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

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

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?

In increments.

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.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Unforgivable Curse

Many of us have read JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books and/or watched the films. The author created a wondrous world of spells, incantations, and even included law and order via three unforgivable curses. 

There are guardrails in this tale, and a bit of a messiah storyline. Harry willingly sacrifices himself, as had his parents and many others before. However, the “Boy Who Lived,” does, and returns to fight and vanquish wickedness. 

Love, too, permeates the storyline, and the righteous power of good over evil. 

But that’s not my take.

As a career History educator I came to a different conclusion; Harry Potter told me that failing to understand our shared past can be lethal. And that was the metaphor I preached to my History students.

Harry rises to the threat and defends all that is good and valuable in his world. If he didn’t, Harry could have been killed and his world destroyed.

It’s so apropos at this moment in our history to grasp our collective story as Americans.

Honest differences within the confines of our beliefs is one thing. Obliterating the tenants of democracy is quite another. 

Americans cannot surrender our country to this would-be dictator, the things that have cost our people so dearly. Freezing soldiers at Valley Forge did not languish to enable DJT to trademark his brand to hotels, steaks or a failed university. The fallen at Gettysburg, and the suffering in Battle of the Bulge was not to pave the way for DJT to get us all killed from a ravaging plague. The girls who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the miners murdered in the Ludlow Massacre, or humiliated Civil Rights workers beaten at the Woolworth’s lunch counter was not for Donald Trump to validate racism and sexism and undo labor laws. 

He doesn’t know our nation’s history, and as George Santayana warned us, we are condemned to sacrifice all over again. 

Vote. 

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Riding The Back Of The Tiger

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

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

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

Not all presidencies have demonstrated such restraint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Almost Cable Guy

Some of you may know that we signed a film option a while back with Falls Park Entertainment in South Carolina. Brett Kanea, the executive producer, read our script, “Dancing On Air,” then my two books that inspired “Dancing.” Brett found it original and exciting and anticipated producing a successful film. Unexpectedly dear Brett died before any filming began. As you can see he from this pic, he was too young to leave us, and our hearts go out to his family and loved ones. 
The morning he first called to discuss the property I thought he was the cable guy expected later that morning. We laughed about that snafu for months after. 
Though our future in film is unclear, Brett’s warmth, humor, and confidence lingers on. 
Godspeed Brett, the almost cable guy.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

Panama 1932

Author Note: The following excerpt was drawn from extended interviews with veteran aviator Mont Chumbley (1909-2006), discussing his training in the interwar Navy. For the rest of the story read “River of January” available on Kindle.

Later, with his flight training securely behind him, Seaman Montgomery Chumbley received his first official orders. He and his class were assigned to Torpedo Squadron 3, located in Coco Solo, on the Atlantic coast of Panama. Chum joined his fellow novices as they shipped out southward aboard the USS Shawmont.

Watching from the deck as the Florida base vanished, the pilot silently rejoiced at this milestone. He also celebrated the fact that he didn’t have to return in disgrace to Virginia. That euphoric detail made the sky somehow bluer, the clouds somehow more feathered and graceful. The young man felt nearly giddy.

After two pleasant days at sea, the Shawmont cruised into the Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to refuel. Chum was enchanted by the beauty of the jungle and continued to marvel at the colorful sea life and assortment of exquisite birds circling the ship for handouts. The vast horizons he used to imagine, were becoming reality.

The Squadron’s final destination lay near Colon, Panama. Coco Solo was a vast, busy American naval installation, surprising the young pilot with its colossal size. The arrivals boarded a transport for delivery to their quarters, gawking out their bus windows in wonder at the enormity of the American base.

His awe continued after he and the boys were escorted to the adjacent submarine facility to tour that installation.

Returning to the field, the group sat through their initial military briefing, Chum, next to Win, listened as the instructor addressed the new aviators. The captain explained that a 1929 War Department directive assigned the US Navy the task of protecting the Atlantic zone of the Panama Canal from hostile threats.

“The Army’s Fort Gulick sits adjacent to us in Coco Solo, and shares our same mission,” he explained. “As some of you may already know, to the southwest, other military bases dot the entire 51 miles of the canal—all the way to where it meets the Pacific.

After the session, Chum remarked to his buddy, “I feel strangely noble defending the canal. It’s as though we all are part of a bigger picture, with America expanding into both oceans.”

“But what country would be nuts enough to attack us?” Win wondered.

War games made up much of Chum’s Panama duty. The flyers were the “red” team, attacking from the air, while the “blue” team lay in wait, aboard ships “guarding” the canal. The pilots executed their orders during these simulations, but off-duty they grumbled about the Navy’s outdated and seriously flawed maritime battle plans.

“I can’t believe they have us flying so near enemy ships!” Chum groused, crunching over a gravel path after morning exercises. Win paced alongside as they headed toward the base canteen.

“So near? What do you mean? How else could we release our torpedoes?” His friend asked as they ordered sodas at the commissary’s cafeteria.

“Think about it, Win. A torpedo aims more accurately if it detaches directly above the ocean’s surface. And it’s not the steep dive on approach that’s fatal—it’s pulling up after releasing the torpedo. That maneuver is potentially fatal. The belly of the plane is too close to enemy guns. Any surface ship could blow us to kingdom come.” He smacked his palms loudly for effect.

“But, Chum, hold on! There’s smoke laid down on the surface by the first two T3M’s. That smoke blankets us.”

“Yeah, if all goes as planned. If the smoke is laid down close enough to the water, if it doesn’t rise too fast, and if the wind doesn’t blow in too hard. That’s a lot of ifs. Think about it. We approach in low formation, drop our payload and bank, while dangerously showing our undersides to the enemy. We’d be lucky to keep our asses dry, Win. Makes me wonder what desk genius dreamed up this idea. It’s a suicide mission.”

The two flyers stared at their icy drinks. Perhaps Win could see his own plane exploding into the cold depths, just as Chum had already envisioned.

“Anyhow, the scuttlebutt says the brass is taking a second look at that line of attack,” Win disclosed. “The Navy wants to remodel the torpedo bombers into patrol biplanes, replacing the ordnance with fuel tanks. Can’t come fast enough for me—you’ve made me a believer,” his friend admitted.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Splendid Little War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Remember

Roosevelt Field Aviators,1933: Elvey Kalep, sitting right, Betty Gillies, on her stomach, Frances Marsalis, standing center, Amelia Earhart, at left looking down. “The Ninety Nines.”

This week’s promotion of “River of January” turned out a glorious success. My central purpose in researching and writing this first installment was to honor what transpired in America before our time. I hope all of the Kindle readers who downloaded the memoir are stirred by this true account, and return for the sequel, “River of January: Figure Eight.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available in hardcopy at http://www.river-of-january.com or on Kindle.