Category Archives: World War One
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Remember that episode on Star Trek, “A Taste of Armageddon?” The crew of the Enterprise encounter two planets at war, waged virtually by computer. Simulated clashes determine, by mutual treaty, real fatalities in execution chambers.
That one aired in 1967.
Technical advancements, devices to improve life, can make tasks so much easier; and these same advancements can just as easily evolve into weapons of destruction. Glidden’s barbed wire made for cheap fencing for farmers. Carnegie’s steel provided the ribs for building upward in cities, and outward on rail tracks. Rockefeller’s oil meant cheap kerosene for lamps to light up the dark. However, these same improvements found new uses when converted to weaponry:concertina wire draped across trenches, heavy armaments, explosives, and gasoline powered vehicles. World War One demonstrated both the might, and bloody futility of modern, industrialized warfare.
The nature of Twentieth Century warfare had literally been forged from 19th Century industry, which in turn gave rise to an assembly line of annihilation.
How does weaponized technology apply to now?
The world depends on computers. From Univac, to Commodore 64, to the MacBook, we rely on computers much as we rely on air. The benefits of cyber technology keep us linked together through social media, and new apps that innovate daily. But the dark side of this ever-evolving technology, poses significant danger, and has been weaponized effectively to undermine the stability of America.
As I write, misinformation, via the internet, has contributed to the deaths of nearly one million Americans, and climbing. Troll farms in Russia ruthlessly still hack away, under the guidance of former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin. Russian meddling in our 2016 presidential election, spewed misleading propaganda enough to tip the scales in the outcome. Though developed through advanced mathematics, and supported by other hard sciences, cyber criminals have succeeded in convincing some Americans not to believe in scientific facts. What an irony.
Our enemies have found their way in, a means to weaken and destroy the country from the inside. Through misinformation campaigns and network infiltration, criminals shut down Colonial Pipeline last May, and universities, government agencies, infrastructure systems, and businesses who are under constant threat of being held hostage–paying millions in ransom to rescue their business organizations.
The indispensable nature of computers, like this one in my lap, is a useful, vital tool. But like the technical innovations of the 20th Century, these advances foreshadow danger; cyber space as deadly as a machine gun, and as real as poison gas. Factor in nations around the globe still vying to destabilize America—especially chief competitors, Russia, and the China.
Nothing has changed since 1914, aside from more sophisticated weaponry. Fifty-four years after Star Trek aired “Armageddon,” computer-generated death is as real as the death toll in the trenches. Threatening fingers typing the right strokes on a keyboard produces chaos and harm from those who wish us ill.
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.
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 when 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.
The Arrogance of Now
Each year I prepared for two major wars, the finale if you will, of second semester US History. With a combined sense of dread and anticipation, I led the kids through the causes, and progression of the Civil War (with 10th graders), and WWII (with my Juniors).
A lifetime of study in these eras, especially Antebellum America, tells an anxious story, as two passionate belief systems came to blows. Sophomores learned that our nation, a democracy born in such promise, plunged into the abyss over America’s original sin, slavery.
Meanwhile, for Juniors, the failures of the uneasy peace that followed WWI shaped a broader corrosion. The world after 1919 disintegrated into deadly factions, underscored by exaggerated entitlement, racial hate, and lust for revenge.
Much like America’s 19th Century plunge into the breach, the 20th Century also debased human life, sliding into scapegoating, unthinkable cruelty, and massacre. This record is hard to face, let alone study.
Real monsters masqueraded as heads of state; Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and the War Lords of Japan. All, to varying degrees, convinced regular people that the “worth” of others was suspect, and targeting civilians an acceptable strategy. Yet, as awful as both conflicts were, it’s hard not to stare, and to hopefully recognize the signs when hate again emerges as a justification for horror.
The heresy of exceptionalism, normalizing violence on the vulnerable, and extremism, unleashed evil on the world. Andersonville Prison, Fort Pillow Massacre, the Rape of Nanking, Bataan, the Warsaw Ghetto, and death camps. More than one a student wondered aloud, how could that happen?
These signs are clear again. Those same pre-conditions have resurfaced, right now, here in our communities, states, and nation.
A white nationalist parade in Charlotte that kills one, where there were “good people on both sides.” Normalized daily murders of people of color, and incendiary rhetoric that ends with an attack on the US Capitol, killing five. All offenses excused and minimized by a once great political party, that has forsaken its moral underpinnings.
The only difference between the Proud Boys and the Brown Shirts is the Brown Shirts didn’t wear Carhartt and flannel.
This endless playlist has looped over repeatedly, cursed by the “blind arrogance of now.” But dear reader, now is then, and deluded people do not change with time. The descent into barbarity is more predictable than exceptional.
When reasonable folks are manipulated by the chorus of the Big Lie, the era doesn’t matter. Society inevitably falls into depravity.
Gail Chumbley is a career history educator, and author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles on Kindle.