The Long Haul

After the 1929 Market Crash, the world collapsed into nearly feudal isolation, and international trade quickly dried up. Like the rest of the world America focused inward, disillusioned by U.S. participation in WWI. Across the Pacific, the Japanese Empire, too, promoted a sphere of influence, sold to Asians under the moniker of a “Co-prosperity Sphere.” China, a vulnerable prize lay across the Sea of Japan, awaiting the wrath of Japanese aggression for land and resources.

Great Britain, too, struggled with a malaise of its own, as did the French–both nations saddled with debts extended by American banks during the war. Next to the new Soviet Union, Germany, struggled most of all, buried in war reparations the allies demanded from the vanquished.

As the financial fallout worldwide grew wildly unstable, regimes hunkered down and waited for better times.

The solution in that movement-elevate anti-democratic despots to power.

The Italians were the first, having produced a Fascist strongman, Benito Mussolini. He suppressed political diversity, harnessed economic efficiency, and soon, like the Japanese, pursued colonial inroads into Libya, and later the conquest of Ethiopia. Mussolini envisioned a return to the glory days of Rome.

Germany, soon flirted with fascism, as well. In a reaction to impossible debts, and of national pride, Adolf Hitler, a feckless dreamer, stood on beer hall tables, and passionately spoke of national betrayal, and the victimization of Germany. “Mein Kampf” the product of an earlier prison sentence, circled around much the same, blaming Bolsheviks, Capitalists, and Jews for the hated Armistice of 1918.

However, America, unlike the rest of the world, clung with all their might to the national system of Constitutional norms. At the same time Germany elected a Hitler in 1932, the U.S. found their champion in Franklin Roosevelt. 

A popular Roosevelt Coalition steered those hard years holding the United States together. That’s not to say there weren’t kooks, to borrow Lindsay Graham’s phrase, but Americans faced the long haul together, knowing better days had to be ahead..

As FDR did not cause the Depression, Joe Biden did not precipitate the inept handling of Covid-19. Moreover, Biden’s policies did not cause Putin to invade the Ukraine, nor trigger the inflation rate, as financial matters are linear, impervious to election cycles. This new administration is not responsible for China’s economic reach, Britain’s Brexit debacle, Russia’s saber rattling, or global warming, let alone shortages of baby formula. 

The utter incompetence of that last blowhard made the real mess. This moment, like FDR’s, will take more time to sort out and stabilize. 

So, here is the question. Can Americans again remain bound to the framework of our Republic? Will today’s misinformed kooks forsake our financial, social, and political traditions and turn to petty retribution and tyranny?

Will we, as a nation, exchange our democracy for a strong man who insists he has all the answers?

That is the question of this historic moment. 

Gail Chumbley is an author and history educator.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

King of the Hill

General Washington had not yet been appointed commander of the Continental Army. Nonetheless, the conflict against Great Britain, though running hot after Lexington and Concord, remained an informal, isolated brushfire in the eyes of the Crown. Still, the very presence of soldiers grated Bostonians, enough that outraged patriots plotted retaliation.

June 16th, after dark, these Sons of Liberty acted, digging in on Breeds Hill located near Bunker Hill, north of the city in Charles Town. All that night these newly minted Minutemen stacked preloaded-muskets, entrenched, and waited for sunrise. At first light, the startled Redcoats scrambled to form lines and launch an offensive against the rebels. Though holding the line through three assaults, the Bostonians, low on gunpowder, were forced to melt away into the surrounding area. The shocked Brits decided to call the contest a victory.

But as one royal officer candidly admitted, “if we win anymore like this, we’ll lose this war.”

That is the lesson of Bunker Hill, hold the high ground, and draw the fight uphill to a well-defended position.

General George Washington arrived in Boston the next month, taking command of the motley Continental Army. Positioning his inexperienced troops on the heights surrounding the city, Washington bluffed his military strengths. When actual heavy guns finally reached Washington, the Redcoats had had enough, and on March 17, 1776, all the King’s men evacuated to Canada.

Two philosophers on warfare, China’s Sun Tzu, and Prussian, Carl von Clauswitz had committed to paper their respective views on the value of the high ground. Sun Tzu in the 6th Century, and Clausewitz in the early 19th Century argued its significance. Much like that game, “King of the Hill,” we played as kids, the advantage belongs to the person on top. That essentially defines both tacticians principles.

Yet, physically holding a hill doesn’t go far enough. Both philosophers argued that a moral high ground is equally essential, an armed force must be clad with a virtuous cause. 

A higher moral purpose fills the sails to victory.

In 1860, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, becoming America’s 16th President. That moment weighed with foreboding, as Southern States, one by one, chose to secede from the United States. The new President viewed this idea as impossible–statehood was not a revolving door. In his inaugural address. Lincoln spoke plainly, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

Then Lincoln, and the the rest of the nation watched and waited. On April 12, 1861 guns thundered from Charleston, South Carolina, smashing into Fort Sumter, a federal installation in the harbor.

Boom, done and done.

The Rebs drew first blood, and Lincoln, by default, seized the moral high ground. After a duration of four long, bloody years, the rebellion collapsed, and slavery ended.

Both the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, elevated America’s retaliation as morally justified, drawing the nation into both World War Two, and the War on Terror.

Everyone around the world is watching the Ukrainian people standing tall against a mystifying invasion by Russia. Ukrainian President Zelensky has brilliantly executed the lessons of Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz. His articulate, moral leadership, and courage has more than won the moral high ground test. In contrast, Vladimir Putin has proven his lack of preparation, and barbarity, assuring the Russian President an international pariah.

These principles are timeless and universal, not only in America, but in past conflicts like Thermopylae in the 5th Century, and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1940.

Whether the Ukrainian President, is aware or not, he has benefitted from the teachings of Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz, and this is Ukraine’s finest hour.

The possession of high ground may decide a battle, war or the fate of a nation.

Carl von Clausewitz

Gail Chumbley is a history educator, and writer.

gailchumbley@chumbleg

Rebellions

The Republican Party emerged in 1854 as a voice for liberty, and of opportunity. Forged in sectional controversy, members dedicated themselves to one overriding priority, no slavery in America’s western territories. On that point the fledgling party stood firm.

A lawyer in Springfield, Abraham Lincoln, joined the growing party early, concerned, as were others, with escalating tensions between the North and South.

In 1860, Lincoln threw his very tall hat into the ring, and declared his candidacy for President. Defying considerable odds, Lincoln prevailed over other, more prominent Republicans at the GOP Convention in Chicago. Lincoln grasped the nomination. 

The South responded as one. If Lincoln won the Presidency, they would bolt the Union. He did win, and tried to reason with Southern States through his inaugural address. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

The sticking point of course, slavery. 

By the time Lincoln took the oath of office, eight Southern States had voted to secede from the Union. This president understood the fears of the South, and knew what drove the secessionists. He didn’t hate them, he did not want them punished. During the last year of the war Lincoln, in his second inaugural address gently offered an olive branch stating, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”

Lincoln’s lasting legacy held that the Civil War meant more than reunification of the states. His  “new birth of freedom” implied a higher ideal, the turmoil meant something more honorable, and timeless: the cause of humanity. The Emancipation Proclamation came first, then the 13th Amendment, forever freeing those held in bondage. This president took no credit for prevailing over the Rebels, hoping only to heal the divisions that fueled the rage.

His martyrdom on April 15,1865 left the GOP imprinted with Lincoln’s goodness, modesty, and nobility. This first Republican President endured four years of national hell, and never forgot his mission.

Lincoln met the Rebellion, and vanquished it.

America today hears no soaring rhetoric from the GOP, nor elegant prose, only hate speech and bellyaching. The GOP has severed the cords of duty to country, replacing patriotic obligation with an unapologetic lust for power, and self interest. 

For four years the taxpayers have been fleeced, and minorities targeted, the kind of intolerance Lincoln abhorred. Long standing alliances were cast aside as a self-serving dunce cozied up to America’s enemies. The Republican members of Congress have forsaken their obligation to country first, pretending and excusing that all was normal in the turbulent White House. 

The greatest harm perpetrated by, and enabled by the current GOP, is the violent attack on the heart of our democracy: the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The irony is rich. As the Republican Party grew from a rebellion, it will now perish from another.

Animal House Meets the GOP

What do you get when you cross Animal House with the GOP? Roger Stone. He holds the dubious distinction of dragging Republican moral decay on, that first festered in the 1970’s. The product of Stone’s current efforts? The January 6th insurrection.

That young Stone cut his teeth orbiting around the Nixon disaster, and later lent a hand to the Reagan campaign, and even later aided the “Brooks Brother Riot” of 2000, his role as a covert agent of chaos lives on. “Conservative Values” a long running catch phrase is no more than an oxymoron, the national party undercut by a list of career dirty tricksters, including Stone.

Think Donald Segretti, of Watergate fame. Segretti hired a girl to run naked at a hotel shouting she was in love with Edmund Muskie, Nixon’s chief rival in 1972. In 1970, even Karl Rove interfered and sabotaged Democratic fund raising efforts by publishing false event information, ie . . . free beer, free food, girls, everyone welcome, etc. Rove’s work turned the event into a fiasco. Then there was Ken Clawson’s Canuck Letter. Clawson, a Nixon operative, published a fraudulent note dropping in phrases like “illegitimate babies,” and “homosexuality,” among Democratic leaders. (Homosexuality still a taboo.) And of course the most famous dirty trick of all, the burglary of the DNC at the Watergate Office Complex.

What this brief evidence has made clear is Republicans can’t win any other way, at least not nationally, without deception and disinformation campaigns. During the Reagan years, men like Oliver North, Admiral John Poindexter, and CIA Director William Casey privatized foreign policy in the Iran Contra Affair. Ronald Reagan haplessly confessed the crimes were real, though he didn’t understand how. The George W. Bush administration outed a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, via Scooter Libby, and Libby was convicted of his crime. But don’t cry for Scooter, Donald Trump pardoned him because it’s true, there is no honor among thieves.

Any pretense of “conservative values” is a myth, carefully advertised by party insiders, but hasn’t existed since President Dwight Eisenhower. 

Stone’s lies to Congress, and to the FBI reveals the state of the party. Any means to win.  Underhanded tactics indicate business as usual.

The harm? My vote doesn’t count, and neither does anyone else’s. The cry of States’ Rights echoing around the country is simply a cover to intensify efforts to deprive the people of good government. Stone, Trump, and the rest of the party has rejected an even playing field; they cannot win in an open, fair vote.  

This blog in no way implies that Dems are blameless, but short of Bill Clinton’s dalliances and others taking bribes, the crimes have hurt the individual, not the American people. Decent folks abandon the GOP daily because of such flagrant misuse of power. 

In a side note, Richard Nixon ran for Congress in 1946 smearing his opponent, Jerry Voorhees as “soft on Communism,” and in 1950 aimed for the Senate, insinuating his opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas was “pink right down to her underwear.”

We all know who the patron saint of the modern GOP is, and Stone, not to forget Trump, are his most astute disciples.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle. Chumbley has written two plays, “Clay,” exploring the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears” regarding the establishment of American Slavery.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Jenkins Hill

For teachers who are poor, but like to travel, nothing is better than hosting student tours. Truth is these trips are a lot of fun. Really. The kids make it fun. I led a number of tours over the years and still carry wonderful memories of the historic sites, our numerous guides, the bus drivers, my students, and the bustling itineraries that delivered us everywhere.

Out of the classroom, and away from home, students encountered much of what we had covered in history class, up close. On one stop at the US Capitol a guide opened a small door off a corridor revealing a narrow, circular stairway. Bygone soot and some damage remained down that steep passage, evidence of the War of 1812, when invading Brits set fire to the building. Our docent elaborated. A redcoat on horseback had urged his horse up those cramped stairs, only to be shot by American defenders waiting at the top. That anecdote caused a bit of a stir, as we all absorbed the horror.

Peeking into the Old Senate chamber, (much smaller than today’s grand affair) prompted another story of another clash, from another era. In this original legislative hall Massachusetts Senator, Charles Sumner had suffered a severe beating at the hands of a furious South Carolina Congressman. At issue, the fiery debate over the spread of slavery.

Bus drivers sometimes got into act, and added a few gems of their own. Before leaving the Capitol, he grabbed the microphone and shared a story.

George Washington had been inaugurated as America’s first president in New York City. But a site for a permanent national capitol had been selected. And it was President Washington, himself who laid the first cornerstone for the structure on a rise called Jenkins Hill. Why, the driver asked, did Washington turn the first spade, and set that brick of sandstone? Of course we all thought the honor went to Washington as the President. Wrong.

The President had been asked to set the stone, because he was a stone mason.

Who’d a thought!

On the bus we loudly debriefed, the chatter sounding much like gossiping about Justin Bieber, or the Kardashians. The narrative may have been a century or two old, but still very much alive–resurrected by students in the Twenty-first Century.

There are many such stories of American school kids touching our collective past, and many adults who made that happen. Somehow we all came away better people. Perhaps we’re all reminded we are part of a much bigger picture, and we all fit somewhere within the frame.

On January 6, 2021, Americans across the nation watched domestic terrorists violated the inner sanctum of democracy. I wondered what thoughts crossed the minds of those same former students to witness this tarnishing of democratic majesty.

Not everyone can afford to send their kids on trips like these. I couldn’t. But understand this, every public school in the country teaches American History. The public must understand this story tells of a unique nation, and democracy grows fragile when the ignorance rules the times.

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. Chumbley has written two historic plays, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Inheritance

Harry Truman understood the gravity of his duty right off. When FDR died in April, 1945, the newly installed Vice President got the word he was now president. And what a Herculean task he had before him. A world war to end, conferences abroad, shaping a new post-war world, and grappling with the human rights horrors in both Europe and in the Pacific. Add to all of that, he alone could order use of the newly completed Atomic Bomb.

On his White House desk, President Truman placed a sign, “The Buck Stops Here.” With that mission statement Harry Truman stepped up to his responsibilities despite the formidable challenges he faced.

Did Truman inherit the worst set of circumstances of any new president? Maybe? But it is open to debate.

America’s fourth President, James Madison, found himself  in one god-awful mess. His predecessor, Thomas Jefferson had tanked the US economy by closing American ports to all English and French trade. Those two powerful rivals had been at war a long time, and made a practice of interfering with America’s neutrality and transatlantic shipping. Despite Jefferson’s actions the issue of seizing US ships and kidnapping sailors never stopped. By 1812 President Madison asked for a declaration of war against England that, in the end accomplished nothing but a burned out White House and defaced Capitol.

Following the lackluster administrations of Franklin Pierce, then James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln stepped into a firestorm of crisis. Divisions over the institution of slavery had reached critical mass, and Lincoln’s election was enough for Southern States to cut ties with the North. So hated was Lincoln, that his name did not appear on the ballot below the Mason-Dixon. And the fiery trial of war commenced.

The Election of 1932 became a referendum on Herbert Hoover, and the Republican presidents who had served since 1920. Poor Hoover happened to be in the White House when the economic music stopped, and the economy bottomed out. And that was that for Hoover. His name remained a pejorative until his death. 

Franklin Roosevelt prevailed that 1932 election, in fact won in a landslide victory. Somehow Roosevelt maintained his confident smile though he, too, faced one hell of a national disaster. 

In his inaugural address the new President reassured the public saying fear was all we had to fear. FDR then ordered a banking “holiday,” coating the dismal reality of bank failures in less menacing terms-a holiday. From his first hundred days the new President directed a bewildered Congress to approve his “New Deal.” 

The coming of the Second World War shifted domestic policies to foreign threats as the world fell into autocratic disarray. FDR shifted his attention to the coming war. When President Roosevelt died suddenly, poor Harry Truman was in the hot seat. But that is where I want to end the history lesson.

If any new President has had a disaster to confront, it is Joe Biden. Without fanfare or showboating Biden, too, has stepped up to the difficulties testing our nation. 

Much like Truman and Lincoln before, 46 is grappling with a world in chaos, and a divided people at home. In another ironic twist, like Madison, Biden witnessed, a second violent desecration of the US Capitol.

To his credit, though his predecessor left a long trail of rubble, Biden understands the traditional role of Chief Executive, while clearly many Americans have forgotten, or worse, rejected. Biden is addressing the issues testing our country, not only for those who elected him, but those who did not. An American President can do no less.

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. She has completed her second play, “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Insulting The Past

The first time a parent challenged my teaching in history class, took place my first year. The topic concerned the creation of the Constitution, and the era of the Early Republic. I introduced the three branches, and separation of powers, census, representation, and that type of basic information. Definitely the bare bones of Civics.

During that lesson I explained how Electors were determined, and role the Electoral College played in choosing the president. End of lesson. The following day the topic moved to ratification and the addition of the Bill of Rights. From out of nowhere a hand shot up, and an upset student blurted, “My dad says you’re a liar!”

Yep, a liar. 

That was my baptism into the sliding scale of historic facts, and that initial chill of suppression stopped me in my tracks. Following that episode, censorship never strayed far from my thoughts. It was the beginning of a caution that lasted the whole of my career.

Fast forward 30 years in history education, when a similar event repeated.

The topic this time concerned the Reagan Revolution, and the events surrounding those years. 

Students learned about the Evil Empire, “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall,” Perestroika, Glasnost, Reaganomics, Laffer Curve, Trickle Down, etc . . .

Foreign policy topics covered Central America and the Middle East, particularly Nicaragua and Iran. Reagan officials were selling weapons to America’s enemy Iran, using the funds to put down a Marxist insurgency in Nicaragua. A privatized foreign policy if you will.

The calls came the following day. “How could I teach such nonsense in a public school! My student came home and shared her notes, textbook and graphs. This is not right, Ronald Reagan is the beloved champion of conservatism!”

The principal called me in and wanted to know what caused the dust-up. Flustered, I didn’t know where to start. Quickly I explained the general outline of the unit, and, well, he didn’t have the time to listen to the details. And he shouldn’t have. He hired me to do that job.

The episode sort of blew over, though that parent did call me at home a number of times over that summer. Weird behavior for sure, like the dad couldn’t let it go. 

For me the matter became philosophical; either educators prepare kids for the path, or parents attempt to manipulate that path for their kids.

Touchy parents revising America’s story to force their current politics on schools does nothing less than highjack education. Talented people leave the classroom endangering the US’s most essential institution. Worse, the exertions and sacrifice of those who came before, are papered over to suit today’s furor.

America’s lifeblood is our shared story, it’s what defines us as a distinct people. We must understand those central principles from our past to move forward as a nation.

To those students whose parents challenged the historic record, it’s unfortunate they cannot let go, just a little and trust public education. This is our kids birthright.

And know this-I wasn’t lying.

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. Chumbley has also written two stage plays, “Clay,” regarding the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an exploration into American slavery.

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