Wednesday, August 20, 2008

August 20


Friday, August 01, 2008

August 1-2


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

July 30


Monday, July 28, 2008

July 28

The Great Depression descended into state-sponsored violence on this date in 1932, as President Herbert Hoover oversaw the eviction of the Bonus Expeditionary Force (popularly known as the "Bonus Army") from its shantytown on the swampy flats of the Anacostia River, just southeast of the federal core in Washington, DC.

The marchers, consisting of 15-20,000 Great War veterans and their families, had come to the nation's capital in June to ask for early payment of certificates worth roughly $1.00 for each day served during the war. The certificates were set to mature in 1945, but the Bonus marchers asked Congress to release the funds more than a decade early, when the veterans needed them most. Although the House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill to grant the veterans their wishes, the Senate defeated a similar measure by an overwhelming margin of 62-18. (The whole legislative drama was irrelevant, as Hoover most certainly would have vetoed any bill that made its way through Congress.) By this point, the BEF had set up a temporary camp on the Capitol grounds, and a number of demonstrators had occupied federal buildings that had been vacated for the hottest part of the summer.

On July 28, Herbert Hoover ordered his attorney general to remove all demonstrators from federal property. Although Hoover evidently did not want the Anacostia Flats encampment to be cleared, Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, believed that communists were responsible for the demonstrations and that "the [bonus] movement was actually far deeper and more dangerous than an effort to secure funds from a nearly depleted federal treasury." Pursuing the war veterans across the river, MacArthur's infantry and cavalry units (including six tanks) trashed the Bonus encampment, scattering the marchers with fixed bayonets and tear gas, asphyxiating two infants. Hundreds of others were injured, and two veterants were shot.

Time magazine reported on one of the deaths:
When war came in 1917 William Hushka, 22-year-old Lithuanian, sold his St. Louis butcher shop, gave the proceeds to his wife, joined the Army... Last week William Hushka's Bonus for $528 suddenly became payable in full when a police bullet drilled him dead in the worst public disorder the capital has known in years.
President Hoover's tough stand against Lithuanian and other veterans did nothing to help his campaign for re-election. In November, he lost to Franklin Roosevelt by nearly 20 percentage points in one of great landslides in presidential history.

Friday, July 25, 2008

July 25

On this date in 1969, President Richard Nixon spoke informally to a group of reporters in Guam and outlined a set of skeletal priorities that would soon come to be known as the “Nixon Doctrine.” Elaborating on his stated goal of “Vietnamizing” the disastrous war in Southeast Asia, Nixon insisted that while the United States could not afford to withdraw from the Pacific Rim entirely, “regional pride” and nationalism among American allies would require a more careful approach to foreign policy:
Asians will say in every country that we visit that they do not want to be dictated to from the outside, Asia for the Asians. And that is what we want, and that is the role we should play. We should assist, but we should not dictate.

. . . [As] far as our role is concerned, we must avoid that kind of policy that will make countries in Asia so dependent upon us that we are dragged into conflicts such as the one that we have in Vietnam.
The United States, Nixon explained, would assist its friends in waging war against “internal subversion” but would not “fight the war for them.” In applying the Nixon Doctrine to the American war in Vietnam, the president did so with his characteristic illegality and viciousness. Over the next four years, as the US gradually withdrew ground troops, Nixon escalated the catastrophic air war while expanding it into Cambodia and Laos; he ordered the mining of North Vietnamese harbors and considered bombing its dams; and he presided over the entombment of 20,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Asians, whose deaths forestalled -- for six years at most -- the reunification and Communist takeover of Vietnam.

Meantime, as the forces of “internal subversion” imperiled the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf region, the Nixon Doctrine supplied the rationale for extending billions of dollars in military hardware and training to the House of Saud and the Shah of Iran, whose nations -- gurgling with petrodollars -- were expected to remain obedient, iron-fisted regional proxies for decades to come.



Wednesday, July 23, 2008

July 23: A Brief Transitional Interruption

Today is the anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riots.

On these events and their broader significance, I have a post up The Edge of the American West, a group blog founded last year by a couple of outstanding historians at UC-Davis.

To make a long story short, they recently asked me to come over and ruin their site. Having successfully accomplished the same for other clients, I decided to accept their offer.

Among other things, this means I'll be posting somewhat less frequently here. I can't say there's a shortage of repugnant historical episodes to explore, but my ability to research and write for the Axis has been increasingly constrained by the various demands of work and life. At least in its current form, this blog has been running for two years now, and I've compiled a huge volume of entires that I'll revise and re-post (which is much of what I've been doing anyway for the past six months). Entirely new entries will appear at EotAW, with links to those posts here.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

July 17

On 17 July 1791 -- two years to the day after he proposed the tricolor cockade that would serve as the basis for the modern French flag -- Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, presided over one of the most notorious and consequential massacres in his nation’s history. For several days prior to the killings, tens of thousands of Parisians had gathered in the Champ de Mars to petition for the abdication of King Louis XVI. In response to these public demonstrations -- which the authorities feared might provoke radical uprisings against the monarchy and the National Assembly -- Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the mayor of Paris, declared martial law and ordered the crowds dispersed.

Carrying out his orders, Lafayette, the national hero who had been tapped as Commander in Chief of the National Guard, led three columns of soldiers toward the unarmed masses who had assembled near the “altar of the fatherland.” Many Parisians were drawn to the Champ de Mars by the declaration of martial law, which they apparently did not believe could be enforced against a crowd so large. Harassed by the angry demonstrators and pelted by stones and clumps of mud, the soldiers opened fire on Lafayette’s orders, killing scores of people. Implausibly, some partisans claimed at the time that 10,000 had perished; historians generally believe the actual number was around 50.

A sympathetic French historian, writing in the mid-19th century, described the aftermath of the massacre as a mixture of despair, melodrama and heroism.
In an instant the Champ-de-Mars was cleared, and nought remained on it save the dead bodies of women, and children, trampled under foot, or flying before the cavalry; and a few intrepid men on the steps of the altar of their country, who, amidst a murderous fire and at the cannon’s mouth, collected, in order to preserve them, the sheets of the petition, as proofs of the wishes, or bloody pledges of the future vengeance, of the people . . . .
The course of the French Revolution, which was already beginning to unravel, only grew more violent in subsequent years; when the Jacobins took full control of the revolution in 1792, Lafayette fled the country and spent several years in Austrian and Prussian prisons before returning to France during the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. Americans, who remembered fondly Lafayette’s contributions to their own revolution, eventually rewarded him with a massive land grant and a $200,000 gift.

Two years after the bloodbath at the Champ de Mars, the assassin Charlotte Corday -- who famously slew the Jacobin journalist Jean-Paul Marat as he lay in his bathtub -- surrendered her head at the guillotine. Her executioner then lofted her head in the air and slapped it, an indignity that earned him several months in prison. Corday’s body, like so many others during the Reign of Terror, was dumped in a trench and buried. The whereabouts of her head has never been determined.



Monday, July 14, 2008

July 14

By all accounts, the Bastille was a godforsaken chasm before an assembly of Parisians smashed its gates and burnt it to the ground on this date in 1789. Originally cast as a stone fortress for the protection of the city, the 15th century towers had evolved over time into a symbol of the monarchy’s immense despotism toward its own people. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, the Bastille served as the temporary home for rebellious aristocrats, religious dissenters, petty thieves, spies, as well as anyone who offended royal ministers or other representatives of an increasingly despotic state.

In the century before its destruction, the Bastille was the subject of dozens of accounts written by former inmates who detailed its horrors to audiences throughout Europe. The most famous of these, Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet’s Memoirs of the Bastille (1783), is widely though erroneously celebrated as the book responsible for the prison’s demise. The Bastille, while loathed by ordinary French citizens, would not have been worth the efforts of its vainqueurs had it not been for the 15 tons of gunpowder it contained. Still, Linguet’s narrative remains a fascinating, if frequently bathetic account of daily life in one of the most notorious detention facilities in human history.
It is in this total silence, I must again repeat it, in this general desolation, in this void of a silence more cruel than death, since it does not exclude grief, but rather engenders every kind of grief; it is in this universal abomination, it cannot be repeated too often, that what is called a Prisoner of State in the Bastille, that is, a man who has displeased a Minister, a Clerk in office or a Valet, is given up without resource, without any other diversion but his own thoughts or his alarms, to the most bitter sentiment that can agitate a heart yet undegraded by criminality,; that of oppressed innocence, which foresees its destruction without the possibility of a vindication; it is thence that he may fruitlessly implore the succor of the laws, the communication of what he is accused of, the interference of his friends; his prayers, his supplications, his groans are not only uttered in vain; but even acknowledged by his tyrants to be useless; and this is the only information they vouchsafe him. Abandoned to all the horror of listlessness, of inaction, he is daily sensible of the approaching close to his existence; and he is at the same time sensible, that they prolong it only to prolong his punishment.

Only seven prisoners remained in the Bastille by the time hundreds of laborers and merchants –- shopkeepers, cabinet-makers, cobblers, locksmiths and joiners –- captured the facility and dismembered its governor, Bernard-René de Launay. The victorious forces then attached de Launay’s head to a pike and hoisted it through the streets of Paris along with the keys to the main gate. They added six other heads to the procession, matching the number of prisoners liberated in the event. (It is uncertain where the other heads came from. Aside from de Launay, only one other garrison soldier perished in the fight for the Bastille.)

Over the next few months, Parisians dismantled the prison stone by stone, leaving a single cell behind as a reminder.

Friday, July 11, 2008

July 11

Thirty years ago today, a truck carrying 23 tons of liquid propylene – nearly four tons more than the law permitted – slammed into a concrete wall and exploded just outside a seaside campsite near Tarragona, Spain. The resulting fireball, which fanned out across a 300-meter area, incinerated everything in its path and left a crater five feet deep and 65 feet wide. Secondary blasts, caused by exploding automobiles and portable butane stoves, ricocheted throughout the site, which at the time hosted roughly a thousand tourists from Germany, France, Belgium and elsewhere. Well over 100 people died instantly, flash fried at temperatures of at least 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, while more than a hundred others endured severe burns that would kill them in the days and weeks to come. Though most of the victims were torched beyond recognition, forensic workers managed to identify each of the bodies – a remarkable feat under the circumstances.

In all, the Los Alfaques disaster claimed 217 lives, including the driver of the doomed tanker. During the subsequent investigation, police learned that both the transport company and petrol refinery had routinely colluded in overloading vehicles. Cisternas Reunidas, which was responsible for shipping the propylene, had instructed its drivers to avoid the toll motorways and use the national roads instead. This choice saved the company a few thousand pesetas, the contemporary equivalent of 15 Euros; four years after the accident, the shipping company and refinery paid out nearly ten million times that amount in damages to the survivors and the families of those who died.

The Los Alfaques camp fire spurred new hazardous materials regulations throughout the world. It also led to the development of new international standards – based solely on dental, fingerprint or DNA evidence -- for identifying bodies in the wake of similar disasters.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Brief Vacation Interruption

Things have been slower around here than usual... I've been entertaining family and trying to get Real Work accomplished. I'll be leaving on vacation for a few weeks tomorrow but will return in mid-July with some new entries....

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

June 17

On this date in 1939, the German-born serial killer Eugen Weidmann lost his mind – and the head that encased it – to the guillotine outside the French prison at Versailles.

Weidmann had committed a number of petty crimes over the years and had completed a short prison term in March 1936 before meandering to France to avoid serving in Hitler’s armed forces. It appears that Weidmann viewed himself to be something of a criminal genius, and he organized a gang comprised of fellows he’d met while in a Franfurt prison to carry out a series of abductions that mainly targeted wealthy visitors from the United States and Great Britain. When their first effort went badly and their victim managed to escape, Weidman and his companions evidently decided to take no more chances. Beginning with the abduction and murder of the American dancer Jean de Koven – whom he admitted to strangling while she was drinking tea -- Weidman and his accomplices tallied a half dozen victims between July and September 1937. Most of them had been shot in the back of the head and robbed; one of their female victims was buried in a garden, the other stuffed into a cave. Detectives located and arrested the conspirators in December, and their trial – which did not take place for another 15 months – resulted in the completely predictable verdict of death for Weidman. His accomplices earned life sentences.

At 4:00 a.m. on June 17, 1939, prison officials roused Weidmann from bed, shaved the back of his neck, offered him a shot of rum and a smoke, then escorted him the Place de Greve, a public plaza just outside the prison walls. More than two hundred audience permits had been issued to view the killing, and so an eager crowd awaited the condemned man as he emerged from Versailles. Most of them had been merry-making since the previous evening in anticipation of the execution, and Weidman’s arrival rejuvenated their fatigued spirits, sending them into what the press described as a “hysterical” frenzy. When Henri Desfourneaux, France’s executioner, released the blade, Weidman’s head tumbled to the pavement while numerous women in the crowd surged forward to dip their handkerchiefs and scarves in the accumulating lake of blood.

Embarrassed by the display, prison authorities consigned future executions to the interior of the prison, where they ere carried out until 1977, when the last guillotining took place. France, joining much of the rest of the world in its evolving standards of decency, formally abolished capital punishment in September 1981.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

June 12

The day after Gov. George C. Wallace sought to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama, a fertilizer salesman and Klan member named Byron De La Beckwith gunned down Medgar Evers in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi home. Just before 2:00 a.m. on 12 June 1963, Medgar Evers -- a 37-year-old father of three -- died at a local hospital.

Evers had few illusions about his life’s work. Several years before his death, Evers recalled his childhood in Decatur, Mississippi:
When I was eleven or twelve a close friend of the family got lynched. I guess he was about forty years old, married, and we used to play with his kids. I remember the Saturday night a bunch of white men beat him to death at the Decatur fairgrounds because he sassed back a white woman. They just left him dead on the ground. Everyone in town knew it but never [said] a word in public. I went down and saw his bloody clothes. They left those clothes on a fence for about a year. Every Negro in town was supposed to get the message from those clothes and I can see those clothes now in my mind's eye . . . . But nothing was said in public. No sermons in church. No news. No protest. It was as though this man just dissolved except for the bloody clothes . . . . Just before I went into the Army I began wondering how long I could stand it. I used to watch the Saturday night sport of white men trying to run down a Negro with their car, or white gangs coming through town to beat up a Negro.
A veteran of the segregated armed forces who fought in Normandy during World War II, Evers returned to the United States with a determination -- shared by millions of black soldiers and their compatriots -- to enjoy and exercise their full citizenship. He graduated from Alcorn State and sold insurance for a living, but he grew increasingly involved in the emerging civil rights movement, which was a deadly commitment in one of the most unreconstructed racist havens of the old South. Evers became involved in the investigation of Emmett Till’s murder in 1955, and he organized economic boycotts, prayer vigils and nonviolent marches, all of which earned him the respect of national civil rights leaders and the enmity of segregation’s defenders. Evers, who was his state’s first NAACP field officer, had been targeted by white supremacists for nearly a decade before his death. His home was firebombed, he received teleophe threats on a daily basis, and he was chased by racist drivers who more than once tried to run him over.

In his final speech, delivered less than a month before his death, Medgar Evers expressed optimism that
the years of change are upon us. In the racial picture things will never be as they once were. History has reached a turning point, here and over the world. Here in Jackson we can recognize the situation and make an honest effort to bring fresh ideas and new methods to bear, or we can have what Mayor Thompson called “turbulent times.” If we choose this latter course, the turbulence will come, not because of so-called agitators or the presence or absence of the NAACP, but because the time has come for a change and certain citizens refuse to accept the inevitable.
Byron De La Beckwith, refusing to “accept the inevitable,” shot Evers in the back and escaped justice for more than 30 years. At last convicted of the murder in 1994, De La Beckwith died of heart problems on 21 January 2001, the day after George W. Bush took the oath of office.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

June 11

On this date in 1963, a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc drove from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue to Saigon, parked his car in a busy intersection, doused himself in gasoline and diesel fuel, and -- with a string of Buddhist mala (prayer beads) clutched in his hand-- calmly immolated himself. David Halberstam, then a reporter for the New York Times, recalled the event in 1965:
Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think . . . . As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.
His act -- captured most famously by Associated Press photographer Malcolm Browne -- stunned the world and hastened the demise of Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt South Vietnamese president who was then engaged in a nationwide crackdown against Buddhists and political dissidents. In a letter written just before his death, Thich Quang Duc explained that his sacrifice was intended as a call for Diem “to be kind and tolerant toward his people and [to] enforce a policy of religious toleration.”

Diem’s regime was somewhat less than sympathetic to these pleas. Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu -- Diem’s sister-in-law and the “First Lady of South Vietnam” -- dismissed the act as irrelevant and ineffectual. “They only thing they have done,” she observed with a wave of her hand, “they have barbecued one of their monks.” She added that Duc’s death was not even “self-sufficient” because he had to use “imported gasoline.” Madame Nhu was also quoted as urging the monks to continue their protests. “Let them burn,” she said, “and we shall clap our hands.” Less than four months later, Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu were killed in a coup, and Madame Nhu -- the “Dragon Lady” -- was driven into exile.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

June 4

Today is the 34th anniversary of one of the most staggering promotional failures in American sports history. On 4 June 1974, fans who showed up to watch the Cleveland Indians host the Texas Rangers were treated to a remarkably ill-conceived event known as “Ten Cent Beer Night.” Throughout the game, vendors dispensed tens of thousands of cups of Stroh’s beer to the 25,000 irascible fans who filled the soul-less, bug-infested cavern otherwise known as Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The result, quite predictably, was ugly.

The 1960s and 1970s were an awful time for northern Ohio, as the departure of heavy industry and the frenzied flight of white residents to the suburbs helped cut the city’s population nearly in half from its post-World War II high of 900,000. By 1974, Cleveland was five years past the infamous Cuyahoga River chemical fire and four years from declaring bankruptcy. For those who were able to struggle out of bed on June 4, the opportunity to drown in cheap alcohol must have seemed like an instance of divine intervention.

As fate would have it, a similar cheap beer promotion grew out of hand the previous week, when the Rangers and Indians met in Arlington, Texas. Midway through that game, the teams brawled, and Rangers fans responded by tossing cups of beer onto the field. Nothing that night, however, rivaled the lunacy that ensued in Cleveland when the Rangers arrived for a three-game series on June 4; averaging a mere 8000 fans per game that season, Cleveland Indians officials hoped that alcohol might create a buzz that their team's players themselves could not.

During the first few innings, tipsy fans tossed smoke bombs and firecrackers at each other. By the second inning, a topless woman had leaped onto the field and chased down one of the umpires for an unwanted kiss; another streaker joined the Rangers’ Tom Grieve as he circled the bases following his second home run of the night; a father and son team ran into the outfield and dropped their pants. Meantime, golf balls, rocks and batteries rained down on Texas’ players throughout the game. At one point, someone heaved an empty gallon of Thunderbird wine at Rangers’s first baseman Mike Hargove. As the game neared its conclusion, the evening descended into total chaos. During the ninth inning, the Indians managed to tie the score and placed the winning run on third base. At that point, a fan ran into the outfield to steal Jeff Burroughs’ glove. When Burroughs began chasing the fan, Rangers’ manager Billy Martin, along with several of Burroughs’ teammates, rushed to help out -- several of them, including Martin, carried bats.

Not caring that their team was about to win a rare victory, the most intoxicated people in Cleveland began throwing hot dogs, beer cups, broken seats and glass bottles at their guests from Texas. Thousands of fans stormed the field, some of them brandishing chains and knives and metal chairs.

Within minutes, the umpires’ crew chief Nestor Chylak had invoked Rule 3.18 and forfeited the game to Texas. Chylak later described the fans as “uncontrollable beasts,” adding that he had never seen anything quite like it, “except in a zoo.” American League president Lee MacPhail concluded that beer "played a great role" in the affair.



Monday, June 02, 2008

June 2

Today is the anniversary of the 1855 Rum Riots that shook Portland, Maine, on June 2, 1855. The uprisings were inspired by rumors that the city’s prohibitionist Mayor Neal S. Dow -- the so-called “Napoleon of Temperance” – had permitted enormous stores of liquor to enter the city in apparent violation of the law. By the night’s end, one man was dead and a handful of others wounded, shot by the state militia by order of the mayor, whose political career was irreparably harmed as a result.

Dow had been an advocate of temperance since the 1830s, and he had devoted years to the project of urging his home state to criminalize the sale and consumption of wicked spirits. Where temperance reformers had traditionally relied on techniques of persuasion and conversion, Dow represented a newer wing of the movement that insisted on total prohibition as the only means sufficient to thwart civilizational collapse. And so in 1851, the Maine legislature passed a landmark bill to accomplish precisely those ends; the “Maine Law” provided that alcohol could only be used legally for “medicinal, mechanical or manufacturing” purposes.

Predictably, the traffic in rum descended underground, as smugglers devised ingenious ways of delivering the desired nectar to whomever was willing to pay for the pleasure and accept the risk. For those who could afford neither the cost nor the risk of violating it, the Maine Law was immensely unpopular – even more so among the state’s Irish immigrants, who correctly understood that public supporters of prohibition often drank as well from the nativist cup. Maine’s protestant majority despised the Irish workers whose numbers had grown in recent decades, regarding them as sotted, Gaelic brutes who would do the nation well by leaving it as quickly as they’d come. Meantime, however, the prohibition law was partly intended to arrest their bad behavior or – it was widely hoped – persuade them to leave the state for more permissive surroundings. Other laws placed new burdens on foreign-born voters, restricting them from the polls at a crucial

When Dow won the mayor’s election in 1855 – benefiting from the efforts to restrict “Irish cattle” from voting – he authorized the city to create an agency to regulate the sale of liquor to those few whe entitled to receive it. He initiated the purchase of $1600 worth of booze in his own name and arranged to pass it along to the new agency once it arrived. Unfortunately for Dow, this qualified as an illegal transfer under the state’s prohibition law, and his opponents pounced. They successfully petitioned a judge to issue a search warrant for city hall, where the contraband was supposed to be residing, and on June 2 a furious crowd descended upon City Hall.

After three hours of taunting and jeering the mayor, throwing rocks and other missiles at the police, the crowd – which had by this point swelled to well over a thousand – charged the building and were repelled by a volley of gunfire. John Robbins, a sailor from Boston, died in the attack. Mayor Dow was allegedly disappointed to learn that Robbins was not Irish.

In the aftermath of the Rum Riot, Dow himself was brought up on charges of violating the liquor law. Though he was acquitted, the incident destroyed his political career and soiled the reputation of the new Republican Party during the next election cycle. Democrats – looking for an issue to draw attention away from the nation’s mounting crisis over slavery – found the temperance controversy to be well suited to the purpose. Rallying voters against “Dowism,” they swept into power in 1856 and quickly repealed the nation’s first prohibition law.

By this point, several other states had followed Maine's lead. Among temperance advocates, the 1855 Rum Riots provided further confirmation that prohibition was a reasonable solution to the problem of alcohol.