Fist Of History

Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

American Fascism and Anti-Foreigner Movements [OPINION]

Monday, December 7th, 2015

An armed protest outside the Islamic Center of Irving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MS St. Louis and Syrian Refugees

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

When elected officials kick ass in letters

Friday, September 18th, 2015

CA_Governor_Letter

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

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

baxley-letter-original-letter-recreated

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

baxley-letter-crop

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

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

baxley

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

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

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Donald_Trump_by_Gage_Skidmore

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

Mexican_Repatriation1

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

deportees

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

wb1

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

the_dr9

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

Mixtec Immigrant Picking Strawberries

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

Till the next economic crunch comes along of course.

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

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

Monday, July 27th, 2015

oliver_stone_untold_history_of_the_united_states

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.

VD_WW1

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.”

vd

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.”

VD_WW2_Awesome

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

 

 

Dred Scott and the modern take on the Civil War [OPINION]

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

DredScott

One of the modern threads you will find in United States history is the debate on the causes of the Civil War, which mainly hinges on two major points of contention:  first that states had the right to secede from the union legally and second that the Civil War was fought over states rights.  On the second point the counter-argument brought up is “indeed, the right to have slavery in a state” – which sparks another round of debate.  Honestly though I personally find the argument about states rights as the key issue disingenuous as an argument when discussing the Civil War due to the reaction of many Southern radicals to the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision.  In that Supreme Court case an African-American sued for his freedom, claiming that because he had lived and worked in both a free-state and later free-territory, he and his family should be free individuals.  (A gross simplification but it will do for now.)

Roger_Taney_-_Healy

The United States Supreme Court, under Justice Taney, found that Scott was not freed, they also found that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction to rule in the case technically and, as a “by the way”, Congress did not have the power to impose regulations in the territories regarding slavery.  Justice Taney had hoped his ruling would result in an end to the debates about the position of slavery within the United States, instead it sparked a massive uproar in the North and the South.

outrage

In the North it was felt that now the Supreme Court was only one ruling away from stating that individual states no longer had the right to outlaw slavery within the United States, on some vague notion it was “protected” in the Constitution.  In the South it was felt that Northern citizens should calm down and embrace the legal ruling of the Supreme Court on the matter.  It was also commonly felt that this ruling would open up the western territories to expanded slave ownership and create a new boom for economic development in the region, many Southern slaveholders after the ruling were excited about the idea of gaining access to cheap, productive land that could be tilled by slave labor.

Mini-BIO-Abraham-Lincoln-SF

Now to my eye the cornerstone problem with arguing states rights as a Civil War major cause occurs in this period, with Southern Radicals and their writing, whose ideas were upheld by many moderate Southern thinkers, that Dred Scott was the ruling that would pave the way towards a United States that allowed slavery to exist in every state, even those that had voted against it.  Some Southern Radicals called for the day that “slave auctions took place in Boston Commons” – ground zero for abolitionists.

To my eye, had the bulk of Southern opinion in response to those fears by the North been “What?  No, you have a right to not have slaves, we have a right to have slaves, calm down, lets pass a cross-sectional law that says as such.  We’ll hammer out the west out, the Supreme Court kind of pooped a biscuit here” – the Civil War would probably still have occurred but it might have been delayed or lessened in impact.  Certainly it would have sparked less paranoia in the North than the actual Southern reaction which could be summarized as “Hell yes!   Eat it North!  It’s SLAVING TIME”

The United States Civil War was a complex war, with roots resting in sectionalism, power balances within the nation, and economic impacts of slavery, along with the more common issues of property, role of national government, and states rights.  But as a common thread throughout all of that runs the solid line…of slavery.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Dred Scott Decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Slave Power

World War II, the GI Bill, Homeownership, and Racism

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

a-levittown-street

One of the more interesting comments I read online these days is the argument that, although racist policies in the past boosted whites in the United States into a position of economic dominance, those events happened “long ago” and it is too late to really rectify them.  Most people who make those arguments look to the early to mid-19th century, and argue that modern African-Americans have benefited from the infrastructure improvements and land development that characterized the changes to the United States economically during that period.  Arguments about modern advantages are normally dismissed as “soft advantages” – unfortunate policies that since the 1960s have been changed and, therefore, African-Americans should be able to pull themselves up to economic parity with white Americans now that the “barriers are gone” and they can “unleash their potential.”

This, in my opinion, is hogwash and the post-World War II GI Bill (formally the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) was designed and implemented in a way to give a massive federal economic boost to white Americans and deny African-Americans the same benefits.

Levittown-Sprawl

If you served in the United States military in World War II, and you were white, post-war the federal government opened the world of home ownership to you on a subsidized platter of low-interest loans.  White military veteran borrowers found themselves suddenly able, for the first time ever, to actually get affordable, longer-term, home mortgages that required minimal to no down payment.  Rapid development of new suburban neighborhoods allowed white veteran families to move out of crowded urban centers and gain new homes, homes that could become investments and gain value against inflation in the impending decades.  Combined with the more commonly known huge boosts in funding for white veteran educational benefits, including support for advanced technical certificate training and college bachelors degrees, and you had the combined elements to rapidly expand the middle class in the United States and raise millions of white families to the ranks of lower middle class.

AA_WW2

But the GI Bill in 1944 had been carefully written to respect the principles of federalism, and each state was able to administer the program as it saw fit.  This meant that states, in particular southern and midwestern states, had the freedom to implement a series of charming little “quirks” to their Veterans Benefits programs to keep African-American veterans from claiming their benefits.  Distant and hard-to-reach offices from black communities, employing only white office workers and enforcing policies that African-American benefit claim paperwork be “lost in processing”, lying to African-American veterans about their benefits, and ensuring that other systems implemented to keep African-Americans away from educational and housing opportunities were maintained.

The United States military helped these goals as well, often “losing” vital discharge paperwork for African-American veterans and rigging the discharge system to give African-American soldiers more dishonorable or non-military discharges than they were supposed to receive to reduce the number of eligible claimants.  These policies were seen as critical, because without them southern Representatives and Senators had threatened in 1944 to scuttle the entire bill and the “compromise” was seen as necessary.

1950s_family

This federal gift kept on giving post-World War II, with any drafted serviceman gaining access to these benefits and white America getting another major micro-boost of support for Korean War veterans.

I bring this up not to demand solutions – the problems of racial equality in the United States are too thorny and entrenched for a 500 word essay to properly attack – but I do bring this up in contrast to the arguments by many whites I’ve heard myself that any advantages whites gained were “too long ago” to be corrected today.  This benefit directly helped the grandparents of many readers of this blog, and their own access to middle class status rests upon the foundation laid for them in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the federal government.

A foundation African-American families were directly denied in the same period.

Sources:  VA History of the GI Bill, master’s thesis by Cyd McKenna on the GI Bill and the Homeownership Gap

Socialism with American Characteristics – World War II and Rationing

Friday, February 13th, 2015

ww2ration

For those unfamiliar the formal position of the Chinese Communist Party is that China is currently under a system of economic and political control formally known as “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” and is the inspiration for today’s historical opinion piece.  This piece was inspired by two recent articles run on Communism versus Capitalism with a focus on its potential impact in the United States (here) and some proposed economic reforms the millennial generation should support, which also smacks of Socialism (here).  Although this is an opinion piece I think I can prove solid ground that during World War II, specifically between 1942 to 1945, the United States undertook a series of economic reforms that can be categorized as how the United States might look under its own form of Communist economic management.

bf_gas_ration_envelope_reverse

My first point of proof was the 1942 creation by executive order of the Office of Price Administration (OPA), an organization of the federal government charged with imposing fixed price ceilings on nearly every good on the consumer market, with the exception of raw agricultural produce.  (So finished food products sold in stores were subject to price control, just not the raw ingredients that flowed into them.)  The OPA also imposed a strict rationing system to ensure that all consumers in a time of scarcity were ensured of a certain minimum standard of food no matter demand and, in turn, limiting consumer choice and the ability to freely exercise their own will in relation to the market.

Now some consumer choice remained, how you spent some classes of ration tickets were up to you, you could buy more lard or less butter with the same coupons, but overall that was picking how you spent a fixed allocation of resources.  What you could not do under this system was decide “this week I want to spend all my money on butter and become the BUTTER LORD!”  No matter how much cash you had in hand, that simply was not an option open to you because of the strict ration limitations.

allison_division_of_general_motors_1945-610x782

The War Production Board (WPB) covered the other end of the economy, taking control of raw materials distribution to United States industry, coordinating raw materials and production capacity, and imposing strict limitations on consumer good production.  The two entities combined forces on some consumer goods, including a system of rationing on items like typewriters that required those who wished to purchase one to file for a special permit to allow its acquisition.  The WPB wielded considerable authority over the United States economy, complete with the ability to grant exceptions to allocation allotments (Hershey’s) and starve other industries considered non-essential to the war.

Combine these two factors with high-employment on federally provided war contracts, a combination of restrictions on labor agitation and alliances with unions to prevent work stoppages, and sharp income taxes that compressed income inequality, and I would argue you have the combination of forces that worked together to create a distinctively North American form of Communism.

It even captured the odd balance in the United States between federal, state, and local authority – rationing limitations were handled by local ration boards – filled with state appointed local leaders who could adjust rations limits within broader guidelines and issue exceptions.  Even excess economic capacity in the form of high wages was slurped up by aggressive patriotic bond drives that pulled spare unused economic buying power out of the economy and into low interest paying federal debt.

pledge

So the question that then comes up is – did this experiment in Socialism with American Characteristics work economically?  Well that really depends on how you define “work” – it did succeed in the overall goal of producing a vast array of military hardware that effectively armed many other nations and allowed the United States to successfully conduct a two front war for three years.  But it was undermined by economic waste, specifically caused by black markets and efforts to duck production limitations, price schedules, and supply restrictions.

black_market_image

Even gas rationing was a general failure in the sense of limiting gas allocation to conserve rubber, history shows people defying gas rations on both a local and regional level throughout the war.  As well enforcement of these restrictions was often quasi-legal, heavy-handed, and handled mainly on a local level, leaving the federal government’s metaphorical hands clean.  It was a voluntary effort, for example, not to drive on the weekend for pleasure – failure to comply would often lead to the driver risking being stopped and harassed or beaten by local police for their lack of patriotic fervor.

I would also argue it failed because, although austerity was something the United States public embraced for the war effort, as quickly as possible post-war this was rejected for a consumer binge that rocketed the United States economy upwards, as well as the demand for raw materials, with the 1950s post-war consumer boom.

Could Socialism with American Characteristics work again, as the two articles at the start of this piece seem to think?  I believe it could, history shows it can, but I would argue not in the long term.  Both systems rely to heavily upon humans putting material demands aside for either nobler purpose or more leisure time, forces that history shows do not hold well over a long enough period of time.

Sources:  Article on Rationing in World War II, Wikipedia entries on the Office of Price Administration and the War Production Board

Terrorism by any other name…

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

Gaspee_Affair

The period leading up to the American Revolution was one of extreme emotion and extreme violence, from 1765 through the actual revolutionary period groups of colonists banded together to take direct action against British authorities in protest of what they felt were unjust taxes and brutal British legislation.  The name of this group is one that is steeped in American history, the Sons of Liberty, but the question to be asked is what remakes a series of violent crimes against government into acts of patriotism versus their being remade into terrorism?  The cynical answer is “who wins the fight writes the history books” but I believe a more nuanced consideration has to be made, especially in our own modern times where acts of political violence by some groups are discredited as terrorism while older acts that stem from a similar root are treated as glorious moments of patriotic success.  Such discussions have to begin with terms though, so allow me a moment to outline, in bullet list form, the charges against the Sons of Liberty:

  • Attacks upon British government ships engaging in anti-smuggling patrols, including the capture and burning of some ships
  • Public demonstrations against government authority designed to cause violent confrontation with British military personnel
  • Arson against private homes and public offices of British government officials
  • Threats and intimidation against British government officials including threats of injury and/or death, targeting the official and/or their family

The_Bostonians_Paying_the_Excise-man,_or_Tarring_and_Feathering_(1774)

Although there is no evidence of any actual tarring-and-feathering of British officials that is definitive, the threat of such treatment was real and Sons of Liberty led mobs burned down the offices of at least one Stamp Act official, Andrew Oliver, and burned him in effigy when he refused to resign.  The campaign of personally aimed terror was strong enough that there were no British officials willing to enforce the Stamp Act when it finally came into effect, the Sons of Liberty had blocked the actions of the British government through intimidation and coercion.  Even after the end of the American Revolution the Sons of Liberty remained a political force, in 1784 members of this group, supported by the mass of the population, took over the government of the State of New York and passed laws targeting former Loyalists for expulsion and punishment.

The reason this comes up for a topic today is the current treatment of the Sons of Liberty by the History Channel, an entry on the show covers the problem neatly, from the following text:

“Don’t let the powdered wigs and oil paintings fool you: Samuel Adams, John Hancock and the other eventual Americans who changed the course of history were a ragtag band of secretive and sometimes mischievous young radicals.”

The question to consider is this – is there a future in which actions by other groups today, feeling alienated by their government and unable to get proper voice, who use violence and retaliation to win victories, and are hidden in a broader population might in two hundred become young radicals loved for their patriot success?

Sources:  (unfortunately no links due to technological issues) – Wikipedia on Sons of Liberty, the Gaspee Affair, PBS entry on the Sons of Liberty, Fox News entry on the new show “Sons of Liberty” on the History Channel

Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of France – two cases of the same mistake

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Battle_of_France_collage

If you study military history in the 20th century at all, one of the thorny issues you will inevitably bump into is the conduct of France in 1940 and its loss to an invasion by Germany.  In particular the highly successful thrust into central France of Germany’s Army Group A through the Ardennes forest.  The usual presentation in many western histories of the conflict holds a viewpoint that the French military commander was foolish (at worst) and antiquated (more common) in its belief that the rough terrain of the Ardennes forest would prove too much of an obstacle to German tank units, thereby allowing the central region to be held by a thinner French military force.

FB_WWII_NewsFeed

As evidenced by the above humorous description from College Humor that captures that very outlook on the battle.  So I find it somewhat amusing that this week is commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, as mentioned on the History Channel website, a tactical and strategic battle that the United States normally writes up as an epic conflict that is a credit to the United States Army and Air Force – where a major force of German army and armor units were driven back after launching a surprise winter assault upon the American lines.

117th_Infantry_North_Carolina_NG_at_St._Vith_1945

What is often not mentioned in describing the Battle of the Bulge is that the territory being fought over was the same location where in 1940 the German army had surprised the French, and furthermore, that American military forces in the region were weak and unprepared for the attack for many of the same reasons that the French were unprepared for the attack.  Furthermore it can be argued that the Allied high command, and American military commanders in particular, allowed their perceptions of how they thought the war was proceeding to overly color their strategic assessment of the situation.  In fact the initial reaction of the American military in response to the attack reflected a similar level of shock and initial inflexibility comparable to that which paralyzed the French military in 1940.  Yet these failings are usually glossed over lightly in histories of the war and the emphasis shifted to the counter-attack and eventual American success in the field.

Dwight_Eisenhower

Why the emphasis shifts is an interesting question – personally I would consider it heavily influenced by the strong feelings of “hero worship” attached to many key American commanders by historians, especially American historians, when writing about World War II.  The core names in the battle, Eisenhower in overall command, Patton as the “saving angel of a general” who swept into the fight, Bradley as a key area commander, and the storied 101st Airborne Infantry fighting in Bastogne and holding out against German encirclement put a high gloss of success on the battle.  The reality though was that the American forces in the region were caught unprepared and were badly mauled, although the attack was a high-risk gamble by the German military it wasn’t because of the American military units opposing them, it was instead a combination of the weather, a tight timetable, and fuel shortages plaguing the German military.  Had Hitler gone with a less ambitious plan, like one of several advocated by his generals, the Battle of the Bulge would have probably been a successful backhanded slap to the Allies that would have helped stall the overall Allied advance temporarily.

What is particularly surprising is the broad dismissal historians make of what can only be described as a colossal error by Eisenhower in putting the weakest American military units on the line in the same spot, with the same overall defensive importance, as the French did in 1940 and trusting in the same terrain to prove too impassable to tank assault.  The only real mitigating factor is the season, winter versus fall, but one might ask why didn’t Eisenhower put a few stiffer units in the line, or at least some limited armor, having had only four years earlier seen the fact that German armor could smash through that region with great success as a surprise?

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Battle of France and the Battle of the Bulge