Fist Of History

May, 2015Archive for

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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

Operation Nickle Grass and the modern Middle East

Friday, May 8th, 2015

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One of the nice moments in historical work is when you find a mundane picture, like the one above, and discover that it marks a profound shift in history.  In this case the image above is from 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, when Israel faced off against a simultaneous invasion by Syria and Egypt.  This was particularly unique in Israel’s history as it featured an initial few days of defeats inflicted upon the Israeli military and what the Israeli leadership considered an existential threat to Israel itself.  The war also represented a minor proxy war in the Cold War period, both Syria and Egypt had been equipped, and economically supported by, the Soviet Union while Israel was seen as a demi-client of the United States at the time.  The events of this war permanently shifted the position of the United States in the Middle East, tied the American government more closely to that of Israel, and exposed the vulnerability of the United States to external oil pressures.

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Israel at the greatest point of danger during the war, under the overall leadership of its Prime Minister Golda Meir (pictured above), ordered the raising of short-range ballistic missiles to be prepared.  This was done in a very public and slow manner, to ensure the United States was aware of the fact that Israel was preparing its Jericho missile systems for possible launch.  This is particularly critical because these were the missiles that Israel was expected to use to launch nuclear weapons and, without nuclear tips, were kind of useless as weapons in the ongoing war.  Furthermore it was to send a signal to the United States government that Israel’s government considered the situation gravely dangerous to the nation and would use any means to prevent the collapse of Israel.

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Richard Nixon, the United States president at the time, under the advise of the United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, ordered that United States military equipment be transferred to Israel to replenish its diminished stockpiles and ensure Israel could continue fighting and go on the offensive.  The threat of nuclear escalation was only part of Nixon/Kissinger’s decision to intervene – the Soviet Union had declared its intention to resupply Syria and Egypt at roughly the same time, the need to stave off Soviet influence expansion in the Middle East, and Kissinger arguing that by supplying Israel the United States would have a stronger hand in the post-war settlement, all sparked the push for the United States to intervene.  But in doing so, although the war ended in an Israeli victory, a few other complications set in.

Country’s fuel shortage led to problems for motorists in findi

The Arab members of OPEC declared an oil embargo on the United States, the first of two such “oil shocks” to the United States economy.  Limitations in long range United States air power were exposed, sparking a stronger interest in the United States for establishing air bases around the world to extend the range, and decrease the response time, of its air forces.  But most critically it paved the way for the closer connection between Israel and the United States, which in turn led to the modern shape of the Middle East, including the successful efforts of the Camp David accords to broker peace between Egypt and Israel, regular United States military aid to Israel and Egypt, and the current close connection between these two states.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Yom Kippur War and Operation Nickle Grass, working paper on Israel’s probable nuclear weapons, New York Times editorial on Israel’s nuclear weapons potential and the Yom Kippur War.