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

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

The Arrogance of Now

Each year I prepared for two major wars, the finale if you will, of second semester US History. With a combined sense of dread, and anticipation, I led the kids through the causes, and progression of the Civil War (with 10th graders), and WWII (with my Juniors). 

A lifetime of study in these eras, especially Antebellum America, tells an anxious story, as two passionate belief systems came to blows. Sophomores learned that our nation, a democracy born in such promise, plunged into the abyss over America’s original sin, slavery.

Meanwhile, for Juniors, the failures of the uneasy peace that followed WWI shaped a broader corrosion. The world after 1919 disintegrated into deadly factions, underscored by exaggerated entitlement, racial hate, and lust for revenge.

Much like America’s 19th Century plunge into the breach, the 20th Century also debased human life, sliding into scapegoating, unthinkable cruelty, and massacre. This record is hard to face, let alone study. 

Real monsters masqueraded as heads of state; Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and the War Lords of Japan. All, to varying degrees, convinced regular people that the “worth” of others was suspect, and targeting civilians an acceptable strategy. Yet, as awful as both conflicts were, it’s hard not to stare, and to hopefully recognize the signs when hate again emerges as a justification for horror.

The heresy of exceptionalism, normalizing violence on the vulnerable, and extremism, unleashed evil on the world. Andersonville Prison, Fort Pillow Massacre, the Rape of Nanking, Bataan, the Warsaw Ghetto, and death camps. More than one a student wondered aloud, how could that happen?

In increments.

These signs are clear again. Those same pre-conditions have resurfaced, right now, here in our communities, states, and nation. 

A white nationalist parade in Charlotte that kills one, where there were “good people on both sides.” Normalized daily murders of people of color, and incendiary rhetoric that ends with an attack on the US Capitol, killing five. All offenses excused and minimized by a once great political party, that has forsaken its moral underpinnings. 

The only difference between the Proud Boys and the Brown Shirts is the Brown Shirts didn’t wear Carhartt and flannel.

This endless playlist has looped over repeatedly, cursed by the “blind arrogance of now.” But dear reader, now is then, and deluded people do not change with time. The descent into barbarity is more predictable than exceptional. 

When reasonable folks are manipulated by the chorus of the Big Lie, the era doesn’t matter. Society inevitably falls into depravity.   

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Vision

Along Highway 55, northwest of McCall, Idaho, is a stretch of road winding through breathtaking mountains.The terrain tinges a powdery blue, set against the white ribbon of lingering snow, and the Payette River flowing beside. This route isn’t fast, but the scenery more than compensates for the slow pace. 

After a steep descent the highway straightens revealing a number of cabins and trailers. Trump signs abound, (not unusual) along with flags emblazoned with Don’t Tread On Me or, the black, blue and, white version of the Stars and Stripes. In particular, this one double wide sits near the road, and passing that place always catches my eye. Cemented between the shoulder and gravel driveway stands a mailbox bearing the Confederate flag.

The irony of that particular symbol of defiance is, well, the actual Confederate mail system had completely broken down by the end of the Civil War. Any Rebel delivery between battle front and home was spotty, at best. In contrast, the Northern mail system saw remarkable advances. In light of the vast numbers of Union dead, the public listing of the deceased grew impossible. Affected families were allowed to endure the devastating news in private from their mailboxes.

That decorated mailbox along the highway strikes me as a metaphor for extreme politics. The US postal system or, any other federally funded service simply wouldn’t exist.

For example, the bridge those residents must cross to get to Boise is connected by a span built by agencies of FDR’s New Deal. The forest fires that seasonally threaten that little enclave, are fought through funds from the Department of the Interior. 

More national programs underscore the absurdity of that little loaf of painted aluminum. Flood control, WIC nutrition,Title 1 education funds, Medicare and Medicaid, all making life better for that little rural residence. 

The South lost the Civil War because the people and their leaders lacked both organization and vision. All these “dissatisfied countrymen” to use Lincoln’s words understood only grievance and fury. No sense of unity, even under the threat of defeat could, for example, force Georgia to send troops to General Lee in Virginia. 

The politics of simmering outrage is aimless and fruitless. Leaders who promote incendiary hogwash for their short-term gain leave followers riled, and dangerous, as the opportunists move on. 

Like on January 6, 2021.

Gail Chumbley is a history educator and author. Her works include “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” both available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Kindred Spirit?

Sen Henry Clay portrait (left of door.)

The word from a Kentucky acquaintance is Mitch McConnell fancies himself a Henry Clay scholar. That probably means little to most, but Senator Clay (1777-1852) nearly single-handedly held the US together, postponing Civil War for over 40 years.

With a name that epitomizes progress and compromise, it feels odd Mitch McConnell proclaims a kindred spirit in Senator Clay. This earlier Kentucky Senator bent over backwards to protect and promote the vitality of our young nation. 

Clay rolled up his sleeves and cultivated coalitions among his fellow law makers to keep the nation from fracturing. He orchestrated the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850; all of which threatened the Union. In fact, the Civil War erupted after Clay’s death as no other Senator demonstrated the talent and determination to keep Congress talking.

In the interest of full disclosure, yes, Henry Clay owned slaves. And yes, he believed in gradual emancipation as slavery proved antithetical to economic progress. His commitment to the survival of America drove his efforts, and Clay worked with political factions, even those he opposed.

McConnell does nothing. The now Minority Leader takes pride in doing nothing. Invoking Senator Clay is nothing more than cover for a vain and foolish politician to self-promote. Clay was no stubborn old fool who dug in his heels waiting to become obsolete. 

Henry Clay served his country, McConnell serves himself.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” and the stage play, “Clay.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Deathwatch

A new plan had been designed to shift political power from 13 squabbling fiefdoms, to one central government representing the people.

Statesman, James Madison fully intended his new national blueprint to quiet interstate turf wars. Until 1787 no central mediator had existed, and the constant turmoil looked to nearly finished off the fledgling nation. Madison’s remedy, his Virginia Plan would count population, and without fear or favor, allocate direct representation. However, once his proposal was disclosed to his peers, the forces of inertia nearly derailed the Constitutional Convention.

This is the short version of details:

America, though victorious over the British in the recent war, was falling apart. No money, no credit, no court system, and European enemies on a deathwatch of sorts.

Internal disputes wreaked havoc among citizens, as each former colony hustled to press state interests over national. This upheaval grew especially violent in Western Massachusetts when musket shots were exchanged in a tax uprising.

In September, 1786 only a handful of delegates reported to a Maryland convention summoned to deal with the mess. But with only a handful of states reporting, attendees couldn’t vote on any binding measure–too few were present.

Distressed by intensifying disorder, and no real authority to act, James Madison and his colleague, Alexander Hamilton agreed the time had come for a new framework of government. The two, a Virginian, and New Yorker called for another convention; one that promised to address the failing system. (See “Rope of Sand” on this blog site).

Arranged for May, 1787, in Philadelphia, Hamilton and Madison attracted participants by promising General Washington himself, would attend.  However, Washington declined at first, that is until the gunshots in Massachusetts changed his tune. He, along with fifty four other men gathered, and the process began.

In the run-up to the Philadelphia Convention, James Madison kept busy. Though this gathering had been advertised as tweaking the existing system, Madison’s plan actually abolished it, in favor of his new Virginia Plan

He and his allies clearly understood the historic risk they were taking.

In a panic, the states with fewer people balked at losing influence. A William Paterson of New Jersey, moved for recess to craft a counter plan, one that would preserve state interests against Madison’s people-based plan. 

Called the New Jersey Plan, this model would establish a one-chamber legislative branch, each state equally represented. 

Then more hell broke loose.

In another recess a middle ground was devised by Connecticut delegate, Roger Sherman. 

Called the Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise, a solution emerged. Sherman brokered a lower house by representation, and the upper house of two Senators from each state. That calmed the small states, relieved they would not be diminished by population-heavy states.

There are so many more details to the development of the Constitution, but this agreement signified a start. 

That kind of goodwill and commitment to duty has sustained the United States through rough times. Granted, flaws remained regarding slavery, the slave trade, women’s rights, and Native American policy. Still, this ballast was enough to move the ship of state forward. 

Today the national GOP promotes chaos and gridlock as somehow virtuous, while our adversaries still maintain America’s deathwatch.

Perhaps 1787 produced a better caliber of political leadership, Americans who served the common good.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both title are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

You’ve Been Played

Strains between the North and South had reached critical mass by November, 1860. Escalating tensions burst with the election of America’s first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. The South Carolina legislature responded by voting to secede from the Union on December 20th, a mere month later. By Spring 1861, the Confederate States of America solidified, and in April cannons fired upon a Union fort in Charleston Harbor. A bloody fraternal war began. 

A longstanding question is how in the world did Planters, a small slice of the southern population, convince a mass of their social inferiors to sacrifice all, defending their aristocracy? The answer is rather simple, and lamentable. Folks from the lower rungs bought into the rules set by the elite. The Planter Class had established the rituals of polite society, and every white man below the Mason-Dixon hoped to someday to join their ranks (acquiring land and slaves).

The lower classes defended a minority they ached to join.

A small middle class of land holding farmers, and city professionals, also labored to reach the same social summit. In other words, acquiring the trappings of wealth, punched one’s ticket to ride.

Beneath this merchant-landholding tier massed poor whites. These desperate souls were left to precariously scratch out some kind existence as itinerant tenants. Contempt for this hardscrabble class is still evident through pejoratives that are still in use. Belittling terms like crackers, trash, hillbillies, and rednecks linger on in our lexicon.    

The Old South, in general, also distrusted the outside world. Foreigners, Yankees, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants, meaning anyone who might challenge rigorous, aristocratic formalities. The consequences for this delicate arrangement were profound. As the North industrialized, innovated, and modernized, Southern society languished, governed by reactionaries, more interested in public manners and bloodlines.

Outraged and insulted by Yankee ways, the wealthy roused the lower classes to defend Southern traditions, while in reality, barring any real opportunity of upward mobility.

This dynamic remains modern American politics. The GOP, in our time, is requiring the same fidelity. Party leadership honestly does not wish to serve you. All candidates want is your money and your vote to protect their interests, (especially the guy at the top). These characters are happy to rile voters through exhibitionism, and scapegoating whatever grievance you wish, especially piling it on minorities, the poor and the dispossessed.

But remember this, the traffic is one way only, and you are serve them, not the other way around. Keep delivering cash and power to the top, and nothing changes.

In short, you’ve been played by your chosen betters.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Humiliated, Angry, and Hurt

After losing reelection, he left Washington early. Humiliated, angry, and hurt, John Adams boarded a morning coach leaving the Capitol.

The prevailing issue in the campaign of 1800 concerned France, and that nation’s ongoing, and bloody revolution. Moreover, the French had declared war on England, and both belligerents  meddled in American domestic politics to turn public opinion.

As President, Federalist John Adams, had skillfully steered America clear of the European conflict, avoiding the danger of being ensnared between the two superpowers. Proud of his diplomatic accomplishments, Adams still brooded, unhappy with his lack of support from the country. His detractors belittled him, disparaging Adams as a pale substitute to the legendary George Washington.

His political challenger in 1800? The clever and calculating Thomas Jefferson. 

An outspoken critic of the Adams Administration, Jefferson had been hurling plenty of invective toward the sitting President. What had once been a warm friendship between the two men quickly soured. Petulant and  thin-skinned, Adams had lashed out by pushing laws that restricted the free press and cracked down on immigration. Outraged by these policies, Jefferson, and his growing cadre of supporters, challenged the clear violations of the Constitution. 

In only the nation’s third presidential election the moment appeared volatile and uncertain. On one side was the defensive and testy incumbent, and on the other, a political foe intent on replacing him.  

Adding to the turbulence, a political wildcard entered the fray; New Yorker, Aaron Burr.

Burr, like Jefferson, had opposed unpopular and heavy handed Federalist policies, and Jefferson knew the ticket needed an electoral-rich northern state for strength. As party leader, Jefferson assumed Burr understood his lesser place, and only when the electors met did he learned just how wrong he had been. 

In the final tally, poor John Adams not only lost the election, but came in a distant third behind both challengers. Thomas Jefferson garnered 73 Electoral votes, followed by Burr with 73 of his own. Adams came in last with 65. (That tie is another story.)

Humiliated, Adams left Washington DC in a huff, but made no move to challenge the outcome. And though the former President did not greet the President-Elect, and pointedly skipped the inauguration, John Adams did not put his interests above the nation’s. 

He conceded in silence because he valued our country over his own interests. 

There is no precedent for false assertions from the clear loser in 2020.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Heartfelt Objections

We couldn’t find a seat on the Metro. In truth, we couldn’t even see the Metro station, just a mass of humanity.

This event challenged the notion of enormous. The moment was historic.

Dumb luck came to our aid. A city bus hissed to a stop at the curb, and my friend and I hopped aboard, joined by a couple hundred new friends. The atmosphere crackled with joy, solidarity and diesel fumes. I damn near busted out with “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

The driver seemed to catch our enthusiasm and peppered us with questions about the Women’s March. What time, where, how long would it last? She smiled realizing her shift would end before the speakers began, and I still wonder if she made it.

Nearly five hundred thousand of us convened on the National Mall, and expressed our heart-felt objections concerning the newly elected president. We marched as one.

By the way, no one violently attacked the halls of government. Though, if memory serves, I did flip off the Trump Hotel.

In October, 1969, 250,000 opponents of the Vietnam War descended upon Washington DC. In an event called Moratorium Day no one violently attacked the halls of government.

In the swelter of a 1963 Washington summer, Dr King convened the “Poor People’s” March on Washington. 250,000 Americans petitioned their government for a voting rights bill. No one even considered attacking the halls of government.

In the Spring and Summer of 1932 during the depth of the Great Depression, somewhere around 20,000 desperate men, some with their families, marched on Washington DC as part of the Bonus Army. For their trouble the marchers were attacked by Douglas McArthur, and an army detachment, who instead, burned out the shanties of the desperate. No one attacked the halls of government.

On March 3, 1913, the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, nearly 10,000 women paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue promoting women’s suffrage. Though they were attacked by angry men along the route, not one woman attacked the halls of government.

Nearly 10,000 American’s joined Jacob Coxey’s Army in May of 1894. An extended economic depression caused mass unemployment, and the “Army,” demanded a public works bill to create jobs. Though the marchers reached the Capitol, and Coxey, himself leaped up the stairs to read his public works bill, the police opened up some heads, and the crowd dissolved. No one attacked the halls of government.

Public protest is as American as baseball. The difference lies in our use of free speech. On January 6, 2021 a mindless, misguided, and dangerous mob hijacked the right to assemble, instead escalating into a violent attack on the halls of government. There is no middle ground; this was a attempted coup to seize power.

We were correct in 2017, as were those in 1894, 1932, 1963, and 1968. Marchers were seeking “the blessings of liberty” within the rule of law. None of us ignored nor defiled the spirit of protest.

And that sense of heart-felt objection, concerning that president proved accurate.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Breaking Point

No beating around the bush. These seditionists inside the halls of Congress are damn dangerous. Something that requires violence as a solution is no solution. Never has been. Those two drama queens from Colorado and Georgia have no answers, only an odd sense of chaotic victimhood. Same goes for Cruz and Hawley.

As Tom Petty aptly titled the mindset, these scoundrels are Rebels Without a Clue.

South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks was much the same. The young man had a Velcro sensibility to perceived wrongs, and could lash out unexpectedly. Raised in the Southern canon of the code duello, Brooks believed physical retribution a necessity to defend honor. Years before he came to Washington, the young man challenged another he believed had insulted his father, Whitfield Brooks. For his trouble young Preston carried a cane and a limp for the rest of his short life.

Hate was in the very air of Capitol Hill during the 1850’s. The “irrepressible conflict,” slavery, weighed heavily among its members.

The question at that moment, concerned the extension of slavery into expanding territories. One law after another had allowed or limited the peculiar institution to migrate across the Mississippi River. This was also when Brooks arrived from South Carolina to take his seat in the House of Representatives.

The admission of Kansas cut from Nebraska Territory drove the headlines of the day. Would the Nebraska Territory split into two new states, one free, and one slave? The decision came at a critical moment challenging the delicate equilibrium in the Senate.

Into this tinderbox stepped Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and his powerful speech that gripped not only Congress but the agitated nation. Titled “The Crime Against Kansas,” this staunch abolitionists and orator cursed the institution of slavery and belittled people of the south as enamored with the “harlot slavery.”

That oratory was all the spark necessary to ignite Congressman Preston Brooks.

Following Senator Sumner’s two-day denunciation, the chamber quieted, and members wandered in and out, chatting or working at their fixed desks. Charles Sumner himself, was seated on the Senate floor, focusing on the work before him. That was the moment Rep Brooks sidled up behind the preoccupied lawmaker.

Brooks made some remarks at the Senator’s desk, then lifted his cane and came down hard on Sumer’s head. Over and over the provoked South Carolinian beat his quarry, who found himself trapped halfway between his chair and bolted desk. Finally Brooks ceased, and exited the Senate floor. Sumner was a bloody mess.

In the following days Preston Brooks was reviled and feted by enemies and compatriots. As a point of order, the young Representative resigned his seat and left for home.

Gifts of canes were sent to this Southern hero who had demonstrated to those Yankees the price of loose talk.

The episode accomplished nothing of substance. Nothing. Brooks died of some damn thing soon after, and Charles Sumner survived to later take a Jehovah-like revenge on the defeated Confederacy.

Why does this matter? How does this concern Brobert, Greene, Cruz, and Hawley? Because America is a nation of laws. When these yahoos stoop to assault and insurrection it never turns out how it started. Methodical lawmaking takes more thought, analysis, and compromise than these media-starved exhibitionists possess.

Take it from me, the past does matter. Deja Vu.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both titles are available on Kindle or at http://www.river-of-january.com.

gailchumbley@gmail.com