Fist Of History

June, 2012Archive for

Watergate – it’s probably not actually like it at all

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Whenever a political scandal rolls around the media these days always seems to compare it to Watergate, either by adding the suffix of “-Gate” to the scandal’s name or asking if this is “President X’s Watergate?”  Watergate today apparently has become an almost generic term among political commentators, to mean “really bad naughty awful scandal.”  Ergo it seemed appropriate to point out that in reality whatever the current scandal de jour is actually, most likely, no where near as bad as Watergate.  Let us fly back to 1972 and when President Richard Nixon began his progress through a scandal of devastating political ramifications.

The Watergate scandal was named for the Watergate Hotel and Office complex, located in Washington D.C., offices that housed the 1972 Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters and key center point in planning the Democratic parties campaign against Richard Nixon’s run for a second term.  Nixon, and his eager supporters, felt that an extra edge was needed in the campaign so several break-ins were undertaken to put wiretaps onto the DNC phones to steal campaign intelligence.  The scandal really kicked off on 17 June 1972 when on their fourth attempt/second actual break-in, the burglary team was caught in the act and arrested.  Now this is probably the first key aspect of this scandal that makes Watergate unique – it was an effort by a serving President to undermine his political opponents through direct, illegal information gathering, dirty tricks abound in politics but breaking in to steal information to undermine the opposition campaign was considered well beyond acceptable limits.  (Not to mention it was also actually illegal.)

Nixon won the election in 1972 but from that break-in up through 1974 the Nixon administration was plagued by the Watergate scandal, the Congressional investigation into the situation involved an increasing number of key officials in the Executive Branch in the scandal, individuals who knew about the break-in and had facilitated it or approved it.  In the end it reached to Nixon himself, with an appointed Special Prosecutor demanding details on what Nixon had known about the Watergate burglary.  Specifically the Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, wanted access to tapes Nixon had kept of everything that happened in his White House, every meeting, every discussion, a complete transcription of Nixon’s activities.  Nixon refused and attempted to dodge this request through a series of increasingly desperate legal maneuvers.   But it was Archibald Cox’s insistence on getting the tapes (or transcriptions of them by a neutral third party) that kicked the Watergate scandal into high gear.

Cox (pictured above) pushed Nixon to the point that Nixon decided to take more…direct action in dealing with the problem.  Nixon on 2o October 1973 ordered the Attorney General of the United States, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox.  Now this caused a small problem in that, although Cox worked for the Justice Department, under Richardson, Richardson had also promised the Congress of the United States he would not fire Cox and undermined the ability of Cox to investigate the President.  (For those curious the legal reason that Nixon wanted Cox fired was “insubordination” – Cox was insubordinate for refusing to obey the President’s order to stop issuing subpoenas for Nixon’s tapes.)  Richardson refused to fire Cox and resigned in the face of being given an order he could not follow and, in doing so, being insubordinate to Nixon.

With Richardson (pictured above) having resigned the office of Attorney General, Nixon then turned to his second in command, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus (pictured below) to fire Cox.  Ruckelshaus also refused the order and resigned as well, moving Nixon to the next person in line, Solicitor General Robert Bork, third in line at the Justice Department and ordered him to fire Cox.  Bork agreed and fired Cox.

Bork was then appointed by Nixon to the position of acting Attorney General, complete with a swearing in ceremony, and Nixon settled back in the White House feeling he had asserted himself successfully.  What he actually did was provoke a full blown Constitutional crisis – when the Congress reconvened on Monday and the rest of the Justice system came back into session on Monday all hell broke loose.  Bork (pictured below) was removed from his new office, protesting he’d been following orders, Cox was re-instated (along with the others affected by this), and Congress moved towards seriously considering impeaching Nixon.  The nation as a whole responded as well, Republican and Democrat Representatives and Senators had a flood of protest from thousands of citizens, on both sides of the political spectrum, demanding Nixon be impeached for such a gross violation of the principles of the separation of powers in the Constitution.  (The Executive Branch firing the Special Prosecutor appointed by the Congress was seen by most, from scholars to the masses, as a serious breach of the principles of the Constitution.)

For Nixon the party was over – his rash action on Saturday (hence forth referred to as the “Saturday Night Massacre”) lead to his resignation on 9 August 1974.  Political pressure and the successful shift in Congress to both Republicans and Democrats feeling that impeachment was necessary lead to Nixon bowing out of office voluntarily.  (He was subsequently pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford.)

So in all this what makes the Watergate scandal such a scale topper of a political scandal?  First off the blatantly illegal effort to steal information to help ensure an election victory, but second, and more critically, the scandal leading to a genuine Constitutional crisis that enraged the nation.  Nixon’s actions on that Saturday night were so beyond the boundaries that people across the political spectrum began to seriously wonder if Nixon was still fit to serve as President.  Laws were changed after Nixon left office to plug this particular crisis but Nixon remains one of the few modern Presidents to spark a major crisis with the other branches of government on this scale.

Which probably means that whatever is currently on the airwaves – from a corruption scandal to a gaff – is actually not another Watergate.

Sources: Wikipedia entry on the Watergate Scandal, Wikipedia entry on the Saturday Night Massacre, PBS special on the Saturday Night Massacre/Information page on it, New York Times article on the Saturday Night Massacre.

Post Credits Bonus – the organization that backed the break-ins was known as the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP officially by referred to as Creep even by Nixon and pals.)

Holocaust, Joe the Plumber, and Zombies

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Normally I try to avoid pure opinion pieces here and instead provide regular, fun, interesting, and odd tidbits of history, but sometimes the use (or misuse) of history by pundits gets me enraged enough that I bring history and the topical together with facts and sarcasm.  This is not one of those times.  In a future post I’ll comment on the gun laws in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, how they got more relaxed under the Nazi’s, not less, unless you were a Jew.  It will be a fun and informative post, I promise you that.  But in this post I want to talk about something that, in my opinion, is a lot uglier in Joe the Plumber’s recent ad talking about Nazi gun control and the Holocaust – the underlying idea that somehow the Jews (and others) who died under the hands of the Nazi government “deserved” what they got or, in a kinder version, facilitated their own deaths by not resisting aggressively.

The usual argument goes “If every Jew had met the Nazi’s coming to their home with a pistol in their hand and put six rounds in six Nazi’s, eventually the Nazi’s would have had to give up.”  Some go with a softer version of this argument, had each Jew but taken out one Nazi each, or one Nazi for each Jewish family, then the Nazi’s would have to give up.  To my ear this is very similar to the macho chest-pounding fantasies many have when thinking about a zombie uprising, elaborate plans that boil down to the person fantasizing about how they would escape, they would be smarter than the common person, they’d shot, drive, run, escape, survive.  Every vision of getting to an army depot or police station, arming up, getting a vehicle, and running for a location of perceived safety from the zombie hordes – for those who argue if Jews had killed Nazi’s rather than gone along with being rounded up it is the same fantasy.  Implicit in that fantasy is blame, blame for those who died, blame that had they tried harder or struggled more they might have survived.

I believe, in part, this is because of ignorance, people don’t know what the Holocaust really looked like.  That is because our culture is inundated with images of the extermination camps, of starving Jews (and others) in striped uniforms, of gaunt bodies and hollow eyes, of piles of gassed or emaciated dead bodies.  This is indeed one face of the Holocaust, a grim one, the one embodied by that photograph at the top of this post.  But there is another more common face to the Holocaust – the normal police officers who come to your home and order you to pack a suitcase because the law says you are being relocated.  The judges who inform you in popular press and radio that new laws are in place, laws that confiscate your property, restrict your ability to move, deny you access to universities, and bar you from leaving the country unless you have vast amounts of resources at your disposal.  It is a series of small steps, taking away gradual liberties and safeties, compressing you, isolating you from your former friends and neighbors, and only in the end taking you away to an unexpected death that you hope, against hope, is not actually true.

The Holocaust isolated Jews (and others) from their surrounding communities, turned some neighbors into enemies and informers, and made individuals make horrible choices they’d never had to even begin to consider before.  Most Jews (and others) targeted by the Nazi’s were normal people, often middle class citizens, with homes, jobs, lives, and families.  They went along with what they were ordered to do to try to keep what they could of that.  Some feel that was a mistake on their part, that they should have fought, they should have resisted from the start, that the moment they were threatened they should have reacted.  I challenge this with a simple comment – how many of these swaggering dreamers who hold the power of violent resistance as key meet every traffic stop with gun in hand, just in case.  How many show a TSA agent that they are ready to act violently in lethal hand-to-hand combat if taken into the backroom for questioning.  How many if stopped by FBI officers to answer a few questions draw and load a concealed pistol so that both sides know that lethal force is out there.

Where is your point, gentle reader, when you will comfortably potentially condemn yourself, your family, and everything you know to certain death because you believe that you have no other remaining options?

The truth is that Jews did resist, often valiantly and with violence, such as the Warsaw ghetto uprising, violent uprisings in extermination camps themselves, and small acts of violence throughout Germany and occupied Europe.  Jews resorted to violence when they felt they had no further options, when there were no further options, which was in the 1940s and word had reached them what waited at the end of that final train ride.  Not everyone fought, some hoped against hope, some were foolish, some played along longer than they probably should have.  But those who say Jews should have fought earlier I ask when?  Give me the year when you, without knowing what you know today, when facing small attacks on your personal freedoms that incrementally box you in, when do you bust out your weapons and let the Nazi’s know “enough is enough” and you’d rather die, with those most important to you, than submit one more measure of human dignity and freedom.  Ask yourself where that line is today for you – where will you submit you and yours to death rather than humiliation and indignity?

I said earlier that I don’t believe most people have a good understanding of the various faces of the Holocaust – and this picture captures for me one of those faces I believe lost.  I didn’t look up the source on this image, or where it was taken, because I know that information already.  It was taken on the Eastern Front, between 1941 to 1943, most likely in 1941.  The soldier is an Einsatzgruppen (Special Group) soldier – tasked with following the German Army during its invasion of the Soviet Union to round up Jews left behind German lines, and shot them in mass executions.  No camps, no fancy trains, no gas chambers – just a family rounded up, taken outside of their town to a mass grave, and then shot.

You’ll note in this photo that the mother is holding her child close to her, back to the soldier, waiting for the final bullet.  You can’t see her face and I can only wonder at her expression, tears, screams, or whispering to her child quietly that things would be alright.  Some might see this and think in that moment why didn’t she fight, why not run screaming at the soldier, claw at his eyes, crush his foot, kick, scream, bite, gnash, yell at her child to run and die fighting.

I used to wonder that as well on occasion, personally it took me years to realize why, it took seeing friends grow older, have children, see the looks of wonder in my friends eyes as they looked at their young, sharing remotely in their passion for their families and their lives.  I believe personally the reason this mother didn’t do that is because she was trying, to her last, to protect her child from something.  Maybe in this case in the face of what seemed a truly hopeless situation, surrounded by hostile jeering soldiers ready to kill her and her child, maybe she didn’t fight to spare her child having to see her die before their own death.  I’ll admit when considering macho fantasies of violence and escape it might seem a small act, maybe even a pointless act.  To my eye though it was an act of resistance, an act of humanity, an act of a human being trying to do the best they could at the very end of the line.

So Mr. Joe Plumber, you will hopefully pardon my anger at your ad and your views, I’ll be the first to admit they might have some validity.  Had every Jew been willing to throw everything on the bloody alter of death early on, drawing a violent line in the sand at the first violations of their rights, or at a key moment, they might have slowed this down or stopped the Holocaust.  You might even have the moral strength yourself to have been willing to do this.  I think though I’m on solid ground in saying though that most people hold out hope, hope of surviving, hope their children will survive, hope their loved ones might make it through, if they conform more than confront.  That picture captures where, for most Jews (and others), they finally saw the truth behind everything done to them, the moment when hope of escape truly ended.

Maybe that’s the moment when you finally fight to the death.  I don’t know personally, I’ve not been there myself, I hope to never be there in my life.  If I was there though, I don’t know, I might fight, or I might hold my child close and whisper to them that I loved them and that it was all going to be alright, to look at me, to look at me, that everything was going to be…alright.

Adolf Hitler’s Super PAC

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

So to start the use of the term “Super PAC” for Adolf Hitler is not entirely accurate, “donated quasi-personal slush fund” would be the more accurate descriptor for a special fund Hitler controlled once he had risen to the position of Chancellor of Germany, shortly followed by turning that office into a new office, Fuhrer.  (For those curious the office of Fuhrer, which means “leader”, was created by Hitler in 1934 with the death of Germany’s President, Hindenburg, an office that combined the powers of Chancellor and President of Germany but also retired the office of President, officially out of respect for Hindenburg’s legacy.)  But starting in 1933, with Hitler becoming Chancellor of Germany, his numerous supporters in German industry felt that it would be beneficial to start a special fund to systematically show their appreciation for the new political leader.

It was called the “Adolf Hitler Endowment of German Industry” – it was started by Gustav Krupp, owner of the largest arms manufacturing corporation in Germany.  Officially Hitler’s special endowment fund was started by the Reich Association of German Industry and the Union of German Employer Associations and it received a huge influx of donated cash every quarter from most of Germany’s major industries.  The fund was designed so that Hitler could spend it to “improve” Germany however he felt best, interestingly enough the government of Germany felt that these heartfelt donations by industry showed the proper spirit, so they were made fully tax deductible.  (It is so helpful that changing the tax code could now be done by the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, with a mere signature.)  It is unknown how much money flowed into this account each quarter but historians estimate it probably equaled hundreds of millions of marks annually.

For comparison a 1934 dollar was worth about 2.50 Reichmarks, a 1934 dollar is worth about $16 dollars today if spent as a consumer, so we are talking a fund that controlled around $32 million dollars annually in today’s money.

Hitler though that it improper to personally run his massive slush fund account, so he put his personal assistant in charge of it, Martin Bormann.  (Pictured above.)  An eventual master of party machinery Bormann used his various positions, including being in charge of Hitler’s slush fund, to gain influence in the Nazi Party by allocating money to improve various Nazi party officials private lives far in excess of what their salary covered.  But when it came to Hitler’s Endowment, all sources agree that Hitler told Bormann how to spend it, and Bormann did exactly as he was told.  (For those wondering, besides tax breaks and also favorable government contracts what else these contributions to Hitler bought, in general those who donated to Hitler’s endowment fund also got first access to the newly appearing bounties of forced labor.)

But on the weirdness scale for odd fund raising by Hitler, the above has to take the cake.  While researching Hitler’s endowment fund I ran across testimony that during his time as Fuhrer Hitler had his image placed onto the postage stamps of Germany.  You see that was fitting for Hitler as Fuhrer to be so honored by Germany.  But private citizen Adolf Hitler, and his photographer, retained the rights to Hitler’s image and you can’t just use a private German citizen’s image without a small monetary consideration.  So the above image of Hitler you see on every postage stamp was actually licensed to the German government, which paid Hitler and his photographer a tiny royalty each time the image was used.  We are talking a miniscule amount of money per stamp, but we are also talking about millions of stamps over twelve years, according to Albert Speer that little trick ended up generating millions of Reichmarks for Hitler as a personal fortune.

Sources: Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer, The Night of the Long Knives by Paul R. Maracin

The United States and World War II – it was *really* expensive

Friday, June 15th, 2012

For the United States, World War II probably represents, as a cost of total economic resources and a commitment of military forces, one of the most titanic struggles it ever engaged in.  World War II was the only war, to date, in which the United States actively engaged in a simultaneous dual front struggle with opponents that were (technically) allied.  (Technically allied because although Japan, Germany, and Italy were all co-belligerents they did not engage in any joint military actions during the course of the war.)  Today you hear a great deal about how the United States put the war in the Pacific “on the back burner” so it could focus on Europe, a valid observation but somewhat misleading, the United States did not delay the war in the Pacific nor did it focus on defense while engaging fully in Europe, no the United States fought two offensive wars, against entrenched opponents, and maintained the offensive from 1942 until 1945.

The staggering thing is just how expensive World War II was for the United States, economically speaking.  According to one study the United States, at its peak, spent 35.8% of its total gross domestic product in the peak year of World War II.  For comparison our next highest GDP percentage peak war year was World War I at 13.6% and then the Union effort in the US Civil War at 11.3%.  Although such numbers are to be taken with caution, the full US military expenditures during the World War II period was $296 billion in 1945 dollars, or in today’s currency, roughly $4.1 trillion dollars.  But what is really fascinating is how the US raised most of the money spent on the war, through voluntary bond contributions, to the tune of $185.7 billion dollars, raised by borrowing from roughly 85 million Americans.

What is particularly fascinating about this period is that many of the iconic posters of World War II, today collectors items, were advertising pitches to move bonds to fund the United States’ war effort.  Such fundraising was also not, as many believe, nice in tone or nature.  The government needed money and it wanted its citizens to lend it that money, pitch campaigns were aggressive and those who did not buy their share of bonds faced considerable peer pressure to pony up the cash and invest in “freedom.” 

One more tidbit of note on the people funding World War II, the tota amount borrowed by the United States government, as a percentage of GDP, to fund the war.  As of 2010 the public debt of the United States government is hovering around 70% of GDP, during the 1940s, a mere 110% of GDP. 

Sources:  Congressional Research Service report on wars as GDP,

Wikipedia on War Bonds,

Wikipedia on US national debt,

Whaling + Odd Market Forces = Tragedy

Saturday, June 9th, 2012

Generally on here I like to write about quirky aspects of history or unusual moments in history – my goal was to share stories that were funny and helped people link to our ancestors, building a “wow aren’t humans always quirky” bridge between the modern age and the past.  Usually this means I keep away from many tragic stories, they pop up on occasion but even then I try to find something cute to toss into them to make it more interesting.  (For example I actually have a funny story about Auschwitz – try finding another quasi-historian with that to toss out.)  But sometimes I have to capture the fact that in some ways our ancestors were very much like  us and it lead to some really tragic events, even depressing events.  An excellent example of this is the story behind the resurgence of whaling from the late 1900s through the start of World War I.

That image above is of a Norwegian whaling station, located in the Arctic, where new techniques in hunting techniques and processing techniques opened up new whale populations for harvesting at the start of the 20th century.  Whaling became more profitable because of a spike, then a slower gradual rise, in the price of whale oil.  (The industry previously had taken a body blow with the decline of corsets/the rise of steel ribbing for corsets.)  What makes the rise of whale oil weird is that it rose despite the fact that nobody in the liquid fat market at the time really wanted whale oil, at least not as a primary commodity.  Whale oil enjoyed a spike in demand because of a few different market forces, combined with advances in technology, that happened to coincide in a way that was really tragic for whale populations in the Arctic.

During this period the Kings of liquid fats were rapeseed and linseed oil – these two oils were easy to work with, cheap, and could be used both for food production and for making soap.  Both were also produced in large quantities in several spots around the world and even with rising demand in Europe for soap, and margarine, generally these two plant oils could meet the market demand, even exceed it.  Whale oil was also on the market but as a poor second tier choice, at best, for soap it cost more to make whale oil usable and it was unsuitable for food use until after World War I concluded.  (The problem was in the flavor of the oil, processed in a manner that kept the whale oil easily spreadable and the taste of whale remained, which consumers hated.  Treat it enough to get rid of the taste and it turned too rigid for a spread consumers wanted.  It wasn’t till modern hydrogen infusing techniques were developed that whale oil could be used for cheap margarine spreads.)  For soap whale oil was irritating to use but consumers couldn’t tell the difference between whale oil based soap and soap from plant oils.  So in a pinch manufacturers could use whale oil when they absolutely had to and it was that secondary functionality that made the whaling market boom.

Even economically whale oil was annoying, it cost far more per gallon then rapeseed or linseed oil.

Whale oil had two advantages – a great amount of it would hit the market in a very short window when the whaling fleets concluded their season, and whale oil could store well for a reasonable length of time.  So soap manufacturers who either wanted a safety supply in case of market shortages, or who found themselves short on oil when the whaling ships came in, bought up the whale oil to ensure their soap production continued without interruption.  That for nearly a decade was the sole reason whale oil had a real market, but that was enough, demand for whale oil boomed with the expanding soap industry and whaling fleets expanded.  World War I kept up the demand, for other reasons, but after the war interest dropped sharply as plant oils had reached a point of agricultural production that there were fewer market “quirks” that whaling oil could fill.

But not before the Arctic whale populations effectively collapsed from over hunting during that frenzied decade.

Sources: Ahab’s Trade, The Saga of South Seas Whaling by Granville Mawer and The History of Modern Whaling by J. N. Tonnessen & A.O. Johnsen, translated by R. I. Christophersen