV-SOG felt they did an excellent job on their efforts however post-war interviews with North Vietnamese fisherman who reported being abducted showed the effort was less than stellar.  Many fisherman reported they knew they were on an island when they felt the sand of the landing beach under their feet and several arranged to be kidnapped multiple times so they could enjoy another “vacation” from their job as fisherman.

Oh and the name of the group was based on a historic Vietnamese story of resistance in the 15th century to Chinese rule – both a nice link to Vietnam’s past and another subtle message against North Vietnam and its perceived closeness to the Chinese government.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Sacred Sword of the Patriots League and MACV-SOG, CNN Tailwind Tails entry on the SSPL, entry in The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzetti

Vietnam War – River Patrol Boats and the Rung Sat

Monday, July 14th, 2014


During the Vietnam War one of the more challenging missions faced by the United States military was patrolling the vast interior river systems that dominated transportation and communication within Vietnam.  The United States Navy had a part in handling these patrols but along with the Navy the U.S. Coast Guard was heavily involved in such missions.  In some ways the river patrols were one of the most dangerous types of missions in Vietnam, most river patrols were conducted in a small craft the Navy referred to as a River Patrol Boat (pictured above.)  These lightly armed, unarmored, fast moving ships were designed to have a shallow draft and to be able to work in narrow rivers.  They had a pair of powerful high-speed engines and their goal, if they got in trouble, was to use their speed and maneuverability to get out of trouble.  Sometimes however that did not quite pan out as desired.


Meet Boatswain’s Mate First Class James E. Williams who was leading a two-boat river patrol in October 1966 in one of the most dangerous river systems in Vietnam, the Rung Sat.  The Rung Sat was a dense river system southeast of Saigon and a major center of Vietcong activity.  On his patrol Williams encountered a heavy patrol of regular North Vietnamese soldiers on boats, forty boats to be exact with a total of over 800 enemy soldiers.  Williams two ships had a total of two 50-caliber machine guns between them and a total of eight sailors, Williams decided the best plan was to launch an immediate attack on the surprised enemy and blazed through them firing wildly on all sides.  Both of his ships made it through the gauntlet and as he raced away Williams called for air support, attack helicopters followed up on his attack and further destroyed the disrupted enemy in his wake.  However Williams was not finished with his patrol of “Brown Pants Level Five” – even as he was escaping the first enemy force his two ships encountered a second enemy force, even larger this time, and still unaware of his approach.

Williams used the same tactic again to good effect and chopped through the second force relying upon speed and surprise to blast his way through the enemy forces massed against him, and once again he was successful, passing through a second major confrontation with no losses and minimal damage to his ship.  Williams trailed attack helicopters and, now, large numbers of U.S. aircraft as well.  After escaping this gauntlet, Williams was asked by one of the attacking pilots what his further intentions were in the combat.  Williams replied:  “I’m goin’ back through.”

That, by the way, is one way to win a Congressional Medal of Honor.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on James E. Williams, River Patrol Boats, and Rung Sat Special Zone; The Vietnam War, A Graphic History by Dwight Jon Zimmerman & Wayne Vansant

Good Humor, the Mafia, and 1929

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014


The Good Humor Ice Cream company in 1920s America was built around the idea of selling branded ice cream products through a fleet of dedicated trucks.  In 1929 the company, based on selling franchise rights, sold a concession for the territory of Detroit to one Thomas J. Brimer.  Brimer also opened a new ice cream production plant in Chicago with the goal of expanding his operations further and being able to meet the demands of his new territory.  In turn though he faced some particularly powerful demands, the Chicago mob insisted that Brimer pay a $5000 “protection fee” for his trucks and operation in Chicago.  Brimer refused the mob’s demands and his operation was targeted by the mob for violence, complete with truck bombings to try to convince him to meet the mob’s demands.

This won Brimer, and Good Humor, national attention as the company that could not be corrupted and it actually helped boost their sales and national prestige.  Some argue that Brimer standing up to the mob pushed the Good Humor from a regional company to a national company.  But in researching this I found an interesting parallel event, 1929 is also the year that represents a climax in the struggle for control of Chicago’s underworld between the South Side Gang under Al Capone and the North Side Gang, under “Bugs” Moran.


The struggle between Capone and Moran centered upon a battle for control over Chicago’s highly lucrative bootlegging industry – specifically the sale of Prohibition blocked beer and spirits to Chicago’s population.  The struggle represented not only a struggle over territory but also an ethnic struggle, the North Side gang being older established gang that rested upon Irish-American gang members while the South Side Gang was a newer gang that rested upon Italian immigrant support.  This struggle culminated with an attack on 29 February 1929 by Al Capone upon “Bugs” Moran, the infamous Saint Valentines Day Massacre.



Resulting in the death’s of seven key members of Moran’s gang, the mass shooting enraged the American opinion against mob struggles and required the South Side Gang to take a more low-key approach for a period of time to its struggle with the North Side Gang.  Although Moran was missed in the attack the loss of key enforcers for the North Side Gang resulted in its being eclipsed by the South Side Gang and making no further efforts to expand its territories after the massacre.

Although a solid link between the two events is unestablished by documented evidence – an end to the Good Humor attacks by the mob might have been impacted by the general negative reaction to the excess of the St. Valentines Day Massacre.  It makes for an interesting question at least…

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Good Humor company, St. Valentines Day Massacre

Champagne from a slipper – the Everleigh Club

Monday, June 2nd, 2014


From 1900 to 1911 the premier house of prostitution in the city of Chicago, and probably in the United States, was a club run by two sisters called the Everleigh Club.  The club was famous for providing high quality entertainment to its guests, its high prices, and the high salary it paid to its employees.  It also featured careful attention to healthcare and its two sisters had simple rules, no inexperienced prostitutes in the house, each girl was to abide by strict rules, and work to gain a better cultural education.  This combination of factors, along with its tasteful high end decor and excellent chef drew clients to the house for more than just sex.  They came for an experience.


In particular in 1902 while visiting the United States on an official visit, specifically the city of Chicago to collect a new yacht commissioned for his brother the Emperor of Germany, Prince Henry of Prussia sought out the full “Chicago Experience.”  Although he saw many exotic sights in Chicago the Prince was particularly interested in seeing the Everleigh Club and having an evening of experiences.  The two sisters who operated the club planned a particularly top of the line entertainment for the Prince, when he arrived on 3 March 1902 to be entertained.  The Everleigh club normally focused on elegance but for Prince Henry arranged an evening in which the prostitutes would race downstairs, barefoot, and dance around the visitors and then provide them with a semi-squirming lap dance.  Following that the girls would then attack a cotton mockup of a bull, tearing it apart, and close by eating raw sirloin.  It was an artistic representation of a story from mythology and the Germans enjoyed it.  The girls then retired upstairs to change and the Prince got a tour of the club.


Follow the show the girls returned in evening gowns and joined the party, one of them got up on a dining room table and began to dance in an exhibition for the Prince.  During her high-kicking dance her shoe came loose and flew across the room, knocking over a glass of champagne.  One man in the Prince’s entourage, named Adolph, picked up the shoe and drained it of champagne so the “dancing girl wouldn’t get her feet wet.”  That, apparently, was so incredibly tempting that the other German guests each grabbed a shoe from a prostitute’s foot, filled it with champagne, and drank a toast to the Kaiser.  From reports of this wild evening spread a trend in the United States, an interest in drinking champagne from the shoes of Everleigh prostitutes, later upper class women in general, and eventually it spread to the middle class where men as a sign of affection for a woman would drink champagne from her shoe.


At least that is the story presented in Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott.  This book documents one of the challenges with writing up histories of vice, crime, and other less well-documented subjects, although Abbot claims this trend spread throughout the United States (pg. 77, Charles Washburn as the source quoted in the book), I could personally find no confirming articles from the period that spoke about this trend.  Nor articles that linked it to the visit of Prince Henry of Prussia.  This is not to say that it didn’t happen or that this is untrue, more to state it should be taken with a cautious grain of salt.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Everleigh Club and Sin in the Second City:  Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbott

Philippine-American War 1899-1902

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014


One of the challenging aspects of studying military history is wrestling with the dark side to every military conflict, war at its heart is an extremely messy, ugly, business that lends itself to excesses and atrocities.  The challenging aspect to examining atrocities goes beyond the inflamed passions of the period, as well as the often great difficulty in documenting what occurred, but also because usually atrocities rest upon a foundation of “reasonableness” to those involved in them.  Horrific acts often rest upon a series of choices that, at the time, seemed perfectly logical or even desirable depending on the conditions of the war in question.  An example of this in the history of the United States is the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 – a brutal prolonged war of colonial domination waged by the United States to subjugate the indigenous Philippine population or a necessary war to control a rebellious population bent upon resisting the lawful oversight and protection of the United States against greater foreign threats.  At least for individuals during the war this was the question they debated, fortunately with hindsight most historians today can safely agree that this war was one that was far more heavy upon “racism” and “colonialism” than purely strategic or benevolent aspirations by the United States.  (Cartoons like the one above don’t help argue the latter case.)


The benevolent aspect was captured in cartoons that rested upon the idea of the white male burden of spreading/cultivating “civilization” into regions that lack it.  As the above cartoon shows Uncle Sam his harnessed into the task of turning the Philippines into a modern “civilized” state resting upon the “superior” cultural values of the United States.  Beyond the labor involved in implanting a new social, economic, and political order into a society not particularly open to the idea, the Filipino population in the islands was a bit put out by the United States outlook because:

  • They already felt they had a viable state to take over the administration of their own islands, a republic no less and
  • The United States during its war with Spain had made unofficial overtures that the Philippines would be allowed to administer themselves

Unfortunately with the ending of the Spanish-American War and Spain, by treaty, surrendering the Philippines to the United States in exchange for a token payment of $20 million.  When the armed forces of the United States stopped cooperating with the Filipino revolutionary forces they had previously been closely allied with in the seizing of Manila, the Filipino leadership realized that the United States had changed its mind about giving up on the Philippines.  The United States cited language about human needs and situations beyond the control of its own goals – the Philippines needed the U.S. to remain in place to “protect and nurture it.”  The Filipino government, called the Republic of the Philippines, declared war on the United States and offered armed resistance to these U.S. goals.  The United States did not react well to this development, and doubly so to the use of guerrilla tactics by the Filipinos.  What ensued was a particular horror.


The United States brought to bear not only its superior military forces but also embraced a ruthless level of warfare it felt necessary to destroy Filipino resistance.  Total Filipino losses are unknown, although estimates vary wildly, but the U.S. general in charge of the campaign, General Elwell Stephen Otis, followed a policy of brutal suppression of resistance, the concentration of local populations in forced resettlement villages, the burning of the countryside, a refusal to take prisoners, brutal interrogations, and mass executions.  Otis is famous for a quote, when asked by his Filipino opponent, Emilio Aguinaldo for a cessation of fighting in the initial battle of Manila, Otis replied: “fighting, having begun, must go on to the grim end.”


Yes, that is a Filipino and yes, he is getting water-boarded during this war by U.S. military forces.  Referred to as the “water cure” it was a commonly used method for interrogation during the war and it is on record that it killed people.  The United States Senate formed a committee to investigate reports of the conduct of the U.S. during the war, the committee assembling in 1899 but under Senator Lodge’s oversight in 1902 beginning an investigation into reports of atrocities in the Philippines.  The committee investigated and discovered repeated cases of the U.S. military engaging in acts considered horrific, however the final findings of the committee were sharply toned down by pro-Imperialist elements in the Senate because they were seen as too harsh and negative in their attacks on American tactics in the war.  The general feeling by many was the Filipinos, by resisting, had gotten what they were “due” in the war and should have accepted U.S. rule quietly rather than offering resistance.

However anti-Imperialist individuals in the United States raised a fuss about the actions of the military and published a pamphlet on what happened in the war, using excerpts from soldiers letters back to the United States.  I think one example in particular will capture the “flavor” of the war:

“Talk about war being “hell,” this war beats the hottest estimate ever made of that locality. Caloocan was supposed to contain seventeen thousand inhabitants. The Twentieth Kansas swept through it, and now Caloocan contains not one living native. Of the buildings, the battered walls of the great church and dismal prison alone remain. The village of Maypaja, where our first fight occurred on the night of the fourth, had five thousand people in it at that day,—now not one stone remains upon top of another. You can only faintly imagine this terrible scene of desolation. War is worse than hell.” – Captain Elliot, Kansas Regiment.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Philippine-American War, Elwell Stephen Otis, Lodge Committee, Treaty of Paris 1898, and website on the pamphlet American Soldiers in the Philippines Write Home about the War


James Wilkinson – Dick or Super Dick?

Monday, 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.

French Submarine Surcouf

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014


The French submarine Surcouf was commissioned in 1927 and launched in 1929 and it was a marvel of its day, designed as an underwater “corsair” – a ship capable of fighting with surface ships in limited gunnery duels as well as carrying torpedoes aboard and a fully functional seaplane for both reconnaissance and possibly even airstrikes against surface ships.  Why the Surcouf was built though is a fascinating story of the interwar years, a spirit of experimentation, fueled by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.

The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 limited the number, size, and firepower of surface ships that its five signatory nations could possess, however the treaty but no limitations upon submarine design, as they were seen as an emerging technology.  During the treaty negotiations the British did attempt to have limits regarding submarines conduct on the high seas included in the treaty, arguing that submarines could only attack merchant shipping if they first surfaced and declared their intention, ensured the safe escape of the crew or provided accommodations to take the crew prisoner, and ensured the merchant ship was carrying actual military items.  It didn’t get added to the treaty but was accepted as the “proper” means of conducting anti-commerce raiding by submarines in a civilized manner, the British government argued that such an agreement would make submarines as commerce raiders effectively useless, since they would have to surrender some of the key advantages that made them effect weapons:  surprise and stealth.

The French built the Surcouf with the following additional enhancements:  a motor launch to convey landing parties from the ship, it carried aboard it a compliment of marines, and had a cargo hold with fittings to contain up to forty prisoners.  Although the French never clearly articulated the point it seems likely the Surcouf was built in part as a response to the British commerce raiding standards to prove that the a submarine could be built that could meet the standards and still be effective.  Against commercial shipping, had it ever been deployed, it is likely the Surcouf would have been a devastating lone wolf hunter.  Doubly so if you consider that the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 did limit nations from arming merchant vessels beyond minimal “defensive” armaments that the Surcouf would have been able to successfully face.


Sadly the Surcouf never got the chance to try its chops against commercial shipping or military ships, it never saw service during the interwar period and when Germany invaded France in 1940 it was undergoing repairs in Brest, it made it to England to seek shelter during the war.  The British promptly impounded the ship and later turned it over to the Free French under Charles De Gaulle – where it was used as a warship in the French French Navy, specifically as a secret troop transport in early Free French military landings in two tiny French islands off Canada.  It was lost, tragically, in 1942 – the exact reason is unknown but the most likely reason is mishap at sea, specifically accidentally rammed by a freighter traveling in the Pacific.  The Surcouf was one of the largest submarines afloat at the time but was not the only aircraft carrier submarine experiments – the United States, Great Britain, and Japan all toyed with the idea.

The Japanese though took it the furthest, the subject of a future entry that will touch on a special class of Japanese aircraft carrier submarines and a secret plan to attack the Panama Canal at the end of the war….

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Surcouf 

It’s not Gestapo style data collection…

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014


So today’s Bad History moment goes to one Representative Dan Webster of Florida who has amused the internet by expressing how the Bureau of Consumer Protection (CFPB) collects information in a “Gestapo-style”, the specific quote is as follows:

“So this is far more than the NSA. Far more than their metadata, which only collects phone numbers but not names, far more because they have no re-authorization, far more because there is no appropriation restrictions placed on it. This is more than just NSA-style, this is more Gestapo-style collection of data on individual citizens who have no clue that this is happening.”  (See below to a link to a video of the commentary.)

Now in all fairness I decided to carefully review this claim after reading articles on how the information is collected by the CFPB and also on how the Gestapo actually collected information.  I am also being fair by examining this only in the context of surveillance methods and I can safely say this is pretty much rubbish as a statement.

The Gestapo, the German secret police, were focused on protecting the Nazi state from “threats” and were granted official extra-legal status, i.e. their actions were outside the scope of permitted review to German courts, they were immune to civil suits by German citizens, and they were permitted to detain individuals under “protective custody” without formally charging them.  The Gestapo were permitted wide latitude in surveillance methods and techniques and relied mainly on:  confessions extracted by torture/enhanced interrogation, denunciations provided by other citizens, surveillance both electronic and physical of suspects, and forensics when useful.  The CFPB, as far as I can tell, does none of this, it is bound by a statues, it is answerable in the courts like any other governmental entity within the U.S., and it has no powers to interrogate anyone with coercion.

But beyond that, on a broader scope, the use of the Gestapo as a shock word to mean “bad police state” is doing a disservice to history, the Gestapo was a very specific entity that represents a broader type of police power that modern citizens should fear and try to avoid, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others, the combination of unrestrained police power and secret police.  Secret police, at their heart, disrupt one of the checks on police power, accountability to the citizens they are policing, instead becoming a force answerable to the central government more than any other factor.  One can argue a central government is answerable to its citizens but in cases like the Gestapo that relationship is not as clear-cut as in representative republics or democracies.  Furthermore Gestapo doesn’t mean “scary thing that spies on people” it means “secret police force that can detain, torture, and kill and tell the courts to back off with impunity.”  If the U.S. had such an institution it would have left a far broader impact on our history.  We’ve had abusive police elements in our history and we’ve had abusive government oversight of the citizens, but never quite that “perfect storm” that the Gestapo represented.

Now Internet activism has its value but I thought in this case I should also take the liberty of politely writing to Rep. Webster to point out my conclusions as a concerned citizen.  So I did, with a shiny physical letter sent to his office.

Dan_Webster_LetterI doubt it will have any impact but at least I can say I fought the good fight!

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Gestapo and The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945 by Leni Yahil, specifically pages 134-135

Quote Source and Video:  Slate Magazine Article