Pickaxe To Nerve Agent

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

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

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

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

And those policies were domestic.

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

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

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

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

Dear GOP, you are indeed Putin’s puppets.  

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

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

A Rare Topic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old South reasserted traditional apartheid rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cable host and his guest were right.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Bloody Shirt

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

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

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

The bloody war finally, truly, had ended. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 2021 we can do no less.

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

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Divisions

Balkanize: Division of a place or country into several small political units, often unfriendly to one another.

America’s founders meant education to flourish, as a vital part of our country’s longevity. 

Designed to advance literacy, American public schools also curbed the rougher aspects of an expanding country. Since the earliest days of the Republic, centers of learning not only taught content, but other lessons like cooperation, and self control. Ultimately schools have instilled in all of us a shared baseline of behavior, supported by foundational facts necessary to find consensus.  

Today, technology and social media have endangered our ability to reach common ground. The distracting noise of extremists, splintering, and Balkanizing our nation threatens American institutions. Elections, government agencies, city and state government, and yes, schools are all targeted. Navigating through a culturally diverse society is inevitably stormy, and a closed American mind isn’t helpful.

Public education has traditionally been one of the ligaments that bind us all together as one people. Years ago a president encouraged us to ask “what (we) can do for (our) country,” but that’s over. Today it’s “Sorry losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest – and you all know it!”

Patriotism and literacy evolved together hand in hand. In 1787 Congress, under the Articles of Confederation, passed an Ordinance for settling western land. This law devised a survey system, to organize states around the Great Lakes region. This is important because sales of one plat of the survey, (you guessed it,) funded public schools. 

Thomas Jefferson affirmed the practice by insisting, ”Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

President Lincoln, a figure who deeply lamented his own lack of formal education, pushed to establish land grant universities across the growing nation. The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act, in particular, financed colleges through Federal funding.These universities today are located in every state of the Union. 

America’s erosion of unity is tied directly to the erosion of public education. Our kids are increasingly sequestered into alternative settings; online, magnet, charter, home, and private schools. Missing is the opportunity to experience democracy at its most basic. Students grow familiar with each other, softening our own edges, renewing the energy and optimism of the nation’s promise. 

We are all taxpayers, but your local public school isn’t supposed to be Burger King, where every citizen can have it “their way.” We have a system that, regardless of money, race, ability, and social class, all have a seat at the table of democracy.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Masterpiece

Russia and the US didn’t have much contact in the 19th Century. A rumor had once circulated insisting presidential candidate, John Quincy Adams had procured American virgins for the Russian Czar as a young diplomat. Not true, but there it is. 

Still the political tyranny of Russia was widely understood in America. Lincoln condemned the racism and intolerance stateside, remarking that Russia’s oppression was, at least, less hypocritical. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward later negotiated a purchase for Alaska with Russia. Seward’s Ice Box, 1867 newspapers scoffed.

Some sixty years later, during World War One, revolutionaries deposed the Czar, and later murdered him, and his family. The US shipped Doughboys to France, and dispatched American forces to Archangel, to aid the White Russians in defeating the Bolsheviks. The Whites failed.

In the newly founded USSR, Vladimir Lenin formed the Comintern with the express aim of exporting Communism worldwide, prompting the first American Red Scare.

Then came Depression and World War Two. Josef Stalin, a ruthless despot, struck a nonaggression deal with Hitler, splitting Poland as a buffer. Neither trusted the other, and in 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. End of alliance.

After Pearl Harbor the Russians found themselves allied to Britain and the US. Stalin didn’t trust Washington, and Washington didn’t trust Stalin. Not only had the Russians cut and run during WWI, but recently had signed this treaty with Hitler.

Before the Second World War ended, Stalin signaled his intentions by spreading the Red Army throughout Eastern Europe. Western allies relented and allowed Soviets forces first into Berlin, where Communists held that sector until 1989.

The second Red Scare hit America hard. Stalin’s operatives managed to lift atomic and hydrogen bomb intelligence. The Berlin Wall was built, and the entire Soviet Sphere of Influence made for an intense Cold War. Conflicts popped up in America, and around the world. Sputnik, the U2 incident, the Rosenbergs execution, Joe McCarthy hearings, duck and cover drills, and the black list ruining countless careers. Proxy wars cast a real chill over the free world. 

Some of America’s greatest Cold Warriors included President Eisenhower, JFK, Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. These Chief Executives understood that any agreements with the Kremlin required verification. Our Soviet rivals were seasoned operatives, and no ally of the west.

So where does this story leave us? Clearly the Kremlin is no friend. Spy networks, election hackers, and embedded operatives are perpetual threats, that is for sure. Maria Butina, the little red groupie of the NRA, for one. So, when an American President smiles and pays court to Vladimir Putin the proof is clear. 

The Russian government is patient, and that patience has paid off. Putin’s masterpiece? He elevated a Russian asset to the White House, and convinced GOP voters to look the other way. 

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

No Fooling

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, 1964

“. . .the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Short run, or long run, popular beliefs seem to come and go. An idea that gains traction in one generation is frequently cast off with time and fresher understanding. The quality that sustains ideas must rest upon a moral high ground; an affirming principle.

Hear me out.

On April 12, 1861, the opening shots of Civil War thundered over Charleston Harbor. The South Carolina legislature had already voted to secede from the Union, and President Lincoln cautioned their action. Assuring Southerners he had no intention of interfering in state matters (slavery), Lincoln warned that rebellion was his business, and that fateful step rested solely in Southern hands. The President kept his word. 

However, once shots were fired on Fort Sumter, the Union rapidly mobilized. 

His policy had been a sound one. The Union prepared to defend the Constitution as South Carolina’s aggression had provoked righteous outrage. 

A century later President Lyndon Johnson attempted to orchestrate a similar scenario in Southeast Asia. In August of 1964, the American people were told North Vietnamese torpedo boats had fired upon two American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. There was no real evidence of the incident, apart from heavy weather and the distracting fog of war. From that event the United States began feeding ground troops to hold the line against Communism. Officially dated from 1959 until 1975, the Vietnam War expended 58,000 young men, and countless Vietnamese nationals.

Today Vietnam is a Communist country. Johnson’s gung-ho attempt backfired because his policy had been built on a lie. 

Likewise, George W Bush squandered world-wide goodwill after the attack on 911. With America in mourning from the terrorist assault on our soil, this president redirected righteous ire to the nation of Iraq. Afghanistan, where the actual culprits were hiding out, came later. 

In the end, nothing of value came from that lie, except uncorking anarchy in Iraq.

This last January another massive presidential lie duped hundreds into thinking an election had been stolen. No proof of the deception existed, because nothing sneaky happened. To the contrary, abundant truth refuted the the claim. 

A self-absorbed swindler convinced hundreds of followers to act upon his interests. Citizens mobilized themselves and attacked our nation’s Capitol. No proof, no moral high ground, no affirmation of our democratic system, just puppets exploited by a very sick man.

Mr Lincoln understood the power of truth.

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

Hysteria and Martyrs

I didn’t care what my students thought. Their opinions were no business of mine. That they knew how to express those ideas, using factual information, was my business.

To introduce point of view, and critical thinking a quick textbook analysis did the trick. In groups (I assigned) students researched various history texts to spot biases in the presentation of historic facts. 

Over the years, a collection of comped survey books had accumulated on my classroom shelf. I used them for my own preparation, but decided to teach the same techniques to the kids. The task was pretty simple. All groups were asked to look up the two same topics: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. They noted the title of the text, the authors, the publication date, and any particular word choices used to explain or describe each episode.

This was the first day of school, mind you, and holy cow the results rocked these 15-year-olds orderly world.

When each group reported their conclusions, skewed viewpoints abounded. In other words the same facts drew decidedly different conclusions.

One book blamed the Witch Trials on tensions stemming from continuous Native attacks. Another blamed simmering resentment over social class, inheritance disputes, and property ownership. Moldy grain was to blame according to the Prentice Hall book. The good people living north of Boston were tripping on ergot fungus, a hallucinogen spreading on damp wheat baked into bread.

Nearly all texts made use of the terms “fear,” and “hysteria.”

The John Brown case provided even more interesting results. If the book had been published before 2001, Brown generally came off a saint. If after, the language use grew more sinister. In pre-911 America, fighting slavery had a righteous, noble language, that justified the violence. Something to the effect that, in the name of the mighty Jehovah, Brown martyred himself to strike a blow against evil. By contrast, books published after the collapse of the Twin Towers dismiss Brown’s means as unfortunate, though slavery was still bad.

By the end of this exercise students often seemed flummoxed asking “who can we believe?” 

“Yourself, of course, and your analysis skills,” I always replied.

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

For more explanation on this lesson email at gailchumbley@gmail.com