Fist Of History

February, 2014Archive for

Cartoon Friday!

Friday, February 28th, 2014


Note:  Grover Cleveland, pictured above, was married in 1886 to a new wife by the name of Francis Folsom, at the time he was forty-nine and she was twenty.  He’d served as a guardian over her estate when she was younger and watched her grew up.  The above cartoon pokes some gentle fun at the new marriage.

Source:  Life Magazine 1887


Source:  Life Magazine, 1891


Note:  You thought those anti-piracy movie ads were a newish thing, admit it.  This ad asks you not to buy or use counterfeit bike tires.

Source:  Life Magazine, 1896

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.

Cordon Sanitaire

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014


In 1919 as negotiations were underway for the creation of a new post-war order in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East one of the cornerstone concepts was what was to be done with the territory that Germany had sliced off off Russia through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, especially with an eye towards three of the stated goals of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points:

Point #5 – A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.

Point #6 – The evacuation of all Russian territory and such a settlement of all questions affecting Russia as will secure the best and freest cooperation of the other nations of the world in obtaining for her an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for the independent determination of her own political development and national policy and assure her of a sincere welcome into the society of free nations under institutions of her own choosing; and, more than a welcome, assistance also of every kind that she may need and may herself desire. The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their good will, of their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy.

Point #13 – An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.

Wilson’s overall goal, as stated in other speeches, was to try to solve the thorny European issue of rising seams of nationalism in Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, and adjust some centuries old changes to the map, such as the destruction of Poland as a sovereign nation and its division between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, and the Russian Empire.  The question was specifically what was going to be “Russian territory” – especially the areas in its former western holdings that were a blend of various ethnic groups now clamoring for the map to be re-organized.


Into this stepped George Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France, with the idea that the redesign of Eastern Europe could also be used as a means to contain the spread of Bolshevism/Communism into Europe by creating a collection of new states, organized to favor non-Communist governments, that would provide a bulwark against Communist expansion in Europe.  He described this policy as a cordon sanitaire – a sanitary cordon or barrier – to keep out the “infection” of Communism.  His encouragement was for these newly formed nations to come together and form defensive alliances and mutual cooperation to ensure their survival as democracies, or at the very least non-Communist dictatorships.  (Clemenceau was a fairly pragmatic politician.)  The idea was fully embraced by Wilson and Lloyd George, Great Britain’s Prime Minister, and these three were the ones in the drivers seat on the matter.


The list of new nations that made up this cordon sanitaire is impressive and many of them are still with us today:  Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lituania, Poland, Czechoslovakia (gone), Austria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia (very gone.)  Romania was expanded in territorial size and influence in the region.  The goal of Clemenceau was to use these nations for two purposes, first as a barrier against the expansion of Communism but also as a new counter-weight to Germany.  Even in a disarmed and defeated state Clemenceau remained concerned about the threat Germany posed to France, since the 1890s France had worked to offset this threat by an alliance with Russia.  The goal was to squash Germany between the two powers, as France was aware alone it could not withstand Germany’s pre-WWI power and Russia, although huge, fighting alone against Germany was uncertain of a regional defeat.  But the two combined was a prime Germany squashing dynamo.  Although World War I semi-undermined this theory France really did not have a huge collection of options to explore to counteract future potential German aggression.

The League of Nations was an unknown factor and not something Clemenceau put weight upon in his calculations, what he wanted were soldiers, guns, economies, and social structures that would ally with France to stomp any re-emergent German aggression.  He, and his successors, through the 1920s and 1930s pursued a series of alliances with these newly formed nations with one goal in mind – build a miniature coalition to stomp on Germany.  How this diplomacy succeeded and failed is a fascinating topic for a future posts, but for now simply revel in how French foreign policy, demands for security, and rising nationalism created a new map in Europe.

Bonus Points:  If you blow up the map above you’ll notice a tiny area of Germany that was sliced off, called East Prussia.  That tiny little area was the source of a whole mess of future problems.

How It Matters Today:

As a rare bonus point I thought I would leave you with an observation about how this policy of creating cordon sanitarie remained with us through the Cold War and even affects policy today.  One can argue that the jockeying for position between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. from the 1950s through the 1970s in the developing/Third World was an effort by the U.S. to build and maintain a cordon sanitarie  and an effort by the U.S.S.R. to smash down that wall being built around it.  Today the U.S. is following an identical policy, one can argue, in regards to its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and Central Asia regarding the spread of “Militant Islam” – if one agrees that this multifaceted ideological movement can be seen as a single ideology to be “contained.”  From U.S. nation building in Iraq, alliances in the Middle East, to U.S. support to Pakistan and nation-building in Afghanistan, you can see a thread of supporting, and establishing, states to counteract the influence of more militant Islamic movements.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Cordon Sanitare and Wilson’s Fourteen Points


Ober Ost and Post-World War I

Monday, February 24th, 2014


One of the odd legacies of the closing year of World War I was the creation of the Ober Ost, a large territory to the east of the German Empire that was ceded to German control by the newly created Russian Bolshevik state.  It was composed of territories that originally had been the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus) as well as parts of Poland and Courland.  Basically it was a territorial concession that the German Empire won from Russia as the Bolshevik ability to wage war collapsed in the winter of 1918 entirely.  Germany planned to occupy this territory, settle some of its soldiers on the land once the war was won, and squeeze the region aggressively for food and resources both to aid in its war effort and to enrich Germany after the war.  This loss of territory was part of the general German Empire’s plans for the re-structuring of the balance of power in Europe.


With the collapse of Czarist Russia (lovely coat of arms seen above) and the impending Russian Civil War the newly created Bolshevik government had no choice but to make these large concessions to allow it to focus on its own internal matters.  World War I though, even though the issue of the Eastern Front had been resolved, was far from over and the United States had entered the war nine months earlier.  Although the U.S. had yet to make large troop contributions they were coming, and the Western Allies were able to hold on even as the German Empire transferred considerable resources from the Eastern Front to smash their Western Front and, hopefully, force the war to a conclusion.  This effort proved unsuccessful for the German Empire and it was forced to sue for peace, with the war coming to an armistice end in November 1918 and then proper treaty negotiations beginning.  The victorious Allies had the goal of the German army being disarmed and removed from all offensive positions as part of a general plan to demilitarize Germany.

With one key exception though…


The German Empire (its lovely crest seen above) had fallen and been replaced with a new Democratic Republic – the soldiers on garrison duty in the Ober Ost were looking forward to their release and return home from the new concluded war.  However the Allies desperately wanted to avoid the area compromising the Ober Ost to fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks, so although German armies were standing down all over Europe and returning home, the Allies desperately pushed the military forces of the Ober Ost to remain in position to help “contain” the Bolshevik menace further East.  It got to the point that the Allies were even willing to supply and support the German Eastern forces in the Ober Ost despite being opposed to any other German army remaining in place.  However the German soldiers, who by late-1918/early-1919 had taken more direct leadership over themselves through Soldiers Councils, were rapidly simply disappearing to return home on their own initiative, leaving behind a power vacuum that various different competing groups rushed to fill.  The end result was the Ober Ost ended up becoming a divided region between various local power groups, the Bolsheviks, and the newly appearing Polish forces.


The forces of the Bolsheviks, soon to be just the forces of the Soviet Union, took advancing into the former territories of the Ober Ost as just an extension of their general effort to promote Communist Revolutions throughout Eastern Europe into Germany itself.  Fighting over this territory became part of the broader Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1920, but that is an entry for another occasion.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Ober Ost, Soviet Westward Offensive of 1918-1919, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

Book, White Eagle Red Star by Norman Davies

Movie Fun – Inglorious Basterds & The July 20th Plot – Hollywood and History Collide!

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Inglourious_Basterds_posterSo in today’s entry we are going to jump into the world of historic speculation and also a fun geek intersection of History and Hollywood, specifically how the events depicted in Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds intersects with the actual history of World War II, specifically the July 20th plot against Adolf Hitler.  Where it gets fun is the final events of the film take place somewhere either on or after June 1944, according to the internal timeline of the film, and we can surmise they probably took place prior to 20 July 1944 as that was when a bomb was detonated at Hitler’s Wolfs Lair Eastern Front headquarters, when his already limited schedule of public appearances went down to almost non-existent.  But, if both assumptions are correct and Hitler appeared at a small private showing in France of a new pro-Nazi war film somewhere in either June or July of 1944, things become very interesting speculatively.  You see with the end of the film and Hitler removed from the chain of command, along with other key figures of the Nazi regime, the legal requirements for the implementation of Operation Valkyrie – the emergency military plan to protect the Nazi government in the event of Hitler’s death or incapacitation, would have been met.  Doubly of interest is those conditions of the plan would have been met and, unlike on 20 July 1944, would have been genuinely met without Hitler re-appearing and countermanding the orders that lead to a coup.


The new orders for Operation Valkyrie were implemented sometime between late 1943 and mid-1944 and, after the catastrophic events at the end of Inglorious Basterds notification would have been sent to Berlin, most likely by the military command in Paris.  Now it is highly unlikely that the key conspirators who were planning a coup against Hitler would not have been in attendance at the film premier, figures like General Friedrich Olbricht (seen above), who would have been in Berlin and in a position to implement Operation Valkyrie and seize control of the government of Germany.  Operation Valkyrie as an element of a coup attempt was built around the idea of selling the concept that the SS were at heart of a coup against Hitler that had resulted in Hitler’s death, and that the German Army had to seize control of Germany to protect the Nazi government.  The end result would have been the rival government probably would have been implemented in the early hours of the morning after Inglorious Basterds concluded and a new German government would have approached the Americans and the British asking for an armistice.  Now here is where the happy ending for our story might take an unexpected twist.

The plans of the new German leadership were unclear when they were planning the coup, its success probably seen as so unlikely that systematic planning being almost pure fantasy, but the general goals were to seek a negotiated end to the war.  Any such negotiated end would have required the participation of the British, the Americans, and the Soviets, and it is unclear if the Germans were willing to make that attempt or if the Soviet Union would have been willing to take part in such discussions.  (The British would not have jumped out of the war without the Americans agreement, and the Americans would not have agreed to abandon the Soviets because of the perceived need of Soviet support in the eventual final showdown with Japan.)


But had the Germans been willing to meet with all three powers and grant broad concessions to end the war, it is within the realm of possible that World War II might have concluded in 1944 in the Inglorious Basterds universe.  Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (pictured above) would have been a participant in the successful coup, rather than a glorified martyr of a failed attempt on Hitler’s life, and Erwin Rommel might have lived to see the end of the war.


It’s not Gestapo style data collection…

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote Source and Video:  Slate Magazine Article

Synthetic Fuel Corporation

Monday, February 10th, 2014


The 1970s and 1980s are a fascinating time in both U.S. history and global history in general, a book I’m reading right now titled Strange Rebels focuses on drawing links between Pope John Paul II, the Iranian Revolution, Thatcherism, the Afghan-Soviet War, and Deng’s New Path for China.  All amazing topics, however in this case I wanted to focus on an unusual little moment in U.S. history, the public/private government funded corporation called the Synthetic Fuels Corporation.  Depending on your political outlook this effort was either an example of why government should stay out of the private market, a progressive effort to change the U.S. energy situation that was misguided, and/or an environmental disaster that changes in the worldwide oil market unintentionally averted.  It all began with the second oil price shock of 1979 which coincided with the Iranian Revolution – the resulting social and political chaos severely cut Iranian oil exports for a short period of time.  However consumers, and the markets that they make up, had a collective memory of the earlier oil embargo imposed on the U.S. from 1973 to 1974 in response to the U.S. pro-Israel foreign policy stance.  (Specifically in response to the U.S. rearming Israel at the height of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  The various OPEC nations voted to embargo the U.S. as punishment for that action.)  This caused massive oil and gasoline shortages in 1974 so when production seemed in danger of disruption in 1979 oil prices spiked due to a mass of speculative buying and hoarding, despite the fact that there actually wasn’t a productive decline.


However Congress decided that Something Needed To Be Done so they passed the Synthetic Fuels Corporation Act which, not surprisingly from the name, authorized the U.S. government to create a public-private company whose goal was to pump funding into, and oversee, the development of an expanded domestic industry that could produce U.S. homegrown replacements for gasoline.  In 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed the act into law and the company was founded and funded.  The company dabbled with funding unusual projects, such as turning coal into liquid fuel, but the gem at the center of its operation was the development of oil shale lands in the western United States.  The company ended up linked to other efforts to extract shale oil in the west, including the massive multiple year project known as the Colony Oil Shale Project in Colorado.  The goal was for the Synthetic Fuels Corporation to find a method or methods to produce millions of barrels of synthetic fuel in record time, specifically a goal of two million barrels of synthetic fuel per day by the early 1990s at the latest.  However technical limitations proved too difficult to overcome in the early 1980s and other forces came into play upon this unique hybrid corporation.


Specifically, and foremost, Ronald Reagan who upon taking office in 1981 replaced everyone on the board of the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, as all of the company’s leaders had been appointed by Jimmy Carter.  The company foundered but also wasn’t producing synthetic fuels – and pouring large amounts of U.S. government funds into research projects.  By 1985 the Treasury Department described the project as a write-off and Congress, now focused on reducing federal spending and getting closer to a balanced budget, cut the experiment off entirely.  Added to this was a massive decline in oil prices due to increased production from some OPEC members in the 1980s, the successful development of North Sea oil, and the oil production of Alaska coming online.  Overall the Synthetic Fuels Corporation was an odd experiment in public funding to jump-start what was seen as a strategically vital domestic industry, however market forces made the idea obsolete quickly and the partnership never quite seemed to create what it intended.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Synthetic Fuels Corporation and the Colony Shale Oil Project, an article on the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, Wikipedia articles on 1973 oil crisis and 1979 oil crisis


Thursday, February 6th, 2014


In 1967 the American Motors Corporation (AMC) unveiled its newest concept car for the future – the all electric Amitron, an automobile focused on the issues of rising fuel costs and inner-city transportation.  It’s ideal goal was to provide full, efficient electrically powered transportation for urban commuters.  It was revolutionary for the period because it utilized several cutting edge technological innovations, including the first planned use of nickle-cadmium and lithium batteries in an automobile, which would cut the weight of the car drastically and allow it to enjoy a theoretical operational range of 150 miles when driven at a top-speed of 50 miles per hour.  It also used a regenerative braking system to capture energy lost when the car was slowed down, a technological innovation that currently appears in all modern hybrid and electric vehicles.  (It also featured seats filled with compressed air rather than foam, to cut down on the weight of the car.)  It was planned to seat three individuals when used and was focused on aerodynamic design and very light construction.


Unfortunately with the collapse of interest in the late-1960s in electric cars and alternative fuels the project was shelved and the Amitron never got off the ground.  AMC attempted to launch the same concept again in 1977 under a new name, as the Electron, but it still never got off the ground.  It’s hard to imagine if this car could have ever become a major factor on U.S. roadways, it’s small size and limited power would have made it appeal to a potentially limited demographic.  However it is fascinating to think that even in the 1960s alternative power sources were being investigated for personal automobiles.  The project was just one more casualty of the late 1980s collapse/implosion of AMC.


Sources:  Concept Car of the Week article online, Wikipedia entry on the Amitron.