Sunday, June 29, 2014

JUNE 29 = Shakespeare's Globe Theater Burns Down

"... I will entertain you at the present with what happened this week at the Banks side. The King's players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry the Eighth...  Now King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey's house, and certain cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the paper or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but idle smoak, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabrick, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale."

This was how Sir Henry Wotton described the fire which burned the Globe Theater in London on the evening of today's date, June 29 in 1613.  Sir Henry was writing in a letter on July 2 of that year, and the fire must have a big impression on him and the others who witnessed it, although happily nobody seems to have been killed, and apparently the only injury came to the man with the flammable breeches.

The Globe: A Fire Waiting to Happen!

Built in 1599, the Globe Theater had seen some of the finest plays of William Shakespeare's career as a much celebrated dramatist.  But there had been competition with other theaters to see who could stage the most elaborate productions, complete with gunfire and flames at times.  So here was the Globe with a thatched roof, and made mostly of timber, with an interior which was also made of wood. It had three tiers of roofed galleries with balconies with three rows of wooden benches which got larger towards the back, which followed the shape of the structure of the building. There were about 1500 people in attendance for Globe theater plays. and no plans in place for evacuation in the event of a fire.
(Below: a modern re-construction of the Globe Theater in performance).
The Globe Theater constituted an accident just waiting to happen - a major fire hazard. And as the props were improved - more spectacular effects were expected. Some boob had the idea of using a live cannon...

A Cannon Fires and There Goes the Globe...

The Globe Theater had for several years used cannons for special effects without any significant problems. But the danger persisted.  For this performance of "Henry VIII" by Shakespeare (which was in fact what was being performed that night) the cannon was situated inside the house, in close proximity to the thatched roof. The cannon was used to create a dramatic special effect such as announcing entrances of great characters. This was a particularly popular effect in the plays which were about a famous event in history. The cannon was loaded with gunpowder and wadding, and sparks from the cannon fire landed on the thatched roof on that night in June, starting a massive fire.

"It was a great marvaile..."

"The burning of the Globe or playhouse on the Bankside on St. Peter's day cannot escape you; which fell out by a peal of chambers, (that I know not upon what occasion were to be used in the play,) the tampin or stopple of one of them lighting in the thatch that covered the house, burn'd it down to the ground in less than two hours, with a dwelling-house adjoyning; and it was a great marvaile and a fair grace of God that the people had so little harm, having but two narrow doors to get out."

- From a letter by Mr. John Chamberlaine to Sir Ralph Winwood, dated July 8, 1613

Not only were there in fact two exits, but as stated at the beginning, nobody seems to have been seriously injured in this blaze.  William Shakespeare himself was comfortably in retirement at Stratford at the time that this happened, and would only live three years longer. Although his reaction to the fate of the scene of so many of his greatest plays was never recorded, one can only imagine....


Saturday, June 28, 2014

JUNE 28 When the Lamps Went Out

"That bit of paper wrecked proud old empires."
- Borijove Jevtic

"The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."
- Sir Edward Grey; August 4, 1914

On June 28 in 1914 - Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie (above) were assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia-Herzogovina which was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassin, one Gavrilo Princip, was arrested and convicted of the murder. He was only 19 at the time, a minor under the law, and could not be executed. So he was sentenced to twenty years in prison.  But he had tuberculosis, and would die in a hospital in 1918.  Princip had been a member of a terrorist band which had been agitating in favor of Bosnian independence from the Austrian Empire, and the "bit of paper" was an announcement of the Archduke's impending visit to Sarajevo, which resulted in the terrorists plot on the Archduke's life.  And the man who spoke of it -- Jevtic -- was a fellow member of the terrorist band. Sir Edward Grey was the Foreign Secretary of the British Government. Both men were speaking about the consequences of this assassination. Both men were right.

The Assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo on June 28.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the Crown Prince, or heir apparent to the throne of his Uncle, Emperor Franz Josef of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The Empire took up a large amount of land in Central Europe, and was the sort of old-world multi-ethnic conglomeration of peoples that was not meant to be in this world of emerging national identities: Slavic peoples such as the Bosnians wanting to break off and form their own countries, or to merge with their Slavic neighbor, the Kingdom of Serbia. But the Austrians were determined to hang onto their Germanic-ruled empire, and were certain that Serbia was secretly stirring up rebellion among their Slavic provinces.  The Austrians were just waiting for something to happen that would give them an excuse to destroy Serbia once and for all.

The "bit of paper" which informed the Bosnian terrorist group of the Archduke's planned visit to Sarajevo gave them a golden opportunity to strike what they viewed as a blow for Bosnian freedom, and they had armed assassins waiting.  During his motorcade, one of their men threw a bomb which missed. The Archduke's tour continued to the city hall of Sarajevo. After some official ceremonies there, the motorcade made it's way through more of the Bosnian capital, but by a different route than the one announced.  But the driver made a wrong turn onto the pre-announced route.  There they found Gavrilo Princip waiting with a pistol. Jevtic takes up the narrative:
"As the car came abreast (Princip) stepped forward from the curb, drew his automatic pistol from his coat, and fired two shots.  The first struck the wife of the Archduke, the Archduchess Sofie in the abdomen. She was an expectant mother.  She died instantly.  The second bullet struck the Archduke close to the heart.  He uttered only one word, 'Sofie..' -- a call to his stricken wife. Then his head fell back and he collapsed.  He died almost instantly."

The FAR - REACHING Consequences of the Assassination

The Austrian government was determined to use this attack as just the excuse they had been waiting for to pound the Serbian government into submission.  But the governments of "the great powers" were locked into a tangled web of alliances from which none of them could extricate themselves.  In very short order, Austria declared war on Serbia.  Russia, the protector of the Slavic nations declared war on Austria. Germany declared on Russia. France declared on Germany. And England eventually came in on the side of France and Russia. As he watched the lights being lit in he square beneath his balcony, Sir Edward Grey remarked on the shadow of a hideously destructive war looming over Europe. His remark about the lamps going out quoted at the top of this posting has come to be regarded as emblematic of this march into the teeth of Armageddon.     

As I wrote in my "Today in History" posting for Nov. 11 , Veterans Day -- the day in 1918 that the fighting finally ceased:

"World War One was the world’s introduction to modern war and modern mechanized destruction. And by the time it was over, the little territorial spat in the Balkans over which it had started was long forgotten. Winning the war was the sole purpose behind it -- one side simply outlasting the other. For this, an entire generation of young men was about to be slaughtered, en masse. It was insane.

"From the seas of Jutland near the English Channel to the coasts of South America, European colonial holdings in Africa to those in the South Pacific the fighting raged. Soldiers were thrown into hails of machine gun bullets, which were a new method of destruction. Other weapons such as poison gas, the flame thrower, the Tank, and submarines all appeared for the first time in this war. Also with the infamous Zeppelin air raids on London, the war ceased to be a newspaper headline, but instead became a very real thing right on the doorsteps of the Allied homefront. An estimated nine million soldiers were killed and twenty two million were wounded."

And three Imperial dynasties were swept away, never to return in Germany, Austria, and Russia. As Jevtic had said, that bit of paper which had told them of the Archduke's visit had indeed wrecked proud old empires. A terrible price to pay for an assassination in the Balkans.


"Dreadnought. Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War"  by Robert K. Massie, Random House, New York, 1991.

"Eyewitness to History" Edited by John Carey, Avon Books, New York, 1990.

Friday, June 27, 2014

JUNE 27 = Helen Keller is Born.

"It is with a kind of fear that I begin to write the history of my life. I have, as it were, a superstitious hesitation in lifting the veil that clings about my childhood like a golden mist. The task of writing an autobiography is a difficult one. When I try to classify my earliest impressions, I find that fact and fancy look alike across the years that link the past with the present. The woman paints the child's experiences in her own fantasy."

This is an opening passage from "The Story of My Life", by Helen Keller who was born on today's date, June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia,  Alabama.  I was prepared to do my normal biographical posting about this remarkable woman, this magnificent ambassador and crusader for the rights of and respect for the disabled, not just for the blind but for all the disabled. But then I discovered her amazing auto-biography.  And it became obvious that in order to do justice to any part of this woman's life, I needed to let her speak for herself.

I only have the space here to cover the early portion of  Ms. Keller's life up until she made a major breakthrough with her amazing teacher and lifelong friend, Anne Sullivan.  So....

The Fever Which Robbed Helen Keller of Her Sight and Hearing

"Then, in the dreary month of February, came the illness which closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a new-born baby. They called it acute congestion of the stomach and brain. The doctor thought I could not live. Early one morning, however, the fever left me as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come. There was great rejoicing in the family that morning, but no one, not even the doctor, knew that I should never see or hear again.

The exact nature of the "fever" which overtook Helen Keller at this young age is unknown, although medical historians think it may have been meningitis or scarlet fever.

"I fancy I still have confused recollections of that illness. I especially remember the tenderness with which my mother tried to soothe me in my waling hours of fret and pain, and the agony and bewilderment with which I awoke after a tossing half sleep, and turned my eyes , so dry and hot, to the wall away from the once-loved light, which came to me dim and yet more dim each day. But, except for these fleeting memories, if, indeed, they be memories, it all seems very unreal, like a nightmare. Gradually I 
got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different...."

As a Little Girl, Growing Up....

(Right  - Helen at age 7)
"In those days a little coloured girl, Martha Washington, the child of our cook, and Belle, an old setter, and a great hunter in her day, were my constant companions. Martha Washington understood my signs, and I seldom had any difficulty in making her do just as I wished. It pleased me to domineer over her, and she generally submitted to my tyranny rather than risk a hand-to-hand encounter. I was strong , active, indifferent to consequences. I knew my own mind well enough and always had my own way, even if I had to fight tooth and nail for it."

Her Teacher, Anne Sullivan
March 3, 1887, meeting Anne for the first time...

"I felt approaching footsteps , I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me. 
The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the (Above: Helen and Anne, 1888) Perkins Institution had sent it and The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while , Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word "d-o-l-l." I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride."

The Breakthrough.....

"Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten— a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope , joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away."

Helen Keller would go on that day to learn some sixty new words. From there with Anne always at her side, she would earn several college degrees, and write the auto-biography from which these excerpts are taken, in 1903.  Anne Sullivan died in 1932, but the story of her amazing work with Helen was dramatized and in 1962 was made into the Academy Award winning film, "The Miracle Worker", from which the above picture was taken.  Helen Keller died in 1968, having brought light, and color into the lives of blind people, as well as life, hope and dignity to disabled people all over the world.


"The Story of My Life" by Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan and John Macy, 1903

Thursday, June 26, 2014

JUNE 26 = The Berlin Airlift Begins

"One option that was not raised was the possibility of creating an airlift to bring food and supplies into Berlin over our legally guaranteed and thus far unchallenged air lanes.  But Clay had already thought of that... This was merely intended as a temporary expedient, not the ultimate Berlin solution, but as is so often the case, the man on the spot hits the best ideas."

On today's date, June 26 in 1948, an airlift began to supply the city of Berlin by air.  And this was how General Omar N. Bradley put it in recalling how the only solution short of war was arrived at in defusing this first and one of the most perilous confrontations of the Cold War - the Blockade of Berlin by the Soviet Union. As Gen. Bradley points out, while arguments raged in Washington about what to do, the way to go was already being put in place.

The Cold War Leaves Berlin in the Middle

As the World War II drew to a close, the vic- torious Allies were on opposite sides of great ideological divide.  The Soviet Union (Russians) wanted to impose communism (government control of political and economic life) on Eastern Europe.  The western allies - The United States, Britain and it's partners wanted to leave Western Europe under the freedom of Capitalism.  This became known as "the Cold War" (no shooting, huge tension), and it started in Germany, centering on the capitol city of Berlin. With the Soviets controlling Eastern Germany, and the Allies controlling the West, Berlin was divided up into occupational zones... the Soviets in the east and the Allies in the west (see map, above ). The Soviet leader, Josef Stalin wanted to push the Allies out of Berlin altogether. Following the announcement of a new western-backed currency, the Deutschmark in West Berlin which might undermine the currency of East Berlin (and possibly East Germany as a whole), he clamped off all ground traffic from supplying West Berlin on June 24, 1948.

The West Reacts With the Berlin Airlift

With West Berlin lying 100 miles inside East Germany, the city faced starvation in a month unless the Allies could get food and fuel supplies there.  In Washington D.C. debate raged about how to respond to the Soviets.  General Lucius Clay, the Allied Commander in Europe (below) wanted to arm convoys with whatever was necessary to shoot
their way in. Recalled Bradley: "Had I enough hair on my head to react, this cable would probably have stood it on end." This was a natural soldier's reaction from Clay, but it may well have set off World War III. Part of the difficulty was that all of this happened around the time when President Harry Truman was just finishing up a very difficult Democratic Convention, and was then facing a tough re-election fight against the likely Republican nominee, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. Bradley had the view that during it's early point the Berlin crisis did not have Truman's full attention. Nevertheless when the question was raised whether the Allies should pull out Truman was most emphatic: "We stay in Berlin, period."

But there was the question of how to supply the city without starting a Third World War. The previously used land routes had all been available on the "good will" of the Soviets.  But happily the air corridors had all been guaranteed in written agreements signed by the Soviet government. So Clay ordered the Airforce
Commander in Europe, General Curtis LeMay (right) to mobilize every cargo aircraft he had to carry supplies to Berlin.  This was begun on today's date of June 26, just two days after the Soviets sealed off all land traffic. Dubbed "Operation Viddles" it was originally meant as merely a stop-gap to get the city by for the short term, Clay and LeMay gradually began increasing its scope, as Clay who was a genius of logistics began to see that the entire effort could be managed by aircraft not only of the the Americans, but also those contributed and flown by Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and France.  The Soviets had not challenged these unarmed flights so far, in obedience to their legal commitments. In any event, they had already determined that an airlift couldn't do the job.

Berliners Pitch In, and the Airlift Sweetly Works!

Realizing that their survival depended on the success of the airlift, the citizens of  Berlin began pitching into the effort, tirelessly helping to unload them as planes began to arrive at a rate of over 1,500 per day. When LeMay reported to Truman in mid-July how well the airlift was working, the President  decided to vastly increase the number of planes thrown into the effort.  This began America's close and positive working association with the people of West Germany who had quite
recently been bitter enemies.  The story of "the Chocolate Bomber", Colonel Gail Halverson (left)was one of the great stories to come out of this period. Halverson would drop chocolate bars attached to little parachutes to the children of Berlin when he would fly over came from this period. He would give a little wiggle of his plane's wings so they would know which one was him, earning him the nickname "Onkel Wackelfl├╝gel" ("Uncle Wiggle Wings"). Other crews joined in this effort (officially called "Operation Little Viddles) dropping chocolate, chewing gum and other candy. In fact, the Confectioners Association of America contributed large amounts of candy to this, and American school children cooperated in attaching the candies to parachutes.

The Soviets Throw in the Towel

The airlift involved nearly eleven months of very dangerous flights, but its obvious success even during the harsh winter of 1949 proved to be a very public humiliation for the Soviet government.  So on April 15, they announced via there news organization, "Tass" that they were ending the blockade. Concluded General Bradley:

"I have always felt that we were very, very lucky in the Berlin Blockade.  Clay's brainchild, the airlift, worked out far better than anyone dared hope.  The Russians did not interdict it.  The common effort created a close bond between us and the West German people, who, in time, became staunch allies. Thus the Berlin Airlift became our single greatest triumph in the Cold War."

Sources =

"A General's Life" by General of the Army Omar N. Bradley and Clay Blair, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1983

"Truman" by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster New York, 1992


Friday, June 20, 2014

JUNE 20 = "Bugsy" Siegel is Murdered

"I told little Benny that he could be my number two.... He was young but very brave. His big problem was that he was always ready to rush in first and shoot - to act without thinking."

- Meyer Lansky, longtime friend

"Bugsy was a textbook sociopath. He took what he wanted when he wanted it and the emotion of remorse was alien to him. In his mind, other people were there to be used by him, which was demonstrated by his long record of robbery, rape and murder dating back to his teenage years."  - Mark Gribben, biographer

"He was a frustrated actor and secretly wanted a movie career, but he never quite had nerve enough to ask for a part in one of my pictures..."  - George Raft, actor.

"When he got killed, you wouldn't believe how many employees broke down in tears...He was very generous with the help and very well liked. He was good to people. He was good to me and my wife."  - Lou Wiener Jr.,  Attorney

"Las Vegas would probably not be what it is today without Bugsy Siegel.  His determination, and his vision, and his sheer will to make the Flamingo Hotel happen is why the rest of it is there."  

- Jim Keily, Historian

Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was shot to death on today's date, June 20, 1947 as he relaxed in his Los Angeles home. And what to make of this man?  Well I've found that there is little doubt that the characterization of his being a cold-blooded sociopathic killer is certainly correct.  But apparently he did have it in his make-up to be outwardly kind to at least some people.  And as to just exactly how much of a visionary he was... well there seems to be a pretty big diversion of opinion on that subject.

The Rise of "Bugsy" Siegel

Born Benjamin Siegelbaum in New York City on February 28, 1906 to poor immigrant parents from Eastern Europe,  young Ben came from squalid, tenements resenting the poverty all around him and vowing to rise above it.  He begun a life of crime by threatening local pushcart owners to set their carts afire unless they paid him protection money.  In 1918, Ben met Meyer Lansky, (below) a fellow immigrant Jew, with whom he became life-long friends,
starting the Ben-Meyer Gang, a group of vicious Jewish mobsters who concentrated on boot-legging, auto theft... and murder.  Eventually this grew into "Murder Inc.", which specialized in contract killings and became the enforcement arm of the Luciano crime family, which became the center of a national crime organization known as "the Syndicate".  Early on in his life, Siegel became known for his quick temper, and acquired the nick-name "Bugsy" meaning he was as crazy as a bedbug.  But it was a name which he never liked, and nobody short of a death-wish ever dared to use it to his face.  In 1929, he married Esther Krakowen with whom he would have two daughters.  During his time with "Murder Inc.", Siegel was said to have killed more than 35 men. Eventually, he became a sought-after assassin, and in 1931 killed the Italian mob leader Joe "the Boss" Masseria. Bugsy was now too hot to stay in New York.  So the Syndicate sent him to California in 1937.

Bugsy Becomes a Celebrity

In California Bugsy found a world that appealed to his flamboyant nature. Setting up the Mob's West Coast operations for the first time, Siegel built up their interests in prostitution, and illicit drugs for which he built up one of the original pipelines of narcotics between Mexico and the United States. Most importantly he was able to force mob control of national book-making wire services and set up off-shore gambling dens to the point that by 1942, these were bringing in $500,000 per day.  And all of this time Bugsy
began living the high-life, rubbing shoulders with the glam- orous set, and movie stars, like his old friend from New York, actor George Raft, as well as the likes of Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and others. He also had affairs with such starlets as Jean Harlow, and began a long affair with Virginia Hill, a beautiful mob figure. They were well matched, each having a volatile temper, and a love of high-living. They both lived in palatial homes and they cut a very striking profile in cities like Los Angeles and Hollywood.                                      

The Flamingo Hotel

In the early 1940's, Meyer Lansky began hearing of possibilities for profit in the small town of Las Vegas, Nevada, and sent Siegel to look into it.  What he found there was a small broken down town in the middle of the hot desert.  But he saw an area for real growth in one key area: the fact that in the state of Nevada, gambling was legal. AND the Nevada legislature had expanded gaming laws to allow Off Track Betting on horse races.  With Siegel having engineered Mob control of the wire services the possibilities for money-making in a "legitimate" business were enormous. With the help of Lansky, Bugsy was able to convince the Syndicate leaders to front 1.5 million dollars to invest a lush new hotel that was being built by Billy Wilkerson and then take over the operation. In the words of  Siegel biographer, Mark Gibben:

"Siegel had it in mind to create an oasis in the desert where travelers from both coasts could come for sun, fun, gambling and entertainment. He would woo travelers down from Reno with the finest hotels, food and stars at prices anyone in America could afford."

It was to be named "The Flamingo Hotel", and Siegel set to work like a demon to make his vision come true. In theory it was a marvelous idea.  But in practice it ran into trouble in that Bugsy Siegel was a tremendous hit-man/killer/enforcer, but he was not an architect.  His plans for luxurious accommodations, such as separate plumbing for each room simply didn't work. And he found himself the target of unscrupulous contractors, who would, for example deliver the same palm trees twice a day.

The Mob Says: "ENOUGH!!"

The cost overruns began to pile up.  The mob backers saw their original investment balloon from 1.5 million dollars to over six million.  They were furious.  Lansky was able to convince them to give his friend another chance to make their investment pay off.  He almost managed to do it.  The Flamingo had its Gala Grand Opening on December 26, 1946.   But it was a huge mess with rainy weather keeping most of Siegel's Hollywood pals away, an unfinished hotel and faulty electricity making it all a wreck. Siegel ordered the Flamingo closed in January, and then went back to work on it with a demonic fury -- this time overseeing every facet of the construction in a full push effort to make his dream work.  The Flamingo re-opened in March of 1947, and this tine it went well. The place finally began to turn a profit.  But in the meantime Lansky had gone over the books and discovered that a large chunk of the cost overruns had resulted from Siegel having skimmed off the mob's investment cash in order to keep himself and Virginia Hill living in style.  The mob had finally had enough of Bugsy.

On June 20, today's date in 1947, Siegel was relaxing on a couch in the living room of the Los Angeles home which he shared with Virginia Hill who was in Zurich at the time.  At about 10:30 pm, a blast of eight bullets came crashing through his living room window.  Five of them hit Siegel, killing him instantly.  Very shortly thereafter two of Meyer Lansky's operatives entered the Flamingo and announced that the Syndicate was taking over the operation.  The murder of Bugsy Siegel has never been officially solved, but it as long been assumed that the mob leaders and Meyer Lansky had had it with Bugsy Siegel and had ordered him killed.  Whether Bugsy Siegel was truly the visionary who correctly foresaw the future of Las Vegas or just a mob killer making a fast buck is a matter of some controversy. But in this world, Bugsy Siegel left nearly alone.  None of his Hollywood pals attended his funereal.  Not George Raft, not Meyer Lansky, nor even Virginia Hill were there. In fact, only five people, all of them family members were present to say goodbye to Bugsy Siegel.




Wednesday, June 18, 2014

JUNE 18 = The Battle of Waterloo

"It was a near run thing." - the Duke of Wellington

"Nothing could equal the splendor and the terror of the scene. Charge after charge succeeded in constant succession.  The clashing of the swords, the clattering of the musketry, the hissing of the balls, and shouts and clamours produced, jarring and confounding the senses, as if hell and the Devil were in evil contention."  - Ensign Edmund Wheatley

"The campaign of Waterloo was unsurpassed for drama and left both sides bathed in glory. It let Napoleon make his exit from the world stage to the thunder of cannon and made Wellington a British legend.  Waterloo was irrelevant otherwise, however; it is almost impossible to argue that this mini-war had any historical significance." - Historian Owen Connelly  

The above three statements all are different views of the Battle of Waterloo which took place on today's date, June 18 in 1815.  And what can one say?  Of  Napoleon Bonaparte, so much has been said on both sides of the ledger.  No other single historical person I have ever studied (with perhaps the exception of Vladimir Lenin) has retained so many years after his death such a tremendous power either to seduce or repel.  Historians either love him or hate him.  Of the battle, yes it was a close call and a vicious fight.  But Napoleon, facing the combined armies of the Allied powers was going to be beaten anyway... if not on this day then soon after.  And it has come down to us in the present day in the names of countless towns, and stations, and the like.  It has been the subject or backdrop to countless books and films. Even in song... Gigi prays to be "Wellington, not Bonaparte.." in the Lerner & Lowe musical. And in sayings: to say that an event was a person's "Waterloo" is to say that it was their final, unsuccessful battle. Hence, in 1973 the group ABBA sung: "Waterloo - I was defeated, you won the war... " So what was this battle, and why was it fought? And whose last and final end did it mark, and why? 

Europe, Peace, and Why Napoleon Was Such a Menace to Both

As stated in my Blog for December 2 ("Napoleon's Masterpiece") Napoleon Bonaparte (right) had stormed onto the world scene in the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789 - 1799) from the ashes of which he had risen to rule the French nation.  He had by boldness, genius, and in some instances just plain luck, risen to proclaiming himself as "Emperor of the French". In the course of this meteoric rise he had launched a series of wars of conquest which lead him to dominion over nearly all of a complacent and sleepy Europe, just as Adolf Hitler would do in the 1940's.  And just as Hitler would do, Napoleon overreached himself with a disastrous invasion of Russia. The Allied armies, consisting of England, Russia, Austria, and Prussia (the leading Germanic state), had finally pushed him back Paris, and by 1814 had forced him to abdicate.  They banished him to the Island of Elba (off the coast of Italy), and settled into the Congress of Vienna (Oct., 1814 - June, 1815) to settle on the new post-Napoleonic map of Europe.  Louis XVIII was installed by the allies as the king of France.  Unfortunately for these "great powers" Napoleon's ego could not be satisfied as Emperor of Elba, and he escaped in March of 1815.  He then gathered up his soldiers in a triumphant march to Paris wherein he arrived at the Tuileries (the French imperial palace) one day after Louis XVIII fled, and re-installed himself as Emperor.

The Allies Close Ranks and React!

The Allies (pictured left at the Congress of Vienna), had been so busy carving up Europe to suit their various appetites that they had nearly come to an impass when the news of Napoleon's escape and return to Paris hit them like a thunderbolt.  The last 15 years of nearly continuous warfare had made it clear to them that the little corporal had to be dealt with seriously and NOW.  So they quickly concluded an alliance and mobilized their armies once again. While Russia and Austria formed up their armies to the east and south of France, England and Prussia, with armies already in the area were the first to move in on Napoleon.  England, whose forces contained contingents of men from Holland, Belgium and the German states (such as Hannover) in addition to their own men, dispatched the dashing and formidable Arthur Wellsey, the Duke of Wellington to the command of her armies.  Wellington had for years commanded British forces in successful campaigns against the French forces in Spain and therefore knew how to defeat them.  The Prussian forces were commanded by the hard-driving, profane and highly capable Marshall Blucher, who was known as "Marshall vorwarts" for his constant drive "forward!!" to the offensive. 

The Battle of Waterloo - Napoleon's "Breakfast..."

Napoleon had managed to raise an army, but while it contained many of the best veterans of his campaigns across Europe, they were older and not as rugged as they had been. Further while he had several of his best officers from his previous campaigns in place, many of his best men had declined to join him.  His one best cohort who was with him this time was the energetic, red haired Marshall Michel Ney, "the bravest of the brave" as Napoleon had called him in the past. Ney was indeed a very brave and resourceful commander of his cavalry corps, but he was unsuited to overall battlefield command as would soon become apparent.  Marshall Soult was an old veteran who had faced Wellington in Spain, and had good reason to respect the man and his men. When he told  Napoleon that he had a stiff fight on his hands, the Emperor cut him off:

"Because you have been beaten by Wellington you consider him a good general, I tell you that Wellington is a bad general and the English are bad troops! The whole affair will not be more serious than swallowing one's breakfast!"

Well, Napo- leon's breakfast had instal- led itself on a very good postion for defending against attack and was obviously not planning on retreat. Napoleon had attacked Wellington and Blucher at Ligny and Quatre Bras respectively on June 16 and had beaten both separately.  But now with Wellington well set at Waterloo, he faced the task of driving him from a strong defensive position while hoping to keep Blucher from uniting with him to outnumber his own men. Wellington's men were on the far side of a ridge from which they were shielded from much of the French artillery fire and where the French could not see them until they were almost on top of them. It had rained torrentially the night before, so that morning when the dawn came on bright and clear, Napoleon decided to wait awhile until the ground hardened a bit.  There were two dwellings on the battlefield which became the focal points of fighting that day.  One was the Chateau Hougoumont on the French left, and the other was La Haie-Sainte near the center of the two lines. The French attack began at 11:30 with an assault upon the walled compound of the Chateau Hougoumont (above). This was intended to be a diversion to draw troops away from the center, but Wellington had stationed strong reliable troops of the British Guards at that spot, and they held it tenaciously throughout the day drawing away more French troops than British.

At 1:00, Napoleon launched his first assault on the main allied line, sending D'Erlon's corps at the ridge near La Haie-Sainte.  The columns were huge and unmanageable, which made them prime targets for the Allied artillery.  A subsequent cavalry charge was also beaten off .  Ensign Wheatley of the King's German Legion was present for this phase and described it as a harrowing affair:

"No words can convey the sensation we felt on seeing these heavy- armed bodies advancing at full gallop against us, flourishing their sabres in the air, striking their armour with the handles, the sun gleaming on the steel.  The long horse hair, dishevelled by the wind, bore an appearance confusing to the senses to an astonishing disorder.  But we dashed them back as coolly as the sturdy rock repels the ocean's foam.  The sharp-toothed bayonet bit many an adventurous fool, and on all sides we presented our bristly points like the peevish porcupines assailed by clamorous dogs." 

Marshall Ney Charges the Scots Highlanders

At about 3:30 Marshall Ney mistook some movement behind the Allied center as being the beginnings of withdrawal by Wellington. He was quite mistaken; Wellington with the Forest of Soignies at his back was prepared to fight where he stood. "Every Englishman on the field must die on the spot we now occupy." he said.  But Ney, a very brave officer, was also a hot-head to say the least.  He lead his Cuirassiers (Cavalry) on a furious charge through the center of the Allied lines, up and over the ridges behind which he had been unable to see their true strength and the fact that the earlier barrage by the French artillery had mostly missed it's target.  Here Wellington (pictured below) had ordered some of his best men, the sturdy veteran Scots Highland Brigades into infantry squares. These were literally squared formations presenting both muzzle and bayonets to the French cavalry and which the horses simply could not break; the famous portrait above notwithstanding, the French horses would never charge directly at a square, but would peel off at a distance of some yards and circle around.  The charges were repulsed.  Eeles of the 95'th Regiment:

"(We) kept every man from firing until the Cuirassiers approached within thirty or forty yards of the square, when I fired a volley from my company which had the effect.... of bringing so many horses to the ground , that it became quite impossible for the Enemy to continue their charge.  I certainly believe that half of the Enemy were at that instant killed on the ground; some few men and horses were killed, more wounded, but by far the greater part were thrown down over the dying and wounded.  These last after a short time began to get up run back to their supports, some on horseback but most of them dismounted."

Marshall Blucher Arrives with the Prussians!

At about that same time, the one thing which Napoleon had sought most to avoid, began happening.  A large portion of the Prussian Army whom the French had forced back at Ligny on the 16'th began to arrive on his right flank, and began to support Wellington's attack.  Napoleon had begun the day with 72,000 men against  68,000 with Wellington.  Blucher's arrival with an additional 30,000 men and his attack on Napoleon's right flank at the village of Plancenoit began to push the odds firmly in the Allied favor. Napoleon had dispatched Marshall Grouchy to pursue Blucher, but Blucher was a fighter, and he was determined to aid Wellington in ridding the world of Napoleon once and for all.  And in one of the many "what ifs" of this day Grouchy either didn't understand his orders or was simply overwhelmed by his added responsibilities.  Whatever the case, Grouchy allowed the Prussians to slip away, and then failed to arrive at Waterloo in time to affect the outcome. With Blucher about to turn the battle against him, and having to send his reserve troops to face him at Plancenoit, Napoleon faced the climactic moment of the battle, indeed of his life.  He had only one  reserve of troops left to send forward in a last ditch attempt to break Wellington's line.  The Imperial Guard.  These were the most skillful, battle-hardened veterans in Napoleon's Army, and their use in combat was strictly a last resort. Napoleon had been unwilling to commit them at the Battle of Borodino against the Russians in 1812. But today, he had no choice.  Slowly the Imperial Guard began to move forward into fields of tall standing corn, and with Wellington himself giving the order the British stood and fired into the French column when they were about 40 yards away.  Captain H.W. Powell, 1'st Foot Guards:

"A close column of Grenadiers.. about 6,000 strong. were seen ascending the rise au pas de charge shouting 'vive l'Empereur!' They continued to advance  till within fifty or sixty paces of our front, when the brigade were ordered to stand up.  Whether it was from the sudden and unexpected appearance of a Corps so near them, which must have seemed as starting out of the ground, or the tremendously heavy fire we threw into them, La Garde, who had never before failed in an attack suddenly stopped.  Those who from a distance and more on the flank could see the affair, tell us that the effect of our fire seemed to have force the head of the Column bodily back."

Napoleon's Epilogue.....

This, the first ever repulse of the Emperor's Imperial Guard was news which spread like a shock-wave back through the ranks of Napoleon's army.  "Le Garde recule!" began being shouted by all who witnessed it, and this was followed by "sauve qui peut!"; roughly "every man for himself!" This lead to Wellington calling for a general advance all along the line.  And thus ended Napoleon's last battle.   This time the Allied powers were not interested in bandying about with half-measures. There could be no question of sending him to any nice little place nearby anything else.  Nor would they permit him to move to America as he evidently hoped. No, THIS time they banished him to the most remote place they could find for him that was reasonably habitable: the island of St. Helena. And BE - LIEVE me when I tell you it's remote. Take a globe sometime and look for a tiny little dot in the South Central Atlantic Ocean.  There on his wind swept rock he lingered on, attempting to re-write history's accounts of him, and arguing with his British jailers about details of the conditions of his captivity.  He died in 1825 and was buried on St. Helena.  In 1840 his remains were disinterred and returned to Paris with suitable pomp and glory at L'Invalides in Paris (pictured above). As I said at the start of this posting opinions about him and his day at Waterloo remain sharply divided. But he certainly turned his world upside down until Waterloo wrote "THE END".

READERS!! If you would like to comment on this, or any "Today in History" posting, I would love to hear from you!!  You can either sign up to be a member of this blog and post a comment in the space provided below, or you can simply e-mail me directly at:  I seem to be getting hits on this site all over the world, so please do write and let me know how you like what I'm writing (or not!)!!


 by Philip J. Haythornthaite, Hippocrene Books Inc., New York, 1988.

 by John Keegan, Viking Press, 1976.

 by Owen Connelly, Scholarly Resources Inc., Wilmington, Delaware, 1987.

edited by Jon E. Lewis, Carroll & Graf Publ. Inc., New York, 1998.

edited by John Carey, Avon Books, New York, 1987.

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+ 266.

Monday, June 16, 2014

JUNE 16 = The First U.S. Roller Coaster Opens

The first com- mercial roller coaster in the United States gave its first ride on today's date, June 16 in 1884 at New York's Coney Island, traveling at an "invigorating" 6 m.p.h. according to one source. I must admit that I've run into some different accounts of what the correct date for this event is, including June 13 and a couple of others.   I will just put it here where the History Channel website says it is and if I am able to really nail down another date at some point in the future, I will move it there next year.  ANYWAY... this baby was the brainchild of one LaMarcus Adna Thompson who was looking for something that would bring wholesome fun to amusement parks.

It Started With Coal Cars....

The idea for this future ultimate fun device had it origins in hard work... the hard work of coal moving in Pennsylvania in the 1820's. It seems that the owners of the Mauch Chunk Railway in Eastern Pennsylvania needed to move a train loaded with coal, mules and other such cargo from the top of Mount Pisgah down to a canal. So they laid this track down the mountain on a fairly gentle downgrade, loaded up the cars, brought the coal down with the cars moving by the force of gravity and then hauled the cars back up for another load.  Eventually a return track was laid and the cars were switched over to that for the return trip up the mountain, and the system was dubbed the "Switchback".  However when coal production moved elsewhere, the tracks fell into disuse.  So the tracks were turned into a tourist attraction giving scenic rides of the countryside in the 1870's                                                

And Turned Into a Thrill Ride!!
Of course the success of this new attraction brought investors anxious to capitalize on the profit making potential of this idea.  A patent in 1878 to  Brooklynite Richard Knudsen used a similar system of tracks and switching, but Knudsen never built his design.  Enter LaMarcus Adna Thompson (below). This man was evidently a fairly stern
fellow, a moralist and it has been said that he was also a Sunday school teacher although there is no written record to that effect.  But he apparently looked upon amusement parks as sinful places in need of redemption.  And he based his design for wholesome entertainment on Knudsen's of two sets of parallel tracks. Visitors would climb to the top of a tower and board a car that then moved down (at 6 mph) six hundred feet over an undulating track. At the far end the car would be "switched back" to another track and returned to the tower.

These cars, traveling at that six miles per hour, provided great scenic view of the Coney Island beach and boardwalk.  At a rate of 5 cents a ride Thompson was able to recoup his original investment of $1,600 in some three weeks.  Thompson's ride, the "Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway" was quickly out-paced by competitors, but he continued to make improvements on his design, adding more scenic elements to future incarnations.  But because of the ride that he premiered on this date in 1884 he was known the "Father of Gravity" ever after.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

JUNE 15 = Johnny Vander Meer's Second "No-No"

"There are some records that are meant to be broken. Babe Ruth's single season home run title was taken over by Roger Maris, then Mark McGwire, and most recently Barry Bonds. Even those that were supposed to last forever like Ty Cobb's career hits records and Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak each falling to Pete Rose and Cal Ripken, Jr respectively, but this is one record that will never be broken: In 1938, Johnny Vander Meer of the Cincinnati Reds pitched two consecutive no-hitters. In order to break this record, a pitcher would have to pitch three consecutive no-hitters — simply impossible!"

- The Baseball Almanac

On today's date, June 15, 78 years ago in 1938 Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer (above) completed a second consecutive no-hit game... and as baseball's on-line almanac says above this is a record that is likely never to be equaled, and which will certainly never be broken.

Johnny Vander Meer Starts Out in the Dodgers System

A native of  Midland Park, New Jersey, Johnny Vander Meer signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he was 17.  He spent some time with their minor league system, and also with the Boston Braves system before arriving with the Reds and being called up to the Major Leagues in 1937 and posting a 3.83 Earned Run Average in 85 innings.  But it was in 1938 that the young left hander would come back to torment the two organizations which had allowed him to get away. Because it was on June 11 of that year that he would quickly dispatch the Boston Braves in less than two hours, no-hitting them for a  3 to 0 victory in Cincinnati.  “I wasn’t real quick, didn’t have my real good stuff, but it was one of my few days I had control." Vander Meer said of his performance that day. "I think there were only about five fly balls in that game."

June 15, 1938: the First Night Game at Ebbets Field

A few days would pass before Vander Meer would get his chance to put an unbeliev- ably similar torment to the other team that had passed on him before he had made it to the big leagues.  It was the first time ever for a night game at the storied home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in Brooklyn, New York.  In order to get as many fans into the Park, Lee Mac Phail who was then with the Dodgers front office continued selling tickets well beyond capacity, thus delaying the game's start until almost 9:00 p.m. as Vander Meer would later recall.: "And the Fire Department came in because he had them sitting in the
aisles, and you name it...  I got to warm up three times, and I had to sit down three times."

Mom and Dad Were There to See It!

In the crowd that night were some five hundred people from Johnny's hometown of Midland Park, N.J., including his parents who were seeing their son pitching in the major leagues for the first time.  In the films I've seen, Vander Meer's delivery was quite unique in the way he would seemingly bow forward before rearing back into the rest of his wind-up motion. "Vander Meer’s pitching motion was quite involved, including a high leg kick that one newspaper described as “the schoolboy’s idea of what a fastball pitcher should look like.” Coupling that leg kick with a fastball that rivaled the great Bob Feller’s and the dim lights of nascent night baseball, and Vander Meer was a recipe for trouble for the Brooklyn hitters." as Joel Luckhaupt wrote in his superb book,  "100 Things Reds Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die."  And his control was actually not the best that night, as he walked five men in the first eight innings while still striking out seven.

And Vander Meer recalled having excellent velocity on his fastball that night, at least through the first eight innings. "I was busting the ball real good... I was probably throwing the ball 95, 96, 97 miles per hour. And... about the eighth inning I was probably starting to loose a little bit off my fastball, so I started throwing curve(balls)s and everybody kept looking for fastballs.  So that really may have helped me."  That control problem almost cost him the game, when in the ninth inning, he managed to walk the bases loaded with two out. With Leo Durocher at bat, Reds catcher Ernie Lombardi (to whom my father used to sell newspapers!) told Johnny to throw a fastball down the middle on a 2-2 pitch.  He did and Durocher (who would later become the Dodgers manager) popped the ball up to be easily caught by Reds center fielder Harry Craft, thus completing what was and what will likely remain the only consecutive no-hit starts by a Major League baseball player in MLB history.

Sources =  

Image of  6/15/38 at Ebbets Field:

"100 Things Reds Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die."  by Joel Luckhaupt, Triumph Books, Chicago, 2013.

"Reds Weekly" edition of June 14, 2013, Fox Sports Network, 2013.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

JUNE 14 = Harriet Beecher Stowe is Born

"The scenes of this story, as its title indicates, lie among a race hitherto ignored by the associations of polite and refined society; an exotic race, whose ancestors, born beneath a tropic sun, brought with them, and perpetuated to their descendants, a character so unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race, as for many years to have won from it only misunderstanding and contempt.

But another and better day is dawning; every influence of literature, poetry, and of art, in our times, is becoming more and more in unison with the great master chord of Christianity,  'good will to man.'

The hand of benevolence is everywhere stretched out, searching into abuses, righting wrongs, alleviating distresses, and bringing to the knowledge and sympathies of the world the lowly, the oppressed and the forgotten.

But the heart of the dominant race, who have been her conquerors, her hard masters, has at length been turned towards her in mercy; and it has been seen how far nobler it is in nations to protect the feeble than to oppress them.  Thanks be to God, the world has at last outlived the slave trade!"

So wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe in the preface to her novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly" published in 1852. Mrs. Stowe was born on today's date, June 14 in 1811.  Her novel about the horrors and degradation of slavery galvanized public opinion in America against the institution, and in part lead to a gradual erosion of public willingness in the north to accept the further extension and existence of slavery. And this ultimately resulted in the outbreak of Civil War in 1861. 

Harriet's Anti-Slavery Upbringing

Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born in Litch- field,  Conn.  The seventh of thirteen children, her father was the outspo- ken religious leader Lyman Beecher and her mother was Roxana Foote, a very religious woman who died when Stowe was only five years old. Harriet was taught in a girls' school, run by her sister Catharine, wherein she studied what were then considered "male subjects" such as mathematics, languages and and the classics of literature. When she was 21, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio joining her father, who had been appointed as the first president of Lane Theological Seminary, a school for Presbyterian Ministers (their Cincinnati home, a museum today, is pictured above). Harriet's father was strongly opposed to slavery, and delivered fiery sermons against it.  But he was not an straightforward abolitionist.  He favored a more "pragmatic" approach to the slavery issue in hopes of gaining mainstream support for its eventual abolition.  Towards this end Lyman Beecher supported "colonization" , which was the idea of sending freed slaves back to Africa to colonize the country of Liberia.  The Lane Seminary became a primary debating ground in the growing dispute between those who favored immediate and total abolition of slavery, and those who favored other, less immediate solutions to the issue which was then tearing the United States apart.

Harriet Becomes Actively Anti-Slavery

In 1836, Harriet married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a widower and professor at the seminary, with whom she would have seven children.  Mr. Stowe was a full fledged supporter of the "Underground Railroad" which was a movement to secretly aid African Americans who had escaped slavery in the south to freedom in the north, and Harriet (pictured above, circa 1853) joined him in such activities, at times harboring fugitive slaves in their home.  It was here in Cincinnati which was then considered at the western-most reaches of the United States, that Harriet as a young wife and mother encountered tales of the evils and the degrading cost of slavery. Ohio was a free state, and Cincinnati, being right on the Ohio River was just across the water from Kentucky which was a slave state. So this brought Harriet into contact with former slaves who told her first hand accounts of their miserable lives while slaves, as well as witnessing the treatment of slaves during her occasional trips across the river into Kentucky.  The Compromise of 1850 with it's accompanying Fugitive Slave Act infuriated Harriet, as it made it a matter of written law that not only could citizens not assist fugitive slaves in their flight to freedom, but citizens were required to assist in the capture and return to slavery of fugitive slaves.

Harriet Writes "Uncle Tom's Cabin" .... a Best Seller!!

In 1850, Harriet wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, who edited the nationally published anti-slavery journal "National Era" that she was planning to write a novel about the evils of slavery.  "I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak... I hope every woman who can write will not be silent." she said in a letter to Mr. Bailey. The result was "Uncle Tom's Cabin" , installments of which were published weekly from June 5, 1851, to April 1, 1852 and in book form on March 20, 1852, by John P. Jewett with an initial print run of 5,000 copies.  Saying that "I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is." Stowe's novel told the story of Tom, a strong, religious man living with his wife and 3 young children, and Eliza, Harry's mother,and their attempts to escape to freedom.  They had the support of Eva, the angelic, young, white girl whose death in the story was deeply moving to the audience of the day. They were chased by the evil-spirited Simon Legree, Tom's master who in the end has Tom whipped to death for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of his fugitive family members.

Stowe's Novel Changes the Equation

This tale of bestial treatment of human beings because they were legally slaves, the spectacle of their being bought and sold and families being broken apart awakened many of the white citizens of the free north to a realization of the human cost of slavery.  They could never again turn their heads and ignore it's existence, nor take refuge in the excuse that it was somehow a benevolent institution to those who were enslaved. Her message was clear and uncompromising: "Did it ever occur to you... that the enslaving of the African race is a clear violation of the great law which commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, -- and a dishonor upon the Christian religion, more particularly in us Americans, whom the Lord hath so marvelously protected, in our recent struggle for our own liberty?"  thundered one of the characters in the book. This was obviously a cry to conscience of the citizens of the north, and a call to arms.  And the reading public went for it whole-heartedly, pushing the sales of the novel to the then unheard-of levels of over 300,000 copies in one year.  In Great Britain, it sold 1.5 million copies in one year. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has been translated into over a dozen languages since it's original publication in 1852, and has been the subject of countless stage productions and other forms of media. And it's influence on the slavery debate is beyond measure.

“Into the emotion-charged atmosphere of mid-nineteenth-century America Uncle Tom’s Cabin exploded like a bombshell…the social impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the United States was greater than that of any book before or since.”

— Printing and the Mind of Man, Edited by John Carter & Peter H. Muir .

Sources =

by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

JUNE 12 = "Mr. Gorbachev, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!!"

"There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev,  TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!!"

- President Ronald W. Reagan, Berlin, June 12. 1987.

Ronald Reagan, then the 40'th President of the United States spoke these words on today's date, June 12 in 1987.  That was 31 years ago, but the President's words still ring with clarity and confidence today, not only for the memory of what they meant at the time, but for what then happened.  They also ring true today for the lesson they taught us: that when facing evil you have to confront it, loudly call it what it is, and challenge it directly.  Not necessarily on the battlefield but in the world of ideas, wherein the victory to be won can be more important and more lasting than any battlefield triumph, or military alliance.  In order to demonstrate this truth, let me fill out some of the details.

Europe and the "Soviet Block" in the mid-1980's

At the time of his Berlin trip the long dark night to which the Cold War had condemned the world seemed to be receding.  The Soviet leader, Mikhail Garbachev was an important reason why this was so.  He showed a willingness to loosen the Soviet grip on all that it had held onto so tenaciously since the end of World War II.  He had indeed demonstrated a wish to negotiate on issues of the size of the nuclear arsenals possessed by both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).

And with his programs of "perestroika" ("restructuring") and "glasnost" ("openness"), he seemed to be loosening up the Soviet government itself.  But the vexing problem of nuclear missiles was still with us.  There were heightened East- West tensions as a result of the debate over the stationing of SS 20(above), and Pershing II inter- mediate range missiles in Europe. And despite the reforms that were taking place in the U.S.S.R.,  Eastern Europe was still under the domination of the Soviet government.

Reagan Challenges Challenges the Soviet Leader

It was into this tense situation that Reagan confidently strode that day.  He had been attending the G- 7 Economic Summit in Venice Italy, and was on his way back to America.  The Berlin Wall, cutting as it did through the heart of what had once been the capital of a united Germany had, since it's construction in 1961 in order to keep the citizens of East Berlin from fleeing to the freedom of the west, become the very symbol of Soviet oppression. Picking up on a cue that had been delivered during the administration of John F Kennedy Reagan
decided to deliver another show of solidarity with the divided city of Berlin as JFK had done almost exactly 24 years before with his statement "Ich bin ein Berliner".  He also wanted to emphasize his belief that only western style democracy and freedom could loosen the hold of the Soviets on Berlin. Did he use this speech to dance around the differences between communism and democracy with diplomatic niceties and apologies for America and her role in the world? No.  He welcomed the changes that had been taking place in the Soviet Union: "We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace" but then he issued his defiant challenge as quoted above.

The Reaction and the Legacy of Reagan's Challenge

"Later Reagan would tell me that he could hear the anger in his voice as he spoke those lines.  He was angry not at Gorbachev, but at the East German police, who just before his speech had herded people away from loudspeakers at the Brandenburg Gate to prevent them from hearing what Reagan had to say.    But the old performer need not have worried that he would not be heard, at least on this day. His words resonated throughout Europe and were heard as far away as Moscow." As Lou Cannon wrote, his speech was indeed heard from far away.

One can question exactly how much play his speech got in the East Block, or exactly what sort of effect that it had on events.  But the fact is that in 1989, less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin wall did in fact come down.  And not long after that came the fall of the Soviet-dominated governments of Eastern Europe.  And then came the fall of the Soviet Union itself. I'm not going to say that our one-time adversary is dead and GM still lives. On the contrary, our one-time adversary, Gorbachev, still lives, but the repressive system which he lead is now dead, resting on the ash-heap of history, where Ronald Reagan once so boldly predicted it would lie.

Above I said that I would demonstrate my belief that evil must be confronted and challenged in the world of ideas, because there could victories be won that were more important than military triumphs. Well I am certain that most of you remember Gorbachev.  But do you remember SS 20s, intermediate range missiles, nuclear throw weights, the neutron bomb, or the nuclear freeze movement? What about Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chenenko, Andrei Gromyko, or even Leonid Brezhnev?  Or anything they might have said?  Maybe some of you do.  But I am certain that nearly all of you remembered Ronald Reagan and what he said on this day before I reminded you of it.  And I point out to you that you remember him in a world where Eastern Europe is free and independent, and while Russia still exists, the Soviet Union and the concept of "MAD""Mutually Assured Destruction" is a distant and fading memory.  I rest my case.

(Pictured above is a section of the old Berlin Wall at Reagan's Presidential Library in Simi Valley California.)


"President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" - by Lou Cannon, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1991.

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