Category Archives: Protests

The Brighton Bombing: Trouble on the mainland.

‘An Irish sky looks down and weeps
Upon the narrow Belfast streets,
At children’s blood in gutters spilled,
In dreams of glory unfulfilled
As part of freedom’s price to pay.
My youngest son came home today.’

Eric Bogle, from ‘My youngest son came home today.’

A little before 3am on 12th October, 1984, a bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel, Brighton, targeting the Conservative Party conference which was being held in the seaside resort. In September of that year, a man called Patrick Magee, a member of the Irish Republican Army (the IRA), stayed in the hotel for three days as ‘Roy Walsh’, and had planted the bomb with a 24 day delay on the timer. This was a similar tactic to one developed in Spain by the Basque terrorist group, ETA, who often infiltrated building firms leading to bombs being set to detonate months or even years later in the houses of leading politicians, sometimes using radio detonation. Magee’s bomb killed five people and seriously injured many more including Norman Tebbitt, a senior MP in the Conservative Party, who was President of the Board of Trade, and his wife, Margaret, who was left paralysed. However, the main targets were the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and members of her Cabinet, all of whom survived, mainly out of sheer luck. The attack shocked the country and the world, but why did it happen?

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The Grand Hotel in 2012. © Copyright Peter Tarleton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Patrick Magee was born in Belfast in 1951, and was in his late teens when the ‘troubles’ started in Northern Ireland. But his actions were not simply the result of what had happened during his lifetime for they had roots deep in the troubled history of Ireland and its relationship with Britain, or more significantly, England. It is a history which is long and complicated, open to a wide range of interpretations and often baffling. Despite the relative ‘peace’ since the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 1998, there are many people who remain trapped or haunted by the history of Ireland, especially that of the six counties of Ulster which form Northern Ireland. In Britain, especially in England, it is largely misunderstood or ignored, a matter of no importance or one that is too complex to consider. In the province itself, as in the rest of Ireland and parts of Scotland, it is a story which lives today, a story of injustice and treachery, of power and bullying, of theft and murder, a story which cannot be ignored or excused. Those who try to ignore the troubled history of the British in Ireland and Northern Ireland cannot begin to understand the problems, heal the wounds nor begin to address the future.

The statement issued by the IRA after the bombing of the Grand Hotel said: “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no war.” The use of the word ‘give’ cut to the heart of the issue in the eyes of the Republican movement: it was focused on power and control. As with the Civil Rights Movement, abuse of power was the issue, as decisions about the people, resources and institutions of Northern Ireland were taken in London, by people who saw the province as being under their control. It was, therefore, an issue rooted in Empire, focusing on freedom and the right to self-determination; those who benefited from the situation wanted it to continue while, quite naturally, those who resented living in a ‘colony’ were keen to see the restoration of a united Ireland. 

Patrick Magee was, of course, not acting alone when he planted the bomb. He was part of a movement, a small but committed band of people who were willing to act with the greatest violence to achieve what they believed was the right, true or just situation, the reunification of Ireland, free from ‘English’ control. The IRA was the most well-known Republican group, although in the early 1970s it had split into two wings, the ‘Official IRA’ and the ‘Provisional IRA’, which was responsible for nearly all terrorist attacks carried out by the Republican movement after 1972. The Brighton Bombing of 1984 was carried out by the ‘Provos’, and was just one very high profile act in a terrible struggle which cost thousands of lives. It was another knot in the web of relationship between these two islands off north-west Europe, two islands where the people generally get on pretty well together. To people across the world, and many within the United Kingdom itself, the troubles hardly make sense; it can only make sense when you consider the power of the past, and, most of all, how you read, select and interpret that history.

Choosing a starting point for this history is difficult. It is not unreasonable to begin in 1800, when the island of Ireland officially lost its independence and was united with Great Britain, so creating ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. Just a few years after the USA had declared its independence from Britain, and with Napoleon Bonaparte beginning to lead a rejuvenated French army across Europe, the government in London was deeply concerned about national security. In an age of empires, when slavery was still legal and the idea of rights was in its infancy, the status and welfare of Ireland and the Irish mattered little to London. Ireland’s location made it a potential back-door for attack, especially as it was a country which was predominantly Catholic. In these days before the Battle of Trafalgar meant that Britannia ‘ruled the waves’, ensuring that Ireland was under the control of the ‘United Kingdom’ made perfect sense in Westminster. So it was that the cross of St. Patrick was added to the ‘Union Flag’, creating what we know today as the red, white and blue of the ‘Union Jack’. Ireland was integrated into the British Empire, that vast area which many people would actually see as ‘England’s Empire’. The fact that today there is a country called the ‘Republic of Ireland’ and a province called ‘Northern Ireland’ is a particular legacy at the heart of the tensions.

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The development of the ‘Union’ flag. The Scottish saltire was combined with the cross of St. George following the Act of Union in 1707, and in 1800, the cross of St. Patrick was added to create the ‘Union’ flag. This is still the flag of the country whose official name is ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, which most people don’t know. They also tend to get upset when told that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not recognised as countries in their own right. They only really exist for sport, which annoys FIFA and UEFA, the world and European football organisations, as it means the UK gets to enter four teams for each competition. (Author: Paula Guilherme; source: here)

The division of the thirty two counties of Ireland into two sections, the Republic of  Ireland and Northern Ireland, is the most recent expression of an ancient struggle for power. Patrick Magee, the ‘Provos’ and the Brighton bomb wrote just one section of a dark chapter in the long and troubled relationship between England and Ireland. England has sought to dominate Ireland to a greater or lesser degree since the reign of Henry II in the 12th century and tension has existed ever since. There were many problems before the decades of suffering in the Twentieth Century but the lowest points came when Oliver Cromwell ruled Britain in the 1650s and with the horrors of the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-51. The power of these and many other events has to be appreciated if anyone wants to understand how we ended up in this place to begin with; as much as any country in the world, history is alive in Ireland.

The history taught and remembered by a nation reveals a great deal about it. The events it chooses to celebrate, the memorials it erects, the places it sanctifies and the people it honours, combine to both express and reinforce its sense of self, its identity. History is a powerful influence in justifying status and action in the modern world, as, say, the membership of the Security Council at the United Nations shows. Success, victory and power achieved in the past can play a huge part in creating a sense of status and expectation for the future. Those ‘victories’ have usually been achieved and maintained through violence in some form, bringing economic, political and social influence to certain countries, institutions and classes at the expense of others. The presumed right of the descendants of the victors to continue to act in the same or similar ways to those of the past can breed a not unexpected resentment over the years. The language of resistance used by Winston Churchill during World War II, for example, shows how much the British people feared being taken over by  a foreign power; there can be no surprise that other countries should have had a similar feeling towards British control, even though they were not able to resist so effectively.

The uncomfortable truth for some people in a modern, liberal democracy, is that history is riddled with examples of ‘Might is right’. This cannot be avoided and much of the wealth and status of today’s dominant forces rests on the gains of war, empire and exploitation. In our pasts, people fought, explored, competed, dominated, controlled and exploited others; through such methods did England become Britain and then an empire. This tiny nation, what is basically the eighth largest island and the eightieth largest country in the world today, sandwiched between Guinea and Uganda, became the dominant force in the world for a century and remains a significant player on the world stage today. Despite the many skills and attributes of its people, the influence of force in English and British history cannot be ignored. Whether it was victory over Wales and Scotland, the Netherlands, France or India, war has been integral to the growth and maintenance of British power. This is not a criticism but an observation, of course; wars happen, but that should not mean they are simply dismissed or ignored. As Churchill suggested, the British people would do all they could resist the Nazi threat and it should be no surprise that other nations should feel the same way when Britain invaded.

The history of the English/British in Ireland does not read well for the majority of ordinary people in that country, who did not partake of the benefits that came to those who allied themselves with London. Over the centuries, most people saw England as a cruel and oppressive force led by people who were indifferent to plight of the Irish who were largely dismissed by as Catholic, backward and, almost deservedly, poor. Differences in language, industry, culture and especially religion were all issues which divided the two countries, leading England to be seen as the oppressor and Ireland as the threat. The power and wealth clearly lay in London rather than Dublin but that did not mean that there was compliance and acceptance across Ireland. Oliver Cromwell was a particular sign of division and hatred. As a ‘Puritan’, that most extreme brand of Protestantism, Cromwell ruled Britain for nearly a decade following the execution of King Charles I in 1649. His strong Protestant views meant that he saw the mainly Catholic Irish as a source of great danger and he willingly used his army on a people who had supported the recently executed King Charles. Cromwell’s attempts to bring the Irish to heel unleashed a wave of violence and the destruction of the town of Drogheda, in particular, has entered folk lore as the most potent symbol of England’s capacity for evil and calculated indifference towards the people of Ireland.

Two hundred years after Cromwell, disaster once again struck Ireland and English influence was once again blamed. The Irish ‘Potato Famine’ was the last famine to hit Western Europe and one of the most disastrous events in Irish history. The failure of the potato crop over several years devastated large swathes of the country, leading to the death of over one million and the emigration of millions to countries across the globe. This movement of people out of Ireland continued after the famine with emigration to many parts of Britain, Australia, and especially the USA, fostering massive resentment towards England which is still seen today in, for example, sport and the use of English accents to suggest sinister evil in Hollywood films. In 1840, the population of Ireland had been around 8 million; by 1900 it was below 4 million. This was at a time when populations everywhere else in Europe were increasing dramatically ,even ,  population of Ireland is still well below the figure for the early 19th century, the only European country for which this is true. English Protestant landowners, as well as the Westminster Government, were held responsible for the failure to deal with the blight which decimated the potato crop on which so many millions of peasants depended. It was the only crop which failed in those years yet food could not be found for the poor, some of whom resorted to eating leaves and even grass. The ‘Potato Famine’ touched every family in the country and it cemented the image of ‘perfidious Albion’, as the natural disaster of the ‘potato blight’ was made so much worse by the indifference and cruelty of Government officials who did too little too late to help the peasants who starved across the country. The frustration grew over the years amongst the survivors, especially the emigrants, festering into the deepest hostility in some areas, an anger expressed in many of the songs and stories of that period. The IRA would eventually grow from that anger and the desire for freedom, justice and, it must be said, revenge.

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A reminder of the power of history: a mural on a house in Ballymurphy, Belfast, commemorating the ‘Great Famine’. (Author: unknown; source: here)

In the wake of the ‘Potato Famine’, resentment amongst Irish Republicans, who wanted independence from Britain, became increasingly aggressive from the 1860s. At the heart of this development was a group called ‘The Fenians’ who launched attacks against the British Government both in Ireland and in England. Much of their support came from Irish emigrants to the USA who had settled in the major cities of the north-east, such as New York and Boston. Some had made money since settling in the USA but they never forgot the reason why they had been forced to leave their homes, memories often fired by stories told by parents and grandparents. This fostered the development of various groups keen to fight back against Britain, trying to lead the struggle for freedom from English control. Ideology, anger and fund raising worked together, supporting groups like the Fenians and fostering a natural tendency to undermine the country which ruled a quarter of the globe. There was a deep sense of the injustice that fed the resentment against an elite and privileged group in England which seemed to have grown fat and rich on the ‘blood of the poor’. The last man to be publicly hanged in Britain was actually a Fenian, a man called Michael Barrett, who was found guilty for the deaths of 12 people in the ‘Clerkenwell Bombings’ in 1868. Such a public show of punishment would not stop the fund-raising or the volunteers, though, and Irish-American support for resistance to British rule would continue throughout the Twentieth Century.

The ‘Fenians’ themselves took their inspiration from Irish history as they looked back to the men and women who had rebelled against the English over the years. Two of these were Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) and Robert Emmett (1778-1803), both of whom had seen their efforts end in glorious failure. These two men became iconic figures for the Republican movement, their lives honoured in songs and music, and, indeed, ‘The Wolfe Tones’ is the name of a hugely popular band famous for playing rebel songs since 1963. However, despite the numerous attempts to resist British rule through force, some people tried to bring change through politics, most notably one inspirational and controversial figure,namely, Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891). Immortalised in song as Avondale’s ‘proud eagle, Parnell who was one of the most important politicians of the late Victorian era. In an age when Ireland returned nearly one hundred MPs to Westminster, he focused his campaigning on the issue of the land and his cooperation with the great Liberal Prime Minister, WE Gladstone, saw the introduction of the First Home Rule Bill in the 1880s, a law which would have given some independence to Ireland. The Bill failed and Parnell fell from power thanks to the scandal that surrounded his affair with a married woman, Mrs. Kitty O’Shea. It is remarkable that a Cambridge educated Protestant landowner had united the country behind him, but the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ failed to deliver real change and the political process was weakened in the process; Home Rule would never satisfy a hard core of people,  for whom the full independence of the Irish state was demanded. Charles Stewart Parnell died in Hove at the age of just 45. It is never possible to know what might have been but, if he had lived for another twenty years or so, it is likely that there is much that might have been different and, maybe, better. As it was, Home Rule failed three times before the ‘Great War, each defeat exacerbating the anger and resentment of Irish Republicans.

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Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891): ‘The Uncrowned King of Ireland’. (Author: unknown; source: here)

The most significant of the Home Rule Bills was, in many ways, the third which was introduced by the Herbert Asquith’s government just before the war. Following on Gladstone’s footsteps, this was another attempt by the Liberals to grant some independence to the people of Ireland while keeping the country as a whole under the control of Westminster. Not all people were keen on such a prospect, though, with the Conservatives in Britain and the Unionists in Ireland, being fiercely against the Bill. The Third Home Rule Bill was a divisive piece of legislation, creating great hopes amongst its supporters but triggering massive anxiety amongst those who favoured the old order. The Conservatives, under the leadership of Andrew Bonar Law, gave their total support to the Unionists of Ireland, committing all Tory MPs to stopping the Bill becoming law. The Unionists feared a take-over by Republicans and, in 1913, they established militia groups or armed gangs, to protect the Protestant community; this was the UVF, the Ulster Volunteer Force. The Unionist leader, Edward Carson was the first of many thousands who signed the ‘Ulster Covenant’, a commitment to defend the Union which kept Ulster, the predominantly Protestant province of Ireland, within the United Kingdom. In response to the founding of the UVF and the signing of the Covenant, the most ardent supporters of Home Rule (and of full independence for Ireland) set up their own militia group, ‘The Irish Volunteers’, a body which grew out of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which had worked for many decades alongside supporters in the USA to force the British out of the country. But then the Great War started and everything seemed to be put on hold.

Edward Carson (1854-1935): he was the hard-line leader of the Ulster Unionists who was also famous as the barrister who destroyed his ‘old friend’ and fellow student, Oscar Wilde. He joined the War Cabinet under David Lloyd-George in 1917 and was knighted and later became Baron Carson, all signs of his place within the British establishment. (Author: unknown; source: here)

The Great War put an end to immediate prospect of Home Rule for Ireland, and many thousands of Irishmen volunteered to fight in the British Army. This did not signify an acceptance of British rule, though, and there was a well-known saying amongst Irish Republicans that, ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’. The most famous example of this came during the war itself with the ‘Easter Rising’ of 1916. On Easter Monday, 24th April, a group of ‘Irish Volunteers’ under the leadership of Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Eamonn De Valera and others, launched an attack in Dublin. Although there had been months of planning, things were chaotic – and known by the authorities. The confusion was summed up by the capture of Sir Roger Casement, an Anglo-Irish diplomat, who was bringing weapons from Germany to support the rebellion. Despite the problems, things went ahead with the aim of taking over key public buildings in the capital in the hope that this would lead to an uprising of the ordinary people. The ‘Easter Rising’ turned out to be a disaster as the British Army suppressed the rebellion, destroyed the General Post Office, where the core of the rebel forces were fighting, and killed many of the rebels. More importantly, the Government put the surviving leaders on trial and found them all guilty of treason, imprisoning some but executing 13. These men became martyrs for the Republican cause, heroes of Ireland whose lives are still celebrated today. The most powerful moment came when James Connolly, one of the leaders who had been badly wounded in the fighting, had to be propped up in a chair in order to be killed by firing squad. The rebels might not have succeeded in life, but in dying at the hands of the British in such a way, they came to inspire many followers down the years, their deaths perceived as yet another sign of English cruelty and oppression.

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A memorial to the leaders of the Easter Rising who were executed at Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, in  1916. Gerald Seymour’s quote from ‘Harry’s Game’, that, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” has rarely been more clearly seen. (Author: Unknown, source: here)

As the Great War entered what was to be its final year, tensions were growing in the Republican camp as victory for Britain and its allies became more likely. The dilemma over what to do next was a cause of much debate. The arguments were long and complex, and they saw the rise of ‘Sinn Féin’ as the main political party to represent the Republican cause under the leadership of a key figure in Irish history, Eamonn de Valera. (‘Sinn Fein’ is Gaelic for ‘We ourselves’ or ‘Ourselves alone’, a popular phrase amongst Republicans in the 19th century.) The party would retain close links with the IRA which was formed in 1919 as the Irish Volunteers were re-established. The following years saw great tension and conflict in Ireland as the British responded to a new ‘guerilla’ war fought by the IRA by sending in one of the most notorious forces ever: the Black and Tans. Wearing black jackets and khaki trousers, this force was a mixture of experienced soldiers from the war with numerous criminals who became the most hated symbol of English oppression. Their most notorious action was the killing of 14 people during a Gaelic football match at Croke Park, Dublin, on 21st November, 1920, which was done in retaliation for the killing of the same number of British by the IRA earlier in the day; it was a day which summarised the  atrocities committed by each side.

During 1921, in an attempt to find peace of some kind, negotiations took place in London as the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, tried to broker a deal. Eamonn de Valera and Michael Collins, both key figures in the Republican movement, had important roles in this, with Collins effectively signing his own death warrant when he was sent to London for the talks and accepted a deal that angered many of the Republicans. The Agreement split the Republican movement in two and caused the Irish Civil War of 1921-22. Collins himself was just one of many victims of that war, killed by the IRA during an ambush in Cork. Eventually a deal was reached which saw the establishment of a semi-independent ‘Irish Free State’ in the south of Ireland (Eire) while six of the nine counties of Ulster became what we now know as ‘Northern Ireland’. Peace of a kind broke out but not a peace that would last. The Irish Fee State’s status changed in 1936 and again in 1949, when it became the Republic of Ireland, but peace in the North was always a fragile thing. In the late 1960s, after simmering for many years, ‘The Troubles’ began in earnest and the IRA launched its campaign of terror. Other Republican organisations, such as the INLA, the Irish National Liberation Army, were formed and played their part in the fighting against the British Army and Unionist paramilitary groups, such as the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and the UDA (Ulster Defence Association). The fighting would come to devastate the community and be a feature of the daily news for thirty years or more; nearly 3500 died in ‘the Troubles’, the vast majority of them being aged under 40.

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British troops were sent to Northern Ireland in 196. This mural honours the women and children who challenged a military on the Falls Road, a heavily Catholic part of Belfast. (Author: unknown; source: here)

Tensions had never completely disappeared from Northern Ireland in the fifty years that separated the end of the Great war and the start of ‘the Troubles’. In the 1960s, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, many Catholics and Republicans began to campaign for equality in the Province. They opposed what they saw as a form of segregation in the Province based on religious belief, claiming that certain jobs, better housing and access to education, for example, favoured the protestant community. Special significance focused on the role of the courts, the legal system and the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which were almost completely Protestant and, consequently, offered little by way of justice or protection to the Catholic community. In August, 1969, with tension and violence on the rise, the British Prime Minister, Labour’s Harold Wilson, made the decision to send troops onto the streets of Northern Ireland to keep the peace; it would be nearly 30 years before they could leave. The ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 1998 may be an imperfect document in the eyes of many but it was a key moment in bringing peace to the province. Tensions remain, though, often surfacing in the ‘Marching Season’, that period of June and July when the Unionists march in memory of events like the Battle of the Boyne, when ‘King Billy’, William of Orange, defeated the last Catholic king of England, James II. The past comes painfully to life at such times, when the wearing of a bowler hat and a sash by members of the Protestant Lodge, the ‘Orangemen’, can trigger a wave of hatred and anger, which has its roots in an event from over 300 years ago.

As mentioned, it was the issue of Civil Rights which brought many Republicans onto the streets in protest during the 1960s. Inspired by events in the USA, where improved conditions for Black Americans had been achieved through protest, both peaceful and violent, many Catholics saw similarities with their own situation. One protest in particular triggered a massive reaction around the world, the ‘Bloody Sunday’ march in Derry or Londonderry on 30th January, 1972, when British troops shot 13 civilians, an action that many believe swelled the ranks of the IRA enormously. The anger and deep-seated sense of injustice felt in the wake of ‘Bloody Sunday’ was to tear Ulster apart over thirty years. It was those feelings which led Patrick Magee to try to blow up Margaret Thatcher and the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1984. The actions were taken by a group which refused to follow the democratic process or peaceful negotiation as they believed they would not achieve what they wanted in that way. They tried to force change behind the barrel of the gun as they believed there was no other way to do it. The roots of their actions have to be found deep in history, and the interpretation of history going back to 1972, 1916, 1845, 1803, 1798, 1688, 1651 and even 1169. Things which most British people have neither heard of nor care for, were at the heart of hundreds of murders, injuries and violence across many traumatic decades. The bombs were the horrid, frightening cry of Republican anger which meant that the IRA saw themselves not as terrorists or criminals but as self-defenders and protectors. Thus it was that in the 1970s the IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison started the ‘dirty protests’ where they refused to wear prison uniforms or use the toilets provided, protests which ultimately led to the famous ‘Hunger Strikes’ of 1981.

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A mural honouring Bobby Sands (1954-81). (Author: kwekubo; source: here)

Those IRA hunger strikers included many leading prisoners of the movement, most famously, Bobby Sands. Sands was the first of a number of IRA prisoners to refuse to eat any food, starting his protest on 1st March, 1981, claiming the right to be treated as a ‘political prisoner’. He died after 66 days on hunger strike. He was 27 years old at the time and had actually been elected as an MP just before the ‘Hunger Strike’ began. In all, ten IRA prisoners would die on Hunger Strike, deaths which would harden attitudes on both sides. Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara, Thomas McElwee, Bobby Sands and the others who died would enter into legend with songs written, and memorials built, in their honour; in the rest of the UK, they would generally be seen as crazed terrorists, evil and destructive individuals who sort only to destroy ‘the country’. Extreme situations tend to breed extreme actions and, pushed to the margins, neither the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the main political parties, nor the IRA and its supporters, would negotiate or compromise at the time, and so the Troubles were nourished.

Patrick Magee was released from prison in 1999 as part of the prisoner release programme which was part of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. He had served fourteen years for his crime, a term which many saw as inadequate punishment, his release being a travesty of justice. Magee had been born in a small nationalist ghetto of Belfast, growing up surrounded by the stories of his grandfather who had been in the IRA in the 1920s. The fear  and frustration of his community matched the fear and anxiety of the Protestant majority, a situation his parents tried toe scape by moving to England, but Magee returned to play his part in the struggle, joining the IRA in the mid-1970s.  His actions destroyed many lives at Brighton, his own dreadful page in a terrible history anger, injustice, fear and violence.

Patrick Magee emerged from prison with a first class degree from the Open University and a PhD based on the way the Troubles were presented in novels. After his release he said: ”Every generation of republicans has had to turn to violence. I would hope that now at last we can stand on our own two feet and fight our corner politically. The potential is now there at last.” His life, like the Troubles, was  rooted in the ‘tragedy of history’, those powerful memories which have a long ‘half-life’, taking more than just a few hundred years to die away and become harmless.

 

One note for sports fans. Croke Park is the home of the GAA (the Gaelic Athletic Association) and it banned the playing of ‘British’ sports: rugby, cricket, football. So it was that when the Irish Football Association and the Rugby Union needed to play their internationals at a new venue due to the rebuilding of Lansdowne Road, it became a hugely important moment. The GAA faced opposition within its ranks but finally agreed and allowed Croke Park to be used. The first rugby match played against England in 2007 became a particularly powerful event, especially as the British National Anthem had never been played there. It passed off peacefully, marking a significant development in relations between the two nations and within Ireland itself. That’s the power of history, sport and reconciliation at work. Maybe it helped that the Irish won, 43-13.

 

 

 Find out more:

Films: ‘Hunger’ (2008), ‘Michael Collins’ (1996), ‘In the name of the Father’ (1993), ‘Bloody Sunday’ (2002) and ‘The wind that shakes the barley’ (2006)

Books: ‘Making sense of the troubles: A history of the Northern Ireland Conflict’ by David McKittrick and David McVea; ‘Northern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction’ by Marc Mulholland; ‘The Northern Ireland Troubles’ by Aaron Edwards; ‘A Place Apart: Northern Ireland in the 1970s’ by Dervla Murphy; ‘Harry’s Game’ by Gerald Seymour; ‘Mad Dog: The Rise and Fall of Johnny Adair and ‘C’ Company’ by David Lister;

Books/TV: ‘A History of Ireland’ by Robert Kee and ‘The Story of Ireland’ by Fergal Keane and Neil Hegarty

Songs: Music and song are powerful sources for the way history has been passed on in Ireland. There are many examples to choose from, especially from the Republican perspective, including: ’60 Greatest Irish Rebel Songs’, albums by the Wolfe Tones, ‘Spirit of Freedom’ by Christy Moore; ‘Ulster’s Orange Anthems’ offers a Unionist view and a clear contrast.  These are very one-sided interpretations and should, therefore, be used with great care and thought. Other songs, such as, ‘Soldier’ by Harvey Andrews. ‘To find their Ulster peace’ by Vin Garbutt and ‘My youngest son came home today’ and ‘It’s only Tuesday’ by Eric Bogle, offer reflections from a different perspective, as does ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ by U2.

 

 

 

Hungary, 1956: Blood on the streets and in the water.

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A statue of Imre Nagy, a key figure in the ‘Hungarian Uprising’ of 1956. (Author: Adam78; Source: here)

 

Hungary, 1956: Blood on the streets and in the water

There is something profound and satisfying about the victory of the underdog. It is a fundamental part of the human story reaching back into ancient tales, such as those great matches like David and Goliath from the First Book of Samuel and Aesop’s tale of that tortoise sneaking ahead of a rather cocky hare; they touch into something profound and powerful in the human psyche. Whether it be because of size, age, wealth or weapons, we seem to rejoice in the victory of the weaker or out-numbered force, unless we happen to be on the other side, of course. There is always a story behind such victories, bringing a need to find the cause behind the unexpected result.

The history of sport, of course, provides so many of the most satisfying examples of the mighty being humbled by the lesser power: Germany’s Max Schmeling knocking out the great Joe Louis in 1936; the USA soccer team stunning the world when they beat England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup and Sunderland winning the FA Cup in 1973 against the ‘unbeatable’ Leeds United; Arthur Ashe out thinking Jimmy Connors to win Wimbledon in 1975; Ireland crushing the mighty West Indies at cricket in 1969 after bowling them out for just 25. But it happens in more important matters, too: the Viet Minh withstanding the might of the USA in the Vietnam War; Mahatma Gandhi overcoming the British Empire through peaceful resistance to bring Indian independence; the Montgomery Bus Boycott seeing patience and perseverance rewarded by an end to segregation on the buses.  The commitment, creativity and courage shown in these events from the last century can still serve as an inspiration today. And one of these stories is known as ‘Blood in the water’, an event which combines sport, violence and politics in a game of water-polo.

The story focuses on Hungary, so let’s check where it is by looking at a map of central Europe. today, it is a country of about 10 million people today, one which has a very long and proud tradition; it was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The empire fought with Germany in the Great War (1914-18) before being divided up by the ‘Treaty of Triannon’ (1920), which was part of those agreements which are usually grouped together as ‘The Treaty of Versailles’. Hungary as we know it today was, therefore, created in the wake of the Great War.

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Hungary (Author: CIA; Source: here)

Anyway, now for a little background about the country. Hungary’s country’s capital city is Budapest, a fine place split by the River Danube, the second longest river in Europe which starts in Germany and flows nearly 1800 miles down to the Black Sea. The city is in two halves, the older part being ‘Buda’ on the western side of the river and the newer being ‘Pest’ on the east. The Hungarian language is very unusual, having links with Finnish and Estonian but not much else, so don’t expect to understand much should you visit; there are some very strange letter combinations, like ‘Magyarország’, the name for Hungary itself. By the way, the name ‘Hun’ for a German or Austro-Hungarian soldier in the Great War comes from the fact that the whole of the Central European region was settled by that tribe in the 5th century when they were led by ‘The Scourge of God’, Attila the Hun. That was probably a fairly obvious point but hopefully someone will appreciate it.

Although it has a rich history, Hungary tends to be a bit of a forgotten place for most people today but there are actually quite a few famous Hungarians that you should have heard of: Robert Capa, the photographer; Zsa Zsa Gabor, the actress; Erno Rubik, inventor of the Cube and other time-occupying devices; Lazslo Biro, inventor of the ball-point pen and the automatic gear box for cars; Ferenc Puskas, one of the greatest footballers of all time; Calvin Klein, fashion, and Estee Lauder, make-up; Drew Barrymore, Paul Newman and Tony Curtis are famous actors from a Hungarian background; Bartok and Liszt, are well-known composers; and tennis champion Monica Seles was also from Hungary.

Hungary was profoundly affected by defeat in the Great War. As mentioned above, the ‘Treaty of Trianon’ in 1920 saw similar punishments placed on the country as had been put on Germany by the more famous ‘Treaty of Versailles’. And just as in Germany, deep resentment was felt by the leaders and the people as the Austro-Hungarian Empire had a long and hugely important history as part of the Habsburg (or Hapsburg) domain. This resentment proved to be a potent force, so that when the new Hungary was created, it took little time before it came under the control of a right-wing dictator. This was a less than brilliant but impeccably dressed naval officer called Admiral Horthy Miklos (1868-1957). Despite his limitations, Horthy was actually the longest surviving Fascist dictator of the inter-war period, ruling from 1920 to 1944 and just out-lasting Benito Musssolini in Italy. His position at the head of a fascist government was a sign of the frustration and anger at the defeat in the Great War, and its retreat into narrow and aggressive nationalist thinking echoed that seen elsewhere in the defeated nations.

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Admiral Horthy Miklos (as the surname comes first in Hungarian). One can only admire the hand on the sword, the uniform and the fine array of medals. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

The strong sense of nationalism in Hungary, a country which knew its traditions well, was only natural in a place which saw itself as being at the heart of Central European culture and learning. In the early 20th century, Hungary was a rather important country, being relatively wealthy and well-educated, and occupying a crucial region geographically. The country was used to making alliances, having been tied in with Austria and ruling so many other regions, so it was quite normal to enjoy strong political relations with the likes of Germany and Italy in the inter-war period. The humiliation of 1914-18 drove the country into the hands of the right-wing and so it was only natural that when World War II started, the country would fight alongside the Nazis. Without going into an analysis of the experiences of Hungary during World War II, for they are a major story in their own right, it is vital to know that it was the Soviet forces, the Red Army, which took control in 1945. Obviously, this left the country under the influence of Joseph Stalin and Communism, a massive ideological change compared to what had gone before. Naturally, Budapest was one of those cities Churchill referred to in 1946 as being one of ‘the ancient capitals of Europe’ which were on the wrong side of the ‘Iron Curtain’. 1946 was actually the year in which Hungary entered the record books as the country which suffered the very worst hyper-inflation of all time, its price rises even dwarfing those of Germany in 1922-23. As with Germany, it was reparations which were at the heart of the problem, although this time the payments had to be made to the USSR. The inflation rate of 41 900 000 000 000 000% meant prices were doubling every 13 hours and the government issued the highest value note of all time, the 100 000 000 000 000 000 000 pengo; the numbers were written quite small so that they could fit on. These numbers are so big that they become meaningless but it’s still good to know such things.

By the end of the war, Admiral Horthy had, of course, been forced to pack up his rather extensive wardrobe and move off into exile, finally arriving in Portugal via an appearance at the Nuremberg trials and some time living in Germany. By 1948, Hungary’s transformation from Fascism to Communism was complete as it joined the other East European countries under Stalin’s rule. A brief period of apparent liberty for the Hungarians had ended with the arrival in power of the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Rákosi Mátyás. A revolutionary going back to the days which had seen Horthy come to power, Rákosi was a particularly nasty man who was a true disciple of Stalin. He was known to the Hungarian people as ‘Old Arse Head’, and only a photo will suffice to explain this rather unpleasant but accurate description; while one should not judge people on looks alone, you will probably find yourself in agreement with the people on this one.

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Rákosi Mátyás (1892-1971) (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Even though he is sort of smiling in this picture, don’t be fooled; Rákosi was a deeply unpleasant man who oversaw the removal of many innocent people through the work of the AVO, the secret police. Several hundred thousand people disappeared in purges between 1948 and 1956 as he earned one of his other nicknames, ‘The Bald Murderer’. The Communist Party dominated life in Hungary as Rákosi proved his loyalty, and lack of imagination, by closely following Stalin’s policies of the Thirties. Opposition voices were crushed as he sought to impose totalitarian rule but then it all came to a sudden halt in 1956, three years after the death of his hero in Moscow.

Rákosi joined the various other leaders of the USSR’s satellite nations in Moscow for the XXth Party Congress. In the closed session for which the congress became famous, he was seen to go pale as he listened to Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’. The implications of this astonishing attack on Stalin was a clear sign of changes to come, a message soon heard and understood by the people as well as the leaders. Rákosi quickly became a victim of the new era and he disappeared from power and, quite naturally, the people of Hungary believed a better life awaited them; change following such a tyrant had to be for the better. This belief was soon strengthened by events in Poland, where there was an uprising in October, 1956. A significant outcome of this was that, for the first time, the local Communist Party was allowed to choose its own leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka. Admittedly, they had to chose someone who was ‘acceptable’ to Moscow but even so, this was a sign of change and ‘relaxation’ under Khrushchev; he was not as controlling as Stalin. To the people and the politicians, it really looked as though Khrushchev was acting on his speech by allowing greater freedom in some areas of life. In Budapest, there was a sense of hope and determination in the population that wanted to make that change real but few could have expected where it would lead them. there would be blood on the streets and in the water as a consequence of what happened next.

The basic details of the events of October-November 1956, the so-called ‘Hungarian Uprising’ or ‘Hungarian Revolution’, are quite straight-forward. The uprising developed as a result of anger and frustration at life under Communist rule. Led by students in particular, there were protests and calls for greater freedom of speech, improved living conditions, and an end to the controls from Moscow and oppression by the state forces. In a crucial and symbolic act, the protesters took control of the radio station in Budapest. naturally, they met opposition from the AVO, the police and the army, both Hungarian and Soviet, with fighting and destruction on a significant scale. People cut the Communist symbols from the centre of the Hungarian flags and launched revenge attacks on the much-hated AVO; many were executed in public. There was violence on the streets as vigilantes used any weapons they could find against the official powers.

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The extraordinary anger of the common people flooded out in attacks against the AVO, the secret police, as this photo of a street execution shows. (Author: unknown, Source: here)

But then, to everyone’s relief, a peace descended as the Red Army and the Hungarian forces withdrew. Khrushchev was clearly going to act in a different way from that which Stalin would have. The people seem to have believed the reports that were coming from Radio Free Europe, an American backed station, which seemed to offer support to the rebels, suggesting that the people were not fighting alone but would have American and Western support. With their hopes raised so high, the people looked to establish even greater freedoms, choosing Imre Nagy (1897-1959), as the new Prime Minister. Nagy (pronounced ‘Narj’) was a far more moderate Communist than most politicians and was seen as a compromise candidate, a figure who might introduce change while still being acceptable to Moscow. He would later be called a hero but at the time Nagy lacked both awareness and courage, always seeming to be playing catch up with the people and misjudging the tone of the rebellion.

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Imre Nagy, the leading Communist who was chosen to be the figure-head of the Hungarian Uprising. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Inn the end, though, it did not really matter because, after a short respite, the Red Army returned in force, with support from the Warsaw Pact forces, and took a ruthless revenge. The casualties were high on both sides as the uprising was dramatically and decisively crushed. the huge statue of Joseph Stalin in Budapest might have been destroyed, and Stalin himself might have been criticised in Moscow, but Khrushchev was not soft, especially when he had the threat of his own destruction hanging over him from hard-liners in the Party and the Red Army. Over 2500 Hungarians died in the fighting between 23rd October and 10th November. Another 13 000 were injured and over 200 000 would flee the country soon after. 700 Communist soldiers died, some being shot by their own officers for refusing to attack civilians. Imre Nagy, the rather weak and unwilling leader of a ‘free’ Hungary, would later be executed, just one of the many to die. The ‘promised’ help from the West never came to the Hungarian people as US President Eisenhower was simply not prepared to risk a world war over a small Eastern Bloc country like Hungary. In addition to that, any hopes of gathering a Western alliance together to help Hungary were thrown into turmoil by the Suez Crisis which saw Britain, France and Israel make an unsuccessful attempt to impose their will in Egypt. Hungary was crushed. Thousands were dead, wounded or in prison. Fear, anger and a sense of betrayal were in many people’s hearts.

 

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Crowds gather around the giant statue of Stalin after it was pulled down in Budapest. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

Considering the terrible state of affairs, it might seem strange but salvation of a kind was at hand for the Hungarian people. In the shadow of the greatest horror and suffering, a small sign of hope was to be found in a swimming pool 9 000 miles away  from Budapest. because, while there had been blood on the streets of Hungary, there was also to be blood in the water in Melbourne, Australia. Hungary has a great tradition of swimming. Outdoor pools are very common and many Hungarians are superb swimmers. They also have a great tradition of playing water polo, one of the toughest of all sports. Rather like handball but played in the water, teams of seven a side pass a ball to each other before attempting to score goals by throwing the ball into a net, like a small football goal. And like handball and basketball, it is supposed to be a game of no contact, a rule ignored by almost every team. Water polo is a tough game but it was never meant to be as violent as it got in 1956.

The Melbourne Olympics of 1956 were the first to be held in the northern winter months because Australia, of course, is in the southern hemisphere. This meant that it started just after the ‘Hungarian Uprising’ had ended in such a violent defeat for the ordinary people, the rebels of the country. The Hungarian water polo team travelled to Melbourne as one of the strongest contenders for the gold medal. But their journey to the games, and the competition itself, was over-shadowed by the events at home. The team made steady progress through the competition before reaching the semi-finals where they ended up facing the team from the Soviet Union. Traditionally, the two countries were great rivals but that took on a new level of enmity, thanks, of course, to the Moscow’s violent crushing of the revolution. The Hungarian team had been at a camp overlooking Budapest when the rebellion began. They had seen the smoke and heard the gun-fire before they were flown out to Australia. Reports of casualties and destruction had reached them so that they knew that in facing the Soviet Union they were doing more than playing a game; this was a rare opportunity for revenge, striking a blow for their friends and others who had fought and suffered at the hands of the AVO, the police and the tanks of the Red Army.

The match became the most famous in water polo’s history. It became known as the ‘Blood in the Water’ match, after violence erupted throughout the game. Players on both sides were kicked, bitten and punched but Hungary moved steadily ahead. They eventually won 4-0, refusing to show any respect to the team from the ‘senior’ country in Communism. Towards the end of the match, one of their star players, Ervin Zador (1935-2012), was punched so hard by his Soviet marker that he was cut above the eye. The crowd had been passionately involved in the match, as had both squads on the pool side, and this led to a riot. The referees, seeing that there was only a minute to play, abandoned the game, awarding the match to the Hungarians. Complaints were made by the Soviet team but to no avail; victory was given to the Hungarians who went on to take the gold medal by defeating Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final. But the real victory and the true glory rested on that semi-final victory. It was a triumph summed up in this famous photo of Zador.

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‘Blood in the water’, Ervin Zador in 1956. (Author: Corbis; Source: here)

After the tournament, many of the Hungarian team refused to return home, with some staying in Australia while others went to the USA. Ervin Zador himself went to the USA where he would stay involved with water polo and swimming. As a coach he looked after a promising young swimmer called Mark Spitz, the man who would go on to set an Olympic record in 1972 by winning seven gold medals in the pool at Munich. But he will always be remembered in Hungary for spilling his blood for the glory of his country against their greatest enemy, one small cut to set against the blood of thousands.

‘All I could think about was, ‘Could I play the next match?’’ Ervin Zador, Water-Polo player

 

Find out more

Films: ‘Children of Glory’ (DVD – Lions Gate Entertainment, 2008)

Books: ‘Twelve Days: Revolution 1956’ by Victor Sebestyen (Phoenix, 2007); ‘Nine Suitcases’ by Bela Szolt (Pimlico, 2005); ‘More Than a Game’ by Jan Stradling (Pier 9, Murdoch books Ltd, 2009)

 

 

Empire Windrush: helping the ‘Mother Country’.

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In 2008, this square in London was re-named to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of ‘Empire Windrush’. (Author: Felix-Felix; Source: here)

 

Empire Windrush: helping the ‘Mother Country’.

‘These people have British passports and they must be allowed to land…Anyway, they will not last a winter here.’ Arthur Creech Jones, Colonial Secretary.

22nd June, 1948. At Sheffield, the mighty Australian cricket team, ‘The Invincibles’, led by the great Don Bradman, were playing out a rather dull draw against Yorkshire. On the island of Jura off the west coast of Scotland, George Orwell was finishing ‘1984’. In London, the final preparations for the Olympic Games were in full swing ahead of the opening ceremony set for the end of July. In Germany, the Deutsche Mark had just been introduced, leading to the blockade of Berlin and the ‘Berlin Airlift’. War was on-going in Israel and the Communists had taken control of Czechoslovakia. And in just two weeks time, on 5th July, the new National Health Service was to start in Britain. These were hugely important and interesting times.

One of the most important events of that day, though, was taking place almost unseen and unheard at Tilbury Docks on the River Thames. The event was the arrival of a small group of passengers from the Caribbean who had arrived on the Essex coast on a very ordinary ship, the ‘Empire Windrush’. The arrival of a boat-load of immigrants from the West Indies, then part of the British Empire, attracted some attention from the media but there was very little interest overall and the significance was not grasped then nor in the years immediately following. This was a change which would impact on language, music, fashion, sport and food. Politics, culture and laws would be affected – and it would raise issues never considered before. The arrival of the ‘Empire Windrush’, marked a new phase in British life, the moment when Britain took a major step towards being a multi-national, multi-racial, multi-cultural society. But those first arrivals had no intention of having such a grand impact and most only intended to stay for a few years at the most. Why did they come to Britain just after the war? Why come to a country with a notoriously dull climate? Why live in a place where rationing still dominated the weekly shopping? Why take such a risk?

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‘MV Empire Windrush’ (Author: Michael A.W. Griffin; Source: here)

‘Empire Windrush’ brought 492 passengers from the West Indies on that June day. Many were wrapped up against the cold even though it was summer, while others wore their ‘Sunday best’ or ‘Church clothes’. Some leaped up and down as they were met by friends and family. For some, their arrival was a return as they had lived, worked and fought in Britain during World War II, when they had volunteered for the ‘Mother Country’. The ties between Britain and the Caribbean were strong as the West Indies were part of the British Empire, building trade, cultural, sporting and tourist links. These ties were further strengthened in 1948 when Parliament passed the ‘Nationality Act’, an incredibly important and often forgotten piece of legislation. It gave all members of the British Commonwealth the right to visit, and the right to live in, Britain. 22nd June, 1948, was a hugely important day.

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A child’s ration book from WWII. Rationing remained in place in the UK until well into the 1950’s. (Author: National Archive; Source: here)

But there was no paradise for the 492 visitors at Tilbury. Britain after the war was a country on its knees, desperately seeking a way towards recovery after the war. It has often been said that the best thing about World War II for Britain was winning it and the worst thing was winning it. No one would want to swap victory for defeat, especially in such a hugely significant and ideological conflict, but the cost of victory crippled the country financially. By 1947, Britain was bankrupt and there were huge consequences politically as it was unable to meet its commitments to protect its spheres of influence as agreed at Yalta and Potsdam. This was a humiliation but also a situation that demanded urgent action. Things came to a head in 1946 during the Greek Civil War, a conflict which had begun as World War II ended. Britain had to call an end to its support for the right-wing, pro-monarchist forces who were fighting the Communist rebels. The USA had to step in and it led to President Truman’s request to Congress for the funds to take on the responsibility for opposing the growth of Communism around the globe. Britain’s financial collapse was, therefore, the trigger for ‘Truman Doctrine’ as it developed from George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’ of February 1946, the policy which developed into containment. In that way, Britain’s economic crisis, one of the reasons for the arrival of the ‘Empire Windrush’, was also connected to the rapid rise of the USA into a ‘Superpower’.

Britain was struggling most of all because it had been forced to borrow so much money to fight the war. Actually during the war, the USA had operated a generous system called ‘Lend-Lease’, which meant goods were given to Britain, the USSR, China and other allies on a ‘use or return’ basis. They were to be used in fighting the war; if they were destroyed, so be it; if they were not, they could be returned. However, as the war ended so did ‘Lend-Lease’ but a series of loans and rents to the USA, which Britain had to repay, remained. Britain faced debt on a new scale. In fact the last repayment on those wartime loans to the USA was only made by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, at the end of 2006.

It must be remembered that in the 1920s and the 1930s, Britain had also been struggling economically. As the first country to have industrialised, Britain had developed technology and products which had started the ball rolling in industry but it had then fallen behind. Germany and the USA had caught up with, and then overtaken, Britain’s industrial power by about 1900. and then they had pushed ahead, partly by building on British technology and learning from her mistakes. So, for example, they had moved beyond steam power and coal to embrace cheaper and more efficient electricity. Britain’s position as a great power was always dependent to a large degree on its vast overseas Empire and that control was increasingly tenuous both during and immediately after the war: trade was badly disrupted during the war and increasing unrest developed in the ‘colonies’ afterwards, epitomised by Indian independence in 1947. Britain actually faced a situation similar to the economic and industrial issues of the USSR from about 1960 onwards: old, inefficient technology and an inflexible, unskilled workforce. Times were hard and change was needed but little happened.

Another factor in these economic troubles was that Britain had been heavily bombed during the war but it had not seen anywhere near the level of the destruction suffered by Germany, Japan, Italy, France and other rivals. In this period, there was a major change of political leadership as the old powers, like Britain and France, were replaced by the new ‘Superpowers’, the USA and the USSR. At the heart of the changes in the Western world, the USA took on an aggressive, dynamic role, using its enormous wealth to rebuild Europe, buying influence and creating a barrier to contain Communist expansion. This was seen most clearly in the ‘Marshall Plan’, the politically motivated economic recovery package funded by the USA and targeted at Europe and Japan as a means of ensuring that these countries remained capitalist and democratic. The resources for this huge project came from the USA alone and not from Britain which had neither the money nor the capacity to take that lead role.

Britain had desperate need of that aid itself and received a huge amount of money from the USA, more than any other country, in fact. But because many of Britain’s factories and its infrastructure (like the roads, railways and power supply) were more or less intact, they were rebuilt but not replaced. In Germany, by contrast, the destruction was on a whole different scale and things had to start from scratch: new water supplies, new power systems, new railways, new cities – and new attitudes. In the very short term this meant greater hardship but it soon brought many economic benefits to those countries which had suffered most in Western Europe. One only has to visit European cities like Berlin, Amsterdam and Brussels, to see the impact of this even now, in the broader streets, more efficient public transport and faster train travel than that enjoyed in Britain. Germany, Japan and other countries could not avoid the massive issues they faced: destruction had been almost total. Britain had the economic burdens of victory and the psychological baggage that came from seeing itself as ‘superior’ to those it had defeated; it carried on as best it could but it was trying to cling on to its old glories. And those days were over.

But going back to Tilbury, the people who arrived on the ‘Empire Windrush’ were not tourists; they were workers. They came because they were needed by Britain. They had been invited to come to Britain to work and so help the country recover after the war. The idyllic images of the Caribbean actually masked the widespread problems of poverty and a lack of job opportunities, so the 492 were not alone in travelling for work. Many moved within the West Indies while many others went to the USA and Canada, always looking for work. Until World War II, few had come to Britain but then they came to fight in the war, supporting the ‘Mother Country’. Some settled here afterwards but others returned home. And, in 1948, they came back, encouraged by Britain’s politicians who needed their help in re-building the country, to restore the economy and re-establish its links with the Empire.

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Clement Attlee, Prime Minister from 1945-51. His concern for the poorest in society had been inspired in part by his time working in the East End of London as a young man. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The need for workers was especially important for the Labour Government of Clement Attlee with its extraordinary plans for a new Britain with many nationalised industries and the creation of the Welfare State, most importantly the new National Health Service. There was a major shortage of labour in many areas, though, including nursing, as well as low-skilled jobs, like cleaning and the transport sector. In filling these gaps, the many migrant workers who were to follow in the footsteps of those who travelled on the ‘Empire Windrush’, were playing a vital role for Britain but this soon got over-shadowed by bigger ‘issues’. The number of people immigrating to Britain from the Caribbean grew so that over 60 000 arrived in 1961, a figure many people considered too high. Competition for jobs, housing, pay and the like meant rising tension, especially between ethnic minorities in white working class areas.

Despite the contribution made by many immigrant workers to the British economy in the two decades after the arrival of ‘Empire Windrush’, tensions mounted in several areas. Increasing numbers of people arrived from Britain’s former colonies, seeking work and a new life, but also requiring accommodation, education, health care and the like. Differences in language, culture, religion and music can often inspire excitement and fear in equal measure and such was the case in Britain. There was undoubtedly widespread racism in many parts of the country; white immigrants were never treated with the same fear and anger which was shown to people from the West Indies, Africa and India, for example. Things came to a head in 1968, when Enoch Powell, a Conservative MP who had actually been one of those who had encouraged people from the Caribbean to come to Britain after the war, made an infamous speech which became known as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Powell was not saying that blood ‘should’ flow but that it ‘would’ flow from violence linked with racial tension unless ‘non-white’ immigration ended. Although he presented himself as being a reasonable voice expressing concerns based on what he had heard and seen, his proposal that non-white people already in Britain should be ‘encouraged to go home’ certainly inflamed relationships in society. Powell spoke for many people in Britain at that time but he personally became the focus of the blame that followed the rise in racial tension. Non-white immigrants had been an easy target for attack as they physically and culturally stood out on the streets of Nottingham or Notting Hill, both of which had seen racial unrest and violence in the 1950s. There was far less hostility to immigrants from Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Europe for the simple reason of skin colour.

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Enoch Powell (1912-1998), a Conservative MP (1950-1974) and an Ulster Unionist MP (1974-1987). His ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was made in 1968 but it is often referred to today when issues linked with immigration and racism come up.  (Author: Allan Warren; Source: here)

It might be worth quoting a little bit of Powell’s speech here as it is so famous but also because it is not always as simple as it might appear. Powell was an intelligent man, a popular MP and a politician who wanted to reflect what people told him in terms of their concerns; many saw him as at least a future leader of the Conservatives and, therefore, a future prime Minister. He has been presented as a bit of a ‘mad-man’ over the years but, whether or not he was right or wrong, he acted in a way that really did reflect the concerns of many of his constituents and of the ordinary people who wrote to him. His comments also reflected many in people in the country at large and it is important that his infamous words should be put into some sort of context, otherwise any unpopular message (and the messenger) from the past can too easily be dismissed as a lunatic. Enoch Powell reflected the values and fears of many people at the time and his views remain embedded in the ideas of numerous politicians and many parts of society today, despite what might be said in public. Here is a part of his long and complex speech which he made to the Conservative Association in Birmingham on 20th April 1968. It demands careful reflection and does not work well with a ‘soundbite’. His references to Kindertransport, Karl Marx and the Windrush are especially interesting.

For these dangerous and divisive elements the legislation proposed in the Race Relations Bill is the very pabulum (bland or meaningless intellectual comments) they need to flourish. Here is the means of showing that the immigrant communities can organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided. As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”

That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic (violence and tension linked with the Civil Rights Movement) but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century.

Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.

Migration is a common feature of life, for British people as much as any other nationality. Thousands of people emigrate from Britain each year and they value the opportunity. No one thinks of them as doing anything immoral as they move abroad for work or retirement, ignoring any negative impacts on local culture, wealth and welfare in the areas in which they settle. It is seen as something positive. Britain itself has a long tradition of opening its borders to people from abroad. It has been a very tolerant society welcoming those who face persecution, such as the Huguenots expelled from France in 1685 with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Jewish children who arrived in the late 1930s on the ‘Kindertransport’ from Germany or even to Karl Marx who spent his last 30 years of life in London. The welcome to the new arrivals made by politicians to those on the Windrush reflected that but the problems began within conservative working class society. Racism presented itself as people tried to find accommodation and work, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes blatant but tension developed, mainly in the cities and industrial towns. The fact that workers from abroad were needed was forgotten and skin colour, language and cultural differences proved far more significant. In fact it was in the Trade Unions that much opposition was found as migrant workers were often paid lower wages, so undermining pay and conditions for existing workers. This was seen in the Post Office and in transport where migrant workers seen in larger numbers than elsewhere. White workers blocked opportunities for non-white colleagues as they feared change and the impact on their own pay and conditions; and some were simply racist and did not like people who were different. This was seen in the early 1960s when white bus drivers and some companies blocked a decision to allow black immigrants to become drivers. It may seem strange today but this happened in Bristol, for example, even though it was a move supported by the Trade Union and the employers.

Powell’s speech raised many issues, put the matter into a broad historical context and placed much of the blame for racial tension with the white community, all factors which are missed or ignored when quoting him. He was undoubtedly controversial but his message reflected something important about British attitudes and must not be dismissed without proper study.

Racial unrest in the 1950s and 1960s grew on the back of other social change. Groups like the ‘Teddy Boys’ and skinheads had right-wing nationalist attitudes, seeing foreigners as an easy and legitimate target for violence. The police were often seen to ignore or belittle racial crime, seeing it as just a part of life and something to be put up with if foreigners wanted to live in Britain. There was successful racial integration in some areas but there was a sense of disturbance and upheaval in many towns and some parts of the cities at the rapid pace of change in the ethnic mix of communities.

Britain might not have seen the level of violence, civil unrest and segregation that happened in the Southern States of the USA but racial tension was clearly present after World War II and still exists today, as the steady if low level of support for groups like the British National Party (BNP) and English Defence League (EDL) shows. Too many people forget that those first immigrants on the Empire Windrush were needed in Britain they were encouraged to come to help the country. They came out of choice but they worked, paid taxes and kept key industries going at a time of great hardship. Some people, even our supposedly informed politicians, forget such things, seeing obvious differences and ignoring some hidden truths from the past. Racial tension is widespread and is common in many different societies but that does not mean it is right and students of history and politics should be able to present a balanced informed argument backed by more than just some gut feelings and simplistic argument.

Find out more:

Books: ‘Empire Windrush: Fifty years of writing about Black Britain’ by Onyekachi Wambu  ; ‘Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-racial Britain’ by Trevor Phillips and Mike Phillips (HarperCollins, 1998); ‘The British Dream: Successes and failures of post-War immigration’ by David Goodhart (Atlantic Books, 2013); ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy (Headline Review, 2004).

 

Herbert Hoover: A good man in power at a bad time.

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‘Economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement. Economic wounds must be healed by the action of the cells of the economic body – the producers and consumers themselves.’ Herbert H. Hoover

Herbert Hoover: A good man in power at a bad time.

Herbert Hoover was, by all accounts, a hard-working man, a clever man and a generous man. Hoover was almost certainly one of the best men ever to become President of the USA. He wanted to help the poor – and he did. He wanted to reward people who worked hard – and he did that too. He wanted to be a man of principle and integrity – and he managed that as well. Hoover was respected by those who knew him, a self-made millionaire who worked hard all of his life, a man f energy and action who never sat back or left important things to others.He was a man of principle and integrity. and yet, as president, Hoover is usually remembered as a weak and ineffective leader, a failure in the eyes of most people. So, just who was Herbert Henry Hoover and why did things go so very badly wrong for him?

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The “Hoover Dam” was one of the great engineering achievements of its age. It was dedicated by President Roosevelt in 1935 and named in honour of Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the USA, but it was all a bit controversial. Still, it is now officially the highest dam in the western hemisphere and helps keep Las Vegas going, which may be a ‘good thing’. There are far worse things that were named in Hoover’s honour, as we shall see. (Author: snakefisch; Source: here)

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) was a mining engineer by trade. Orphaned at the age of 9, he was highly motivated, intelligent and very hard-working. He did not go to high school but worked during the day and then did his studies at night school, showing the discipline and motivation that he, and many others, thought was essential for doing well in the USA. Hoover was brilliant at engineering and rose to become one of the world’s leading figures in mining. He made a fortune out of his work but he was never a greedy or selfish man. He wanted to use his skills, experience and money to help others. A great example of this was how he undertook a mission to go to Belgium during the Great War, 1914-18, to help the people displaced and suffering because of the fighting in the region. Using his own money and coordinating many volunteers, Hoover helped thousands of people by providing them with food, shelter and medical care. He was a true humanitarian and a genuinely good man. But in surveys to decide who was the best American President, Hoover rarely gets voted inside the top number 30, and recent polls put him at around 36 out of 44. Admittedly this puts him above Warren Harding at 41 and George W. Bush at 39, but it’s still pretty bad for this committed, generous Quaker who did so much to epitomise the ‘American Dream’.

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Herbert Hoover (Author: Underwood & Underwood; Source: here)

The answer to the inevitable question, namely, ‘What went wrong for Mr. Hoover?’, echoes the words of Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister between 1957 and 1963. When asked by a young journalist what his biggest problem was as Prime Minister, Macmillan replied with the famous words: ‘Events, dear boy, events!’ This quote may be considered boring by many people and, indeed, might have been trivialised by over-use, but it is widely used for a reason: ‘events’ really are just about the most important thing in politics and few have suffered their curse quite like Herbert Hoover.

The event that shook the happy world of Herbert Hoover was one which is as big as they come: his world was totally messed up by the economic disaster which was the ‘Wall Street Crash’ of October 1929. The collapse of share prices at that time on Wall Street, the home of the New York Stock Exchange, heralded the massive and dramatic decline of the US economy. The ‘Great Crash’ triggered the world-wide ‘Great Depression’ that so dominated the 1930s and, through its impact on the Second World War, shaped the rest of the century. Looking back it was clear that serious problems were developing on the Stock Market during the 1920s, as things were simply too good for too long and for no particular reason. With hindsight, it is clear that ‘something’ should have been done by ‘somebody’ but that was not on the agenda at the time. When Hoover, standing as a Republican, won the presidential election of November, 1928, and took office in the following March, things looked as good as they ever had. In his Inaugural Speech, Hoover was even willing to proclaim that, ‘Given the chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this country’. The new President’s honourable goal and his fine words were to prove more than a little wide of the mark. The policies of the ‘previous eight years’, to which Hoover had referred in his speech, were those of his immediate predecessors, the Republican Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, both of whom are worth a mention in their own right. Therefore, we’ll take a little detour to look at these two very different men before getting back to Hoover.

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Warren Harding (Author: Harris & Ewing; Source: here)

Warren Gamaliel Harding (1865-1923) is generally considered to have been the worst US president in history, despite being blessed with one of the greatest second names ever. This is a little harsh because there were some seriously bad performances in the 1840s and 1850s who tend to get overlooked, including close contemporaries of Abraham Lincoln, like Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pearce, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. However, Harding does have a lot to commend him as a disaster of the first order, as his naiveté, gullibility and general foolishness were pretty hard to believe.

Harding was the successor to the famous Woodrow Wilson and was in office from 1920-23. He presided over the first years of prohibition, the start of the rise of the gangsters, and he did so with real style and aplomb, being oblivious to the growing political carnage around him. Harding never came to grips with the fact his friends, many of whom he appointed to high office, were far from being the nice, friendly, honest people he thought they were; in fact, they were astonishingly corrupt. They took huge advantage of their appointments to cut deals all over the place so as to make each other a nice little profit through business deals linked with Government projects. The biggest outrage was ‘The Tea-Pot Dome’ scandal in which the Minister for the Interior, Albert Fall, leased out Government-run oilfields to private companies in return for bribes and interest-free loans. Fall went to prison for his actions but several other officials broke the law under Harding. The whole Government was in a mess in those early years of the Twenties, with crime running almost out of control. Gangster related crime was running out of control around prohibition and corruption of Government and Police officials at every level was on the rise. Writing this brief paragraph makes it clear that Warren Harding deserves a full chapter of his own so this can end now really. Harding died quite suddenly and unexpectedly in 1923, well before he completed his term as president and it’s probably a good job he did as things would in all likelihood have got even worse. Two of his more controversial decisions were to stop American soldiers getting their ‘bonus’ payment after the Great War, while he also allowed trusts (monopolies) to become more powerful, both of which would have serious consequences for Herbert Hoover later on.

Mind you, it must be said that, after a dodgy few years in the early 1920s, one thing was going very well at the end of Harding’s time in office and that was the economy. Business in the USA was starting to boom in the post-war period and many people were getting significantly richer, especially those who were already rich. Ordinary workers saw slow but steady improvements and felt a sense of expectation that life would get better in the years to come. Confidence in the economy started to rise, a key factor for any country, and Harding did also sign the law giving women the vote. So spare at least one kind thought for Warren Harding, a man for whom life did not got off to the best of starts, as he did spend his early years being called ‘Winnie’ by his Mum.

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Calvin Coolidge (Author: John Garo; Source: here)

Anyway, with Harding gone, the vice-president was required to step into office. This was the almost legendary Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933, President 1923-28). Coolidge liked to keep things quiet and simple. He didn’t believe in talking too much, saying ‘I never got hurt by what I didn’t say.’ Once he was asked by an exhausted colleague how he managed to look so well after a morning’s meetings. His colleague said he was worn out by talking at length to just four different people; Coolidge replied that that was his problem: ‘You talk to them.’ Coolidge’s approach was to ignore anything he could, almost boring people into sorting things out for themselves. It seemed to work in most people’s eyes – and at least the economy kept going well. Dorothy Parker, a noted wit of the time, when told that Coolidge had died, simply said, ‘How can they possibly tell?’, a cutting reference to his lack of energy and personality.

The quotation that Coolidge himself is most linked with, though, is, ‘The business of America is business’. In the ‘Roaring Twenties’, the idea that making money and getting rich was at the heart of being American seems to have come to the fore – and Coolidge presided over this. Mind you, for those who like a good quotation, it is worth remembering Coolidge also said that, ‘Civilisation and profit go hand in hand’, something highly questionable as you see mega-rich multi-nationals like Wal-Mart, KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks and the like, reach out from the USA and dominate almost every High Street in the world. But enough of such opinions and back to the Twenties, where most Americans were more than happy to have ‘laissez-faire’ and the small government policies of Calvin Coolidge.

The idea of business being at the heart of life, values and goals in the USA of the Twenties is clearly true. This decade was the ‘Jazz Age’, the boom time for nearly all Americans. Coolidge was a popular President, a leader whose policies were so light that they amounted to an almost total avoidance of intervention in the economy. In doing this he was in line with the values of the time; his victory in 1924′s election showed that the people wanted his way of working. The Republican Government followed laissez-faire policies, stepping back and doing as little as possible, leaving things to individuals and businesses who were free to do pretty much whatever they chose, paying the wages they wanted, working the hours they wanted, charging the prices they wanted. It all seemed to go pretty well throughout the decade as share prices boomed, profits grew and real wages rose a little. The people were happy, businesses were happy and politicians were happy with this set up; small Government was good so what could possibly go wrong? Or, as Hoover himself put it, ‘We shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this country’.

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Herbert Hoover’s Inauguration, March 1929. (Author: National Photo Company; Source: here)

When he came into office, Hoover simply did what was expected of him and carried on the Republican policies which had been so successful and popular in the previous eight years. For any sensible politician, this was clearly the ‘right thing to do’ and the evidence was there: low unemployment, high profits, a booming stock market, rising confidence, happy workers and even happier bosses. Everyone agreed that they wanted ‘small Government’ which kept interference to a minimum and left it to people and businesses to get on with their own thing. Hoover simply did what was wanted and sat back to watch things unravel in a really big, horrible, bad sort of way. The problems first showed up on Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange, but they had started elsewhere – and for this you need to understand a basic thing or two about economics, shares, business and the like. You might want to have a break before reading this bit so come back when you’re ready, maybe bringing a nice hot drink and a biscuit with you – but get it yourself, don’t leave it up to your Mum or someone else to get it for you.

Right, stocks and shares first. These are basically ‘parts’ of companies that people can buy. A business can sometimes be sold in sections to investors, people who put money into the company for a variety of reasons but always with a view to making more money. The money invested can be used by the company to do a variety of things, like buying new machinery, developing new products, creating new markets, doing research, building factories and the like. In very simple terms, investors have two ways of making money: they are entitled to a share of the profits at the end of the year and they can sell their shares to another investor for more than they paid for them (assuming the company’s value has increased in the meantime). Firstly, if you own 10% of the shares, in theory you can take 10% of the profits which are declared at the end of the year. This is known as the ‘dividend’. Secondly, if you buy your 100 shares for £1 each, you pay £100; if the price goes up to £2 a share and you sell them all then you make £100 profit. Easy money. Or it can be. Sometimes.

Trading in shares is an easy way to make money as long as certain things happen, of course. You have to have enough spare money to buy a decent number of shares, the company has to make decent profits and things have to look positive for the future; in this situation, things are positive and an investor can make good money as the share price rises. But why do share prices go up? And what affects the price of a share? The second point first: the number of shares, the value of the company, confidence in the company, how competing companies are doing and how many people want the shares will all affect the price of any share. But the one thing that is guaranteed to make prices go up is the answer to the first question: that is expected profits. It’s not so much how well a company has done in the past as what people expect to happen in future that will really affect a share price. At least that should be the key factor in rising share prices: good prospects and rising profits should see share prices rise; bad prospects, falling profits or even losses ahead should see them fall.

On Wall Street in the late 1920s, things got more than a bit silly and the basic rules, like looking at profits and what was going to happen in future, were ignored by more and more investors. Many experienced investors knew there was a problem with numerous companies around 1927, as share prices were rising when profits were falling. The Government knew there was a potential problem developing but they didn’t think it was their job to get involved so share prices went up and up and up, even though many observers knew that they should have been falling. Share prices rose because demand was high as lots of ordinary investors thought buying shares was the easy way to make money. When people realised there was a problem and that shares were over-priced, they came down quickly; in reality they went off a cliff and share prices crashed.

Shares are actually bought and sold on a stock market. Before 1920, nearly all the people who dealt in shares were ‘professionals’, making a living by studying companies and investing their money for the medium and longer term (5 years or more). After the Great War of 1914-1918, the USA had done well economically and made lots of money so that increasing numbers of ordinary people had a little spare cash for the first time and some of them decided to invest it. But this really meant that they ‘gambled’ it on the stock market. Buying and selling shares is always a gamble because the investor can win or lose because the price can go down as well as up. Most of the time, some share prices go up but others fall because not all companies do well at the same time.

Dealing with shares is a bit like an auction in that the number of shares is limited. As more people want shares in a particular company, the higher the price will go. When you are gambling, though, it’s useful to study the form of the horse or team you are backing; when you are at an auction, it’s good to have a bit of knowledge or skill so that you know what you are buying. Few people would buy a vase or a painting just on a ‘feeling’; if they are serious investors, they would want to make a judgement on the real value of the product they intend to buy. The same is true for shares but on the stock market during the 1920s, none of this really mattered because shares in almost every company were doing well and many were doing superbly. Every investor would win, it seemed, as there was no risk of a ‘bad buy’. In many areas, buying shares became the way to make easy money and so more and more people started buying shares, whether or not they knew anything about economics and business. Some people became millionaires almost overnight, it seemed, and a wave of optimism and celebration grew into complacency and expectation. Many people did whatever they could to get some spare cash to buy shares. And as the prices rose they believed they had lots more money. Many people believed they were suddenly rich and they bought property and goods, as well as more shares. Share prices were rising, people were rich…lovely.

But there was a problem. The money that many people held in shares was not ‘real’ money. It only became real when they sold their shares but people did not think like this. The share prices had risen and people expected them to keep on rising; in theory, they had lots of money but they didn’t want to sell their shares as they could expect to make even more money. Many people even borrowed money from the banks to buy shares and planned to pay off the loan later when they sold their shares and pocketed an easy profit. Imagine going to a bank today and saying you were going to use a loan to buy shares or to bet on a horse – they would never give it to you but, in those days, no questions were asked. Anyway, people used their ‘profits’ and borrowed more money to buy lots of the new goods that were available in the 1920s, goods like vacuum cleaners, radios, washing machines and, most of all, cars, especially the Model-T made by Mr. Henry Ford, the first car made by mass production methods.

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Henry Ford next to a ‘Tin Lizzie’, his Model T. Ford’s production line would lead to one being produced every 24 seconds in the 1920s. Over 15 million were produced between 1908 and 1927. The saying, ‘You can have any colour as long as it’s black’, may or may not have been said by Ford but the Model T was only available in black after 1913. This was because Ford was obsessed with reducing costs and using just one colour did just that. (Author: Ford Motor Company; Source: here)

By September, 1929, the stock market and the economy had over-heated to a frightening degree and there were clear warning signs of troubles ahead. Share prices were far too high, based on company profits and widespread over-production, so that during the late summer and autumn of 1929, the rise in values first of all slowed, dropped, briefly recovered and then suddenly and totally collapsed. The famous ‘Wall Street Crash’ came in October 1929 and it triggered the collapse of the world economy and the start of the ‘Great Depression’. Share prices would not recover their full 1929 values on Wall Street until the early 1950s. And the US economy itself would only recover thanks to World War II.

The ‘Wall Street Crash’ and the ‘Great Depression’ meant disaster for President Hoover. He was held responsible for everything because he was in charge when it happened even though he had simply followed those laissez-faire Republican policies of Harding and Coolidge which had been so popular with everyone throughout the decade. He was left holding the blame for doing what was popular – but flawed. Such is the problem of events in the life of any politician but rarely has anyone been left in such a mess by doing the popular thing. However, what really did for Hoover was that, after the ‘Great Crash’, as the boom years faded into the terrible depression, he stood by those same policies; he would not intervene but left the recovery to the markets and to individuals, seeing that their energy and skills would sort things out just as they had in the good years. This was, to put it mildly, a mistake.

But what had actually gone wrong in the lead up to the ‘Wall Street Crash’? Let’s step back a little and see if Herbert Hoover was really to blame for what happened in 1929 and the years that followed. One massive reason for the crash was the over-production of many goods by US industries. A range of new products became widely available in the 1920s and the use of the production line saw more of them made more quickly and more cheaply. Radios, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and cars were among the goods that became ‘must haves’ for the majority of the population. Wages were rising a little but demand for these goods rose more, with advertising on radio and in newspapers creating a larger market. The development of sales by catalogues and mail order also extended the markets beyond the cities and out into small-town America. Many companies saw their profits rise and they built new factories and employed more people so as to make more goods. Planning ahead, based on past sales and high profits, many invested lots of money in new factories. This was fine until it became clear that many people already had a car, a radio, a washing machine and so on. Demand started to tail off but the factories were still producing the goods which had to be stock-piled or reduced in price. As has already been mentioned, profits actually began to fall in many companies from about 1927 but most people ignored the warning signs and kept buying shares. Experienced investors saw the problem and many sold their shares, making massive profits in the process. The Government knew there was a problem but no officials wanted to say anything or to interfere. The Republicans believed in ‘laissez-faire’ government, saying they should not interfere with things unless they absolutely had to – and the people certainly did not want the government to interfere if it would stop them making money. The warning signs for the economy had started under Coolidge, who did nothing, and Hoover just continued the same policies.

Another reason for the boom in share prices was that more and more credit (borrowed money) became available in the 1920s. With all the brilliant new goods being made, people wanted them and they wanted them immediately. Rather than saving up and then buying them as they had done in the past, people increasingly used H.P. or ‘Hire Purchase’ to get them. This meant they borrowed off the bank or the company itself, allowing people to have the goods straight away and then paying the money back over a year or so but with interest. This was fine while people had jobs and could afford to repay their loans but once the problems started, people were left in debt and companies saw their profits start to fall. Increased borrowing had actually had the effect of artificially increasing demand for goods so that company profits had leapt up and it led to them expand too quickly. Instead of people having saved up and buying only when they were able to, HP allowed them to buy immediately. This artificial increase in demand fed into over-production which was made worse by the fact that most goods had been built to last. Once people had bought their washing machine or vacuum cleaner, that was it for a good number of years; they didn’t break so they didn’t need replacing. This was one reason why manufacturers, developing a similar strategy of the Ford Motor Company, started to build in weaknesses to their products, meaning people would always need a replacement. But HP was popular with people and businesses, so the Republicans had no intention of stopping or controlling it; why should they interfere and limit choice?

Rising incomes in the early 1920’s contributed to the economic boom. Although some groups, like farmers and workers in the cotton mills and other traditional industries, did not do too well, most people in the big industrial cities had seen their incomes rise. Many of them had a bit of spare money for the first time. Through reports in newspapers and on the radio, people became aware of how easy it seemed to be to make money when buying shares on the stock market. During the 1920s, playing the stock market became more and more normal so that you were considered to be a ‘fool’ if you didn’t do it. The banks, many of which were small, one-town outfits, were able to lend money without restriction and so it was that many of them gave loans which allowed people to ‘buy on the margin’. This meant people borrowed money to buy shares with the aim of paying the bank loan back and pocketing the difference after the shares rose. As with HP impacting on sales of goods, so this provided a massive increase in share prices as it allowed the demand for shares to go up immediately as investors did not have to save up before buying shares. Many banks actually took money from their savers’ accounts and used it to buy shares for themselves, planning to pay it back into the accounts later on and keeping the profit. This is now illegal but at the time it was allowed.

Various other factors played a part in the boom of the 1920s, and the subsequent collapse of the economy. Monopolies, or ‘Trusts’, were allowed to develop in the USA without any restriction by the Republican Government. Business leaders liked monopolies as they allowed more control, higher prices and increased profits. The Trusts got greedy, though, expanded too quickly and fed into over-production. Another issue was tariffs, a tax placed on foreign goods coming into a country, which was a way of protecting local industry. In the 1920s, the Republicans had responded to requests for help in this way from US businesses, but other countries had retaliated by doing the same to US goods. While the American market was booming, they did not need to export goods, but when the Crash came and they wanted to sell goods abroad, they couldn’t because of the high prices brought on by the tariffs. In addition to this, as mentioned earlier,the new advertising industry exercised an extraordinary power over the population. Demand for goods rose as the radio, posters and magazines made people aware of the ‘wonderful benefits’ that could be found through these time and energy saving devices.

All of this shows the uncomfortable truth that, behind the boom and bust, was ordinary people, the people who make capitalism work on a day to day basis; if they don’t buy, then nothing happens. The average American became ever more optimistic and confident as the Twenties unfolded. Many were young, positive people, who wanted to grab every opportunity and make a better life for themselves and their families. They looked for the upside and ignored the warnings, believing in the full glory of the ‘American Dream’. In such an atmosphere, President Hoover had no real chance of controlling spending or investing by anyone. To have limited opportunities through legislation would have been considered un-Republican and anti-American. In an age when there was a growing fear of Communism, expressed in things like the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, no President could easily interfere in the operation of the free market. But, anyway, most of the damage was actually done before the 1928 election but people judge who ever happens to be in power at the time, so Hoover was to blame when Wall Street crashed in October 1929.

President Hoover failed to deal with the impact of the greatest economic crisis in modern history. The problems on Wall Street quickly spread across the USA and reverberated around the globe. One particular consequence of this was that banks which had loaned money to Germany and Austria now wanted that money back. This triggered an economic crisis which would eventually see Hitler come to power in 1933. Around the world, trade collapsed, unemployment rose and nationalism was strengthened as Governments tried to protect their own interests. The Great Depression would be at its worst in the years 1930 to 1933 but its impact defined the whole decade both in the USA and internationally.

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Adolf Hitler came to power as Chancellor of Germany on 30th January, 1933, partly as a result of the ‘Great Depression’. (Author: Theo Eisenhart; Source: here)

In the USA, Hoover continued the Republican policy of ‘laissez-faire’ as he tried to deal with the economic fall-out after October 1929. He saw no reason to change policies: why should the government have to sort things out? They had not raised taxes or ran things when they were going well, so why should they increase spending and tell people what to do now that there were problems? The belief was that the markets would sort things out in time and people would have to look after themselves until that point. This was the idea of ‘rugged individualism’, something which people believed had made the USA ‘strong’, whereby people took responsibility for everything in their own lives. If they had no job, they should set up a business or move or get training. In good times, they should have saved so that they could later be secure in the bad times. If people wanted education or health care, they should save and pay for it all themselves. This was fine in theory but the USA was in crisis and Hoover looked cruel as he did little to help. When he did put money in to things, such as helping people keep their homes, there simply wasn’t enough of it and it was a case of ‘too little, too late’.

The incident which came to haunt Hoover most of all was his treatment of the ‘Bonus Marchers’. These men were a group of soldiers who had fought in the Great War and had been promised the payment of a bonus as a reward for winning the war. The bonus was not due to be paid until 1941 but many of the former soldiers were facing problems in 1931 because of the Depression. Unemployment had seen many of them lose their homes as well as their jobs and they faced an uncertain future. They organised themselves with a march on Washington, D.C., In the city, they built a ‘Hooverville’, a shanty town, named after the President. There were many such ‘Hoovervilles’ across the country, an indictment of Hoover’s handling of the crisis. The Bonus Marchers asked that their bonus be paid early because, just as they had helped the country in its hour of need during the war, they believed that they should be helped in their time of suffering. Instead of granting the request, police and troops were turned on the men. The protesters were beaten and shots were fired; four men died and many were injured. The picture of US troops firing on former soldiers horrified everyone and ensured that Hoover would be defeated in the election of 1932.

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Bonus Marchers clash with police in the protests of 1932. (Author: Signal Corps Photographer; Source: here)

The story of the ‘Bonus Marchers’ was a tragic end to four years which should have been the fine presidency of a good, honest man. He was easily defeated in the Presidential Election of 1932 by Franklin D. Roosevelt who brought in the ‘New deal’ and the greatest Government intervention seen in the USA to that date. FDR would go onto win four terms in office and would lead the nation in World War II becoming regarded as one of the greatest Presidents of all time. In his shadow, most others would have looked like failures; the tragedy for Herbert Hoover was that, in the most public years of his life, he had failed so badly that history would judge him little more kindly than his own age.

And he had a long time to reflect on the events of these years as he only died in 1964, at the age of 90, the fourth oldest man to have been president.

 

Find out more:

Books: ‘The Great Crash, 1929′ by JK Galbraith (Penguin, 2009); ‘The Life of Herbert H. Hoover’ by George Nash (Numerous volumes).

Novels: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’by John Steinbeck

Films: ‘City Lights’ and Modern Times’ starring Charlie Chaplin, ‘They shoot horses, don’t they?’ and ‘The Color Purple’.

Songs: ‘Brother, can you spare a dime’ by Bing Crosby, ‘Whistle while you work’ by Artie Shaw and ‘We’re in the money’ by Al Dubin and Harry Warren

 

Removing your enemies 2: Presidents, Popes and Protesters

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A drawing of the assassination of William McKinley in 1901.  (Author: T. Dart Walker; Source: here)

 

Removing your enemies 2: Presidents, Popes and Protesters

Following on from an early post about assassinations, here are five more, although that of Steve Biko was not necessarily planned as such and those on Pope John Paul II and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were important but failed attempts. We will start with the death of William McKinley who is one of the four US Presidents who have been assassinated while in office. When you think that two others have been wounded in assassination efforts and there have been numerous credible plots identified against another twelve, you realise why there are so many security guards around the White House. And the job seems to be getting riskier as the last eight presidents since Richard Nixon, have each faced at least one assassination plot, apparently.

 

William McKinley – 1901.

William McKinley (1843-1901, elected in 1896 and 1900) was the last US President of the 19th Century and the first one in the 20th Century, which is useful ‘Pub Quiz’ information. He was a popular Republican politician and most people were comfortable as he took office for a second term in the White House. The economy was doing well and the USA had recently taken control of Guam, Cuba and the Philippines, actions which reflected the growing power and confidence of the country. On 6th September, 1901, McKinley had just been on a visit to Niagara Falls when he went to an exhibition and was shot by a Michigan born man called Leon Czolgosz, who was 28 years old at the time. Some of McKinley’s last words were, ‘Be careful how you tell my wife’, which, it must be said, shows the most remarkable kindness under extreme pressure. He died eight days after the shooting, largely because of an infection in the stomach wound he suffered, an infection caused by material from his clothing. It was never made clear why Czolgosz killed McKinley but he himself was executed by electric chair in late October of the same year.

The death in office of any President, even one as little remembered today as McKinley, is always significant but some are more important than others; this was a hugely important event. The USA was not the world power it was to become in the Twentieth Century and its rise to global dominance came in part because of the removal of McKinley. As with the other presidents who have died in office, he was replaced by his vice-president. In this case it meant the arrival of Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) in the White House, a man whom many Americans see as one of the greatest and most dynamic presidents they ever had. Roosevelt certainly had a great energy and introduced  a more dynamic foreign policy that saw the USA become far more involved in world affairs; his most famous line on that subject was ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’, meaning, ‘Be polite and sound reasonable but always be able to intimidate people with the threat of a very big army’. Roosevelt, who was a distant cousin of the later president Franklin Roosevelt, also organised the building of the Panama Canal which linked the Atlantic with the Pacific, and negotiated the peace between Russia and Japan to end the war of 1904-05. Of course, you probably know that ‘Teddy Bears’ are named after Theodore Roosevelt, thanks to an incident in which Roosevelt refused to shoot a tired old bear while on a hunting trip in Mississippi.  Although the German company Steiff started making toy bears without knowing about this story, an American company was inspired by the story of ‘Teddy’s Bear’ and made them under that name. And that is how the most famous cuddly toy got its name – but you might well have never heard of him, or the bears, if William McKinley had lived to see out his time as President.

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William McKinley: with such fine eyebrows he would have made an excellent ‘baddy’ in many fine TV shows of the 1960s, like ‘Stingray’ or ‘Thunderbirds’. (Author: Courtney Art Studio; Source: here)

 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) – 1933. 

An attempt to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), a man usually voted in the three greatest US Presidents of all time, was made in February, 1933, before he had actually been inaugurated as President of the USA. FDR was in Florida, making a speech from the back of a car when five shots rang out,. They were fired by a man by the name of Giuseppe Zangara. Zangara was Italian born and, like Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. He had lived in the USA since 1923. He had a history of physical and mental ill-health. One fact about Zangara turns out to be of the greatest significance in this attempted killing; he was only five feet (152 cm) tall. When he was in the crowd around FDR, he could not see well enough to aim at the future President and so he had to stand on a small collapsible chair. As he aimed his pistol, Zangara slipped and he missed Roosevelt. He managed to fire four other shots before he was over-powered, though, wounding four different people. Most importantly, he hit Anton Cermak, the Mayor of Chicago, who died three weeks later. For the killing of Cermak and the attempt on FDR, Zangara was sent to the electric chair and died in March, 1933.

The attempt on Roosevelt’s life came just a month before he took office as President. It is no exaggeration to say that, had it succeeded, this killing would have potentially had the most far-reaching consequences imaginable, including no ‘New Deal’, a less powerful industrial machine which might not have been able to support Britain in World War II and a completely different leader of the USA during that war. Indeed, the whole world as we know it today would probably be a very different place had Zangara not been so short that he needed to stand on a chair on that day. Life really does hang by the thinnest of threads at times.

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FDR (right) on his inauguration day, 4th March, 1933, with former President Hoover, less than three weeks after the assassination attempt. His chances of getting elected today would be pretty thin: a chain-smoking, heavy drinking man from a very wealthy family, known as a bit of a snob and a flirt who cheated on his wife by having many affairs…but he turned out to be one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. And it all nearly ended in Florida but for a wobbly chair. (Author: Photograph from Architect of the Capitol, AOC no. 18241; Source: here)

 

Pope John Paul II – 1981.

Pope John Paul II (1920-2005, Pope from 1978-2005) was one of the most charismatic religious leaders of the Twentieth Century. As Cardinal Karol Wojtyła of Krakow in Poland, he was elected Pope on 16th October, 1978, following the sudden death of Pope John Paul I after only 33 days in office. He was different to any Pope elected in living memory: at 58, he was considered very young to be elected to the highest office in the church; he was Polish; he was the first non-Italian Pope for over 400 years; he had lived under Communism for three decades – and he had arrived with an energy rarely seen before in the Vatican.  Following his election, things looked set to change but few would have appreciated the impact Pope John Paul would have on the church itself but also on the world at large.

One thing that was immediately clear, though, was the extraordinary boost his election gave to many Polish people who were, despite having lived under atheistic Communism since 1945, still predominantly, and devoutly, Catholic. But all of this was very nearly cut short as on 13th May, 1981, Pope John Paul was attending one of his regular public audiences in the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. From the crowd, shots rang out and the Pope collapsed having been hit by four bullets. He suffered severe loss of blood and the attempted assassination failed by less than an inch as one of the bullets passed so close to his heart.

The potential assassin was over-powered by on-lookers, including some nuns in the crowd, and he was later imprisoned. His name was Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish man, who was almost certainly working on behalf of the KGB (the USSR’s Secret Service) and the Bulgarian Secret Service, the same group which probably did for Georgi Markov in London in 1978. The Pope did survive and had a major impact on the collapse of Communism: his numerous trips to Poland were hugely influential in giving confidence to the people and strengthening their belief that Communism could be defeated. This period also coincided with the rise of ‘Solidarity’, the Trade Union which was, along with the Catholic Church, the focus for anti-Communist activity in Poland during the 1980s.

If Pope John Paul II had died in 1981, it is interesting to consider what impact it would have had on Polish resistance and the rise of ‘Solidarity’, as well as the final collapse of Communism. There may have been an uprising that would have drawn the USSR, then under the leadership of the ill and ageing Leonid Brezhnev, into action similar to that seen in Hungary in 1956. The world of speculative history could lead us into many scenarios but the truth is that he survived and events were as they were and as Pope, John Paul played a major role in opposing Communism, a role which contributed to its eventual collapse after 1989.

What we also know, though, is that rather like with Lenin in 1918, the shooting did have long term consequences because the Pope was never as physically robust afterwards as he was before and it probably accelerated the on-set of  Parkinson’s Disease from which he suffered later in life. And although he lived until the age of 84, there are many who believe he was so fit and strong before the assassination attempt, that he would have lived far longer but for the shooting.

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Pope John Paul II visits Poland in 1979. The crowds were a huge shock and a threat to the Communist leadership.  (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Steve Biko – 1977.

Most people associate resistance to apartheid with Nelson Mandela. Mandela has become one of the world’s most famous and respected politicians but fewer people today remember Stephen Bantu Biko, one of the inspirational figures who led resistance on the ground during the years that political leaders like Mandela and Jacob Zuma were in prison.

Steve Biko (1946-1977) was a political activist, an opponent of the white supremacist system which had been institutionalised with the apartheid laws of 1948 and after. A key moment in his politicisation was the arrest of his brother which took place while he was a teenager at Lovedale Institute in Durban. Biko himself was interrogated by police and, after just three months at Lovedale, he was forcibly expelled. As someone who valued education, in line with his father’s values, the young Steve Biko developed a deep and lasting animosity towards white authority. Biko made education of oppressed South Africans his main goal and  instilling ‘Black consciousness’ became his abiding ambition and his legacy.

Biko managed to continue his own education, going to the University of Natal to study medicine although his progress was limited by his political activities. He was a very talented and capable student but he was de-registered from his course in medicine because he fell so far behind, a result of his time given to political activism. In 1968, he formed SASO, the South African Students Organisation, which sought to establish ‘Black Consciousness’ in the lives of the South African people, especially students. Obviously this was a radical organisation which was pro-Black and, by definition, anti-White, and as President of SASO, Biko was increasingly under the watch of the authorities. As SASO and the Black Consciousness Movement grew in influence its character and focus developed. Biko was placed under house arrest but managed to remain active, establishing literacy courses and practical classes in the townships and even setting up a clinic outside King William’s Town, where he was confined.

Steve Biko was a powerful figure in South Africa in the 1970s. His ideas and values inspired many others and the Black Consciousness Movement was undoubtedly influential in the most famous uprising of the decade, the Soweto riots of June 1976. It was a year after these riots in the huge township on the outskirts of Johannesburg that Biko was arrested. He was a fit, strong and healthy man when he was arrested and only the violent actions of some very angry men could have caused the horrendous brain injuries that killed him 0n 12th September, 1977.

Steve Biko’s death may not have been an ‘assassination’ in the true sense of the word but there is no doubt that it was a politically motivated act. Apartheid was a most brutal system and Steve Biko was its most high profile and important victim. He was killed by the legal authorities who exercised power within that system of apartheid.  The people responsible for his death were never put on trial. The inquiry into his death was delayed by the South African government and eventually it actually cleared the police of any fault even though the cause of death was serious brain damage; it was rather difficult to see how a person could inflict such injuries on himself. The bitterness around Biko’s death, and the way the event was treated, served to foster a deep resentment in the black and coloured community.

In 1994, at the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’, five police officers who admitted involvement in Biko’s death were denied an amnesty. His story became known in the wider world thanks to a book called ‘Biko’ which was written by Donald Woods, a white South African who was a newspaper editor and a friend of Steve Biko. It was later made into a film, ‘Cry Freedom’ starring Denzil Washington and Kevin Kline. And ‘Biko’, one of the great protest songs, was a tribute to him by Peter Gabriel.

 

Chico Mendes – 1988.

In an age when we have become used to the high profile given to ecological and environmental issues, such as deforestation, over-fishing and climate change, it is easy to forget that not that long ago such concerns were almost unknown to most people. Nowadays, most people who support environmental causes are seen as caring and sensible people who have an important message for all but in the recent past such people would have been dismissed as fools or worse. However, even today there are many opponents to those who seek to protect the environment. most of them being linked with big business, such as the energy and fast food companies. From the poaching of ivory in Africa to fracking in the USA and Europe, to the destruction of tuna in the Mediterranean and the destruction of trees and tribes in the Amazon, the struggle to protect the environment goes on in so many regions of the world, the battle being waged against those who seek the exploitation of the world’s finite resources for their own short term financial gain.

One of the important names in the ecology movement was a man called Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, better known as Chico Mendes (1944-88). I first heard of Chico Mendes on a song called ‘Amazon’ by the great folk singer, Eric Bogle, a man who has given voice to many forgotten heroes and underdogs; its themes like this that lead many historians to value folk music. Anyway, Chico Mendes was one of the pioneers of resistance to the logging, agriculture, mining and energy companies who were determined to take advantage of the natural resources in the Amazon rainforest. He was a self-educated rubber-tapper who opposed the injustices that left workers in debt to the big companies and also stood against the Brazilian government for the incentives it gave to businesses that wanted to slash and burn the forest for beef production. He galvanised the Amazon Indians and local workers into credible opposition and eventually received the support of the World Bank and the US Congress over the way Brazilian development was funded.

In doing this, of course, Mendes and his supporters made many enemies. In the 25 years of protest, over 1000 people were murdered, often after being arrested and tortured by the police who used bribery to control them and the politicians. Chico Mendes was a passionate man, an organiser and negotiator who united many ordinary people and created a mass movement. He was a protector of the rainforest long before the word ‘ecologist’ had become known and long before most people even saw a threat to the Amazon.

Over many years, powerful individuals and big companies abused their wealth and status, influencing judges and politicians to enable them to continue their exploitation of the forest for mining and farming, forcing native peoples and others from the jungle and punishing Mendes and his supporters with imprisonment and fines. In the end, one rancher, Alves da Silva, decided to get rid of Chico Mendes and he was shot just as he left his home on 22nd December, 1988. This marked a turning point in the defence of the Amazon as Mendes’ assassination became a high-profile incident that raised awareness and anger levels around the world.

Recent events in Brazil, Peru and Bolivia, as well as other Amazonian states, have shown that the assassinations at the hands of the logging and mining companies, as well as drug cartels, continue. The slaughter of numerous ‘unknown’ tribes with the destruction of their cultural heritage and the loss of these people who have lived in harmony with the rainforest for generations is a stain on the modern world which can never be washed away. The bullying and greed which stand behind these decisions which attack the most vulnerable people and the environment itself points to something tragically wrong and short-sighted in society.

Chico Mendes may have been one of the first to die for trying to protect the environment but he was certainly not the last. And the struggle to stand up to those who exploit and destroy in the name of short-term profits will be with us for years to come.

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Chico Mendes: one of the first modern ecologists to die for their beliefs. (Author: Miranda Smith, Miranda Productions Inc; Source: here)

 

Find out more:

For further information regarding the assassinations and attempted assassinations of all five of these people, the internet is the best starting point. There are few easily accessible books about McKinley; by contrast there are too many about FDR. And with a recent religious figure like Pope John Paul II, the danger of opinions being too extreme makes for finding a balanced analysis difficult.

Steve Biko: ‘Biko’ by Donald Woods (Penguin, 1987); ‘the film ‘Cry Freedom’ (1987) and the song ‘Biko’ by Peter Gabriel

Chico Mendes: ‘The Burning Season’ by Andrew Revkin (Shearwater Books, 2004); the song ‘Amazon’ by Eric Bogle on ‘Voices in the Wilderness’ (1991).

 

Communism: A fine idea but a failed experiment

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Lenin, Engels and Marx. (Original author: unknown; Source: here)

Communism: A fine idea but a failed experiment

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’.

Well, here’s a happy topic and one which you have been looking forward to, no doubt, with some eager anticipation: Communism. This was a political ideology that a lot of people around the world used to believe in when there were political ideologies to believe in. Some countries are still called ‘Communist’ but it has fallen away so quickly since 1990 that it is becoming difficult for many people to remember just what Communism was all about. And it is almost impossible to recall just how frightening and threatening the Communist system was to those of us growing up in the Western world, the world of capitalism and democracy, a world fighting an epic battle for ‘good’ against ‘evil’. People recall things like, ‘They built a wall, didn’t they?’, but the general view is that ‘It failed, so it can’t have been much good’. But what was Communism all about? Why did people believe in it? Why was it so frightening? And why did it ‘fail’? So here begins a quick look at the most famous left-wing policy of them all.

‘Communism’ as a word that looks very like ‘commune’, ‘common’ and ‘community’, which is just as it should be for its focus is on the community over the individual. There is nothing unusual in stressing the importance of community in human history, of course, for every family, tribe and settlement has been a reflection of the human need to belong to a group. No child can survive without someone to care for them. Few, if any, individuals have all of the knowledge and skills needed to survive completely in isolation. It is natural for people to give to a group in some way and to receive from it. So where did this ‘frightening’ ideology come from if it was in some ways an expression of something so natural?

‘Communism’, or ‘Marxism’ as it is often known,as a political system is the name for the extreme left-wing ideology originally developed by two Germans, Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), in the middle of the nineteenth century. You will almost certainly have heard of Marx, a German philosopher, journalist, historian and revolutionary, although you might not be aware of Engels, his main supporter and collaborator. In simple terms, Marx did the writing and the thinking while Engels provided the money and other support to allow him to work. Before we look in more detail at these two fascinating characters, we should have a photo of the memorial to them in Berlin which reminds us of just what fine facial hair these two revolutionaries developed. They are a serious contrast to the modern, image obsessed politicians who lead most modern governments.

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A close-up of the statue of Marx and Engels in Schlossplatz, Berlin. (Author: Manfred Brückels; Source: here)

There was some graffiti painted onto this statue after the collapse of Communism in East Germany in 1989: ‘It was not our fault!’ This was a very reasonable point, really, as what came to be called ‘Communism’ was rather different from what Marx and Engels intended. The truth is that the system which we know as ‘Communism’, the system of Lenin, Stalin and Mao, of the USSR, China and North Korea, the ideology that so threatened the West in the Cold War era, was a long way from being that envisioned by Marx and Engels. There was definitely a breakdown between the ‘planners’ and the ‘producers’ when it comes to communism. There was actually a rather heated debate in Berlin about whether or not this monument to the ‘founders’ of Communism should be kept or removed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; it was surely both a good and a necessary thing that it has remained in place as it would have been too easy for people to deny or ignore the past. In a world lacking ideology and integrity in the political world, the statue is a reminder that people have thought differently in the past – even if their ideas have not been successful or accepted. If success were the only criteria, it might be logical that all religious iconography in Western Europe would be torn down for a start – and as for the split between the original visions of the religious founders and the modern expressions of their ideas…well, that is a whole other story.

So, back to our finely bearded protagonists, especially Karl Mark. Marx was a German, born in 1818 in the town of Trier, near the border with Luxembourg and France. He was from a Jewish background being the son of a rabbi in a family of rabbis. His family can be described as upper-middle class family and he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Marx went to the University of Bonn before moving on to the University of Berlin where he came under the influence of the ideas of Georg Hegel. Hegel had said, ‘Philosophy is its own time raised to the level of thought’ (in ‘Elements of the Philosophy of Right’), a phrase open to much debate but one which the young Marx and others took as a call to action that challenged the established order in Germany. Hegel believed that the only way to understand things in the present was to see them as a part of some unrelenting or irresistible march of freedom, truth and reason. This idea suggested that human freedom would come about as a result of this ‘progress’. Alongside this ideology, the rejection of religion as a valid means of understanding or addressing life and real issues was a key theme, centred on the work of another philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach.

Marx’s radical ideas did not go down well in the university and he was blocked by the authorities from continuing his academic career and so he moved to Paris and worked as a journalist. In Paris, Marx met up with many German thinkers and activists who had left their country to escape the oppression of living under a dictatorship. In France just half-a-century after the French Revolution, his radical ideas were considered more ‘normal’ than in Prussia. Marx saw a more aggressive and, for him, advanced working class challenging the control and oppression that they suffered at the hands of the powers in the state, such as the politicians, church authorities and business leaders. He studied History and Social Sciences, both in Paris and, later, in Brussels, developing his observation that the more workers contributed to the capitalist system, the more they were alienated from the final outcomes, namely, the rewards, the profits. The workers might create great things through their skills and labour but they never had the chance to own them or to share fully in the profits; these belonged to the oppressive ‘bosses’ of society, the owners, the authorities. This sense of injustice and inequality in the means of wealth production became the heart of his idea of a ‘class struggle’; the alienation of workers seen in the control and exploitation of the proletariat by the landowners, nobility and the bourgeoisie under capitalism was to become the background for revolution.

By the time he met Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels had already spent some time in England, much of it in England. With its many cotton mills, Manchester stood at the heart of the ‘Industrial Revolution’, and, therefore, represented an expression of capitalism in its fullness. Industry had transformed the British landscape and society and, through its huge and growing Empire, it was shaping change across the globe. The population of Britain was growing and moving from the countryside to the towns; mechanisation was revolutionising employment; fortunes were being made but many of the people were being thrust into poverty. The experiences of Britain were being echoed in the rapid changes of European economies, too. Engels was actually from a reasonably wealthy family that was involved in mills and textile production, one of the bosses or ‘exploiters’. It is interesting to note that it was only through the money he made as a boss that Engels was able to support Marx in his revolutionary work. He is far less famous than Marx, so a proper picture might help at this point, especially as it gives another chance to admire his beard, an absolute gem of its kind. Actually, let’s put Marx in as well as they were such a team. You could lose a couple of small squirrels in their facial growth and they wouldn’t feel a thing.

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Karl Marx (Author: unknown; Source: here) Friedrich Engels (Author; unknown: Source: here)

The reason why Engels knew England so well was that, in the early 1840s, he had been sent to Manchester to help run his father’s cotton mill. While he was there he became interested in the condition of the workers, believing they struggled under inhumane conditions. His studies led to the publication of an important book, which was ignored by most people at the time. This was, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ (1845). It’s interesting to compare Engels’ findings with those of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree some fifty years later because it shows how so much in life is about having the right message for the right audience at the right time. Engels’ message was a clear warning of what Booth and Rowntree later identified but for some reason his work had little impact at the time; it’s really not the validity of what you have to say so much as the willingness of the audience to hear it which matters in so many areas of life.

Anyway, Engels was horrified by the terrible living conditions he found in places like Saint Helens, Oldham and Manchester itself. The depth and the extent of poverty amongst the workers was frightening, their poor health was a great concern and, most of all, the injustice was intolerable in his eyes. The gap between rich and poor was stark and growing greater each day as privileged employers exploited the workers for profit. Engels first met Marx in Paris in 1844 and they struck up an immediate friendship based on their sense of injustice about the impact of industrial change with Marx coming at it from a philosophical angle, Engels from his practical experience. At about the same time, Marx also made contact with the ‘Communist League’ which had developed from ‘The League of the Just’, an organisation set up by German workers who had emigrated from their homeland in the previous decade. While in Brussels in 1847, Marx joined Engels in attending a conference of the ‘Communist League’. The speech that he gave there was an expression of their ideas as formed over the previous years and it was published the following year as the ‘Communist Manifesto’, one of the most famous documents of the century.

Although Marx was the thinker and visionary, Engels played a crucial role in bringing the ‘Manifesto’ into existence. He supported Marx financially during these years, giving him the royalties from his book as a way of supporting his friend while he developed his philosophy. Engels’ support enabled Marx to commit himself entirely to his reflections as it allowed him to read, write and travel free from any financial pressure. The publication of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ was actually a development of a piece of Engels’ own work which was called ‘The Principles of Communism’. Marx took this and developed it into the manifesto itself, foreseeing a class struggle which would end with ‘World Revolution’ and the overthrow of the oppressive business owners and landowners, the so-called bourgeoisie. The ‘Workers’ or the ‘Proletariat’, would rise up and establish a new system where everything was shared in common; there would be a classless society of total equality. This utopian ideal was rooted in the injustice Engels had seen and smelt in the slums of northern England; its goal was justice, fairness, equality and opportunity for all at the expense of the privileged few. Apart from the expected violence which would be necessary in the initial stages of the revolution, the vision was almost religious in its aims and values.

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‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, February, 1848. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

‘The Communist Manifesto’ was published in February, 1848, just as Europe was on the verge of one of the most traumatic years in its history. The pamphlet seemed to be truly of its time because risings of workers in 1848 threatened every major European country except Britain – and, even there, tensions rose with the revolutionary demands of the Chartists. It was known as the ‘Year of Revolution’ as France, Spain Austria and Germany all experienced major political change and radical social upheaval loomed large in the political consciousness. Having spoken of risings of the workers, it all seemed set to come true and Marx and Engels were among those happy to see the uprisings which threatened to tear the continent apart during the summer of 1848. Their ideas expressed a new vision which came to inspire many intellectuals and idealists, as well as the lower classes, but made enemies of the established ‘powers’, the politicians, the monarchs, the churches and the business leaders. In the face of these troubles in Europe, and the inflammatory nature of their words, both Marx and Engels were expelled from Belgium.

Without going into great detail about the ‘Communist Manifesto’ itself, it might be interesting to see a summary of the demands of the Communist Party in Germany from this period. They indicate something of the goals of the party if not their strategies or arguments. Not all of these arguments seem very frightening today but in the mid-19th century, they terrified many leading figures in politics, society and the churches.

Demands of the Communist Party in Germany
  1. The whole of Germany shall be declared a single indivisible republic.
  2. Representatives of the people (MP’s) shall be paid so that workers also can sit in the parliament of the German people.
  3. Universal arming of the people.
  4. The estates of the princes and other feudal estates, all mines, pits, etc., shall be transformed into state property. On these estates, agriculture is to be conducted on a very large scale and with the most modern scientific means for the benefit of all society.
  5. Mortgages on peasant holdings shall be declared state property; interest on such mortgages shall be paid by the peasants to the state.
  6. In the districts where tenant farming is developed, land rent or farming dues shall be paid to the state as a tax.
  7. All means of transport: railway, canals, steamships, roads, post, etc., shall be taken over by the state. They are to be converted into state property and put at the disposal of the non-possessing class free of charge.
  8. Limitation of the right of inheritance.
  9. Introduction of a steeply graded progressive taxation and abolition of taxes on consumer goods.
  10. Establishment of national workshops. The state shall guarantee a living to all workers and provide for those unable to work.
  11. Universal free elementary education.

Having been forced from Belgium, Marx and Engels made their way to London, where Marx himself would settle for the rest of his life. London was a very tolerant and open society for revolutionaries in those days, and many outsiders from Europe found their way there. Marx eventually died in 1883 and is buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery alongside some other famous names including Michael Faraday, George Eliot, Christina Rosetti and Douglas Adams. Key places linked with him in London include: the Reading Room at the British Museum where he wrote his famous work, ‘Das Kapital’; Covent Garden where meetings of the First International took place; and Hampstead Heath where he used to enjoy trips out with his family on Sundays. While Marx was in England, he was protected by the British Government of the time on the grounds of allowing people to express their ideas, which is an interesting situation as he was effectively considered to be a terrorist by some states. Britain’s interest was always in its Empire and helping rebels who annoyed the European powers was almost a pleasure for the Government at the time. Marx was not allowed back to Germany but Engels did return there to  work for his father but regularly visited London and he continued to support Marx financially.

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Marx’s Grave in Highgate Cemetery: ‘Workers of all lands unite’. (Author: here; Source: here)

After Marx’s death, Engels publicised his work, writing commentaries and making it more suitable for publication. Neither lived to see the ‘Communist Revolution’ and they would have been shocked to see what happened in Russia and the world in the years after 1917. They had fully expected revolution to happen in an advanced industrial country, such as Britain or Germany, where the exploitation of the masses created the conditions for a true uprising. They had thought that revolution had come in 1848 when Europe was thrown into turmoil, and were dismayed that the moment passed without the sweeping changes they expected. They both died having changed politics and philosophy but without seeing the fulfilment of their dream – and they would almost certainly have had some questions for Lenin and others in terms of what was done in their name in the Twentieth Century.

Obviously Marx and Engels were revolutionaries who wanted the overthrow of oppressive powers in society but would they have recognised or approved of what came to be known as ‘Communism’? Would they have been admirers of Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong or Fidel Castro? Was the Communism of the USSR and China, North Korea and Cuba, what Marx had in mind? Did these systems address the issues as Engels saw them? It seems highly unlikely that they would have been in total agreement with the reality of ‘communism’, but that’s what tends to happen when other people get hold of your ideas in a different place and at a different time. It’s a bit like writing a song, releasing it yourself to no particular acclaim and then discovering that it’s been covered by Chris de Burgh, Lady Gaga and Primal Scream; the words might be the same but you never thought it would come out quite like that. You get the idea, anyway.

So, what was ‘Communism’ supposed to be? What was it supposed to change? In the ideological world, ‘Pure Communism’ was to mean a number of things: there would be no private ownership of property or business; people would work according to their skills and be paid according to their needs; people would live in the same accommodation as each other and there would be no classes; there would  be no nations due to people being united by their bond as ‘workers’ rather than any idea of nationality; there would be no need for democracy and elections as there would be unity amongst the people, a shared vision and absolute freedom as all would be united in one community. The words of ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon come to mind in some ways.

One particular area of controversy was Communism’s approach to religion and the churches. For Marx and Engels, there would be no organised religion as this was a tool by which the powerful in society controlled the people, allowing them to believe that troubles here on earth might bring pain but they would eventually be compensated by the glories of heaven. The churches, therefore, preached a message of cooperation with the authorities which allowed exploitation and oppression to be maintained. In return, the leaders of the churches were allowed privileges alongside the highest in the land as long as they ensured the people were loyal, committed and passive; in the mean time, the powerful could enjoy their rewards here and now. Marx’s view on religion was expressed in one of his most famous quotes but one which is usually misquoted: ‘Religion is the opium of the people’. Just so you know it but don’t show yourselves up by misquoting it, here it is in full:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
Karl Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’

It should be noted that this is not quite as negative about religion as it might sound. It speaks of religion as the ‘heart’ of a ‘heartless world’. At the time, opium or heroin was commonly used as a pain-killer so Marx was saying that organised religion acted as an anaesthetic against the pains of everyday life for the poor. The real evil for Marx lies in the system, capitalism, and not with religion which seeks to help alleviate the suffering of so many oppressed by that system. The religious authorities, though, collaborated with the economic and political powers, emphasising the glories of the next world over the need for justice in this one, and so allowed religion to support the oppression of the workers. In this, Marx would probably have been concerned by the aggressive actions of Lenin, Stalin and others in seeking to destroy the churches. Khrushchev’s decision, for example, to take his first wife’s coffin over a wall rather than have her carried through a Russian Orthodox Church on the way to her grave would have struck Marx as foolish, unnecessary and misguided.

It is obvious to see why Communism made enemies and, in the end, failed. Taking the second point first, Communism failed because most people are, to a greater or lesser extent, selfish. As long as you care more about people you know than people you don’t know, Communism cannot work as people do not see everyone in the world as equally important or as their ‘brother and sister’. Full unity is not possible when family ties, nationality, race, culture, language, gender, age and a dozen other factors can cause divisions that are anything from a hindrance to an insurmountable obstacle. Marx never really took full account of the individual in his system; the dream of being special is there in most people, and being or feeling at least slightly different, slightly better, slightly wealthier, slightly better dressed and slightly happier than others means that true equality does not appeal to many people, if any.

Of equal importance in the failings of Communism was that fact that its enemies were many and they were powerful. It’s easy to see who they were and why they were unhappy. They were the established authorities who had status, power and influence in social, economic, political and religious terms. Communism did not choose its enemies wisely, raising anxiety amongst landowners and business leaders, monarchs and the nobility, church leaders and politicians. And alongside these groups were many individuals who aspired to belong to those groups, living by values which were in direct contrast with those of Communism. It is possible to see Marx and Engels as incredibly naïve, rooting their theory in the idea of unity amongst peoples who would define themselves as ‘workers’, embracing unknown ‘others’ against those with whom they already had some bond: language, religion, race, culture, family, friendship. And the idea that such a unity might exist for ever after the removal of the common enemy, the oppressive leaders of society and industry, was equally extreme.

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The response shown by so many people at the death of Princess Diana in 1997 was a rare example of an outpouring of emotion for someone few people actually knew – but it was an emotion not shared by everyone. (Author: Maxwell Hamilton; Source: here)

The fatal flaw in Communism, therefore, was its failure to grasp what motivated real people. As mentioned above, people usually care more about people they know rather than people they don’t know. They tend to be selfish and look for their own survival (individually and as a group) which is why ‘true’ martyrs are so rare, those who will die for an idea or to save someone they do not know at all. People are more than theories and ideals; most need something real and practical too. The highly committed believers may meet, debate, argue and really live out their ideology but most people see them as ‘fanatics’, and get on with their own lives: work, home, food, leisure, competition, savings, dreams and so on tend to dominate life for ordinary people. When fanatics take over, be they religious, political or whatever, then ordinary people tend to get bored, confused, angry and demoralised. One only has to see what happens when the ‘World Cup’ comes along every four years. The committed football fan gets excited; the majority at best tolerate it, maybe watching the odd game, during which they will probably annoy the true fan by asking questions that are either distracting, simplistic or irritating: Which team’s in blue? Why do they kick each other? Just what does ‘off-side’ mean? They are not as bothered or as obsessed as the true fanatic. Marx, Lenin and others never grasped this fundamental issue and the failure to convince ordinary people of the nature and benefits of ‘true’ Communism was a key to its eventual demise.

Despite these problems, Communism can and does exist but only rarely and on a small scale. It can be seen in highly motivated, ideological communities, two examples being some religious communities (monasteries) and on a kibbutz. Looking at a monastery, those who enter do so of their own choice and make a life-long commitment, although that can be broken. They take various vows: poverty means not seeking or receiving particular rewards for your work, which brings a clear form of equality; obedience means that your own ideas and values are not imposed on others or used to argue with others, as you accept your role within the running of the larger community, another form of equality; a vow of chastity is often taken, not just an issue around marriage or sex, but a commitment of equality in friendship and belonging with all in the community. The leader of the community is chosen by the community itself, serving the whole group in a way that protects them and leaves them free to do what they need to do. The leader serves for a set period of time before returning to the ranks as an ordinary member of the community. Communism is possible and has worked in the past but it is rare, not for all and requires certain conditions to be met. It demands total commitment and belief in the system and the values it proclaims. It must also be freely chosen and not imposed on the unwilling. Many people are religious and have enough belief to go to a church, mosque or temple regularly; but the majority are not motivated to give their lives over to it. In the same way, Communism appealed to a core group ideologically, made sense to some in particular circumstances but never appealed to the majority as a way of life. It does not mean the ideology itself was ‘bad’, it just never had enough rewards or made enough sense to people who had other values.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were not ‘bad’ men, as some people try to portray them. In many ways they were visionaries who expected change in the name of justice and equality for all. It’s not that they were wrong, it’s just that too many key people thought they were wrong; they ignored certain things about ordinary people and made enemies of too many powerful people because that ‘justice and equality for all’ thing’ is just a bit too much to take. In many ways, their are many people suffering because of capitalism today who probably wish their full vision had come to dominate the world. Exploitation and oppression remain but, with rampant individualism and consumerism in the ascendancy, communism is unlikely to be anything other than a footnote in history for some time to come.

 

The Vietnam War – Part One: How did the USA end up fighting one of the poorest countries in the world?

Buddhist Monk Committing Ritual Suicide

A Buddhist monk sets himself on fire in Vietnam in protest at the anti-Buddhist policies of the Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem.

 

The Vietnam War – Part One: How did the USA end up fighting one of the poorest countries in the world?

The memorial below is in the US capital, Washington, D.C., and honours the 36 000 American soldiers who died in the Korean War (1950-53). It is a monument paid for by the US Government. It was only commissioned in the 1990s, though, a late remembrance of a war which saw the USA lead the forces of the United Nations to a stalemate with the North Korean army which was backed by the USSR and China. The USA just about achieved its aims in that conflict by stopping the fall of South Korea to Communism.

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The Memorial to the Korean War (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Not that far from the Korean War Memorial, stands another one. This one is also from the Twentieth Century and remembers more than 58 000 American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1973. But this one received no money from the US Government and had to be paid for by the ‘Vietnam Veterans’ themselves. The decision to set up this memorial was inspired by a film, ‘The Deer Hunter’, just one of many famous Vietnam War films. There was widespread opposition in the USA to the memorial as it was simply a wall with a list of all those who died in the conflict. For many people, the problem was that it was not considered ‘heroic’ enough when it was first unveiled. But there was also a real issue about how to remember the victims of the most controversial war in the history of the USA, especially as it can be considered one which ended in defeat, despite many comments to the contrary which claim it was a victory for ‘Uncle Sam’. The memorial has become a major shrine to honour those who died, as well as a focus for those who survived but suffered either physically or mentally through the experience. There is no memorial for those ‘Vietnam Veterans’ who have died since the war, mainly through suicide and the effect of their injuries.

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The Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Not surprisingly, controversy surrounds the number of veterans who have committed suicide in the years since the conflict ended for the USA in 1973 as supporters of the war claim a figure of about 9 000 while veterans associations put the figure at well over 100 000. Statistics are dangerous things, of course, and the figures are highly disputed, but what is not in doubt is that many ‘Vietnam Veterans’ have suffered physically, psychologically and emotionally since the war finished. Some figures indicate that these men were nearly twice as likely as non-veterans to die of suicide, and over 50% more likely to die in road accidents. (University of California at San Francisco article, New England Journal of Medicine, March 1986, “Delayed Effects of the Military Draft on Mortality,”) The impact in terms of employment, substance abuse, relationship breakdown, violence, crime and the like have not been accurately measured but evidence suggests that Vietnam is a war many Veterans have not got over and the country itself has failed to come to terms with.

So, why is there such a difference in the memorials to the dead of these two wars? Why were the dead from Korea, the ‘Forgotten War’, eventually honoured with public money while those from Vietnam have not been ‘officially’ honoured?

The essential word is clear but rarely spoken: ‘lost’. The USA struggled in Korea but was clearly able to claim victory in a way but it effectively lost the Vietnam War and, in a pretty blatant act of denial, most Americans still seem to want to deny or ignore it. This is one of the factors which make the Vietnam War such a fascinating conflict on so many different levels and the number of books, documentaries, films and photos from the war bear ample testimony to this. The casualties, causes, outcomes and memories are all seen and interpreted under the shadow of that one word: lost. As ‘Top Nation’ of the Twentieth Century, the USA just doesn’t do ‘we lost’ to any real degree. The national psyche is geared to optimism, power, control and success; America loves winners not losers, even if they be ‘brave losers’, be it in business, sport, politics or war. This is one of the great strengths and most annoying traits of US culture, especially for British people; the Americans really don’t get that ‘plucky loser’ thing at all.

Anyway, a short study of Vietnam and the war which has defined it in public awareness for the last half-century. But before getting into the ‘When, Where, Who, How and Why’ questions, it is always sensible to start with a map or two so we know where we are.

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Map showing Vietnam as a united country. Its neighbours are: China, Laos and Cambodia. (Author: Welt Reis; Source: here)

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This map shows the main railway lines in Vietnam. They connect the two main cities, Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Hanoi is the capital while Ho Chi Minh City is the former capital of South Vietnam under its old name, Saigon. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Vietnam a long, thin country in South-east Asia, about 1650 kms (900 miles) long but only 50 kms (32 miles) wide at its narrowest point. It is a long way from the USA, on the opposite side of the world to Washington, DC, and 12 twelve time zones apart. It is a tropical country, with lots of rainforest but also mountains down the spine of the country. It is a hot, humid country for much of the year, getting most of its rain in the monsoons. Its population today is about 89 million (making it the 13th largest in the world) but in 1950 it was only about 28 million so there has been quite an increase. Most people live near the coast, and in the two main cities, Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south. Many people also live on the great delta of the Mekong River. By the way, if you’ve ever seen the musical called ‘Miss Saigon’, it is based on a famous old story called ‘Madame Butterfly’ with the story transferred to Saigon in the 1970s. The love story is changed to focus on a Vietnamese girl and an American GI at the very end of the Vietnam War, which we’ll get to soon. An ordinary American soldier, the equivalent of a ‘private’ in Britain, was called a ‘GI’, which stands for ‘Government Issue’, reflecting the equipment used, and it does not mean ‘General Infantry’, as I was always told when I was young.

Historically, Vietnam has been defined by its relationship with its neighbours, Laos, Cambodia and, most of all, China. In saying that, it is really no different to most other countries: neighbours impact on our lives and, when they are big and powerful, they fundamentally shape us. China’s repeated attempts to take control of Vietnam helped define it over many centuries. The Vietnamese have long held simple, clear goals as a community: independence and control of their own destiny. They fought off the Chinese by the late 10th century and then the Mongols in the 13th century, mismatches on the scale of David and Goliath (or Colchester 3 Leeds 2, FA Cup Fifth Round, 1971 – a delight for anyone outside Elland Road – ask your granddad about it). If you are interested in strong female role models, by the way, check out the extraordinary Vietnamese Trung Sisters (Trung Nac and Trung Nhi), warriors from the 1st century AD. They are still celebrated today, and a holiday is celebrated in their honour each February.

Following these events, after 1285 or so, the Vietnamese settled down to a simple, independent life based on a powerful sense of community: the village and the family was all. The country was poor (it remains one of the poorest countries in the world to this day), mainly being a subsistence economy, which means it only really produced enough food and goods for its own needs, having little or nothing left for trade or development. The long era of peace was finally shattered with the arrival of the French in South-east Asia in the mid-19th century. At the time, France was trying to build a larger Empire, partly in response to the power of the British Empire, and expanded is control into this region of Asia. The region became known as ‘French Indo-China’ and included Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. It was a useful area for the French, offering important resources in an area which also provided good communication and trade links with China, Australia and India. The main role of the region, though, was to support France at home, as is the case with any Empire.

French control brought significant changes in Vietnamese society. The wealthier members of society tended to collaborate with the French, learning to speak French and many became Catholic. Most of the Vietnamese remained poor, though, kept their Buddhist faith as well as speaking their own local languages. This division in Vietnamese society, based on language, politics, culture and religion, would become increasingly significant in the following century. Wealth came to some people but at the cost of control over their own lives, politically, socially and economically. This did not impact so much on the many people who lived out in the villages and mountains but it did affect life in the growing cities and towns. Many people just got on with life but some wanted Vietnam to be left alone, to be independent again, free to control its own affairs in its own way. One of these men was born in Vietnam in 1890. He was called Nguyen Sinh Cung and he became famous for his struggle to defend Vietnam; he was known to the world as ‘Ho Chi Minh’ (pronounced ‘Hoe-Chee-Min’).

At the time of the Vietnam War, and in the decades since, the USA has been keen to portray Ho Chi Minh as an evil dictator, a part of the Communist coalition controlled by Moscow and set on the destruction of the West and its way of life. This is an unfair and narrow assessment. Ho Chi Minh is a classic example of ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ His name was a nickname, meaning ‘Bringer of Light’, although it was probably one that he gave himself, which is never that satisfactory, rather like Joe McCarthy calling himself ‘Tail Gunner Joe’. Whatever the Americans and the West might have thought, though, Ho was extremely popular in North Vietnam, being Prime Minister of North Vietnam from 1945-55 and President from 1945-69. However, he was no ‘saint’ and was responsible for many deaths, especially amongst Government officials, and, of course, during the war. But was he justified from the point of view of self-defence on behalf of his country? It’s always an interesting question. Ask Harry Truman if the atom bombs which killed so many Japanese civilians were justified. Or ask Churchill if he approved of so many Russian deaths under Stalin, if ‘Bomber’ Harris had sleepless nights over the dead of Dresden or General Franco if he felt guilty over the destruction of Guernica. When words don’t work, in legitimate or illegitimate causes, violence often follows; it’s never easy and it’s never straight-forward.

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Ho Chi Minh just after World War II. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

So, let’s look at Nguyen Sinh Cung, the boy who grew up to become ‘Ho Chi Minh’. As a child, Cung studied Confucianism and also had a formal, French education, learning Chinese as well as French. He combined Eastern and Western influences, applying an understanding of these ‘foreign’ values over a framework of traditional Vietnamese teachings. His family were strong supporters of independence and expressed anti-French views; his father, in particular, got into a lot of trouble with the authorities. In his early 20s, Cung chose to travel and visited the USA, Britain, France, China and the USSR. He paid for his travel by working his way in the kitchens on ships and then worked as a chef and a waiter in numerous hotels wherever he stayed. In the 1920s he was in Paris, where he first encountered Communism, a system which made sense to him as its values echoed those of his Vietnamese roots. He had also met Korean nationalists in England who fired up his belief in resistance and the need to oppose colonial control. The 1920s and 1930s saw him living in Moscow, China, Thailand and Italy among other countries, seeing many different types of government, from Communist through to Fascist, democracies, monarchies and dictatorships. He married a Chinese girl, contracted a killer-disease called tuberculosis and, in 1940, finally took that name, ‘Ho Chi Minh’ or ‘Bringer of Light’. His education through travel had brought enlightenment and a sense of what was the best way forward for his home country.

In 1941, Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam, to lead the Viet Minh, a resistance organisation. He was determined to liberate his country, firstly by fighting the French and, when they were overthrown, the Japanese, who had took control of the country during World War II. The odd thing is that, a bit like support for the Mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Viet Minh were secretly helped by the USA in their struggle with Japan during the war. The weapons they had been given to fight the Japanese would later be used to attack the French and the Americans themselves. History is a strange place to visit at times.

At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh was convinced that freedom had come to Vietnam with the removal of the Japanese. He declared the independence of the ‘Democratic Republic of Vietnam’, convinced that a new era would dawn with Vietnam being able to take control of its own destiny. Ironically, he based a lot of his vision on the revolutionary actions which had formed two countries that he knew well and admired: France and the USA. He was convinced that they would both understand and agree with what he had done, as they were historically such believers in independence, liberty and the right to control your own destiny. Ho Chi Minh actually wrote to President Truman on seven occasions after WWII, explaining what he was doing and asking for his support; Truman did not reply to any of the letters. And then, much against his own beliefs and the historic values of the USA, Truman approved the return of Indo-China to French control, a direct rejection of all that Ho Chi Minh had asked for. So it was that, with US approval, the French went back to Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, re-establishing the old ways and systems against which the Viet Minh and others had struggled for so long. And so the fighting started once again.

Why did the USA support France’s return to Indo-China? Well, it’s a bit complicated but, in simple terms, it was probably just too much like hard-work to say ‘no’. One does not want to compare a whole nation with a stroppy, anxious teenager but that image is not a bad one to have as you read the next bit. The French had suffered badly in World War II, morally and psychologically as much as militarily and financially. Defeat at the hands of the Nazis saw France under German control between May 1940 and June 1944. This had led to the establishment of the ‘Vichy Government’ in the south of France while the Germans controlled the north. Vichy France was basically an organised form of collaboration with the Nazis. In their defence, they did not have much choice as, if they had not collaborated, the politicians would have been ‘removed’ and the Nazis would have just taken over anyway. There was a French Government in exile under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle, but it relied on other countries, such as the US, Britain and Canada, for it to function. France, for so long a great power with a proud history, had lost control of its own country and its Empire, and relied on others to maintain some sense of its own independence. When liberation and ‘victory’ came in 1945, the humiliation and the legacy of collaboration found France a divided country. In the post—war period, the politicians wanted to re-establish the confidence and unity through the restoration of its glorious past. As a once proud nation, the people rallied behind its key political figures, men like de Gaulle, but the memories were painful and, the route to the future was a short-sighted interpretation of its past.

The world in 1945 was an anxious place, but France was under more pressure than most countries. No country was keener to re-establish its former glory but the balance of power had shifted and clearly lay with the ‘Big Three’: the USA, the USSR and, to a lesser extent, Britain. This was seen at Yalta and Potsdam, where the post-war future was shaped. The photos of those Conferences show just three leaders: at Yalta in February 1945 this meant Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) for the USA, Winston Churchill for Britain and Stalin for the Soviet Union; at Potsdam in July 1945, it meant Harry Truman for the USA, Clement Attlee for Britain and Stalin for the Soviet Union. France was not represented at the ‘top table’ and was, to a large extent, at the mercy of these agreements.

France was actually treated pretty well by the agreements made by the war time allies. Even though the French had played a minor role in the victory over Hitler and the Nazis, they were granted a role in running the post-war world. Although Stalin in particular saw no great reason to include France in these matters, Churchill was adamant that this should happen and his arguments won the day. Churchill believed that the French were needed to help ‘control’ a defeated Germany but he was also worried at the effect their not being involved might have on the country as a whole and on de Gaulle in particular. Put simply, he worried that in the face of such humiliation, they might sulk, stay on the sidelines and so weaken the pro-capitalism, pro-democracy alliance in Europe at a time when as much help as possible would be needed to rebuild the continent and resist potential Communist expansion. As a key member of the newly formed United Nations, a country with such a great heritage, an important economy and a significant Empire, Churchill saw the need to keep the French ‘on-side’.

Another important issue is that the USA had its own particular vision for the post-war world as it was keen to see an end to the old Empires, primarily those of Britain and France. However, the USA was also certain that it did not want to see Communist expansion around the world, especially in Europe, so keeping the French as ‘allies’ was vital. Washington did not want to see the French go back in to Indo-China but they felt that they had little real choice in the matter. French pride and the French economy had to be restored and if that involved massaging the ‘ego’ and restoring old trade links then so be it; there would be time to deal with the issue of ‘Empires’ in the years to come, but in the short-term, there were more pressing matters.

So it was that the French went back in to Vietnam and even received American aid. Over the years, that ‘assistance’ would grow, so that by the early 1950s, the USA was funding over 70% of French operations in the region. The funding was actually focused on struggles in Laos and Cambodia as much as Vietnam, with Communist-motivated forces being the perceived enemy. In reality, Laos rather than Vietnam was of far greater concern to the USA until the early 1960s, a fact which is one of those snippets of history which has been forgotten in the light of what happened later. The French really had the USA over a barrel, playing on their concerns in Europe about Communist expansion and using the frenzy over ‘the loss of China’ in late 1949 as a means to extract greater support (meaning money, weapons and approval) from the Truman administration.

Ho Chi Minh’s forces, the Viet Minh, were no match for the French in direct military terms. Naturally, they fought by using guerrilla warfare, tactics based on ambush and hit-and-run so as to avoid direct fighting with a more powerful enemy, tactics developed in the struggles of WWII. In these operations, Ho Chi Minh had the help and guidance of one of the great military commanders of the century: General Vo Nguyen Giap (1911-2013). Giap (pronounced ‘Zi-ap’) retired from the army after the Vietnam War and had an unsuccessful time as a politician before becoming heavily involved in ecology and the defence of the Vietnamese environment. He was still active in this after his 100th birthday, a far cry from his time as the scourge of the mighty armies of France and the USA; he was a seriously interesting man.

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General Vo Nguyen Giap, military leader of the Viet Minh (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

During the immediate post-war years, the French had tried to re-establish their control of Vietnam, despite the resistance and opposition. One of their strategies had been maintain their ‘Puppet Emperor’, Bao Dai, in power for nearly a decade after WWII. The Viet Minh maintained their struggle over these years until the key battle of Dien Bien Phu in March-May 1954. After a 57 day siege of this huge fort and defence system in the north-west of the country, the French were defeated by the Viet Minh – and they promptly left and walked out of Vietnam, leaving a potential disaster for the West as a power vacuum appeared in this corner of South-east Asia. The USA faced a major dilemma as to what to do and they decided to take over from the French, supporting the unpopular pro-western regime of Bao Dai which had its main power base in the cities and the south. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had come to the Presidency as a Republican after victory in November, 1952, and found that he had little room for manoeuvre. He was elected because of his great military record and was seen to be someone who would take the fight to the Soviet Union, standing up to Communism and maintaining the most robust defence of the USA. In these years, the Chinese Revolution of 1949 was a fresh and powerful memory and an event which had blighted Harry Truman’s final years in office. No President could confidently face a similar accusation to that thrown at Truman, namely, the‘loss of China’. With belief in ‘domino theory’ at its height and with the country still in thrall to Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt, even though he himself had just fallen from power, Eisenhower had little choice but to step in.

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Supplies for the French forces at Dien Bien Phu being dropped in 1954. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The Americans now found themselves thrown into a leading role in a foreign environment and in a situation where they had little experience or expertise. One of the big problems was that in the previous years, they had got rid of nearly all of their experts on China and Vietnam because of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts; anyone interested in the region or who had visited it, studied it or spoke the language, had been removed because of fears over ‘Communist sympathies’. This was unfortunate, stupid or somewhere in between, depending on how you want to view it. Anyway, US policy became confused and chaotic as they misread information, misunderstood actions and made numerous mistakes based on political values at home rather than an accurate reading of events in Vietnam itself. Those responsible found themselves in a world they did not comprehend, doing things that made sense to themselves but which increasingly alienated the Vietnamese and failed to achieve any significant gains. Both politically and militarily, the Americans had a particular problem in that they were unwilling to do anything that hinted at weakness or compromise with Communism, as they believed strongly in ‘containment’ and the need to be strong in the face of the challenge they faced. It was an approach which would draw the USA irresistibly towards war.

The moment when US involvement in Indo-China became inevitable was the Geneva Conference, which was held in 1954-55 as a way of negotiating an acceptable way forward in Vietnam. The meeting was held in the aftermath of Dien Bien Phu and brought politicians from both sides in Vietnam together alongside the major powers. The Chinese, naturally, supported the Communists while the USA sided with Bao Dai and the pro-western groups. Discussions went on for some time before it was agreed that the country would be temporarily divided (just like Germany and Korea had been) into North Vietnam, under the control of Ho Chi Minh and the Communists, and South Vietnam, which would be a pro-Western Government under a man called Ngo Dinh Diem, (pronounced ‘Ho Zin Zee-em’) as Prime Minister and, later, President.

Washington’s short-sighted thinking in this would become very significant and the echoes of their appointment of Syngman Rhee, leader of South Korea, were clear in their choice of Ngo Ding Diem. Diem spoke French and English and had lived in both France and the USA, as well as being a Catholic, a religion which made more sense to the Americans than did Buddhism, the religion of the majority of Vietnamese. As Prime Minister, Diem was someone Washington understood as he made sense to them but he was also deeply unpopular with the ordinary people of Vietnam. The longer he stayed in power, the more unpopular he became, thanks most of all to a culture of bribery that surrounded him and fed the legend of his sister-in-law, ‘Madame Nhu’, Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu, the power behind the throne. Diem himself lived very simply and never married but his family became very rich through their links with him and the West. None of this had any impact on the Americans, of course, as they failed to consider the negative consequences of their actions on other people. Support for Diem would become increasingly important when Jack Kennedy, a Catholic himself, was elected President in 1960. JFK felt some extra sort of ‘obligation’ to support Diem because of their shared faith in the struggle against the Communist threat even when the evidence made it clear that the Vietnamese Prime Minister was a walking disaster.

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President Eisenhower (left) greeting President Ngo Dinh Diem in May, 1957. (Author: US Air Force; Source: here)

Going back to the Geneva Conference for a minute, it should be noted that it was decided to divide Vietnam at the 17th Parallel (which means the 17th line of latitude i.e. 17˚ north of the equator). It was marked as the ‘Demilitarized Zone’ (or DMZ) on maps, creating a border that split the country roughly in half. Originally it was supposed to last for one year or so until national elections were held which would choose a new democratic Government to re-unite the country. Both sides agreed to accept the result of this ‘free and fair’ contest. The election was never held, though, because the USA refused to allow them, claiming that the Communists would ensure that they were not ‘free and fair’. However, the reality was probably better expressed by Andrew Goodpaster, a general in the US Army and Eisenhower’s Staff Secretary, who in a rather uncomfortable interview in the 1990s, admitted that the real reason the elections could not be allowed was that Ho Chi Minh had the support of about 80% of the people and that his victory, and the West’s defeat, would have seen Communism win. This would then open Eisenhower up to the accusation of the ‘loss of Vietnam’. Logical though this might have been, it still puts a big question mark over the USA’s real commitment to ‘democracy’ at the time and reflects the deep anxiety at the power of ‘domino theory’ in the 1950s.

In the absence of the elections which would have seen him take power, Ho Chi Minh felt betrayed by the USA and authorised increased attacks on South Vietnam and the Government in particular during the late 1950s. Thousands of Government officials were killed, injured and intimidated by the Viet Minh and their collaborators in the south, who would come to be known as the ‘Viet Cong’, an insulting nickname given them by Ngo Dinh Diem. (‘The full name of the group was ‘Viet Nam Cong San’ which translates as ‘Vietnamese Communists’.) These two groups would later fight together against the USA in the Vietnam War, but the main military force was the Viet Minh rather than the Viet Cong.

The Communist attacks on South Vietnam caused serious disruption and concern, leading Diem to beg for help from the USA. At first this meant sending money but soon weapons and ‘advisers’ of one kind and another had to go to help the South Vietnamese; they needed guidance on how to fight, use the weapons, plan strategies and so on. But this was not enough to stop the attacks which escalated and in the early 1960s more weapons and even helicopters were needed – as were pilots to fly them and engineers to maintain them. When these came under attack, small numbers of soldiers had to go in to protect them – and they also started to teach the South Vietnamese soldiers how to go on patrol and how to get captured prisoners to ‘talk’, the polite way of saying guidance on interrogation and torture. This all meant the US was being sucked into an increasingly demanding situation, one which demanded more money, more people, more soldiers and more technology to protect the advisers, transport and so on and so on. Soon the Americans themselves became a target for Viet Minh attack and containment was becoming increasingly messy for the USA.

One particularly controversial policy introduced by the US advisers was called ‘Strategic hamlets’. This was an attempt to control pro-Communist activities by bringing all the people outside the cities together in large, fortified and heavily controlled villages. The people gathered in these larger communities were to be listed, monitored and tracked as necessary. A plan which made sense to the US strategists, at least on paper, turned out to be a disaster. Fundamental to its failure was the total misunderstanding of Vietnamese culture and the role of the village, something which would be central to problems which would blight the war itself from Washington’s point of view. The Americans simply did not understand that, to the Vietnamese, the village was not just a place to live but was something far more important; it was central to each person’s identity, the expression of their belonging, their family, the society itself. People did not just get up and leave their home to move, say, to a bigger or newer place. Families lived in the same house and village for centuries, burying their ancestors in the area, remaining close to their spirits. Each generation cared for the home and village as the expression of their family at that time. To remove people from their village was to separate a family from its roots, to destroy identity and break the bonds of connections that were like life itself.

‘Strategic hamlets’ created huge resentment and drove many Vietnamese towards the Communists, not because of strong ideological commitment but as they offered a way to restore people to their roots. Anyway, on a more practical level, the US had no easy way of monitoring all the people in the ‘strategic hamlets’, checking who was coming and going, or where they were going and what they were doing. Many American soldiers developed a very dismissive attitude towards local people, seeing them all as stupid and weak because they were poor by their standards, spoke a language they did not understand and ‘they all looked the same’. These issues would only get worse in the years that followed.

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The defences of a ‘strategic hamlet’ in 1964. (Author: Brotherreuse; Source: here)

Despite the many tensions in Vietnam, war was not inevitable at this time. However, such events rarely take place in isolation from other events and the early 1960s were, of course, a time of extraordinary tension in the Cold War and this must be considered as the back-drop to Vietnam. There had been increased division with the ‘Communist ‘family’ since the late 1950s as Chairman Mao was breaking with Khrushchev to follow more overtly aggressive and Stalinist policies seen in the threats against Taiwan and the ‘Great Leap Forward’ which brought widespread famine. The U-2 spy plane incident had heightened tension between the East and West in 1960, a situation which only worsened with the Bay of Pigs Fiasco in April 1961, the building of the Berlin Wall in August of the same year and then the Cuban Missile Crisis itself in October 1962. The USSRs successes in the Space Race had been enhanced by Yuri Gagarin’s successful orbit of the earth in 1961 and served to highlight Soviet technological advances as did the further development of nuclear missiles. Vietnam was set to become a place of great significance for the USA, the place where a stand would be taken against the rising tide of Communist threats and expansion but there would have to be a clear and specific threat identified before such a conflict could be started.

In the early 1960s, as we have seen, there was very significant unrest and attacks in South Vietnam. The most visible sign of those protests came in the actions of numerous Buddhist monks, as the picture at the start of this chapter indicated. In opposition to Ngo Dinh Diem’s unwillingness to recognise various Buddhist festivals, some monks set themselves on fire on the streets, often making contact with Western journalists and film crews beforehand so that they would turn up and witness what happened. the images went around the world and shocked many people so that they demanded answers about what was happening in the country. In the Cold War struggle for ‘hearts and minds, in Vietnam and around the world, such images hardly reflected well on the USA as the supposed leader of freedom and tolerance.

The actual trigger for the war itself came in August, 1964, with what became known as ‘The Gulf of Tonkin’ incident. The Gulf of Tonkin itself is the area of the sea just off the north east coast of Vietnam. US warships were patrolling there during the summer of 1964, partly because the US Navy had earlier been involved in covert missions to help fast patrol boats manned by South Vietnamese commandos to attack North Vietnam. Although the US forces had blocked radar systems in North Vietnam, those attacks had failed due to poor intelligence about the targeted sites. In an attempt to weaken the effectiveness of the North Vietnamese defences, an intelligence gathering operation called the ‘Desoto Patrol’ had been set up using US destroyers in international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Hanoi knew about this and the USs involvement in the earlier attacks on North Vietnam bridges and other military sites. They decided to use Soviet built P-4 motor torpedo boats which were not fast enough to hit the Norwegian made patrol boats but could work against the slower destroyers. One of these was the USS Maddox under the command of Captain John J. Herrick. On 2nd August, the Maddox was attacked although not damaged, except for one round of ammunition which hit the ship; the torpedoes missed. The P-4s were destroyed.

In Washington, there was surprise that Ho Chi Minh had not backed down under pressure and had responded in such a strong and attacking manner. It was decided that there had to be a show of strength by the USA as it could not be seen to back down in the face of Communist threats. The ‘Maddox’ continued its operations and was supported by another warship presence. With everything in a state of heightened tension, it was reported that two days later, on 4th August, the ‘Maddox’ had again come under attack. However, there was great confusion at the time as to whether or not that was actually true. An American pilot who was sent out to see what was happening reported nothing at all even though it was a clear night. Subsequent investigations and evidence show that there was, in fact, no attack that night. However, on 5th August, 1964, an American attack was launched which destroyed an oil storage unit at Vinh and sank about thirty ships along the coast. Of far more importance, though, was that on 7th August, Congress passed the ‘Tonkin Gulf Resolution’. Although no attack had taken place, President Johnson was given absolute power to conduct the war using military force as he alone saw fit. The door had been left wide open for the escalation of hostilities against Communist forces in Vietnam and LBJ would go through that door a few months later.

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The ‘USS Maddox’, the ship at the heart of the Gulf of Tonkin incident (Author: US Navy; Source: here)

One other thing worth noting at this time is a report presented a year earlier to President Kennedy, a report completed at the request of Robert MacNamara, the Defense Secretary. The report was the result of the ‘Krulak Mendenhall Mission’ which aimed to investigate how the South Vietnamese and their US advisers as they sort to gain control of the country and withstand Viet Cong insurgents. General Victor Krulak represented the  military while Joseph Mendenhall was more of a civil servant who had experience of Vietnam and was part of the Foreign Service. What is fascinating about the report they presented is how confused it was and how the two men gave such differing opinions. On one hand, there was Krulak looked only at the military operation itself where he saw only the positive and was extremely complimentary about what had been achieved, leading to him being very optimistic about the future. On the other hand, Mendenhall looked at the bigger picture, especially the attitudes and actions of the ordinary people and here he saw only causes for concern; the people were so anti-Diem that they believed that life would be better under the Viet Cong. Mendenhall’s informed pessimism contrasted so much with Krulak’s military focused optimism that it led Kennedy to ask, ‘The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?’ In showing the problems between the military and the civilian approaches, between the Pentagon and the politicians, as well as the difficulty in gathering accurate assessments of the situation, the ‘Krulak Mendenhall Mission’ is a great insight into the future problems that would so undermine the whole US policy towards Vietnam; they were stumbling towards the edge.

The Vietnam War officially started in February-March 1965 when President Johnson launched air strikes and then sent in the first US ground troops to support the South Vietnamese Army. Johnson had delayed intervention until after the presidential election of November 1964, an election he won comfortably in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination the previous year. And Johnson was in many ways a hostage to fortune because of events which Kennedy, Eisenhower and even Truman had set in train. The Vietnam War would come to be known as ‘Johnson’s War’ but it was really the natural expression of containment, the policy of the previous two decades. Containment of Communism would find a very real expression at some place and that turned out to be Vietnam.

One particular stage on the way to war was the removal of Ngo Dinh Diem as leader of South Vietnam in November 1963. As mentioned before, Diem was deeply unpopular with many ordinary people. In the early 1960s, leading figures in the South Vietnamese Army wanted him to be replaced but President Kennedy would not allow it. Rather like the attack on the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, Diem was a ‘situation’ he had inherited from Eisenhower and he was determined to stand by him. Diem was seen as loyal and tough so choosing an alternative ran the risk of Kennedy being seen as ‘weak’ in the struggle against Communism. Kennedy was especially keen to support Diem as a fellow Catholic and this may have coloured his approach more than was healthy.

Kennedy may have heard but resisted the calls for Diem’s removal but he had likewise resisted many requests from President Diem to send in combat troops before 1963 as he was scared of escalating the conflict in Vietnam. As the conflict intensified, JFK received more and more requests for the removal of Diem and by late 1963, things were deteriorating so much that Kennedy finally gave the go-ahead and Diem was assassinated by his own troops on 2nd November, 1963. This brought in a period of chaos in South Vietnam as eight military coups took place in quick succession. This caused great anxiety in Washington but it all paled next to the key event of that period: the assassination of President Kennedy on 22nd November, 1963, just three weeks after Diem’s killing. The new president was the former vice –president, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), a Texan with great political experience. LBJ was wary of escalating American involvement in Vietnam before the 1964 election even though the military were calling for direct involvement. Johnson was determined to win the Presidency and then the military could have their war. He wanted to concentrate on Civil Rights and building the ‘Great Society’, both of which would were based on the highest of ideals but would both be seriously compromised by the war.

Johnson eventually launched the Vietnam War with ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, the carpet bombing of Vietnam, after February 1965. The huge B-52 bombers dropped astonishing quantities of bombs both then and during the eight years of US involvement in the war, causing death and destruction on an extraordinary scale. In March 1965, the first 5000 US Marines were sent to fight, their numbers reaching 38 000 by the end of the year. From the first major battle at Ia Drang in November, 1965, until the US troops withdrew in 1973, the fighting would cost 58 000 US lives while hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died or suffered injuries. People from Australia, South Korea, Cambodia, New Zealand and China were amongst the many others who served and died in the war.

The Vietnam War divided US society and saw some of the largest protests in its history. It brought pressure to bear on Washington as many allies and critics questioned its role, aims and values in the conduct of the war. It would be the event which ended President Johnson’s career, bringing Richard Nixon to power and so heralding change in Cold War relations. And it would lead to the creation of some of the most important music, art and literature of the era, although that will have to be left until a later chapter.

Hopefully, though, it is becoming more clear as to why the US had a problem in creating a memorial to the Vietnam War.

 

 

Betty Friedan: Is that all?

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The sort of kitchen that should have made every American woman of the 1950s very happy.

Betty Friedan: ‘Is that all?’

‘It is ridiculous to tell girls to be quiet when they enter a new field, or an old one, so the men will not notice they are there. A girl should not expect special privileges, because of her sex, but neither should she “adjust” to prejudice and discrimination.’ Betty Friedan

Billie Jean King was a very famous tennis player and one of the most successful players in the history of the women’s game having won 39 Grand Slam titles, 12 in the singles with a further 27 in the doubles and mixed doubles. But despite these many triumphs, some of her most significant time on court came in an exhibition against a washed-up 55 year-old man who had challenged her to a match. It was 1973 and Mrs. King’s opponent was a former tennis champion called Bobby Riggs (1918-1995) who believed that women had no right to equal prize money with men as they were simply not good enough. Riggs had retired from tennis many years before and was well past his best but he had recently beaten the famous Australian Champion, Margaret Court. He was expected to win ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ against the 29 year-old King, the high profile leader of the campaign for equality in tennis. The match took place at the Houston Astrodome and attracted a record TV audience for a tennis match. Played over the best of five sets, King won in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 but the significance of the result went well beyond money, pride or fame.

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Billie Jean King, winner of the ‘Battle of the Sexes’. (Author: David Shankbone; Source: here)

Billie Jean King was challenged to game of tennis by Bobby Riggs because she was the most high-profile figure in the campaign for equality for women in tennis. More specifically she wanted equality between women and men not only in terms of prize money but also in respect and status. At Wimbledon in 1968, for example, the first time the tournament was open to professionals, the men’s champion won £2000 while the women’s champion won £750. The argument used was that the women’s champion had it a lot easier than the men’s as women played only three set matches while men played over five sets. Many women’s matches, especially in the early rounds, lasted barely an hour, such was the lack of competition, while the greater depth of ability in the men’s game meant that the champion could expect to have faced far greater challenges on his way to the title. This was the long established norm and one which most people saw no reason to change.

For Billie Jean King, though, this was all a matter of justice and equality so that, even before she had retired from playing, she moved in to the administration of the women’s game and set herself the target of achieving equal prize money with men. Over the years, progress on this matter was achieved until, in 2007, Wimbledon joined the US and Australian Opens in paying equal prize money to everyone, while the French Open paid equal money to the Champions. Billie Jean King was seen as a champion of the campaign for equal rights for women but she was not working alone nor acting in a vacuum. Her work developed out of her belief in the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ which had developed in the USA from the early 1960s. And that movement had begun with the 1963 publication of a book called ‘The Feminine Mystique’. The author was a woman called Betty Friedan and this section looks at her work.

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Betty Friedan (1921-2006) (Author: Fred Palumbo; Source: here)

Betty Friedan (1921-2006) was born in the city of Peoria, some 140 miles south-west of Chicago in the state of Illinois just after the Great War. She became a writer and journalist and had strong left-wing sympathies in her twenties and thirties. She was forced to leave her job as a journalist when she became pregnant for the second time in the early 1950s but she continued to write as a freelance journalist, being paid for each piece she did for any newspaper or magazine. Following a reunion of women who had been her classmates at college, a group who had lived through the boom years of post-war America, Friedan found herself both saddened and inspired by what she had heard them say. On the surface they were from an extraordinarily privileged generation that seemed to have everything they could want, having moved beyond the struggles of the Great Depression to enjoy homes, education and wealth on an incredible scale as the new middle-class suburbs spread across the USA. They had cars, TVs, gardens and parties. They went on holidays across the US and around the world, had a wonderful range of clothes and shoes and met up with friends for drinks on an almost daily basis. The extraordinary rise in the wealth of middle class America after World War II had given them many new and  improved labour saving domestic devices almost overnight. Their homes were filled with giant fridges, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and even pop-corn makers. By comparison with every previous generation, these women should have been positive, happy and, above all, fulfilled. But Betty Friedan’s conversations had revealed that, below the surface, many women in America were far from happy. She believed that her contemporaries from her college days had so much and yet they were deeply dissatisfied and unfulfilled; above all, they were bored.

This feeling led Betty Friedan to undertake a wide-range of research, thought and reflection. What was wrong? How had it happened? Was it true? Were her classmates a true reflection of what was happening across the USA? By comparison with their mothers and grandmothers, the women of the fifties and sixties seemed to have all that they could have dreamt of materially. In a time of extraordinary economic growth, unemployment was low, pay was rising and technology was making new goods available. Their husbands jobs meant that middle class women were expected to stay at home, leaving them with lots of free time to themselves. Smaller families, convenience foods and new technology meant a world of leisure opened up before them each day. However, with the shopping and housework done before lunchtime, those days often stretched out before them towards a tedious horizon. Friedan’s conversations and research revealed that daytime TV, charity work and ‘Tupperware Parties’ could only bring satisfaction to a few or for a short time; the materialistic dream had lost its appeal for many women in America.

Betty Friedan found that many of her contemporaries were deeply unhappy and confused because they lacked any sense of fulfilment, challenge and purpose. Women lacked opportunities for self-expression, intellectual growth and risk-taking. The social norms of the time were rooted in those of the previous generation which expected, or even demanded, that women were mothers, the figures who stayed at home, cooked and cared for their children, always at the service of their husbands. They were not expected to socialise alone. Their greatest satisfaction was to come through having children who did well at school and college, children who were neat and polite. If they had been given opportunities in education, they were still expected to forego these in favour of the traditional roles of housewife and mother. They were expected to be subservient to their husbands in all matters, be it finances, where to go on holiday, what to eat or who drove the car. Friedan saw that wealth had brought opportunity and time for the modern women but society had not moved with the changes so creating a vacuum at the heart of many women’s lives in the shiny, affluent suburbs of Middle America. On the back of these discussions, Friedan gave shape to the thoughts and feelings of millions of women in her ground-breaking book, ‘The Feminine Mystique’, one of the most important, successful and influential non-fiction books of the century.

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Many adverts encouraged the belief that a woman’s fulfilment was best expressed as a housewife and mother.

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

‘The Feminine Mystique’ was a powerful book with a hard message which struck at the heart of American society. Friedan’s revolutionary analysis led to attacks on numerous people, groups and institutions: Sigmund Freud’s ill developed psych-analysis, pretty much all men for their role in oppressing women, the Government for its lack of support and intervention on behalf of women, big business for its employment policies, the churches for their teachings and the exclusion of women from power and even some women, for the way they created a myth of ‘proper’ womanhood. The book caused a sensation on its release in 1963, a year of turmoil, change and reflection in the USA. Friedan encouraged the reader to look at things with new eyes, to seek opportunities, to challenge the established attitudes, to see themselves in a more positive light and to demand new ways  of living as a woman. With titles like ‘The Happy Housewife Heroine’, ‘The Sex Directed Educators’ and ‘Progressive Dehumanization: The Comfortable Concentration Camp Summary’, the book almost courted controversy. Certainly few institutions, systems and values in Western society did not come under attack, either directly or indirectly. It was a controversial best-seller and Betty Friedan became a major figure in US society, loved and hated, admired and feared, in equal measures.

Betty Friedan’s main ideas included:

• Equality with men in terms of economic opportunity, meaning equality in wages because men were usually paid more than women for doing the same job;

• The right of women to develop a career path just as men could;

• The opportunity for women to have a voice and a say in affairs both in the home and community as an equal with men;

• The need for women to be able to work as well as to have a family because she saw the fulfilling of the traditional role of housewife and mother as being stifling for many women, especially where they had studied and were skilled to a high level: why should this all be sacrificed to raising a family? This was summed up in her famous question, the question that lurked in the back of many women’s minds as they shopped and cleaned, namely, ‘Is this all?’

• The right to legal abortion as she believed women should have control over their own bodies and the nature of her family commitments.

Many women responded to the book’s rallying call for a ‘New Plan for Women’ by putting Friedan’s ideas and analysis into action. For some this happened in relatively ordinary but significant things like the sharing of household chores, getting their own car or getting a part-time job. But a few women became more extreme in their approach, forming the small and notorious ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ or ‘Women’s Libbers’. They were a little like the Suffragettes had been in Britain, when they used violence and aggression as they campaigned to win the vote for women half a century before. Although small in number, the Suffragettes tactics ensured that they started many debates and attracted lots of attention in the media. The ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ protested by holding marches, disrupting beauty contests and, occasionally, burning their bras and other underwear in public. The burning of bras and corsets not surprisingly attracted plenty of attention and was supposed to be a sign that such items were worn only for the pleasure and satisfaction of men and to make women conform to a social stereotype, even if it caused discomfort. The attacks on competitions such as the Miss World contest in 1970, were based on the idea that they were seen as degrading to women and done simply for the pleasure of men.

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A Women’s Liberation Movement protest in Washington, D.C., in 1970.

While the hard-liners of the campaign for equality grabbed most of the headlines, there was a broader, mainstream movement, too. The situation was very similar to that in the campaign for votes for women in Britain before the Great War. The NUWSS (the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) were the peaceful, patient and quietly determined group of campaigners known as the ‘Suffragists’, while the WSPU (the Women’s Social and Political Union) were the far smaller, aggressive and violent ‘Suffragettes’. While the Suffragists adopted campaign methods such as signing petitions, attending meetings with MPs and writing letters to the newspapers, the Suffragettes adopted more extreme tactics, such as chaining themselves to the railings at Downing Street, throwing manure at MPs in Parliament and setting fire to golf clubhouses and pouring acid on the greens of the golf courses where they new men who opposed them were members. While people at the time and the average student of history remembers the more dramatic stories, the truth is that the arguments were really won by the  quieter campaigners and the extremists probably held back progress by presenting an ‘unattractive’ face to many ordinary people, both men and women.

In the campaign for equality for women in the wake of ‘The Feminine Mystique’, there was an equivalent of the ‘Suffragists’ who offered an alternative to the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’. This group was more patient and less confrontational, quietly arguing for equality by challenging the system and the men that controlled it. This was ‘NOW’, the ‘National Organisation for Women’, a group set up by Betty Friedan herself in 1966 and which generally looked on with some anxiety as the ‘Women’s Lib’ approach attracted the mockery and ridicule of many in society at large. Just as with the Suffragettes, the argument was used that women who behaved in such a way did not deserve equality as they were violent, emotional and unreasonable.

The women’s movement really came to prominence in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960s, the high profile of that movement, under Martin Luther King’s particular leadership, raised issues that made many women think in a similar manner, namely seeing themselves as second-class citizens to American men. There were clearly some similarities both between the issues which inspired the two movements and the ways in which they were treated. Both were mocked by some politicians, organisations and commentators in the media; both movements split into more than one group over issues such as their tactics and goals; and both fell short of total victory as the Sixties ended with much that was unchanged in the struggle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of Middle America. But both movements also achieved significant changes that impacted on US and western society so that overt racism and feminism are no longer anything like as widespread or ‘normal’ as they were in the years after World War II.

While equality with men may have been achieved in tennis, there are many areas where supporters of Friedan’s ideas would say work still needs to be done. One of these is especially significant in the eyes of many campaigners, namely, politics, or more specifically, ‘leadership in Governments’. Ask many Western people to list well-known female politicians and they’ll probably come up with a limited list , certainly one which would be far shorter than an equivalent list for male politicians. In Britain, Margaret thatcher will still lead the list, although there might be  a mention for Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams, Ann Widdecombe, Theresa May, Margaret Beckett, Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harman and Diane Abbott – but you would be pretty committed to get a list that long. In Europe, Petra Keely, a key figure in the founding of the Green Party in Germany would get a mention, as would Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, but the point is that Frau Merkel is usually the only female leader when the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the G20 gather; there are very few high-profile women in leadership around the world. This simply reflects the reality of political life in most countries from Russia, China and Japan to Egypt, Canada and Peru because there have been very few women who have attained prominent positions of power in politics over the last century.

On this matter of women who have led a national Government was actually a Sri Lankan, Sirimavo Banadaranaike, in 1960. She was followed by Indira Gandhi in India in 1966 and then Golda Meir in Israel in 1969. More women have led countries since then but they remain in the minority by far. In Britain, there is an on-going concern over the number of women MPs and as members of the Cabinet, both of which remain well below the 50% level that is expected in some quarters. Elsewhere, Julia Gillard was Prime  Minister of Australia for a rather uncomfortable and bruising time between 2010 and 2013, while Jenny Shipley (1997-99) and Helen Clark (1999-2008) have led New Zealand. One of the worst records, perhaps, is that of the USA, the land of opportunity, where no woman has so far come close to being president or even to being the candidate for one of the major parties in more than two centuries. There is still some way to go if full equality for women is to be obtained, not just legally and in theory but also in reality and expectation.

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Golda Meir (1898-1978), Prime Minister of Israel (1969-74), one of the few women to have led a modern nation state. (Author: Marion S. Trikosko; Source: here)

Going back to the work of Betty Friedan, ‘The Feminine Mystique’ was a remarkable book that gave a real insight into the hearts and minds of millions of, though not all, women in the USA in the 1960s. It acted as a trigger for social debate and marked a step change in the role, hopes and expectations of women and it challenged many men, businesses and institutions to consider their own attitudes and actions. Betty Friedan was not the only person to play a role in seeking equality for women and her book was not the only factor that shaped ‘the battle of sexes’, as some saw it, but both she and her book played a hugely significant role in shaping opinion. After 1963, the rise of feminism became so much more likely, especially when placed alongside the availability of the contraceptive pill, greater access to education and the acceptance of principles embodied in the Civil Rights Movement. It is fair to say that many women found confidence and affirmation through Friedan’s work and her message, knowing they were not alone and understanding that taking control of their own destinies was an option, something which had never been available to any previous generation. The consequences were far reaching, impacting on the work place, marriage, family life, abortion rights, music, fashion and almost every other area of life.

Betty Friedan played a major role in shaping modern Western society and equal prize money in tennis was just one thing that flowed from her big question: ‘Is that all?’

 

Find out more:

Books: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ by Betty Friedan (Penguin Modern Classics); ‘A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and the Tennis Match That Levelled the Game’ by Selena Roberts (Crown Publishers, 2005); ‘Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports’ by Susan Ware (The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

Films:Far from heaven’ starring Juliette Moore and Dennis Quaid (Eiv Studios, 2003); ‘Pleasantville’ starring Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon (Warner Home Videos, 1998) and ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman all offer some insights on the relationships and values of the 1950s.

 

 

 

 

The Berlin Wall: Seriously important concrete.

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The Berlin Wall: Seriously important concrete.

‘Berlin is the testicles of the West. When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin.’ Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the USSR, 1954-1964

It was about 140 kms long, 3.65 metres high and just 12 centimetres thick at the top. In old measurements, that means it was 90 miles long, 12 feet high and five inches thick. From the summer of 1961 until the autumn of 1989, it was the most important symbol of Cold War tension between the East and the West, Communism and Capitalist Democracy. When it was built, many thought it would mark a permanent division not only between the Eastern and the Western sectors of the great city of Berlin, traditional capital of Prussia and Germany, but also between those two ideological systems which had divided the world. But then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly in the eyes of most observers, it was gone. After twenty eight years of separation, it was a broken force, torn down by the people it had enclosed for a generation. Although the USSR itself did not formally end until December 1991, the fall of the Berlin Wall became the iconic event which effectively marked the end of Communism as a major force in world politics, especially in Europe. Concrete, barbed wire, checkpoints, graffiti, death: what was the ‘Berlin Wall’ all about?

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The Berlin Wall under construction in 1961. (Author: National Archive; Source: here)

Across the city people experienced things in a completely different light to anywhere else in the world because they were able to make a direct comparison between the two different ways of life on offer. There were no barriers within the city and so, as the rubble was slowly removed, transport re-built, power and water re-connected and industry restored by visiting both systems. Contact with people from outside the city was easily controlled through visas but in Berlin this was impossible and Stalin feared the impact of such meetings; and he simply could not stop people from Eastern Europe going first to East Berlin and then travelling on to the West. From 1949 onwards, and especially after Stalin’s death in March 1953, more and more people made that journey through East Berlin and on into West Berlin; from there, many moved on to West Germany and beyond. The ‘crack’ in the ‘Iron Curtain’ was there throughout the 1950s and a trickle of emigrants became a flood. Between 1950 and 1961, an estimated 3.5 million East Germans left out of a total population of 20 million or so. This was about one in six of the population, a huge number, but even this does not tell the full story because those who left tended to be the young, the educated, those with families, skills and the ambition to do well in the West. It left the old, the less educated, the less creative to maintain the system. By 1961, the country was on the verge of collapse. Walter Ulbricht, the leader of East Germany was desperate for a solution and so was Nikita Khrushchev, then leader of the USSR. The collapse of East Germany would have triggered a reaction across the whole of the Eastern Bloc, bringing with it the end of Communism and, potentially, World War III – and Armageddon though a nuclear conflict. A solution was needed and it was found in the Berlin Wall.

Berlin, 15. Volkskammersitzung, Walter Ulbricht

Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973), leader of East Germany from 1950-1971. (Author: Sturm, Horst; Zühlsdorf; Source: here)

The day was 13th August, 1961. It was a Sunday morning and the peace was shattered by sounds of building and transport, very different sounds from normal. Pneumatic drills, cranes, lorries and armoured trucks appeared in central Berlin, very near the Brandenburg Gate and along the official line dividing the Eastern and Western Sectors. Soldiers and police were lined up with workers building a fence. Although few realised it at the time, the ‘Berlin Wall’ was under construction and the city was facing its final few hours of unity: families and friends were being divided, people were losing the chance to go to work and, in some cases, even farms and gardens were being cut in two.

On Nikita Khrushchev’s orders, the Berlin Wall was built just inside the eastern sector of the city, not taking even an inch from the West. This linked with the careful reading of a statement from President Kennedy some weeks earlier where he had said that the West would not tolerate any attack or restriction on the west of Berlin. This had been a response to attempts by Khrushchev to force the USA, Britain and France to give up claims to Berlin and allow the city to be re-formed as an independent state, something Moscow had aimed for since 1958. Khrushchev and others noted that Kennedy had made no mention about acting on restrictions between the sectors within the city and so it was that building the Berlin Wall was proposed as a means of saving East Berlin and East Germany by blocking up this crack in the ‘Iron Curtain’.

In time, the Berlin Wall developed from being just a wire fence to a solid construction of bricks and cement. It developed a 100 metre exclusion zone on the Eastern side, a ‘no man’s land’ area where only border guards could go. On the western side, it became famous as a huge target for lovers of graffiti. Watch towers, dogs, guards, barbed wire and tank traps appeared. An estimated 5000 people attempted to cross between 1961 and 1989, and between 100 and 200 died. It became the greatest symbol of division in the Cold War.

The first man to escape was Conrad Schumann, a border guard on the Eastern side of the Wall at the time it was built. He was in charge of a group of guards and, while on patrol, he took the momentous decision to go, so he ran and jumped across what was still just a low barbed wire section in those early days, and creating one of the of the most famous photos of decade. (That photo can be seen here.)

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The statue to mark Conrad Schumann’s escape in 1961. It makes sense but has to be one of the slightly more odd memorials in Berlin. (Author: Jotquadrat; Source: here)

 

As the Berlin Wall was strengthened, ingenious methods were developed for escaping as people attempted to flee to the West. At the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, many of these things can be seen today. A few of the attempts included: sneaking out in converted cars, flying over in a hot-air balloon (‘well done’ to the Wetzel and Strelzyk families for building theirs out of thousands of small pieces of cloth), flying ultra-lights over the wall at night, digging tunnels and swimming through the canals and sewers in specially adapted frogmen outfits. Wolfgang Engels, a 19 year old student, actually stole a Soviet armoured car and drove it into the Wall, being wounded but escaping in the process. Early on people just ran across the zone between the two sectors while others leapt from windows into the blankets of the West Berlin Fire Service. Some worked but all reflected the anger and concern at being trapped by a system that people saw as failing. Eventually, pretty much every method of escape was closed off. As the East German writer, Stefan Heym (1913-2001), said: ‘What kind of system was it that could only survive by imprisoning its people?’

Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie

Crossing the Berlin Wall was officially possible only at a number of checkpoints, such as the famous Checkpoint Charlie. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The Berlin Wall was an extraordinary thing. It was, as Stefan Heym said, a symbol of failure and hatred, yet it probably saved Communism, and given the tensions of the time, it might well have saved the city, the country and the world. The collapse of East Germany would have meant a crisis in the Eastern Bloc and the potential collapse of Communism. And that could easily have meant nuclear war.

In June 1963, nearly two years after the Wall had been built, President Kennedy visited Berlin, cementing the bond between the city and the West which had become so strong since the Berlin Blockade. He took with him Lucius Clay, the US General who had been in control of West Berlin at the time of the Airlift. And it was there that Kennedy made his famous speech which finished with the words: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, so often mis-translated as ‘I am a donut’. He actually said what he meant to say, namely, ‘I am a Berliner’. The people of West Berlin went wild, knowing they were special and playing a key role at the front-line of the Cold War. No other city played such an interesting and important role in world affairs as did Berlin between 1945 and 1989.

If you are looking for a fascinating place to go for a holiday then miss out the trendy, loud places and head off to Berlin – you won’t regret it.

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 The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 – serious lumps of concrete and barbed wire. (Author: Helmut J. Wolf; Unknown; Source: here)

 

Find out more

TV: ‘Cold War’ (CNN) and ‘Berlin’ by Matt Frei (BBC)

Books: ‘The Berlin Wall: My part in its downfall’ by Peter Millar; ‘The Berlin Wall’ by Frederick Taylor; ‘Berlin Game’ by Len Deighton; ‘The Wall: The People’s Story’ by Christopher Hilton

 

 

 

 

 

Removing your enemies 1: The end of Georgi Markov and others

Removing your enemies 1: The end of Georgi Markov and others.

In 1978, a news item captured the public imagination for its cruel simplicity. Ask anyone born in Great Britain much before 1970 and they’ll probably be able to tell you who Georgi Markov (1929-1978) was or, at least, how he died. His death, or, rather, his assassination, was like something straight out of James Bond film or a John le Carré book, and it both fascinated and frightened the country, a sign of Cold War tensions brought into the heart of London. Although Markov’s death was a particularly remarkable story, there have, of course, been many other such assassinations and attempts to take out significant figures in the long and bloody history of the Twentieth Century.

It is worth noting that not every high-profile murder is an assassination. To be an assassination, the death has to be a politically, ideologically, religiously or, in some cases, economically, motivated killing of a significant person. The main targets of assassination attempts are usually monarchs and royalty, senior politicians, religious leaders, business leaders or high-profile people who represent a set of values at odds with those of another country, group, religion, individual or party. The deaths of, say, Princess Diana or John Lennon, for example, were not assassinations.

The assassinations and attempted assassinations covered here are not in any way an exhaustive list but they are hopefully interesting and they might introduce some new names or remind you of things you had forgotten. There are only five in this section although others will be covered in later posts.

By the way, there will be no exploration of any conspiracy theories, predictions by Nostradamus, nor anything to do with celebrities in this section; you can find that stuff out for yourself. And I’m not going into the old thing about the word ‘assassin’ coming from the idea that it came from a group of specially trained warriors of the 11th century who got ready for their ‘commando-style’ tasks by smoking hashish. You can check all those things out for yourself in your own time.

 

Georgi Markov – 1978.

Georgi Markov was born in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria in 1929. He trained as a chemical engineer in the years immediately after World War II and was also a teacher. Bulgaria was part of the Eastern Bloc of states which came under the control of the USSR after 1945. In the 1950s, and following a time of illness, Markov took to writing and produced a number of novels and short stories which were well received. His popularity grew and he was made a member of the Union of Bulgarian Writers, which gave him the official status needed to make a living as a writer. In the 1960s, his work developed to include plays for the theatre and shows for TV, although he found that some of his work was banned, especially the plays. The intensity of the Cold War made creative writing an awkward profession under the regime of Todor Zhivkov, the leader of Bulgaria.

In 1969, Markov left Bulgaria to stay with his brother in Italy, partly because of the pressure placed on him and his work by the Communist system. In 1971, he decided against returning to Bulgaria and instead he moved to London where, amongst other things, he worked for the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe, an organisation which had broadcast to the Communist states of Eastern Europe since the Cold War started. Naturally, these actions did not go down well with the authorities in Bulgaria, where his passport was revoked, his work was removed from libraries and shops, his membership of the writers’ union was withdrawn and he was sentenced to six years in prison in absentia. Markov became an non-person at home and an enemy of the state.

On 7th September, 1978, Georgi Markov was stabbed in the leg, almost certainly with an umbrella which was tipped with a pellet containing the deadly toxin, ricin. He had walked across Waterloo Bridge in London, and was waiting for his bus to get to work at the BBC. Markov described feeling a slight pain in his thigh, rather like an insect sting, but there were no clear problems until he developed a fever in the evening and was taken to hospital where he died on 11th September. The ‘Umbrella Murder’ as it became known was a remarkable way to kill someone in broad daylight and on a busy street.

The use of an umbrella was suspected but not proven based on Markov’s statement. After he felt the pain in his leg, he turned and saw a man picking up an umbrella that he seemed to have dropped. The man concerned walked calmly away, crossed the street and got into a taxi; he was almost certainly a Bulgarian agent called Franceso Gullino. The sophisticated nature of the pellet which killed him suggested that this had to be the work of a government agency of some kind, and suspicion immediately fell on the Bulgarian secret police. The pellet was designed with a sugar coating which would melt at 37° centigrade, the temperature of the human body, and so release the deadly ricin into the body. There was almost no evidence of the attack left on Markov’s body except for a small puncture hole in the leg.

Although there was an extensive investigation into Markov’s murder, no one was ever convicted of the crime. In the years after the collapse of Communism in Bulgaria and across Eastern Europe, various former Soviet agents spoke of the KGB’s role in planning the attack but they never revealed the killer’s name. Subsequent investigations have led to Gullino being named as the probable killer, acting, of course, on the orders of the Communist regime, and of Zhivkov in particular.

Georgi Markov was 49 years old when he died. He was little known in the West but, as a creative writer, he became a voice who threatened the established lies and cover-ups in his home state. He had the vision, skills and courage to challenge the absolutist regime of Bulgaria, a system that he believed denied essential freedoms to the people. As with most of the people we will look at below, his assassination was a choice made by people in power who sort to suppress any voice of criticism or challenge.

For an image of Georgi Markov, click the link below:

http://www.sammyboy.com/showthread.php?73142-Spy-death-mystery

 

Lenin – 1918.

Lenin (Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, 1870-1924) was leader of Russia and the USSR, 1917-1924. He survived two very close calls by assassins in January and then August, 1918. In both attempts, Lenin was shot at by political opponents following the Russian Revolution. The second attempt was the more serious as two of the three bullets hit him, one in the arm and the other in the jaw and neck. Doctors were worried about the damage they might do in removing the bullet in his head and left it in. Although he survived, the attacks certainly weakened Lenin, and worsened the impact of the strokes he later suffered, so hastening his death in 1924 at the age of just 53. The long-term impact on the USSR, on the fate of Stalin and, therefore, on World War II and the Cold War can hardly be underestimated.

Had Lenin been successfully assassinated in 1918, the world would have been very different, probably seeing the rise of Leon Trotsky as leader of the USSR. Then again, if Lenin had lived just a few years longer, maybe even to the age of 65, without suffering the strokes, of course, then so much would have been changed. For one thing, Joseph Stalin would almost certainly have been removed from the Politburo in 1923 or 1924, becoming just a footnote in history. Lenin would have been in absolute power and able to shape Communism and the USSR in a completely different way.

We will, of course, never know what might have been but how history turns on such near-misses as the attempted assassinations of Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov.

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Lenin in 1920. If there had been no assassination attempts on Lenin, there would probably have been no Stalin, no Ukrainian famine, no Nazi-Soviet Pact, no Stalingrad, no assassination of Trotsky, no ‘No more heroes’ by ‘The Stranglers’ and, maybe, no one to stop Hitler. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Mohandas Gandhi – 1948.

One of the most inspirational figures of the Twentieth Century, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was a Hindu who went a long way towards transcending class and religious divisions in India and around the world. His nicknames were ‘Mahatma’ meaning ‘Great Soul’ and ‘Bopa’, which stands for ‘Father of the Nation’. Gandhi was a remarkable character who had a leading role in the overthrow of British control in India, which led to Indian independence in 1947. His tactics of peaceful resistance, and his use of image, debate, humour and simple courage in the face of violence, became hugely influential on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. In his role as ‘Father of the Nation’, Gandhi takes his place in a line that includes the likes of George Washington for the USA, Simon Bolivar for much of Central and South America, as well as Nelson Mandela in South Africa. At Gandhi’s birth, India was the greatest colony in the British Empire, a huge territory of over 500 kingdoms; at his death, India was independent, a single country on its way to becoming the largest democracy in the world.

Gandhi lived nearly all of his life under the control and influence of the British Empire. Married at the age of just 13, he chose to complete his education at the University of London. He studied law and was called to the bar in 1891 although he only practiced as a lawyer for a year before heading for South Africa. His stay there extended for twenty years and it was there that he saw and experienced racism aimed at the native population and the many Indians who lived and worked in the cape colony, and were known by the insulting term ‘coolies’. Gandhi became a leader of the Indian community in South Africa and developed his theory of peaceful resistance or ‘satyagraha’.

In 1915, Gandhi returned to India and travelled extensively. He became a supporter of many groups who were suffering and oppressed, such as those of workers in the indigo and textile trades. His profile and attitude led to him being called ‘Mahatma’. Controversies and tensions developed over the following years, which will be covered in more detail in another section, the result of which was that Gandhi was put on trial and imprisoned for six years. Released in 1925 on the grounds of ill health, Gandhi was soon immersed in the growing tensions between Hindus and Muslims, as well as the developing movement for Indian independence.

Gandhi’s strategy of non-violent protest was summed up in his public fasts, the first of which he did from his prison cell in 1924, and the challenge to the salt laws in 1930, a protest which was used to highlight the campaign for independence. He also proposed major changes to the Indian class or caste system, a campaign which drew him into tensions over the status of the ‘untouchables’. By the 1930s, Gandhi was the spiritual leader of India, a figure who held the moral high-ground against the controls of the British colonial powers. In 1931, he went to London for inconclusive discussions about independence. This was the last time he left India.

The remaining years of his life were dominated by the campaigns and arguments over independence. These were complicated by the tensions within Indian society, tensions around the caste system, as well as the religious differences between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. The outbreak of World War II brought further controversy as Gandhi and other leaders in the Indian National Congress chose neutrality as they could not bring themselves to fully support the British in their struggle, even though it was against fascist forces. Between 1942 and 1945, Gandhi once again found himself behind bars, this time with most of the National Congress leadership.

The end of the war saw a change of Government in Britain, with Clement Attlee’s Labour Party coming to power. They were already committed to granting independence to India, so victory looked assured. However, the issues around what a newly independent India would look like were still to be resolved, with the Muslim call for its own state within the country being a particular focus of tension. As a part of this, many Hindu and Sikh refugees from what is modern Pakistan, poured into the city of Delhi, and violent conflict developed. It is estimated that a million people died and 11 million were displaced by the troubles. Gandhi began his final fast in a bid to end the tensions and, as various leaders made a promise to work together in peace, the fast seemed to have worked.

Despite the apparent success of this fast, some people were clearly not satisfied and a bomb was detonated in the house where Gandhi was living. He was unharmed but clearly a target for extremists. He refused the offer of bodyguards and continued his routines as normal. A key part of this was his daily ritual of prayer. On 30th January, 1948, Gandhi was running a little late for prayers at 5 p.m., according to his favourite watch. He was approached by Nathuram Godsea, a member of the Brahmin faith, who bowed to Gandhi before shooting him three times with a revolver. Godsea was just one of many extremists who were opposed to Gandhi’s goal of greater tolerance and cooperation with others at a time of inter-racial, religious and cultural tension.

Gandhi’s final words were a blessing to the man who shot him.

 

MKGandhi

Gandhi: a man who understood the power of images as well as words. His influence on Martin Luther King’s peaceful protests was one example of his influence. (Author – Unknown; Source: here)

 

 

Huey Long – 1935.

A much ignored US politician these days, Huey Long (1893-1935) was a very high-profile figure in the 1930s. At that time he was the Governor of Louisiana, a hero of the common people and a serious opponent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Long’s nickname was ‘The Kingfish’ and he had a reputation for fixing things in a practical way. He presented ideas which were rather socialist in their goals and strategy as he believed Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ did not go far enough towards helping the poor. His biggest idea was the ‘Share Our Wealth’ scheme, which called for a redistribution of money through a limit on the total wealth, savings and income of each American family, higher taxes on the rich and a limit on high earnings. Long also wanted to attack powerful companies, especially trusts or monopolies, for trying to make high profits. His ideas have strong echoes in the ideas put forward by protesters against the G8 and G20 summits in the wake of the economic and financial crisis of 2007.

Across the USA, especially in political and financial circles, there were many people opposed to Huey Long’s ideas and there were various rumours of assassination plots during the summer of 1935. However, one dispute with a judge turned particularly nasty. On 8th September of that year, Long was in Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana, attempting to force Judge Benjamin Pavy out of office when he was approached by Dr. Carl Weiss, the judge’s son-in-law. Weiss shot Long in the stomach from close range. In the chaos and confusion, shots from Long’s own bodyguards also hit the Senator after they ricocheted into him. Long died in hospital two days later after doctors were unable to stop the internal bleeding. His final words were:’ God don’t let me die. I have so much to do.’

Huey Long was just 42 years old when he died and, with a groundswell of support, he might well have challenged Roosevelt for the Presidency in 1936. And who can say what effect that might have had on the USA and World War II?

 

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Huey Long: ‘The Kingfish’ was an unusual American, a politician with some genuinely socialist ideas. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Lord Mountbatten – 1979.

The assassination of Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC, FRS, better known as Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979) was one of the most shocking actions of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. He was a cousin of the Queen Elizabeth and uncle to Prince Philip, a grandson of Queen Victoria; he was obviously a leading figure in the Royal Family. Lord Mountbatten had a special role in the bringing up of the Prince of Wales, a relationship which was close although not always peaceful and happy. He took on the role of ‘Honorary grandfather’ to the heir to the throne and gave him much advice, not least with regards to who the prince should marry.

Lord Mountbatten was killed by the IRA while on holiday at his home in Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. A bomb was placed on his boat, Shadow V, and this was detonated by radio control as Mountbatten and various members of his family and other friends went on a fishing trip on 27th August, 1979. Two boys died as well, one being Mountbatten’s grandson, Nicholas Knatchbull, aged 14, and a 15-year old boy, Paul Maxwell, who was one of the crew. The Dowager lady Brabourne, his daughter’s mother-in-law, was also killed in the explosion, while Nicholas’ mother, father and twin brother were all seriously injured. It is fair to say that the news came as a huge shock to many people that day.

The focus of the tragedy was, of course, Mountbatten himself. He was such a well-known member of the Royal Family and someone who had been a war hero and a public figure for much of his life. He had fought in World War II, playing a significant role in the raids on St. Nazaire and Dieppe, the latter of which was a disaster which had a positive influence on the planning for D-Day. Churchill appointed him Supreme Allied Commander of the South East Asia Command in which role he accepted the surrender of the Japanese forces at Singapore. And Mountbatten also had the distinction of being the last Viceroy of India, playing a central role in independence in 1947, before taking over as the first Governor General. In these various roles, Mountbatten had been at war and in conflict situations; the IRA position was that, regardless of his age, he was a legitimate target as a member of the ruling elite of a foreign country which imposed its own controls on Ireland. Needless to say, most people in Britain did not see it that way, especially with the deaths and injuries to so many others.

Later on the same day of the bombing of Lord Mountbatten’s boat, two booby trap bombs exploded near the Northern Irish border, killing 18 British troops. This attack at Warrenpoint was one of the worst in the thirty years of ‘The Troubles’. As with Mountbatten’s assassination, Warrenpoint was aimed at drawing attention to the situation in Northern Ireland and aimed to intimidate the British Government led by Margaret Thatcher. The goal of the IRA was to force concessions from the government, to force the army to leave and to bring about a united Ireland, but instead it just served to harden resolve against the IRA and the Republican cause.

 

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Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979). (Author: Allan Warren; Source: here)

 

Victor Jara – 1973.

In January 2013, it was reported that four former officers in the Chilean Army were facing arrest for their part in one of the most controversial events of the country’s recent history. The charges centred on the death of a singer, Victor Jara (1932-1973) who was a Chilean folk singer. Jara was just one of many thousands who died in the military coup of that year which saw a right-wing military junta come to power with the help of the CIA amongst others, ousting Salvador Allende, the Socialist President from power. Victor Jara became, in some ways, the voice and the face of that struggle and his memory remains a strong influence to this day throughout Central and South America.

Victor Jara was a member of the Chilean Communist Party and also belonged to a popular movement in Latin America called ‘New Songs’. It was a powerful organisation in the early 1970s, promoting songs which spoke of justice and liberty, criticising the rising tide of Fascism in the region and supporting the policies of Salvador Allende, the left-wing politician who became leader of Chile when he was appointed President after a close election in 1970. Allende himself died in the military uprising which saw Augusto Pinochet, a general in the Chilean Army and later on a close friend of Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, come to power. The military dictatorship remained in place between 1973 and 1990, allowing no free elections but enjoying significant support from the likes of the USA and the UK; many saw this support for a dictatorship against democracy as an especially hypocritical act.

Anyway, going back to Victor Jara’s story. Jara was a star in Chile, giving voice to the hopes and fears of many ordinary people in the face of increasing threats to liberty. For him this meant a commitment to broadly left-wing, Socialist ideals, a vision which he saw Salvador Allende’s party trying to put into action. But he was aware of the threat to Allende from a powerful coalition: the army, big business and many right-wing politicians. In doing this, the opposition forces had significant help from the US government who authorised the CIA to work against Allende. Allende was a democratically elected leader but this was not acceptable to Washington as he supported left-wing policies and Nixon followed the traditional Washington approach, fearing any signs of Communist influence in Central and South America.

Backed by the army and the police, Allende’s opponents rebelled. A coup took place and many thousands of people, including Victor Jara, were taken prisoner, being held in the national stadium in Santiago, the capital. The army and the police combined to intimidate and torture many of their prisoners, one of their main targets being Jara. He had his fingers and hands broken so that he could not play guitar, although some reports say his hands were actually cut off. Later he was executed by machine gun and buried in a mass grave. Until 2013, no one was ever charged with his murder.

Despite having blood on its hands, the military remained in power in Chile. It maintained a close watch on any signs of rebellion and ensured that the country followed policies which were very sympathetic to right wing, ‘Western’ ideals. The US Government ensured that aid and military assistance was given to the Chilean Government; c lose ties were maintained with the UK Government, a relationship which was rewarded at the time of the Falkland’s war when the Chilean Government was one of the few countries in South America to offer Britain support in the conflict.

Attempts were made to bring Pinochet to trial for his role in the coup of 1973 and in the military dictatorship that followed but they never came to anything. It is interesting to note that the attempts to arrest him came in London where he was receiving medical treatment while staying as a friend of Margaret Thatcher. It is doubtful that they ever discussed Victor Jara or, indeed, played any of his music.

 

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Victor Jara: what can happen when your songs say too much. (Author: Blog Ruso; Source: here)