Category Archives: Protests

Richard Nixon: “There can be no whitewash in the White House”.

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Richard Nixon, 37th President of the USA, with Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, 1972. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Richard Nixon: “There can be no whitewash in the White House.”

“When the President does it, that means that it’s not illegal.” Richard M. Nixon

Watergate. No matter where you start when looking at the life of Richard Nixon (1913-1994), you end up back at ‘Watergate’. If you’ve ever wondered why the media always seem to stick the word ‘gate’ on the end of any scandal, then it’s down to Nixon and events between 1972 and 1974. (Actually, if you’ve ever wondered why there is someone called ‘Milhouse Van Houten’ in ‘The Simpsons’, I suggest that you look no further than Nixon, as that was his middle name – although he spelt it ‘Milhous’.) Nixon was involved in many other important events, like the Vietnam War and détente with the USSR and China, but we’ll leave those out of this section so as to concentrate on this central moment. Be warned here – you will need to be alert and ready to check out a number of other things if you want to understand what went on but it is worth it. Nixon is a fascinating character and his life reads as a modern parable, an insight into how power and obsession can corrupt and destroy the most capable people. First of all, a few pictures of our subject with some key people; Nixon knew everybody.

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Nixon as Vice-President to President Eisenhower (Author: White House; Source: here)

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Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover (Author: White House; Source: here )

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Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev (Author: NARA; Source: here)

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Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev (Author: Oliver F. Atkins; Source: here)

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Nixon and Mao Zedong (Author: White House; Source: here)

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Nixon and Elvis Presley (Author: Oliver F. Atkins ; Source: here)

 

‘Watergate’ was the name of a building or rather a complex of buildings in Washington DC, the US capital, which included the headquarters of the Democratic Party in the USA. It contained a hotel, apartment blocks, shops and offices, parts of which were used by the Democrats. (It’s worth noting that it’s in the ‘Foggy Bottom’ section of the city. Things like that don’t normally bother me, and I know it shouldn’t be funny, but somehow it is.) Anyway, in the summer of 1972, as the campaign for that year’s Presidential Election was getting underway, a group of men broke into Watergate. They were caught, tried and imprisoned but there was a slight problem: it was noticed that nothing had been stolen even though they had been in the building for some time. Although this seemed a little strange, the police did not seem too bothered and things looked set to drift away into a low level story. The story went quiet for a while but two journalists with ‘The Washington Post’, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, set about an investigation that eventually revealed one of the most important cover-ups in history. Their work led to the White House and to the Oval office itself, to the President. In simple terms, Richard Nixon had wanted to know exactly what Senator George McGovern and the Democrats planned to do so that he could match and beat their ideas, so guaranteeing victory. And to do this, he was willing to authorise criminal activity, oversee a major cover up to make sure it never came out and mislead the US Congress and the people in the process. It would eventually bring him down.
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The Watergate Complex, Washington, D.C.. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

But why did Nixon do this in 1972? The answers to this question take us into the heart of one of the most fascinating politicians of the century as, on paper, it just did not make sense. In the summer of 1972, Nixon was miles ahead of McGovern in the polls. Nixon was walking towards a second term in office on the back of his foreign policy which had seen dramatic breakthroughs in relations with the Communist superpowers, both the USSR and China. The Democrats were in disarray after lots of in-fighting over several years, much of it linked with the Vietnam War and the rise of ‘issues’ to do with civil rights, feminism and gay rights. Senator George McGovern was chosen to fight Nixon but he was always trailing in the polls; he led a divided party and lacked support and credibility with the media and on the country. In November 1972, Nixon cruised to the expected and massive victory, winning 49 of the 50 states and receiving over 60% of the vote. The result was never in doubt, a landslide, and Nixon rode back into the White House on a high tide of public approval. Yet, less than two years later, in August 1974, Nixon would be forced to resign as he faced impeachment (being put on trial as President for lies, cover-ups and misleading congress) for spying on the Democrats. Why did he do it when he was so strong? Why had he taken such a risk when he held such a strong hand?

Although the above things are true, life is rarely simple especially when power is involved – and ego – and dreams – and fear – and status. History is usually shaped by people operating at the most basic human levels, and many powerful people are flawed, confused and as mixed up as the majority of people. History is often the equivalent of ‘dogs pissing up trees and blokes measuring their willies’, as it has been put, quite crudely but accurately. In other words, history is often about control and status: the control of territory and the status that comes from being more powerful than others. ‘Mine is bigger than yours, I control a bigger space than you…I am better than you and have more power than you…I am great.’ Basic it may be but Nixon fits these images rather well and the language he used was much stronger than ‘pissing’ and ‘willies’, I can tell you.

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Richard Nixon campaigning for re-election in 1972. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

To understand why President Nixon, the most powerful man in the world, who was at the height of that power in 1972, should choose to take such a huge risk as to bug his rival’s offices requires some background. The truth is that many powerful people do not always feel powerful – or secure or in control. And at times, those in power also come to believe that they are beyond normal restrictions and rules, able to demand and get what they want as their extraordinary influence becomes ‘normal’, just a part of their job. Others in power need to push the boundaries and limits so as to get a ‘buzz’, an adrenalin rush, a sense of danger to fight off boredom or routine. Stars of sport, film and music often live lives of glamour that others envy and desire but it can simply become a routine – while at the same time being something fragile and easily lost. Some turn to drugs, others to sex, others to crime – the patterns are well established. Boredom and a desire to control are an interesting combination, especially when mixed with a desire for greatness, the wish to take what you have and make it a sort of monument to your achievements. Think of this as we look at Richard Nixon and Watergate.

Richard Nixon came from a poor Californian family. Born in 1913, he was a bright child growing up as one of four brothers. Two brothers, Arthur and Harold died young (Arthur aged 7 and Harold at 24). Harold’s death in particular hit Richard hard creating a passion for action, achievement, strength. His actions and behaviour were tinged with vulnerability and the sense that nothing could be taken for granted; death or other shocks could come from anywhere. Alongside this, the key influence in his life was his mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon, feeding his huge determination and commanding great loyalty as well as fear. Nixon’s upbringing as a Quaker was also significant, rather puritanical and based on strict values, so that the family had a hatred of drinking and swearing, both of which became rather important later on.

The young Nixon was a very bright student, winning a scholarship to the famous Harvard University which he could not take up because the family was so poor. This missed opportunity denied him a natural way forward in life and fed in to a sense of injustice and the idea of the world being against him. It was one of the things that would later feed in to his hatred of the posh, privileged, well-to-do East Coast families who had such influence in Washington. Those privileged classes would come to be epitomised by the Kennedy family from Massachusetts.

Despite the setback of not getting to Harvard, Nixon went to a local college and did very well although he had to carry on working at the family store. In 1934, he won a scholarship to Law School, eventually becoming a lawyer. He served in the Navy (just like the future President Jack Kennedy) during World War II before winning election to the House of Representatives in 1946. He was soon making a name for himself by becoming involved in one of the high-profile spy cases of the post-war era. Nixon joined the investigations of the HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Commission), looking into the accusations against Alger Hiss, whose story is worth knowing as it provides important background for the rise of Joe McCarthy.

Alger Hiss (1904-1996) was an official with the US Federal Government who had been involved in setting up the United Nations, amongst other things. In 1948 he was accused of being part of a Communist group which had infiltrated the government. Hiss denied it but was put on trial. He denied all charges. A document allegedly produced on his typewriter was presented as key evidence, although such a thing could quite easily have been faked. Hiss was eventually found guilty of perjury (lying and misleading the court) but not guilty of the actual charges. Hiss’s conviction came on 25th January, 1950, just two weeks before McCarthy would make his claim of wide scale Communist infiltration into the US Government. Hiss went to prison for nearly four years and his career was ruined, one of the first to suffer as part of the new ‘Red Scare’ of the post-war years.

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Alger Hiss on trial. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Richard Nixon was one of the politicians who was convinced that communists had become powerful within the government. He fought hard against President Truman over his actions in Korea, claiming the President had been too weak and too slow in standing up to Communist expansionism. Likewise, he was one of those who accused Truman of being responsible for the “loss of China” when Jiang Jieshi’s Chinese nationalists, who had been supported by the USA, were defeated by Chairman Mao’s communist forces. The Chinese Revolution saw China, the largest population in the world, become Communist on 1st October, 1949, a clear sign to many in the West that Communism was on the march and the so called ‘domino-effect’ was happening. The facts were that China bordered the USSR, controlled most of the Asian coast of the Pacific and reached south to border French Indo-China and India, and these were all of concern to the US administration. The blame for the fall of China was put on Truman for being too soft on Communism abroad and at home. Richard Nixon was one of the anti-Red politicians and he went on to become a firm supporter of Joe McCarthy and the Communist ‘witch hunts’.

Ambitious for power, Nixon used his higher profile and status within the Republican Party to run for Senator of California in the elections of 1950. In the wake of the Hiss trial and that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, another very high profile spying case, many American voters were anxious about anyone with even slightly ‘left of centre’ policies. Nixon made out that his opponent, Helen Douglas was, if not a Red, then certainly a ‘pink’; his actual phrase about the former actress was that she was ‘pink, right down to her underwear’, meaning perhaps that she kept her ‘true’ Communist sympathies hidden away. Nixon won but Douglas’ nickname for him, ‘Tricky Dicky’, would stay with him for the rest of his life. But he had made a huge step in his political career by becoming a Senator at the age of just 33.

In 1952, Richard Nixon took a major step up the political ladder when he was the surprise choice as running mate for the Republican candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was standing for the presidency. Eisenhower had a military background and had no links to either political party. In 1952 it was known he would probably stand for election but it was unclear if he would be a Republican or a Democrat. Whichever he chose, he was certain to be the favourite as he was a national hero after commanding Allied Forces at D-day and being the first leader of NATO. Nixon was chosen to be Vice-President as he was the young rising star of the Republican Party. He was the darling of the right-wing (McCarthy supporters loved him) while Eisenhower was a ‘softer’ Republican. Nixon would go on to play a key role in the Eisenhower administration over the next eight years, taking a major interest in foreign policy. Nixon was intelligent and ambitious but he did have a darker, nasty side. One incident worth noting in all this is that there were accusations made against Nixon in 1952 regarding his expenses and campaign funds. It’s not the fact that he was accused but the way he handled that is so interesting. Nixon went on TV to make a statement and he took his six year-old daughter’s dog, called ‘Checkers’, with him. In these early days of TV, he manipulated the situation by creating the image of a lovely, happy, nice man, playing with a lovely happy, cute dog. ‘Aaaahhhh’, the people sighed, ‘How could a man with such a nice dog be anything but trustworthy?’ And so he got away with it, possibly setting a dangerous precedent and creating a sense of his own cleverness and talent.

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Eisenhower and Nixon with King Saud of Saudi Arabia in 1957.(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Throughout this time, Nixon was striving for power. Nothing was ever quite enough to satisfy his drive to overcome his impoverished background and prove his intelligence. In foreign affairs in particular he developed an expertise beyond that of most members of the Government. He was popular but wanted more; for the greatness he desired, the greatness that would really get back at East Coast liberals and privileged classes, Nixon needed the top job as President. And for true greatness, he knew that he would need to be re-elected so as to serve two terms. In 1960, as Eisenhower stood down after eight years, Nixon was chosen to be the Republican candidate and it seemed to be his job for the taking. In challenging Nixon, the Democrats went to the son of one of the richest men in the USA, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, (usually known as JFK or ‘Jack’).

Jack Kennedy was privileged, one of those East Coast clans that Nixon had decided to hate from nearly three decades earlier. The head of the Kennedy dynasty, Joseph Kennedy Snr., was a multi-millionaire and one of the richest men in the USA. He was from an Irish-Catholic family who had made it big in Boston, Massachusetts, building a fortune from finance (gambling on the stock market) and alcohol (he gained rights to distribute Scottish whisky after prohibition). He was also rumoured to have links with the Mafia and other gangsters during the prohibition era and was certainly well connected in official circles too. Such a wealthy and privileged background saw the Kennedy children have a golden life, the best schools and a couple of years living in London when Joe Kennedy became the US Ambassador. But despite the many advantages dealt to JFK by birth, Nixon was a far better politician, more experienced, a better debater and with a stronger grasp of policy, and he was a clear favourite to win the White House in 1960.

The turning point in 1960 is always said to be the first of the televised debates. Fifty years before they appeared in the UK, these debates started in the USA, with Nixon-Kennedy becoming prime time viewing. Little planning was considered at the time but what happened in the first debate set in train a process which has turned such events into a small industry. Arguments about who stands where, the height and angles of the podium, who speaks first, the colour of ties, the amount of make-up and the heat of the studio are just some of the factors considered. And it all goes back to 1960. So, what happened and how does it link with Watergate?

Richard Nixon was not as tall as Jack Kennedy. He was not as handsome as Kennedy. He did not dress as well as Kennedy. But Nixon knew far more than Kennedy and could run rings round him with his arguments and grasp of facts. And Kennedy knew all this. And his advisers did. And his Dad did. So during the campaign and in the build-up to the debates, Joe Kennedy hired a TV crew to go round with his son, filming events and then distributing them to the news shows. They showed them and it became free advertising for Kennedy. Most of these clips showed him smiling, greeting happy crowds and standing alongside his beautiful wife, Jacqueline.

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John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie. (Author: Abbie Rowe; Source: here)

The first TV debate was held on 26th September 1960. The view on this debate is that Nixon did not perform well, giving a mediocre performance by his high standards, but he had been ill, coming out of hospital only a few days earlier after a bout of ‘flu’. But most people still believed he out-performed Kennedy in the debate about domestic affairs. Certainly those listening on radio believed that Nixon won the debate. But TV audiences differed. They gave it to Kennedy, not for his arguments but because of looks and image. Kennedy stood straight and tall while Nixon slouched over the podium. Kennedy looked cool and smart while Nixon sweated badly in a creased suit. Kennedy smiled and cracked jokes while Nixon scowled and gave long detailed answers that went over some people’s heads. In its simplest form, many TV viewers said they would rather go for a beer with Kennedy than with Nixon.

What was going on? Well, one reason why Kennedy stood tall was because he had a bad back, a chronic injury from WWII, while Nixon slumped forward as he was recovering from flu. But people judged by such looks. Next, Kennedy was simply taller and better-looking than Nixon, and he had grown up with a different sense of style and the experience of meeting many people. Nixon, in contrast, also had a terrible problem with sweating, something that plagued him throughout his career. Under the hot TV lights, recovering from flu, it was worse than ever at that debate. People did not see or judge based on sweat on the radio, of course, but it affected the opinions of the TV viewers. Kennedy was more charming than Nixon but he had less to say, so he went for short, simple answers that made sense to people rather than dealing with the big, complicated issues which Nixon did. Kennedy’s witty openers won people over while Nixon’s analysis lost them. The reality is that people who don’t understand the issues get one vote each, just as those who do understand the issues get one vote each. Kennedy won that first TV debate through image not content and many people did not bother to watch the other three debates, which Nixon was thought to have won. They made their minds up early: Kennedy would do. It was a classic case of perception being more important than reality.

Nixon lost the 1960 election, ‘his’ election, to Kennedy, the rich boy from the East Coast who had all the help and luck in the world. He lost by 120 000 votes or just 0.2% of the vote. Nixon was devastated. Privilege, looks and luck had beaten him; he felt cheated and betrayed by the system. After considering alternative options, he stepped back from front-line politics. He was not yet 50 and could find a new way forward. He considered standing again in 1964 but sympathy for the Democrats following Kennedy’s assassination meant there was no way the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, could lose, so Nixon stayed in the wilderness. The Kennedy assassination served to remind him of the way unpredictable events could shatter your plans. Nixon stayed away from Washington politics but maintained his interest and involvement in foreign affairs. He was a major critic of Johnson’s policy in Vietnam, for instance, demanding more force against the Viet Minh and the North Vietnamese. With the war not going well and with a lot of support from businessmen and some Republicans, a return to the Presidency looked like a possibility in 1968.

1968 saw the Vietnam War going badly for the USA and when President Johnson announced that he would not seek the Democrat nomination to run in 1968, Nixon got involved. The Democrats were struggling and needed a candidate to unite them otherwise Republican victory looked possible. Things suddenly turned against Nixon and the Republicans when Bobby Kennedy, the popular younger brother of Jack Kennedy, announced that he would stand for the Democrat nomination. History looked as if it might repeat itself at the election and a second presidential defeat for Nixon to a Kennedy would mark the end of his Presidential ambitions and his political career. But the ‘gods’ (or the ‘devils’) smiled on Nixon, as Bobby Kennedy became the fourth high-profile assassination in the USA in the 1960s. Following JFK in November 1963, Malcolm X in February 1965 and Martin Luther King in April 1968, Bobby Kennedy was killed in June 1968 in Los Angeles, having just won the Democrat nomination for California.

In the absence of Kennedy, the Democrats were divided. Hubert Humphrey was the candidate but Senator George Wallace of Alabama stood as an independent Democrat, really as an alternative for the Southern Democrats. The Democrat vote was split, allowing Richard Nixon to become President. He defeated Humphrey by just 500 000 votes. Nixon won comfortably on States (31 – 19 against the combined number for Humphrey and Wallace) but on votes he won only 43% and he was only 0.7% ahead of Humphrey. In total he was over 9 million votes (or 13%) behind when the two Democrats were added together. This would trouble him greatly in the approach to the 1972 election, seeking re-election, with a second term, and the dream of greatness, within his grasp. Insecurity walked with him at his Inauguration in January 1969.

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Nixon’s inauguration, January, 1969. (Author: Oliver F. Atkins; Source: here)

When it came to the next election in 1972, Nixon was frantically busy in the months leading up to it. As well as the ordinary day to day aspects of being President, he was trying to get ‘peace with honour’ in Vietnam so that the US could withdraw without appearing to have lost or deserted its ally in South Vietnam. He was trying to address issues in the Cold War by improving relations with both China and the USSR, building tension between them through negotiations and trying to get their help in putting pressure on the Communists of North Vietnam to cut a deal. His visits to Chairman Mao Zedong in China and Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow had captured the world’s imagination. He had been given pandas by Mao, vodka and hugs by Brezhnev and there were deals on nuclear weapons to be signed. In the midst of all this, Nixon felt a mix of elation, power and anxiety. He was so busy he often lost track of what was going on so he took to taping all of his conversations and meetings in the Oval Office (his main office) in the White House. He was also keen to get on with the ‘big’ stuff of government, Vietnam and the Cold War, without having to worry about the election too much. But the memories of 1960, the fateful assassinations of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, the close-run election of 1968 and his own deep insecurities and desperate dream of being ‘special’ would not let go. And so he approved the bugging of the Watergate Building in the summer of 1972.

A group of ex-CIA agents and Cuban exiles did it. They were called ‘The Plumbers’ and they broke in to the Watergate Building to bug the Democrat offices on 17th June, 1972. They got caught when a piece of tape was found holding a door lock closed. No one thought too much of this burglary except for young journalist with ‘The Washington Post’, called Bob Woodward, who became suspicious because nothing seemed to have been taken during the ‘burglary. The idea of this being a ‘burglary’ did not quite add up. Still no one seemed too bothered and it looked like it would all fall away even after the ‘plumbers’ were convicted. Another journalist, Carl Bernstein, joined Woodward to investigate the story but they made little progress at first. Eventually an FBI Informant, using the codename ‘Deep Throat’, a reference to a porn movie of the time, gave them details that linked the incident to the White House and so developed one of the most famous political tales of all time. Enquiries continued into 1973 and 1974 which led to high-profile arrests and took the story into the ‘Oval Office’ itself. Nixon was implicated and two of his senior aides, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman, ended up in prison.

The investigation had not been able to find Nixon’s role in ‘Watergate’ as there was no clear trail to him. However, Nixon’s fate was sealed when a junior official in the White House, Alexander Butterfield, said that the President had tapes of all of his conversations. The Supreme Court demanded these tapes but they were refused. Eventually they got some, then a few more, then others with sections missing. In early August 1974, the ‘smoking gun’ tape was passed to prosecutors, giving clear evidence that Nixon had known about and authorised the break in. In the chaos that followed, the noose tightened around Nixon, especially as many of the tapes could not be played on TV because they contained so much swearing and profanity. Edited versions with the famous ‘expletive deleted’ subtitle horrified and scandalised the USA. Along with revelations about Nixon’s heavy drinking, the swearing would have had his mother turning in her grave. The imagined disappointment that Mrs. Nixon might have felt were as nothing compared with the anger and humiliation her son experienced when Richard Nixon was forced to resign from the Presidency. At 9 pm, East Coast Time, on 8th August, 1974, Richard Milhous Nixon became the only US president to be forced to resign. All his dreams and ambitions had ended in the ultimate disgrace.

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Nixon’s resignation speech, 8th August, 1974. (Author: White House photo, Courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library; Source: here)

Nixon was immediately replaced by his vice-president, Gerald Ford, who went on to lose the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia. Ford’s first act as President was to give a full pardon to Nixon. In the Communist world, Brezhnev and Mao were bewildered by what had happened as it seemed as nothing compared to what they considered logical and reasonable. The people of America felt anger, betrayal and horror at what had happened. Woodward and Bernstein were awarded prize after prize for their journalism.

And Nixon went home to California where he had lots of time to think. No doubt he went back over the things that had brought him to Watergate. Jealousy, fear of failure, ambition and the dream of being special were just some of the things that would have gone through his head. And some important faces, too, from his mother and brothers, to Alger Hiss and Joe McCarthy, to Jack and Bobby Kennedy.

Maybe his most nagging thought in those dark times was, ‘If only I didn’t sweat so much…’ It’s strange how life often turns on such small matters.

 

Find out more

Film: ‘Nixon’ by Oliver Stone (Certificate 15, Eiv, 1995). Typically robust approach to film making by Oliver Stone which emphasises many of the deep-seated flaws in Nixon’s personality with much being made of his childhood and his relationship with his mother.

Film: ‘All the President’s Men’ (Certificate 15, Warner Home Video, 1976). Famous Oscar winning film about the investigation into Watergate by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of ‘The Washington Post’.

Film: ‘Frost-Nixon’ (Certificate 15, Universal pictures UK, 2009). Interesting film version of the play about the interviews between a relatively unknown David Frost and Richard Nixon. Nixon ends up being led into far more revealing comments than expected.

Book: ‘The Arrogance of Power’ by Anthony Summers (Phoenix Press, 2000.) An interesting if clearly critical study of Nixon highlighting many of the Presidents failings and the more murky side of his personality and relationships.

Book: ‘The Presidents: The Transformation of the American Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama’ by Stephen Graubard (Penguin, 2009). A fascinating study of changes in the Presidency including the impact of Nixon.

 

 

 

 

Margaret Thatcher: The lady who would not turn

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Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at Camp David, November 1986. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Margaret Thatcher: The lady who would not turn

‘I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end.’ Margaret Thatcher

On 4th May, 1979, something rather unusual happened on the steps of 10, Downing Street. The new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom stood on the steps in front of that famous black door and greeted the crowds, having led the Conservative Party to victory in the General Election. The obvious thing to note was that Margaret Thatcher, the 51st person to hold the highest office in the land, was a woman, the first and, so far, only woman to do so. In achieving this, she was also only the sixth woman to have led any Government in the world, following the likes of Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi in India and Golda Meir in Israel.

On her first day in office, Mrs. Thatcher famously quoted a prayer by St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, amongst other things. In the light of what was to happen during the following eleven years, the words of the prayer can be seen as being at least slightly ironic. In her rather posh and forced voice she said: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” Amongst those who reacted to her victory was Jeremy Thorpe, the soon to be disgraced leader of the Liberal Party: ‘I am horrified. She makes Ted Heath look like a moderate.’ If only he had realised just how true those words would be – and how Mrs. Thatcher would go on to make most politicians of the post-war era, the time of consensus politics, look like moderates.

The arrival of Mrs. Thatcher as leader of the Conservative Government marked a decisive change in the history of Britain, not just in policies but also in tone, vision and values. Her clear victory was, obviously, in part the result of the failings of the Labour Government of Jim Callaghan who had led the country through the late seventies following the shock resignation of Harold Wilson in 1976. Callaghan’s tenure can best be described as ‘troubled’ with the country in something of a decline, facing inflation of over 25%, needing an humiliating loan from the IMF and with soaring unemployment and widespread strike action. The famous ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1979 provided the last few nails for the Labour ‘coffin’ and there was no surprise when the Conservatives swept to victory in May. Change was expected and change was going to come, although few people could have predicted quite how much the UK, Europe and even the world would be affected by the actions of Margaret Thatcher during the next decade.

The fact that Mrs. Thatcher was a woman has always been a bit of an irrelevance really because she was also, of course, a politician. There is something quite naïve and even sexist about the idea that, because she was female, she would lead in a completely different way to every other Prime Minister there had ever been. If you look at the polices, look at the appointments and read the speeches, there is nothing ‘feminine’ about them – and why should there have been? She was a hard-headed, intelligent, decisive, opinionated politician who, like most of her predecessors had climbed the greasy-pole to power with energy and determination. What did people expect – some sort of “touchy-feely”, stereo-typically feminised approach to the huge and urgent challenges of the time? If they did, then they were fools.

Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, 1925. She was famously the daughter of a local greengrocer who went off to Oxford University to read Chemistry. She first worked for Joe Lyons in food manufacturing between 1945 and 1951. Her skills were used to study soap-making and the quality of cake and pie fillings but, despite many claims, she was not instrumental in the invention of soft ice-cream, something which Mr. Softee had achieved a decade earlier in the USA . Moving on from the world of science and ice-cream, she became a barrister before trying to win a seat as an MP for the Conservatives, eventually being successful in the General Election of 1959 when she was elected for Finchley in West London. Over the next 20 years, Margaret Thatcher (she had married Denis Thatcher, a divorced businessman, in 1951, having twins, Carol and Mark, the following year) took on various roles in Government and opposition. In 1970, she joined the Conservative Government of Edward Heath and was the Education Secretary (and, briefly, the Environment Secretary) until 1974, a role in which, rather interestingly, she was responsible for closing more Grammar Schools than any other Education Secretary. After the Conservatives narrowly lost both General Elections of 1974 to Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, Mrs. Thatcher challenged Edward Heath for the leadership of the Tory Party. She first defeated him and then defeated Heath’s choice as leader, William Whitelaw. Heath had never really liked Thatcher but this dislike took on a greater intensity after the leadership struggle and became a simmering antagonism until Heath died in 2005. So, by upsetting a few people, taking a tough stand on economic policies and offering a return to more traditional policies, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to lead a major political party in Britain. And in 1979, an election which saw just 19 women elected as MPs, this would lead to her becoming the first and, so far, only, woman to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

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Margaret Thatcher. I once knew someone in his 20s who had a photo of Mrs. Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, next to his bed which, by any standards, has to be considered quite strange.

(Author: work provided by Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation; Source: here)

Mrs. Thatcher was in power as Prime Minister for eleven years from 1979 to 1990, the longest time in that office for anyone in the Twentieth Century. Some quotes from the ‘Iron Lady’ herself might be useful at this point as a way of indicating her values. ‘The Iron Lady’ was a name given to her by leading figures in the Soviet Union, a name she rather liked and sometimes used herself.

• “Disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and important, although difficult, is the high road to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction.”

• “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.”

• “I am in politics because of the conflict between good and evil, and I believe that, in the end, good will triumph.”

• “If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.”

• “I do not know anyone who has got to the top without hard work. That is the recipe. It will not always get you to the top, but should get you pretty near.”

• “I don’t mind how much my Ministers talk, so long as they do what I say.”

• “Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.”

• “You turn if you want – but the Lady’s not for turning.” (This famous quote was written into a speech for her. She hated it but she did say it.)

What these quotes show is a specific set of values: clarity, determination, self-confidence, uncompromising, focused, individualistic. Mrs. Thatcher was a product of a different era of politics from those seen today. Although there was a tendency for the post-war Governments to act in line with the so-called ‘consensus politics’ of the centre, there was far more variety to be seen and heard amongst politicians. This was, after all, the era of the Cold War, a time when ideologies were stronger and opinions more extreme. Politicians tended to be older and more experienced than today. In an age when the media was not offering rolling news coverage, looks, voice and image were not so important and there was a greater variety of people elected as MPs. Many people could easily remember the dark days of the Great Depression and the Second World War, for instance, which had shaped and changed the lives of so many. Multi-national companies did not have quite the influence that they do today and people really saw that Governments could make a difference. Mrs. Thatcher was expected to make a difference to the fortunes of Britain, an ailing power which had fallen far from its once established position as a ‘Great Power’. And, maybe more importantly, Mrs. Thatcher herself expected to make a difference.

The quotes above can be read as Mrs. Thatcher supporting ‘traditional’, even ‘Victorian’, values. For many people, though, she went much further than mere traditionalism to become the most divisive figure in post-war politics. She fostered policies that focused on individuals over communities, emphasised rights over responsibilities, allowed big business to flourish at the expense of workers and made ‘greed’ acceptable so that money mattered more than morals. She appealed to many different sectors of society, especially those who would go on to benefit financially from the changes she introduced. Mrs. Thatcher certainly gave an impetus to industrial growth after many years of decline in British economic fortunes and she prioritised economic growth, attacking what she saw as the ‘British disease’ of industrial unrest and strikes. Indeed, it was her attacks on the Trade Unions with the erosion of workers’ rights in favour of business which became a particular cause of her ‘Marmite’ status in the country.

Her quote which said, “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families”, probably summed up the ideas about what she got wrong in so many people’s eyes. Her rejection of the idea of ‘society’ seemed to raise the individual to a position which meant that selfishness, competition, confrontation were essential values. In her ‘dog eat dog’ world, there were always going to be more winners and more losers. The eighties came to be seen as the decade of greed, an increasingly individualistic period when no one could criticise or even challenge others, especially if the outcome was the making of profit. Mrs. Thatcher may not have created this situation on her own but her values have become interlinked with that time and her face is the image of the age for many people. In parts of the country, she is certainly held responsible for drastic decline in social and economic fortunes, so that the Tories continue to have to fight her name and her legacy in many constituencies at each General Election. One has only to look at the lack of Conservative or ‘Tory’ MPs in Wales, Scotland and Northern England to get a sense of the long term problems they have faced in getting back into power, something they only managed to achieve in 2010 through a coalition with the Liberal Democrats being needed to defeat Gordon Brown, an unpopular Prime Minister, at a time of great economic crisis. Many people believe that the legacy of Mrs. Thatcher played a crucial role in preventing the Tories winning a majority, with the situation in Scotland being especially clear. By way of comparison, at the 1983 General Election, the Tories won 14 of the 38 seats in Wales and 21 of the 71 seats in Scotland.

Conservative MPs elected

Wales (Total MPs)

Scotland (Total MPs)

Northern England (Total MPs)

2001 Election

0 (40)

1 (72)

17 (162)

2005 Election

3 (40)

1 (59)

19 (162)

2010 Election

8 (40)

1 (59)

42 (158)

 

Anyway, let’s look at what Mrs. Thatcher actually did and some of the major events of her time in power so as to get a sense of what people have loved and hated about her. Firstly, she won three consecutive General Elections: 1979, 1983 and 1987. This was a record for any British Prime Minister in the Twentieth Century (although Labour’s Harold Wilson won four of the five elections between 1964 and 1974). Her continuous time in office (11 years 209 days) was also a record for the 1900s, a figure which later on seemed to become a target for Tony Blair (10 years 57 days). Only some of the famous names of the 18th and 19th centuries could match her endurance, including Robert Walpole, William Pitt the Younger, The Earl of Liverpool and William Gladstone. As well as the time she was in power, Mrs. Thatcher also dominated Government and Parliament to such an extent that many people see her time in office as marking a clear move towards a more American-style of politics through the ‘Presidential’ model of leadership.

Secondly, there was the impact of the ‘Falkland’s War’ (1982), the defining moment in her career. There had been a serious lack of economic progress in her first few years in office, with unemployment rising and high inflation still being major issues following the election victory of 1979. The early 1980s in Britain saw major industrial unrest, too, a sign that things were not progressing as she had hoped and it is fair to say that there was a potential crisis on the horizon for Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives with a General Election no more than two years away. Then, in 1982, came the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, the British Overseas Territory far away in the South Atlantic Ocean about 300 miles (480 kms) off the coast of Patagonia. A quick look at any world map, such as the one here, will show just how remote these islands are, some 8000 miles (11000 kms) from London. The islands were home to some 2000 British subjects, though, and Britain had a claim to the islands going back to 1776, with a settlement there continuously since 1833. The location was just one factor that made the Falklands a rather odd piece of British territory; it was rather like Argentina laying claim to the Isles of Scilly or the Outer Hebrides – or maybe the Isle of Wight. ‘Las Islas Malvinas’, as they are known in Argentina, had long been a source of tension between the two countries. With a military ‘junta’ (small group of generals) in control and seeking to distract the people from harsh economic and social conditions, they launched an attack to take control of the Falklands on 2nd April, 1982.

Rather than negotiate and compromise, Margaret Thatcher went on the offensive and launched a ‘Task Force’ to liberate the islands. The ‘Falklands’ War’ (or ‘Falklands’ Conflict’ as it is sometimes called) lasted from 21st May until 14th June, 1982. It was won by the British forces and the Argentines were forced off the islands. 655 Argentines, 255 British and 3 Falkland Islanders died. It was not the largest war in British history nor the longest, but for many people it was of great significance as it was seen to restore some national pride, a sign that Britain was a serious player on the international stage and could not be ‘messed around with’. In some quarters, especially in the tabloid newspapers, Mrs. Thatcher was painted as a new ‘Churchill’, a modern hero, restoring pride and pointing towards a glorious future. These things may or may not be true, with recent history suggesting Britain can only really act in military union with the USA or NATO, but, in those dark days of 1982, the Falklands’ War was a powerful experience for many people. A sense of the rather direct, nationalistic feeling of the time from the famous front page of ‘The Sun’ newspaper, ‘Gotcha’, in response to the sinking of the Argentine warship, the ‘General Belgrano’.

The Sun’s infamous front page, ‘Gotcha’, can be seen here.

What is so often forgotten about the Falklands’ War is the terrible economic situation in Britain at the time which provided the background to the conflict. The Conservatives, and Mrs. Thatcher herself, were hugely unpopular in the early 1980s with price inflation running at a high of 21.9% in her first year as Prime Minister and with over 3 million people out of work, the highest being 12% unemployment in 1984. These figures were the worst under any Conservative Government in the post-war period and little better than the darkest days of the seventies. Unemployment was worst in the old industrial areas of Northern Ireland, Scotland, South Wales and the north of England, while London and the south-east was doing far better. There was major social unrest, rising crime and a sense of anxiety and division across the country. There was anxiety about the decline of traditional industry, concerns about the future for young people and a huge need for re-structuring and investment. And there was much fear, anger and frustration in the country as many people felt marginalised and ignored by the politicians at Westminster.

When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, things were undoubtedly very bleak for Mrs. Thatcher and her popularity in the country was in free fall. As things turned out, Britain was, for many people, transformed by that victory in the Falklands. It gave a massive boost to Mrs. Thatcher’s status which saved the Conservatives in the General Election of 1983, one she called to take advantage of her popularity. Mind you, the Labour Party’s internal divisions and Michael Foot’s leadership in shifting to the left also made a pretty big contribution to the 1983 result.

A third feature of the ‘Thatcher decade’ was a directed attack on the nationalised industries and the Trade Unions, an attempt to reduce the power of workers in traditional industries and to introduce greater freedom and power for employers and businesses. Mrs. Thatcher was a follower of the American economist, Milton Friedman, who believed in the power of market forces, individual choice and power in the hands of big business as the best way to drive an economy forward. She privatised most of the nationalised industries, such as telecommunications, gas, electricity and the steel industry, those massive, essential industries which had been brought under state or government control in the years after World War II ended. The first nationalisations had been the decision of Clement Attlee’s Labour Government, a case of economic necessity and socialist political ideology, between 1945 and 1951. However, both Labour and Conservative Governments had maintained these nationalised industries but some analysts believed they had allowed old working practices to remain in place by giving too much power to the trade unions.

By the early 1980s, Britain was increasingly uncompetitive economically, with declining productivity and a lack of investment, leading many people to call it, ‘The sick man of Europe’. Various governments had tried to challenge and compromise with employers and unions but these had failed to deliver any real change. When she came to power, though, Mrs. Thatcher was clearly determined to address the issues in the way which she saw fit. In the 1980s, many of the nationalised industries were sold off: coal, electricity, the railways, water, steel and telecommunications were among those made available to control by the private sector. They were sold off relatively cheaply, floated on the stock markets and most of them soon saw massive profits for the new shareholders – but huge job losses and changes in working practices, too. The Trades Unions and millions of workers were furious, leading to a wide range of industrial action, as they saw their losses being turned into profits for the City of London, the accountants, the stockbrokers, the bankers and the already wealthy. The money seemed to be made on their pain – and not everyone was willing to accept it.

These political decisions had economic and social consequences which led to the most important and iconic dispute of the Thatcher years: the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. Under the leadership of Arthur Scargill (b. 1938), the President of the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers), there was a titanic struggle to stop privatisation, to save jobs and protect pay and conditions amongst Britain’s coal miners.

Arthur Scargill: photo link – with remarkable hair as a special bonus.

Mrs. Thatcher argued that Trade Unions distorted the free market by keeping wages artificially high, restricting competition and preventing investment. She believed that her policies would bring about the changes needed in working practices in an era where worldwide competition made such flexibility essential. Britain was deeply divided, almost in a ‘north-south’ split. The miners and workers in other heavy industries, such as steel and shipbuilding, tended to be based in the old industrial heartlands of Scotland, South Wales, the north of England and the Midlands. The business community, the ‘white-collar’ workers and the middle classes, tended to be found in the south-east of England and the more affluent parts of the country. The Miners’ Strike turned into a vicious dispute with serious violence and at least ten deaths. Reports were heard of concrete blocks being pushed off motorway bridges and going through the windscreens of lorries delivering coal during the dispute. Families were divided as some members broke the strike (the so-called ‘scabs’) while others stayed out on strike, suffering the economic hardship and black-listing that followed. In some areas, so many shops were forced to close that they became like ‘ghost towns’.

4051901421_b04bf58dbd_z

(Author: http://underclassrising.net/; Source: here)

Miners'_strike_picket

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Further Miners’ Strike photo links: here, here and here.

In the face of the chaos and virulent attacks on her personally, Mrs. Thatcher stuck to her guns. Verbally abused by many as being heartless and dismissive of Britain’s industrial heritage and the ordinary working classes, she ordered the police in to the front line to break strikes. She argued her case with enormous power and commitment, meeting fire with fire. She forced through her changes in industrial laws as well as those for the privatisation of the nationalised industries. The strikes faded away in the end, as people were broken financially, if not ideologically, and were forced to accept the changes. In doing this, Margaret Thatcher established herself, in some eyes, as a leader of principle and commitment, hailed by her supporters as the finest Prime Minister since Churchill and one of the greatest leaders of the century. In a poll for the “Sunday Telegraph”, she actually received 34% of the vote for the ‘Greatest Prime Minister of the Century’, with Churchill second on 15% – which probably says something interesting about the readership of the ‘Telegraph’ as well as the esteem in which Mrs. Thatcher is held in some quarters.

On the international stage, Margaret Thatcher became a major figure, most of all for her part in the collapse of Communism in Europe and the USSR. While Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were the main players in those extraordinary developments, she had a highly significant role in international affairs, rather similar to that of Pope John Paul II. Both she and the Pope seemed to embody a steeliness and commitment towards the USSR, so that their anti-Communist beliefs inspired President Reagan in particular to act in a more decisive and aggressive manner. The support given to the USA by the British leader made her a firm favourite with many Americans, a factor which led to her making lots of friends (and a lot of money) there in business and on the lecture circuit after she retired from politics.

One other area in which Mrs. Thatcher played a role of great significance was in Northern Ireland, especially through her clear and focused resistance to the IRA. During her time in office, there were many terrorist attacks in the province and on the mainland, with the most famous being the attack on the grand Hotel at Brighton in October, 1984, during the Conservative Party Conference. The bomb, which was set by Patrick Magee of the IRA, killed five people, injured 34 others, and came close to killing Mrs. Thatcher herself. Her determination in going on to deliver her speech at the conference was seen as a remarkable show of courage by many people, supporters and opponents alike. The bombing was presented by the IRA as a warning to the Conservative Party and the British Government that it could not ‘occupy Ireland and torture its prisoners’. This was a reference to the historic dispute over Irish independence as well as more recent issues such as the ‘Hunger Strikes’ at the Maze Prison in 1981. Mrs. Thatcher held an uncompromising line against the IRA and other Republican organisations throughout her time in office, and she was a hugely symbolic figure in Northern Ireland. As with her role in the collapse of Communism, Mrs. Thatcher’s part in ‘The Troubles’ will be looked at in more detail in another section.

Margaret Thatcher was forced out of power by her own party in November 1990. It’s an interesting story in its own right, peaking with a remarkable resignation speech delivered by her former Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, Geoffrey Howe. A previous verbal attack by Howe on Labour front-bencher Denis Healy had been described as rather like being ‘mauled by a dead sheep’, so ineffective was he; this, however, turned out to be a devastating speech which put the final nails into Mrs. Thatcher’s political coffin. His statement included the memorable cricketing analogy regarding her role in restricting his ability to negotiate with the European Union on the EMU (European Monetary Union): “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”.

Albert_Sydney_and_Lord_Geoffrey_Howe

Geoffrey Howe (pictured right in 2011) was Foreign Secretary and a long-standing member of Mrs. Thatcher’s Cabinet. His resignation speech of 13th November, 1990, hastened her end as Prime Minister. (Author: Albert Sydney; Source: here)

Mrs. Thatcher with Geoffrey Howe: photo link

Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party on 22nd November, 1990. She had become a political and electoral liability so that people would no longer take her strong, direct, bullying style; they had accepted it while she was a winner but turned on her when their own political careers were under threat. It was, for some, a tragedy and a betrayal that she was forced from office in a cowardly manner; for others, there was a mixture of relief and delight that she was no longer able to cling to power on her own terms. Few people were indifferent to her fall and it is interesting that John Major, her successor, was a very different character in style and attitude.

Mrs. Thatcher inherited a country on the verge of collapse in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ when the Labour Government of James Callaghan was facing disputes on almost every front and showed how alienated his government was from ordinary people. In those early years, she was far from popular but there was a strong feeling amongst many people that change was needed. In this way, she had significant support for her attacks on the Trades Unions as she attempted ‘to heal the sick man of Europe’. The Falkland’s War gave her a huge boost, as did her role in the changing relationship with the Communist world, her friendship with Ronald Reagan and her presence on the world stage. However, it is interesting to remember that one of the final things with which she was associated, the infamous ‘Poll Tax’, was itself a sign she herself had become out of touch with the majority of people in the country. The imposition of the ‘Community Charge’, as the ‘Poll Tax’ was known, was the cause of some of the most violent riots in recent British history. Her fall suggested that she had certainly failed to create a country which was truly content.

Baroness Thatcher died in April, 2013, at the age of 87. Her extraordinary ability to divide public opinion persisted beyond life as the country was split almost exactly 50-50 as to whether she had been a force for good or ill. But while many saw her as the woman who saved the country and others as the one who tore it apart, the truth was almost certainly somewhere in between. Studies of her economic influence, for example, show that she was far less positive than her supporters claim and far less negative that her opponents would have us think. Maybe more important was the perception, the tone, the image; the tough talking and victory in the South Atlantic; her appearance as a player on the world stage which reminded people of a new Churchill; and the way she exuded self-confidence and determination. Some people hate her memory to this day while others really do miss her. It will probably be like that for a long time to come.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning’ by Charles Moore (Allen Lane, 2013) is very highly regarded and considered by many critics to be one of the finest political biographies of recent times. ‘Margaret Thatcher’ by John Campbell is another extremely powerful biography in two volumes (‘The Grocer’s Daughter’ and ‘The Iron Lady’ (Vintage, 2007). Works by Margaret Thatcher herself include ‘The Path to Power’ (Harper Press, 2012) and ‘The Downing Street Years’ (Harper Press, 2012).

For a rather different insight on the Thatcher years, Alan Clarke’s diaries are well worth reading: ‘Diaries: In Power, 1983-1992’ by Alan Clarke (Phoenix, 2003)

TV: ‘The Rise and Fall of Margaret Thatcher’ contains two well received plays made by the BBC. They are fictional but contain many points of interest as a useful background.

Songs: Many bands produced music which reflected the economic and political conditions of the 1980s, as well as reflecting on the Falkland’s War. Some of those worth checking, with several being folk songs, include: The Specials – ‘Ghost Town’; The Beat – ‘Stand Down Margaret’; lots of Billy Bragg including – ‘Which side are you on?’, ‘Thatcherites’, ‘Island of no return’, ‘There is power in a union’; Martin Carthy – ‘Company Policy’; Elvis Costello and Robert Wyatt – ‘Shipbuilding’ and Elvis Costello – ‘Tramp down the dirt’; and the little-known but legendary Vin Garbutt – ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’.

Film: ‘The Iron Lady’ (2011). Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Mrs. Thatcher was considered remarkable although the film itself divided opinion. It does not really deal with the issues of the time but may be of interest for its insights on her values, attitudes and goals.

 

 

 

A sporting moment

If you like football, the famous Maradona ‘Hand of God’ goal in the quarter finals of the Mexico World Cup in 1986 links very much with the Falklands’ War. The Argentinean team saw the match as an opportunity for revenge against the English for the injustice and humiliation of defeat. The blatant cheating of the first goal followed by the brilliance of the second, one by Maradona’s left hand, the other from eleven touches with his left foot, were greeted with sublime joy in Buenos Aires and elsewhere across the country. The first goal showed Maradona was cleverer than the English and the second was the sublime example proof that he was more skilful than them, too. That day in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico made millions of Argentine’s very happy indeed. The result was a 2-1 win for Argentina, by the way. Gary Lineker, the man with greying hair who presents ‘Match of the Day’ got England’s goal; he used to be very good.

Maradona 1-0 England – a moment of cheating (here)

Maradona 2-0 England – a moment of genius (here)

The adulation for Maradona in Argentina is based on more than this one game, of course, but his two goals, one through ‘guile’, the other through genius, came to embody something important for many Argentines. Some of Maradona’s fans have gone so far as to set up a church in his honour where they remember and celebrate his greatness, with the game against England being one of the particular highlights. His achievements gave hope and confidence to millions of Argentine’s and there is no doubt that a large part of their joy came because he brought such a famous victory against England just four years after the Falkland’s War.

 

 

FC Start: the USSR fights back in World War II.

FC Start: the USSR fights back in World War II.

‘In front of everyone, both the citizens of Kiev and the German occupants, they could prove what great players they were without being humiliated and without bowing down to anyone.’ Makar Goncharenko, player for FC Start.

History is a complex topic at times. How do you know or trust information if you weren’t there? Let’s face it, most great and important historical events have happened in pretty messy or unclear circumstances. They are open to so many influences that can twist or obscure their meaning, that the issue of interpretation is just about the most complicated thing to consider when ‘doing’ history. It makes things fascinating and controversial as well as ensuring that the debates and arguments about what happened and why they happened will, in many cases, never be decided. This is the case for most of history, in fact, there being so little by way of careful, detached analysis for most events, especially those of the distant past. Pre-historic events, such as why Neanderthals died out, are obviously riddled with challenges around gathering, as well as interpreting, the evidence; ancient events, such as Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses and the Prophets, as recorded in the Old Testament, are full of allegory and clearly have a powerful religious dimension which impacts on their purpose; and deciding why wars, such as the Great War, the Vietnam War or the Cold War, developed as they did will always be affected by who won and who lost. We have to accept that people in the past have not always presented the events of their time, the history of today, in a calm, clear and detached manner. There is nearly always some extra message, a value or a purpose, which impacts on the interpretation of the event, just as there is when two football managers discuss the match they have both just witnessed: ‘It was clearly a penalty’, against, ‘It was never a penalty’, is an obvious case in point.

One area of particular interest in historical events is to do with legends. Such stories are a natural part of the human story and the oldest stories we seem to have, the likes of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Iliad’ are just that. There may be a germ of truth in them, maybe quite a lot of truth, but they get changed in the telling so much that they lose any credible connection to the original and are, as such, unbelievable. Such is the case with stories such as King Arthur, Robin Hood or Dracula, where the real person may have existed but the stories that grow up around them come to obscure the truth. History is full of myths and legends that have the power to shape our language, beliefs and actions to this day; one only has to look at the obsessions with the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, UFOs and the regular forecasts of Armageddon linked with some ancient prophecy to see that such stories retain their influence on many people.

Legends develop for various reasons. They can be used to explain an attitude or belief; they can be used to justify an action; they offer links to origins and identities of peoples and nations; they might explain why things have gone wrong in the past and so make demands on today; they can give peace and hope to people who are suffering. Legends are powerful stories and they cannot be ignored by historians nor dismissed just because they are not ‘true’. To do this is to ignore the power and the purpose of the story. It is important that they are recognised as part of a culture and then examined to explain what they say about that culture, the people and the time from which they developed. The fact that they are believed and valued is an essential part of the legend. One only has to look at the many references to Robin Hood in the light of the banking and economic crisis of 2008 to the present day or the power of Dracula to inspire the hugely successful ‘Twilight’ series to see that ‘truth’ is not the only way in which historical events affect and shape our lives today.

The difficulty of distinguishing fact from fiction is not just a thing of the deep past. There are many events of more recent times which have been open to great debate with issues about just what happened being very difficult to discern. In some ways, the story behind every trial that comes to court, every politician who rises to power, every act of terror or war, is open to some form of interpretation and opinion. These interpretations are based on selecting the truth, highlighting some things over others, exaggerating the good or ill in the work of certain figures and drawing certain messages and consequences over others. With intelligence, care and determination, things can be agreed and reasonable conclusions drawn – but to be a ‘good’ historian is a most difficult challenge.

One particular event comes to mind as an example of this challenge. It is quite an obscure event in some ways but one which has become far better known in recent years, rooted in a game of football that took place in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1942. The match happened during World War II and inspired a Hungarian film called ‘Két félidő a pokolban’, or, ‘Two Half-Times in Hell’ from 1962. In 1981, this in turn inspired a Hollywood film, ‘Escape to Victory’, which remarkably cast the Rambo actor, Sylvester Stallone, alongside some famous footballers, including Pele and Bobby Moore. As happened with another famous war film, ‘The Great Escape’, the truth got rather twisted and some people came to believe that the film really was a factual account of a true event with Brazilians, English, Scottish, American and Argentine prisoners somehow coming together to defeat a team of German soldiers. Further films have been made about the game, a recent example being a Russian one entitled ‘Match’. It was released just before the European Football Championship of 2012 which was jointly hosted by Poland and the Ukraine. This particular film cuts to the heart of the difficulty of separating the fact from the fiction as it portrayed the Ukrainian players in a very different light from that of ‘Escape to Victory’, for example. Whereas that film had shown the players to be heroes against their opponents, ‘Match’ portrayed the Ukrainians as Nazi sympathisers, which is quite a difference. The truth, it is fair to say, is rather hard to discern, even though this was quite a recent event and many people survived to tell the story well into the 1990s. Moving beyond the legend is incredibly difficult.

Map showing Kiev and Ukraine: here

Here is a version of the story of the now famous ‘Death Match’. It shows that, despite what some people say, sport really can be important and influential for a nation. This version emphasises the positive from the players and the Ukrainian perspective. It shows how a team of local footballers caused great annoyance to the Nazis, who were occupying the Ukraine, by refusing to capitulate to their demands that they should stop being so good. Even though they were malnourished, had little by way of proper kit and had little chance to practise, these players ran rings around the ‘stars’ of their military opponents, humiliating them in the process. As we will see, it would all end in tragedy but why did these men even find themselves playing football against the elite forces of the German army in the depths of the war in Kiev during the summer of 1942?

FC Start was a football team in Kiev, in the Ukraine, not far from Chernobyl where the nuclear disaster of 1986 happened. They played for just one season during World War II and they beat everyone they played: played 9, won 9, 58 goals scored, 10 conceded. Theirs is a story of true heroism and skill but it is still relatively unknown in the West, a story lost in the political mists of time because hearing such positive tales about people who were under Communist control after the war was just not the ‘done’ thing.

The key figure behind FC Start team was a man by the name of Iosif Kordik, who controlled one of the local bakeries, in Kiev, which was the capital city. The Ukraine had been invaded by the Wehrmacht forces, the German Army, as a part of ‘Operation Barbarossa’. Kiev itself was occupied in mid-September, 1941. One day, Kordik bumped into one of his heroes, a footballer called Nikolaï Trusevich. Trusevich had been the goalkeeper for Dynamo Kiev before World War II and, now that he had returned home from a prisoner of war camp, where he had been held after being captured by the Germans, he was in need of a job. Kordik invited him to come to work for him at the imaginatively titled, ‘Bakery No. 3’. The German guards had actually released Trusevich and other Russian soldiers so that they did not have to spend time and resources guarding them; they were released with no papers so that they could not get any work, food or accommodation and were therefore expected to starve or freeze to death. It was a solution which would be cheaper than guarding and feeding them.

Within a short period, several other former footballers had gathered at Bakery No. 3, most of them having played for two rivals before the war: Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Kiev. When the German Wehrmacht, who controlled the region, put together a football league to give themselves, and other soldiers from Hungary and Romania, something to do, the players at the bakery were allowed to enter a team and they took the name ‘FC Start’. Nazi superiority was expected to be shown over their military allies as well as the local population.

424px-Death_match_bill

The poster advertising the ‘Death Match’ between FC Start and Flakelf. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The local players were always short of food, tired from working shifts of up to 24 hours and in fear for their lives because of Ukrainian informers to the Nazis. They lacked proper kit, wearing cut down trousers and work shoes instead of boots. They were not allowed to train either, although they were so malnourished that this was not their biggest problem. There were serious doubts in the team about whether they should actually play or not. It took a brief speech by Trusevich to decide the issue. By coincidence, a set of red woollen shirts had been found a few days earlier. Holding one of them, he said to the others, ‘We do not have any weapons but we can fight with our victories on the football pitch…we will play in the colours of our flag. The Fascists should know that this colour can never be defeated.’ They all chose to play.

nikolai-trusevich

Nikolaï Trusevich – Goalkeeper for FC Start in 1942 (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

From their first match, FC Start were the outstanding side in the competition, overcoming their physical problems thanks to great skill, tactics and teamwork. Victory after victory followed but things got tougher when they beat PGS, a German garrison team, 6-0 in July, 1942. This was simply not supposed to happen as it humiliated the German players and the ‘system’ which saw them as superior to the local people. Sport really was supposed to show Aryan supremacy, but, as in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, things were not going to plan. On 6th August, FC Start were to face their toughest challenge against ‘Flakelf’, ‘the Flak Eleven’, a newly formed team from the German Luftwaffe. It included some pilots but more players came from the anti-aircraft groups around Kiev. They won easily, 5-1. But immediately after the match, a return fixture was arranged for the following Sunday, 9th August: it would become the ‘Death Match’.

A large crowd gathered for the match. It began with Flakelf giving the Nazi salute and shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ The Ukrainians had been ordered to do the same by an SS officer who spoke to them before the match in the changing rooms. But as they slowly raised their hands, they put their fists to their chests and gave the cry of the Red Army: ‘Fizcult Hura!’ (literally, ‘Physical Culture, Hooray!’ but better translates as ‘Long live sport!’). Not surprisingly, the Nazis were furious.

The same SS officer who had ordered them to give the Nazi salute was to be the referee for the match. The players had been advised to throw the game for their own safety but as the game started they decided just to play. Chaos broke out soon enough as the referee ignored all fouls by Flakelf even when the FC Start goalkeeper, the famous Trusevich, was deliberately kicked in the head. Flakelf took the lead while he was still dazed. But FC Start would not give in and they struck back, scoring with a long shot before another player, Makar Goncharenko, dribbled around the whole Flakelf team to score a stunning goal, even as they tried to grab him and kick him from behind. A third goal before half-time saw FC Start in control of the match. The Nazis were, to say the least, unhappy.

During half-time, the SS officer and a Ukrainian collaborator returned to the changing rooms to both warn and threaten the players that they could not, and must not, win the game. Serious consequences were threatened if they did win. However, in the second half, things were much quieter and both sides scored twice, leaving FC Start 5-3 up. Then, towards the end of the game, one of the Start team, a defender called Klimenko, dribbled around the whole of the Flakelf defence, went round the goalkeeper up to the goal-line but refused to score and, instead, he turned to kick the ball back towards the half-way line. It was the ultimate humiliation of the German team as this ‘sub-human’ Ukrainian could choose not to score against them – and still win. The whistle was blown early to save Flakelf further embarrassment. The FC Start players did not celebrate but guard dogs were turned on to the crowd of supporters. The Nazi leaders in the crowd were jeered as they left the ground. Hungarians and Romanians with the army had been seen supporting FC Start and mocking the Germans. Something had to be done.

The local Nazi leaders decided what to do but waited until FC Start had played and won their final match, 8-0, to win the league. They then turned up at Bakery No. 3 and rounded up all of the players. They were taken to the SS headquarters and interrogated in the hope that they would admit to being involved in activities against the Germans but none did so. One of the team, though, Korotkykh, was exposed as a member of the NKVD, Stalin’s Secret Police, when his sister told the SS: he was tortured and killed. As the others refused to break, they were sent off to labour camps where several of them died by being clubbed to death and then shot through the head. Three of those who died were executed as retribution for a partisan attack on a local factory. One in three of those held at the Siretz Camp were executed and they included the heart of the FC Start team: Ivan Kuzmenko, their giant striker; Alexi Klimenko, the young defender who had dribbled around the Flakelf team before refusing to score; and Nikolai Trusevich, the great goalkeeper and the man who brought the team together after going to work at Bakery No. 3. Some of the team did survive the war but then faced the backlash of those who saw them as collaborators for playing football with the enemy. Worst was the threat posed by Joseph Stalin who sent so many former prisoners of war and civilians who had contact with the Nazis to the Gulags or death after 1945.

The full story of FC Start was suppressed for many years and only came out in 1959, long after Stalin’s death, and it is really down to two Soviet leaders that it happened. Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, who was himself a Ukrainian, were instrumental in seeing that the remarkable story of FC Start found a wider audience. It was a part of ‘peaceful coexistence’ really, an example of heroism and human endurance, as well as skill, in the face of fear and hatred. For Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the witness of FC Start was an example of anti-Nazism from within Communism, a sign to the world of the strength of their system and way of life.

Today, a monument stands to the players of FC Start outside Dinamo Kiev’s ground. Makar Goncharenko, was the last member living of FC Start. He died in 1996, but four years earlier, he spoke of the team and the ‘Death Match’. He did not see any of the team as heroes, not even those who died. For him, they were just ordinary people caught up in a brutal war, a war that saw that saw the population of Kiev fall from 400 000 to 80 000. The men who played for FC Start were no different from the rest of the community; thanks to their sporting ability, they just played a different role in the struggle.

Monuments to FC Start at the Kiev stadium: photo links here and here. These are clearly evidence that some people thought something important had happened at FC Start. And there is another important memorial, see below, linked with the ‘Death Match’. It is at Syrets Concentration Camp, where three of the players were amongst the estimated 25 000 who died. The camp was close to the infamous massacre site at Babi Yar.

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(Author: Jennifer Boyer; Source: here)

So, that is the positive interpretation of the story and it is one which is powerful and emotional, a classic example of the ‘David and Goliath’ struggle. The heroes are clear, the monuments are built, the memory is enshrined in the stories and the films. But it is not quite so straight-forward and many believe that a different interpretation is necessary. Part of the problem is to do with confusion over what actually happened in 1942 and part is to do with Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the leaders of the USSR, and how the story came out.

There seems to be no doubt that the football season of 1942 did take place, including the teams mentioned, such as Flakelf and FC Start. The result in the ‘Death Match’ was almost certainly a 5-3 victory for FC Start and, within six months, half of the team had died. But then things get messy. How come the local officials of the Nazi occupiers never checked the papers of the FC Start players? They would easily have found out that they had none. Many local people were accused of being collaborators with the Nazis and some believe that the team must have included such people, as portrayed in the Russian film ‘Match’. And were the deaths that followed the game directly a result of the football or just a part of the huge suffering of the Ukrainians in the war? It is estimated that eight-ten million Ukrainians died during World War II, a higher percentage than any other nation, despite evidence of collaboration with the Nazis by some people; in such horrible circumstances, such things were, surely, to be expected. Starvation was the biggest cause of death, a further horrid famine that stands alongside the tragedy of 1933, ‘The Terror-Famine’, when up to seven million more people, mostly Ukrainians, died thanks to the consequences of Stalin’s first ‘Five Year Plan’. Clearly, the fact that four or five players died within six months of the match is no surprise; they may not have been shot.

The suffering of the people and the obvious expectation of collaboration, as in France, for example, was a particular problem when the tide of the war turned against the Nazis. Following that great turning-point, the Battle of Stalingrad, the German forces were decisively pushed back and forced out of the USSR. In the wake of this, Joseph Stalin was ruthless in his pursuit of anyone who might have been seen to have collaborated with the Nazis in any way. After the war, he famously sent Soviet Prisoners of War, who had been imprisoned in the west, straight out to gulags in Siberia for fear that they had been intellectually ‘contaminated’ by the experience. The Ukrainians feared that they would be part of the back-lash and the story of the ‘Death Match’ was covered up until after Stalin’s own death in 1953. If there was a clear story of anti-Nazi activity, surely it would have been used to impress Stalin? The story only came out under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, presented as a story of how good the Communists had been in opposing the Nazis during the war. It is all a bit too convenient for some people.

The truth is that many people do not believe the story of the ‘Death Match’ as told above. They say that those who survived and re-told the story, such as Makar Goncharenko, changed their version of events many times, almost in every re-telling. Also, there were discrepancies between different players and a lack of consistency with any surviving spectators from the estimated 2000 who attended. Marina Shevchenko, a local historian who works at the local museum of the Great Patriotic War, believes that the match between FC Start and Flakelf did take place on 9th August, 1942, and the score probably was 5-3 to FC Start – but it was not a ‘Death Match’.

The story is the stuff of legend, a spin placed upon an event played out under the most frightening circumstances – and formed into a legend to protect and justify people who then faced another bout of horror from their own rulers. It was given added energy by other politicians who wished to cast a positive light on Communists during the Cold War and that was then muddied further by Hollywood. A further twist is given by the ‘celebrity’ enjoyed by certain key players in the match who could hardly do more than re-tell the story everyone wanted to hear, the truth having long been submerged in the myth of patriotic glory. And the Russian version of events in ‘Match’ from 2012, also adds in that element which comes from a historic dislike and distrust between nations.

The Death Match. The stuff of legend. Just like Robin Hood, really?

Caught in the cross-fire: victims of segregation in the USA

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Caught in the cross-fire: victims of segregation in the USA

“I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law.” Dr. Martin Luther King, September 1962.

Most people will have heard of the Civil Rights Movement which was a focus for the campaign for equality for Black Americans in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. And, of course, most will also have heard of the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, and also Malcolm X or Stokeley Carmichael, who supported a more confrontational approach to securing rights and equality. But few people remember the likes of Elizabeth Eckford and Medgar Evers or, indeed, Emmett Till. This is a brief look at what happened to Emmett Till and some of those lesser-known people who were caught up in the most famous campaign for civil rights in that ‘land of the brave and the free’, the United States of America.

The Death of Emmett Till

In 1955, Emmett Till was 14 years old, a boy from Chicago who was visiting family down in Money, Mississippi, one of the most violent and racist of the southern states at that time, where segregation was still strictly enforced. Emmett went in to a shop with his cousin and some other friends and, for a dare, either said ‘Bye, babe!’ or wolf whistled at, Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who owned the shop. Not really appreciating the dangers of doing such a thing, he ran off with his friends. Carolyn Bryant told various people what had happened and her husband, who was away the time, heard about it a few days later. John Bryant, her husband, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, went to the house of Emmett’s uncle, where the boy was staying. They demanded to see Emmett, eventually driving him away in their truck. He was never seen again.

In the days following his disappearance and before his body was found, Medgar Evers, a key figure in the NAACP, was one of the people who helped to coordinate the search. Evers would be another of those who would suffer at the hands of the racists, being murdered in June 1963 for his involvement in the civil rights movement.

After a long search, Emmett Till’s body was eventually fished out of the famous Tallahatchie River in late August 1955. He had been so horribly beaten that his left eye and ear were missing, as were nearly all of his teeth. There was a hole in the side of his head where he seemed to have been shot and his body had also been wrapped in barbed wire and tied to the fan of a cotton gin so that it was weighed down and sank into the swamp. Bryant and Milam actually admitted to kidnapping the boy but denied any involvement in his death, saying they simply wanted to scare Emmett and teach him a lesson.

Bryant and Milam, were charged with Emmett Till’s murder but they were acquitted within 67 minutes by an all-white jury despite overwhelming evidence against them.  The prosecution had only two witnesses to support their case, Emmett’s uncle and his cousin, who had seen Bryant and Milam take the boy away. However, a further witness came forward, a local man by the name of Willie Louis, who had Emmett being beaten.  Louis bravely took the stand to identify the two men as the murderers of Emmett Till but his testimony was ignored by the jury and Bryant and Milam went free. A few months later, having been assured that because of the law of ‘double jeopardy’ (a US law which says you cannot be tried for the same crime twice), they admitted to the murder but went free. Willie Louis, by contrast, had to be smuggled out of his home in Mississippi. He was forced to move to Chicago where he had to live under police protection and changed his name to Willie Reed. He stayed silent about his role in the trial for the next thirty years until he told his wife about what had happened. Reed was eventually introduced to Emmett Till’s mother and he was interviewed on TV in a documentary about the murder. Willie Reed died in 2013, still haunted by the screams he heard as Emmett Till was murdered by two men who lost barely a day of freedom for their horrific crime.

Emmett Till’s murder, and the events that surrounded the search and the trial, caused a massive outpouring of anger and horror in the USA and across the world. Bob Dylan was just one person who was aware of the murder, leading him to write the song ‘The Death of Emmett Till’ which would eventually appear on the ‘Broadside Ballads, Vol. 6’ album of 1972. The injustice was blatant, and this reflected especially badly on the USA at a time when it claimed to be leading the fight against Communism in the Cold War. As former colonies were looking to emerge from the control of the European nations, for example, why should they look to the USA and the West for leadership and protection? What was so great about a country which could allow such clear racism and hatred to poison relationships in its own land? How could such overwhelming evidence be ignored and a decision to acquit be reached so casually? How could an all-white jury be allowed to deliver a verdict in such a case when the population was so mixed? These questions also cut deep into the consciousness of American society, causing many to reflect on what was happening in the most powerful country on earth.

Bryant and Milam had set out to ‘teach the boy a lesson’, when they went after Emmett Till; in the end they taught the world a lesson about the hatred that raged in the southern states, and gave a huge impetus to the Civil Rights Movement. But what a tragedy it was that Emmett Till should have to be remembered by having a street named after him in Chicago, all because of whistling at the wrong time in the wrong place.

Emmett Till – photo showing him as he was before the attack and also with the horrific injuries he suffered: here)

Just in case you are not sure about where the ‘Southern States’ are, here is a map. They are the states which formed the Confederacy in the American Civil War (1861-65). They were the states which threatened to leave the USA if slavery were abolished. They wore the grey uniforms, as against the soldiers of the Union, or the North, who wore blue in all the films. The Southern States, the Confederates, lost the war and had to accept the end of slavery but retained a deep resentment against the North, a hatred that they transferred into persecution of the freed slaves who stayed in those states.

 

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(Author: Nick Roux; Source: Map-USA-South01.svg)

The Southern States of the USA are those in the south-east of the country: Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee. Although Florida, Oklahoma and Texas are sometimes considered southern states today, they did not experience segregation at anything like the same level as the other states mentioned.

 

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Another important incident from 1955 also happened in the ‘Deep South’, this time in Montgomery, Alabama. The ‘Deep South’, also called ‘the Cotton States’, refers to the most racist and hard-line of the southern states, the likes of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. A quiet, dignified woman called Rosa Parks (1913-2005) was to see her life transformed as she ended up in prison and on the front pages of the newspapers, because of events on 1st December 1955. Rosa Parks’ story is far better known than that of Emmett Till but it is still worth covering for its importance in the context of the Civil Rights Movement.

Rosa Parks worked for the NAACP in Montgomery and regularly travelled on the buses. The NAACP was the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’, which had been formed in New York City in 1909 by a group of citizens, both black and white, who wanted to see social justice for all Black Americans. It was the largest such organisation in the USA, and had a high profile and many members across the country. Travelling home from work on the evening of 1st December, Rosa Parks got onto a bus and sat in the designated ‘Coloreds only’ section. The front of the bus was for ‘Whites only’ but, on this journey, it filled up, leaving some white people standing. The driver moved the ‘Coloreds only’ sign back a row, forcing four people to move. Rosa Parks was one of these and she refused to move, believing she should not have to. The driver called the police and Rosa Parks was arrested and eventually fined for her actions. It is sometimes said that Rosa was thinking of Emmett Till when she decided to refuse to move.

A one-day protest was organised where Black Americans in the area refused to ‘ride’ the buses. The success of this protest led to plans for a long-term boycott, partly under the guidance of the new minister at one of the local Baptist churches, a man called Martin Luther King Jr. The famous ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott’ was to have huge significance as an example of ‘direct action’ or peaceful protest in the manner used by ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi in India. So it was that the boycott started – and went on for a year before achieving success when segregation on the buses was ended in Alabama.

Rosa Parks was not the first person to protest against the system of segregation on the buses of the south but her example was the one that triggered the key response. There is no doubt that this was due in large part to the leadership of Martin Luther King but success was achieved with the support of thousands of unknown people who endured so much pain and inconvenience during the bus boycott. Together they won and broke just one aspect of the system of segregation. Something fundamental changed with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There was a powerful sense of hope, a belief that things could change and that victory could be won with courage, patience and united action.

Rosa Parks came to symbolise the hopes of many people across the USA. She received many awards in her lifetime with the most important one being the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ which she received from President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Rosa Parks died in 2005, at the age of 92.

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Rosa Parks rides the bus in Montgomery following the end of segregation. (Author: United Press photographer; Source: Library of Congress)

Rosa Parks receiving the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ from Bill Clinton. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

 

Medgar Evers

A third important but lesser known figure from the campaign for civil rights is Medgar Evers (1925-1963). Evers was born in the Deep South, in the state of Mississippi, probably the most violently racist of all the states. He fought in World War II as a G.I. alongside white soldiers, an experience which made him aware of the full significance of the ‘Jim Crow’ laws of segregation and racism. These laws were passed by states in the ‘Deep South’ and legalised discrimination against Black Americans in things like education, employment and the legal system. ‘Jim Crow’ was a derogatory term for Black Americans in this region, something picked up in the Disney film ‘Dumbo’ in case you’re interested. On his return from the war, Medgar Evers lived once again in Mississippi, gaining his legal qualifications and then going to work for the NAACP. He was involved in various important events including the investigation into the murder of Emmett Till (for which he worked undercover in a cotton field as a sharecropper) and in trying to help James Meredith become the first Black American to gain admission to the University of Mississippi. Meredith would later be shot by a sniper while making a solo ‘March against Fear’ from Tennessee to Mississippi in 1966. He survived and later continued the march. Rather interestingly, James Meredith would later become anti-civil rights, even working against the decision to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday – but that is a story for another time.

Anyway, Evers continued the campaign for the full integration of education in Mississippi and the Southern States, provoking anger from white supremacists and the Ku-Klux-Klan. He believed in peaceful protest, proclaiming ‘Violence is not the way’. He received numerous death threats to try to stop his activities but continued his work. Eventually, on 12th July 1963, Evers was shot by a member of the KKK. He was 38 when he died. A man called Byron de la Beckwith was tried before two all white juries, both of which returned hung decisions so that he could not be convicted. Thirty years later, following revelations made to a prison guard in which he boasted of killing Evers, de la Beckwith was tried again and sentenced to life imprisonment. The wheels of justice sometimes turn very slowly, especially in the South.

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Medgar Evers (1925-63) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Elizabeth Eckford and the Little Rock Nine

One final figure worth knowing a little bit about is Elizabeth Eckford (b. 1941), who became famous in 1957 when a group of nine Black American students wanted to enter Little Rock High School in Arkansas. They were trying to exercise their right to attend any school in the USA but they were all prevented from attending and were on the receiving end of quite vicious abuse from white students, police and ordinary people when they walked to the school that day. Protest marches against them were organised so that they were followed by large crowds. This led to the famous photograph (below) of Elizabeth, who was 16 at the time, and the crowd of local people who harassed her as she made her way to school.

Little Rock 9

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

It is interesting to note that Hazel Massery, the girl in the centre of the picture shouting angrily, later saw the photo and was horrified by it. She was struck by the way in which her own hatred contrasted with the sadness and fear on Elizabeth’s face. Many years later she made contact with Elizabeth to apologise and the two women campaigned to strengthen civil rights and improve relations between their communities.

The incident at Little Rock became a national issue. President Eisenhower decided to send in the National Guard, forcing the State authorities to comply with the law by allowing black students to attend the school. But the soldiers had to provide some serious, on-going, protection both inside and outside the school, ensuring their education could go ahead free from abuse, intimidation and violence. This decision was made partly to enforce one of the most significant decisions of the Supreme Court. In 1952, in the case of ‘Brown v Topeka Board of Education, Kansas’, the Supreme Court had ruled that a Black American girl called Linda Brown was allowed to attend her local school, which was designated as a ‘Whites only’ school, rather than having to travel across Topeka to a designated ‘Coloreds only’ school.

The ‘Brown v Topeka’ case was very important as it overturned a Supreme Court decision from 1895 where, in the case known as ‘Plessey v. Ferguson’, the judges had said that it was legal to have segregation in education; schools could be for ‘Whites only’ or ‘Coloreds only’, allowing a policy known as ‘Separate but equal’. This meant that, as long as children from different racial backgrounds had a school to go to, it did not matter what they were like, how they were resourced, how they were funded, how qualified the teachers were and how many students were in each class. Schools could (and did) accept or reject students based on their racial background and this was legal. It meant white schools were larger, newer, better equipped, better funded, had more qualified teachers and had more up to date resources than the schools for ‘Colored’ students, and that was also perfectly legal. Eisenhower’s decision was a huge step by the President, enforcing this decision and forcing the southern states to accept the law and comply.

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Segregation at water fountains was legal. (Author: Russell Lee; Source: here)

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Segregation existed at the cinema. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Segregation in US restaurants was widespread.  (Author: Ben Shahn; Source: here)

A Military Police Officer in Georgia, 1942. (Author: PFC Victor Tampone; Source:here)

Signs of segregation in the ‘Land of the Free’

 

Once again, the fact that all of this was happening while the USA claimed to be fighting the USSR over issues such as rights, opportunity, equality, freedom and justice, struck many people as, at best, odd, and at worst, hypocritical. It had echoes of the treatment of Jesse Owens after winning four gold medals for the US at the Berlin Olympics: “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler; but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either”.

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X might have been the most famous names but there were many other people, people with smaller but still important stories, who played their own part in the Civil Rights Movement. Ordinary people suffered, struggled, fought and, eventually, won the victory – and without them, the leaders of the movement would have been seriously weakened.

 

 

Find out more
DVD: ‘Mississippi Burning’ (Certificate 18 – 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 1989) – an inaccurate but interesting re-telling of the FBIs involvement in solving the murders of the three ‘Freedom Riders’ in Mississippi. It is very good at presenting the attitudes, social values and relationships of the Deep South in the 1960s.
DVD: Dr. Martin Luther King – A Historical Perspective (Certificate – exempt – Delta Home Entertainment, 2005). An hour long documentary about MLK, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
DVD: ‘Malcolm X’ (Certificate 15 – Warner Home Video, 1992) – powerful study of Malcolm X, the civil rights leader who took a more direct and aggressive approach to civil rights than Martin Luther King.
Songs. Music played a major role in giving shape, strength and inspiration to the Civil Rights Movement. The number of songs that could be listed is huge and the following are just a few that were considered important by many people: ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ and ‘The Death of Emmett Till’ by Bob Dylan, ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke, ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ by Mavis Staples and ‘People Get Ready’ by The Impressions.
Books. The range of books that touch on segregation and the Civil Rights Movement in one way or another is huge. Biographies of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa parks and other figures abound and can be found in any good bookshop or on-line. A good introduction can be found in Chapter 12 of ‘The American Century’ by Harold Evans (Jonathan Cape, 1998), Some of the most well known books include, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee, ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett, ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker, as well as works by Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison – but there are many, many more to consider.

 

 

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

Berlin, Olympia-Stadion (Luftaufnahme)

The Olimpiastadion, Berlin, 1936 – a place where important things happened. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

“Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.” Jesse Owens

The Olympics in the modern era were the result of the vision and hard work of a French noble called Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937). He was at least partly inspired by the popular games which had been taking place in the small English village of Much Wenlock in Shropshire since 1850. This gathering, which is still held each year, aimed, “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”, an ideal which the Baron wanted to share on a far grander scale.

Baron de Coubertin was a regular visitor to Much Wenlock and he was much inspired by what he saw. After several years of planning, athletes gathered in Athens in 1896 for the first modern Olympic Games, the city being chosen, of course, because of the ancient games which had been held at Olympia from 776 BC to 393 BC. At those original games, winners received nothing more than a wreath of olive leaves, women were banned from competing and glory was all. There is no space here for a full history of the Olympics but some brief observations on a few key moments in recent history will hopefully show how fascinating and important the games have been in political as well as sporting terms.

The Baron himself: Pierre de Coubertin. He actually won a gold medal at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 – for poetry. They really did have a range of competitions in those days and he would probably have had a chance if they had held a bushy moustache competition.

(Author: Photograph from Bain News Service; Source: From the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division digital ID cph.3c22269)

1936 – BERLIN OLYMPICS

An obvious starting point for a discussion of politics in the Olympics is Berlin, 1936. For anyone visiting the city, the stadium there should be on the agenda: a Nazi building of beauty and importance, and the venue for one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time. The hero who dominated the Berlin Olympics of 1936 was an all-time great, namely the Black American star, Jesse Owens (1913-80). Owens’ life is a story which is truly worth knowing, not just for the fact that he won four gold medals in 1936, setting a record for athletics at one Olympics which was not matched until Carl Lewis at Los Angeles in 1984. (Some of you will mention Mark Spitz, who won seven golds in swimming at Munich in 1972 and Michael Phelps who went even further to win eight golds at Beijing in 2008, again in the pool. But four athletics golds is still a record for one Olympic Games). Owens’ achievements were remarkable in themselves but they have always had an extra dimension because of the context in which they happened. The place, the times, the opponents and the spectators all contributed to the glory of what he did.

Owens was a black athlete at a time when segregation was rife in the USA. Racism was the norm during much of his life at home but, by competing in Germany when the Nazis were in control, he faced one of the most racist systems in history. When he went to Berlin, Owens was already a legend of track and field having broken three world records and equalled a fourth, all within 45 minutes at a meeting in the state of Michigan, one afternoon in 1935. He was outstanding at the long jump and at sprinting, where he competed at 100m, 200m and in relays. However, at the time when his world records were set, he could not even get a scholarship because of his skin colour, having to work in part-time jobs to fund his athletics; many lesser athletes found such scholarships easy to come by.