Fist Of History

October, 2012Archive for

Great New England Hurricane of 1938

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

In the great tradition of the argument that history repeats itself, and in nod to the surge in storm photos circulating with the landfall of Hurricane Sandy, it seemed as good a time as any to pass on the legacy of another great New England storm, the Hurricane of 1938 (nicknamed the Long Island Express because our ancestors were witty.)  The storm built up between 10 September to 20 September 1938 and came ashore on 21 September 1938.  It basically pummeled New England for a few days, racing along the coast and particularly pounding Long Island, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.  (New York City got a glancing smack and some rather severe flooding.)

The hurricane today is considered a Category 3 hurricane and cost between six to eight hundred lives.  It also destroyed a total of 57,000 homes and caused a total, in 2012 dollars, of $4.7 billion in damage.  It also knocked out power for much of the reason, sunk or wrecked 3000 ships, tore up local railroads, and smashed up forests throughout the region.  It was up to that point one of the most powerful storms to hit New England and remains, to the present day, one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the region.  Damage was reportedly still visible in some wild areas as late as 1951 and a few island communities were so badly destroyed that they were abandoned.

On a weird note it also had an impact on the movement of the US strategic gold reserves into Fort Knox, in 1938 the US government was busy shipping gold reserves from all over the East Coast of the United States to Fort Knox for safe-keeping in its new mega-strongbox.  The hurricane hit in the middle of some of these shipments, stranding them at train depots, the government was able to resume gold shipments once the storm flooding subsided.

Two final thought to close on though – first I particularly like the last image above because that building is being burned intentionally to clear the way for newer construction.  Badly damaged in the hurricane it needed to be removed, and because people rebuild after major storms.  Second the hurricane of 1938 came at a time of economic hardship for the United States, the Great Depression, (technically the second surge of that economic downturn from 1937-1939 but lets not quibble), a time when the US economy was weak, people were out of work, and the resources to deal with a crisis like this were less than are present today.  Yet the people of the United States overcame the destruction then and I believe we’ll do so again.  Hurricane Sandy coming ashore is being greeted by many pundits and commentators as a great fist slam into the economy, and in the short term it well may be.  But in the long term, people rebuild, the regroup, and they come out often ahead after such a disaster.

Sources: Wikipedia entry on the Great Hurricane of 1938, History channel on the Hurricane of 1938

Embargo Act of 1807

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

This is one of those classic historical moments in the United States that links so well to current debates regarding the impending 2012 election, the old battle between the ideal of limited federal government and activist federal government.  In short, the first view argues that the federal government represents a dangerous potential concentration of power and therefore its influence should be carefully controlled and focused in the narrowest possible fields of endeavor.  The second view, in contrast, argues that the federal government represents the greatest concentration of resources in the nation and those resources should be used to collectively improve the nation through projects that enhance the well-being and are to large in scope for a smaller entity to undertake successfully.  Both views have the merits and hazards, what is of particular note though is the first view is closely associated with Thomas Jefferson, a view he espoused throughout most of active political life.

With the notable exception of enforcing the Embargo Act of 1807 – the Embargo Act was an effort under President Jefferson to punish both France and England for encroaching upon US neutrality during the Franco-British Wars of the period.  (Specifically the British effort to contain Napoleon’s remodeling of the balance of power in Europe.)  The idea was by withdrawing US trade from the global markets, and forbidding foreign nations to trade with the US, would hurt both France and England and bring them to a point of being willing to cease violating US neutrality and also halt perceived insults by both nations upon the dignity of the US.  This plan failed miserably on multiple levels – most merchants in the US who could simply ignored the law, smuggling abounded, and the US forfeited its growing trade connections with South America by keeping its merchant fleet in harbor.  The English simply expanded into the abandoned US South American trade and ignored the embargo, the French already being under an English trade embargo hardly noticed a change.

Within the United States the embargo caused massive hardship and economic loss, the entire nation felt the pinch of the loss of the export business and the shortage of imported goods.  But with the act being flaunted regularly with smuggling and exceptions Jefferson sought two solutions – first asking Congress to pass increasingly harsh modifications to the law to shut down loopholes, and second to expand the size of the standing army from 2,800 soldiers to 30,000 soldiers, a request Congress denied.  Jefferson’s plan with that massive expanded army was to use the new military forces to police the harbors and ports of the United States to enforce the Embargo Act.  Jefferson was ready, since it served a political end he felt justified it, to squeeze federal intervention and oversight into every port, warehouse, and home on the US coastline, if necessary, to stamp out the smuggling he felt was undermining the effectiveness of the Embargo Act.

The Embargo Act was ended in 1809 when Jefferson was leaving office, it had cost his political party, the Democratic-Republicans, considerable political influence in the government and the Presidency.  It also had no impact on the English or the French, both continued their war and policies that ignored US neutrality.  What it did show though was that no matter the political stripe or philosophy of a President any US chief executive can be expected to expand the role of the federal government, if they feel that expansion justifies a higher end, even one who is the central icon of the ideal of limited federal government.

Sources: Wikipedia entry on the Embargo Act of 1807, Pearson Education blurb on the Embargo

New Swabia – Weird Nazi Moments

Friday, October 19th, 2012

One of my favorite odd pre-World War II moments was the German Arctic Expedition of 1938-1939 and the founding/semi-claim of territory in Antarctica by Nazi Germany.  The territory in question was referred to as New Swabia, a fairly extensive slice of land in Antarctica which was explored by a German expedition.  The expedition was mainly an aerial one, overflights of the territory, photographs of the land for mapping, and eventually the production of maps.  The flyovers also resulted in a series of giant Nazi lawn darts being plunked into the land at key points, as part of an effort to lay the groundwork for a territorial claim.  By all accounts those darts are still in place, for any interested collectors who happen to have Arctic experience and a huge amount of free money.

The Nazi government never formally extended a territorial claim to the area, apparently because Norway beat them to the punch.  The reason behind the expedition is mufti-faceted, and subject to speculation, beyond being part of the efforts by the Nazi government to showcase how Germany was a new Great Power, (indicated in part by funding scientific research) and also as a scouting expedition to put in a whaling station for the German whaling fleet.  Nothing came from that expedition due to World War Two.  But apparently that expedition has left a mass of speculation of secret Nazi Antarctic bases.

But the fact those darts are still there I think is pretty wild.

Sources:  Hitler’s Antarctic base: the myth and the reality by Colin Summerhayes, the Wikipedia entry on New Swabia,