A Dreamer

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.

John Lennon

A professor of History and Government, President Woodrow Wilson fervently believed America could fulfill its promise as the world’s beacon of democracy, a “City Upon a Hill.” After WWI, this President aimed to reform old monarchial Europe, and lead the world to a new, enlightened destiny. But perhaps his ambitions were too lofty to be realized in a cynical world of power and greed.

Participants convened at the Bourbon Palace of Versailles on June 28th, 1919 to design a new future for . . . really the entire world. Wilson attended in person, which for an American President was a first. He posed, all smiles with the French president, Georges Clemenceau, the English Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and Italy’s, Vittorio Orlando.

Considering the devastation from the recent war, these leaders had their work cut out for them.

After the Armistice had been signed the previous year, Wilson prepared for his journey by completing a new framework to rebuild a better world. Titled the Fourteen Point Plan, the President outlined a path to enduring peace. The intent was clear: Freedom for all. Free trade, self-government, transparency in treaties, a reduction in weaponry, and most importantly, an international peace-keeping body, The League of Nations. This proposed League had been crafted to resolve international conflicts through open diplomacy. For Wilson, mechanized warfare had proven pointless, so much so, that modern warfare had become a zero sum game.

Naturally many attendees were self-appointed representatives from oppressed ethnic groups around the globe. All had gathered to endorse the American President’s call for free governments, freely chosen.

The Chinese, for example, lobbied for colonial possessions formally held by Germany be returned. China was ignored. Young Ho Chi Minh, a student in Paris, attempted to see President Wilson to discuss the liberation of his home, French Indochina, (Vietnam). But Ho never got trough the gilt doors of Versailles.

The multitudes under British colonial rule, clamored for freedom, as well. Egyptian, East Indian, and Muslim peoples embraced Wilson’s vision of self determination. Zionists, Palestinians, even the Sinn Fein in Ireland looked for release from British subjugation.

Returning home to the White House, the President received a cable that his deputy remaining at Versailles, a Colonel Edward House, had agreed, in Wilson’s absence, to drop the League provision. Wilson flipped his wig and back he sailed, to resurrect his League as a non-negotiable part of the final agreement.

And though the League of Nations was indeed established, the US never joined. After all the horse-trading with his counterparts in Paris, Wilson could not convinced Republican Senators to ratify his treaty. Stunned, the President took his crusade to the American people, via a whistle stop tour. Exhausted by exertion and poor health, Wilson finally collapsed, followed quickly by a massive stroke.

Without the United States participation the League invariably failed. And a broken Woodrow Wilson died shortly after leaving office.

Perhaps President Wilson was foolish to think old world autocrats would give up any power and authority to colonial possessions. Clemenceau and others had viewed him as hopelessly naive. And maybe Wilson’s critics were correct. The man had a stubborn, self-righteous streak, that ultimately was his undoing.

Open government, free elections, and international commitment to fair play. Was Wilson merely a dreamer?

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

 

Armageddon

Univac

Remember that episode on Star Trek, “A Taste of Armageddon?” The plot essentially tells of computer warfare, where simulated clashes determines, by treaty, real casualties in execution chambers. That one premiered in 1967. 

Stay with me.

Rising industrialization and the emergence of international Imperialism triggered America’s early 20th Century entrance into an arms race. Competitors, like the British, governed colonies around the globe, and to a lesser extent so did the French, Dutch, and even Spain.

Money, weapons, power, and influence. America wanted its share.

Defending far-flung potential islands and territories required enlarging the US Navy. At that time, Alfred Thayer Mahan, a Naval Officer, published a seminal work, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.” Mahan proposed that an updated Navy would ensure America’s emergence as great an influence as Great Britain.

Theodore Roosevelt embraced Mahan’s work, as did his nephew, Franklin. Young Winston Churchill openly admitted his devotion to Mahan’s views, as did Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany.

In the years that followed, wooden vessels were retired in favor of formidable steel battleships, and smaller surface craft. And a new, dangerous, arms race launched, pitting the US against its colonial rivals. 

The Germans, late imperial entrants, felt they had been left behind in access to imperial growth. Particularly jealous of his English cousins, Kaiser Wilhelm pushed his own nation’s armaments production. The result? A nasty militarism, combined with foreign domination—a time bomb waiting to detonate.

An American arms manufacturer, Hiram Maxim, headed to Washington to sell his innovation: the self-cooling machine gun. Christened the “Maxim,” the arms builder demonstrated his handy work in DC, to the Department of War. The government turned him down. Undaunted, Maxim presented his automatic weapon to the Brits. Once again, no interest. In a  visit to Berlin, the Kaiser bought all the automatics in stock, and ordered the inventor to produce more.

By August, 1914 the first full-on Industrial War erupted, complete with aircraft, submarines, and automatic guns. (Plus poison gas, tanks, and rifles of various caliber.) All of these were mass produced and damn deadly.

The nature of Twentieth Century warfare had literally been forged in steel–producing assembly line annihilation.  

How does weaponizing technical innovations apply to now? 

The world resides in a post-industrial age, in a universe dependent on computers. From  Univac, to Commodore 64, to Apple, we enjoy countless benefits of the computer age. But the dark side of this ever-evolving technology, and the significant dangers it poses deserves reappraisal.

As I write, misinformation, via the internet, has abetted in the deaths of 670K-plus Americans, and the numbers still climb. Troll farms in Russia are ruthlessly still hacking away, as they did meddling in our 2016 presidential election. Those same hackers shut down Colonial Pipeline last May, while universities, government agencies, infrastructure, and businesses are under constant threat, paying millions to rescue their systems from ransom ware.

The indispensable nature of computers, like this one in my lap, is a useful, essential tool. But like the advent of the 20th Century, technical advances portends danger; cyber space as deadly as a machine gun, and as real as poison gas. Factor in nations around the globe are still vying for dominance—especially the Russians, and the Chinese. 

Nothing has changed since 1914, aside from more sophisticated ways to destroy. Fifty-four years after Star Trek aired “Armageddon,” computer-generated death is as real as the death toll at The Marne, or Verdun. Flourishing fingers harmonize chords on a piano, as does the right strokes on a keyboard. Unlike harmony, horrific death and discord threaten our nation by those who wish us ill.  

Anyway Anyhow Anywhere

The deal is, coming out victorious World War Two, the certainty of America’s omnipotence shaped foreign policy. The US armed forces proved they could expertly parachute behind enemy lines, storm contested beaches, and plant the flag of American freedom at the close of every engagement. US pride meant we only mobilized decent men, and armed them with top notch war materiel, and enough Hershey Bars to treat the world. 

Those lessons of the 1940’s mislead later military planners. The assumption that Americans could do no wrong, and intervening into other nations, an imperative. However, what worked in one moment wasn’t necessarily viable later. America’s entrance had saved the world, but that particular episode ended in September, 1945, and the US moved forward looking backward.

Five years later the Korean conflict exploded, and after three years of fighting, ended where it began, the 38th parallel. That stalemate ought to have signaled a reassessment of America’s role abroad, but the Sergeant Stryker school of war had engrained itself too deeply into foreign poIicy.

I am a child of the Vietnam era. In my head the kaleidoscope of Lucy’s eyes plays, and televised images of soldiers knee deep in rice paddies, flicker in black and white. Protesting students with raised fists, black armbands affixed, occupying college offices, all to the soundtrack of kick ass rock and roll. In fact, the most enduring feature of the Sixties, for this boomer, is that pulsating electric guitar played by the hands of masters.

From 1959 to 1975 Washington dispatched advisers, munitions, and finally by ’65 ground forces to Vietnam. The French had failed to hold their Indochinese possession against the Communists, as they had failed against the Germans in 1940. America would bail them out once again.

But our intervention was premised on dated strategies. Vietnam was not a stand and fight war.

What Vietnam taught policy makers, (for a millisecond) is that patience is a most powerful foe. The NVA and Vietcong played the waiting game with grit and timeless certainty. 

the Our nation was not the first on the scene in Saigon, but certainly the last western power. As for Afghanistan, the dynamic remains. Leaving 10 years ago, or 10 days ago, the outcome would have been the same. The post-911 Middle Eastern conflicts were truly good for the people of those nations, but not for the United States.

Just check with the Brits and Russians. They left too.

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Contact

 

Typically, the second chapter of most US History textbooks cover 16th Century exploration. Columbus gets his cash from Queen Isabella, then sails off in command of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. After landfall somewhere in the Bahamas, Columbus initiated the 1492 hemispheric transaction known as the Columbian Exchange. 

In my classroom I strayed a bit from the “discovery” aspect of European conquest, opting instead to focus on the consequences of imperial contact. In particular we examined the exchanges between the Old and New World: precious metals, agricultural goods, livestock, and infectious diseases. For example, corn and potatoes crossed to Europe, while horses and barley were introduced to the Americas. 

Other things, both seen and unseen, passed between the conquistadors and the native peoples, forever redefining both. Religion, racism, rape and disease set the narrative for hundreds of years.

From Dias, to Magellan, to Cortez, ocean routes linked far-flung corners of the globe back to Spanish ports. Though the voyages were perilous, mortality rates high, and the impact upon indigenous people fearsome, vast fortunes were realized, and Spain grew wealthy. 

It is hard to pinpoint which explorer first grasped the deadly impact of small pox on native populations. What is known is that Hernando deSoto, in particular, recognized the dynamic quickly. Leading his band of mercenaries, complete with packs of dogs, deSoto tromped through what is today the Gulf States. His band of conquistadors passed through native villages, and recrossed them again, searching for riches. Upon retracing their steps utter desolation greeted the returning Spaniards. Dead and dying men, women, and children-all succumbed to small pox. deSoto, a quick study, deliberately weaponized pestilence, spreading virus wherever his war party advanced. 

This disease literally scorched North America, extinguishing human life in its path. By the time the Declaration of Independence (1776) was signed in Philadelphia, small pox had already exterminated countless coastal peoples from Puget Sound to Cook Inlet in the Gulf of Alaska. 

In what is present-day New Mexico, the Pueblo people inadvertently protected themselves against the virus for ten years. In Pope’s Revolt, a decisive 1680 battle against Spanish forces, the inhabitants defeated the invaders and preserved their lives from contagion for a time.

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic didn’t actually begin in Spain. One story tells how the virus began among Doughboys training at Fort Riley, Kansas, once America entered World War One. 

Soldiers swapping microbes in military camps is nothing new. During the Revolution General Washington took measures to see his army inoculated from smallpox. Washington ordered a staggered rotation of inoculations, so that only a portion of his troops were ill at one time. When his army finally came out of winter camp in Morristown, New Jersey, they were armored with immunity to English-borne germs. (By the way, inoculations required a small cut in the skin, followed by wiping live pus into the incision.)  

During the Civil War “camp fevers” were a persistent problem. In Ken Burns “Civil War,” one account describes the coughing of waking soldiers drowning out reveille. The truth is more Rebs and Yanks died from communicable diseases than bullets. 

In the case of the Spanish Flu the viral cocktail sailed aboard troop ships to England. One theory holds that an encampment situated on a rail stop ignited the spark that led to millions dead worldwide. British soldiers had established gardens dating from the beginning of the war in 1914. Not only were vegetables available from these patches, but also swine and poultry. The viral combination from Fort Riley and further transference from pigs at the rail stop exploded into a rare strain of contagion. 

All too soon these exposed soldiers were shipped across to France, and into the trenches. German veterans later accused the Americans of unleashing germ warfare upon them, forcing the November, 1918 Armistice.

In the end we all are still pawns to the Columbian Exchange. As New World tomatoes, and Old World wheat make pizza, microbes swirl and mutate, rendering deadlier fare. The passage of time makes no difference to our fragile susceptibility to disease. Though viruses travel by fuselage today, rather than wooden ships, there is no alteration to the deadly outcome. 

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Riding The Back Of The Tiger

At the start of the Kennedy administration, back in 1961, the story goes that JFK invited in a group of historians to the White House. The new president wanted to chat. What Kennedy asked these scholars was what elements insured a great presidency, and the answer from these learned gents was simple: a war.

Kennedy’s own war experiences in the South Pacific, and the ensuing menace of nuclear armageddon left JFK unconvinced. America’s situation on the world stage was just not as simple as war and peace. The lessons of  Nazi appeasement, especially by his own father, Joe Kennedy, compelled the new president to draw a hardline against Communism, and check its growth around the world. 

Caught in the eye of that dilemma; to appear tough, while preserving the lives of young Americans, Kennedy attempted a middle ground. Reluctant to fully commit US forces in Southeast Asia,  he also engaged in discreet negotiations with the Russians to settled the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a wounded veteran himself, JFK pursued a cautious and flexible foreign policy.

Not all presidencies have demonstrated such restraint.

President Madison succumbed to war cries after mediation with Great Britain looked to have collapsed, sparking the War of 1812. In reality the English had agreed to cease much of the abuse that brought about the war, before Madison’s declaration. Sadly news of accommodations from London did not arrive in time, and two futile years of warfare ensued. At the end of hostilities the United States made no measurable gains from the fight. The only red meat served came compliments of Andrew Jackson in his victory over the British in New Orleans. The war had been over two-weeks by the start of that battle. 

Most agree Madison is better remembered as the “Father of the Constitution,” than for his lackluster presidency.

“All of Mexico” resounded across young America in 1844. A toxic, but powerful combination of racism and hubris plunged America into another conflict-the Mexican American War. An unapologetic new president, James K. Polk, publicly stated in his campaign he would lead America into war, though he meant against Britain in his “54, 40, or Fight” slogan. Waged from 1846 to 1848  Polk ordered the invasion of Mexico, and defeat of the Mexican Army. 

A third war with the British never materialized, as the US opted to negotiate claims to Oregon. Though not gaining all of Mexico, America still claimed Texas to the Rio Grande, the southwest region known as the Mexican Cession, and all of California. In the aftermath of war, slave holders spilled westward in search of fertile new lands. In turn, national tensions escalated, both politically, and morally, erupting into Civil War by 1861. 

No other President extended American power, more than William McKinley, and no president was less eager to do so. As a young sergeant in the Civil War, McKinley had witnessed the truly  horrific bloodbath at Antietam Creek, surviving the bloodiest single day of the Civil War.  By the time of McKinley’s election in 1896, he faced a growing threat of a new war with Spain, this time over the Spanish possession of Cuba. Events careened out of control when a Navy gunboat, the USS Maine, sent by McKinley to protect American sugar interests, exploded in Havana Harbor in February, 1898. The disaster of The Maine forced the President’s hand, and he asked for a declaration of war from an enraged Congress. 

Though fought only from April to August, this conflict gave America island possessions from the Philippines to Puerto Rico. The United States had now officially entered the race to become an imperial power. This war extended fueling ports for the growing US Navy from across the Pacific, to the Caribbean. New markets and resources for American business opened up a fortune in profits. Filipinos, in particular, were left unhappy, switching from Spanish overlords to American authority. A bloody 3-year insurrection, fought in dank jungles, exploded, taking the lives of some 4,000 American combatants.

Sadly, in less than twenty years, the world-wide lust for colonies and riches brought America into the trenches of World War One. Decades-long rivalries for land and resources, particularly by Germany and Austro-Hungary, triggered a ruthless international competition that proved to history how industrialization could bleed young men. Not surprisingly this “war to end all wars” did not benefit Commander in Chief, Woodrow Wilson. In the end, the struggle killed him too.

As World War One ushered World War Two into being, World War Two led to the escalating tensions of the Cold War. First Truman in Korea, then Lyndon Johnson into Vietnam. Perhaps as stepchildren to Imperialism and the Cold War, GW Bush’s blunder into Iraq has assured his low position in history. 

The inescapable truth, Mr Trump, is that war does not make a presidency. With the exceptions of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and to some degree, Harry Truman, war has sullied more administrations than enhanced. Blind militarism may titillate your base, but you’re a damn fool to believe you can cheat history. Wars take on a life of their own, and as President Kennedy cautioned, “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Splendid Little War

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Precise beginnings to recognizable endings, that is how American wars are recorded and remembered. ‘The Shot Heard Round the World’ to Yorktown, Fort Sumter to Appomattox, Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima; all in sequential order from the opening salvos, to the tense calm of ceasefire. And this arrangement has worked well for classrooms, historical fiction, television documentaries, and films. Still this approach has its limits, failing to consider the intricate causes, and lingering effects that set the stage for the next war. Here is an example from the past that isn’t commonly recalled—The Spanish American War (1898).

The island of Cuba blazed in revolt. Throughout the 1890’s local freedom fighters, including Jose Marti and Maximo Gomez, struggled to end 400 years of Spanish conquest. Alleging atrocities at the hands of their colonial oppressors, of burning villages and starving civilians, rebels monopolized banner headlines across America. Enterprising publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst mobilized their own forces, dispatching droves of journalists to the war-torn island.

Reporters soon filed embellished, sensationalized stories, and circulation quickly boomed. Hearst illustrator, Frederick Remington sailed to Havana, promptly cabling his boss that he had found no war. Hearst famously, and cynically countered, “you furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war.”

The resulting flood of salacious, skewed features gave birth to the “Yellow Press,” of tabloid journalism. Facts didn’t trouble these news editors, they were too busy raking in profits. American newspaperman also found assistance in the Cuban rebels themselves. Ensuring that America would intervene in the struggle, Cuban insurgents torched acres and acres of American-owned cane fields. Absentee-American sugar planters, losing revenues, railed for war, accosting McKinley to act. 

As the last US President to have experienced battle, William McKinley hesitated to draw America into another armed conflict. But, in the face of fiery Cuba, the pressure grew fierce. Jingoists like Theodore Roosevelt, impatient to flex American muscle, demanded immediate action.

Still McKinley hesitated, understanding, what the young could not. A veteran of the Civil War, the President grasped the real cost of war, measured in blood, treasure, and humanity. Nonetheless, following the sinking of the US gunboat “Maine,” moored in Havana harbor, the President relented, and the Spanish American War began.

In the years that followed, the President’s worst fears were more than realized.

Characterized as a “Splendid Little War,” this conflict, contested at the dawn of the 20th Century, reaped endless bounty for mainland business interests.

The US annexed: Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, Guam, and the Philippine Islands in the Pacific.

To many, this step into world affairs proved worth every penny and every drop of American blood. The pace of American factories to produce goods far outstripped domestic consumption. Overseas markets quickly absorbed stockpiled goods, and in turn secured further demand. Besides, it was argued at the time, if America didn’t move quickly Great Britain, Russia, Japan, or France would gladly take over.

However, expansionist quickly faced an unexpected moral and legal dilemma. Were the native people living in these newly-American owned possessions protected by Constitutional law? Should the US government follow mainland custom, and promise eventual statehood for these far flung islands? Prior Indian policy provided no guideline, as islanders were in the majority, not residing in small, isolated pockets. 

The Supreme Court soon obliged and settled this legal predicament. In a series of Court opinions beginning in 1901, the Insular Cases established a principle that despite America’s authority over island people, they could expect no civil protections. Essentially the Court ruled that “Rights don’t Follow the Flag.” 

In the aftermath, Pacific and Caribbean islands became US territories, but Cuba did not. After ‘liberating’ the island from Spain, decorum prevented an out and out American takeover. Still, the embattled island could not be set free–too much had been expended in the conflict, and Cuba was too valuable.

In 1898 the Teller Amendment established a US military installation at Guantanamo Bay, followed in 1901 with the Platt Amendment, authorizing extended American control of Cuban affairs.

In the far Pacific, the McKinley administration opted to annex the Philippine Islands, rather than granting Filipino independence. This decision backfired triggering a bloody, colonial uprising. American Marines hunted resolute guerrilla insurgents in sweltering Filipino jungles; both sides perpetrating horrific atrocities (six decades before a similar war in Vietnam). American businessmen had designs on nearby China, and the Philippines offered deep natural harbors for passing American Vessels. 

The US soon plunged into a world-wide race to carve up China. American business and political interests demanded an equal share of the Open Door to Chinese markets. By 1899 this multi national intrusion exploded into another bloody revolt, the Boxer Rebellion.

Young Chinese outraged by foreign exploitation; the trade in opium, the depletion of gold to pay for the opium, opium addiction, and western missionaries insisting on ‘saving’ the Chinese became too much. In the three year struggle 100,000 perished, foreign and Chinese.

In the end, there is no end. The hunger for colonies quickened into a global frenzy. An international arms race ensued, navies competing to outstrip their rivals for dominance. Countries with few colonies jumped into the fray scooping up whatever low fruit remained. Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy, relatively late on the imperial scene, headed into the Balkans and to Africa.

By 1914 the strain of fierce rivalry reached critical mass, engulfing first Europe, and then America into the horror of the First World War.

Beginnings and ends work in placing historic events, but with war there is only an endless sweeping pendulum.

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