February 25, 1921 Fellow Traveler

In the 1930s, many believed that International Communism was “winning”. The capitalist west was plunged into a Great Depression that it couldn’t seem to get its arms around, while the carefully controlled propaganda of Stalin’s Soviet Union did everything it could to portray itself as a “workers’ paradise”.

In the wake of the “Great War” and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, American authorities became increasingly alarmed concerning the rise of radical Leftism.

00000744Far-left anarchists mailed no fewer than 36 dynamite bombs to prominent political and business leaders in April 1919, alone. In June, another nine far more powerful bombs destroyed churches, police stations and businesses.

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had one hand delivered to his home by anarchist Carlo Valdinoci, who did something wrong and somehow managed blow himself to bits on the AG’s doorstep. Palmer attempted to suppress these radical organizations in 1919-20, but his searches and seizures were frequently illegal, his arrests and detentions without warrant, and his deportations questionable.

436398aceb9a0d77db5df9e6439394aa--red-scare-open-handsTo this day there are those who describe the period as the “First Red Scare”, as a way to ridicule the concerns of the era. The criticism seems unfair. The thing about history, is that we know how their story ends. The participants don’t, any more than we know what the future holds for ourselves.

Looking over the international tableau of the time, the largest nation on the planet had fallen to communism, in 1917. The Red Army offensive of 1920 drove into Poland, almost as far as Warsaw. The “Peace of Riga”, signed in 1921 split off parts of Belarus and Ukraine, making them parts of Soviet Russia. On this day in 1921, Bolshevist Russian forces occupied Tbilisi, capital of the Democratic Republic of Georgia.

In the 1930s, many believed that International Communism was “winning”. The capitalist west was plunged into a Great Depression that it couldn’t seem to get its arms around, while the carefully controlled propaganda of Stalin’s Soviet Union did everything it could to portray itself as a “workers’ paradise”.

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Whittaker Chambers

Whittaker Chambers was one of those who believed the winning side to be on the political Left, and joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) in 1925. Chambers worked for a time as a writer at the Party’s newspaper “Daily Worker”, before becoming editor of “New Masses”, the Party’s literary magazine.

From the early to mid-thirties, Chambers delivered messages and received documents from Soviet spies in the government, photographing them himself or delivering them for Soviet intelligence agents to photograph. At some point, Chambers’ idealism began to waver, with the realization that he was supporting a murderous regime. By 1939, he joined the staff of Time Magazine, where he pushed a strong anti-communist line.

A series of legislative committees were formed between 1918 and the outbreak of WWII to investigate this series of threats, though these committees sometimes did more to construct the image of a threat than they did to stop one. It was in this context that HUAC, the House Committee on Un-American Activities was formed in 1938, becoming a “standing” (permanent) committee in 1945.

Alger Hiss
Alger Hiss

Whittaker Chambers warned about communist sympathizers in the Roosevelt administration as early as 1939, the FBI interviewed him in 1942.  Government priorities began to change n the wake of WWII, and Chambers was summoned to testify on August 3, 1945, where he named Alger Hiss and others as Communists.

A graduate of Johns Hopkins and Harvard Law School who had clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alger Hiss seemed an unlikely communist. He had gone on to practice law in Boston and New York before returning to Washington to work on President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, winding up at the State Department as an aide to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Sayre, former President Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law. By this time Hiss was a high ranking official in the State Department.

Hiss flatly denied Chambers’ charges, filing suit for defamation of character in December. Chambers escalated in his 1948 deposition for the suit, claiming that, not only was Hiss a communist sympathizer, he was also a spy.

pumpkinBefore defecting from the Left, Chambers had secreted documents and microfilms, some of which he hid inside a pumpkin at his Maryland farm. The collection was known as the “Pumpkin Papers”, consisting of incriminating documents, written in what appeared to Hiss’ own hand, or typed on his Woodstock no. 230099 typewriter.

Defending himself, Hiss claimed to have given the typewriter to his maid, Claudia Catlett. When the idiosyncrasies of Hiss’ machine were demonstrated to be consistent with the documents, he then claimed that Chambers’ team including freshman member of Congress Richard M. Nixon, must have modified the typeface on a second typewriter to mimic his own.

woodstockHiss’ theory never explained why Chambers side needed another typewriter, if they’d had the original long enough to mimic its imperfections with a second.

Alger Hiss’ first trial for lying to a Grand Jury ended with a hung jury, 8-4.  A second trial began on November 17, found him guilty of perjury on January 21, 1950.  Hiss maintained that he was innocent but lost his conviction, and served 44 months in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary before being released in 1954.

What many saw as a devoted civil servant maligned by the anti-communist hysteria of the 1940, others believed to be a liar and enemy agent.  Alger Hiss went to his grave in 1996, protesting his innocence.

Soviet-era cables, decrypted through a now-declassified program called the “Venona Project”, seem to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt of being a soviet agent. Venona transcript #1822, sent in March 1945 from the Soviet Washington station chief to Moscow, describes the subject codenamed ALES as having attended the February 4–11, 1945 conference at Yalta, before traveling to Moscow. Hiss attended Yalta on these dates, before going to Moscow with Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.

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Historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr report that the Venona transcripts tie approximately 349 Americans to Soviet intelligence, though fewer than half that number were ever identified.  The Office of Strategic Services alone, precursor to the CIA, housed between fifteen and twenty Soviet spies.

The CIA’s official conclusion, based on the CIA.gov on-line library is that “Although no specific file on Hiss has been released from the KGB or GRU archives, enough material has been found in other files–in Moscow, Eastern Europe, and Washington–to enable historians to write several new works that leave almost no room for doubt about Hiss’ guilt”.

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February 24, 1917  The Zimmermann Telegram

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona”.

On May 10, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson gave what came to be known as his “Too Proud to Fight Speech” in which he said:  “The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a man being so right it does not need to convince others by force that it is right”.

Lusitania sinkingThough Wilson didn’t mention it directly, HMS Lusitania had been torpedoed only three days earlier with the loss of 1,198, 128 of whom were Americans.

No one doubted that the attack on the civilian liner was foremost on the President’s mind.  Back in February, Imperial Germany had declared a naval blockade against Great Britain, warning that “On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening“.  “Neutral ships” the announcement continued, “will also incur danger in the war region“.

Lusitania warningThe reaction to the Lusitania sinking was immediate and vehement, portraying the attack as the act of barbarians and huns and demanding a German return to “prize rules”, requiring submarines to surface and search merchantmen while placing crews and passengers in “a place of safety”.

Imperial Germany protested that Lusitania was fair game, as she was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, the embassy pointed out that ads had been taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers, specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

Nevertheless, the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, for fear of bringing the US into the war against Germany.

President Wilson was elected back in 1912, talking about the sort of agrarian utopia favored by Thomas Jefferson.  In 1916, the election was about war and peace.  Wilson won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war”, but it hadn’t been easy.  In Europe, WWI was in its second year while, to our south, Mexico was going through a full-blown revolution.  Public opinion had shifted in favor of England and France by this time.  The German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, threatened to tip the balance.

With Great Britain holding naval superiority on the surface, Germany had to do something to starve the British war effort.  In early 1917, chief of the Admiralty Staff Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff argued successfully for the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, the policy to take effect on February 1.

Anticipating the results of such a move, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann dispatched a telegram to German ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckardt on January 19, authorizing the ambassador to propose a military alliance with Mexico, in the event of American entry into the war.  “We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona”.

housatonic-4-facta-nautica-1000x544The American cargo vessel SS Housatonic was stopped off the southwest coast of England on February 3, and boarded by German submarine U-53.  Captain Thomas Ensor was interviewed by Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose, who explained he was sorry, but Housatonic was “carrying food supplies to the enemy of my country”.  She would be destroyed.  The American Captain and crew were allowed to launch lifeboats and abandon ship, while German sailors raided the American’s soap supplies.  Apparently, WWI-vintage German subs were short on soap.

Housatonic was sunk with a single torpedo, the U-Boat towing the now-stranded Americans toward the English coast.  Sighting the trawler Salvator, Rose fired his deck guns to be sure they’d been spotted, and then slipped away.  It was February 3, 1917.

SS_CaliforniaPresident Woodrow Wilson retaliated, breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany the following day. Three days later, a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California, off the Irish coast. One missed, but the second tore into the port side of the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer. California sank in nine minutes, killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew.

In Mexico, a military commission convened by President Venustiano Carranza quickly concluded that the German proposal was unviable, but the damage was done.  British code breakers intercepted the Zimmermann telegram, divulging the contents to the American government on February 24.

images (22)The contents of Zimmermann’s note were published in the American media on March 1.  Even then, there was considerable antipathy toward the British side, particularly among Americans of German and Irish ethnicity.  “Who says this thing is genuine, anyway”, they might have said.  “Maybe it’s a British forgery”.

Zimmermann himself put an end to such speculation two days later, telling an American journalist, “I cannot deny it. It is true.” What Zimmermann had hoped that Americans would see as mere contingency, public opinion in the US saw as an unforgivable betrayal of American neutrality.

The combination of events was the last straw.  Wilson’s War Cabinet voted unanimously for a declaration of war on March 20.  The President himself delivered his war address before a joint session of Congress, two weeks later.  The United States entered the “war to end all wars”, on April 6.

Afterward

At the time, the German claim that Lusitania carried contraband munitions seemed to be supported by survivors’ reports of secondary explosions within the stricken liner’s hull. In 2008, the UK Daily Mail reported that dive teams had reached the wreck, lying at a depth of 300′. Divers reported finding tons of US manufactured Remington .303 ammunition, about 4 million rounds, stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds in cases marked “Cheese”, “Butter”, and “Oysters”.

Lusitania, ammunition

February 23, 1836  The Lexington of Texas

“If my countrymen do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.”

Following the Mexican War of Independence with Spain, (1810 – 1821), Texas became a part of Mexico.  In 1831, Mexican authorities gave the settlers of Gonzales a small swivel cannon, a defense against the raids of the Comanche.  The political situation deteriorated in the following years.  By 1835, several Mexican states were in open revolt.  That September, commander of “Centralist” (Mexican) troops in Texas Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea, came to take it back.

Dissatisfied with the increasingly dictatorial policies of President and General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the colonists had no intention of handing over that cannon.  One excuse was given after another to keep the Mexican dragoons out of Gonzalez, while secret pleas for help went out to surrounding communities.  Within two days, 140 “Texians” had gathered in Gonzalez, fashioning a flag that echoed some 2,315 years through history, King Leonidas’ defiant response to the Persian tyrant, Xerxes:   “Come and Take it.”

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Militarily, the skirmish of October 2 had little significance, much the same as the early battles in the Massachusetts colony, some sixty years earlier.  Politically, the “Lexington of Texas” marked a break between Texian settlers, and the Mexican government.

Settlers continued to gather, electing the well-respected local and former legislator of the Missouri territory Stephen F. Austin, as their leader.  Santa Anna sent his brother-in-law, General Martin Perfecto de Cos to reinforce the settlement of San Antonio de Béxar, near the modern city of San Antonio.  On the 13th, Austin led his Federalist army of Texians and their Tejano allies to Béxar, to confront the garrison.  Austin’s forces captured the town that December, following a prolonged siege. It was only a matter of time before Santa Anna himself came to take it back.

Two forts – more like lonely outposts – blocked the only approaches from the Mexican interior into Texas: Presidio La Bahía (Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio) at Goliad and the Alamo at San Antonio de Béxar.  That December, a group of volunteers led by George Collinsworth and Benjamin Milam overwhelmed the Mexican garrison at the Alamo, and captured the fort  The Mexican President arrived on February 23 at the head of an army of 3,000, demanding its surrender.  Lieutenant Colonel William Barret “Buck” Travis, responded with a cannon ball.

Knowing that his small force couldn’t hold for long against such an army, Travis sent out a series of pleas for help and reinforcement, writing “If my countrymen do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.” 32 troops attached to Lt. George Kimbell’s Gonzales ranging company made their way through the enemy cordon and into the Alamo on March 1. There would be no more.

Alamo-Weight-Loss-Motivation-2Estimates of the Alamo garrison have ranged between 189 and 257 at this stage, but current sources indicate that defenders never numbered more than 200.

On March 2, 1836, the interim government of Texas signed the Texas Declaration of Independence.  The final assault on the Alamo began at 5:00am, four days later. 1,800 troops attacked from four directions.  600 to 1,600 were killed from concentrated artillery fire and close combat, but the numbers were overwhelming. Hand to hand fighting moved to the barracks after the walls were breached, and ended in the chapel.

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As many as seven defenders still lived when it was over, many believe that former Congressman Davy Crockett was among them. Santa Anna ordered them summarily executed. By 8:00am there were no survivors, except for a handful of noncombatant women, children, and slaves, slowly emerging from the smoking ruins. These were provided with blankets and two dollars apiece, and given safe passage through Mexican lines with the warning:  a similar fate awaited any Texan who continued in their revolt.

Three weeks later following the Battle of Coleto, 350 Texian prisoners were murdered by the Mexican army under direct orders from Santa Anna, an event remembered as the Goliad massacre.

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Measuring 570′, the San Jacinto Monument is the world’s longest masonry column

The ranks of Sam Houston’s unit swelled with volunteers, as Houston’s army retreated eastward, along with the provisional government and hordes of civilians.  Houston’s green and inexperienced force of 1,400, were now all that stood on the side of Texan independence.

On April 21, a force of some 900 Texans shouting “Remember the Alamo!” & “Remember Goliad!” and led by Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna’s force of some 1,300 at San Jacinto, near modern day Houston.  In “one of the most one-sided victories in history” 650 Mexican soldiers were killed in eighteen minutes and another 300 captured, compared with 11 Texians dead and another 30 wounded, including Houston itself.    Mexican troops occupying San Antonio were ordered to withdraw, by May.

Intermittent conflicts continued into the 1840s between Texas and Mexico, but the outcome was never again placed in doubt.  Texas became the 28th state of the United States on December 29, 1845.

As for Santa Anna, he went on to lose a leg to a cannon ball two years later, fighting the French at the Battle of Veracruz. Following amputation, the leg spent four years buried at Santa Anna’s hacienda, Manga de Clavo. When Santa Anna resumed the presidency in late 1841, he had the leg dug up and placed in a crystal vase, brought amidst a full military dress parade to Mexico City and escorted by the Presidential bodyguard, the army, and cadets from the military academy. This guy was nothing if not a self-promoter.

The leg was reburied in an elaborate ceremony in 1842, including cannon salvos, speeches, and poetry read in the General’s honor. The state funeral for Santa Anna’s leg was attended by his entire cabinet, the diplomatic corps, and the Congress.

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Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna served 11 non-consecutive terms as Mexican President, spending most of his later years in exile in Jamaica, Cuba, the United States, Colombia, and St. Thomas. In 1869, the 74-year-old former President was living in Staten Island, trying to raise money for an army to return and take over Mexico City. Santa Anna is credited with bringing the first shipments of chicle to America, a gum-like substance made from the tree species, Manilkara chicle, and trying to use the stuff as rubber on carriage tires.

Thomas Adams, the American assigned to aid Santa Anna while he was in the US, also experimented with chicle as a substitute for rubber. He bought a ton of the stuff from the General, but his experiments would likewise prove unsuccessful. Instead, Adams helped to found the American chewing gum industry with a product called “Chiclets”.

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February 22, 2005 Not for Sale

“Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’s interpretation of the Constitution”, Thomas wrote. “Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not”.

In 1775, Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull proposed a fortification at the port of New London, situated on the Thames River and overlooking Long Island Sound. The fort was completed two years later and named for the Governor. During the Revolution, Fort Trumbull was attacked and occupied by British forces, for a time commanded by the turncoat American General, Benedict Arnold.

By the early 20th century, the Fort Trumbull neighborhood consisted of 90 or so single and multi-family working class homes, situated on a peninsula along the fringes of a mostly industrialized city center.

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In 2000, Susette Kelo and her “little pink house” became the main plaintiff in the Supreme Court eminent domain case, “Kelo v. New London”

In 1996, chemists working at Pfizer Corporation’s research facility in England were studying compound UK-92, 480 or “Sildenafil Citrate”, synthesized for the treatment of a range of thoracic circulatory conditions.  Study subjects were expected to return unused medication at the end of the trial. Women showed no objection to doing so but a significant number of male subjects refused to give it back. It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening.  The chemical compound which would one day bear the name “Viagra”, had revealed itself to be useful in other ways.

For the newly divorced paramedic Susette Kelo, the house overlooking the Fort Trumbull waterfront was the home of her dreams. Long abandoned and overgrown with vines, the little Victorian cottage needed a lot of work, but where else was she going to find a waterfront view at such a price?  It was 1997, about the time that Connecticut and New London politicians resurrected the long-dormant New London Development Corporation (NLDC), in an attempt to revitalize the city’s waterfront.

Susette Kelo sanded her floors on hands and knees as Pfizer Corporation, already occupying the largest office complex in the city, was looking at a cataract of new business based on their latest chemical compound. The company was recruited to become the principal tenant in a “World Class” multi-use waterfront campus, including high-income housing, hotels, shopping and restaurants, all centered around a 750,000 sq. ft. corporate research facility.

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Bill von Winkle stands in front of two properties he owns in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, CT

Connecticut College professor and NLDC President Dr. Claire Gaudiani liked to talk about her “hip” new development project.  Fort Trumbull residents were convinced that stood for “High Income People”. With an average income of $22,500, that didn’t include themselves.

Most property owners agreed to sell, though not exactly “voluntarily”.  There was considerable harassment of the reluctant ones, including late-night phone calls, waste dumped on properties, and tenants locked out of apartments during cold winter weather.

Seven homeowners holding fifteen properties refused to sell, at any price. Wilhelmina Dery was in her eighties. She was born in her house and she wanted to die there. The Cristofaro family had lost another New London home in the ’70s, taken by eminent domain during yet another “urban renewal” program. They didn’t want to lose this one, too.

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Susette Kelo and her “little pink house”

In 2000, Susette Kelo came home from work the day before Thanksgiving, to find an eviction notice taped to her door.

Letters were written to editors and protest rallies were held, as NLDC and state officials literally began to bulldoze homes. Holdout property owners were left trying to prevent personal injury and property damage, from flying demolition debris.

Facing a prolonged legal battle which none of the homeowners could afford, the group got a boost when the Libertarian law firm Institute for Justice took their case pro bono. There was cause for hope. Retired homeowner Vera Coking had faced a similar fight against Now-President Donald Trump’s development corporation back in 1993, when the developer and Atlantic City New Jersey authorities attempted to get her house condemned to build a limo lot.

KeloAfterWreck0209Eminent domain exists for a purpose, but the most extreme care should be taken in its use. Plaintiffs argued that this was not a “public use”, but rather a private corporation using the power of government to take their homes for economic development, a violation of both the takings clause of the 5th amendment and the due process clause of the 14th.

Vera Coking won her case against the developer and the municipality.  The casino itself later failed and closed its doors. New London District Court, with Susette Kelo lead plaintiff, “split the baby”, ruling that 11 out of 15 takings were illegal and unconstitutional. At that point, the ruling wasn’t good enough for the seven homeowners. They had been through too much.  All of them would stay, or they would all go.

Connecticut’s highest court reversed the decision, throwing out the baby AND the bathwater in a 3-4 decision. The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, argued before the seven justices then in attendance on February 22, 2005.

SCOTUS ruled in favor of New London in a 5-4 decision, Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer concurring. Seeing the decision as a reverse Robin Hood scheme that would steal from the poor to give to the rich, Sandra Day O’Connor wrote “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms“.

20110325_26_300x400Clarence Thomas took an originalist view, stating that the majority opinion had confused “Public Use” with “Public Purpose”. “Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’s interpretation of the Constitution“, Thomas wrote. “Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not“.  Antonin Scalia concurred, seeing any tax advantage to the municipality as secondary to the taking itself.

In the end, most of the homes were destroyed or relocated. State and city governments spent $78 million and bulldozed 70 acres.  The 3,169 new jobs and the $1.2 million in new tax revenue anticipated from the waterfront development, never materialized.  Pfizer backed out of the project, moving 1,400 existing jobs to a campus it owns in nearby Groton.  The move was completed around the time when tax breaks were set to expire, raising the company’s tax bill by 500%.

Susette Kelo sold her home for a dollar to Avner Gregory, a preservationist who dismantled the little pink house and moved it across town.  A monument to what Ambrose Bierce once called “The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”.

Movie Trailer and feature image above from the film “Little Pink House”, scheduled for release in April, 2018.

In 2011, the now-closed redevelopment area became a dumping ground for debris left by Hurricane Irene.  The only residents, were feral cats.

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“Michael Cristofaro in the field in New London, Conn., where his parents lived. The city seized the land for a private “urban village” that was never built. Pfizer’s complex is in the background”. Credit Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

February 18, 1977 Plain of Jars

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

Yonaguni Island, the westernmost inhabited island of the Japanese archipelago, lies about 60 miles across the straits of Taiwan.  The place is a popular dive destination, due to (or possibly despite) a large population of hammerhead sharks.

Yonaguni

In 1987, divers discovered an enormous stone formation, with angles and straight lines seemingly too perfect to have been formed by nature.   If this “Yonaguni Monument” is in fact a prehistoric stone megalith, it would have to have been carved 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the area was last dry,  radically changing current ideas about prehistoric construction.

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

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Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos.  To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.

Twenty-five hundred to fifteen-hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 ft. to 9 ft. or more.  There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites and containing between one and four hundred apiece.

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Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.

Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer.  More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and the about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells.  There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated, their remains then going through secondary burial.

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Map of Laos showing Xieng Khouang province, location of the Plain of Jars

These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there.  The place is the most dangerous archaeological site, on earth.

With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union. The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.

Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950.  Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic rice crop failure.  The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food.  By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.

220px-Plainofjars_1The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality.  North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning their Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military reunification, with the south.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.

As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.

Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel.  In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south.  At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.

In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army.  As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads.  The response was genocidal.  As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”

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The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”  In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bomb.  Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of WW2, making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

Most were “cluster munitions”, bomb shells designed to open in flight, showering the earth with hundreds of “bomblets” intended to kill people and destroy vehicles.  It’s been estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode, 80 million of them, (the locals call them “bombies”), set to go off with the weight of a foot, or a wheel, or the touch of a garden hoe.

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Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos

Since the end of the war, some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”.  Four in ten of those, are children.

Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk.  The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.

urnOn February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US:  “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.”

Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.

In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.

In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram.  That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds.  Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets.  For seventy cents apiece.

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February 12, 1733 The Last Colony

Tomochichi presented a symbol of power to the King of England, a bald eagle feather, the first time this symbol of our nation was connected to the American colonies.

In 1727 England, the anonymously published book “The Sailor’s Advocate”, argued for improvements in the terrible working conditions, that sailors of the day were forced to endure.

The pamphlet’s “unknown” author was James Oglethorpe, a crusader, an idealist, and member of the British Parliament.  Oglethorpe saw urbanization as the great evil of his day, the stripping of the productively employed from the countryside, while depositing them in cities with no opportunity for meaningful work.

Oglethorpe chaired a committee on prison reform the following year, calling attention to the horrendous conditions in English debtors’ prisons, and the hopeless plight of those released with no means of support.

To deal with the problem, Oglethorpe and others petitioned in 1730 to form a committee of trustees, to form the 13th Colony in America. They would call this new colony “Georgia”, a new start for the worthy poor, and a military buffer against Spanish Florida to the south, and French Louisiana to the west.  The charter was signed by King George II on April 21, 1732.slide_11

Thousands applied to go, trustees narrowing the number down to an initial 114 colonists. Those who couldn’t pay their own way would be subject to a period of indenture, typically 5-7 years.

It was November of that year, when the first group of colonists left aboard the “Anne”, bound for the new world.  James Oglethorpe and his 114 pilgrims scrambled up the 40′ banks of the Savannah River on February 12, 1733, there to establish the Province of Georgia and its Colonial Capital of Savannah.

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Artist’s depiction of Johnson Square, the earliest public square in Savannah

A personal friendship developed between Oglethorpe and native Chieftan Tomochichi, Mico (Leader) of the Yamacraw, a formal treaty of friendship signed in May of that year.

The Trustees obtained £10,000 for the Georgia colony that first year, the subsidy becoming smaller in the following years. Georgia was the only American colony thus dependent on a Parliamentary allowance.

Oglethorpe returned to England two years later along with several “goodwill ambassadors”, among them Chief Tomochichi himself, his wife Senauki, their nephew Toonahowi, and six other members of the Lower Creek tribes. Members of the Indian delegation were treated as celebrities, entertained by Trustees and personal guests of the King and Queen, after which the group became tourists, visiting the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral and enjoying a number of plays, from Shakespearean dramas to comic farces.

Tomochichi presented a symbol of power to the King of England, a bald eagle feather, the first time this symbol of our nation was connected to the American colonies.

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“As the principal mediator between the native population and the new English settlers during the first years of Georgia’s settlement, Tomochichi (left) contributed much to the establishment of peaceful relations between the two groups and to the ultimate success of Georgia. His nephew, Toonahowi, is seated on the right in this engraving, circa 1734-35, by John Faber Jr.” – Hat tip for this image, to the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries

The home town to Oglethorpe’s Utopian experiment, Savannah, was founded around four wards, each containing eight blocks situated around its own central square. Established to help the poor and to produce materials like silk and olives for England, Georgia issued each colonist 50 acres of land – perfect for the yeoman farmer, but too small for major landholders.  Its motto was “Non Sibi Sed Allis”. “Not for Themselves But for Others”.  Oglethorpe outlined four by-laws for the Georgia province, four prohibitions forming the legal framework of his Utopian experiment.

1. No rum, Brandy or spirits were allowed in Georgia, though beer, wine and ale, were OK.
2. No African slaves were permitted, though they were occasionally “borrowed” for construction projects.
3. Oglethorpe believed that every man ought to be able to speak for himself. Hence, no lawyers were allowed.
4. No Catholics were allowed either, as it was feared that they’d be too sympathetic with co-religionist Spain, then in control of the Florida territory.

“If we allow slaves,” Oglethorpe had said, “we act against the very Principles by which we associated together, which was to relieve the distressed.”

Returning to England, Oglethorpe continued to serve on the Board of Trustees, though he often found himself outvoted.  Despite his opposition, the Board of Trustees gradually relaxed their restrictions on land ownership, on hard liquor, and on slavery. By 1750, Georgia’s founding father was no longer involved with the board which had given it life. Oglethorpe’s grand experiment was over in 1754, when Trustees voted to dissolve their governing charter, making Georgia the 13th of Great Britain’s American colonies.

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Mico Tomochichi’s monument, Wright Square, Savannah, Georgia

Chief Tomochichi died in 1739 at age 97, requesting that he be buried among his English friends. The Mico of the Yamacraw was interred in Wright Square, and saluted with cannon and musket fire. James Oglethorpe himself was one of the pall bearers. If you ever visit the city of my childhood, there you will find Wright Square and Tomochichi’s monument, dedicated on April 21, 1899. A bronze tablet is engraved with Cherokee roses and arrowheads, and inscribed with these words. “In memory of Tomochichi – the Mico of the Yamacraws – the companion of Oglethorpe – and the friend and ally of the Colony of Georgia”.

Featured image, top:  LaFayette Square, Savannah, named for the Frenchman and Aide-de-Camp to General George Washington, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

February 11, 1812 Gerry-mander

In 1842, Federal law required that voting districts be compact, and contiguous. That worked out for about a hot minute.

The dictionary defines “Gerrymander” as a verb: “To divide (a geographic area) into voting districts in a way that gives one party an unfair advantage in elections”. In the Old Country the practice goes way back, the earliest instance in the American colonies dates back to early 1700s, Pennsylvania.

In 1788, Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution and join the Union. Former Governor Patrick Henry persuaded the state legislature to reconfigure the 5th Congressional District, thereby forcing his political adversary James Madison to run against a powerful opponent named James Monroe. Henry’s redistricting tactic failed and Madison won, anyway. One day he would become the nation’s fourth president. All was not over for the loser, though. James Monroe would become #5.

73703-004-17E3CF79Elbridge Gerry was born in 1744, in the north shore Massachusetts town of Marblehead. Gerry spent most of his adult life in public office, excepting a ten-year period in the family codfish packing business. First elected to the state legislature in 1772, Gerry died in office in 1814, while serving as Vice President under President James Madison.

Politics are as ugly these days as any time in living memory, but that’s nothing new. Back in 1812, parties were split between Federalists supporting strong central government and favoring business & industry, pitted against Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, suspicious of centralized power and favoring small landowning family farmers to secure the well-being of the nation. Both parties believed the other would destroy the young nation, and campaigns were as nasty as they get.

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Elbridge Gerry was elected Massachusetts Governor in 1810. Soon, his Democratic-Republican supporters were doing everything they could to get the man re-elected. The redistricting plan that emerged on February 11, 1812 confined Federalist precincts to a handful of congressional districts, while Democratic-Republican precincts were spread across many. In the end, 50,164 Democratic-Republican votes resulted in 29 seats in the state legislature and only 11 Federalist Party seats, despite a favorable vote tally of 51,766.

gerrymanderBenjamin Russell was a newspaper editor, and ardent Federalist. The painter Gilbert Stuart commented on the new district map hanging over Russell’s desk, saying “That will do for a salamander.” “Better say a Gerry-mander!” was Russell’s reply. A cartoonist added head, wings, and claws. The cartoon map and the name appeared in the Boston Gazette within the month.

Ever since, “gerrymandering” has been a bi-partisan favorite for keeping “public servants” firmly ensconced at the public trough.

In 1842, Federal law required that voting districts be compact, and contiguous. That worked out for about a hot minute. In the 1870s, Mississippi gerrymandered a “shoestring” district some 300 miles long and only 32 miles wide. Other states have “packed” voters into districts shaped like frying pans, dumbbells, and turkey feet.

slide_3In the 1960s, gerrymandering was used to “crack” the voting strength of black and urban voters. A 1962 Supreme Court decision ruled that electoral districts must reflect the principle of “one man, one vote”. A 1985 decision ruled it unconstitutional to alter election districts to favor of any political party.

These days, voting districts are intentionally drawn up to favor or disfavor parties, racial, and other “interest” groups, ensuring that we look on one another as “us and them”, rather than just, plain, fellow Americans. Talk about “the conduct of public affairs for private advantage”. (Hat tip to my favorite curmudgeon, Ambrose Bierce, for that one).

Massachusetts's_4th_congressional_districtHere in the home of the Gerrymander, Barney Frank’s old 4th congressional district resembles nothing so much as a grasping hand. I’m not sure if the new congressional map is much of an improvement, but hey. It seems to work for the ruling class.

In 2000, California’s two major parties worked together to redraw state and Federal legislative districts, in such a way as to preserve the status quo, in perpetuity. It worked. 53 congressional, 20 state senate, and 80 state assembly seats were at risk in the 2004 election. Not one of them changed parties. 28th state senate district Senator Jenny Oropeza (D) won re-election in 2010.  About a month, after she died.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.