The dangerous trend of imperial nostalgia – it's not just Russia

Although great empires rank among the most powerful engines of world history, they are also among the most dangerous, especially as they brood over their decline.

The Russian empire provides a striking illustration of this phenomenon. Traditionally referred to as the “prison of nations,” Russia, in its Czarist and Soviet phases, controlled a vast Eurasian land mass of subject peoples. But the implosion of the empire in 1991 left Russian leaders adrift, uncertain whether to steer their nation toward a more modest role in the world or to revive what they considered their country’s past imperial glory. Ultimately, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, they decided on the latter, employing Russian military power to attack neighboring Georgia, win a civil war in Syria, annex Crimea, and instigate a separatist revolt in Ukraine’s Donbas region. This February, Putin launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, with horrendous consequences.

Along the way, imperial nostalgia has pervaded Putin’s thinking. As early as 2005, he told the Russian parliament that the collapse of the Soviet empire was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and “a genuine tragedy” for “the Russian people.” In July 2021, he published a long historical article (“On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”) contending that there had never been a Ukraine independent of Russia. During a televised address on February 21, 2022, in which he recognized the two secessionist Donbas regions, Putin again invoked the past, claiming that Ukraine was “historically Russian land.”

This lament for a lost imperium, shared by many Russian leaders, not only showed little regard for people trapped under the yoke of empire, but for their actual history. A Ukrainian nation, with its own language and culture, had existed for many centuries, had been ruled by a variety of nations during that period, and, in 1991, had held a referendum in which 92 percent of the electorate voted for independence from the Soviet Union. Nor did it seem to trouble Putin that, in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the Russian government had formally pledged to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

Disconsolate Russian officials have their counterparts in Britain. In the aftermath of World War II, as decolonization gathered momentum throughout the far-flung British Empire, the guardians of the Old Order worked to suppress independence struggles and bitterly lamented the decline of imperial grandeur. In 1956, Prime Minister Anthony Eden, angered by the policies of Egypt’s revolutionary leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, launched a British invasion, along with France and Israel, to retake control of the Suez Canal. Blocked in their reassertion of imperial power by the Soviet and U.S. governments, British officials were deeply humiliated and, thereafter, largely settled for a junior partnership with the United States in global operations. Even so, the fact that Britannia no longer ruled the waves continued to sting. In 2002, Boris Johnson―currently Britain’s prime minister―wrote contemptuously that Africa “may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”

The French government, too, grew increasingly dismayed in the postwar era as the Algerians revolted, the Vietnamese routed France’s armed forces, and the French Empire disintegrated. Desperate to fend off imperial collapse, French officials proposed retaining their colonial relationships through a French Union. In 1958, when the people of Guinea voted, instead, for independence, the embittered French government turned to sabotaging the ungrateful new nation by destroying government records, flooding the country with fake banknotes, diverting shipments of food and medicine, and even removing the lightbulbs from government buildings.

Meanwhile, French military officers, convinced that their own government would fail to subdue the Algerian rebels, seized power, toppled the Fourth Republic, and stepped up France’s counterinsurgency war. In 1961, when General Charles de Gaulle, installed in office thanks to the coup, negotiated a peace agreement, French military leaders, horrified, again revolted. Although de Gaulle proved able to outmaneuver them, many disgruntled French military veterans and staunch imperialists flocked to a new, far-right political party. Its descendent, the National Rally, is led by Marine Le Pen, who recently received 42 percent of the vote for the French presidency.

Though the United States, originally a thin string of colonies on the Atlantic coast, is less often regarded as an imperial nation, the reality is that, through wars and treaties, it dramatically expanded across the North American continent and beyond. By the end of World War II, it was one of the largest nations on earth, as well as the richest and most powerful. Even so, as other countries recovered from the conflict and began to assert themselves, fears arose among Americans that they were “losing” nations around the world to Communists, revolutionaries, and nationalists. This anxiety about declining control of global affairs inspired U.S. military intervention in numerous lands, including Vietnam, where, as Lyndon Johnson remarked, the United States could not allow itself to be defeated by a “raggedy-ass, little fourth-rate country.” Although Donald Trump is best-known for promising to “Make America Great Again,” this backward-looking incantation was also employed by earlier presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, to rally Americans behind reviving the nation’s Golden Age.

China’s leaders―especially Xi Jinping―have reached deeper into the past to locate its era of imperial glory. Shortly after taking power in 2012 as Communist Party Secretary, Xi lauded his nation’s five thousand years of history and its “indelible contribution” to world civilization. Condemning China’s more recent years of humiliation at the hands of the colonial powers, he vowed “to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Xi amplified on this theme in 2018, when, in a speech to the 13th National People’s Congress, he declared that “we are resolved to fight the bloody battle against our enemies . . . to take our place in the world.” Listing China’s historic achievements, he again promised “the great restoration of the Chinese nation.” In the 38-minute speech, in fact, he used the word “great” 35 times. And Xi has managed to turn China into a major power, surpassed only by the United States in economic and military strength. He has also developed a much more assertive foreign policy, dubbed “wolf warrior diplomacy,” as well as a dangerous military confrontation with the United States and other nations in Asia.

Imperial nostalgia is rife in other lands, as well, among them Turkey, India, Hungary, Austria, and Israel, where it helps foster delusions of grandeur and the aggressive programs that accompany them.

The ubiquity and perils of this nostalgia highlight the need to create an international security system to replace today’s international anarchy. Fortunately, the United Nations presents a useful starting point for an international order no longer plagued by imperialism or other forms of international aggression. Although the nations of the world have given the world organization the responsibility to protect international security, they have failed to provide it with the power to do so. Therefore, as we cope with a planet riven by international conflict and war, let us consider how dreams of imperial grandeur might be discarded and how a strengthened United Nations might be used to fashion a more secure and cooperative world.

Dr. Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

This article was originally published at History News Network

Reigniting a nuclear arms race is the wrong take-home from Ukraine

When it comes to the Ukraine War, no one has a crystal ball. With Putin rattling his rockets and the world worried about his next step, the most important take-home message from this disastrous affair — however it ends — should be that nuclear weapons must go.

And yet, beyond death and destruction, another outcome is very likely and potentially tragic; namely, a renewed call for more and “better” nuclear weapons.

The claim is already being made that if Ukraine hadn’t given up its nuclear weapons in the mid-1990s, Putin would not have attacked that country. Nukes, we are told, would have deterred him, and so, we should cast our lot — even more than at present — with nuclear weapons so as to deter would-be aggressors.

History argues otherwise, namely, that nuclear weapons do not prevent wars. During and after the Cold War, each side engaged in much conventional warfare and military arm-twisting: the Soviets, for example, in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1979–1988); the Russians in Chechnya (1996–2009), Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014-present), as well as in Syria (2015-present). The United States in Korea (1950–1953), Vietnam (1962–1974), Beirut (1982), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), the first Gulf War (1990–1991), in the former Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001–2021), and Iraq (2003–2016), to mention just some of the more prominent cases.

Nor did the threat presumably posed by the US nuclear arsenal deter aggressive maneuvers by the Soviet Union when it was not yet a nuclear power. In 1948, the US had a nuclear monopoly, which didn’t inhibit Stalin from initiating the Berlin Blockade, one of the USSR’s most provocative Cold War actions. In fact, the Soviets were most aggressive vis-à-vis the US between 1945 and 1949, when only the US had nuclear weapons. It was during that time that Stalin, in violation of the promises he had made to Roosevelt and Churchill during their Yalta summit, consolidated Soviet control over its Eastern European satellites.

Moreover, the alleged deterrent effect of nuclear weapons did not even prevent actual attacks by non-nuclear opponents upon nuclear-armed states or their avowed strategic interests. In 1950, China was 14 years from developing its own nuclear weapons, whereas the US had dozens, perhaps hundreds of atomic bombs. US military and civilian officials judged, moreover, that China’s military was exhausted by decades of civil war and would not dare intervene against the world’s sole nuclear superpower. They were spectacularly wrong. As the Korean War’s tide shifted against the North, Mao’s China felt threatened that General MacArthur’s forces wouldn’t stop at the Yalu River and might invade China in an attempt to overthrow its new, communist government.

To the surprise and consternation of US leadership, the American nuclear arsenal did not deter China from sending more than 300,000 soldiers southward, resulting in the stalemate on the Korean peninsula that divides it to this day, and that has produced one of the world’s most dangerous unresolved standoffs. In 1956, nuclear-armed Great Britain warned non-nuclear Egypt to refrain from nationalizing the Suez Canal, to no avail. The UK, France, and Israel ended up invading the Sinai in an unsuccessful effort to achieve their goal. A decade later, Israel had obtained its own nuclear weapons, which didn’t keep armies from non-nuclear Egypt, Syria, and Jordan from attacking it in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Argentina invaded the British-held Falkland Islands in 1982, even though the UK had nuclear weapons and the attacker did not.

Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 1991, that non-nuclear country was not deterred from lobbing 39 Scud missiles at nuclear Israel, which did not retaliate, although it could have demolished Baghdad. It is hard to imagine how doing so would have benefitted anyone; the fact that Israel had this capacity did not stay Saddam’s hand, perhaps because he realized that Israel would have had more to lose than to gain by “making good” on its implied deterrent threat. Moreover, nuclear weapons obviously did not deter the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on New York and Washington, DC, just as the nuclear arsenals of the UK and France have not prevented repeated terrorist attacks on those countries.

The pattern of nuclear non-deterrence is historically established and geographically widespread, along with the frequent failure of nuclear-armed militaries to get their way, even against non-nuclear countries. Nuclear-armed France couldn’t prevail over the Algerian National Liberation Front. The US nuclear arsenal didn’t inhibit North Korea from seizing an American intelligence-gathering vessel, the USS Pueblo, in 1968. Even today, this boat remains in North Korean hands. Its nuclear arsenal didn’t enable China to get Vietnam to end its invasion of Cambodia in 1979; a conventional invasion did. Nor did US nuclear weapons stop Iranian Revolutionary Guards from capturing US diplomats and holding them as hostages from 1979 until 1981, just as fear of American nuclear weapons didn’t prevent Iraq from invading Kuwait in 1990.

Moreover, the historical record is clear that when a nuclear state is losing in an armed struggle against a non-nuclear one, being armed with what was once called “the winning weapon” doesn’t contribute to winning. The US unequivocally lost in Vietnam, but accepted this defeat rather than flailing about with its atomic and hydrogen bombs. Ditto for the USSR and then the US in Afghanistan, outcomes that were not reversed by the superpowers’ ability to incinerate Kabul.

By the end of the 20th century both India and Pakistan had nuclear weapons, which might have inhibited each side – thus far – from using them. But it certainly hasn’t made their confrontations less dangerous, nor, it seems likely, any less frequent. In 1999, Pakistan snuck military units – disguised as Kashmiri militants - into the high-altitude region known as Kargil, on the Indian side of the Line of Control that separates India and Pakistan in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir. The Pakistanis apparently thought that its nuclear arsenal would force India to accept the move as a fait accompli. Pakistan had tested its first nuclear weapons in 1998, and it seems likely that its military was emboldened by this addition to its arsenal, expecting that the threat of going nuclear would inhibit an Indian response. If so, it didn’t work. India responded by mobilizing 200,000 troops, initiating an air campaign (not answered by Pakistan), and preparing a naval blockade of Karachi.

Pakistan’s next step was to begin issuing nuclear threats. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced “If there is a war, or if the present confrontation continues on the borders, it will bring so much devastation, the damage of which will never be repaired.” This did no good whatever, and by mid-June, Indian forces had retaken all of the key positions in Kargil. India’s nuclear arsenal had not deterred the Pakistanis from their military adventuring, just as Pakistan’s didn’t prevent India from retaking its lost territory.

There is very little reason to think that nuclear weapons would have made Ukraine safe, or that they would benefit other countries, not to mention the world. Nonetheless, ostensibly because of the Ukraine War (or, more likely, using it as an excuse), the US Air Force now intends a three-fold increase in spending on a new ICBM — labelled “Sentinel” — from $1.1 billion to $3.6 billion. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has described the proposed Sentinel as “one of the most dangerous weapons in the world,” because like all ICBMs, it would be easily targeted by an adversary and would leave a president only a few minutes to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike, greatly increasing the risk of Armageddon based on a false alarm. The Ukraine War has also stimulated $5 billion on a new bomber (labelled “Raider”), which itself carries a planned total of $20 billion by fiscal 2027.

There are doubtless more ill-advised take-home messages yet to emerge from the Ukraine War. So, starting now, let’s disabuse ourselves of the illusion that this terrible war makes a case in favor of nuclear weapons, when the reality is precisely otherwise.

How land sale contracts looted Black wealth and gutted Chicago communities

In Chicago, there’s a lot of talk about crime that happens on the city’s South and West sides. There’s less talk about crime that happened to the South and West sides. One such injustice is the predatory practice of land sale contracts, common in Chicago’s Black communities in the 1950s and ’60s. A contemporary Chicago artist is shining a spotlight on this acutely detrimental form of housing predation, the effects of which linger today.

But first, let’s look backward. The little-known history of land sale contracts—also called contracts for deed, home installment contracts or home contract sales—stretches back to the postwar period. After World War II, a housing boom spread across America and with it came the creation of a vast middle class. Many white Americans—aided by low down payment, low-interest home loans guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, along with benefits from the 1944 GI Bill—were able to buy property and reap the economic benefits of home ownership which resulted in generational wealth. The number of families that owned their homes climbed from 44% in 1934 to 63% in 1972.

Meanwhile, Black Americans were largely excluded from homebuying due to discriminatory practices like redlining, which were federal government-endorsed policies in which banks withheld loans from prospective buyers in Black or mixed-race neighborhoods. Then along came land sale contracts, a purported pathway to homeownership for African Americans with few other options.

Contract sellers bought houses, often from white families attempting to flee racially changing neighborhoods, then marked up the prices of the homes and sold them to Black buyers on contract. The buyers would pull together hefty down payments, followed by monthly payments at higher-than-average interest rates. Contract buyers also were responsible for covering the cost of all home maintenance. Despite making payments, buyers did not build equity in their homes—and importantly, contract sellers kept the titles until the last contract payment was made. If a buyer missed even one payment, the seller could evict them and the buyer lost the money they invested in the home, without recourse to recover it.

Making the case for reparations in a 2014 article in The Atlantic, author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates described contract buying as “a predatory agreement that combined all the responsibilities of homeownership with all the disadvantages of renting—while offering the benefits of neither.” Indeed, scores of contract buyers got an exceptionally raw deal and were ultimately left with nothing to show for it.

A 2019 study from Duke University explored the quantitative impact of land sale contracts on Black homebuyers in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. The findings of the study were grim. Contract sellers marked up home prices by 84%, on average. A speculator would buy a home for $12,000, and days or weeks later, sell it to a Black homebuyer on contract for $22,000. Compared with what they would have paid if they had bought the home at a fair price with a conventional mortgage, Black contract buyers spent an average of $587 more (in April 2019 dollars) each month.

Between 75% and 90% of homes sold to Chicago’s Black families in the ’50s and ’60s were on contract, and the amount of expropriated Black wealth is staggering: between $3.2 billion and $4 billion were stolen in the two decades studied, according to Duke University estimates. Due to holes in surviving data—there were no requirements that land sale contracts be publicly recorded—researchers say those estimates are conservative.

“What happened during this crucial era, that of the making of America’s mass white middle class during the long postwar economic boom, was a systematic, legally sanctioned plunder of black wealth,” the Duke researchers wrote.

The billions in taken funds directly contributed to America’s racial wealth gap. Rather than earning equity and passing down assets to future generations, Black contract buyers often lost their homes and savings and landed in debt; meanwhile, their money lined the pockets of contract sellers. As Rutgers University historian Beryl Satter wrote in “Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America,” a book about the land sale contract system, “While contract sellers became millionaires, their harsh terms and inflated prices destroyed whole communities.”

It’s important to note that speculators gained access to the necessary capital to buy and then resell homes on contract from investor groups including Chicago doctors, dentists, lawyers and politicians, the Duke study found. In other words, the well-off got wealthier at Black buyers’ expense. Land sale contracts came to an end in the late ’60s with the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, nationality or sex.

Through a public art project titled “Inequity For Sale,” sponsored by the National Public Housing Museum and its Artist as Instigator residency program, artist Tonika Lewis Johnson illuminated the history of this theft, showing that abandoned homes, vacant lots and population loss present in some Chicago neighborhoods today are directly tied to land sale contracts, redlining and other forms of discrimination. The museum’s program is designed to shine a light on historic and social justice issues using artful intervention to illustrate history that otherwise might have remained unnoticed.

Lewis Johnson erected five-foot-high, black-and-yellow concrete and metal land markers in front of two land sale contract homes in Englewood, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, one at 6823 S. Aberdeen St. and the other at 7250 S. Green St. Passersby can’t help but notice the bright yellow circular signs. In capital letters, the marker on Green Street reads: This home at 7250 S. Green was legally stolen from Black resident John Garner on December 28, 1962 in a widespread land sale contract scam. This crime was never brought to justice. Reparations are due.

The back of the land marker explains the concept of land sale contracts, including their ruthlessness and present-day effects. The exhibit launched in February 2022, during Black History Month, in collaboration with the National Public Housing Museum, which named Lewis Johnson its 2021 Artist as Instigator.

More land markers will be added in front of additional properties in late spring; there’s also a planned walking tour of Englewood’s land sale contract homes using an interactive phone app.

The Duke University study documented more than 100 homes in Englewood sold using land sale contracts, many of which are still standing.

“Many of these once-beautiful homes are now dilapidated or abandoned, visible proof of the sordid legacy of land sale contracts,” said Lewis Johnson, who also co-hosts a three-part podcast series supported by the National Public Housing Museum based on the project. “Having people walk through Englewood and see these properties allows them to interact with the destructive nature of Chicago’s history of redlining and segregation.”

Pushback on the new exhibit has already arrived—as it so often does when ugly history is publicly aired. The owner of the Aberdeen Street property, who doesn’t live in the city, removed the land marker. The home is vacant, with boarded-up windows, but the owner said he plans to renovate it in the future.

Lewis Johnson plans to campaign for a collection of land sale contract homes to become an official city landmark. She also hopes to purchase one of the stolen homes and transform it into a community art center. Moreover, she intends to place a land marker in front of a present-day business, such as a bank, that directly profited from land sale contracts.

“My goal with this project is to map the evidence of historic legalized theft in Greater Englewood,” Lewis Johnson said, “and engage the public in action-oriented conversations that ultimately bring this unresolved crime to justice.”

Tiff Beatty is the program director of arts, culture and public policy at the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago.

This article was originally published at History News Network

This failed blockbuster killed old Hollywood -- and maybe John Wayne, too

John Wayne portraying Genghis Khan is truly an odd idea. The legendary western star approached the role of the Mongol leader as if he was playing a gunfighter—one with yellowface makeup, slanted eyes, Fu Manchu mustache, and eye-popping costumes to amplify the actor’s physique. Yet, this head-scratching casting choice is merely a jumping-off point for the strange, monumentally disastrous, and even deadly story of The Conqueror, the 1956 epic movie made by RKO Studios and produced by billionaire mogul playboy Howard Hughes. The plethora of problems only began with the casting.

The movie fared well at the box office but struggled to earn enough to recoup its behemoth budget. Legend and rumors and politics would swirl like polluted sand in a windstorm for decades to come, but what The Conqueror did more than anything else was destroy Old Hollywood. The Golden Age came to a climactic close in the 1950s, and if one particular movie can be blamed for ending it all, it’s this one. Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror, examines this unbelievable story like never before.

Fittingly, The Conqueror is associated with another great fear of the 1950s—nuclear fallout. The epic Asian-set blockbuster was filmed in Snow Canyon, Utah – some miles downwind of the Nevada Proving Grounds, where atomic tests had been actively underway just one year before the film shoot. Nuclear fallout from a bomb test in 1953 was swept toward the community of St. George and contaminated much of the surrounding area. John Wayne would die from cancer nearly two decades later, along with director Dick Powell, co-star Susan Hayward, actors Pedro Armendariz and Agnes Moorehead, along with countless extras and crew members.

The effects of fallout on the cast and crew of The Conqueror can probably not be definitively known. True, Wayne and his colleagues were heavy smokers, but, as a lengthy Congressional battle to aid sick and surviving family members of the St. George area shows, the harms caused by fallout from nuclear testing were real, and seeking justice is a very real and ongoing source of pain and frustration. There will likely be no conclusion for The Conqueror cast and crew on this matter, though rumors shall always persist.

What is known is that occasional movie-maker Howard Hughes swooped in to purchase the controlling interest of RKO in 1948. The iconic studio behind classics such as King Kong, Citizen Kane, and It’s a Wonderful Life had found itself on shaky ground. Hughes, who had attempted to make a go at other production companies in the past, saw this as an opportunity to make personal projects and partake in his favorite pastime – preying upon desperate young starlets. Very quickly, the studio became grounds for communist witch hunts, critically panned projects, and predatory behavior. Hughes even sold the company to the mafia for a short amount of time before buying it back. Forced into a corner, the only move the aviator could make was to try to produce a hit. So, he gave the green light to a magnum opus idea: a sprawling story about Genghis Khan.

Cinema was then in the midst of the biggest fight for its life; the revolutionary convenience of television had given the big screen a run for its money. Hollywood pulled out all the stops to lure people back into the theatre. Films got bigger, brighter, and more expensive in the 1950s. Biblical epics, in particular, were designed to be so grand in scale that people had no choice but to flock to theatres and witness their enormity. And for a time, with films like The Robe and The Ten Commandments dominating the box office, cinema pulled ahead in that race.

Hughes sought to copy this formula, sticking in a star to attract fans and placing him in an eye-popping situation. Wayne actually had a three-picture deal with RKO, a contract method that left little choice for actors when it came to what parts they could play during the days of the studio system. Wayne had filmed the forgotten films Jet Pilot and Flying Leathernecks for Hughes, and wanted to polish off his contract by any means necessary – therefore, the unsuitable role of Genghis Khan in The Conqueror was born. Filming in a desert location, overbearing heat, flash floods, and disagreements plagued the shoot.

Once the film was completed, Hughes sold the movie and his interest in RKO – leaving new owners to deal with the financial turmoil. When The Conqueror failed to make bank, assets were sold piece by piece until the once-mighty studio was no more. RKO was the first of the original “Big Five” studios to shutter, while its Mongol epic was one of the first big biblical epics to flounder. Audiences had grown tired of a saturated market, avoiding what had become dime-a-dozen blockbusters for more intimate human stories that became a defining staple of 1960s cinema and ushered in the trends and styles of New Hollywood. Behemoth blockbusters like Cleopatra became far too risky to bankroll – meaning old-fashioned star-driven entertainment via the studio system became a product of the past.

Today, audiences can clearly see a parallel in the divide between superhero movies based on Marvel and Disney franchises versus smaller creative pursuits—indie films and limited series, often watched on streaming services. The similarly saturated market is sure to collapse, just like the Golden Age did during the time of The Conqueror. What is unclear is how or if the motion picture industry has anything to strike back with.

The 1956 so-called biographical adventure film lives in infamy for many reasons. It’s a bad movie that cinephiles revel in for a good time, a relic filled with mistakes from bloated production methods to racially insensitive portrayals. One can spend eons picking apart such a disastrous motion picture. My book, Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror explores the making of the movie, the fall of RKO under Hughes, the history of American nuclear testing, and how all of these worlds intersected to create such a historic blunder. It’s a truly unbelievable story that illustrates every wrong with Old Hollywood and how history is bound to repeat itself – even 70 years later.

Ryan Uytdewilligen is a broadcast journalist, author, and film historian based in Vancouver. His book Killing John Wayne: The Making of "The Conqueror" has recently been published by Rowman and Littlefield.

Is this the smoking gun that will take down Trump?

Prosecutors are always looking for the “smoking gun,” that elusive shred of evidence that conclusively establishes guilt. Attorney General Merrick Garland may be hesitating to indict Donald Trump not out of timidity, but for lack of a “smoking gun.” In Manhattan, fledgling prosecutor Alvin Bragg apparently lost his enthusiasm for a convincing false financial statement case against Trump. He says however, that his “investigation is continuing.” He is doubtless searching for a smoking gun.

Webster defines a “smoking gun” as “something that serves as conclusive evidence or proof (as of a crime or scientific theory).”

The phrase, it is said, originated in 1893 in a Sherlock Holmes mystery entitled “The Gloria Scott.” There, Conan Doyle writes of a chaplain imposter aboard a prison ship who murders the captain. The evidence is circumstantial. ''We rushed into the captain's cabin . . . there he lay with his brains smeared over the chart of the Atlantic . . . while the chaplain stood with a smoking pistol in his hand at his elbow.''

A “smoking pistol” was Conan Doyle’s turn of phrase. But it was close enough to pour the foundation for the cliché which holds currency today. Pundits used the phrase promiscuously during the Watergate era when a tape surfaced revealing that Nixon sought to cover up an FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary by having the CIA falsely tell the FBI that the investigation implicated national security. The tape led inexorably to the House drafting articles of impeachment and Nixon’s ultimate resignation.

Smoking guns did not originate with Watergate, and did not end there either. In the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq, George W. Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The UN Security Council wanted to see direct evidence or at least circumstantial evidence amounting to a “smoking gun.”

Chief Inspector Hans Blix, in charge of scoping out biological and chemical arms, told the Council: ''Evidently, if we had found any 'smoking gun,' we would have reported it to the Council. . . . The absence of smoking guns . . . is no guarantee that prohibited stocks or activities could not exist at other sites, whether aboveground, underground or in mobile units.''

There is a lot of smoke surrounding Trump’s conduct on January 6: Judge David Carter’s opinion in California holding that it was “more likely than not” that Trump corruptly attempted to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021.”

Trump’s tweet of December 19 to the faithful, inviting them to come to Washington, promising “be there, will be wild,” his continued false claims that he had won the election, although they were rejected in more than 60 court cases, and by Bill Barr, his own right-leaning attorney general who resigned early in disgust, the seven hour gap in the January 6 White House phone logs, and the flap over whether Trump knew about burner phones, let alone used them, and most damning the cooperation agreement of George Donohoe of the Proud Boys admitting that the rioters acted in concert and knew what they were doing was wrong. But, even all this conduct raising eyebrows may not amount to the “smoking gun,” the Holy Grail that prosecutors like to see.

But this past week there occurred a new development, which could be Trump’s smoking gun. CNN broke the story that two days after the 2020 presidential election, as votes were still being tallied, and two days before the media had called the election for Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Jr. texted then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, whom Congress has cited for criminal contempt, telling Meadows “we have operational control” to ensure Trump would have a second term. Trump Jr. laid out the strategy followed by Trump’s inner circle in the following months: file lawsuits, advocate recounts to prevent battleground states from certifying their electors, have a number of Republican state houses put forward slates of fake “Trump electors,” and if all else failed, throw the election into the House of Representatives where Trump could expect to win the majority as votes are counted by state delegations.

The text establishes at a minimum that Trump Jr. was in on the planning (of which Trump was doubtless aware) to subvert the choice of the voters in key states and replace them with either phony Trump electors or the electors put forward by Republican legislatures or else kick things over to the House of Representatives where Trump would certainly win 28 states to 22.

Subsequently, John Eastman, a lawyer on the right, proposed a six-step variation on the theme. Eastman elaborated a series of moves whereby Vice President Mike Pence might overturn the election. Judge Carter said that this put Trump and Eastman in the center of a criminal conspiracy to overturn the election.

Prosecutors never feel they have enough evidence to prove even a good case. Nevertheless, the New York Times reported that the January 6 panel believes it has enough evidence for a criminal referral to the Department of Justice alleging that Trump was involved in a conspiracy to defraud the United States, as well as other federal crimes, including obstruction of an official proceeding.

The panel, however, is said to be split over whether to make the referral for fear that it may politicize any eventual prosecution. A criminal reference would not bind Attorney General Garland, but it would ratchet up the political pressure to indict Trump, already reaching fever pitch. The committee may differ internally about whether it is advisable to make the referral, but they appear of a mind that there is significant evidence of criminality. Vice Chairwoman of the committee, Liz Cheney, a Republican of Wyoming whose conservative roots are second to none, told CNN: “I think…it’s absolutely clear what President Trump was doing, what a number of people around him were doing that they knew it was unlawful. They did it anyway.”

Whether there is a referral or not, Trump and the Trumpists will call any Garland indictment political, so why not refer? We are not a banana republic and are loath to prosecute our former rulers, but if we don’t hold everyone accountable, and give a pass to a former President that we wouldn’t give to anyone else, doesn’t this make us a banana republic as well? Here, no one is—or should be— above the law.

James D. Zirin is a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.

This article was originally published at History News Network

NOW WATCH: 'Very painful blow': Former Putin adviser explains why Moskva flagship was vitally important to Russia

Former Putin adviser explains why Moskva flagship was vitally important to Russia

Russia – and not just its army – is headed for a crisis of morale

Russia is on the brink of a morale crisis. This amounts to a reckoning that has implications more far-reaching than whether Putin stays in power or manages to end his Ukrainian war on terms favorable to Moscow. The truth will come out, eventually. It always does, and in every country, no matter the hurdles emplaced by state propaganda, censorship, and varieties of intimidation. And the truth will be devastating to the Russian mind and soul, far more upsetting than even the economic and other hardships now crashing down on Russia.

Putin has squandered the moral credit conferred on Russia by its immense contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany. The tale of the Great Patriotic War is one dear to the Russian nation and has long been rehearsed in novels, movies, plays, and public monuments. Each of these attests to the rigors of that earlier war and extols the people’s heroism, sacrifice, gallantry, and triumph. Every Russian, irrespective of education or social standing, can recite this inspiring story—from the siege of Leningrad, to the battle of Stalingrad, to the storming of Berlin. Admittedly, Russia’s moral credit was taxed during the Cold War and some nonconformists raised inconvenient questions about the cult of the Great Patriotic War. But this moral credit was never exhausted, not even by the suppression of Hungarian reformers in 1956 or the 1968 crushing of the Dubcek regime in Prague or the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. But now, thanks to Putin’s Ukrainian folly, the moral credit treasured by Russians since 1945 has been depleted.

Think of the awareness now dawning upon young conscripted Russian soldiers involved in a bungled war, evidently waging it without reliable logistics, and all the while enduring high casualty rates. The grandparents and great grandparents of these conscripts—as repeatedly taught via family lore and official accounts—won the greatest war in history and were decisive to saving humanity and civilization. But now, rooted in the experience of conscripts in Ukraine and through them seeping into broader Russian understanding, an inverted new tale is taking shape.

There is a glaring discrepancy between what Putin has said to justify his war and what conscripts in Ukraine are learning. The typical Russian conscript, whose age corresponds roughly to that of American college students, is not encountering Nazi drug addicts trying to perpetrate genocide against ethnic Russians. Not only is Putin’s mendacity revealed by the absence of Nazi villains. So, too, Putin’s nonsense about Ukraine as a bogus country without genuine identity is evidenced to conscripts by the steadfastness of Ukrainian soldiers that they fight and the vast support given them by civilians. These civilians, incidentally, include grandmothers of a kind familiar to any young Russian conscript. Now (and in coming weeks) he must withstand tongue-lashings from people who look like and sound like his own babushka—older women infuriated by the outrages committed by Russian lads in uniform, who by custom should be respectful of their elders, protective of the innocent, and bearers of sturdy morality.

In a foreshadowing of denunciations to come, an eighty-year old grandmother (a Russian incidentally) recently wrote an open letter to Putin’s young soldiers. It included these words:

“What will you gain from murdering your Ukrainian neighbors, who did not want war? Where is the joy in destroying an independent country that does not belong to you? . . . People around the world hate the destruction you’ve caused. Thousands of antiwar protestors in Russia will not respect you . . . Wake up from being brainwashed by false propaganda . . . The ghosts of murdered women, children and defenders of their country will haunt your nightmares.”1

In effect, as the Russian soldiers in Ukraine will have to admit on the basis of their experience, the cloak of heroism has slipped off. Slipped off from Russia and settled on Ukraine, its people, and its leader. Mariupol has replaced Leningrad as a besieged city defiant against overwhelming odds. Kyiv and Kharkiv have replaced Stalingrad as sites of a brave people fighting for life against a ruthless foe. The image of Zelensky staying at his post has replaced that of Stalin in beleaguered 1941 Moscow. Meanwhile, the idea long cherished by Russian apologists—namely, that their country is the true champion and guardian of Slavdom—has been discredited by scorched-earth warfare against the nation that most closely resembles them in language, religion, culture, and tradition. And worst of all, Russians are not the saviors but have become the invaders, a proposition utterly demoralizing to every young Russian conscript and to his family and friends. This portends an existential bleakness radiating from Putin’s war that must prove difficult to surmount and will linger for decades. During which time, Ukraine, with assistance from various countries, will eventually repair its cities, rebuild its economy, resettle millions of its uprooted citizens, and bask in the hard-won confidence implicit in a Ukrainian version of the Great Patriotic War.

David Mayers teaches at Boston University, where he holds a joint professorship in the History and Political Science departments.

This article was originally published at History News Network

Putin is carrying on Stalin's war on self-determination

A spectre is haunting Vladimir Putin — the spectre of Vladimir Lenin. Upon recognizing the “independence” of Donetsk and Lugansk, the Russian president clarified who is to be blamed for the whole mess: “modern Ukraine was entirely created by… communist Russia… Lenin and his associates did it in a very rude way towards Russia itself – by separating, tearing away from it part of its own historical territories. Of course, no one asked about [it] to the millions of people who lived there.”

Of course, now, more than a century later, we are fortunate that Russia is helmed by someone who knows exactly what the millions of Ukrainians want – and how to make their wish come true. Putin may well owe his mindreading skills to Lenin’s successor, Josef Stalin, who took great pains to rectify false consciousness, often by relieving the said bearers of their fallacious lives. Putin has spoken favorably of Stalin before, but his recent Lenin lambasting amid the onslaught on Ukraine points to one of the bloodiest spats between the two Soviet founders: self-determination.

I have been studying the vicissitudes of self-determination for well over a decade. US President Woodrow Wilson is usually accredited for originating the principle, but it emerged earlier, in communist circles, trying to class-square the national circle. Lenin was pivotal, his position rather radical. He saw national self-determination not only as compatible with the international socialist revolution, but in fact as a precondition of it. And he went so far as to demand its full application: “it would be wrong to interpret the right to self-determination as meaning anything but the right to existence as a separate state,” and not just as an “autonomous nation.” Lenin’s approach, however theoretical, gave self-determination its popular appeal: applicable to all nations, big and small, ethnic and civic – all the way through to full sovereignty.

Stalin slyly (ab)used Lenin’s idealism. On the one hand, he wrote, “The right of self-determination means that only the nation itself has the right to determine its destiny […] It has the right to complete secession”; on the other “regional autonomy is an essential element in the solution of the national question.” The second hand was the upper one: Stalin wanted to play at self-determination without applying it, to speak in the name of self-determination while effectively denying it.

Fast-forward a century, Putin is Stalin redux. His Feb 24 speech is a masterclass in having the self-determination cake while eating it, too. Considering Putin’s politics and discourse of bad faith – his constant recourse to “no choice” – it’s quite amusing to behold his stress on self-determination and freedom of choice. “Self-determination,” he notes, “is enshrined in Article 1 of the UN Charter.” Indeed, “Freedom guides our policy, the freedom to choose independently our future and the future of our children. We believe that all the peoples living in today’s Ukraine, anyone who wants to do this, must be able to enjoy this right to make a free choice.” The problem, of course, is that Lenin “rudely” created the artificial Ukraine so that “people living in territories which are part of today’s Ukraine were not asked how they want to build their lives when the USSR was created or after World War II.” A prodigy of doublethink, Putin has no problem in “seeking to demilitarize and de-nazify Ukraine,” while effectively using Hitler’s strategy of abusing self-determination to extend his Third Reich. For Putin, as for Stalin, 2+2=5.

In his 1922 “Last Testament” letter on The Question of Nationalities, Lenin observed: “It is quite natural that… the ‘freedom to secede from the union’ by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is.” A century later, the Great-Russian chauvinist is back; hopefully, we have learned something of how to better deal with him.

Uriel Abulof is an Associate Professor of Politics teaching at Cornell University and Tel-Aviv University.

This article was originally published at History News Network

Nixon made one of the most successful political comebacks in history. Trump ignores his playbook

In an informative article recently posted on HNN, Michael A. Genovese compares and contrasts Donald Trump with Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve non-consecutive terms. Trump aspires to go down that same path. However with respect to winning two non-consecutive terms, it is appropriate to compare Trump’s prospects with Richard Nixon’s more recent comeback.

Technically, of course, Nixon did not serve non-consecutive terms. But in a sense he did. When Nixon ran for president in 1960, he had served two terms as vice president. Nixon presented himself to the American people as an experienced incumbent who would continue the Eisenhower policies of a moderately conservative domestic administration and firm leadership of the free world against Communist aggression. After losing the presidential contest in 1960 and the 1962 race for California governor, Nixon set a path leading to the presidency in 1968. Trump completely deviates from the Nixon comeback model as Trump’s political characteristics are far different from Nixon’s and the presidential election process has changed since the 1960s.

Trump’s deviation from Nixon began on election night. Late on election night in 1960 (after midnight in California), Nixon broke the silence in a nationally televised speech saying, “while there are still some results to come in, if the present trend continues, Mr. Kennedy, Senator Kennedy will be the next President of the United States.”

Between midnight and dawn on election night in 2020, Trump spoke several times to supporters at the White House, and his remarks, too, were nationally televised. Trump spoke about winning states such as Michigan and Georgia that he did not win. He said, “We were winning everything and all of a sudden it was just called off." Trump was referring to big city votes counted for Biden late in the evening. By dawn, Trump was calling the election a “fraud on the American public.”

Trump also completely deviated from Nixon during the transition period between the election and the inauguration. Three days after the election, Nixon accepted Kennedy’s invitation to meet in Florida. Kennedy called Nixon “cordial” and “cooperative.”

In that extremely close 1960 election, Kennedy won Illinois by 8,000 votes amid charges of fraud in Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago. Nixon refused to demand a recount. Nor did he contest the election in court. Nixon would later write in his 1978 memoirs that a recount would have taken a year and a half, an uncertainty that would have been “devastating to American foreign relations.” Furthermore Nixon said that he did not want the label of “sore loser” that would have plagued him through the rest of his political career. On January 6, 1961, Vice President Nixon stated that it was his “honor” to declare that John F. Kennedy has been elected President of the United States and Lyndon Johnson elected Vice President. When Kennedy took the oath of office at his inauguration, Nixon stood behind him.

The Trump to Biden transition was the total opposite. Trump unleashed a plethora of lawsuits challenging election results. Trump pressured the Justice Department to overturn the election. After acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen refused to cooperate, Trump tried to replace him with lower-level staffer Jeffrey Clark. That is in addition to Trump’s call to the Georgia Secretary of State to “find votes” and courting of Republican state legislators in Michigan to convince them not to certify electors in that state Biden won by 154,000 votes. Trump promised a “wild” protest, pressured Vice-President Pence not to certify the electoral results, and encouraged the invasion of the Capitol on January 6. Finally, Trump got out of town on the morning of January 20, rather than attend the inauguration.

Trump continues to deviate from Nixon in his attempt to win back the presidency. Nixon, after losing the California governorship became a unifying force in the Republican Party. After giving a supportive speech for the presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, Nixon traveled throughout the country campaigning for the national ticket, which earned the gratitude of the party’s conservative wing. But Nixon also acted as a party unifier, stating a week after the 1964 election, that the party must “make a place for all responsible points of view.” In 1966, Nixon again traveled throughout the country campaigning for any Republican who had the party nomination. In 1968, Nixon appealed to the silent majority who were disgusted by the Vietnam War protesters and the racial riots of the mid-1960s. This Nixon appeal, often called the Southern Strategy, did have racial overtones for whites resenting lawlessness and disorder. But Nixon seemed moderate enough, especially when campaigning in the North, to receive the endorsement of Nelson Rockefeller and other liberal or moderate GOP leaders upon winning the nomination.

In contrast, Trump tries to come back to the presidency by frequent use of the word RINO – Republican in Name Only. In practical terms, this means anyone who does not support Trump’s return to power. Prime examples are the only two Republican members of the House Select Committee investigating January 6. Trump has endorsed Liz Cheney’s primary election opponent although the Wyoming representative has a 96 percent conservative rating from the Heritage Foundation, and Trump sent Adam Kinzinger a vulgar message about what he can do with himself. Trump’s attempt to return to the White House is not about political principles or ideology. Trump has endorsed nine Republican candidates challenging Republican incumbents in 2022 and made numerous other primary election endorsements. Nixon never did that. At a January 30, 2022 rally, Trump pledged to pardon the January 6 rioters if he were reelected in 2024. Unlike Nixon, Trump has no fear of being labeled a “sore loser.”

Nixon left America badly divided, but to achieve the Republican nomination he tried to unite his party and did not expel anyone. In Nixon’s time, the party had conservative, moderate, and liberal wings that he satisfied with his rigorous campaigning every two years. Those leaders determined the nominee. Nixon’s 1968 law and order satisfied conservatives and kept enough of the moderates and liberals to win a close election. Today the Republican Party is thoroughly dominated by conservatives. economically and socially. Trump is satisfied with that, as long as they support him and serve as his loyalists. That right- wing base that includes conspiracy theorists now determines the nomination. Catering to them is Trump’s chosen method to do what Cleveland did and what Nixon in a sense did. Will that divisive path work? It seems tenuous in light of the fact that Trump has lost the popular vote in both of his campaigns. But he is batting .500 at winning the presidency.

Donne Levy is a retired community college history instructor.

This article was originally published at History News Network

This dark and disturbing figure is advising Putin's inner circle

Should Vladimir Putin's barbarous war of Russian expansion move beyond the borders of Ukraine into Moldova, Finland, or even Sweden, then expect to hear the name "Aleksandr Gelyevich Dugin" far more frequently. A former philosophy professor at Moscow State University, Dugin has combined his obsessions with occultism and the neo-pagan philosophies of European fascists like Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist to derive his fervently nationalistic ideology of "Eurasianism," promulgated in books with torpid titles such as Foundations of Geopolitics and The Fourth Political Theory.

With his disheveled dress and long beard, Dugin affects the appearance of an Orthodox mystic, bearing a not uncoincidental resemblance to the monk Grigori Rasputin. In the West, a philosopher like Dugin expressing admiration for both Satanism and the Waffen-SS would be dismissed as a crank; proclamations that national greatness are to be found in a "genuine, true, radically revolutionary and consistent, fascist fascism" would rightly not endear you to the public at large. In the Russian Federation, however, Dugin is an adviser to high-ranking members of Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. Even more disturbing, according to Foreign Policy, his 1997 Foundations of Geopolitics has been required reading for students at the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation for a generation.

Gestated in anti-communist right-wing activism during the waning days of the Soviet Union, indebted to a specifically anti-liberal and anti-Enlightenment philosophical embrace of authoritarianism, irrationalism, and hyper-nationalism, Dugin dreams of a reborn Orthodox Tsarist state surpassing the borders and spheres of influence as they existed before 1989, of a Novorossiya built not on socialist principles, but fascist ones. In Foundations of Geopolitics, which Dugin describes as a brief for Russian ambitions from "Dublin to Vladivostok," the philosopher claims that "Ukraine as a state has no geopolitical meaning. It has no particular cultural import or universal significance, no geographic uniqueness, no ethnic exclusiveness," fulminating that Moscow must solve "the Ukrainian problem." If you want to know what the fascists intend to do, it's always wise to pay attention to what they literally say, otherwise you might be caught surprised. In looking for an interpretive key to understanding Putin's unhinged February 22 address on the eve of invasion, which was replete with bizarre historical revisionism, we'd all do well to familiarize ourselves with the contents of Foundations of Geopolitics. Understanding Putin's motivations, his current actions, and his future plans depends on a thorough comprehension of the sort of dangerous ideas advocated by an ideologue like Dugin, a man whom historian Timothy Snyder described in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America as having "revived or remade Nazi ideas for Russian purposes."

With pretensions to being a Russian version of the German existentialist Martin Heidegger and of serving the same political purpose as the Nazi theorist Carl Schmidt, Dugin posits that the global order is split between thalassocracies and tellurocracies, with the former being maritime nations defined by individualism and "rootless cosmopolitanism" and the latter referring to land-empires rooted in a "blood and soil" nationalism. In the current day, Dugin defines the United States, Great Britain, and the NATO alliance more broadly as a fundamentally "Atlantean" thalassocracy, while the continent spanning Russian Federation and her future allies (willing and unwilling) as a "Eurasian" tellurocracy. As a dictum for the Eurasian order as he most properly understands it, he is guided by the principle that the "nation is everything; the individual is nothing." Dugin zestfully prophesizes a coming apocalyptic conflagration between these two orders, with a new Russian Empire arising from those ashes. "In principle, Eurasia and our space, the heartland Russia," writes Dugin, "remain the staging area of a new anti-bourgeois, anti-American revolution… the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us."

While Russia observers have long signaled the alarm about Dugin's influence, with John Dunlap writing in a 2014 article from the journal Demokratizatsiya that the professor is a "dangerous Russian fascist" and two years later Paul Ratner at Big Think referring to him as "the most dangerous philosopher in the world," it behooves us right now to more coherently formulate the metaphors and analogies we use to understand the current conflict, because "Cold War" is an inadequate model for what we now face.

Popular culture depictions of Putin and the Kremlin are often filtered through a Cold War perspective, the sickle and hammer transposed into memes or the misunderstanding that the Russian dictator is somehow a communist (something engaged by both his detractors and admirers). It’s easy to see why such a misapprehension is so common when Putin is on the record as saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth-century." Putin's declaration evidences no sympathy for Marxist-Leninism or state socialism, however, but is rather a mourning for the loss of Russian territorial expanse and for Moscow's hegemony throughout eastern Europe and beyond. To say that we're in a "Cold War" (albeit one that's very hot in Kyiv) is to draw upon the wrong analogy. What the Kremlin currently wants isn't a return to the USSR, but as a reading of Dugin will demonstrate, the creation of a Novorossiya – a New Russia – a traditionalist, conservative, reactionary, revanchist order to act against modernity itself, with the philosopher writing in The Fourth Political Theory that " everything is to be cleansed off… science, values, philosophy, art, society, modes, patterns, 'truths,' understanding of Being, time and space. All is dead with Modernity. So it should end. We are going to end it." Incidentally, that quotation is from a passage in which Dugin extoled the leadership of Donald Trump.

Russia today is not the Soviet Union and Putin is not a premier. What both Putin and his court philosopher wish is to establish Russia as a new empire, a new Byzantium, a Third Rome, with the dictator as its Tsar. That Russia is a state mired in oligarchical corruption is well known, but to see financial incentive as the core of Putin's desire is to dangerously misapprehend the nature of our current threat, and it's not to take men like Dugin at their word. Understood not as a conventional leader, or even as a simple autocrat, but rather as the de facto spiritual head of a fascist International, suddenly Putin's behavior crystalizes into focus. The reactionary anti-LGBTQ laws in Russia, the financial and ideological support of far-right figures such as Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in Britain, and Trump in the United States, the forced annexation of Crimea and portions of Georgia, and now the offensive in Ukraine, don't make sense if we simply understand Putin as just another Russian autocrat.

The reality is far more dangerous. In an interview with Dissent about her book The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, journalist and dissident Masha Gessen explains that the "reason why the rest of the world was so slow to recognize the threat posed by both Hitler and Stalin was that what passed for ideology seemed preposterous," but that "Putin isn't that different." In this context, I fear that "New Cold War" is an overly sunny analogy. No sane person would ever choose war, but whether or not it's something we desire, war appears to have been chosen for us.

Ed Simon is the associate editor of The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, and is a regular contributor at several different sites. He is also a contributing editor at the History News Network. He can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

This article was originally published at History News Network

Bridget the grocer and the first American Kennedys

Given the number of words devoted to the story of the Kennedy family, it’s easy to think primarily about JFK in the White House, the assassinations of JFK and RFK, and the numerous other tragedies that have followed other members of America’s extended “royal family.”

Yet, largely overlooked beneath the tales of wealth, power, style and the premature deaths of the twentieth-century Kennedys are the lesser-known stories of the poor immigrant Kennedys who came to America in the mid-1800s, fleeing the collapse of their famine-ravaged homeland.

In particular, history has given short shrift to the dramatic and inspirational story of JFK’s widowed great-grandmother, Bridget Murphy Kennedy, the tenacious matriarch of the clan, a widow and single mother raising four kids alone, facing long odds in a hostile, anti-Irish climate.

Partly to blame is a strong, male-dominant bias in a family whose men clearly had complicated and imperfect relationships with women. When JFK visited his great-grandparents’ home turf in 1963, for example, he gave a shoutout to Patrick the barrel maker but not Bridget the grocer.

Her remarkable ascent — from maid to hairdresser to business owner — began less than ten years after her husband, Patrick, died at 35 of consumption (as tuberculosis was then known). It began at the tail end of the Civil War, as she donned her white shopkeeper’s frock and walked the aisles of her unnamed street-level East Boston shop, tallying her stock, making notes in a ledger book on what was running low, what needed restocking, what was collecting dust.

Over here were the teas, coffees, sugar, and flour, beside the scale used to weigh beans, rice, and spices scooped from barrels and bins. Over there, butter, cheese, eggs, and rashers, perhaps some mackerel, pickled salmon, cod. Standing at attention on shelves: bottles of relish, vinegar, honey, and molasses, beside the sperm and whale oil, the soaps and candles. At the counter, tins of hard candies, baskets of biscuits and bread. Arrayed out front, crates of fruits and vegetables and on a good day maybe the exotic bananas and “pine apples” Bostonians loved. Squeezed in or scattered elsewhere were the assorted dry goods, toiletries, ribbons, buttons, stationery, hosiery, and handkerchiefs that filled so many similar all-purpose neighborhood establishments, giving them their generic names — variety shop, notions shop. These immigrant-run mini marts, these mom-and-pop sundry shops, these convenience stores and bodegas: the striving toe-in-the-door outlets and emporiums of every working-class community, before and since.

And behind the counter? The good stuff—cigars and snuff, cider and ale, whiskey and brandy.

Like many Irish grocers, Bridget almost certainly sold a bit of liquor or beer, the grocery-groggery combo having proved to be more profitable and customer-friendly than selling produce and staples alone. With sickness lurking in the water, some customers felt that pasteurized beer was a safer alternative, and it was cheaper than milk. As one grocer said of his liquor sales, “A man would hardly have dared to go into business without it.” Said another: “Liquor is food.”

In Boston business directory listings, her shop would in time be listed simply as “B. Kennedy” or “Shop by Kennedy,” run by the “widow” Kennedy. Her store was initially located on Maverick Square, two blocks from her apartment, alongside the river of pedestrians and carriage traffic flowing steadily to and from the ferries and the shipping docks. Later, she’d move the shop to a first-floor space on Border Street, and would live with her kids in the apartments above.

The shop wasn’t much. Just a narrow room off Border Street displaying goods in boxes and barrels out front, atop crates and tables throughout the crowded aisles inside. But after nearly twenty years of working for others, she’d created a place of her own, where she was boss — a grocer, an entrepreneur. It had been a dream of hers and Patrick’s — one they’d briefly realized with the short-lived grocery shop they’d opened a year before his death in 1858. Now she was bringing it back to life. And by choosing to sell some booze (fifty cents for a quart of bourbon), her shop would become a casual, communal spot for local gossip and grog, a place for immigrants to buy from someone who spoke with the lilting familiar brogue of family and friends left behind.

As families settled into an era of post-war peace, Boston’s economy revived, putting a few more dollars in people’s pockets. No more rationing to support the war effort. Time to get back to normal. It was a propitious time for a scrappy immigrant to become an American business owner.

For Bridget, it was the start of a whole new life, a chance to finally paddle her own canoe.

Like other risk-takers operating a thousand similarly eager little immigrant businesses — saloons, salons, billiard halls, butcher shops, and bowling alleys — she was striving for independence, acceptance, and a slightly better future for her four kids. Her boldness reflected a changing city, in which Irish women and men were on a spirited ascent.

Bridget’s business coincided with the modest beginnings of a period in which the Irish became more fully integrated into city life. For the first twenty years after the Famine, the Irish had been Boston’s unwelcome guests. They held the lowliest jobs. They were sick and poor, dirty and desperate, made to feel lucky that the city even allowed them to live there. They huddled together and slowly found their place (at the bottom), and mortified Boston had grudgingly adapted.

The postwar Irish were different. Their ranks now included military veterans, ex-generals, and celebrated heroes. No longer charity cases, they began holding their own as business owners, lawyers, and even landlords. From the late-1860s into the ’70s, they found their way into city institutions, making inroads into the police force and fire department and, in time, the polls. Politically, they had no direct voice: no Irish person had served on the city’s eight-man Board of Aldermen, and only one had served on the forty-eight-man Common Council.

That would soon change, and dramatically so — with Bridget’s son, P.J. helping lead the way — but not quite yet. Though the Democratic Party preferred by the Irish was out of favor, stained by its stance on slavery, and though the party of Lincoln would dominate city elections for years to come, Irish politicians would make their mark on Boston soon enough.

The postwar years also saw Irish women begin to make their mark outside the home.

Women had served in empowering new roles during the war, running relief agencies, working in field hospitals, organizing donation drives. They worked at factories and on the assembly lines at arsenals, producing ammunition and other matériel for the war effort. Some continued to work as nurses after the war. Some became teachers, and in time Irish American women would dominate that profession in many US cities. Others would work as labor activists, civil rights advocates, suffragists, and journalists.

Old-school Boston wasn’t especially happy about the rise of an Irish middle class, nor the swelling chorus of women agitating for the right to vote. Harvard-trained Protestant elites still dominated the city — the Brahmins, as Oliver Wendell Holmes had dubbed them in 1860, in an article for the three-year-old Atlantic Monthly magazine; he named them after a high-ranking class of Hindu priests and teachers in India. These men and their fathers, their names stamped all over Boston — Adams, Appleton, Cabot, Quincy, Lowell, Lodge, Peabody, Winthrop — had overseen one of the nation’s most ethnically and culturally homogeneous cities. But as Boston absorbed more immigrants (not just Irish Catholics but newcomers from other parts of Europe and beyond), many founders’ families had moved out to the suburbs or their country estates. And with slavery now abolished, more Black families took up residence in Boston, albeit slowly.

With other postwar demographic shifts, Boston found itself in the swell of a midlife crisis. The city’s status as a leader in American politics, thought, culture, and literature was fading. It was no longer, in Holmes’s term, the “hub of the solar system.” Once considered the Athens of America, Boston was looking more like America’s Dublin. Charles Dickens had found the city “bright and twinkling” on his first visit, in 1842. “Boston is what I would like the whole United States to be,” he’d said, but during his return in late 1867, he changed his opinion. After landing at East Boston to start a months-long book tour — to read from A Christmas Carol (his tour is credited with easing New England’s opposition to Christmas, which would become a national holiday in 1870) — the ailing author found a very different Boston. “The city has increased prodigiously in twenty-five years,” he wrote to his daughter Mary. “It has grown more mercantile.”

In East Boston, business was indeed recovering from its prewar slump. And in the middle of the action was Bridget’s little shop on Maverick Square, close to her husband’s former workplace and the docks where he and she had arrived, where immigrant ships continued to land at the Cunard Wharf. His memory surely followed her around like a ghost.

Bridget was busier than ever in those postwar years, tallying and balancing her accounts — more tobacco, rum, and bitters for Henry Barnard, more green peppers and gin for Rhoda Cook, more lamp oil and brandy for Dr. Russell. Her sisters and cousins dropped in now and then, and her kids — ten-year-old P.J. and his teenage sisters — began to help, afternoons and Saturdays; the shop had become a hustling little family business. Another first-generation Irish boy (John F. Fitzgerald, soon to join P.J. as an upstart politician) recalled playing in the storeroom among barrels of sugar and flour at his parents’ North End grocery shop, watching customers stream through the door, thrilled at “being right in the middle of everyone, where everything was happening.”

At the height of the Famine, the London Times had grudgingly conceded this of the Irish: “among the many redeeming virtues of this intractable and unfortunate race is a strength of family affection which no distance, no time, no pressure, no prosperity can destroy.”

Bridget had for so many years been a victim, mistreated in Ireland and Boston, by the English and the Yankees. But she had emerged on the other side of her American acculturation having protected her family, hoisted them onto her back, and hauled them up to the front row of Boston’s postwar economic revival.

Within five years of the war’s end, Bridget and her kids seemed headed for a stable and more promising future. Then again, among the ranks of Boston’s business proprietors there was that one obvious distinction. She was a she—marginalized by gender as well as ethnicity. She was a shop owner but could not easily become an official US citizen. She was the head of her household and the family breadwinner but not allowed to vote or hold elected office. Her teenage daughters would confront similar limits. Bridget’s lone son, meanwhile . . . she had high expectations for the young man of the house, despite emerging signs of some hooligan instincts. P.J. would be able to vote and could run for office, and in time he just might. If she could just keep him out of trouble.

Neal Thompson is a journalist and author, most recently of the new The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of an American Dynasty.

The strangely forgettable burial place of Henry VIII

A black marble slab marks Henry VIII’s final resting place in the quire of St. Georges Chapel, Windsor Castle. However, this was only intended to be temporary while a grand monument was completed, and it was clear that no expense was to be spared. Henry laid down an elaborate plan to portray himself on horseback in armor, emulating the iconic image of the medieval knight. The Tudor king also wanted to be remembered within a chivalrous setting, choosing to be buried at St George’s Chapel, the location for the Order of the Garter Ceremonies. Designed to seal his reputation as a great and glorious warrior king, if completed, his tomb would have surpassed everything of its kind in England.

Yet Henry’s magnificent plans for his tomb were never followed. He was not a king, or a man to be ignored, so why were his memorial wishes? Perhaps Henry was showing a rare frugality, recognizing his country was impoverished from his war ambitions in France, and his plans for his burial tomb were grandiose and expensive. The other likelihood is that Henry, who had an aversion to accepting his own mortality, did not want to tempt fate by having his effigy completed during his reign. Henry had grandiose ideas when it came to designing other royal burials. The effigies of his grandmother Lady Margaret Beaufort and his parents Henry VII and Elizabeth of York were each made of magnificent gilt bronze and laid to rest in Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, at Westminster Abbey. This makes it all the more surprising that all that is provided for the king at St. George’s Chapel is a slab of black marble.

The initial plan for Henry’s tomb was not realized, and so he set out making new designs with the help of Italian sculptor Jacopo Sansovino in 1527. Henry commissioned an extraordinary 75,000 ducats for this elaborate design, a modern equivalent of six million ninety thousand pounds! The details of the final resting place for Henry VIII were written in a document entitled “The manner of the tomb to be made for the kings grace at Windsor,” yet unfortunately this manuscript no longer survives. However, luckily it was transcribed in the seventeenth century by antiquarian John Speed in his History of Britain, which gives details of Sansovino’s design that were followed up until the king’s death. It is Henry’s planned effigy that is the most striking, as his burial tomb was to be topped with a life-size gilded statue of the king on horseback under a triumphal arch, “over the height of the Basement shall be made an Image of the King on Horse-backe, lively in Armor like a King, after the antique manner.” Throughout his kingship Henry was deliberate in his fashioning of knightly masculinity, thus his elaborate design to have himself depicted on horseback, in armor emulating the archetype of the medieval knight was intended to bolster this manly portrayal.

The figure of the king on horseback also had strong imperial overtones that fitted Henry’s ambitions for conquest and imperial expansion in France. This military drive harkened back to a golden age of chivalry, with its high point being under Edward III and Henry V who had established English settlements in Normandy and Calais. From the start of his reign Henry held ambitions for reconquering France; he had always wanted to pursue his claim for the French throne as far as he could, while establishing international prestige as a celebrated military leader. The king’s invasion of France in 1513 achieved only modest success, yet it was still a remarkable achievement given that it was England’s first victory in France within living memory. Although modern historians have treated Henry’s triumph with some contempt, at the time he was perceived as a successful warrior king, and his tomb was intended to reflect this status.

Though Henry’s ambitious plans for his tomb may have highlighted Renaissance modernity, the king’s choice of burial at the chivalric setting of St. George’s Chapel symbolized the coming together of the medieval past with the present. Henry clearly identified with his medieval ancestors as he left precise instructions about the repositioning and beautification of the tombs of Henry VI and Edward IV, thus immortalising himself as the living embodiment of the two houses of Lancaster and York. It was Henry’s grandfather, Edward IV, who had commissioned the building of a new chapel for St. George in 1475, which was completed by his grandson in 1528. Significantly, Edward IV was the first monarch who chose to be buried at St. George’s Chapel, rather than at Westminster, evidencing his close alignment with chivalry. It was also Edward IV who provided a significant platform for jousting contests in the 1460s, as he chose to compete alongside his men in the tiltyard. Henry was also actively involved in chivalry, like his grandfather, taking part in jousting contests from the start of his reign and being invested with Order of the Garter at the age of four. St. George was also known to be Henry’s idol, which may explain why the king selected to be buried at St. George’s, rather than at Westminster with his father.

It is surprising that more has not been made of Henry VIII’s planned tomb, despite it never being completed, as it is still important to consider how the king wanted to be remembered. There is much we can learn about how Henry understood his kingship and masculinity from the design of his effigy, which was planned to venerate him as a medieval knight in armour on horseback. Yet, it is indeed ironic that a king who decided on an extravagant and oversized effigy, who held spectacular jousting tournaments, hosted a glamorous Tudor court, and who led a glorious campaign to France, should lie in a plain vault, marked only by a black marble slab.

Emma Levitt is a postdoctoral researcher in history at the University of Huddersfield (UK) who has published on the subject of jousting and masculinity in the reigns of Edward IV and Henry VIII. .

Wheat and deep ports: The long history of Putin's invasion of Ukraine

Observers discussing the Russian tanks, infantry vehicles, ballistic missiles, and soldiers massed at Russia’s borders with Ukraine have framed the story as either a reawakening of Cold War tensions or as Vladimir Putin’s attempts to stoke nationalist sentiment at home. But there is a bigger and much older geopolitical story behind this buildup of troops. One part of it goes back to 1768, when Tsarina Catherine II had tens of thousands of Russian soldiers move South to conquer the plains above the Black Sea. The war she started against both the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire was just one of many Russian wars of expansion into the Black Sea region. In 1768, however, Catherine the Great succeeded. She was bent on seizing land that would supply Europe with fuel. Her victory created the town of Odessa, and Odessa’s wealth would feed Europe for a hundred years and give Russia the wealth necessary to make it the largest land empire in the world.

If Ukraine brought Russia wealth it has always been more than that. It was and has been for many centuries the crucial logistical route for goods coming to and from the Russian heartland. For centuries before anything like Russia existed those pathways – called black paths (chorni shlyakhy in Ukrainian) – have cut across the plains. Traders and their oxen brought leather, wheat, and other goods down the so-called Varangian corridor from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Russian tanks and artillery are descending on the same route today. We now know from paleogenetic research that this route is even older than the ancient world. Indeed a globalized economy across the plains of Ukraine stretched back to roughly 2800 BCE, before Russia or any other empires existed. It connected Sweden to Manchuria.

But in the days before steam engines, the “fuel” that Europe sorely needed was not petroleum or natural gas but concentrated calories in the form of wheat and rye. At first glance, a Russian drive south to claim farmland may seem strange. Thousands of agricultural estates surround Petersburg, Moscow, and Russian towns along the Don River. But Russian land was nothing like the Goldilocks region of Ukraine: flat land, black soil, weather warm enough for two seasons of wheat, and access to deep water. These factors together drove Russian planners to invade the region again and again until Russia controlled most of the northern shore of the Black Sea. Russia, then and now, had vast mineral resources but it was grasslands, wheat, and deep, southern ports that put Russia on the map as a world power. Putting grain on the ocean fed the Russian Empire from the days of Catherine to the last days of the Romanovs. Catherine knew the strategic and natural value of Ukraine, as does Putin.

Ukraine’s necessity to the Soviet experiment should also be clear. Shortly after the Russian Revolution, in 1922, the Ukrainian SSR became one of the founding members of the USSR. By the 1930s – after Stalin created an artificial famine in Ukraine – those plains became Russia’s most important breadbasket. After World War II the Soviets spent billions trying to expand grain production elsewhere in Russia, particularly across the Urals in Russia’s far east. Through the 1980s even Ukraine was not enough. The Soviet Union was forced to sell oil on international markets and became the world’s largest importer of grain. When oil prices fell and grain prices rose after 1985 it produced a balance of payments crisis that was arguably the most important event that ended the Soviet Experiment. This crisis is well known inside Russia’s cabinet, even if it is not well known by Russia watchers.

After 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine became independent. Russia managed to maintain power through a combination of bribery and intimidation. But then in the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14, Russian control broke down. The “loss” of Ukraine has dominated Russian thought ever since. Putin tellingly refers to Ukraine as “little Russia,” just as Catherine did. Putin, like his forebears the Romanovs, views Ukraine as a path to wealth and prosperity. Wheat exports sustained the Russian Empire and kept the Soviet Experiment afloat for three generations. Putin’s geographic goal is the same as Catherine’s was: access to world markets through the Black Sea.

Even though the energy equation has changed since the days of Catherine, the wheel is turning backward. Grain is on the rise again. Soviet attempts to drain Russia’s peatlands for wheat and rye have turned much of Russia’s landscape into a perfect field for Russian wildfires. These wildfires have repeatedly driven up food prices in Russia. Even today the average share of consumer expenditure devoted to food in Russia is nearly thirty percent, triple the expenditure in Europe and close to that of Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt, the countries whose governments collapsed during the surge of food prices that led to Arab Spring. Global climate change is making grain increasingly important as well. From April 1, 2020 to today international grain prices have increased almost fifty percent. Before the Russian-Ukrainian border crisis oil and gas prices were declining.

Putin’s strategy is not primarily about food of course. Nor does he wish to enfold all of Ukraine into Russia again or to return to Soviet-style central planning. His goal is to create a Ukraine that is a more easily manipulated pathway to wealth in the manner of the old imperial system where imperial governors ruled with the interests of the tsar at heart. The Minsk II accords that Putin demands would give the Donbas region – currently a puppet province operated by oligarchs and Russian military forces – veto power over any Ukrainian foreign policy that might interfere with Russian influence. Putin does not really fear NATO or EU status as such, but he rather desires continued power over the railway corridors and dockyards that pass through Ukraine to deep water. Those ancient pathways are both Russia’s lifeline to world markets and a convenient siphon for control by Russian oligarchs. A truly independent Ukraine threatens that power.

Key to an export-oriented empire like Russia is and always will be the Black Sea. If there’s a lesson in this latest surge to the Black Sea it is that every would-be empire thrives on the global traffic in food and energy. This is not the first conflict over the Black Sea and if the world survives this one, it will not be the last.

Scott Reynolds Nelson is the Georgia Athletic Association Professor of History at the University of Georgia. His book, Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade The World, about the Russian and American contest over the international market for wheat, will be published by Basic Books on February 22, 2022.

This article was originally published at History News Network

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This warning from Patrick Henry  has become disturbingly relevant in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection

On January 6, 2021, and again on its anniversary, rioters and their defenders invoked an almost mythological belief in “1776” and the most famous words of Patrick Henry – “give me liberty or give me death.” Henry’s speech is a favorite of the modern Tea Party and those who wish to deny federal authority or to ignore laws with which they disagree.

This, though, is to misunderstand Henry. His “liberty or death” speech was a response to British efforts to tax Americans unrepresented in Parliament and undermine the power of elected assemblies. His understanding of democracy is much more clearly shown in his opposition to ratification of the U.S. Constitution and then, later, his defense of the Constitution that he had opposed.

In 1788, Henry became the leading antifederalist, contesting ratification of the new Constitution. He warned that the federal government would become too powerful, too distant from the people. The presidency “squints to monarchy.” Henry almost defeated ratification in Virginia, but he lost. The Constitution was ratified.

When other antifederalists, led by George Mason, met to plan continued opposition to the Constitution’s implementation, Henry objected. He had opposed ratification “in the proper place – and with all the powers he possessed,” but having lost, it was time to “give it fair play.” Henry retired, refusing appointments as a Supreme Court justice, secretary of state, ambassador to France or Spain.

The story, though, does not end there. Within a decade, Henry was declared a prophet as the federal government’s power soared. In 1798, the Alien & Sedition Acts were adopted, effectively making it illegal even to criticize Congress or the president.

Many American rose in opposition, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Some advocated violent obstruction of federal authority. Kentucky, at Jefferson’s urging, declared the federal laws could not be enforced in Kentucky; they were “nullified.” Virginia, under Madison’s guidance, adopted resolutions only somewhat less revolutionary. The prospect of individual states disagreeing on which federal laws were valid and enforceable in their state raised the specter of interstate conflict, possibly civil war. Reports circulated of states arming for conflict with the federal government.

George Washington begged Henry to set aside his opposition to ratification and come out of retirement. Henry, recognizing that the nation was at risk, agreed: “I should be unworthy the character of a republican or an honest man if I withheld my best & most zealous efforts, because I opposed the Constitution….”

Patrick Henry – the leading antifederalist, the man who warned that the Constitution would create a government too powerful and distant from the people that would interfere with their rights – came out of retirement to defend the Constitution that he had opposed.

Henry’s final political speech, at Charlotte Courthouse in March 1799, speaks powerfully to the nature of democracy. He reminded the gathered throng that he opposed ratification. “He had seen with regret the unlimited power over the purse and sword consigned to the General government,” but the people ratified and, even for those who had opposed, “it was now necessary to submit to the constitutional exercise of that Power.”

The Alien & Sedition Acts were “odious & tyrannical,” but state interference with federal laws was unjustified and unconstitutional. The solution was the ballot box: “it belonged to the people who held the reins over the head of Congress, and to them alone....” The people’s power was in their votes.

Henry recognized that if tyranny “cannot be otherwise redressed,” people could revolt. But he warned, if forced to that extremity, “You can never exchange the present government but for a monarchy.” If Americans cannot live within our Constitution and laws, the republic fails. Despotism will result.

Henry won his election – Henry always won his election – but died before he could take office. But heeding his warning, the nation pulled back from the brink. The idea of nullification was swept aside (unfortunately to be resurrected in the run-up to the Civil War). Jefferson was elected president, but in a distinctly Henryesque manner: His supporters went to the ballot box and insisted upon change. Jefferson learned his lesson, in his first inaugural address stressing the “sacred principle that … the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail.”

The legacy of the election of 1800 is often given as the peaceful transfer of power between opposing parties, but it almost did not happen. Patrick Henry, the leading antifederalist, came out of retirement to remind the people that in a democracy they are called to respect the majority decision, even when they disagree with it. That essential legacy was respected in America as a foundation of our nation for 220 years.

Dr. John Ragosta (@johnragosta or, a fellow at Virginia Humanities, is finishing a new book on Patrick Henry’s defense of democracy. His previous works include Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed (UVA, 2015). Tweets @johnragosta.

This article was originally published at History News Network

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This West Point professor used to idolize Robert E. Lee – then he learned the terrible truth about the cruel enslaver

In his candid and searing recent memoir, Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause (St. Martin’s Press), retired US Army general and renowned professor of history Ty Seidule recounts his odyssey from youthful hero worship of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and an indoctrination in racist myths of the Lost Cause to acclaim as a historian devoted to challenging the poisonous white supremacist lies about slavery, the Civil War, African American inferiority, Jim Crow segregation, and the deified Lee.

As a distinguished scholar of history, a decorated soldier, and a native of the South, Professor Seidule writes with rare authority about race, the Civil War, and the myths and lies about the war that he learned from an education presented through the lens of racism and Confederate mythology. He explains how his early beliefs were shaped by white supremacist ideology that demeaned and dehumanized Black citizens. These racist views imbued Southern culture and were widely shared throughout the country in textbooks, popular periodicals, and the media, with movies such as the award-winning Gone with the Wind and Disney’s Song of the South rife with degrading stereotypes of African Americans.

And Professor Seidule vividly describes his path to understanding and his emergence as a leader for historical truth and for a reckoning on race. He demolishes the myths about the saintly Lee and, based on extensive research and overwhelming evidence, concludes that Lee was a traitor to his country who fought to preserve slavery. And, as Professor Seidule describes the military’s veneration of Confederate leaders in naming of bases and other actions, he rejects honoring of those who fought to preserve slavery and committed treason in the effort.

He further details how he became a scholar of our deeply conflicted past, and how that study revealed the noxious, insidious influence of racist ideas that have poisoned white minds since the dawn of slavery. And he considers the timely and vexing issue of how otherwise seemingly admirable people could embrace the odious tenets of white supremacy and the oppression of others.

Professor Seidule’s powerful personal observations and insights are especially timely as our nation continues to suffer serious divisions on issues of race and democracy. He urges that understanding our past is critical to confronting and stopping the generational transmission of pernicious racist ideas.

Ty Seidule is Professor Emeritus of History at West Point where he taught for two decades. He served in the U.S. Army for thirty-six years, retiring as a brigadier general. He currently teaches history and serves as the Chamberlain Fellow at Hamilton College as well as a New America Fellow. He is the author or editor of six books of military history, three of which won distinguished writing prizes, including The West Point History of the Civil War. Also a leader in digital history, Professor Seidule created and co-edited the award-winning West Point History of Warfare, the largest enhanced digital book in any field. His video lecture “Was the Civil War About Slavery” has had more than 30 million views on social media. He also serves as the vice chair of the Congressional Naming Commission, which will rename Department of Defense assets that honor the Confederate States of America. He graduated from Washington and Lee University and earned his doctorate at Ohio State University.

Professor Seidule generously responded to questions about his work and his new book by email.

Robin Lindley: Congratulations Professor Seidule on your candid new memoir Robert E. Lee and Me and thank you for considering questions. You have a distinguished background as a military historian and author. What inspired you to write your revelatory memoir now on your indoctrination in the myths and lies of the Confederate Lost Cause and your rigorous exploration of the reality of our history of racism and white supremacy?

Professor Ty Seidule: When I was at West Point, I chaired our memorialization committee. We created a new memorial room to the 1500+ Academy graduates who “gave the last full measure of devotion” to the nation from the War of 1812 to the present, including more than 100 alumni killed since 9/11. One decision caused a ruckus. Should the West Point graduates who fought and died in Confederate gray be included in the new Memorial Room? I argued, stridently, no! After all, Confederates abrogated their oath, killed US Army soldiers, and committed treason for the worse possible reason: to create a slave republic. Yet, I lost. The superintendent wanted to include the names.

I went home, defeated, to tell my wife. She asked me if I had told everyone why I was so passionate. Why the issues were so important to me? No, I told her. I’m a historian. I tell other people’s stories. She told me if I wanted to convince anyone, I needed to be honest and tell my story.

Then, in 2017, Washington and Lee University invited me to give a talk in Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee is buried. I told my story and called Lee a traitor for slavery. The audience gave me a standing ovation. I realized that if I was honest about my own story, I might be able to convince others about the facts of the Civil War and the Lost Cause more readily. So, I decided to do what few historians do. Use my own story to try to reach a broader audience.

Robin Lindley: In your new book, you describe your virtual reverence for Robert E. Lee, and how your education as a child and young adult was imbued with Confederate myths and racist history. At one point as a child, you ranked Lee as an “11” out of a scale of 10, and ranked Jesus at five. How do you see the origins of your adoration of Lee? Did your parents and teachers encourage your embrace of Lost Cause myths and the veneration of Lee when you grew up in the 1960s?

Professor Ty Seidule: Every aspect of my life encouraged me to see Lee as the epitome of a Southern gentleman. I wanted to be a Virginia gentleman because that meant status. My first chapter book was Meet Robert E. Lee. Lee looked like a military god on loan from Mt Olympus, framed by a gigantic Confederate flag. Today, it’s hard to imagine just how reverential Lee was to the white South, especially in Virginia.

Robin Lindley: What was your view of the causes of Civil War and its outcome as a child and young adult?

Professor Ty Seidule: It wasn’t something I remember thinking about. My culture focused on the romantic, underdog Confederates who fought nobly for a doomed cause. But honestly, I don’t remember thinking or hearing anything about the cause, the purpose. That was the problem. The purpose of the war and the war itself weren’t linked.

Robin Lindley: You vividly describe your college experience at Washington and Lee University—a veritable shrine to Robert E. Lee, who was seen as the paradigm of the Southern Christian gentleman. What did you learn about Lee and the college’s efforts to deify Lee, the former president of the college?

Professor Ty Seidule: The entire history of the school revolved around deifying Lee until very recently. Fundraising was successful for years by its association with Lee. Lee Chapel was called by the University in the 1920s “The Westminster Abbey of the Confederacy.” In fact, Lee Chapel is more a reliquary to a saint than a chapel. His basement office remains untouched from the day he died in 1870. Traveller, his warhorse, buried outside Lee’s crypt, often has apples left by tourists.

The fact that Lee’s statue lies on the altar in the Chapel’s apse clearly shows who is venerated – and it’s not Jesus. When my wife saw it for the first time, she understood that the school literally worshipped Lee. Her reaction? “Get me out of here!”

Robin Lindley: It may surprise some readers that so many bases and other US military facilities are named for Confederate leaders. Why did the US military honor traitors to the US in this way?

Professor Ty Seidule: Yes. Several of our most prestigious army posts honor the enemy. The War Department named them during WWI and WWII when the army was a segregationist institution, and the South was a racial police state.

Black people did protest these names, but they had been violently excluded from voting and could not change it. But to me it’s outrageous that the US Army, the most diverse workforce in the country, honors the enemy. An enemy who fought for slavery and killed US Army soldiers. Some like Henry Benning and John Brown Gordon never served in the US Army. Others like Braxton Bragg, Leonidas Polk, John Bell Hood and other West Point graduates chose to fight against the country that educated them. Lee served in US Army for over 30 years before choosing treason to preserve slavery.

Robin Lindley: You had a distinguished teaching career at the US Military Academy at West Point. You note that Lee casts a long shadow there with numerous tributes to the Confederate general. What are a few examples of this admiration for Lee at West Point that struck you?

Professor Ty Seidule: I lived on Lee Road, by Lee Gate, in Lee Housing area. At West Point our barracks are named for America’s greatest military heroes, Washington, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Bradley, Scott, Sherman, Grant, and Pershing. We recently named our newest barracks after Benjamin O. Davis, Jr, the first Black West Point grad in the twentieth century. But one barracks bears Lee name. When was it named? The early 1970s. I counted more than a dozen memorials to Lee at West Point.

The first Lee memorial came about in the 1930s and the last in 2002. That’s part of what changed me. West Point was an anti-Confederate monument in the nineteenth century. No Confederates in the prestigious cemetery. No Confederates in the Memorial Hall. None on the towering Battle Monument to the US Army dead from the “War of the Rebellion.”

“Duty, Honor, Country,” West Point’s motto is anti-Confederate. West Point in the nineteenth century saw Lee and his Confederate comrades as traitors. Lee made a comeback when West Point moved towards equal rights and integration. And that really informed my understanding of Confederate memorialization. It’s always about white supremacy.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for that striking observation. You’re a retired general and renowned expert on military history. Was Lee a good soldier and general?

Professor Ty Seidule: For years, I let the smell of gunpowder seduce me into answering that question. No more!

Lee chose treason to preserve slavery. His army kidnapped Black people during the Antietam and Gettysburg campaigns and brought them back for sale in Virginia. Lee’s army depended on enslaved people for much of their logistics – cooks, teamsters, nurses, engineers, farriers, and servants. The Army of Northern Virginia was an enslaving army. And Lee desperately wanted more enslaved labor throughout the war. Think of that for a minute. What other army depended so thoroughly on enslaved labor for its logistics? Also, Lee’s army routinely executed Black prisoners of war. Too often, we look at the tactics of war and forget the purpose.

I cover Lee as a strategist and tactician only after I clearly talk about treason and slavery.

Robin Lindley: Lee was an enslaver. How did he treat enslaved people? Did he ever emancipate slaves or call for abolition of slavery?

Professor Ty Seidule: Lee was a cruel enslaver. He enslaved people from the time his mother died soon after his graduation until 1863. When Lee’s father-in-law died in 1857, Lee took control of three enslaved labor farms for more than two years (I won’t call them plantations, which evoke images of the wind whispering through the Spanish Moss. Plantations are more Dachau than Disneyland).

Lee’s father-in-law recognized enslaved marriages and kept families together. Lee tried to maximize his profits at the expense of enslaved people by using the hiring system to break apart all but one family. He also ordered Wesley Norris and his sister whipped, telling the constable to “Lay it on well.”

As for emancipation, he once said that freedom would come on God’s time. He certainly fought for slavery, not emancipation. Lee’s actions are what count to me.

Robin Lindley: Your verdict on Lee is straightforward: He was a traitor who fought to preserve slavery. What was the most important evidence you considered in reaching this verdict?

Professor Ty Seidule: For treason: The US Constitution lists only one crime. In Article III Section 3: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” No court convicted him, although he was indicted.

I write as a historian but also as a US Army officer who served nearly 36 years. Lee also abrogated the oath he had taken only three weeks earlier on his promotion to colonel. In fact, he didn’t even wait three days to let his resignation process before he accepted a commission in the Virginia militia. Of the eight US Army colonels from Virginia in 1861, all West Point graduates, Lee and only Lee chose to fight for the Confederacy, chose treason.

As for slavery, that’s easy. Everyone knew that’s why the white South seceded. They told everyone. It wasn’t a secret. If senior officers fought for the Confederacy (especially one as smart as Lee) they knew damn well what they fought for – slavery. Then there are Lee’s comments after he heard about the Emancipation Proclamation on January 10, 1863, calling it,

A savage and brutal policy … which leaves us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction.

He fought for slavery because he believed in slavery.

Robin Lindley: Was there a moment or incident that sparked you to challenge your admiration of Lee and question the Lost Cause lies?

Professor Ty Seidule: Like many changes in life, it came gradually and then very fast.

First, my identity became army officer, not Southern gentleman. Second, I married a woman incapable of lying. My culture lied constantly. She really changed me. Third, I became a historian at West Point and then a historian of West Point.

I understood the Civil War was about slavery, but for too long, I held romantic notions of Lee. Then, when I started studying West Point’s memorialization of Lee, I just became outraged that tributes to Lee came at the same time as integration. That made me not just a historian but an activist for change.

Robin Lindley: How do you see views of the Confederacy and Lee evolving, if at all?

Professor Ty Seidule: Radical change! The US Congress created a commission to change the names of the army posts that honor Confederates, and then overrode President Trump’s veto by a supermajority. I serve on that commission. Memorials to Lee in Richmond, Charlottesville, and the US Capitol are gone. Wow! I would not have taken a bet with high odds in my favor that those iconic statues would be taken down in one year.

In a very short time, many (but not all) Americans see the values of the Confederacy as antithetical to our values and that gives me hope. My home state of Virginia is leading the way.

Robin Lindley: You write powerfully of how you felt betrayed by your education, your indoctrination with the lies of the Confederate Lost Cause, adoration of General Lee, and more. What would you like to see today’s students learn about our history?

Professor Ty Seidule: Everyone has a history. Every school has a history. Every town has a history.

I would love to see more students research their own lives. I taught a course on West Point’s history for years. We become better citizens, better people when we understand the history of where we live. And not just the myths, but the tough history: slavery, segregation, and redlining. A better understanding of our local history will, I think, make us more empathetic.

At West Point, our mission is to educate and inspire leaders of character for the nation who live the values of duty, honor, country. How do you teach character? Nothing works better than history. What we research and write can change our character, at least it did for me.

Understanding local history, through primary sources, made me a more empathetic and honest person.

And, for anyone teaching the Civil War, please, please have students read the Southern States Ordinances of Secession and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech. If you start with those documents, a teacher is on the right path.

Robin Lindley: I was struck that you received hate mail and even death threats in 2015 after you stated your view—and that of virtually all academic historians—that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. How are readers responding to your candid new book on Lee and the Lost Cause?

Professor Ty Seidule: The reception this time is far better, mostly. For the 2015 video I did on the cause of the Civil War, the online comments ran at least 20 to 1 negative. Now, it’s probably 10 to 1 positive. However, I still have plenty of one-star reviews on Amazon. There also seems to be a few folks who make videos debunking my argument.

If I receive hate mail in any form, I take it positively. I hope that my writing is clear enough that no one would mistake my message: treason for slavery. The Lost Cause, Confederate monuments, Jim Crow laws, disenfranchisement, and lynching all created a system of white supremacy to ensure white political power. Of course, history is dangerous because it challenges our myths and identity. When I challenge people’s identity, the reaction can be ferocious, but I’ve faced far tougher foes than on-line trolls.

Robin Lindley: Your book Robert E Lee and Me is bound to become a classic study and it deserves a wide audience. Is there anything you’d like to add about your book or your insights on history and the time we live in now? Where do you find hope as a historian and professor?

Professor Ty Seidule: I have no shortage of hope. Through the political process, statues dedicated to white supremacy have come down all over the country. Remember that commemoration is about our values. These statues’ demise tells us that our values, at least in many places, no longer tolerate traitors who fought for slavery. The military is now in the process of ridding itself of Confederate commemoration. Now, of course, that doesn’t mean we’ve ended racism; we still have far, far to go, but for me as a soldier and a scholar, it’s a start. The only way to prevent a racist future is to first understand our racist past.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Seidule for your thoughtful comments and insights, and congratulations on your moving and powerful new book. And best wishes on your new position at Hamilton College.

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer and features editor for the History News Network (history news His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill, Re-Markings,, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, art, and culture.

This article was originally published at History News Network

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What happens when the 'End Times' are now?

In June 2016, I organized a meeting for the local council of churches in an English town to discuss issues relating to the forthcoming European Union (EU) Referendum. The meeting was intended to provide an opportunity for airing Christian views on the subject. It was well attended and drew in participants from across the wide denominational spectrum of churches.

The evening was lively. Many of my friends (regardless of whether they were ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ in the context of the EU Referendum) expressed astonishment afterwards at the way the discussion developed.

They had expected the topics to include debates over things like sovereignty and parliamentary accountability, jobs and economic prosperity, continent-wide cooperation in order to meet global challenges, or peace and security in Europe.

What they got was discussion ranging from the allegation that the seat 666 is kept empty in the European Parliament chamber in both Brussels and Strasbourg (it isn’t), to whether the EU is a political tool of Antichrist in advance of the second coming of Christ.

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My friends were astonished at this. I wasn’t. During the previous month I had contributed a guest blog for a Christian news platform, challenging these same accusations. During that month (it went live on May 25, 2016) it had become, from my calculations, one of the most visited blogs on this website.

It can still be read online but, unfortunately, the huge string of comments and conversations under it can no longer be accessed. That is a pity because they would have provided interesting source material for future students of theology and the sociology of religion. Like the meeting I organized later, in June of that year, the online discussion got lively. In fact, it got very lively indeed! Some might say “heated.”

Eschatological turbulence on both sides of “the pond”

My experience in the UK was not the only turbulent event of 2016 that had end-times features to it. In November, something even more extraordinary occurred in the USA: the election of Donald Trump.

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Somewhere in the region of 33 million white evangelicals voted for Trump and huge numbers of these see contemporary events through the same eschatological lens that had informed the outlook of those with whom I had debated in the UK about the European Union. In the US, this support has had significant effects on foreign policy.

President Trump’s decisions to move the US embassy to Jerusalem (announced in 2018) and to support Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights (announced in 2019) were designed to appeal to American evangelical Christians. Polling in the US in 2017 revealed that 80% of evangelicals believe that the creation of Israel in 1948 was a fulfilment of biblical prophecy that will bring about Christ’s second coming.

In addition, Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate agreement in 2017 (the decision was implemented in 2020) sat easily with a group which contains many who deny the reality of climate change caused by human action, or do not consider it a threat which can be averted by human agency.

Whatever one feels about these geopolitical and environmental issues, it is undeniable that huge numbers of voters in the USA see these decisions through an end-times lens.

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At this point, I should say that as well as being an historian, I attend a church in the UK which would be described as “evangelical.” But, in the UK, “evangelicals” are as likely to be internationalist and in favor of state invention in society as not. The political homogeneity that is so pronounced in the USA is not a feature on this side of the pond.

The End Times, Again?

These experiences caused me to write a book which explores the history of end-times beliefs. It is called: The End Times, Again? 2000 Years of the Use and Misuse of Biblical Prophecy. It explores the history of end-times beliefs within the Christian community and their political and cultural impact.

Christianity inherited from Judaism a belief in prophecy and early Christian texts reveal this, both in the belief that the life of Jesus is foretold in Old Testament prophecy and in adding to the prophetic tradition by predicting the future return of Jesus.

Although the New Testament clearly says that the date of the second coming cannot be known, this has not stopped two millennia of speculation. Tenth-century commentators claimed that raids by Magyars and Vikings were fulfilments of prophecy. End-times excitement and anxiety mounted as the Year 1000 approached (despite the fact that an error in calculating the dating system meant it was not actually 1000 years since the birth of Jesus). This accelerated during the crusades, when the armies of Islam were confidently identified as end-times actors. During the Middle Ages, rival popes, kings and emperors quarried prophetic scripture for accusations to throw at each other (usually the accusation of being the Antichrist).

During the Reformation, Protestants overturned the official Catholic view of prophecy as allegorical and were sure they lived in the “last days” – with the pope being the Antichrist. Radical Anabaptist groups established “New Jerusalems” in anticipation of the second coming. As Britain spiraled into civil wars in the 1640s, eschatological excitement was intense, only to be dashed when the monarchy was restored in 1660.

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The same ideas were taken to New England and entered the cultural DNA of what became the USA. Eighteenth-century patriots accused George III of being “the great Whore of Babylon,” riding the “great red dragon” upon America (references to Revelation). In the nineteenth century the concept emerged of the Rapture, the idea that the “true church” will be removed from the earth shortly before a time of “Great Tribulation” preceding the return of Christ. The recent Left Behind series of novels embody this interpretation and have sold somewhere in the region of eighty million copies.

In the twentieth century, the establishment of the State of Israel and the Cold War galvanized prophetic study – especially in the USA – with many Christians identifying Israel as a fulfilment of end-times prophecy. For some in the Cold War, this outlook justified opposition to nuclear disarmament, since these weapons were seen as fulfilling predictions concerning widespread destruction, fire and sickness. This is where apocalypse meets foreign policy. Prophecy was interpreted in line with Western, and especially US, perspectives. In this process, end-times beliefs increasingly became associated with the political right. This was by no means inevitable, but it continues to be the case.

The continued impact of end-times beliefs today

Since 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to claims that it has eschatological significance. It should be noted that the same thing was said about the fourteenth-century Black Death. Anti-vaxxers and those unhappy with mask-wearing have included some who loudly identify these as aspects of an emerging international order associated with the Antichrist. This has resonated with – and been amplified by – conspiracy-theory-culture and the effects of social-media algorithms.

Some of the most extreme supporters of gun rights in the USA see them as weapons to be used in resisting the forces of the Antichrist in the last days.

In the face of such certainty regarding imminent end-times events, the urgent need to address the existential threat posed by climate change can be presented as irrelevant. After all, if the second coming is imminent, there is little urgency. Indeed, the threat from climate change may actually be viewed as an end-times judgement on humanity.

What is clear from all of this is that these beliefs are highly significant because, in an increasingly polarized political climate, the way they are being deployed in support of right-wing agendas impacts at the ballot box. This is especially so in the USA, where white evangelicals (even through a shrinking fraction of the electorate) punch well above their weight due to the extent of their ideological homogeneity, organization, and turnout. In any analysis of conservative voters’ political outlook and intentions, this end-times ideology needs to be recognized. Recognition does not imply agreement. But it can at least be the basis for dialogue, debate, and challenge. Ignoring it may prove to be a serious mistake.

Martyn Whittock graduated in Politics from Bristol University UK, where his degree special study was in radical Christian politics and theology of the seventeenth century. He also studied the politics of the USA. He taught history for thirty-five years and latterly was curriculum leader for Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural education at a high school in the UK. He has acted as an historical consultant to the British National Trust organization, the BBC and English Heritage. His latest book is: The End Times, Again? which explores the impact of Christian end-times beliefs over 2000 years and their continued impact on outlook, culture and politics today.

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