July 11, 1804 A Dual at Weehawken

Dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey by this time, though enforcement was far more aggressive in NY.  The two rowed across the Hudson River from Manhattan to Weehawken, New Jersey in the early morning hours of July 11, 1804, dueling pistols tucked safely in a leather bag.

naduel_t180What would it be like to turn on CNN or Fox News, to learn that Former Secretary of the Treasury Jacob (‘Jack’) Lew was party to a duel and that he was near death, after being shot by the sitting Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence.

The year was 1804, and President Jefferson’s Vice President, Aaron Burr, had a long standing personal conflict with one of the Founding Fathers. Alexander Hamilton had been Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington; the first Secretary of the Treasury, and the only signer of the US Constitution from the state of New York.

The animosity between the two began in 1791, when Burr defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler in a US Senate election. Hostilities escalated when the Electoral College deadlocked in the 1800 Presidential election, moving the selection of President and Vice President to the House of Representatives. Hamilton exerted his influence on behalf of Jefferson, who was elected on the 36th ballot, making Burr his VP.

Burr knew that Jefferson wouldn’t keep him on as VP for the 1804 election, and so he ran for Governor of New York. He blamed Hamilton for his defeat, and challenged the man to a duel over comments made during the election.

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Dueling was illegal in both New York and New Jersey by this time, though enforcement was far more aggressive in NY.  The two rowed across the Hudson River from Manhattan to Weehawken, New Jersey in the early morning hours of July 11, 1804, dueling pistols tucked safely in a leather bag.

Both men’s “seconds” stood with their backs to the duelists, enabling both to later state under oath that they didn’t see either the weapons or the duel itself.   “Plausible deniability” was preserved, but it’s hard to have a first-hand account when the only witnesses have turned their backs. Accounts vary, but it seems that Hamilton fired first, apparently “throwing away his shot” as he had once advised his son Philip to do when the younger man was in this position.

This account is supported by a letter that Hamilton wrote the night before the duel, stating that he was “strongly opposed to the practice of dueling” for both religious and practical reasons. The letter went on, “I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire”.

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Aaron Burr had no such reservations.  The Vice President fired with intent to kill, the shot hitting Hamilton in the lower abdomen.  The wound was clearly fatal, even to Hamilton himself, who said “This is a mortal wound, doctor”.

The man whose likeness appears on the $10 bill died the next day. Among his last words were “Pendleton knows,” (Judge Nathaniel Pendleton, his second), “that I did not intend to fire at him”.

Weehawken today
Weehawken, today
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July 7, 1798  The X-Y-Z Affair

America’s “quasi-war” with France, begun this day in 1798, would see the first combat service of the heavy frigate USS Constitution, better known as “Old Ironsides” and today, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, still afloat. 

Imagine that you’ve always considered your own beliefs to be somewhere in the political center.  Maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your country’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “Reactionary Right”, on the way to execution by your government.

And your personal convictions have never changed.

America’s strongest Revolution-era ally lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into a revolution of its own.    17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-94 “Reign of Terror” (la Terreur) alone, including King Louis XVI himself and his queen, Marie Antoinette.  Untold thousands died in prison or without benefit of trial.  The monarchical powers of Europe were quick to intervene.  For the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France once again found themselves at war.

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France had been the strongest ally the Americans had during the late revolution, yet the United States remained neutral in the later conflict, straining relations between the former allies.  Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed the money to “l’ancien régime”, and not to the French First Republic which had overthrown it, and executed its King.

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The Marquis de Lafayette was shocked on October 15, 1795, when his cell door opened and in walked his wife and three daughters. The four women would remain with him in his prison cell, for another two years

By this time, Revolution-era America’s most important French allies were off the stage, the Comte de Grasse dead, the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau languishing, in prison.

Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships which were trading with their adversary.  The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” with Great Britain, ratified in 1795 and better known as the “Jay Treaty”, put an end for now to such conflict with Great Britain, but destroyed relations with the French Republic.

French privateers cruised the length of the Atlantic seaboard preying on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 civilian ships in one eleven-month period, alone.

At this point, the United States had virtually no means of fighting back.  The government had disbanded the Navy along with its Marine contingent at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” for customs enforcement.  The Naval Act of 1794 had established a standing Navy for the first time in American history and begun construction on six heavy frigates, the first three of which would launch in 1797:  the USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution.

In 1796, France formally broke diplomatic relations with the United States by rejecting the credentials of President Washington’s representative, Ambassador Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two, with instructions to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, on terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.

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Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

These were the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, a man who later became the 5th Vice President and lent his name to the term “Gerrymander”.

The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.  Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded bribes before meeting with the American delegation.  The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time, but the Americans refused.

Documents later released by the Adams administration describe Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker identified only as “W”.  W introduced “X” (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer) as a “man of honor”, who wished an informal meeting with Pinckney.  Pinckney agreed and Hottinguer reiterated Talleyrand’s demands, specifying the payment of a $12 million “loan” to the French government, and a personal bribe of some $250,000 to Talleyrand himself.  Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the American delegation, followed by Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), sent by Talleyrand to meet with Elbridge Gerry.  X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a personal bribe.

Believing that Adams sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian members of Congress joined with the more warlike Federalists in demanding the release of the commissioner’s communications.  It was these dispatches, released in redacted form, which gave the name “X-Y-Z Affair” to the diplomatic and military crisis which followed.

American politics were sharply divided over the European war.  President Adams and his Federalists, always the believers in strong, central government, took the side of the Monarchists.  Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic-Republicans” found more in common with the liberté, égalité and fraternité espoused by French revolutionaries.

In the United Kingdom, the ruling class appeared to enjoy the chaos.  A British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, looks on in amusement from a nearby hilltop.

XYZ cartoon

Adams’ commission left without entering formal negotiations, their failure leading to a political firestorm in the United States.  Congress rescinded all existing treaties with France on July 7, 1798, the date now regarded as the beginning of the undeclared “Quasi-War” with France.

Four days later, President John Adams signed “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” permanently establishing the United States Marine Corps as an independent service branch, in order to defend the American merchant fleet.

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Talleyrand himself raised the stakes, saying that attacks on American shipping would cease if the United States paid him $250,000 and gave France 50,000 pounds sterling and a loan for $100 million. At a 1798 Philadelphia dinner in honor of John Marshall, South Carolina Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper’s toast, spoke for the American side: “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.”

America’s “quasi-war” with France, begun this day in 1798, would see the first combat service of the heavy frigate USS Constitution, better known as “Old Ironsides” and today, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, still afloat.  The undeclared war would be fought across the world’s oceans, from the Atlantic to the Caribbean, to the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea.

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20th century illustration depicts American Marines escorting French prisoners

The Convention of 1800 ended the Quasi-War on September 30, nullifying the Franco-American alliance of 1778 and ensuring American neutrality in the Napoleonic wars. $20,000,000 in American “Spoliation Claims” would remain, unpaid.

For the United States, military escalation proved decisive.  Before naval intervention, the conflict with France resulted in the loss of over 2,000 merchant ships captured, with 28 Americans killed and another 42 wounded.   Military escalation with the French First Republic cost the Americans 54 killed and 43 wounded, and an unknown number of French.  Only a single ship was lost, the aptly named USS Retaliation, and that one was later recaptured.

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July 4, 1826 Friends and Rivals

In an ending no fiction writer would dare put to paper, both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826.  Fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic, they had helped to create. 

Delegates to the 2nd Continental Congress originally pushed for Richard Henry Lee to write the Declaration of Independence.  It was he who delivered the all-important resolution on June 1, 1776:  “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States...”

committLee was appointed to the Committee of Confederation, assigned to write the Articles by which the fledgling nation would govern itself.  Lee believed that two such committees were too much and, soon, he would be called home to care for a critically ill wife.

So it is that a committee of five were appointed to write the Declaration of Independence, including Massachusetts attorney John Adams, and a young Virginia delegate named Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had no interest in writing the Declaration of Independence and suggested that Adams pen the first draft. Adams declined, and described the following conversation, in a letter to Massachusetts politician Timothy Pickering:

“Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, ‘I will not,’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought to do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.’ ‘Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”

Thomas Jefferson would spend the following seventeen days, writing the first draft.  He and Adams had only just met during the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  The two would develop a close personal friendship which would last for most of their lives.

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The friendship between the two men came to an ugly ending during the Presidential election of 1800, in which the mudslinging from both sides rose to levels never before witnessed in a national election.

Jefferson defeated one-term incumbent Adams and went on to serve two terms as President of the United States.  Upon Jefferson’s retirement in 1809, one of the Declaration’s signers, Dr. Benjamin Rush, took it upon himself to patch up the broken friendship between the two founding fathers.

Dr. Rush worked on this personal diplomatic mission for two years.  In 1811, he finally succeeded.

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Jefferson Seal

There followed a series of letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, which together constitute one of the most comprehensive historical and philosophical assessments ever written about the American founding.

The correspondence between the pair touched on a variety of topics, from the birth of a self-governing Constitutional Republic, to then-current political issues, to matters of philosophy and religion and issues related to their advancing years.

Both men understood that they were writing not only to one another, but also to generations yet unborn.  Each went to great lengths to explain the philosophical underpinnings of his views, Adams the firm believer in strong, centralized government, Jefferson advocating a smaller federal government which was more deferential to the states.

By 1826, Jefferson and Adams were among the very last survivors among the founding generation.  James Monroe alone, would survive these two.

In an ending no fiction writer would dare put to paper, both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826.  Fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic, they had helped to create.  Adams was 90 as he lay on his deathbed, suffering from congestive heart failure.  His last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives”.  There was no way of knowing.  The author of the Declaration of Independence had died of a fever,  five hours earlier at his Monticello home near Charlottesville, Virginia.  Jefferson was 82.

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John Adams son John Quincy was himself President at the time of the two men’s passing, and remarked that the coincidence was among the “visible and palpable remarks of Divine Favor”.

A month after the two men passed, Daniel Webster spoke of the pair at Faneuil Hall, in Boston.

“No two men now live, (or) any two men have ever lived, in one age, who (have) given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. No age will come, in which the American Revolution will appear less than it is, one of the greatest events in human history. No age will come, in which it will cease to be seen and felt, on either continent, that a mighty step, a great advance, not only in American affairs, but in human affairs, was made on the 4th of July 1776″.

 

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July 3, 1947 The May Incident

History is replete with examples of what power concentrated in the hands of a few, leads to.

Two hundred and forty-two years ago, our founding fathers bequeathed to us a nation unique in all history. A nation founded on an idea, that all men are created equal, and government derives its powers from the just consent of the governed. A Federal, Constitutional Republic in which our politicians are not our ‘leaders’ but rather our Representatives, operating within a system of diffuse powers with checks and balances, periodically accountable through democratic processes to their bosses – the people who put them there.

In modern times, it has become fashionable to point to the flaws in such a system. Howard Zinn and others present a victim’s-eye narrative of American history.  Smug, faculty iconoclasts and a pop culture Commentariat, decrying the ‘sugar coated fairy tales’, of our past.  Yet, the Great Winston Churchill may have had the final word, describing ‘Democracy” as the worst form of government there is…except for all the others.

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For many among us, most I should think, some form of that Constitutional, self-governing Republic envisioned by our founders, remains preferable to all other forms of government.  Warts and all.

History is replete with examples of what power concentrated in the hands of a few, leads to.

Ambrose+bierce+majorityIndeed, such a system has imperfections, not least among them those who would ascend to political office.

Hearst columnist Ambrose Bierce, a social satirist of his day and my favorite curmudgeon, once defined politics as ‘A strife of interests, masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

In the late 19th century, Democrat William “Boss” Tweed owned New York politics, fleecing city taxpayers at the head of the Tammany Hall political machine. New York debt levels soared by over $100 million between 1868 and 1870 alone, a figure equivalent to over a Billion dollars, today.

As Governor of Tennessee, Democrat Ray Blanton ran a ‘pay for play’ operation selling pardons, paroles and commutations, until drawing the attention of the eye of Sauron, at the FBI.  Blanton’s corruption was extensive enough to spawn a book and a later movie, and launched the political career of prosecutor and sometime actor, Fred Thompson.

And, lest I be accused of picking on Democrats, Pennsylvania Republican and Representative in Congress R. Budd Dwyer faced up to 55 years in prison and a $300,000 fine for racketeering and mail fraud, when he took a .357 Magnum revolver out of a manila envelope and blew his brains out.  On live television, no less.

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There are so many more and we all have our ‘favorites’, in this parade of horribles.  Yet, for insensate cupidity and pure boneheadedness, it would be hard to outdo the attorney, circuit court judge and member of the United States House of Representatives, Andrew Jackson May.

The Kentucky Democrat was a staunch supporter of the ‘New Deal’ policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, serving in seven succeeding Congresses between 1931 and 1947. As Chairman of the powerful Committee on Military Affairs, May became involved with New York businessmen Murray and Henry Garsson, a relationship which would lead to war profiteering allegations.

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Congressman Andrew Jackson May

After the war, a Senate investigating committee discovered evidence of substantial kickbacks from the Garsson brothers. Making matters worse, their munition business took excessive profits, while producing shoddy product. May’s bribery scandal revealed evidence that the Garsson factory produced defective fuses for their 4.2-inch mortar shells, detonating prematurely and leading to the death of no fewer than 38 American soldiers.

Andrew May would serve nine months in Federal prison for accepting bribes in exchange for securing munitions contracts during WW2.

Yet, even that pales in comparison with the ‘May incident’, for which the man has earned eternal infamy. As an influential member of an important committee, Andrew May was necessarily entrusted with highly confidential information, among them deficiencies in Imperial Japanese Navy anti-submarine depth-charge tactics.

Depth Charge
Imperial Japanese Navy light Crusier using Depth Charges against an American submarine, South Pacific 1942 H/T ww2incolor

For some time, the American submarine service had enjoyed considerable success in its war on Japanese shipping. Imperial Japanese naval planners held some bad assumptions about American submarine specifications, among them maximum depth capabilities.

Japanese depth charges were set to detonate at too shallow a depth, leading to a high survival rate for American subs. Congressman May took care of that problem, in 1943.

Returning home from a junket, the Congressman revealed this highly sensitive information, before a press conference. Various press associations ran with the story and some were bright enough to ‘sit on it’, but not all. Several newspapers published the information, including one in Hololulu.

Vice Admiral Charles A Lockwood
Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood

Japanese naval ASW (Antisubmarine Warfare) forces were quick to adjust depth charge settings. Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, commander of the U.S. submarine fleet in the Pacific, estimated that May’s indiscretion killed as many as 800 American crewman, with the loss of ten submarines. “I hear Congressman May said the Jap depth charges are not set deep enough”, he said. “He would be pleased to know that the Japs set them deeper now.”

Andrew Jackson May was convicted by a federal jury on this day in 1947, for accepting cash bribes from Murray and Henry Garsson, to use his position as Chairman of the Military Affairs Committee to secure munitions contracts for the Garsson firm.  The Garsson brothers also received prison terms.

President Harry Truman granted May a full pardon in 1952, though his political career was finished. Andrew May returned home to Kentucky to resume the practice of law, until his death in 1959.  We are left only to contemplate, what the man or the press could be thinking, to divulge information more safely left in the hands of a stupid child.  That, and the horrifying realization that the democratic process might actually work, and the government we elect is just…like…Us.

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July 2, 1776 Independence Day

56 men would sign the Declaration of Independence in the days and weeks that followed, giving birth to a nation unique in all history.  A nation founded on an idea.

The first Virginia Convention organized in 1774, when Royal Governor Lord Dunmore dissolved the colony’s House of Burgesses. The colonial governing body had called for a day of prayer, a show of solidarity with her sister colony in Boston, after the British government closed the harbor in retaliation for the “Boston Tea Party“.

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Three additional such meetings would take place in the following year-and-one-half, to discuss increasingly fractious relations with the British Empire. No expression emerged from these conventions, in favor of independence.

That would change on May 15, 1776, when the fifth Virginia Convention declared that the colonial government as “formerly exercised” by King George III in Parliament, was “totally dissolved”. Three resolutions emerged from this body:  one calling for a declaration of rights in Virginia, another calling for the establishment of a republican constitution, and a third instructing its delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to declare independence from Great Britain.

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Richard Henry Lee’s resolution was taken almost verbatim from instructions from the Virginia Convention. As presented to the second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, Lee’s resolution read:

“Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation”.

At the time, several colonies were not yet ready to declare independence.

Representatives agreed to delay the vote until July 1, appointing a “Committee of Five” to draft a declaration of independence from Great Britain. Members of the committee included John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. The committee selected Jefferson to write the document, the draft presented to the Congress for review on June 28.

Debate resumed on July 1, 1776, with most of the delegates expressing favor for Lee’s resolution.

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The final vote was taken on July 2, when delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies voted in favor. Delegates from New York abstained, having as yet received no clear instructions from their constituents.

The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported on July 2nd that “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States”.

The Pennsylvania Gazette followed suit on the third with “Yesterday, the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES”.

John Adams believed that July 2 would go down as Independence Day, for the young nation.

Declaration of Independence

56 men would sign the Declaration of Independence in the days and weeks that followed, giving birth to a nation unique in all history.  A nation founded on an idea.

That line was drawn in the sand, two hundred and forty two years ago, today.  As Caesar had ‘crossed the Rubicon’ nearly two thousand years earlier, a decision had been taken from which there would be no turning back.  Fifty-six men affixed their signatures to that document, affirming that to this “… we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

These were no empty words.  One of those signers, Benjamin Franklin, stated in all candor, that now “We must all hang together or, assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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On this day in 1984, exactly 208 years after a young nation declared its independence, a memorial was dedicated in the Constitution Gardens, on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The monument consists of fifty-six stone blocks, each bearing the inscribed likeness of the actual signature, of every man who so pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor.

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Today, this day is mostly forgotten in favor of July 4, when the final edits of Jefferson’s Declaration were adopted, the final document engrossed (handwritten onto parchment), and sent off to the printer.

Happy Independence Day.

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June 26, 1948 Berlin Airlift

At the height of the operation, an aircraft landed every thirty seconds in West Berlin. The USAF delivered 1,783,573 tons altogether and the RAF 541,937, on a total of 278,228 flights.  The Royal Australian Air Force delivered 7,968 tons of freight in over 2,000 sorties.  Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered nearly the distance from the Earth, to the Sun.

Following the end of World War II in Europe, the three major allied powers (United States, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) met at Potsdam, capital of the German federal state of Brandenburg. The series of agreements signed at Cecilienhof Castle and known as the Potsdam agreement built on earlier accords reached at conferences at Tehran, Casablanca and Yalta, addressing issues of German demilitarization, reparations, de-nazification and the prosecution of war criminals.

Among the provisions of the Potsdam agreement was the division of defeated Germany into four zones of occupation, rougly coinciding with the then-current locations of allied armies. The former capital city of Berlin was itself partitioned into four zones of occupation. A virtual island located 100 miles inside Soviet-controlled eastern Germany.

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“The red area of Germany (above) is Soviet controlled East Germany. German territory east of the Oder-Neisse line (light beige) was ceded to Poland, while a portion of the easternmost section of Germany East Prussia, Königsberg, was annexed by the USSR, as the Kaliningrad Oblast”. H/T Wikipedia

During the war, ideological fault lines were suppressed in the mutual desire to destroy the Nazi war machine.  These were quick to reassert themselves, in the wake of German defeat.  In Soviet-occupied east Germany, factories and equipment were disassembled and transported to the Soviet union, along with technicians, managers and skilled personnel.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin informed German communist leaders in June 1945, of his belief that the United States would withdraw within a year or two.  He had his reasons.  At that time, the Truman Administration had yet to decide whether American forces would remain in West Berlin past 1949, when an independent West German government was expected to be established.

Stalin would do everything he could to undermine the British position within its zone of occupation, and appears unconcerned about that of the French.  He and other Soviet leaders assured visiting Bulgarian and Yugoslavian delegations.  In time, all of Germany would be Soviet, and Communist.

The former German capital became the focus of diametrically opposing governing philosophies, and leaders on both sides believed all Europe to be at stake. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov put it succinctly, “What happens to Berlin, happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”

hqdefault (5)There never was any formal agreement, concerning road and rail access to Berlin through the 100-mile Soviet zone. Western leaders were forced to rely on the “good will” of a regime which had deliberately starved millions of its own citizens to death, in consolidating power.

With 2.8 million Berliners to feed, clothe and shelter from the elements, Soviet leaders permitted cargo access on only ten trains per day over a single rail line.

Western allies believed the restriction to be only be temporary, but this belief would prove to be sadly mistaken.

Only three corridors were permitted through Soviet-controlled air space. With millions to feed, the Soviets stopped delivering agricultural products from their zone in eastern Germany, in 1946. The American commander, General Lucius Clay, retaliated by stopping shipments of dismantled industries from western Germany into the Soviet Union. The Soviets responded with obstructionist policies, doing everything it could to throw sand in the gears of all four occupied zones.

US and UK zones of occupation combined into a single “bizone” in January 1947, joining with that of France and becoming the “trizone” on June 1, 1948. Representatives of these governments and that of the Benelux nations of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg met twice in London to discuss the future of Germany, while Soviet leaders threatened to ignore any decisions coming out of such conferences.

The four-power solution was unworkable throughout the postwar period. For the city of Berlin, 1948 would reach the point of crisis.

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That March, Soviet authorities slowed cargo to a crawl, individually searching every truck and train. General Clay ordered a halt to train traffic on April 2, ordering that supplies to the military garrison in Berlin be transported by air. Soviets eased their restrictions a week later, but still interrupted road and rail traffic. Meanwhile, Soviet military aircraft began to harass and “buzz” allied flights in and out of West Berlin. On April 5, a Soviet Air Force Yakovlev Yak-3 fighter collided with a British European Airways Vickers Viking 1B airliner near RAF Gatow airfield.   Everyone onboard both aircraft, were killed.

The final straw came with the currency crisis of early 1948, when the Deutsche Mark was introduced. The former Reichsmark was severely devalued by this time, with calamitous economic repercussions. The new currency went into use in all four sectors of occupied Berlin, against the wishes of the Soviets. This new currency combined with the Marshall Pan had the potential to revitalize the German economy, and that wouldn’t do. Not for Soviet policy makers, for whom a prostrate German economy remained the objective.

Soviet guards halted all traffic on the autobahn to Berlin on June 19, the day after the new currency was introduced.

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German woman burning cash, for heat

At the time, West Berlin had 36 days’ food supplies, and 45 days’ supply of coal. The western nations had scaled military operations down in the wake of the war, to the point where the western sectors of the city had only 8,973 Americans, 7,606 British and 6,100 French. Soviet military forces numbered some 1.5 million. Believing that Allied powers had no choice but to cave to their demands, Soviet authorities cut off the electricity.

While ground routes were never negotiated in and out of occupied Berlin, the same was not true of the air.  Three air routes had been agreed upon back in 1945.  These went into use on this day in 1948, beginning the largest humanitarian airlift, in history.

Of all the malignant governing ideologies of history, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union has to be counted among the worst.  These people had no qualms about using genocide by starvation as a political tool.  They had proven as much during the Holodomor of 1932 – ’33, during which this evil empire had murdered millions of its own citizens, by deliberate starvation.  Two million German civilians would be nothing more than a means to an end.

Sunderland_201_Sqn_on_Havel_during_Berlin_Airlift_1948
RAF Sunderland flying Boat moored on the Havel near Berlin unloading salt

With that many lives at stake, allied authorities calculated that a daily ration of only 1,990 kilocalories would require 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese.

Every.  Single. Day.

Heat and power for such a population would require 3,475 tons of coal, diesel and gasoline, every day.

United States Air force General Curtis LeMay was asked “Can you haul coal?” LeMay replied “We can haul anything.”

Berlin_Blockade_Milk
Loading milk, bound for Berlin

The obstacles were daunting.  Postwar demobilization had diminished US cargo capabilities in Europe to a nominal 96 aircraft, theoretically capable of transporting 300 tons per day. Great Britain’s RAF was somewhat better with a capacity of 400 tons, according to General Sir Brian Robertson.

700 tons were nowhere near the 5,000 per day that was needed, but it was a start.  With additional aircraft mobilizing all over the United States, the United Kingdom and France, the people of occupied Berlin had to buy into the program.

General Clay went to Ernst Reuter, Berlin’s mayor-elect. “Look, I am ready to try an airlift. I can’t guarantee it will work. I am sure that even at its best, people are going to be cold and people are going to be hungry. And if the people of Berlin won’t stand that, it will fail. And I don’t want to go into this unless I have your assurance that the people will be heavily in approval.”

Luckily, General Albert Wedemeyer was in Europe on an inspection tour, when the crisis broke out. Wedemeyer had been in charge of the previously-largest airlift in history, the China-Burma-India theater route over the Himalayas, known as “The Hump”. Reuter was skeptical but assured the authorities that the people of Berlin were behind the plan. Wedemeyer’s endorsement gave the plan a major boost. The Berlin Airlift began seventy years ago today, June 26, 1948.

Germans-airlift-1948
German civilians awaiting inbound aircraft, at Templehof

The Australian Air force joined in the largest humanitarian effort in history that September. The Canadians never did, believing the operation to be a provocation which would lead to war with the Soviet Union.

Through the Fall and Winter of 1948 – ’49 the airlift carried on.  Soviet authorities maintained their stranglehold but, preoccupied with rebuilding their own war-ravaged economy and fearful of the United States’ nuclear capabilities, Stalin had little choice but to look on.  On April 15, 1949, the Soviet news agency TASS announced that the Soviets were willing to lift the blockade.

C-54_dropping_candy_during_Berlin_Airlift_c1949
C-54 drops candy over berlin, 1948 – ’49

Negotiations were begun almost at once but now, the Allies held the stronger hand. An agreement was announced on May 4 that the blockade would be ended, in eight days’ time. A British convoy drove through the gates at a minute after midnight on May 12, though the airlift would continue, to build up a comfortable surplus.

At the height of the operation, an aircraft landed every thirty seconds in West Berlin. The USAF delivered 1,783,573 tons altogether and the RAF 541,937, on a total of 278,228 flights.  The Royal Australian Air Force delivered 7,968 tons of freight in over 2,000 sorties.  Added together, the Berlin Airlift covered nearly the distance from the Earth, to the Sun.

39 British and 31 American airmen lost their lives during the operation.

In 1961, Communist leaders would erect a wall around their sector of the city.  Not to keep foreigners out, but to keep their own unfortunate citizens, in.  The Berlin Wall would not come down, for twenty-eight years.

 

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May 29, 1932 A Debt Unpaid

Then-Major Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of MacArthur’s aides at the time. Eisenhower believed that it was wrong for the Army’s highest ranking officer to lead an action against fellow war veterans. “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there”, he said.

In 1924, the United States Congress passed the “World War Adjusted Compensation Act”, promising cash bonuses to veterans of the “Great War” in which the nation had been involved between 1917 and ’18.

chi-bonus30railroad-201303123,662,374 military service certificates were issued to qualifying veterans, bearing a face value equal to $1 per day of domestic service and $1.25 a day for overseas service, plus interest. Total face value of these certificates was $3.638 billion, equivalent to $43.7 billion in today’s dollars and coming to full maturity in 1945.

bonus-marchers 1932The Great Depression was two years old in 1932, and thousands of veterans had been out of work since the beginning. Certificate holders could borrow up to 50% of the face value of their service certificates, but direct funds remained unavailable for another 13 years.

On May 29, WWI veterans began to arrive in Washington to press their case for immediate cash redemption, setting up encampments between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, and around Washington DC.  Former Army sergeant Walter W. Waters led the group, which called itself the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” after the AEF of the late war.  True to form, the Media insultingly dubbed them the “Bonus Army”.

bonus-army-veterans-from-chattanooga-parade-past-white-house-in-a-truck-may-18-1932This had happened before. Hundreds of Pennsylvania veterans of the Revolution had marched on Washington in 1783, after the Continental Army was disbanded without pay.

On that occasion the Congress fled to Princeton New Jersey, and the Army was called up to expel war veterans from the Capitol. Washington, DC was later excluded from the restrictions of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, making it the only part of the United States where the military may be used for domestic police activity.

17,000 veterans and their families, 43,000 all told, gathered in and around Washington.  Men, women and children living in tents or in make-shift shelters built out of old lumber, packing boxes and scrap tin scavenged from nearby junkyards.

bonus-marchers_1932_eplaza_dome_lts

The House passed a bill to redress the situation, which went to the Senate for a vote on June 17, a day one newspaper described as “the tensest day in the capital since the war.” 10,000 marchers crowding the Capitol grounds responded with stunned silence when they got the news. The Senate had voted it down, 62 to 18. “Sing America and go back to your billets”, said Waters, and so they did. Marchers would hold a silent vigil in front of the Capitol until July 17, the day that Congress adjourned.

global-economic-crisis-bonus-marchers-in-washington-dc-1932-e01jc6Marchers and their families were in their camps on July 28 when Attorney General William Mitchell ordered them evicted. Two policemen became trapped on the second floor of a building when they drew their revolvers and shot two veterans, William Hushka and Eric Carlson, both of whom died of their injuries.

image062 (1)President Herbert Hoover ordered the Army under General Douglas MacArthur to evict the Bonus Army from Washington. 500 Cavalry formed up on Pennsylvania Avenue at 4:45pm, supported by 500 Infantry, 800 police and six battle tanks under the command of then-Major George S. Patton. Civil Service employees came out to watch as bonus marchers cheered, thinking that the Army had gathered in their support.

And then the Cavalry was ordered to charge. The infantry followed with tear gas and fixed bayonets, entering the camps and evicting men, women and children alike.

Bonus_marchers_05510_2004_001_aBonus marchers fled to their largest encampment across the Anacostia River, when President Hoover ordered the assault stopped. Feeling that the Bonus March was an attempt to overthrow the government, General MacArthur ignored the President and ordered a new attack, the army routing 10,000 and leaving their camps in flames. 1,017 were injured and 135 arrested.

The wife of one veteran miscarried. 12-week old Bernard Myers died after being caught in the gas attack. A government investigation later claimed he died of inflammation of the small intestine, but a hospital employee said the tear gas “didn’t do it any good.”

bonus-armyThen-Major Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of MacArthur’s aides at the time. Eisenhower believed that it was wrong for the Army’s highest ranking officer to lead an action against fellow war veterans. “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there”, he said.

bonus-army-fire-1800The bonus march debacle doomed any chance that Hoover had of being re-elected. Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed the veterans’ bonus demands during the election, but was able to negotiate a solution when veterans organized a second demonstration in 1933. Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor was instrumental in these negotiations, leading one veteran to quip: “Hoover sent the army.  Roosevelt sent his wife”.

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.