Fist Of History

Posts Tagged ‘United States’

American Protective League

Monday, November 24th, 2014


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.


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…


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.

The Atomic Cannons – Full-size and Fun-size

Monday, September 29th, 2014


Meet the M65 Atomic Cannon, one of the more interesting atomic weapon deployment systems created by the United States military during the Cold War.  The M65 Atomic Cannon was developed in the early 1950s and was deployed in Europe and Korea to provide a moderate range tactical deployment method for stopping large scale military assaults with atomic shells.  The M65 Atomic Cannon fired a 240mm shell and could lob an atomic shell approximately twenty miles.  It was only actually used once with a test fire shot at the Nevada test site.  The test was successful and the weapon demonstrated it could fire an atomic shell without the “firing” part of the process accidentally setting off the nuke in the guns barrel.


The M65 atomic cannon, although technically a functional weapon, was never something considered a serious means of halting any sort of major or minor tactical movements.  The weapon was a slow-moving vehicle, it would be hard to defend in actual battle, and the number of technical situations where it would be really useful in contrast to a nuclear weapon carried by a missile or an aircraft were fairly minor.  What it was though was a big, impressive cannon that could be used to shore up local defenders feeling of superiority to a threat and scare up possible aggressors with the threat of massive atomic shells raining down.  (Hence its consideration as a “prestige weapon.”)  At a cost of $800,000 (nearly $8 million in today’s currency) each these weapons were deployed in Europe and Korea and moved around regularly so that enemy air attack, if it occurred, wouldn’t destroy them immediately.


On the other side of Cold War crazy nuclear weapons systems is the Davy Crockett, a small nuclear weapon launcher that could be either mounted on a jeep or carried by a team of infantry men into battle.  The Davy Crockett used an extremely small tactical nuclear weapon and was fairly inaccurate when fired, it’s main plan was to be used for deterrent effect and also to create pockets of lethal radiation in advancing enemy troops.  The Davy Crockett was deployed from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s and was stationed with United States troops in Germany.  In its single atomic warhead test it showed it had a firing range of about one and a half miles, making it a rather “cozy” ranged nuclear weapon.

Both weapons were a product of the broader fears in the 1950s regarding the Cold War, the United States strategically was in a transitional period, facing two competing challenges, on the one hand building a sufficient strategic nuclear force to allow war against the Soviet Union to be successfully waged and render its military capacity moot and also facing a potential tactical challenge of stopping a far larger Soviet ground military with limited ground troops in Europe.  These two nuclear weapons delivery systems were both responses to that second challenge, a lower-cost means of harnessing the “wonder of atomic weapons” to tactical battlefield use.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the M65 atomic cannon and Davy Crockett nuclear rifle

Burning New York – 1864 Style

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014


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.


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.

Competing Submachine Guns – the Grease and the Burp Gun

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Submachine_gun_M1928_ThompsonOne of the more interesting ordinance challenge that the United States faced during World War II was providing its infantry with a working sub-machine gun in sufficient quantities to make a major battlefield difference.  At the start of the war the main sub-machine gun available for use by the U.S. was the Thompson sub-machine gun, a powerful, well-made, and highly reliable weapon.  Unfortunately it was also difficult to manufacture, expensive, and a bit delicate in the battlefield due to its firing mechanism.  Several different approaches were taken to the problem, including a simplified redesign of the Thompson and a rival design.  The winner in the contest though, was the M3 sub-machine gun, otherwise known as the “grease gun.”


Firing a .45 caliber round, the same sized round as the Thompson, the M3 was a far cheaper, and far simpler to manufacture weapon, that was widely used in the U.S. military from 1943 to 1945.  (Around 600,000 individual weapons were distributed to the U.S. military during the war.)  A variant that used 9mm cartridges was also developed and used in far more limited quantities, including as a weapon for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the U.S. “spy” branch in the war.  The M3 got its nickname of “grease gun” by U.S. troops due to its more than passing resemblance to the oiling tool used by mechanics.  The M3 was designed as a disposable gun, only a few parts were precision made and if it ended up damaged soldiers were expected to get rid of it and replace it with a reissued weapon.  Made of thin metal and quickly assembled it was prone to jamming problems but proved useful in the war.  As an interesting aside, it also did not feature an integrated safety feature for the gun, once loaded it was “live” until unloaded.


Opposing the U.S. forces were German sub-machine guns, nicknamed “burp guns” by the U.S. military due to their distinctive sound when firing rapidly, often described as “ripping canvas” it inspired the nickname mainly due to the huge burst of fire the weapons produced.  Of interest though is the fact that two very different weapons got the nickname “burp gun” – the above pictured MP 40, a German manufactured high-firing rate weapon with a 9mm cartridge.  This weapon has been burned into the modern American movie and television audience because it often appears in television shows or films as a “default” German weapon carried by infantry that looks appropriately bad ass.


(You’ll notice in the above image from Raiders of the Lost Ark three of the four armed Nazi soldiers are carrying MP 40 looking guns)

The reality though was production numbers on the MP-40 were far too low to meet German needs and the weapon was usually only issued to squad leaders, paratroopers, and later more troops as the war continued.  However the Nazi government was able to deploy in larger quantities another sub-machine gun, the PPSh-41, a Soviet weapon which was captured in large quantities during the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, a gun that sounded similar when fired to the MP-40 and that was also nicknamed a “burp gun” by the U.S.


Made by the U.S.S.R. after their disastrous 1939-1940 war with Finland as a means to rapidly increase the average Soviet infantry units firepower, the German military came into possession of large numbers of these weapons as they swept through the Soviet Union through 1941.  German industry undertook a major project to shift the gun from its Soviet ammunition, at 7.62mm, to the larger 9mm German cartridge.  The German army also, in a confusing move, kept some of these at the 7.62mm cartridge and issued their forces with special ammunition to use it.  U.S. forces faced off against this weapon several times from 1944 to 1945 and even used some that had been captured from retreating German units as supplemental sub-machine guns.

On a odd side-note the PPSh-41 was provided after World War II in large quantities by the U.S.S.R. to the People’s Republic of China and the North Korean military, both of which put the weapon to use against the U.S. and allies in the Korean War.  It was during this war its nickname as a “burp gun” was cemented in the common image of the weapon.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the M3 sub-machine gun, the PPSh-41, the MP 40 and a section in The Crash of Ruin on the “burp gun

Vietnam War – River Patrol Boats and the Rung Sat

Monday, July 14th, 2014


During the Vietnam War one of the more challenging missions faced by the United States military was patrolling the vast interior river systems that dominated transportation and communication within Vietnam.  The United States Navy had a part in handling these patrols but along with the Navy the U.S. Coast Guard was heavily involved in such missions.  In some ways the river patrols were one of the most dangerous types of missions in Vietnam, most river patrols were conducted in a small craft the Navy referred to as a River Patrol Boat (pictured above.)  These lightly armed, unarmored, fast moving ships were designed to have a shallow draft and to be able to work in narrow rivers.  They had a pair of powerful high-speed engines and their goal, if they got in trouble, was to use their speed and maneuverability to get out of trouble.  Sometimes however that did not quite pan out as desired.


Meet Boatswain’s Mate First Class James E. Williams who was leading a two-boat river patrol in October 1966 in one of the most dangerous river systems in Vietnam, the Rung Sat.  The Rung Sat was a dense river system southeast of Saigon and a major center of Vietcong activity.  On his patrol Williams encountered a heavy patrol of regular North Vietnamese soldiers on boats, forty boats to be exact with a total of over 800 enemy soldiers.  Williams two ships had a total of two 50-caliber machine guns between them and a total of eight sailors, Williams decided the best plan was to launch an immediate attack on the surprised enemy and blazed through them firing wildly on all sides.  Both of his ships made it through the gauntlet and as he raced away Williams called for air support, attack helicopters followed up on his attack and further destroyed the disrupted enemy in his wake.  However Williams was not finished with his patrol of “Brown Pants Level Five” – even as he was escaping the first enemy force his two ships encountered a second enemy force, even larger this time, and still unaware of his approach.

Williams used the same tactic again to good effect and chopped through the second force relying upon speed and surprise to blast his way through the enemy forces massed against him, and once again he was successful, passing through a second major confrontation with no losses and minimal damage to his ship.  Williams trailed attack helicopters and, now, large numbers of U.S. aircraft as well.  After escaping this gauntlet, Williams was asked by one of the attacking pilots what his further intentions were in the combat.  Williams replied:  “I’m goin’ back through.”

That, by the way, is one way to win a Congressional Medal of Honor.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on James E. Williams, River Patrol Boats, and Rung Sat Special Zone; The Vietnam War, A Graphic History by Dwight Jon Zimmerman & Wayne Vansant

War Production Board

Monday, July 7th, 2014


In the history of the United States probably one of the greatest periods of economic challenge was the switch from depressed economic productivity as the Great Depression drew to a close in the late 1930s and the shift to massive levels of wartime production to meet the needs of the combined Allied forces in World War II.  The most difficult issue was the allocation of strategically critical raw materials and the coordination of formerly civilian production to meet the war needs of the booming U.S. military.  The federal government, under Franklin Roosevelt, felt that allowing the market to sort out supply and demand could prove disastrous to meeting the production needs of the expanding military, so by an Executive Order the War Production Board was formed – a coordinating federal agency whose overall mandate was to put most of the United States economy under a form of central planning for the duration of World War II.


The major impact of this was the ending of much production of goods for civilian use, in particular high-end consumer goods such as automobiles had their production simply halted or severely curtailed for the duration of the war and the factories previously used for such civilian needs were shifted over to wartime production.  Overall the War Production Board was fairly effective in its goals – from 1942 to 1945 the United States produced over 40% of the total world production of all munitions, the other Allied nations, combined, produced only 30% of the total global munitions in the same period.


Civilian corporations continued to advertise even as they were focused solely or overwhelmingly on war production – with ads that emphasized their role in the war effort and used those production efforts to promote the quality, craftsmanship, and patriotism of their product lines.  Some companies entire production was refocused on serving military needs exclusively and they advertised to remind the civilian population of their products and promised their return after the war, often appealing to the patriotic role they were filling.


With the end of the war the function of the War Production Board came to an end and it was then rolled into a new federal economic oversight unit, the Civilian Production Administration, which was tasked with overseeing the shift from a wartime focused economy to one capable of meeting the economic needs of the civilian population.  There was strong federal concern that post-World War II the U.S. economy would re-enter depression conditions due to the collapsed federal demand for goods and services, although there was a brief economic slump from 1946 to 1948 the economy rapidly rebounded due to the pent up civilian demand for goods and services.


World War II is not the only time the United States federal government has considered intervening in the civilian economy to deal with emergency shortages of raw materials.  Another example were federal plans to ration gasoline on a national level in both 1973 and 1979 due to massive oil shortages as a result of political actions undertaken by OPEC.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the War Production Board and the Office of Price Controls, Executive Orders creating the War Production Board and the Civilian Production Administration.

U.S. Occupation of Japan and “Comfort Women”

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014


During World War II the Japanese military maintained a system of “comfort stations” throughout the front lines of their empire, specifically brothels that used women taken from throughout Asia for the purpose of providing sexual services to Japanese enlisted men and officers.  The extent of this sex trade is, unfortunately, not well documented due to the Japanese government at the time keeping poor records and other nations that were occupied also being unable, or unwilling, to document what was happening in great detail.  To the present day members of the Japanese government deny that coercion was used to supply these soldier’s brothels during the war, instead arguing that only “volunteers” were taken into service and that they were well compensated for their work and that conditions in military brothels were healthier than commercial brothels due to the mandatory use of condoms by soldiers.  When these stations were in operation from 1931 to 1945, and afterwards, the Japanese government and its military argued that they represented a “necessity” to help deter soldiers from wanton rape in the occupied territories.  However the historic record shows that in attempting to prevent rape by its military the “comfort stations” program was a dismal failure.  Furthermore there is solid historic evidence from:  verbal testimony of surviving comfort women, documents submitted by the Korean, Chinese, and Dutch governments, and testimony from surviving members of the Japanese military leadership and the secret police of Japan that widespread coercion was used to fill these brothels, in particular both Japanese women and women from other Asian territories either being kidnapped, tricked, or threatened into serving as sex slaves for the Japanese military.


With the end of the war in 1945 you might think this practice came to an end however with the United States landing occupation forces in newly surrendered Japan a series of new “comfort stations” was established by the Japanese government with an eye to providing sexual services to landing United States soldiers.  Right after the surrender the Japanese government set aside a special fund of 100 million Japanese Yen specifically to establish a new Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA) whose charted goal was to establish brothels to appease the landing U.S. military forces.  The Japanese government was blunt, by setting up these brothels they hoped to prevent the rape of “good” Japanese women – advertisements were placed in major newspapers calling for the “Women of New Japan” to serve their country in these houses and make more income than they might by other employment means.  Women did sign up to work in these new military brothels out of economic desperation, others were abducted by the Japanese secret police and forced into service to meet the needs of the new RAA.  United States soldiers used the new brothels, to such an extent that the RAA had to rapidly expand the number of brothels it had available due to excessive U.S. servicemen demands for sexual services.

Leaving aside the horror of the forced sex trade for a moment, and the double horror that the U.S. occupational government accepted this practice initially, these military brothels didn’t even achieve their goal, with the Japanese government receiving reports of widespread rape in 1945 of Japanese women by U.S. soldiers and the occupational government doing nothing to seriously prevent the crimes.


The RAA was disbanded in 1946 after a year of operation providing sexual services to U.S. military men, due to the direct order of General Douglas MacArthur, as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces and overall ruler of Japan through the U.S. (technically Allied) Occupational government.  MacArthur did not order the brothels closed out of any moral convictions or dislike for the trade, he did so because of the high, and increasing, number of cases of venereal disease being contracted by U.S. servicemen in Japan.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on Comfort Women, Washington Post article on the use of comfort women by U.S. soldiers, Women News Network web article on comfort women, The Pacific War 1931-1945 by Saburo Ienaga, pages 236-238.

The “Flying Flapjack” – the Vought V-173 and Vought XF5U

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014


As readers of this blog have probably come to learn, World War II was an exciting time for technological development and exploring new design ideas for old concepts, mainly because both the Allied and Axis powers were spending heavily and open to exploring a wide range of wacky ideas in an on-going effort to eek out some edge over their rival faction of nations.  For the Axis powers (mainly Germany) they began with an overall technological edge due to research investments in the mid and late 1930s while the Allies raced to catch up with crash-research programs in the 1940s, but had far more resources to bring to bear upon the problems (mainly the United States.)  A gross simplification to be sure but a functional one for the moment.


In particular in the area of aeronautics both sides were open to exploring new ideas, from asymmetrical airplanes to jet aircraft to the beauty above, the Vought V-173, otherwise known as the “Flying Flapjack”.  The brainchild of Charles H. Zimmer (pictured above) the “Flying Flapjack” was based on the idea of creating an airplane that was capable of extremely short take-off and landings, with an eye towards deployment on Navy ships to allow a rapid response aircraft to submarine and aircraft threats.  Zimmer approached the problem by basically extending the idea of making the “wing” portion of the aircraft huge as part of its overall weight, which in turn would make the take-off and landing take less space.  The propellers on the ends of the plane were a design consideration to deal with drag issues, basically the shorter the wing, the greater the drag at the edges of the wing compared to air moving under the wing.  The propellers on the ends made it so that the air was pushed over the wing tips overcoming the performance problem.  The test model had issues, a complex gearbox to get power from the engine to the propellers and vibration issues, but through 1943 it proved a workable concept.  This lead to the Navy approving funding for a larger, more powerful test model, the Vought XF5U


The Vought XF5U was an all-metal, larger engined, more bad ass version of the V-173, although unarmed as a prototype it was designed with carrying cannon and bombs in mind.  It was tested through 1945 but was not able to overcome vibration issues that made it unusable in time for the war.  By 1946 a prototype model was able to start making test flights but had not yet reached a point of successful operations and the United States Navy by then was switching fully over to jet fighters, an engine that this aircraft would not be able to compete with successfully.  The Navy abandoned the project and gave one of the prototype planes to the Smithsonian Museum.  The other was smashed, however it was so well constructed that the Navy had to use a wrecking ball to break it apart.

Zimmer went on to other innovative designs in vertical take-off and landing planes as well as other radical designs, including a particularly unique project, the Hiller VZ-1 Pawnee (pictured below.)  But that is a project for another entry.


Sources:  Wikipedia entries on the Vought V-173, the Vought XF5U, Charles H. Zimmer, and the Hiller VZ-1 PawneeAir & Space Magazine article “Vought V-173, Why there will never be another Flying Pancake” by Tim Wright.

Philippine-American War 1899-1902

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014


One of the challenging aspects of studying military history is wrestling with the dark side to every military conflict, war at its heart is an extremely messy, ugly, business that lends itself to excesses and atrocities.  The challenging aspect to examining atrocities goes beyond the inflamed passions of the period, as well as the often great difficulty in documenting what occurred, but also because usually atrocities rest upon a foundation of “reasonableness” to those involved in them.  Horrific acts often rest upon a series of choices that, at the time, seemed perfectly logical or even desirable depending on the conditions of the war in question.  An example of this in the history of the United States is the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 – a brutal prolonged war of colonial domination waged by the United States to subjugate the indigenous Philippine population or a necessary war to control a rebellious population bent upon resisting the lawful oversight and protection of the United States against greater foreign threats.  At least for individuals during the war this was the question they debated, fortunately with hindsight most historians today can safely agree that this war was one that was far more heavy upon “racism” and “colonialism” than purely strategic or benevolent aspirations by the United States.  (Cartoons like the one above don’t help argue the latter case.)


The benevolent aspect was captured in cartoons that rested upon the idea of the white male burden of spreading/cultivating “civilization” into regions that lack it.  As the above cartoon shows Uncle Sam his harnessed into the task of turning the Philippines into a modern “civilized” state resting upon the “superior” cultural values of the United States.  Beyond the labor involved in implanting a new social, economic, and political order into a society not particularly open to the idea, the Filipino population in the islands was a bit put out by the United States outlook because:

  • They already felt they had a viable state to take over the administration of their own islands, a republic no less and
  • The United States during its war with Spain had made unofficial overtures that the Philippines would be allowed to administer themselves

Unfortunately with the ending of the Spanish-American War and Spain, by treaty, surrendering the Philippines to the United States in exchange for a token payment of $20 million.  When the armed forces of the United States stopped cooperating with the Filipino revolutionary forces they had previously been closely allied with in the seizing of Manila, the Filipino leadership realized that the United States had changed its mind about giving up on the Philippines.  The United States cited language about human needs and situations beyond the control of its own goals – the Philippines needed the U.S. to remain in place to “protect and nurture it.”  The Filipino government, called the Republic of the Philippines, declared war on the United States and offered armed resistance to these U.S. goals.  The United States did not react well to this development, and doubly so to the use of guerrilla tactics by the Filipinos.  What ensued was a particular horror.


The United States brought to bear not only its superior military forces but also embraced a ruthless level of warfare it felt necessary to destroy Filipino resistance.  Total Filipino losses are unknown, although estimates vary wildly, but the U.S. general in charge of the campaign, General Elwell Stephen Otis, followed a policy of brutal suppression of resistance, the concentration of local populations in forced resettlement villages, the burning of the countryside, a refusal to take prisoners, brutal interrogations, and mass executions.  Otis is famous for a quote, when asked by his Filipino opponent, Emilio Aguinaldo for a cessation of fighting in the initial battle of Manila, Otis replied: “fighting, having begun, must go on to the grim end.”


Yes, that is a Filipino and yes, he is getting water-boarded during this war by U.S. military forces.  Referred to as the “water cure” it was a commonly used method for interrogation during the war and it is on record that it killed people.  The United States Senate formed a committee to investigate reports of the conduct of the U.S. during the war, the committee assembling in 1899 but under Senator Lodge’s oversight in 1902 beginning an investigation into reports of atrocities in the Philippines.  The committee investigated and discovered repeated cases of the U.S. military engaging in acts considered horrific, however the final findings of the committee were sharply toned down by pro-Imperialist elements in the Senate because they were seen as too harsh and negative in their attacks on American tactics in the war.  The general feeling by many was the Filipinos, by resisting, had gotten what they were “due” in the war and should have accepted U.S. rule quietly rather than offering resistance.

However anti-Imperialist individuals in the United States raised a fuss about the actions of the military and published a pamphlet on what happened in the war, using excerpts from soldiers letters back to the United States.  I think one example in particular will capture the “flavor” of the war:

“Talk about war being “hell,” this war beats the hottest estimate ever made of that locality. Caloocan was supposed to contain seventeen thousand inhabitants. The Twentieth Kansas swept through it, and now Caloocan contains not one living native. Of the buildings, the battered walls of the great church and dismal prison alone remain. The village of Maypaja, where our first fight occurred on the night of the fourth, had five thousand people in it at that day,—now not one stone remains upon top of another. You can only faintly imagine this terrible scene of desolation. War is worse than hell.” – Captain Elliot, Kansas Regiment.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Philippine-American War, Elwell Stephen Otis, Lodge Committee, Treaty of Paris 1898, and website on the pamphlet American Soldiers in the Philippines Write Home about the War


James Wilkinson – Dick or Super Dick?

Monday, March 31st, 2014


One of the fascinating things about the history of the United States is the unusual cast of characters who played decisive roles in the formation of the nation – it is fair to say that the United States was founded by a blend of rebels, dreamers, plotters, visionaries, vagabonds, and scoundrels.  Above is one who fits in the last category, if one is being kind, James Wilkinson, born in 1757 and deceased in 1825.  Wilkinson began his career with the United States during its nascent years, serving initially as a Captain, and then being swiftly promoted to Colonel, during the opening years of the American Revolution.  In 1777 Wilkinson was charged by General Gates to carry the official dispatches back to the Continental Congress informing them of the major American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in New York.  Wilkinson completed his assignment, after a small delay to handle personal matters in Philadelphia, and while providing his report to the Congress of what happened he just happened to mention how incredibly brave and awesome he was at the battle.  Incredibly brave and awesome.  Carried the day brave and awesome.  But such flat out lying is understandable in a young and ambitious twenty year old and completely justifies his being promoted to Brigadier General by the Continental Congress and enraging other, more senior Colonels.  It also helped Wilkinson took part in a conspiracy to get General Washington tossed out as the Commander of the American Army, by 1778 Wilkinson feel in position due to General Gates having enough of his activities.  The Congress made Wilkinson a general in the supply services but he resigned the position.

But his career of messing with the United States had only just begun, in 1782 Wilkinson took a job as a general in the Pennsylvania militia and in 1783 served as a state assemblyman, but in 1787 he took a “special trip” down to New Orleans.  The purpose of his mission was to negotiate access for Kentucky to the Mississippi River – at the time Kentucky being a territory that was part of Pennsylvania and the Mississippi’s mouth being under the control of Spain, which also controlled New Orleans.  (Don’t ask.)  Wilkinson took this opportunity to try to hook up a deal with Spain, if they provided him with a “consideration” (money, property, position) he could ensure that Kentucky, rather than becoming a new state in the United States, instead peeled off and became a territory of Spain instead.  Wilkinson swore an oath of loyalty to Spain where he got the cool code name Agent 13, in reference to the secret code he used to communicate with Spain.  His plans with turning Kentucky into part of Spain failed and he didn’t get his money, but Wilkinson escaped being caught in his acts of questionable loyalty and was promoted to a position as commander of the entire United States army instead.  Wilkinson held this position from 1800 till 1812 when his lack of military skill and the demands of an actual war finally led to his being put in a lesser command, and later removed from the army entirely.  (He faced a court martial after losing two battles in the War of 1812 but was, of course, found innocent.)  In 1803 Wilkinson was the official who formally took ownership of the Louisiana Territory on behalf of the United States from France (again, don’t ask) – Wilkinson took advantage of this trip to hook back up with his Spanish buddies and offer to sell state secrets in exchange for getting his pension back.  (Which he totally did for another twelve years.)


In 1804 Aaron Burr (pictured above) decided that he had had enough of his political career being in free-fall and, after serving as the third Vice President of the United States, decided to pursue his own “questionable” venture in the western territories of the United States.  Burr traveled in the Ohio Territory and the Louisiana Territory talking to people about some interesting thoughts he’d had – about how the federal government was no longer following policies that really favored the west, about freedom, and about maybe organizing some other political arrangements in the western territories.  Was Burr advocating these areas secede from the United States and form a new nation?  Well, at his treason trial it was never really clear and he was acquitted, so from a legal perspective no.  But during his time working on this project Burr made a special friend who worked to help him in…whatever he was planning, a powerful general by the name of Wilkinson.  Wilkinson though decided, when the situation didn’t seem to be going his way, to cut his losses and provide evidence of Burr’s treasonous activities.  This included a helpful letter Wilkinson wrote that he said was a “copy” of a letter Burr had sent him asking him to help in treason, an action which of course horrified Wilkinson to his core.  Sadly he had lost the original of the letter but the copy had been made at the time and was most accurate.  The courts threw the copy out and Wilkinson was humiliated for this interesting evidence admission.

Of course Wilkinson remained in command of the United States army even after this got out, personally I’m guessing because the federal government somehow lacked other people with military training.

Finally after being relieved of his command in the War of 1812 Wilkinson quietly faded into obscurity…which is of course a falsehood.  He actually wrote his memoirs trying to clear his name and in 1821 traveled to Mexico and attempted to get the government there to give him a special land grant in Texas.  He died in Mexico waiting for approval of his request.  His activities as a spy were finally proved in 1854 when a Louisiana historian found letters in Wilkinson’s handwriting documenting his activities on behalf of the Spanish crown.

James Wilkinson – definitely one of our more “colorful” founding figures.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on James Wilkinson, PBS documentary entry on James Wilkinson, Wikipedia entry on Aaron Burr.