Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘History’

The Great Stagflation and Modern America

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

The-United-States-Energy-CrisisThe United States has faced a series of major economic issues in its history, the two most commonly discussed are the Great Depression (1929 to 1942 arguably) and the Great Recession (2008 – 2009 officially) but between those two is a lumpy, difficult to fathom, general economic decline that ran from 1971 until roughly 1982 which could be considered the Great Stagflation.  It was the hallmark of the 1970s United States economy, with a solid impact on the British economy as well.  Within the United States it was caused by an intersection of several different policy issues, economic impacts, and major events, such as the two oil shocks that took place in that decade as OPEC reduced oil production in response to the United States’ position towards Israel.

nixon-elvisNixon, who had a very loose concern for domestic economic issues, made the problems worse when facing the gold crisis of 1971.  Briefly the United States pegged the dollar to a fixed conversion rate and other currencies were fixed to the United States dollar.  During the early 1970s the dollar ended up being worth less in actual goods and services than its fixed gold value, leading to other nations beginning to convert their dollar holdings into gold.  Nixon nipped that problem by simply ending the gold conversion of dollars “temporarily” and then imposing price controls to take the sting out of the sudden devaluing of the United States dollar as foreign governments dumped their now non-convertible dollars.  This was fine for Nixon, he was facing re-election in 1972 and he simply wanted domestic voters to feel that their paychecks remained the same, it didn’t matter to him what happened to the economy post-1972 as much, he simply planed to fix it then.

win_sloganOne of the impacts of this, and other factors such as rising foreign competition that cut the United States share of global trade, spiked inflation rates.  This combined though with an unusual factor, as rising inflation eroded the buying power of domestic wages in the United States, organized labor was powerful enough to demand wage increases from companies to offset the inflation.  This reduced the amount of capital available for investment and the economic instability and uncertainty that rising inflation caused discouraged many businesses from entering into any major investments.  This led to economic stagnation, the production of goods and services simply didn’t expand to meet the growing money supply, which caused shocking inflation rates.  (During the height of the crisis inflation rates of 10% were not uncommon in a single year.)

prop13_ballotNormally economic cycles tweak the system, but the events of the 1970s reshaped the United States economic and political landscape.  First, rising inflation pushed up the tax brackets which working and middle class employees were taxed at, as the brackets were not indexed in the 1970s to inflation.  So although the relative buying power of a paycheck remained the same, the bite taken out by state and local taxes went up for many workers, reducing their overall net pay.  This combined with many states reporting record surpluses due to the revenues taken in, and a resistance by those state governments to return the surpluses to the voters.  (California was notorious for this, socking away much of the surplus for future anticipated shortfalls or new programs once the economy settled down.)  Property taxes shot up as well, as the paper value of homes skyrocketed due to inflation and people saw their property tax bills rocket upwards, further reducing their buying power.

prop13The result was a general tax revolt across the United States as citizens, in state elections and in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan and a Republican Congress, demanded their tax burden be lowered.  What made this shift particularly unique though was that prior to the late 1970s and early 1980s the United States populous had been less leery of inflation, and higher taxes, and more leery of the government reducing its safety nets.  By the height of this crisis the United States citizenry had changed their demands, inflation control and lower taxes were more critical to them than safety nets, especially safety nets that seemed to re-route funds from middle class pockets to the poor, minorities, and immigrants.

the-time-is-now-reagan-posterWhich state governments, and the federal government, responded to with great gusto.  The federal government, and state governments, slashed social welfare programs aggressively and changed the regulatory client to make the government more pro-business.  This combined with a focused effort to reduce the power of organized labor and allowing unemployment to spike, and a sharp early 1980s recession, to crush inflation.  In many ways since then the United States as a nation has not looked back, and other nations have followed its model, focusing on tight government services, reduced social support for the lowest portions of society, and keeping the tax burden controlled.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on stagflation, the Nixon Shock, and the 1973-1975 recession, Investopedia article on the Great Inflation of the 1970s, Dollars and Sense article on the 1970s economic crisis, and chapters from The Seventies:  The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics by Bruce J. Schulman

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.”

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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.

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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

Eugene V. Debs – Socialist Candidate Extraordinare

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

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As the 2016 election cycle for the United States gets solidly underway the left is currently charmed with a Socialist-Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders, a long-serving Senator and solidly left/progress candidate running for the Democratic nomination for President.  Many argue Sanders is not really a viable candidate, but it seems an excellent time to remind the nation of the great “unifying candidate for the Socialists” of the early 20th century, Eugene V. Debs.

Debs_1912_Poster

Eugene V. Debs began his political career with a short term in 1894 with a successful run as a Democrat for the Indiana State Legislature, but he grew disillusioned with politics under the conventional parties and slowly shifted towards support of Socialism as both a political ideal and a political party to support.  Debs had been on the radical side of politics for his entire life, as a founding organizer for various labor groups, a major leader in the Pullman Strike of 1894, and by 1900 a candidate for President running with the newly fledgling Socialist Party of the United States.

Debs_Button

Debs lost, of course, getting only around 89,000 votes or 0.6% of the total popular vote.  Debs ran again in 1904, 1908, 1912, and his last Presidential run was in 1920.  The number of popular votes he gained during that period rose, by 1912 he topped out at over 900,000 votes, winning approximately 5.99% of the total popular vote.  Debs all time high vote count was in 1920, when he again topped over 900,000 votes, an impressive vote total considering his entire campaign was run while he was serving a ten year sentence in federal prison for violating the Espionage and Sedition Act of 1918.

Debs_Prisoner_President

Debs overall was an unsuccessful candidate and was released from prison in 1921 by the winner of the 1920 election, Warren G. Harding.  Debs though throughout his campaigns was known as a fiery orator, a passionate believer in the cause of social equality, and with the Socialists Debs was able to put significant pressure upon both the Republican and Democratic parties to embrace reform in several key areas including:

  • Voting rights for women
  • Child labor laws
  • Workers right to organize unions

Overall Debs, and the Socialists, successfully performed the role of gadfly for the elections of 1912 and 1920, pushing both parties slightly more towards the left than they otherwise might have moved, and in the 1912 election taking part in one of the most complicated elections in modern United States presidential history.

Debs_Canton_1918

I’d like to close though by focusing your attention on the 1912 and 1920 elections – in which Debs got over 5% of the total popular vote.  According to the regulations of the current Federal Election Commission:

Minor party candidates and new party candidates may qualify for partial general election funding, based on their party’s electoral performance. Minor party candidates (nominees of parties whose Presidential candidates received between 5 and 25 percent of the vote in the preceding election) may receive public funds based on the ratio of their party’s vote in the preceding Presidential election to the average of the two major party candidates in that election. New party candidates (nominees of parties that are neither major parties nor minor parties) may receive public funds after the election if they receive 5 percent or more of the vote. The amount is based on the ratio of the new party candidate’s vote to the average vote of the two major party candidates in that election.

If Debs had run as successful a campaign today as he had run in 1912 and 1920, a period when his vote gains were based solely on public rallies, whistle-stop tours, and newsletters the Socialist party would have fun public support, and media access, under current rules.  Furthermore the Socialist Party was denied access to the mass media super-star of the day, radio, and still managed to gain enough votes with a progressive sharp-left platform to be noticed on a national level.

The moral of this entry – and the moral each entry in this series will return to – minor parties can make a difference, and more critically, can have a real impact in United States politics.

Sources:  FEC regulations, Wikipedia on Eugene V. Debs, entry on Eugene V. Debs in the Debs Foundation, PBS entry on Eugene V. Debs

 

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

Civil War Intrigues – the Northwest Conspiracy

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Copperhead_Cartoon

The Civil War was a major defining conflict for the United States, one of the simplest ways to describe the change in the United States was how the average citizen referred to the nation, prior to the war it was often called “these United States” and after the war it changed to “the United States.”  But forging that new sense of unity involved a considerable amount of blood and stretching the powers granted the federal government under the Constitution to hold the various parts of the nation.  In particular President Lincoln throughout the war made a point of exercising “expansive” federal powers in the Midwestern states due to a strong pro-South, pro-Democratic party leaning in the region.  Lincoln, although not directly approving extreme actions, often allowed by inaction military commanders to take extreme steps to keep the region loyal, including using intimidation tactics, targeted arrests, suppressing the press, and expelling dangerous political figures to ensure that the American Midwest remained solid in its allegiance.  This in turn sparked its own problems, mainly the growth of groups that advocated separation from the United States and the formation of a new third nation from the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.

Clement_Vallandigham_-_Brady-Handy

The center point of this plan was a combination of a local organization that called itself the Sons of Liberty (hailing back to the American Revolution) and lead by Clement Vallandigham (pictured above) working with Confederate raiders to enact a complicated plan in 1864 to split these four states from the rest of the union and create a new nation, the planned working name for this new entity would be the Northwest Confederation.  (The name hails from the regions original designation in the early post-Revolution period as the Northwest Territory.)  The plan was ambitious in its goals – Confederate cavalry raiders would head into the state of Illinois to link up with Sons of Liberty militia units – the combined force would liberate a series of Confederate prisoner of war camps and arm the freed soldiers with weapons taken from state arsenals.  This newly combined force, it was  hoped, would total over 100,000 soldiers in arms and provide enough force to spark other pro-South leaning individuals to join the effort and create a new nation.  This was all to start at the Democratic Party National Convention in Chicago.

The plan collapsed though, a combination of secret police/spies loyal to the federal government discovered the plot and arrested a few key leaders, but mainly internal bickering and the fact that most Sons of Liberty when faced with the call to actually rise up in arms against the federal government and the other Union states backed out of the plan.  It did have one lingering impact though, from 1864 till the Spanish American War the Republican Party was able to bring up this event to brand the Democratic Party as the party of “traitors and backstabbers.”  It was one more effective election tactic that helped ensure the Republicans maintained a dominant political position in the United States for nearly twenty years.

Sources:  Encyclopedia.com entry on the Northwest Conspiracy, Wikipedia entry on Clement Vallandigham, The Northwest Conspiracy by Thomas Fleming in What Ifs? of American History edited by Robert Cowley.

American Protective League

Monday, November 24th, 2014

BadgeAPLSecretServiceF_small

In 1917 the United States was faced with a challenge, on 2 April 1917 Woodrow Wilson had asked the United States Congress for a declaration of war, by 6 April 1917 he had it in hand, and the United States faced a war with Germany.  At the time the United States had a massive population of first and second generation German-Americans and concerns were raised that these individuals might form a solid source of sabotage and espionage against the United States.  Furthermore the U.S. government did not have the federal manpower to investigate the sheer number of individuals suspected, so a new organization was needed to fill this perceived gap in federal enforcement.  Fortunately an organization had already been created to handle just such a situation, the American Protective League, organized by an Chicago advertising executive named Albert M. Briggs and informally approved by Wilson on 30 March 1917 in a cabinet meeting to serve as a semi-official extension of the Justice Department.  The theory was that citizen volunteers could provide the needed manpower to allow the government to rapidly expand its ability to examine its citizen base for disloyalty and cut the risk of sabotage and espionage.

APL-Membership-Card

Claiming a peak membership strength of 250,000 members the American Protective League deployed its volunteers to serve as spies on the entire population of the United States, claiming that over 52 million Americans lived in a city which had an active American Protective League presence.  After quickly exhausting any risk of sabotage or espionage the American Protective League instead focused on rooting out domestic “disloyalty” and reported on individuals who shirked on voluntary activities to support the war, who broke food ration regulations, who engaged in “slackerism” or “defeatism” in vital war industries, and those who expressed “defeatism” or who supported “political views” that were in opposition to the goals of the United States in a time of war.  To put it more simply – anyone who didn’t have wholehearted support for the United States in World War I was subject to being reported to the Justice Department and pursued by federal agents.  Combine that with the broad sweeping powers granted to the government under the respective Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and you had a perfect combination for civilian participation and legal crushing of individual political and social rights throughout the United States.  But of course it got so much worse…

Sinclair_Lewis_It_Can't_Happen_Here_1936_theater_poster

In 1917 and 1918 local police agencies used American Protective League members as auxiliaries or deputies, as the local laws permitted, to engage in more “direct action” activities to deal with “disloyalty.”  In Chicago the police used League members to beat members of the International Workers of the World (IWW members of “Wobblies”) who attempted to protest or hold meetings.  In Arizona members of the League, along with vigilantes, locked 1,200 IWW members and their “collaborators” (families) into box cars, rolled them over the border into New Mexico’s desert, and abandoned them with no food or water and a warning to not return on pain of death.  Local Arizona authorities supported, and applauded, the action.  In Illinois the army used support from the American Protective League to extract confessions from twenty-one African-American soldiers who were accused of “assaulting white women.”  No records exist on the methods used to extract these confessions.

As well throughout the United States members of the American Protective League made a point of hiding their members in key factories and production centers to sniff out any sense of disloyalty in the workforce.  They even got into such mundane activities as “helping screen jury members” prior to a trial, as testimony before Congress showed.

The American Protective League was disbanded after the war when the government no longer felt it necessary and the leadership of the Justice Department changed, however the government did maintain the extensive files the League’s members helped it collect.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the American Protective League, testimony before the House that discussed American Protective League Activities, entry at Sewanee University on the American Protective League, Salon article on the American Protective League, The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.

Heinkel He 162 – Germany’s Super-Cheap Jet Fighter

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Heinkel_He_162_Freeman_Field_IN_1945

By 1944 Nazi Germany was facing a rather serious problem, the combined British and United States heavy bomber attacks on occupied Europe and Germany were proving disruptive to Germany’s ability to wage war, more critically though the widespread deployment of the United States P-51 Mustang had led to the German air force suffering massive casualties in both pilots and equipment.  The need appeared for an aircraft that met three seemingly conflicting design goals:

  • A high-speed fighter capable of evading the P-51 Mustang and being able to attack massed bomber formations successfully
  • A high-performance fighter capable of succeeding in a dogfight with a P-51 Mustang
  • The new plane had to be made of non-strategic materials as much as possible, with a preference for the use of wood as much as possible
  • The plane had to be cheap enough that it was cost-effective to simply ditch damaged planes and replace them with an entirely new fighter
  • The plane had to be simple enough to fly that it take minimal training to fly it successfully

Despite the challenging requirements every German aircraft manufacturer submitted a design, due to the expected high volume of fighters produced, the winner of the contest though was the entry by the Heinkel corporation, specifically the eventually designated He 162 (pictured above.)  A light-weight fighter the Heinkel He 162 is the epitomizes the idea that “four out of five ain’t bad.”

The aircraft had an impressive top speed and test pilots who took the Heinkel He 162 into the air described it as a pleasure to fly, nimble and reactive.  It also featured an advanced retractable landing gear system that didn’t require hard to maintain parts, had a decent armament, and was constructed of a blend of wood and metal that was cost effective.  In fact the only goal it utterly failed on was being simple to fly – due to a combination of its design and sensitive controls it required a highly experienced pilot to operate the aircraft successfully.  It also had one other minor problem…

Bei Mödlingen, unterirdische Flugzeugproduktion

The Heinkel He 162 was a hybrid plane of metal and wood, wooden wings and secondary structures attached to a metal aircraft body, and to achieve this production quickly and successfully the German manufacturers used glue.  Unfortunately the glue they had to use was not particularly good and the wings had a penchant for falling off – when the plane was taking off, flying, landing, sitting still on a calm day, the wings would just drop off the plane.  The production timeline for the fighter though was so tight and the need so great the German air force did not pull the fighter from production or deployment due to this (and other design problems) – units simply had to “make do” as best they could under the circumstances.

Although only moderately deployed before the end of the war had Germany had more time, and more trained pilots, the Heinkel He 162 might have been a useful addition to its air defense that was viable, rather than insane like some other ideas that appeared in the increasingly desperate years of 1944 and 1945.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Heinkel He 162 and an entry in German Aircraft of the Second World War, including Helicopters and Missiles

 

Anglo-German Naval Accord of 1935 – A Perspective

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

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The Anglo-German Naval Accord of 1935 is, in the overall history of pre-World War II events, from a traditional perspective is probably one of the less important bits of diplomatic maneuvering in 1930s Europe.  During the same period when it was signed, the mid to late 1930s, Germany began to aggressively and openly rearm, seized and re-militarized the Rhineland, aided the Spanish Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, and eventually annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia.  Germany also successfully concluded alliances with most of its neighbors but the two that really mattered were a treaty signed with Italy and, much later, with the Soviet Union.  (Germany also signed a treaty with Japan that was diplomatically vital but in affecting the balance of power it has less impact than the other two treaties, besides making the British Empire even more prone to panic and defensive alliances.)

At its heart the Anglo-German Naval Accord of 1935 was a basic naval arms limitation treaty signed directly between Great Britain and Germany in which Germany pledged to keep its total naval strength at no more than 35% of that of the British fleet, based on tonnage, and also agreed to pursue a balanced program of naval development rather than building a “specialized fleet” – such as one oriented towards commerce raiding.  The treaty allowed Germany to build submarines again for the first time since World War I, within more generous tonnage ratio limitations.  The treaty was considered a major diplomatic success for the British government, led by Stanley Baldwin (pictured above), and for Adolf Hitler kindled hopes that this initial diplomatic success would pave the way towards a broader defensive treaty with Great Britain or, dream of dreams, an alliance that would allow Germany a free hand in continental Europe.

Adolf_Hitler_retouched

The core impact of this treaty though was greater than it might first appear when considered in context and factoring in national pride and human emotion, because the Anglo-German Naval Accord of 1935 was negotiated without consulting the French or Italian governments, as Great Britain had promised to do in the mid-1920s.  From the mid-1920s through the early-1930s Great Britain, France, and Italy were part of what was known as the Stresa front, an earlier alliance aimed at containing any possible German aggression by all three signatory nations – Italy, France, and Great Britain.  As a further blow for France by allowing Germany to have a larger navy, and submarines at all, this treaty refuted the Versailles Treaty, upon whose enforcement French security hopes rested in the 1920s and early 1930s.  With Great Britain renouncing that and pursuing its own private peace France was forced to consider its reliance on Great Britain to be less of a factor and reacted with its own efforts to increase its military size and preparations for war.

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I would argue though for France, in particular for its leadership (symbolized by the Prime Minister at the time, Pierre Laval pictured above), this treaty underscored a more critical humiliation, France was no longer in command of its own foreign policy.  The British government could sign this major treaty that redefined French and German naval balance, ignore the French government, and then inform them of its actions.  But as France needed British support to have any chance of successfully defending itself against German aggression this treaty probably helped re-enforce feelings in France’s public and leadership of inferiority and an inability to effectively resist.  I would contend that those feelings, that emotional burden, was part of what weighted down France’s military planning and civil leadership and remained a problem for its effective ability to defend itself up till the actual outbreak of the war.  Only the actual defeat of France, and seeing the impact it really had, versus it’s imagined impact, helped galvanize France to emerge from the war with fire in the mid to late 1940s.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Anglo-German Naval Treaty of 1935, entry on the treaty in World War II at Sea: An Encyclopedia edited by Spencer Tucker

Congress in Action – 1975 Church Committee

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

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In today’s politically charged climate, especially with an election season underway, it is often very easy for American citizens to lose faith that their Congress is actually capable of having a meaningful impact on the direction of the United States both culturally and on a governmental level.  An excellent example of what can happen when Congress does get into action, even when fueled by political motivations and popular pressures, can be found in the 1975 Church Committee.  (The committee is formally titled “The United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities.”)  Chaired by Senator Frank Church (Idaho, Democrat) and with a key Vice-Chair, Senator John Tower (Texas, Republican) the Church Committee dug into a massive history of intelligence gathering operations by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The committee discovered that since the 1950s both agencies had engaged in a series of covert operations that far exceeded their mandates but also that the overall methods of governmental oversight of these agencies were woefully inadequate.  Specifically United States Presidents, from Truman through Nixon, as well as key Congressional leaders, had simply turned a blind-eye to how these two agencies collected intelligence seen as vita to winning the Cold War and instead simply focused on the results of those operations.  This combined with a strong desire by the United States political leadership to achieve plausible deniability, the much-loved phrase of Hollywood spy-thrillers but that actually was a term coined by the CIA in the 1960s and refers to the idea that “if the senior government leadership doesn’t know what we do they can then honestly say they had no idea we set babies on fire to see if it upset parents.”

The Church Committee met for seventeen months, most of its hearings were behind closed doors – due to national security concerns – and resulted in some legal and administrative reforms to the operations of both the CIA and FBI.  Key changes included:

  • The formation of two permanent committees in Congress to oversee intelligence operations – one in the House and one in the Senate
  • The limitation by law of the tenure of the director of the FBI to a maximum of ten years duration to avoid another J. Edgar Hoover fifty-odd year dominance of the agency
  • A slew of executive orders that modified how intelligence operations were conducted – the impact of which has been steadily eroded since the 1980s

A 1975 quote from Senator Church at the conclusion of these findings seem appropriate for today’s even more interconnected world:

In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left such is the capability to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.

If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.

I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.

Apparently he was speaking about the National Security Agency in this particular instance.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the Church Committee, entry in the book U.S. National Security, Intelligence, Democracy on the Church Committee, U.S. Senate historical website entry on the Church Committee

 

Burning New York – 1864 Style

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Provost-fire01

The United States Civil War was a contentious time and, much like other nations on the losing end of a war, by 1864 the government of the Confederate States of America (CSA) was very open to alternative means of winning the war, specifically using espionage and indirect methods of attack to disrupt Northern military operations against the Southern states.  Several such operations were funded but one of the more potentially spectacular operations was an effort to set the city of New York ablaze by Confederate agents armed with specially formulated chemical bombs.  On 25 November 1864 agents of the Confederate government had smuggled several pieces of luggage filled with a phosphorus chemical compound, their plan was to use the chemicals to start fires in hotels throughout New York as well as burning Broadway and the P.T. Barnum Museum.  Their overall goal was to cause enough fires to break out at the same time that the New York City Fire Department would prove unable to control the fire and, ideally, the city would either suffer major damage or be so damaged to set back the Northern military effort.

Fortunately for New York, and unfortunately for the conspirators, the plan backfired rather spectacularly.  The Southern agents were able to smuggle the chemicals into the city and were able to establish over nineteen fires in the city, however the chemical compound proved far less robust than the conspirators had hoped.  Rather than starting a series of uncontrollable blazes throughout the city in most cases the chemical fires instead smoldered slowly or burned very sluggishly, allowing ample time for the hotel owners to discover the fires and either control them directly or have the New York Fire Department control the blaze quickly.  The end result was the conspirators fled the city and only minor damage was done to several buildings, the 27 November 1864 New York Times article on the subject notes that most of the damage came from water sprayed to control the minor fires.

Booths_Caesar

An interesting historical note is that on the night of 25 November 1864, when the fires were being set, the three Wilkes brothers were performing together in a special single engagement performance of Julius Caesar.  According to the New York Times article a “Mr. Booth” – which was probably the most famous of the three brothers, John Wilkes, spoke to the crowd at the theater when word of the fires spread urging them to remain calm and stay in their seats.  As Booth at the time was a Confederate agent and spy, one cannot help but wonder was he not aware of this plot or, as the conspirators had hoped to destroy Broadway, was Booth trying to keep the crowd in place in the hopes fire would destroy the theater and cause a more massive death count.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the Confederate Army of Manhattan and on John Wilkes Booth, New York Times article on the fire, CIA entry on the fire, and entry in 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History by Charles Bracelen Flood.