Pickaxe To Nerve Agent

Josef Stalin was the embodiment of evil. Moreover, if one figure set the standard for Russian despots, it was Stalin. His reign of domestic brutality and foreign terror set the tone for a long, dangerous Cold War. Czarist Russia had set a particularly high bar for authoritarianism, but Uncle Joe inflicted monstrosities that would make Ivan the Terrible cringe.

After Russia withdrew from WWI, through a series of moves, the Bolsheviks, headed by Vladimir Lenin prevailed in gripping the reins of power. Through the aid of Leon Trotsky, a brilliant intellectual, and Josef Stalin a seasoned street fighter, the Bolsheviks founded a peoples state, loosely framed around the teachings of Marx.

During the next few years The US provided relief to the starving of Europe from Great Britain to Vladivostok. But aid made no difference to Lenin. In 1919 the Comintern was established in Moscow, professing the aim of Communist takeover of the world.

In 1924 Lenin died, and a fresh struggle for power ensued. When the snow storm settled Stalin was in command and Trotsky exiled.* Conditions in Stalin’s USSR flowed a crimson red. The Kremlin’s secret police cracked down on the people, through arrests, murders, and spying. By 1934 the NKVD began a purge that included the liquidation of middle class Ukrainian farmers resulting in the deaths of millions.

And those policies were domestic.

At the same time, spying took center stage in Stalin’s foreign policy. English and American assets were turned including left-leaning Americans disillusioned by the Depression, and England’s Cambridge Five, headed by Kim Philby. Philby held a high clearance in British intelligence. The use of such double agents allowed Stalin to essentially shoot fish in a barrel.

Atomic weaponry literally mushroomed on the scene, raising the stakes in East West relations. America lost it’s mind in the Red Scare, and Soviet agents burrowed deeper undercover.

That was then. But it is also now. Excluding reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian leadership emulates the tone set by Josef Stalin. Infiltrating the National Rifle Association, political misinformation, cyber hacking, and buying off scoundrels with generous loans, Vladimir Putin is an apt pupil of old Uncle Joe.

On January 6, 2021 as white supremacists broke past Capitol barriers, vandalizing and assaulting law enforcement, the winner of that moment was Vladimir Putin. Destabilizing America has been the object of the struggle since the Russian Revolution. 

Dear GOP, you are indeed Putin’s puppets.  

*Trotsky was murdered in August, 1940. An operative bludgeoned him to death outside Mexico City with a pickaxe. Putin critic, Alexei Navalny is currently in a Russian jail, weakened by a nerve agent that was meant to silence him.

Gail Chumbley is an author, and history educator. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

A Rare Topic

Watching a news host and guest discuss the topic of America’s Reconstruction era, my ears perked up, so rare is this topic presented. 

First of all, Reconstruction was the difficult period following the Civil War. The battles had ended, and the victorious president dead at the hands of an assassin. A new Battle Royale between Congress and the new President, Andrew Johnson, erupted over who would direct the aftermath. 

The thrust of the cable conversation centered on how important this time period remains, and that schools need to teach it. Much like Flo in the insurance ads, I started yelling at the television that I did cover that period, dammit. We all did in my department.

President Lincoln, before his death, had considered the role of newly freed persons as a moral imperative. Subsequent to the Emancipation, he had pushed for passage of the 13th Amendment, as dramatized in the film, “Lincoln.” Throughout the last months of the war Lincoln had revealed his vision of Reconstruction. Based on the 1860 election records, when 10 percent in the rebellious states swore a loyalty oath, each state could reform their constitutions recognizing the abolition of slavery. President Lincoln believed he possessed the power to pardon, and he would make full use of that Constitutional power. 

Legally speaking, President Lincoln viewed secession as an attempt to leave the Union, and that attempt had failed. The Chief Executive would pardon the ring leaders, and move on to rebuild the nation. But his political opponents, the Radical Republicans, under the leadership of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and Senator Charles Sumner, saw the situation differently. 

For these abolitionists punishment was the order of the day. The 1864 Wade-Davis Bill mandated 50% + of 1860 rosters take that loyalty oath. To Stevens, Sumner and the like, these Rebel states had committed political suicide. Only after that majority swore the oath, including recognition of the 13th Amendment, would Congress consider readmitting each, as if new states. 

A political fight was brewing as to which branch held the reins to mend the nation, and deal with the lot of Freedmen.

The short answer is Lincoln’s death derailed any compromise. The Radicals held the day, and Southern whites would suffer. And Andrew Johnson was no match for an angry, determined Congress. In 1867 Federal forces occupied the South in political districts. Soon after, the Legislative Branch attempted to impeach the hapless new president. 

Though the 14th Amendment guaranteed citizenship to the newly freed, and the 15th guaranteed the vote, northern opinion drifted into apathy. Enforcing the rights of Freedmen lost popularity, and dropped from the headlines.

The Old South reasserted traditional apartheid rules.

The cost for the newly freed? Desperate people wandered back to the old master. With no protection, lynching became common as domestic terrorists spread fear. Rights of citizenship went unenforced, with sharecropping and the crop lien system replacing legal bondage. 

Perpetual debt chained workers to the land as effectively as if slavery remained legal. 

Poll taxes, vagrancy laws, and literacy tests tyrannized the newly freed, as did threats of violence from the Klan, and the Knights of the White Camelia.

In 1876, Republican Rutherford B Hayes barely won the presidency in a tight election. His campaign officials cut a deal with three Southern electoral delegations. Florida, (of course) South Carolina, and Louisiana. These states agreed to direct their electors to vote Republican, and in return the Hayes people promised to withdraw the bluecoats. Free Blacks were abandoned.

All in all, the promise of liberty lay in ashes.

When the moment arrived for equal justice, the cause died due to lack of interest.

The cable host and his guest were right.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator and author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Bloody Shirt

Principled soldiers of conscience, the victorious army knew they had served well, defending the Constitution to the last full measure.

May of 1865 witnessed Washington’s Grand Review of the Union Army. Smartly uniformed soldiers filed past crowds, in a river of Union blue. The guns had silenced a mere month earlier at Appomattox, Virginia; the Republic preserved.

A brilliant sun glinted off polished bayonets, and the parade route decorated with miles of silk banners, tattered company colors and patriotic bunting. Rejoicing greeted the passing soldiers in shouts and fluttering handkerchiefs. Flower petals rained down in a fragrant carpet of gratitude. 

The bloody war finally, truly, had ended. 

One year later, near Springfield, Illinois, a group of veterans established a fraternal association, the Grand Army of the Republic. The idea caught fire nationally as other veterans founded their own local chapters; a place men could remember, share, and grieve for lost friends. Soon these war horses got busy extending their service to those they had defended.

First, survivors lent aid to disabled fellow veterans, assistance to widows and their dependents, and orphan homes. Soon preserving battle sites added to the group’s outreach. Before long members began seeking electoral office to further serve the nation.

A story has it General Benjamin Butler, now a Congressman, grew extremely agitated while speechifying, and produced a torn, and bloody shirt he claimed came from the battlefield. Soon the practice of “waving the bloody shirt,” invoking war credentials, became customary for candidates. The saying “vote the way you shot,” launched the careers of numerous politicians. 

Presidents from Ulysses Grant, (1868-1876) through William McKinley (1896-1901) had faced the rebels on the battlefield.*

War memorials and monuments mushroomed, funded with GAR donations. Reunions, benevolent societies, veterans homes, and hospitals kept local chapters busy. In fact, much of GAR efforts were eventually assumed by the Federal Government, particularly pensions for those who had served.

Over time survivors of the Civil War dwindled in number. However, the organization soldiered on until 1956 when it finally faded. Loosely related, though more a coincidence, our last five star general was serving as president when the GAR closed its doors. President Dwight David Eisenhower, who kept a farm in Gettysburg, happened to occupy the White House.

This brotherhood, this Grand Army of the Republic, rose to defend our democracy in the mid-19th Century. This model of valor, and sacrifice shaped the character of the military for years to come. 

But one truth is quite clear, no officer ever advocated for a coup, and there was not one sucker or loser in their ranks.

In 2021 we can do no less.

*Chester Arthur served in the New York Militia, Grover Cleveland did not serve.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, author and playwright. Her two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” are both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com