Category Archives: Russia
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.
So many students had dropped the class, the professor had us meet in his office. The course, (a 300 level?) concerned the history of Eastern Europe, and though challenging, I sucked it up and remained.
Exotic names such as Moldova, Herzegovina, and Macedonia evoked mystical places barely touched by the Renaissance or Enlightenment. The prof tossed around these names as an American would with Oklahoma or Nevada.
He spent a great deal of time lecturing on the Balkan region. This mountainous peninsula is situated south of both Slavic Ukraine, and the Magyars of Hungary. This area, I learned, suffered an especially turbulent past, and for that matter still does today. One book on the course list, “Land Without Justice,” by Montenegrin, Milovan Djilas starkly described and reiterated that point.
Seated around a small table, our teacher introduced the Slavic folk who embraced the Orthodox faith of Byzantium. while the Croats to the northwest remained Catholic. For good measure, the Ottoman Turks rode hard northward, flashing scimitars of enforced conversion or butchery through remote pockets of alpine settlement.
Violence tinted the region red, scarring the inhabitants through generations of fierce reprisals.
The people of South-Central Europe appeared to have been dragged pillar to post in the religious chaos of competing Kings and Sultans.
In the wake of Turkish conquest, the youngest boys were systematically abducted from Orthodox villages up and down the rugged terrain. Raised in the Islamic faith, these children grew into fearsome warriors, eventually unleashed back on their former homes. These Janissaries coldly delivered Ottoman violence upon their own kinsmen.
Mired in blood, rulers like Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula eliminated his many enemies by impaling victims on wooden stakes. Most were Muslim.
I don’t recall my grade in that course, but I was mesmerized. Enough remained with me to pass on to my history students. For example, as America fought their Civil War, a Medieval system still restrained Eastern European society. Blood feuds raged through the mountain terrain pitting Croats against Serbs, against Albanians, against Bulgars, and on and on. By the end of the 19th Century the Balkans acquired a new moniker, “the powder keg of Europe.”
The ignition of World War One began in Sarajevo, the center of Bosnia Herzegovina. As the Ottoman Empire eventually receded southward, the Austro-Hungarian Empire aimed to absorb Bosnia as their own. Hapsburg Emperor, Franz Joseph sent his nephew on a good will mission to picturesque Sarajevo. For the nephew, Franz Ferdinand, this would be his last royal duty. A Serb teenager waiting on the processional route shot the Hapsburg heir, and his wife, too. From that incident came “The War to End All Wars.”
This essay barely scratches the full history of Eastern Europe. Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Kosovo, all hold eons of collective history, enough to study a lifetime.
Still much like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle with scattered and missing pieces, an incomplete picture of the region remains. World War Two, the frigid tension of the Cold War, and the Balkan Wars of the mid-1990’s all continue to pull the world in, as if a black hole.
I stuck with that college class, in that professor’s office, and as a result understand why NATO, including US peace-keeping forces, still must remain in the “Land Without Justice.”
Gail Chumbley is an author, and history educator. Her two books, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” both available on Kindle. In addition Gail has composed two plays, “Clay” and “Wolf By The Ears.”
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.
Pull of the Past
Three monarchies ruled Central and Eastern Europe in the years leading to World War One. The Hohenzollern of roughly present day Germany, the Hapsburgs of nearly all the lands between Germany and Russia, where the Romanov dynasty ruled for hundreds of years. Modern republics carved from these three long ago kingdoms still feel a dynastic pull, as if prisoners of the past.
After WWI, and the forthcoming Treaty of Versailles the major kingdoms disappeared, replaced by new countries drawn by the hands of the victors. The objective of those redrawing the face of Europe was to give each language group the dignity of self rule. With few exceptions monarchies were gone, replaced by self-governing democracies.
1919 produced a validating moment for ethnic-language groups, resurrecting national flags and reveling in their distinctive cultures. But historically speaking independence lasted only a twinkling.
Throughout the 1930’s the Germans tried democracy, only to discard the system in favor of autocracy under Adolf Hitler. The last Hohenzollern, Wilhelm II had been deposed and lived in exile, clearing Hitler’s path of impediments. Engaged in revitalizing Germany, the Fuhrer proceeded to annex nearby lands, reversing that moment of democratic freedom.
The German Fuhrer set his sights on reoccupying the Rhineland, a resource, and industrially rich region to the west. That the German’s were not, by treaty, permitted to seize that area, Hitler waited for the protests, but the western allies did nothing. Later Hitler sent forces to Austria, the site of his birth, and absorbed that country into his Third Reich. Crickets. Then after a pause, he made a play for the Czech region of the Sudetenland. These acquisitions were German-speaking populations, and to Hitler a part of Germany’s destiny.
This time the West did take notice.
In September, 1938, the German Fuhrer hosted England’s Neville Chamberlain, and France’s Edouard Daladier to discuss the fate of the Sudeten. The conference was a cynical sham. As the political leaders admired the Berchtesgaden view of the Tyrolian Alps, German troops amassed on the Czech border. A secret “incident” was in the works as a pretext to invade as soon as possible. Part of Hitler’s scheme included informing his guests that German nationals in western Czechoslovakia were persecuted, and his duty lay in rescuing them.
Both Chamberlain and Daladier, fearful of a new war, agreed to Hitler’s aggression, as he assured them after the Sudetenland, Nazi expansion would conclude. But of course he was lying. World War Two erupted the following year.
At this writing Vladimir Putin is playing the same game as Herr Hitler. In 2014 Putin sent forces into the Crimea, with one eye on the Western democracies. There were protests, and economic sanctions, but no ultimatums.
As Russian soldiers amass at the border of the Ukraine, President Putin pretends none of the aggression means anything. But this Russian autocrat means plenty, and is implementing a play to return the Ukraine back to where he believes it belongs-Russia.
Does the west have the will or consensus to allow this modern-day dictator to lie to the world and invade Ukraine? Will the Americans, and other European Allies look the other way, as did Chamberlain and Daladier?
I’m no expert on European History, but finding patterns has become second nature. The pull of the past is strong, and would-be dictators care nothing about national boundaries. For a tyrant like Putin entitlement to the Ukraine is much the same as breathing. So the onus falls on the NATO Alliance to hold the line. A line that President Putin is doing his best to challenge.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both books are available on Kindle.
Foreign oppression has, more than once, moved American policy makers at home to react with oppression. From the French Revolution to today, overseas upheavals frighten those in power enough, to prompt the same repression at home.
Immediately after World War One, the US endured a period of destabilizing fear–America’s first Red Scare. The U.S., bitter over entering the Great War, grew intolerant of unorthodox political views and worked to silence dissent. Radicals, both homegrown and immigrants from Europe, felt the wrath of political crackdowns. Anarchists, such as emigres, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman, found themselves on trial, then deported back to Russia, while a home grown Socialist, Eugene V. Debs ended up in prison. Scores of other political agitators were targeted by the Justice Department for printing radical views, and voicing public opposition.
Why the oppression?
The reaction began following the bloody 1917 Revolution in Russia. The murder of the last Romanov Tsar, with his family, paved the way for the world’s first Marxist-Leninist government, the USSR. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, (Lenin) seized the reins of the Bolshevik Party, and abolished all political opposition, outlining the aims of this new workers utopia, to overturn Capitalism worldwide.
The response in the U.S. came quick and harsh. Labor organizers, the leftest union, The Wobblies, and any other radical group deemed un-American was quashed. The U.S. government viewed dissent as treason, and Congress shaped specific legislation to silence protest. First passed and signed into law came The Espionage Act, in 1917, shortly followed by the Sedition Act the next year. No public speech, publications, nor use of the U.S. Mail to criticize government policy would be tolerated. Period.
In two test cases, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of both laws. The majority ruled in the first case that nonconformists and draft-resistors presented a “clear and present danger” to the US. In the second opinion the Court ruled much the same, but this time with an important dissent. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote, ” . . . the ultimate good desired is better reached by the free trade in ideas . . .”
Still, non-conformists and dissidents endured government suppression.
The courts, the government, and public opinion merged to outlaw what they feared–an all-powerful, biased social/economic system, much like the restraint simultaneously underway in the Soviet Union.
This was not over.
After Hitler’s death in April, 1945, and the ending of WWII in Europe, Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin kept his Red Army in East Germany and Eastern Europe, nixing a promised democratic Polish government in favor of his puppet Communist regime in Warsaw. And that was just for starters. A frightening Cold War ensued between the Soviets and the West, that by 1963 witnessed the construction of an actual partition, aka, an Iron Curtain.
In America a political fever seethed, and Congress responded. Establishing HUAC, the House Un-American Activity Committee, to sniff out citizens who leaned to the left, ruining careers and lives in the process. This second Red Scare elevated the careers of Senator Joe McCarthy, and Congressman Richard Nixon.
This post originally intended to discuss the War on Terror. The objective to cast light on the American Taliban; those promoting God, Guns, and Gasoline. But now, with Russia up to its old tricks, all of us again, have a decision to make. Will Americans excuse Putin, grow complacent and emulate his corrupt oligarchy? That path is wide open, visited upon us via the former guy. He proudly rubbed shoulders with that murderer, and publicly praised Putin’s integrity.
But, at this very moment, another, clearer choice stands before the American public. President Zelensky has conducted a master class on the real cost of freedom. The Ukrainian people have lain down their lives to remind us we, are the original heirs of freedom.
In that spirit, this upheaval in the Ukraine is one we must emulate here at home. When Putin attacks Ukraine, he attacks us all. We are Americans, it’s time to take a stand for our liberty. This is not a drill.
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Gail has authored two historic plays, “Clay,” concerning the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” examining the foundation of American Slavery.