Friday, April 29, 2011

BIRTHERS, part II: The Grover Cleveland bastards.

Cartoon mocking Grover Cleveland over the paternity scandal.

[For Part I of this series, BIRTHERS: Some Creepy History, click here.

I cannot leave the subject of birthers without a quick visit to what I consider the strangest birth-related episode of all: the Grover Cleveland bastards.

Grover Cleveland hardly looks like a womanizer in his photographs -- conservative and dull in that Nineteenth Century way.  Backers called him "Grover the Good," the reform-minded Buffalo mayor and New York governor who fought bosses and delivered scandal-free, competent leadership.  "A public office is a public trust," would become his catch-phrase.   "1. He is an honest man. 2. He is an honest man. 3. He is an honest man. 4. He is an honest man."  Those are the four reasons the New York World gave in supporting him for president in 1884 when Cleveland won the Democratic nomination.  

Running against Cleveland in 1884 was Republican James Gillespie Blaine, known to enemies as "the Continental liar from the state of Maine."   Blaine, who served as Speaker to the House in the 1870s and Secretary of State under assassinated president James A. Garfield, had aggressively sought the presidency twice before, in 1876 and 1880, but failed both times largely over hints of corruption.  In addition to Blaine's history as a patronage boss, a disclosure of secret letters from Blaine's congressional office ( the Mulligan Letters) suggested shady dealings with the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad for which Blaine allegedly received pay-offs of some $110,000 (about $2.5 million in modern money.) 

Grover Cleveland -- Does he look like
a womanizer to you?

Blaine loudly denied wrong-doing, but the reputation stuck.  One  secret letter inspired a favorite campaign song for 1884:  

                           "Burn, burn, burn this letter; 
                           "Kind regards to Mrs. Fisher."

The scandal even triggered a formal walkout by reform-minded Republicans, who left to form the Mugwumps and vote for Cleveland.

But then, one day in July 1884, things got turned upside down.  The Buffalo Evening Telegram ran a front-page item titled "A Terrible Tale" that suddenly painted Grover the Good in a new light.  The story told how Cleveland, as a young lawyer in Buffalo, had once met a widow named Maria Halpin.  They had a liaison and produced a son, later named Osacar Folsom Cleveland.  Cleveland refused to marry Ms. Halpin, though he provided for her and the son, even giving the boy his name.  There were  also charges that he tried to silence her, have her institutionalized, and that this was part of a larger pattern of drinking and carousing by Cleveland.

Republicans had a field day with the scandal.  Finally, they had a weapon to take Grover the Good and knock him down a few notches.  Cartoons like  "Ma! Ma! Where's my Pa" (see above) appeared far and wide.  Newspapers called Cleveland  a "moral leper"  and worse.

But Grover Cleveland, to his credit, recognized in this crisis that both good politics and good virtue demanded the same response.  He had cast himself  an honest reformer, and he needed to stick with his brand.  "Above all, telll the truth," he told his troops.   Rather than deny the charge, he admitted it (or at least much of it), disputed the overblown parts, and moved on.

The approach worked remarkably well.  Rather than cripple his campaign, the scandal seemed to give it new energy.  Cleveland's friends happily now cast the choice as between Blaine's corruption and Cleveland's honesty.  Blaine was "whoring for votes," as the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher put it. 

The mud-slinging didn't stop here.  A few weeks later, the Indiana Sentinel (which backed Cleveland) came out with a story claiming that Blaine too had fathered a son out of wedlock -- based on the fact that Blaine's oldest son was born just three months after his Blanie's 1851 marriage to Harriet Stanwood.   Blaine responded with a lawsuit, but the story grew murky over counterclaims that Blaine actually had married his wife twice -- the first time in secret -- thereby explaining the discrepancy in dates.

In the end, Grover Cleveland won the election  in a squeaker, tipped in the final hours by the famous "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion" remark by a Blaine supporter that infuriated Inrish voters.  But the birther issue of 1884 -- all those bastard children -- left a legacy.  Among historians, 1884 is widely considered the dirtiest campaign in American history.

Making sense of this mess?
What all these birther-type episodes have in common is this: The truth or falsity of the claim is beside the point.  More important is the maliciousness behind it. 

For instance, a perfectly logical question arose in 1880 when Republicans nominated Chester Alan Arthur for vice president, as to whether Arthur had been born in Northern Vermont or in nearby Canada -- which would disqualify him for the job.  In the end, an investigation took place, and Arthur's actual place of birth could never be proven to an absolute certainty -- the apparent standard today.  Still, the lack of any credible evidence that it was not Vermont, as Arthur said it was, caused reasonable people to drop the issue. 

Whether today's birthers are  driven by healthy skepticism, racism, opportunism, panaroia, financial greed, or some sociopathic condition, the problem -- particularly in the face of the latest evidence produced by the White House --  is that the malice, the desire to destroy Obama, appears way more important to them than the issue.  

I'm all for good conspiracy theories.  But I do have a problem with pointless character assassination.  Yes, there's a difference.   Grow up, Donald Trump.

Here's a link to the best book about the 1884 campaign:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

BIRTHERS: Some creepy history, Part I.

Warren G. Harding in 1920.  Does he look African-American to you?  

How strangely pathetic it's been this week to watch the Birthers, that not-so-small segment of Americans so cynical of media and government that they seriously believe Barack Obama might not actually be an American-born citizen, making him constitutionally disqualified as president.  If true, this means a vast conspiracy to conceal the truth, covering decades and continents.   The fact that Obama himself two years ago had already released his Certification of Live Birth - the applicable legal proof of birth under Hawaii law --  seemed irrelevant to self-proclaimed skeptics like Donald Trump.  Instead, they insisted on seeing Obama's "long form" Certificate of Live Birth -- a more detailed document no longer used officially in Hawaii -- which the White House released yesterday.

The argument is literally over nothing -- unrelated to any actual issue facing the country and certain not to eject Obama from the White House.  And it is literally endless, given that it is logically impossible to prove a negative.  Already, new conspiracy theories abound.  (Click here for some of the latest.)   

Still, much of the country remains transfixed.  Why? Are we crazy? Are we racist?  Are we nuts?  Is this normal?

The fact is that, yes, conspiracy theories are as American as cherry pie.  [Full disclosure:  I still don't believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.]   Often, they are a force for good, a sign of healthy skepticism.  Watergate and many other scandals, for instance, might never have been uncovered without stubborn people rejecting pat answers.  But they seem to wax especially weird and ugly when applied to the trifecta of presidents, race, and birth.  

To put today's Birther into some perspective, here are a few similar manias from over the years:  

Warren G. Harding an African American?

Take a look at the photo above of US Senator Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio), Republican candidate for president in 1920.  Does he look African American to you?

Harding was well on his way that year to trouncing his Democratic opponent,  Ohio governor James Cox, when something strange popped up on the campaign trail.  Harding knew that much of the country hated him for being too friendly with black Americans and supporting anti-lynch laws.  The white supremacist Ku Klux Klan in 1920 had exploded to four million members, lynchings were common both north and south, and 1919 had seen over a dozen major anti-black race riots in northern cities including Chicago and Washington, D.C. 
Around this time, an obscure professor at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, named William Estabrook Chancellor, put together a one-page "Genealogy of Warren G. Harding."  In it, he claimed that several of Harding's ancestors, including two great-grantparents and a grandfather, had been African American.  As evidence, Chancellor cited affidavits from people in central and northern Ohio happy to repeat local gossip.  

This was damning stuff in 1920.  Racist Americans -- a much larger group of people back then than we like to admit -- believed that having even "one drop" of African blood made you "colored" or "hybrid" (or "octoroon," as Chancellor put it) -- that is, not white, and thus, to many, not qualified to be president.   

Suddenly, in October 1920, just weeks before Election Day, copies of Chancellor's paper began appearing all over the country, spread by opportunists and KKK-ers.  Postal officials in San Francisco discovered 250,000 of them in the mails - an expensive operation proving that someone was spending lots of money to fan the rumor.  Fist fights broke out in Chicago when people tried to hand them out on suburban commuter trains.  James Cox, the Ohio governer and Democratic candidate, ordered his staff not to use the paper, but he himself was caught telling voters in West Virginia that "either the grandmother or great-grandmother of Senator Harding was a Negress."  Newspapers too refused to print the story at first, but finally felt compelled to address it.

What was the truth?  Warren Harding -- much like Barack Obama today -  refused to dignify the story with a comment.  His campaign issued glowing testimonials to Harding's own pure-bred family tree.  "No family in the state (of Ohio) has a clearer, a more honorable record than the Hardings, a blue-eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania, the finest pioneer blood," said one pamphlet.  

But most famously, and to Harding's lasting credit, when confronted directly by a friendly reporter, he refused to deny the obvious fact that a few drops of African blood might be in his veins.  "How do I know, Jim?  One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence." 

Voters elected Warren Harding president in 1920 by a huge margin -- giving him 60.3 percent of the popular vote and 404 electoral votes.  Unfortunately, Harding would die in office in 1923, his reputation later smeared by the scandal known as Teapot Dome.  The "birther" issue of 1920 -- whether Harding may have had an African American ancestor - probably cost him votes, but was quickly forgotten.  Its main legacy was the ugly stain it left on the episode.

Andrew Jackson a bigamist?

Andrew Jackson had no greater love in his oft-violent life than Rachel Donelson, his future wife.   Rachel, however, beautiful and lively, had a checkered past.  As a teenager, she had married an older man named Captain Lewis Robards.  She quickly learned, however, that Robards was prone to temper tantrums, and in 1790 they separated and applied for divorce.  

Rachel Jackson.  A bigamist?
Around this time, in 1788, young Andrew Jackson -- then a 23 year-old frontier lawyer in Nashville -- came to live as a boarder with Rachel's parents.  Andrew and Rachel met and quickly fell in love.  In mid-1791, Jackson heard through friends that Rachel's divorce had been approved in Virginia and, that August, her married her.  

It came as a rude surprise, then, when Jackson learned much later that Rachel's divorce actually had not been finalized until September 1793.  His original information had been wrong.  This meant that, during the two year interim, she had been a bigamist and he an adulterer.  Andrew and Rachel quickly took their vows a second time, making the marriage legal and proper, but this didn't end the scandal.  Andrew Jackson's enemies would raise it repeatedly over the next thirty years.   Jackson would fight thirteen duels during his life, mostly over insults to Rachel.  

Then came the presidential election of 1828.  At the time, this contest was the dirtiest ever waged, full of smears, slanders, and cheating.  The candidates detested each other.  Jackson, the Democrat, viewed it as a grudge match against John Quincy Adams, the incumbent, who had beat him in 1824 in what Jackson called a "corrupt bargain."  [Jackson had won the 1824 popular vote, but he contest went to the US House of Representatives, where Adams joined forces with House Speaker Henry Clay to defeat him.  Adams then named Clay as his Secretary of State, suggesting they'd made a deal.]  

Jackson quickly appeared the likely winner.  He had much more support in the country and a better organization than Adams by far.  So the Adams side decided to sling mud -- at Rachel.   Slanders quickly multiplied on both sides.  Jackson's enemies accused him of "adultery, seduction, murder, theft, treason, and less strenuous crimes such as Sabbath-breaking, cock-fighting, horse racing, and swearing," notes historian Robert Remini.  For his part, Jackson accused Adams, among other things,  of arranging women for the Czar of Russia while stationed there as Ambassador.

Rachel took it all calmly, but Jackson himself grew increasingly thin-skinned during the campaign, bursting into rages and occasional tears over the assaults.   Election Day came, and he, like Warren Harding, won in a landslide.  But then tragedy struck.  On December 22, 1828, just days before she and Jackson planned to leave Tennessee for their journey to Washington and his inauguration, Rachel died of a heart attack.  

Andrew Jackson was devastated over his wife's sudden death, and blamed it on politics.   The pain and hard feelings would shadow his presidency and last a lifetime.  Did the political attacks actually kill Rachel Jackson?   Looking back from a distance of over 180 years, it is impossible to know.  The "birther issue of 1828"-- that Rachel Jackson was a bigamist and he an adulterer -- happened to be true.  Did that make it any less ugly and irrelevant? 

Click here for Part II, the Grover Cleveland bastards.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

MONEY: Another silver squeeze? The Hunt Brothers haunt again !!

The Hunt brothers, William Herbert and Nelson Bunker, testify before Congress in 1981 on their famous  silver corner.

[Don't miss the contest at the bottom of this post!]

It's official.  We now live in very spooky times.  Want proof?

Yesterday, in the financial dens of New York City, the price of a single lonely ounce of silver topped $49 -- a huge, gaping jump from its level in February, just two months ago, of $28, and more than twice the price last fall.   

What's so spooky about that?  After all, these days, doesn't it seem like the whole world economy has lost its head?   Silver isn't alone in spiking.  Prices of lots of other things like gold, oil, corn, and wheat have all gone sky-high.  Gasoline is over $4.00 per gallon, gold over $1,500 per ounce, and they all seem driven by the same collection of spooky demons: globilization, the weak US dollar, turmoil in the Middle East, finger-pointing in Washington, and the rest. 

But silver is different.  When silver spikes like this, it's time to worry.  Silver, unlike the others, has a very bad history.

The last time -- in fact, the only other time -- that silver ever reached $49 per ounce was almost exactly thirty-one years ago, in January 1980.  That month, silver jumped sharply from its already-amazing record high price of $33 per ounce, up to $48.70.  It then continued to hover in the high-$40s for about a week, peaked at $51. 50, then crashed back to the mid-$30s.  Two months later, on what became known as Silver Thursday (March 27, 1980), silver crashed again, losing a full third of its value in a few hours, back down to the teens, never to rise again for 31 years ... until now.  (See chart below)

New York silver prices from August 1979 through April 1980.  This is what a market manipulation looks like. 
Source: CFTC 1985 investigation report.
Does you remember where you were in January 1980 (assuming you were born yet)?  It was a crazy time.  Jimmy Carter was president, Iran held American hostages, and M*A*S*H was still the best show on TV.  The economy seemed wildly out of control, riding a major inflation-driven bubble in commodity prices.  That same month, gold spiked, from $575 to $875 per ounce, then lost $190 in 24 hours. 

But silver was different.  As it turned out (confirmed by several investigations),  something very fishy was going on.  

A small, semi-secret cabal of extremely rich people, led by the oil-billionaire Hunt Brothers of Dallas, Texas, had been purchasing gobs and gobs of silver -- mostly in the form of highly-leveraged futures contracts commanding delivery of up to 100 million ounces.  By late 1970 (in the eye of Federal prosecutors), they had produced a rare, deliberate market corner.  In other works, the price spike -- or at least some of it -- was fake.  And yes, that's a Federal crime.

In the end, the Hunt brothers' corner collapsed.  Regulators in Washington and at the two US exchanges where silver trading occurred all took emergency steps to burst the bubble.  They imposed position limits, raised margins, and finally declared liquidation-only trading.   And at the same time, silver flooded into the marketplace from millions of small owners, giddy at the chance to sell at what seemed like one-in-a-lifetime prices.  The Hunts and their circle lost billions of dollars when the price cratered.  

The markets themselves took an even bigger black eye.  Who could trust the price of anything if a couple of swindlers like the Hunt Brothers could sneak in and jack around markets.  It would take years for the odor to evaporate.  [Full disclosure:  At this time, in the early 1980s, I was a young lawyer at the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulated the silver market, and participated in a key investigation of the Hunt corner. The experience triggered my first book, The Gold Ring, about Jay Gould and Jim Fisk cornering the gold market in 1869.]  

Silver prices today,  in 2011.   Does this chart look eerily
like the first half of the 1979 - 1980 chart above?
All of which begs the question: When the ghosts of the Hunt Brothers show their faces in 2011, what does that say about the sorry state of our American economy today?  

Obviously, times have changed since those days, and the $49 nominal silver price of January 1980 would equal a far higher number in today's money.   But let's not forget the obvious thing: the spook factor.

Up until now, despite the rising prices, despite all the stimulus pumped into the economy since 2008, and despite all the hang-wringing over the huge US federal debt, our "experts" continue to insist that we do not need to worry about inflation in America.  And that the basics of our economy are sound, that it's slowly getting better, healing itself from the 2008 meltdown. 

Up until this week, I believed them.  But with silver hitting $49 per ounce -- the same level as the height of the Hunt Brothers' 1980 corner -- something smells fishy.  

Contest:  When the Hunt Brothers tried to corner the silver market in 1980, two of their allies were alleged to be (i) a Brazilian industrialist and (ii) a well-known Swiss Bank.   Can you name them?  The first person who posts a comment here with the right answer will a prize: a bottle of wine from me. 
 Here are a couple of good books about the Hunts and Silver Thursday:


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Civil War 150th anniversary -- Quick Reality Check

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant (sitting third from right) with his staff at Cold Harbor, Virginia, where Grant would lose 7,000 soldiers killed or wounded in 20 minutes charging Robert E. Lee's fortified Rebel lines in 1864.   Photo by Matthew Brady.  (Click on it for full size.)
It was exactly 150 years ago today that Rebel batteries in Charleston, South Carolina, under Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard began their 34-hour shelling of Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War.  And so today begins the great Civil War sesquicentennial, what promises to be a non-stop multiyear gluttonous cornucopia of nostalgia, merchandizing, and shameless political exploitation of easily the most interesting, dramatic, and genuinely important event in American history.  

Here at Viral History, we certainly plan to add voice to the chorus.  (How could we not?  All three of my Gilded Age books, Boss Tweed, Dark Horse, and The Gold Ring, start with the War.)   But before getting carried away in the merchandizing part, it's worth remembering that the Civil War was also one of the deadliest, costliest, and most painful events in US history -- accounting for more American deaths than any other War.   

President Lincoln and the Union Army prevailed, ending slavery for four million people, saving the Union, giving the land a "new birth of freedom" as Lincoln called it in his Gettysburg address.  Still, General Sherman put it best:  "War is hell," even what we kid ourselves into calling a "good war" like this one.  

So I prefer to kick off this anniversary by thinking first of the fallen. 

Of the 1,556,000 souls who served in the Union Army from 1861 through 1865- 

         110,070 died in battle;
         250,152 died from disease or other non-combat causes; and
         275,175 were wounded.

Of the 1,082,000 souls who served in the  Confederate Army from 1861 through 1865--

           94,000 died in battle;
        164,000 died from disease, etc.; and                      
        100,000  were estimated as wounded.

That made total deaths of 618,222 and total wounded of 375,000, this at a time when the entire US population was barely 31 million.

There is no reliable count of civilians killed in the War, but any attempt to add them up quickly reaches into the tens of thousands.

The financial cost of the War, including both government outlays and property destruction, is estimated at about $7 billion (1860s dollars), or some $200 billion in modern money.

Add to this the hundreds of thousands of women made widows, children made orphans, men made armless or legless, towns laid waste, lives disrupted, families split, and the oceans of pain from wartime surgeries and separations.  The generation of Americans who fought the Civil War and then produced the great post-war industrial boom truly paid a heavier price for their patriotism than any other.

Here's to them all.   Now let the re-enactments and the merchandizing begin....


Monday, April 11, 2011

POLITICS: Government shutdowns - Who dreamed up this crazy idea?

Jimmy Carter (above) and his Attorney General, Benjamin Civiletti (right), authors of the modern government shutdown.

In all the drama and commotion last week over the threatened shutdown of the US government, avoided literally at the last minute by a budget compromise between President Obama and House Republicans, has anyone noticed how frankly ridiculous this whole system has become?  How can it be that here in the USA, we have a rule that demands literally a shut-down of the entire Federal government, as self-defeating an outcome as anyone can imagine,  over a routine technical accounting glitch?

Benjamin Civiletti, Carter's AG in 1980.
Who thought up this crazy idea?  Certainly not George Washington nor James Madison.  During the first 194 years of the American Republic, from 1787 to 1981, government shutdowns NEVER HAPPENED.  Our country survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II, all without anyone ever once shutting down the government.  

And no, it's not that we've never had accounting snafus in Washington before 1980.  But up until that year, no President or Attorney General ever took the crazy position that a gap between agency funding bills -- that is, the expiring of one coming a few hours or days before final enactment of the next -- amounted to a doomsday machine for politicians to hurl around Capitol Hill causing the government to lock its doors.

Then came Jimmy Carter and his then-Attorney General, Benjamin Civiletti.

In April 1980, faced with a possible funding gap for one small agency, the US Federal Trade Commission, President Carter asked Civiletti what the law required.  No President had ever raised this question before in such a formal way.  Civiletti, in response, issued a legal opinion giving his reading of the Federal Antideficiency Act (31 USC 1341 and 1342) -- a law on the books since 1870.  According to Civiletti, this ancient law required that "during periods of 'lapsed appropriations,' no funds may be expended except as necessary to bring about the orderly termination of an agency's function" -- that is, a shutdown, with a few exceptions for emergencies.  (see 43 U.S. Opinions of Attorney General, 224 (1980) and 293 (1981).)  

Many people at the time disagreed with Civiletti.   Funding gaps -- mostly small ones affecting a single department or two -- had occurred at least seven times between 1950 and 1980, with none resulting in a shutdown.  And nobody had complained about it.  In four of those cases, Congress itself simply shrugged and voted to ratify the work done by the government employees and made sure they got paid.  When a funding gap had threatened the US General Accounting Office in 1979,  the Comptroller General, Elmer Staats (who had been in the job for 15 years) formally ruled that no shutdown was needed since Congress, in enacting the 1870 statute, never intended that federal agencies be closed.  Instead, both GAO and OMB had instructed agencies to limit new contracts or financial commitments during these periods -- but keep the doors open. 

In other words, there was nothing inevitable or necessary about government shutdowns.  It was simply one lawyer's opinion.  Still, with Civiletti's opinion now set, the doomsday device began to work:

  • 1981: a half-day shutdown.  President Reagan vetoed a continuing resolution and sent 400,000 Federal employees home one day around lunchtime, then signed a new version a few hours later allowing them back the next morning. 
  • 1984: a one-day shutdown.  500,000 federal workers were sent home until an emergency spending bill was approved the next day.
  • 1990: a weekend shutdown.  The funding gap came during that year's three-day Columbus Day weekend and was settled before doors opened on Tuesday morning.  
  • 1995-1996, two back-to-back shutdowns stemming from a disagreement President Clinton and House Republicans over funding for Medicare, education, and public health.   First, some 800,000 employees were sent home between November 14 to 19 after President Clinton vetoed a continuing resolution, and then, a few weeks later, 284,000 workers were sent home again, this time for three weeks, as some 425,000 employees deemed "essential" had to work those weeks on non-pay status.

Today, in 2011, we seem to take it for granted that the doomsday machine is enshrined in law, principle, or constitution.   If anything, the threat has expanded in recent years as Congress does a worse and worse job of passing its normal spending bills on time.  Today, in fact, many people view the threat of government shutdowns as a useful "action-forcing mechanism" that compels Washington to face difficult choices -- as with the budget cuts last week.  

Still, do we really need political carnivals like last week's cliff-hanger ?  Don't they only make the country look weak and silly to the world?  

Maybe it's time to deep-six the 1980 Civiletti opinions and restore sanity to the system.  How hard can it be to turn off the doomsday machine?

Friday, April 8, 2011

POLITICS: Some thoughts watching Congress debate the government shutdown.

Mark Twain with cigar.
According to Mark Twain:

-- "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."

-- "Whiskey is carried into committee rooms in demijohns and carried out in demagogues."

-- "Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can."
-- "I never can think of Judas Iscariot without losing my temper. To my mind Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature, Congressman." 

-- "Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

According to Will Rogers

Willl Rogers with homburg hat.

 -- "The taxpayers are sending congressmen on expensive trips abroad. It might be worth it except they keep coming back!"

-- "This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer." 

-- "The trouble with practical jokes is that very often they get elected [to Congress]."

-- "The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn't get worse every time Congress meets."

-- "With Congress, every time they make a joke it's a law, and every time they make a law it's a joke."

According to Jay Leno
-- “Congress is very upset with Roger Clemens because they feel like they were lied to. Good! Now they know how we feel.” –Jay Leno


According to Bob Hope
-- (At a White House Correspondents Association dinner for President Eisenhower)  "It is a great pleasure to be here, entertaining our President. ...  We were supposed to have smoked tongue for dinner tonight, but Senator Morse was not available.  I see Senator McCarthy is here tonight (he wasn't) with his food taster.   I first met the President ten years ago in North Africa, where he was a general. He had some authority then."


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

FAMILY HISTORY: Guest Blogger: Doug Leslie on discovering old family photos.

Doug's mom, Gail Bradford, standing between her parents Wheat and Maude Yett Bradford.   Doug is the cute little kid standing in front. 

[Doug Leslie, a loyal reader, sent us the photo above.  Doug always got a kick out of the photo I keep here of me as a Cub Scout back in the 1950s, so he decided to share his own.  Here's the description:]

Ken, in celebration of women’s history month, I’ll trade old photos with you.  

Monday, April 4, 2011

LIBYA: Don't forget - We've been there before, with "boots on the ground."

Tripoli (modern Libya) and North Africa circa 1801, time of the first US invasion. 
"No American boots on the ground."  That's what President Barack Obama promised last month on announcing his decision to put US military might behind the UN-approved plan to support rebels fighting Libya's dictator Muammar Qaddafi.   Whether events will let him keep this promise and still achieve his goal of ousting Qaddafi remains to be seen.

If the whole Libya affair sounds vaguely familiar, it should.  We've been there before.   And the first experience offers a useful clue as to whether Obama (or NATO) will end up sending troops there again in 2011.   

The Barbary Pirates: ,
None less than Thomas Jefferson was the first president to send American troops across the ocean to make war against what is today Libya.   Back then, the Berber states on Africa's north coast -- Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli (modern Libya) -- harbored the worst ocean terrorists of their day, the Barbary Pirates. These state-sponsored marauders, commanded by local kings and pashas, made fortunes by capturing ships, primarily European and American, looting them for guns and gold, and enslaving or ransoming their Christian crews -- not unlike pirates today off Somalia.  

Thomas Jefferson, first US president to sent
US troops against Libya (then Tripoli).
During the Revolutionary War, France had protected American ships in the region, but this alliance had lapsed by the 1870s when the Barbary Pirates, strong and united, decided to target US shipping.  America was weak back then, a small new country unprotected by bigger friends, lacking its own Navy, and dependent on overseas trade -- perfect prey for Barbary Pirates.  Beginning in the late 1780s, they began taking US ships and demanding enormous ransoms.   In 1795, Algeria alone demanded a cool $1 million from the US government -- about 1/6th of the entire US federal budget back them -- for return of 115 captured sailors.  Even after the US government purchased a peace treaty with Morocco, extortions or "tributes" typically reached over $1 million each year.

Thomas Jefferson hated this practice.  As US ambassador to Paris in the 1790s, he complained that paying ransom only encouraged more kidnappings.  He confronted the ambasaador from Tripoli one time in Paris and asked him directly what gave his country the right to seize American ships.   To Jefferson's dismay, the ambassador quoted passages from the Koran that, he claimed, gave true believers rights over Christian heathens.  Jefferson described the pirates’ way of doing business this way:  “When they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every [pirate] sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth, which usually struck such terror in the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.”

When Jefferson became president in 1801, almost immediately he received a demand from the Pasha in Tripoli for a cash payment of $225,000.   Jefferson decided to draw the line: not one more penny for tribute. Instead, he sent to the Mediterranean a warship -- one of the first constructed by the new US Navy Department created in 1798 in direct response to the pirates -- and ordered it to protect American shipping. The Pasha, in turn, responded by having the flagpole in front of the US consulate in Tripoli chopped down -- his way of declaring war -- and ordered his own pirates to attack more American ships.

The Fight:
Fighting broke out within weeks, as one of the first US ships to reach the Mediterranean, the USS Enterprise, encountered an enemy vessel from Tripoli and defeated it after a three-hour gun battle.   Jefferson quickly sent another seven US ships -- virtually the entire Navy -- into the fray.  Sea battles raged sporadically over the next two years until October 1803 when ships under the Pasha's command managed to capture the USS Philadelphia, a rich prize with 28 big guns and a crew of 100.   The Pasha's men immediately took the crew members as hostages and turned the ship's guns against potential Americans.rescuers.

This led to one of the most heroic moments of the war.  In February 1804, Stephen Decatur, then still a young US Navy Lieutenant, snuck a small team of commandoes directly through the defenses of Tripoli harbor, climbed aboard the USS Philadelphia (which was anchored so that its guns faced the sea), killed the guards, destroyed the ship and its guns, and escaped.    

US Navy Lieutenant Stephen Decatur taking the Philadelphia
in Tripoli harbor in 1804, a painted by Dennis Malone Carter. 
The critical point came in May 1805 when eight Marines, along with some 500 local Arab and Greek mercenaries and supported by US gunships off-shore, marched across the desert from Egypt through El Alamein and Toburk (scenes of future World War II battles involving German General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Corps) and captured the city of Derna near today's Benghazi.  This battle would  inspire the reference in the Marine Corps Hymn to "the shores of Tripoli."  It would also convince the Pasha, sitting just down the road, to offer peace.  

With two months, a treaty was signed, all American prisoners (about 300) were released, and the US settled the affair with a final payment to Tripoli of $60,000.  Total America losses were 35 killed and 64 wounded. 

Lesson for Obama?
The Barbary War did not immediately end the danger of piracy in the Mediterranean.  It would take a second war in 1815, this one against Algiers, to finally bring peace.   

Thomas Jefferson's 1803 war against Tripoli was different in fundamental ways from Barack Obama's 2011 non-war against Muammar Quddafy.  A closer comparison is to the Somali pirates mentioned above.  Still, Jefferson made his point back then by standing up against extortion and crossing the ocean to confront the wrongdoers.  The Barbary Pirates had directly attacked American ships and crews, so there was no doubt about the cause or purpose of the war.   If Obama is to embroil the US further in Libya today, hopefully he will have a strategy as clear and direct as Thomas Jefferson did against the Barbary Pirates in 1804.

But what's notable is one more thing:   Even in the 1801-5 Barbary War -- a fight by ships, involving shipping, led by the Navy, and against seagoing pirates -- in the end it took "boots on the ground" (in the form of the Marines' capture of Derna) to  settle the affair.