Fist Of History

Archive for the ‘bad history’ Category

Irish Slaves – Bad History on Steroids [OPINION]

Friday, June 19th, 2015

white-slaves

One of the things I usually enjoy with this blog is smashing down a misuse of history, be it by politicians looking to score a soundbite or pundits trying to shroud their argument with the mantle of established precedent.  Unfortunately that job also requires diving into the unpleasant and racist elements of the misuse of history on occasion, and this is one of those unpleasant times:  the currently rising topic of “Irish Slavery” in the North American and Caribbean colonies from the 15th to (possibly) 19th centuries.

Let’s start from the top – I’m not an expert in Irish history, English history, Cromwell, or North American colonial history – I’m a well read amateur on these periods.  But, and I cannot overstate this, even for a well-read amateur like myself the idea of “Irish Slavery” is bullshit.  Absolute bullshit and if you come across this toxic meme I suggest you dismiss it from your mind immediately.

Cromwell

At its core this myth argues that Irish citizens were mass deported from Ireland starting in 1625 through the end of the English Civil War and beyond, roughly 1653, with Cromwell sending hundreds of thousands of Irish individuals to the New World as “slaves.”  An excellent article says it far better than I do, this myth rests upon conflating indentured servitude, prisoner labor, and forced labor with “chattel slavery.”  (Source here.)  From just a cursory review of basic articles on the English Civil War, Cromwell and the Irish, and Irish history I cannot find even the most basic evidence to back up the idea there was a mass cross-Atlantic trade in white Irish individuals to feed a growing labor demand in the colonies of North America and the Caribbean.

The articles I’ve found pushing this myth, of which several samples are included below in the sources, uniformly don’t list any academic or even non-academic sources.  They twist information, and they also stretch the limits of credible argument.  For example I did find mention in several sources in Google Docs that after the end of the English Civil War, Irish individuals who had supported the crown were forced from the land (mass deportations) and shoved by Cromwell onto a sort-of Irish preserve.  Key point though – that preserve was in Ireland.  Some Irish supporters of the Royalist cause were deported to the New World as forced labor, specifically to the Caribbean colonies held by England, but that number ranged from 6,000 to 30,000 at the most.

I’ve also found no links to bills of sale, dockets showing Irish chattel slaves for sale, nor special laws or controls limiting the Irish in the same way that African chattel slaves were limited.  In fact actual historical research shows that the Irish who were brought over as indentured servants often were recruited into colonial militias to protect the colonial structure of law and order.

Slaves_ruvuma

These myths rest on an argument that indentured servitude and chattel slavery were the same thing – they simply were not.  The core difference was chattel slavery was forever, a bondage upon the slave and their descendents.  Irish indentured servants were certainly cheated, worked hard, treated poorly, and labored in some cases in terrible situations, but legally, and practically, they were bond by a contract they entered into in the overwhelming majority of cases.  African chattel slaves were property, legally, from acquisition to death.  An African chattel slave in North America (and South America as well) was property, like a horse.

In fact to understand the position of a chattel slave in North America for most of history, simply replace the word “slave” with “horse” and you’ve got the legal fine points down nicely.  Can you kill a horse that defies you?  If it is yours, yes.  People might think you are cruel or overly violent, you might face social stigma, but you can do it.  Others may support you as the horse deserved it, was unproductive, or needed to be culled.  You can sell your horse if you wish, for whatever price you can command from the buyer.  You can beat your horse if it is unproductive.  Local laws might protect the horse, or not, but such protection is a voluntary agreement between horse owners.  The horse has no say in the matter.

All of that links to chattel slaves in the period quite neatly.  In fact, I believe I am on safe ground saying the only absolute legally allowed thing you could do to your horse, that you could not do to your slave, is you can eat the horse.  I feel 95% certain a slave owner having a dinner on the meat of a slaughtered slave would be nailed on cannibalism laws, if such were on the books.

KKK_Wants

This myth at its core is an attempt to strip African-Americans of their unique position in the history of the United States, the Caribbean, and South America – that of labor forcibly taken from their homes to an alien culture and made to work in perpetual bondage.  Chattel slavery is far too complex a topic here but let me say this – when I read articles about this topic they all seem to rest on the same underlying foundation – “See, white Irish people suffered like African slaves, it is history, and you don’t see the Irish whining about it.”

No, white Irish workers in the colonies did not suffer like African chattel slaves, and at its core, rests one simple difference.  For an Irish indentured servant, at some point, their contract legally ended.  For an African chattel slave, there was no contract, they were just property till their owner either freed them, worked them till their death, or they managed to escape.

Sources:  Blog post on Irish Slavery, another blog post on Irish Slavery, article on the myth of Irish Slavery

Male Nipple and Bathing Suits

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

1910sbathingsuits-4

So a tidbit that is circulating on the Internet these days holds the following gem:

In the 1930s, men’s nipples were just as provocative, shameful, and taboo as women’s are now, and men were protesting in much the same way. In 1930, four men went topless to Coney Island and were arrested. In 1935, a flash mob of topless men descended upon Atlantic City, 42 of whom were arrested. Men fought and they were heard, changing not only laws but social consciousness. And by 1936, men’s bare chests were accepted as the norm.”  (Sourced from here and reappearing on other stories, such as here.)

Now I have no opposition to the cause as specified but I do have a problem with history being twisted to support any cause, and in doing some solid research with Google Books and online I cannot find one reference to either the “flash mob in 1935” or to the four brave men arrested in 1930 for stomping around Coney Island bare chested.

What I did find though shows that this issue is, like anything, far more complicated than a simple link of “male nipples were bad up to 1930 and then there was mass protest and suddenly male nipples were cool!  Go team woman and freeing nipples!  Our struggle is the same!”

Topless_Male_Bathing

I did find links however to documented sources that indicate males were arrested as early as 1910 for “topless bathing” and that this regulation varied based on municipality and cultural norms of the region.  At least one source commented that in the United States the west coast was very relaxed about men swimming topless on the beach while on the east coast people remained very restrictive on the practice.  Histories of Coney Island show that up through the 1910s and 1920s there was a regular on-going battle between men swimming topless and local authorities arresting and fining them.

The collapse of this prohibition was very gradual, Ocean City, another famous resort, maintained and enforced a law against male topless bathing as late as 1939 and only fully abandoned it officially by 1945.

ItHappenedOneNightSexyGable2

The other argument of the meme, that Clark Gable was the first to appear naked and manly, nipple all ablaze, on screen in 1934’s It Happened One Night is an argument more easily disproved.  Gable, as seen above in all his sexy power, did indeed appear on screen sans a shirt in 1934, his movie was one of the last films released by Hollywood before the enforcement of the Hayes Code, which meant this was one of the last films seen for a while that would comfortably show off male half-nudity on camera.

tarzan

This is an image from the film Tarzan the Ape Man which was released in 1932, a full two years before It Happened One Night and I would note for my readers that the male actor above is wearing no top and his man nipples are in full display for the viewing audiences pleasure.  Yes this was an actual scene from the movie, yes it was distributed in the United States widely, and yes it did do well in theaters so quite a few people went to see it.

tarzan_toes

This image is also from the same 1932 film and that is a bare chested Tarzan counting Jane’s toes so he can learn the basics of counting.  Yes the scene was included deliberately to be sexually provocative and yes, Hollywood fully intended to signal to the audience “His chest is bare, her feet are bare, and she is thinking Naughty Sexual Thoughts About Him.”  At the end of the film Jane chooses to remain with Tarzan and spend time with him in his jungle kingdom and yes, Hollywood wanted you to realize they were totally going to do it together, often.

So please no one arguing that the above bare chested scene “doesn’t count” because it wasn’t displayed in a sexually provocative manner but instead was some sort of “detached wild man” moment.  It wasn’t.

As I said above I don’t have a problem with women being allowed to go bare-chested if they wish, personally I think public decency laws should be written to be gender-neutral.  However the laws in the 1930s (and before) weren’t written to be gender neutral, they were as sexist as modern laws prohibiting women showing off their nipples and allowing men to do so instead.

From what I’ve found the laws prohibiting male topless bathing were written to prohibit it in mixed company, meaning men just hanging out with men could be topless (and in some municipalities even swim naked if precautions were taken.)  Those precautions, and the law in general, were written to prevent women from seeing bare male nipples as it was thought obscene to expose women to bare male chests.  So these decency laws were written from a sexist perspective that women might be shocked or offended seeing bare-chested males, but had no problems with men seeing each other topless.

Which to my eye is even more sexist than the current laws we have, at least in its intention.

Fight the good cause if you wish, and believe me I support you men and women who want gender nipple equality, just please don’t twist history to bolster your argument.

P.S. – If you do find a source showing the famous 1930 four men arrested for nipple exposure in protest, that links to a reputable primary period source or a reputable secondary source citing that primary source, by all means share!

Sources:  Wikipedia on Tarzan the Ape Man and It Happened One Night, entries in Coney Island by John S. Berman, The 1930s by William H. Young & Nancy K. Young, Life Magazine article on the subject in 1938 (which shows it didn’t all end by 1936), Ocean City: America’s Greatest Family Resort by Fud Miller & Fred Miller, Adam’s Naval: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form by Michael Sims, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man… by John F. Kasson, and Brooklyn Streetcars by the Branford Electric Railway Association

Another History Meme to be Punched

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

Greece_Anti_Capitalist_Party_Meme

So this is one of those “history setting” memes that actually requires a careful shifty-eyed reading of history.  It is just like the claim that liberal democracies have never started a war of aggression, you move the goal posts on the argument to exclude anything that doesn’t quite fit until you end up with a data set small enough to prove your point.  This above meme fits the same concept.

To begin with, the Coalition of the Radical Left, otherwise known as SYRIZA, did indeed win a majority of seats in the Greek parliament most recently and is a single party.  It originally started as a coalition of leftist parties however it registered formally in 2012 as a single party, why this is important will come into play in a moment.

Josip_Broz_Tito_uniform_portrait

Above is pictured Joseph Tito, leader of the Yugoslavian Communist party, World War II partisan leader, and post-World War II leader of the new Republic of Yugoslavia, shortly after renamed the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.  (For those playing our home game the “People’s” marker is a solid indicator of its Communist leanings.  The new ruling party of Yugoslavia did win the majority of seats in the election of November 1945 and the Communist party leading Yugoslavia was, both by definition and policy, anti-capitalist.

Shifty Eye Point #1 – “Well this doesn’t count because the elections in Yugoslavia, although secret, were marred by political maneuvering, intimidation, and using the mechanisms of the state to break opposition parties before the election.  Ergo this doesn’t count, just like all the other Eastern European nations that ‘voted’ for Communism post-World War II.”

I’ll grant Team Shifty Eye the solid essence of this point – because the Greek win in 2015 does appear to be as legitimate as any election in a democracy can get.

Léon_Blum_reading

In 1936 both France and Spain elected “Popular Front” governments (the one in France headed by Leon Blum, pictured above), a coalition victory in both countries that gave political dominance to leftist political parties and both of which undertook radical reforms of their respective governments.  In Spain the new party undertook reforms to improve labor’s position in Spain, and although rejecting land nationalization it did embrace state aid to collective economic ventures, protective laws for tenants, and state aid for agriculture in Spain.  France went further with its own 1936 reform government, including such actions as:

  • Creating a price control board to stabilize agricultural prices in France
  • Nationalizing the arms industries
  • State loans to assist small and medium businesses
  • Major public works programs
  • Shifted labor laws to very strongly pro-union labor

Shifty Eye Point #2  – “Those aren’t single parties in European politics, they are coalitions of political parties working together and therefore do not disprove the core truth of the meme, that Greece elected a single anti-capitalist party to power in 2015.”

Some might also add that the above measures are not “anti-capitalist” enough to count but I’d argue that one – anti-capitalist in Greece of 2015 remains to be defined and the above measures are not exactly capitalist favorites.

But the Shifty Point here is correct as well, these were not single parties but coalitions and in 2012 SYRIZA did indeed re-register as a single party, to gain access to a special seat boost in the elections.

Clement_Attlee

Meet Clement Atlee, leader of the Labor Party in 1945 and the surprise winner of the 1945 general elections when Winston Churchill and the Conservative party were kicked to the curb by British voters who supported Labor as the party to rebuild Great Britain after the ravages and expense of World War II.  Some of his administrations anti-capitalist policies included:

  • Nationalizing a good percentage of the economy including coal, railroads, road transport, the Bank of England, civil aviation, cable and wireless services, electricity and gas, and steel
  • Strong pro-union positions
  • Created the National Health Service Act which nationalized all British hospitals and provided universal healthcare
  • Expanded government supported housing
  • Expanded the government safety system

Put all that together and I think I’m on safe ground stating that the Labor government, and party, of 1945 – 1951 was solidly anti-capitalist, making the above meme sweet, but historically wrong.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Joseph Tito, Popular Front 1936 Spain, the Popular Front 1936 France, the Attlee Ministry, the 1945 United Kingdom election, and the Coalition of the Radical Left

High Income Tax Rates and Economic Good Times (Part II)

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Stupid_Economic_History_Graphic

When we last left this topic we had gotten up to the post-World War II boom and the fact that the top income tax rate was locked at 91% until 1964.  However this outlook ignores a few key cultural pieces of information, specifically a minor modification to tax rates in 1944, as shown in the Tax Foundation tables on the subject.  If you look you’ll notice that starting in 1948 the tax rate for an individuals gross income was reduced if they were “Married Filing Jointly” – with reconfigured rates that reduced tax exposure for married couples.  Now in the modern era people think of that in terms of “well both spouses are working and earning” but 1948 did not see a huge surge in women entering the workforce, in fact after World War II the number of women in the workforce fell and remained low through the 1950s.

So if you were an average American working or middle class man who had a married wife at home, from 1947 to 1948 you saw your actual tax rate dip sharply by indirect manipulation of the tax code while keeping the illusion of high tax rates in place.

The stability and economic growth of the 1950s and the 1960s was due to a huge assortment of factors, expanding populations, the Green Revolution and a sudden explosion in global food production, governments in Western Europe and the United States paying down owed debt at low interest rates which caused a surge in consumer spending, and it was all anchored by a new system of tariff free trade combined with stabilized currency through the Bretton Woods system which had been established in 1944.  (In short, it created the World Bank, the IMF, and pegged all currencies to the United States dollar which was in turn pegged to gold.)

It was a golden, magical time, fueled by a series of different economic forces that started to come apart even as the world economy surged.

Lyndon_Johnson_3x4

The Revenue Act of 1964 cut the top tax rates significantly, dropping them from 91% on the highest earning levels down to 70% and cutting corporate income tax rates as well.  The reason for this was stagnating consumer demand from the early 1960s.  Despite this Johnson still had sufficient revenue to undertake his major policy initiatives to challenge poverty in the United States, his Great Society initiatives.  Which I would argue is the fly in the soup of this golden age of capitalism in the United States, mainly that the prosperity of the 1950s and early 1960s rested solidly upon a section of the working class forced by racism into the bottom-most economic rungs.  Urban and rural poverty among African-Americans, as well as other racial groups during this period, vigorously enforced through custom and law, helped bolster the United States competitively, in potentially a similar manner to how maintained colonial empires provided the economic edge to assist Western Europe’s boom.

Income tax rates stayed capped at 70% until it all began to really come apart in the 1970s.

Richard_M._Nixon,_ca._1935_-_1982_-_NARA_-_530679

The mid-1960s onwards saw the Civil Rights movement in the United States, decolonization, new demands for a higher standard of consumer goods which bled into the 1970s and the counter-push against the ideas espoused by the 1960s youth.  Cynically put the hippies of the 1960s grew up and got jobs, more accurately the idealistic twenty-somethings of the mid to late 1960s got into power and changed the laws and culture of the United States, but also approached the economy from a position of demanding more.

The Bretton Woods system collapsed in the mid-1970s as unsustainable, President Nixon ended gold convertibility and the world entered a period of free-currency flow, which both sparked the current boom of global trade and also further eroded United States trade strength.  Combine that with the oil shock under President Carter, rapidly rising inflation and stagnation under both President Ford and President Carter, and you ended up with a United States caught in an odd economic problem of “stagflation.”

Stagflation, in short, combines economic stagnation (minimal growth of the Gross Domestic Product [GDP]) with inflation that erodes increased government spending without adding to the economy.  The causes of stagflation are still up for debate but it appears most likely it was a combination of mandatory contractual pay increases to match cost of living increases in union contracts, combined with supply shocks due to oil shortages absorbing federal spending.

In essence when the government spent money it was simply siphoned up into maintaining the standard of living and paying for increasingly expensive raw materials to meet current demand, not into expanding production or new technologies.

Official_Portrait_of_President_Reagan_1981

But let’s look at the beast at the end, Ronald Reagan, the doom cutter, destroyer of government spending and crusher of the above factoids argument of an era of solid economic prosperity.

Regan did indeed cut the top income tax rate, from 70% to 50% in 1982.  If you examine the adjusted GDP table found here you’ll notice it did grow after the tax cut.  The late 1970s through the 1980s is a tough period to tease out individual economic factors, you have the falling income tax rates, deregulation, loosening of financial laws, the opening of the stock market to private investors with lower income levels, a series of economic booms and busts, and decreased government spending on social services and support.  But if you look at income tax levels you’ll note that under Reagan they feel to an all-time low of 28% from 1988 through 1991, when they then rose to 31% under the first President Bush.  President Clinton got them raised to 39.6% in 1994 and they stayed at that amazing peak level till 2003 when they fell, under the second President Bush, to an all time low of 35%.

In 2013 they rose again to 39.6% under President Obama.

Now, if a 4% dip and rise in the tax rate is the secret to the difference between economic boom times and economic collapse, then either our economy is incredibly sensitive to minor shifts in revenue or vast amounts of wealth are stored in the earned income of the top earners in the United States.  (Pro Tip – it is not.)

As a friend said – macro-economic and micro-economic factors are complicated, interlinked, and often require a deep understanding of a wide array of fields to fully tease out.

So when you see a factoid like this consider, it is probably more about stirring up your blood than about actually explaining real solutions to economic challenges.

Sources:  Tax Foundation information, Wikipedia entries on the economic history of the United States, the Bretton Woods system, post-World War II economic expansion, the Revenue Act of 1964, Richard Nixon’s presidency, Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics article on labor trends

High Income Tax Rates and Economic Good Times (Part I)

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Stupid_Economic_History_Graphic

So if you are going to do a “lesson in economic history” the first rule really should be to get the history behind the lesson right, and in this case it is really overly simplistic if not downright deceptive in its presentation.  Lets begin with a brisk measure of facts:

President Warren Harding did not drop the top tax rate in 1922 to 25%, thanks to data from the Tax Foundation in actual fact the tax rate dropped from 73% to 58% on the super rich, a 15% drop, between 1921 and 1922.  By 1924 it dropped to 46% and only by 1925 had it dropped to 25% as the maximum tax rate.  1925, in case you were wondering, is about the middle of the “gambling real estate and stock market bubble” the above factoid cites as the major cause of the 1929 market crash and subsequent major sustained economic downturn known as the Great Depression.

But stating that lowering income tax rates led directly to the speculation boom of the 1920s is extremely overly simplistic, many factors led to the bubble including:  unregulated margin limits which allowed the middle class and the working class as well as the wealthy to speculate on the market.  A vastly overstretched credit market allowed the middle class and the working class access to property and consumer goods at rates of payment that were dangerously optimistic.  Business in the United States entered a cycle of hyper-production, to both feed the growing credit-driven consumer market and also out of a general feeling of post-war euphoria and high economic confidence.  Also lest we forget the, bluntly put, crappy banking laws that allowed financial institutions to put depositor money into the stock market and risky speculation with an open hand.

But all this overlooks the fact that the United States was also feeding off a massive loan/repayment cycle thanks to German reparations, where surplus United States savings were borrowed by Germany, used to buy gold on the world market, that gold was then paid to France and Great Britain as reparations, who in turn paid the gold back to the United States to pay down their respective war loans.  (All of which ended up temporarily transferring wealth from Western Europe to the United States due to the interest charged on both the war loans and the reparation payment loans.)

The market collapse brought all of this house of cards coming down, not just the rich having a low tax rate on their income.

FDR_Inauguration_1933

Roosevelt did not raise the tax rate on the ultra-rich to 90% upon taking office, he raised it to 63% with Congress in 1932, where it stayed until 1936 when it was raised again to 79%.  It remained at that gut busting level until till 1941 when it slightly increased again to 81%.  It wasn’t until 1942 and the beginning of United States involvement in the war in 1942 that the income tax rate skyrocketed, but not just by tweaking the rate, which rose to 88%.  Up to 1941 the highest income tax bracket kicked in for the ultra-rich who made more than $5 million in 1941 dollars per year, in 1942 the top tax rate of 88% percent hit those who made $200,000 or more in 1942 dollars.  (Which were not that different, buying power wise, than 1941 dollars.)

Peak Roosevelt tax rate hit 94% in 1944 and 1945 and then began to ease back slowly from that high to an actual 91% for the post-war period.  It remained at that high level until 1964, but we’ll get back to that in the next entry.

The claim is that this high tax rate of “91%” made the economy boom – which stretches the definition of “boom” considerably.  1932 to 1939 was a period of depressed economic productivity in the United States, according to these statistics, which mirror others I’ve read, United States Gross Domestic Product (GDP) remained below 1929 levels until 1940.  It did rise through massive federal spending from 1933 to 1937 but if you look closely you’ll notice a dip in GDP from 1937 to 1938.  That was the year Roosevelt attempted to move from “special economic policies” – i.e. the federal government spending money like crazy to boost economic activity to lower levels of federal intervention, and the economy went into the toilet again.  You can see that pattern repeated again in spending, 1936 to 1937, federal spending goes down, 1937 to 1938, GDP in response goes down.  But unemployment is the best marker, average in 1936, 16.9% unemployed, average in 1937 14.3%, average in 1938 rises to 19.0%.

This enraged Roosevelt who had to back peddle quickly and restore government intervention.

getimage.exe

Claiming the explosive economic growth for the United States in the 1940s was due to higher income tax rates is also highly inaccurate, the federal government went on a massive spending spree building the material to wage war and also regulated the domestic United States economy to the point it was no longer remotely a free market system.  It was also one of the only times United States debt levels reached a point higher than its yearly GDP.  You spend that much money on top of even limited domestic consumption, combined with federal purchasing policies that paid obscene amounts for war supplies, and the economy couldn’t help but boom.

Dwight_D._Eisenhower,_official_photo_portrait,_May_29,_1959

As this entry is running long we’ll close with a brief overview of why high income tax rates did not solely power the economic boom of the 1950s.  As Truman left office by 1952 and Dwight Eisenhower took over, the United States enjoyed a period of greatly increased economic strength and productivity.  This was fueled by several factors however:  the maturation of federal World War II bonds, the providing of education to veterans through the GI Bill, the demands of military buildup for the Cold War and the Korean War, and an explosion of pent-up post-war demand in the domestic economy.

Did those high tax rates help?  They certainly did, as also did strong labor unions, but a few other factors helped as well.  Thanks to the twin impact of World War II and the post-war efforts by European colonial powers to maintain control over their former territories, there wasn’t much other place for economic investment to flow in this period besides either Western Europe or the United States.

Think about it for a moment…China in 1948 feel to Communist rule and turned inwards.  The Soviet Union was closed to capitalist investment, as was its Eastern European satellites.  Through the early 1950s Western Europe and Japan were rebuilding from rubble, and most turned to the United States for key manufactured goods and infrastructure support.  Even as Western Europe came back into the world economic system its own strong labor unions and tight taxation laws made it a competitor on par with the United States of the 1950s.  Only Japan didn’t follow suit as neatly and it took longer to come back into world economic prominence and compete with the United States, a factor that didn’t start to show up till the early 1970s.

On Wednesday, we look at the 1950s onwards and learn how Reagan didn’t make the United States into a economic dumpster through lowering income tax rates

Sources:  Tax Foundation pages on historic income tax rates, schmoop site on the Great Depression, Wikipedia entry on United States economic history

The Real Brownshirts

Monday, May 12th, 2014

de-sturmabteilung-image2

One of the fun things to bump into online is the widespread use of Nazi (or Totalitarian) imagery to attempt to make a visceral point about an emotional or upsetting current topic – one commonly invoked image when discussing police brutality, police powers, or police activities in communities is the image of the Brown Shirts, otherwise known as the Sturmabteilung or SA.  The SA formed in 1920 as a physical enforcement, or meeting security force, for various Nazi party meetings, public speeches, and other public events.  Their main focus was to use truncheons on anyone who attempted to disrupt the meeting, heckle Hitler or other Nazi speakers, or otherwise disrupt the meeting.  They were an informal security arm for the Nazi party that only got a more formal structure in the late 1920s.  The SA were actually a necessity for the Nazi party during this period as part of the broader “street politics” required of 1920s and early 1930s German politics, mainly running street battles between Nazi groups and Communist groups in which both sides tried to disrupt each others meetings through violence.

Sturmabteilung2_zpse556a5d8

This is not to attempt to paint the SA in any light other than that of violent, extra-legal strongmen for a political party steeped in a culture of violence and terror, the SA was a manifestation of this outlook and an attempt to recruit a steady base of supporters for the Nazi party would would be paid a small amount of money, get to stomp around in a brown uniform, and brawl with people who they were aimed at.  The SA was also used by the Nazi leadership as a “general focus” source of terror, being sent to beat up individuals randomly in areas in which it was felt a bit of terror would either intimidate the vote or motivate those who liked to see violence in favor of right wing ideology.  In 1938 the SA was used by the Nazi party to create a series of spontaneous “demonstrations” throughout Germany to smash Jewish synagogues and businesses and arrest Jewish males for holding in either improvised temporary prisoners/torture chambers or the newly forming concentration camps.  Yet the SA also reflects the early legal and financial problems the Nazi party faced in its early years up through the mid-1920s, its members wore brown shirts because the German government at the end of World War I was selling large numbers of brown outfits at deep discount – formally intended as military uniforms for German Colonial troops now the uniforms were simply cheap military surplus the Nazis were able to snap up.  As well at one point the SA was officially described as a “Gymnastic and Sports Division” to avoid being shut down by the Weimar Republic.  Even at a few points the SA would parade in snappy white shirts, black ties, and dress slacks (also black) to avoid restrictions on parading in “military type uniforms.”

135px-SA-Logo.svg

The key thing to remember about the SA, besides their being violent brutes, is that they also never really held any sort of legal authority within the German state, either pre-Nazi takeover or post-Nazi takeover.  The Brownshirts/SA were never police officers, never held police power, and never enforced any German laws in an official capacity, they were street gangs in matching uniforms backed by a political party.  Honestly within the United States there really doesn’t exist an equivalent organization and yet the term “Brownshirts” is tossed around to slander any group with a vocal or activist political outlook or to insult law enforcement on several levels of enforcement/organization.  It is similar to misusing the term “Gestapo” which specifically touches on a secret investigative detective force or the term “SS” which refers to a weird parallel military/police organization that existed in Germany (plus also handled Hitler’s personal security.)  None of these are really accurate to the link people often seem to be drawing, which instead is to a perceived “ultra-violent out-of-control” law enforcement entity.  Did such organizations exist and do they exist now?  Certainly, but the Brownshirts were not that organization.

Ernst_Röhm

The SA, by the way, fell from power when the Nazi’s got into office in 1933.  The SA was lead by Ernest Rohm, pictured above, and continued to agitate for expanded power within the German state, including Rohm’s vision of absorbing the German military into the SA and making the SA the new defense force for Germany.  For a wide array of reasons this was an unacceptable outcome for Hitler so, in a deal with the German military, in exchange for their loyalty Hitler arranged for a “special operation” to deal with the SA, namely killing their leadership and breaking their influence in Germany.  Known as the “Night of the Long Knives” the breaking of the SA was rolled into a general action against several “enemies” of the new regime.  Oh and Rohm?  Executed after being arrested in his cell.

Source:  Wikipedia on the Sturmabteilung

Conservatives – not always halting progress

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

So this entry is a reaction to the following text that was part of a larger, pro-animal rights screed on Facebook:

“It was liberals who ignited the American Revolution! Liberals who crafted our Constitution! Liberals who opposed slavery! Liberals who fought for blacks to vote. Then for women’s suffrage! Liberals ended child labor, legalized unions, enacted Social Security, lead the fights for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights!

Conservatives were opposed to all these things!

As Tories, conservatives opposed the  American Revolution. As Democrats they supported slavery and opposed giving African-Americans the right to vote. (Most people don’t know that the Republicans were the liberals in 1860, when Lincoln was elected. The last liberal Republican president was Teddy Roosevelt.)

As Republicans, conservatives opposed women’s right to vote. They were opposed to going to war against Hitler! Liberals fought for integration, conservatives fought to keep segregation.

Republicans and conservative Democrats opposed civil rights! They now oppose women’s rights to equal pay, gays’ rights to marry and adopt children, and animal rights!

I ask this simple question: When, in history, have Conservatives ever been right about anything? Think about it:  Conservatives opposed the American Revolution. They supported slavery. They opposed women’s suffrage. They opposed unions. They opposed child labor laws. They opposed Social Security. They opposed World War II. They opposed integration. They opposed civil rights. They opposed inter-racial marriage. They opposed voting rights. Now, they oppose gay rights and animal rights. They have been a drogue anchor on the ship of civilization. They have delayed, but not prevented, social progress.”

Written by one Roland Vincent, link located here

The problem with this viewpoint, which is not uncommon, is two fold, first it is not entirely accurate as it simplifies a series of very complex historic situations and second, it is a tautology as defined, any politicians supporting the above causes were “liberals” and those who opposed them “conservatives” – but the argument that conservatives have always been on the wrong side of history and positive progress is also overly-simplistic and, bluntly put, often wrong.  Now some of his points are valid but some aren’t, and in fine Fist tradition lets present a blow-by-blow breakdown:

Liberals and the American Revolution – the author posits that Conservatives all stood behind the King and Liberals sparked the American Revolution, in that particular conflict individuals who supported the King were labeled “Tories” by those in favor of Revolution, their name for themselves though was “Loyalist” and many of them had supported other efforts that helped lay the groundwork of opposition to the British Crown, including the anti-British goods boycotts that successfully ended certain detested tax laws imposed by the British parliament.  Many Loyalists started out in the American Revolution trying to find a middle-ground that would maintain a connection to the British Crown but carve out a new unique space for the American colonies, it was over the course of outright rebellion that such efforts were squeezed out and a viewpoint of either for or against the war and Revolution became the only solution discussed.  (For the record had the American Colonies remained part of the British Empire slavery might have been prolonged in the British Empire, rather than ended in 1833 with a gradual and peaceful ending.  Wikipedia entry here.)

BenFranklinDuplessis

An example of the complexity of this issue can be found in Benjamin Franklin (pictured above) – who in the 1760s and early 1770s acted as an agent of moderation and reconciliation between the American colonies and the British crown, he initially supported the 1765 Stamp Act as a legitimate effort of Britain to gain extra revenue.  When the American colonists reacted with overwhelming negativity to this action Franklin argued for the British Parliament repealing the tax, when they did, he considered it a mark the system worked politically.  It wasn’t until 1774 when Franklin was publicly humiliated in front of the British parliament over some private letters he leaked that reflected poorly on the Massachusetts colonial leadership that he switched outlook entirely from pro-Crown to pro-Revolution, a position he maintained for the rest of his life.  Which raises the question – does this kick him over to the Liberal camp, was he a secret Liberal the whole time, or are we seeing someone who shifted in their outlook on a complex issue?  (Source here.)

James_Madison

Liberals crafted the Constitution – the “Father of the Constitution” and the “Father of the Bill of Rights” is James Madison (pictured above), also the fourth President of the United States.  His plan, the “Virginia Plan”, was the instrument that was used at the 1787 Constitutional Convention as the foundation of the modern Constitution that the United States still operates under.  Which by the above argument should make Madison a solid “Liberal” however throughout his political career he detested the idea of “excessive democracy” – meaning legislators that passed laws focused mainly upon their constituents demands rather than the long-term good of the state or nation, Madison believed that legislators should be detached, above political concerns, floating above the vulgar needs of the masses.  He is also the creator of the three-fifths compromise that defined African-Americans for taxation, representation, and census purposes as 3/5 of a human being and for his entire life legitimately felt that African-Americans were not only inherently inferior to Caucasians but that bondage was their natural position in the world and the best possible position for them in the United States.  He felt that their welfare was best protected by their limited representation in government (as 3/5 of a person, to remind you again gentle reader) – and that as slaves they should rely on their masters to protect them from excesses of the law.  Both of these life-long outlooks would seem to move Madison more towards the Conservative side of the equation.  (Wikipedia entry on Madison here.)  [As a bonus point many of the more Liberal members of the original American Revolutionaries, like Patrick Henry, were anti-federalists and opposed the new Constitution as taking too much power to the center, so one can argue that many Liberals of the period sharply opposed the new Constitution.]

Tweed-Boss-LOC

Liberals opposed slavery/Liberals supported the Black Vote – Broadly this is correct, the Republicans (the Liberal party of the 1860s) were instrumental in backing the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives, however the amendment was also supported by several powerful Democratic (Conservative) elements in the nation, including the Tammany Hall machine that dominated New York politics (run by Boss Tweed, pictured above.)  Passage was supported by sixteen Democrats, and all the Republicans in the House, and although the sixteen Democratic supporters were mostly lame-ducks after the 1864 election, not all of them were.  (Wikipedia entry here.)  Liberals (Republicans again) were strongly in favor of providing African-Americans with the vote through the Fifteenth Amendment but its passage was fiercely opposed by many Woman’s Suffragist supporters (very Liberal) for providing African-American men with the vote ahead of Caucasian women, leading to some of the most ugly racist rhetoric you’ll see coming out of this period.  The debate split the suffragist movement and two key, very Liberal leaders of the cause for women’s voting, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton, considered the Fifteenth Amendment a gross insult to women and only reluctantly, decades later, embraced it.  (Wikipedia entry here.)

Speaker_Gillett_Signing_the_Suffrage_Bill

Liberals gave Women Suffrage – Actually no, the 19th Amendment was favored by both Conservatives and Liberals and was passed in May 1919 by a House and Senate dominated by the Republican Party (by the above rhetoric Conservative again.)  The states mostly ratified it quickly but the key final ratification was by Tennessee, where a highly Conservative young voter switched his vote unexpectedly in favor, leading to the that state being the final key approval needed to make the 19th the law of the land.  (The representative passed it in part due to a letter from his mother advising him to do so.)  (Wikipedia entry here.)  [The above image is of the Speaker of the House in 1919, Frederick Gillett, a Conservative, signing the legislation proposing the 19th amendment after the House passed that bad boy.]

FDR_in_1933

Liberals ended child labor, legalized unions, enacted Social Security, lead the fights for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights – so first lets get the following out of the way, the author is correct on the following points:  ending child labor, legalizing unions, enacting Social Security, and leading the fight on women’s rights (1970s-1980s) and gay rights (1970s – 1990s) he is correct, Liberals get a clear support point on this.  On the first three FDR was a key figure in the 1938 shift to the left of the New Deal that lead to all of those major social reforms and they passed due to a uniform position of power in the legislature held by Democrats.  Now during this period the Republicans went through a centrist period, which is too much detail for this entry, but I’ll give liberals these without opposition.

But when it comes to Civil Rights the happy harmony train has to come to an end, both Liberals and Conservatives alternated between getting cuddly with Civil Rights and backing away from it, due to the support the Democratic Party (Liberals) had from the Solid South (very not Liberal on this issue.)  From Roosevelt through Kennedy you have Democratic Party Presidents who were extremely cautious about doing anything to antagonize the South and Civil Rights languished under their watch.  It wasn’t really until Lyndon Johnson got into the Presidency that the Civil Rights movement got a serious kick of federal support.

William_Howard_Taft_1909

The last liberal Republican president was Teddy Roosevelt – this argument just annoys me to no small end and is a commonly held up troupe on the Internet.  The above is William Howard Taft, president immediately after Teddy Roosevelt and a trust-busting, pro-corporate income tax, pro-law, anti-politics, and pro-federal budget President one has to see Taft as a generally Progressive President.  More critically he was a crap President on politics because he believed in the rule of law, the rule of efficiency, and the rule of competence over political gains in most situations.  This, of course, made him terrible at the parts of the job of President that most people actually dislike publicly but embrace privately, the wheeling and dealing for the party that backed the candidate into office.  (Wikipedia entry here.)

RMLaFolletteJr

They were opposed to going to war against Hitler – Actually no, the U.S. isolationist movement in the United States pulled support from many sectors, including Conservatives and Liberals.  However of particularly fascinating note is first that the Stimson Doctrine, which was created in 1931 and attested that the U.S. would not recognize territorial gains through aggressive military actions, was created and supported under the Herbert Hoover administration, a staunch Republican and a poster-boy (unfortunately) for “out-of-touch economically” Republicans with the rise of the Great Depression.  Furthermore when Roosevelt attempted to pass legislation through Congress allowing the President to “consult” with other nations dealing with aggression the move died in Congress, in part due to strong opposition from highly Progressive (read Mega-Liberal) Senators Hiram Johnson of California, William Borah of Idaho, and Robert La Follette of Wisconsin.  Senator La Follette (pictured above) is an interesting example of this period’s political complexities, in 1926 he got into office as a Republican but in 1934 and 1940 he got into office as a Progressive and was a leading member of the Wisconsin Progressive Party.  That political party collapsed and in 1946 he ran as a Republican again and lost.  He was a staunch isolationist and yet was a major supporter of organized labor.  Conservative or Liberal I leave as an exercise to the reader.  (Wikipedia entry on La Follette Jr. here and article on 1930s U.S. isolationism here.)

One could argue though that in all of this I have merely refuted his individual examples but not his core points, that I have not proven any case where Conservatives lead the way to social progress, to which I respond as follows:

Richard_M._Nixon,_ca._1935_-_1982_-_NARA_-_530679

Richard M. Nixon – poster boy of the Conservative forces in the U.S. in the late 1960s, elected by his so-called “Silent Majority” who wanted to see a return to “law and order” and an end to rioting and the domestic unrest riling the U.S. over many issues including Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights, just to name a few.  A President so manipulative he was nearly impeached and remains the only President to resign from office.  He also happened to be the key leader in passing/creating:

  • the Environmental Protection Agency
  • the Clean Air Act of 1970
  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration
  • Endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment
  • Philadelphia Plan (first Federal Affirmative Action plan)
  • Normalized relations with the Peoples Republic of China
  • Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and reduced tensions with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic

(Wikipedia entry on Nixon here.)

Bottom Line on it all – nothing is simplistic and arguing that one broad political movement is “opposed” to progress while another is “supporting” progress is overly simplistic, the reality in U.S. history is far more messy, far more nuanced, and far more fascinating.

Operation Meteorite – an early German plan to assassinate FDR

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

FDR_in_1933

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.

Earlier Cold Wars – Opinion

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

The Death of General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham at Quebec in 1759, part of the Seven Years' War.

So one of the primary reasons I originally started this blog was to make point of addressing the misuse of history by pundits, opinion writers, politicians, and other individuals who should know better.  So when a gem like this shows up in my feed, the current opinion piece by Thomas J. Friedman titled Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There I get rather excited.  Mr. Friedman is an expert in the Middle East and a correspondent from that region of long standing, and I will be the first to admit he has considerable skill in matters of foreign diplomacy and international relations, but this quote is what got a raised eyebrow:

“The Cold War was a unique event that pitted two global ideologies, two global superpowers, each with globe-spanning nuclear arsenals and broad alliances behind them. Indeed, the world was divided into a chessboard of red and black, and who controlled each square mattered to each side’s sense of security, well-being and power. It was also a zero-sum game, in which every gain for the Soviet Union and its allies was a loss for the West and NATO, and vice versa.”

Now if you include the presence of nuclear weapons as the sole criteria for making this struggle unique, then yes, Mr. Friedman is correct, nuclear weapons are a 20th century only item added to the arsenals of world power.  However as the Cold War was mostly dominated by the nuclear tipped struggle between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. I’d still have to argue a technical point, the Soviets and the Americans were wrestling for position from 1945 – 1948, a period in which the Soviets lacked shiny atomic weapons.  China also tossed its hand in the 1950s into the struggle before it had nukes.  But, I digress, because if you disregard the nuclear tipped spears and go for what I think Mr. Friedman’s broader point was in that statement, and from the rest of the editorial, that the Cold War was unique as a period of new technologies, new ideologies, bi-polar global struggle, and alliance gains and losses, then he would be incorrect.

I put before you the continual struggle between France and Great Britain that dominated the landscape of the later half of the 18th century globe.

These two powers engaged in a series of nasty wars during this period – specifically the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years War (1756-1763), and the American Revolution (1776-1783), wars which were basically the two powers jockeying with each other to dominate the economic hotspots of the century, holdings in Indian and North America.  However these wars were the flash-points in a broader struggle that kept the two powers competing in brush wars and alliance building throughout the 18th century.  Let’s compare and contrast for a moment and see how things stack up:

Competing Ideologies:  During these wars France was dominated by a Catholic religious orientation, the idea of an absolute monarchy, and one could argue a far more state-centered, higher tax based economic model.  Great Britain was dominated by a Protestant religious orientation, a Constitutional monarchy, and one could argue a more market-based, decentralized mercantile outlook on economics.  These issues were all tied up in the nature of the wars they fought and also in the type of imprint that the two powers were attempting to stamp into the broader world.

Broad Alliances:  During this century the secondary European powers – the Netherlands, the Austrian Empire, Spain, Prussia, Bavaria, and to a far lesser extent the Ottomans, and even the Russians all would take part in these struggles.  Alliances were built back and forth between our two key hitters and these other powers to shift the balance of power in favor one way and then another.  Furthermore these alliances were built by both France and Great Britain in a mental context of dividing up competing sources of power and economic position to fuel their own struggles.

World as a ChessboardThe entire world in the 18th century, certainly not, but the chunks of the world that were seen to matter and were the economic prizes of the world, yes.  Central and South America were owned by Spain, the Middle East was owned by the Ottoman Empire, North Africa was…a mess but not considered vital at the time, central and south Africa were a mystery, and China was a sealed power unto itself as was Japan.  But the zones of struggle and change, the dynamic areas, India and North America, those were areas of constant shifting back and forth.  In fact the wars of the period were extremely similar to a game of chess, with edge territories shifting back and forth between the main players constantly.  Wars fought and lands yielded by treaty, working to create proxy states supported by weaponry and aid to fight with the enemy, even proxy wars were all tools in this struggle between Great Britain and France.

Precisely like the struggles between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. in the 20th century.

The 18th century even had its “Cold War China”:  During most of the Cold War China sat between the two powers, not really intervening often outside its borders in the struggles between the two, but engaging in its own wars and interventions and shifting which of the two it favored, the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. as its needs and the situation dictated.  Now its wars were brutal but were, except for Korea, fought with non-aligned areas or were not central to the struggle between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.  That role in the 18th century was filled by Spain, a powerful but economically underdeveloped empire that regularly jumped into the French/British struggles of the 18th century but as a junior partner in every case.  Spain was focused on holding onto its own territories, trying to figure out the economic muddle it was in, and trying to snatch up goodies by backing the winning side in the 18th century French/British struggles.

The 18th century EVEN had an existential threat:  So the key uniqueness about nuclear weapons is the chance they offer to devastate an opposing state if used in combat.  The 18th century did not have that threat, but what it did have was the threat of massive invasion by both nations.  Great Britain and France share a very close border, separated by a razor thin body of water, and both nations feared the other getting enough of an edge to launch a successful seaborne invasion of the other.  To do so, if successful, would have lead to the collapse of the invaded power and the utter global domination of its holdings potentially by its rival.  (Certainly a loss of position that would end the struggle.)

There was even an on-going naval arms race between the two, which Great Britain usually pulled out ahead, and regular sneaky planning by the French to get around this disadvantage.

So, although just my opinion, I would argue that no, the 20th century Cold War is not unique in human history or even European history, it’s grand adventures have been played out at least once before in scale, scope, and even savagery.

Missile Strikes in Syria and Pearl Harbor

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Pearl_Harbor_Political_Crap

Originally this blog was conceived of as a means to address misuses of history to argue a modern political agenda – so when this gem came to my attention today it required an immediate response – in attempting to link Syria to the attack on Pearl Harbor this image makes many horrible and inappropriate links between the two acts.  First the attack on Pearl Harbor was not a “limited airstrike” in that it had a wide expanse of targets to attack, including naval ships on station, naval aircraft, and army aircraft on airfields throughout the main island of Oahu.  But, more specifically, as the attack proceeded without series setbacks for the Japanese airplanes flying over Pearl Harbor the pilots were released from flying air cover (to deter fighters that were not coming up to engage them) to engage their secondary mission – random strafing of targets of opportunity.  Japanese pilots willing shot up civilian installations, attacked civilian vehicles that were moving, and also strafed random military targets that caught their eye.  By definition the assault was not a limited airstrike against specific objectives, it was a multiple target assault with a bonus round built in if things went particularly well.

Second there were no “boots on the ground” on the actual island of Oahu itself, because that was not the objective of the Japanese military, however plenty of boots hit the ground from 8 December through 24 December 1941, with the Japanese taking the Gilbert Islands, Wake Island, and the Philippines from the United States in a series of progressive and highly successful invasions.  The attack on Pearl Harbor was part of a broader plan by the Japan to divest the United States of its Pacific holdings – to put it bluntly –  a plan to take, and hold, territory the United States either outright claimed or had a protectorate over.

A closer comparison to what this image is attempting to invoke would be if the Japanese government, learning that the United States Southern Pacific fleet, was routinely shelling Oahu to suppress a rebellion with disregard for civilians and launched an assault to reduce the fleet to a flaming wreck to prevent it being used in this manner.  Alternatively, if you prefer, had some rogue elements within the United States Navy captured the warships at dock, or brought their own into the harbor that they got on the black market, and began shelling Oahu regularly to try to provoke an intervention by Japan.  The assault on Pearl Harbor was an effort by one nation to reduce another nation’s military power and capacity to project that power into a contested geographic sphere, not an attempt to undermine another nations use of weapons against its civilians or an effort to intervene in a bloody civil war that might have escalated.

Hell the Japanese delivered a declaration of war to the United States after the attack, they screwed up and got it in after the attack began, but even Japan recognized that the attack on Pearl Harbor was an act of war, an act of war they argued was justified due to provocation by the United States against them prior to the attack.

Opinions are sharply varied within the United States on intervention into Syria, a valid and necessary part of the process of deciding if war is an option a democratic nation should embrace – but don’t drag past wars into this in an effort to make an adorable point.

Finally, and more broadly, if you step back what is this image attempting to argue – that the war between the United States and Japan from 1941 to 1945 was somehow a pointless bloody slog?  That it was an unnecessary war?  Perhaps that Japan was dragged into the war unwilling due to “mission drift”?  Perhaps it is trying to argue that an attack on Syria will explode into a far more dangerous and debilitating war than was initially expected by the attacking nation – in which case I can see it’s point – but it is also still wrong.  When Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor its government and military knew they would be facing the possibility of a long war, their hope was to buy enough time to knock the United States out of the fight to inflict a series of stinging defeats on the nation, break their will to fight, and bring the United States to the negotiating table to accept a peace that redefined the spheres of control between the two nations.  They gambled – that a swift war with massive victories would break the United States’ will to fight before a prolonged war would bring the economic power of the United States to bear upon Japan’s Empire.

Sources:  Wikipedia timeline of World War II 1941