Archive for October, 2008

In today’s encore excerpt–Catherine the Great, Tsarina of Russia. King George III sought Catherine and Russia’s help in suppressing the American rebellion, but was rebuffed. Further, Britain’s dominance of the seas was diminished when Catherine formed a naval alliance from which it was excluded. Her concern in both cases was not for the American rebels, but instead for the European balance of power. These two developments, when combined, significantly limit Britain’s ability to sustain the war against American independence:

“Confronted with the increasing frenzy of ‘His Majesty’s unhappy and deluded people’ on the other side of the Atlantic, George III’s ministers approached Empress Catherine the Great for Russian assistance. Britain had the best fleet in the world but a negligible army, traditionally resorting to hired mercenaries. By contrast, the Russians had a homogeneous force hardened by war, toughened by the elements, and thoroughly brutal. … King George requested 20,000 disciplined infantry, ‘completely equipped and ready to embark’ as soon as the Baltic navigation was possible in the spring; he also sought to hire Russian naval ships to bolster his own navy. It was a tempting offer, but Catherine refused. … Publicly she wrote to George III, wishing him ‘good luck,’ but privately she was far more smug, convinced that George had badly bungled his handling of the rebels and ‘should be taught a lesson.’ … Britain was forced to resort to its second choice … the German House of Hesse. …

“[Catherine] was equally unwilling to acknowledge the existence of the American rabble. … But as fate would have it, the tsarina was also supremely fickle. Edgy and ambitious, she distrusted republics and despised insurgents, but even more than that, she craved power on the grand European stage. This would lead to one of history’s most curious moves. The consequences would be far-reaching. …

“Under the guise of protecting ‘freedom of the seas’ and ‘international law,’ Catherine … grasped her own opportunity to spearhead an alliance that would include the other great powers in Europe–Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and eventually Prussia, Austria, Portugal, and the Ottoman Turks–against the belligerents, which, in effect, meant England. Notably, the French and Spanish also rallied to the cause. … John Adams and Francis Dana now lauded Catherine’s ‘idealism’ and hailed the empress as ‘our friend.’ George Washington referred to her as the ‘great Potentate of the North.’ …

“In one bold stroke, [Catherine’s] Doctrine of Armed Neutrality redressed the balance of global sea power. More than that, the tsarina had isolated Britain diplomatically–the first time that had happened in the eighteenth century–and had curtailed Britain’s vaunted maritime fleet while aiding France’s. In so doing, she helped bolster the hopes of the beleaguered American rebels fighting for their lives and, in effect, almost inadvertently helped midwife America to independence.”

Jay Winik, The Great Upheaval, Harper Collins, Copyright 2007 by Jay Winik, pp. 37- 40.


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The creation of Iraq

In today’s excerpt–in the aftermath of World War i, Britain carves the new country of Iraq out of the defeated Ottoman (Turkish) Empire to protect access to its newly discovered oil interests in Iran, and to protect transportation lanes to its imperial possessions in Asia. The inherent divisions within Iraq–which will shortly lead Britain to bomb its villages–are already apparent:

“During the war, London had encouraged Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, to take the lead in raising an Arab revolt against Turkey. This he did, beginning in 1916, aided by a few Englishmen, of whom the most famous was T.E. Lawrence–Lawrence of Arabia. In exchange, Hussein and his sons were to be installed as the rulers of the various, predominantly Arab, constituents of the Turkish empire. Faisal, third son of Hussein, was generally considered the most able. …

“The British put Faisal on the throne of the newly created nation of Syria, one of the independent states carved out of the extinct Turkish empire. But a few months later, when control of Syria passed to France under the postwar understandings, Faisal was abruptly deposed and turned out of Damascus. He showed up at a railway station in Palestine, where, after a ceremonial welcome by the British, he sat on his luggage, waiting for his connection.

“But his career as a king was not yet over. The British needed a monarch for Iraq, another new state, this one to be formed out of three former provinces of the Turkish empire. Political stability in the area was required not only by the prospect for oil, but also for defense of the Persian Gulf and for the new imperial air route from Britain to India, Singapore, and Australia. The British did not want to rule the region directly; that would cost too much. Rather what [Winston] Churchill, then head of the Colonial Office, wanted was an Arab government, with a constitutional monarch, that would be ‘supported’ by Britain under the League of Nations mandate. It would be cheaper. So Churchill chose the out-of-work Faisal as his candidate. Summoned from exile, he was crowned King of Iraq in Baghdad in August 1921. …

“Faisal’s task was enormous; he had not inherited a well-defined nation, but rather a collection of diverse groups–Shia Arabs and Sunni Arabs, Jews and Kurds and Yazidis–a territory with a few important cities, most of the countryside under the control of local sheikhs, and with little common political or cultural history, but with a rising Arab nationalism. The minority Sunni Arabs held political power, while the Shia Arabs were by far the most numerous. To complicate things further, the Jews were the largest single group among inhabitants of Baghdad, followed by Arabs and Turks.”

Daniel Yergin, The Prize, Free Press, Copyright 1991,2 by Daniel Yergin, pp. 200-201.

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In today’s encore excerpt–in the waning days of his presidency, George Washington was vilified for his support of the Jay Treaty. Though the treaty averted war, solved many issues left over from the American Revolution, and opened ten years of largely peaceful trade in the midst of the French Revolutionary Wars, it was reviled because it favored America’s former enemy, Britain, and failed to end to the impressment of American sailors. So Washington and other treaty supporters became despised by much of the public, with countless angry demonstrations–including one where his house was surrounded for days by hostile, chanting protesters:

“When the president dined alone with John Adams to enlist his support [for the Jay treaty], his vice president worried, ‘I see nothing but a dissolution of government and immediate war.’ … The press denounced Jay, criticized the treaty, derided the Senate, and in a constant drumbeat, reserved some of its most trenchant words for Washington himself. One Virginia editor actually suggested a toast for a ‘speedy death to General Washington.’ Meanwhile, when the press wasn’t sticking its finger in Washington’s eye, popular meetings were. Across the country–in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and countless other cities–they screeched until their voices were hoarse for Washington to reject the treaty, while in Manhattan, seven thousand Republicans, stretching from Broad Street to Wall Street, noisily marched against it. And day after day letters poured in condemning the pact as a deal with the British ‘Satan.’

“Then the opposition truly got ugly. Jay’s treaty, and his effigy, were burned up and down the entire Eastern Seaboard. Rioters in Philadelphia, clogging the avenues, broke windows in the houses of the British ambassador and a Federalist senator. In New York, Alexander Hamilton was pelted with stones. And John Adams was stunned to see the presidential mansion surrounded from morning to evening by protesters repeating the same stinging calls, a deafening refrain chanted over and over again in an ever-escalating crescendo, demanding war with England, cursing Washington (a ‘horrid blasphemer’), and calling for the success of the French patriots; marchers even impaled the treaty on a pole and carried it to the home of the French ambassador. The vitriol was unrelenting: A pale and utterly depleted Washington was [even] compared unfavorably to King Louis XVI.”

Jay Winik, The Great Upheaval, Harper Collins, Copyright 2007 by Jay Winik, p. 495.

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In today’s excerpt–at the founding of our country, Americans drank more alcohol than at any time before or since, five gallons of pure alcohol per person per year as opposed to two gallons today. Currently, America is a nation of relatively moderate drinkers, ranking around 20th among the world’s countries. Along the way, American anti-German hysteria during World War I helped usher in thirteen years of Prohibition:

“American prohibitionists believed the demon rum and its church, the saloon, were the world’s prime sources of evil. ‘When the saloon goes,’ said Ernest Cherrington, a leader of the Anti-Saloon League, ‘the devil will be ready to quit.’ The American temperance movement is as old as America itself, but it became a political force in the mid-1800s, fueled in part by a bias against immigrants, including Irish and Italian Catholics, who were stereotyped as shiftless alcoholics. After the Civil War, it spawned two powerful groups–the Prohibition Party and [hatching-toting Carry Nation’s] Women’s Christian Temperance Union, whose slogan was ‘For God, Home and Native Land.’

“But is wasn’t the antics of Carry Nation that won the fight for prohibition, it was the political savvy of the Anti-Saloon League. … Founded in 1895, the league pioneered many of the techniques now used by modern advocacy groups. Working through local churches–generally rural Methodist or Baptist churches–it raised money, endorsed candidates and successfully lobbied for laws banning liquor in many towns and counties. In 1905 the league demonstrated its growing power by defeating Ohio Governor Myron Herrick, who had thwarted the league’s legislative agenda–an upset that terrified wet politicians.

“In 1913 the league kicked off its drive for a constitutional amendment prohibiting liquor with a march on Washington and a massive letter-writing campaign that flooded Congress with mail. The amendment failed in 1914, but gained strength during World War I, when the league exploited America’s anti-German hysteria by deliberately associating beer with German-American brewers. ‘Kaiserism abroad and booze at home must go,’ declared the league’s general counsel and wily Washington lobbyist, Wayne Wheeler.

“It worked. Congress passed the amendment in 1918. … When the new law went into effect on January 17, 1920, evangelist Billy Sunday held a funeral for John Barleycorn in Norfolk, Va. ‘The slums will soon be a memory,’ he predicted. ‘We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. … Hell will be forever for rent.’

“Alas, it didn’t work out that way. Prohibitions not only failed to eradicate slums and prisons, it even failed to curtail drinking, a pastime that now took on the allure of a forbidden thrill. … In 1935, two years after Prohibition’s repeal, two middle-class alcoholics, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, founded an organization– Alcoholics Anonymous–that proved far more effective than Prohibition in combating drunkenness.”

Peter Carlson, “Uneasy About Alcohol,” American History, December 2008, p. 37.

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In today’s encore excerpt, having completed the transcontinental railroad in 1869, U.S. businesses and the U.S. government try to recruit immigrants to settle the middle of the country–promising such things as freedom to speak their native language, local self-governance, and exemption from military service. For the railroads it was not only a way to support their operations, but a way to increase the value of the landholdings they had received from the government as inducement to build the railroads:

“It had at first been thought that no settlers could survive anywhere on the semiarid, mostly treeless Great Plains that rolled all the way from Montana and the Dakotas south into Texas … but the Homestead Act of 1862 began to change all that. It promised 160 acres of public land to any person who filed a claim, paid a ten-dollar fee, and agreed to work the property for five years. As it happened, the 1870s and early 1880s were unusually wet years in the West, and the prairies, plowed and planted for the first time, yielded bumper crops. Promoters made the most of it … [but] most of these efforts came to nothing. Factory workers [from the East] weren’t farmers, and even those who might try it could rarely afford it. Land itself was cheap, but getting to it, getting started, and surviving for the five years required to get title to a homestead cost money that most of them didn’t have.

“Prospects seemed better overseas. The Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society recruited Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe to establish farming communes in Oregon, Colorado, Kansas, and the Dakotas. The First Swedish Agricultural and Galesburg Colonization Companies started the towns of Salemsborg and Lindsborg in Kansas. Small groups of Dutch, French, Bohemian, English, and Irish families scattered across the Plains. Two hundred Scottish families settled together on the Kansas-Nebraska border. By 1875, more than half of Nebraska’s 123,000 settlers were members of families headed by foreign immigrants. …

“Then C.B. Schmidt [of the Santa Fe railroad] was dispatched for the biggest prize of all–the German- Russian Mennonites. They were pacifists who had fled Prussia rather than serve in its army three- quarters of a century earlier. … There was plenty of competition for these able and prosperous farmers. After Canada offered them immunity from military service and free transportation if they would settle there, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota all also solemnly offered to exempt them from military duty– although they had no legal authority to do so. Everyone promised them the right to govern themselves in their own communities, to speak German in their own schools, plenty of land at good prices, and easy credit.

“Mennonite emissaries were taken to Washington to meet President Grant. … Secretary of State Hamilton Fish personally assured them the United States would not go to war again for at least fifty years.”

Geoffrey C. Ward, The West, Back Bay Books, 1996, pp. 243-7.

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China falls behind!

In today’s excerpt–how China, once the world’s economic and technological leader, fell behind. It closed its doors to the outside world in 1434, and with this isolation from trade in commerce and ideas, began a centuries-long period of stagnation:

“China’s population of 1.3 billion constitutes more than a fifth of humanity. Asia’s population, in total, includes 60 percent of humanity. Asia’s fate is truly the world’s fate. .., China and India are ancient civilizations that in important ways were far ahead of Europe not so many centuries ago. The rise of the West–the western part of the Eurasian landmass–was one of the great ruptures of human history, overturning more than a millenium or more in which Asia rather than Europe had the technological lead. [Today], Asia is not merely catching up with Europe and the United States, it is also catching up with its own past as a technological leader. …

“Where did China stumble, and why? … Around the start of the sixteenth century, just after Columbus had found the sea route to the Americas and Vasco de Gama had circled the Cape of Good Hope to reach Asia by sea, China was clearly the world’s technological superpower, and had been so for at least a millenium. Europe conquered Asia after 1500 with the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press, all Chinese innovations. There was nothing fated about such a turnaround. China’s dominance, it appears, was squandered, and 1434 is increasingly understood to be a pivotal year.

“In that year, the Ming emperor effectively closed China to international trade, dismantling the world’s largest and most advanced fleet of ocean vessels. Between 1405 and 1433, the Chinese fleet, under the command of the famed eunuch admiral, Zheng He, had visited ports of the Indian Ocean all the way to East Africa, showing the flag, transmitting Chinese culture and knowledge, and exploring the vast lands of the Indian Ocean region. Then, all at once, the imperial court decided that the voyages were too expensive, perhaps because of increased threats of nomadic incursions over China’s northern land border. For whatever reason, the emperor ended ocean-going trade and exploration, closed down shipyards, and placed severe limitations on Chinese merchant trade for centuries to come. Never again would China enjoy technological leadership in naval construction and navigation, or command the seas even in its own neighborhood. …

“In 1975, China’s per capita income was a mere 7.5 percent of Western Europe’s. Since then … China has soared, reaching around 20 percent of Europe’s income level by 2000. … China is ending extreme poverty, and is on its way to reversing centuries of relative decline.”

Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty, Penguin, Copyright 2005 by Jeffrey Sachs, pp. 149-151.

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