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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