Tag Archives: history

Current read: Forget the Alamo by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford

Provocative, eh? From my little editing perch with its industry perspective, I have to admire the marketing value of such a title. That’s how you throw a bomb. Love the book or hate it, I don’t see too much of Texas being neutral about it. Then again, I’ve only been to Texas a couple of times, and it’s probably one of the two or three states where I would least fit in. I do care about US history, though, and if California history is US history, so is that of Texas.

The book first sets forth to tell the history preceding and including the Texas Revolt, based on what the authors consider the best evidence and historical analysis. They do not reach the conclusion that has long been taught in Texas schools. They contend that black, Native American, and Hispanic participation has been written out or diminished, or at the very least oversimplified. This fortified a Heroic Anglo Narrative to which the remaining bits of the old mission compound in San Antonio represent the ultimate shrine.

The next part of the book, about half, details the making of the legend. It’s been what, 185 years since Santa Anna finally had it with his Texian subjects (and illegal US aliens who refused to abide by Mexican law) and marched in to subdue them? If you guess that people have spent the entire time arguing over the story itself, if and how it should be preserved, and who has the say in its future, you can don your coonskin cap in celebration. The story of the story of the Alamo is almost as interesting as the story of the Alamo, and is as germane to US history. Given the key role in advocacy and preservation (and in some cases, turf warring and neglect) played by women’s groups, it is also women’s history. (Not all of women’s history is automatically admirable. Time and again, they’ve proven they deserve to be remembered for their successes and failures, just like men.)

I don’t think any objective, educated reader of history doubts that there are some unverifiable “facts” that most people believe about the Alamo because those people want to believe them. That is normal about most history; why not this one?  I do think that any such reader realizes that minority contributions to the story have been minimized or bent into strange shapes. The error would be in somehow imagining the Alamo story as unique in this regard because it has been told–insisted upon–with such strident passion. I deprecate the idea that the loudest voice must be considered the victor. The louder they yell, the more suspicious I get.

Put simply, incomplete or exaggerated history happens everywhere. We just pay more attention to this one because people make so much noise about it, almost defying the world to contradict them. Well, yeah. If I sit in my living room, where no one can hear me, and say something provocative based on false premises, I’m probably not getting much hate mail over it. If it put it on an airplane banner, that’s another story.

The greatest thing about the book is the writing itself. I used to love Molly Ivins’s style, affectionate toward her homeland even when critical of it, like when her employing newspaper folded and she commented that she’d never had a newspaper shot out from under her before. It was always fun and often funny. This book is a history, and the history of the making of a history, told in just such a relaxed style. I can almost hear a gentle drawl as I read it. I believe she would have loved it and its message.

I find the authors’ historical study credible. To me, the amount of pushback they have gotten tells me that the detractors have long known there were ugly realities about the story, did not want to explore those ugly realities, and would defend this old mission compound’s ruins as a key bastion in the culture wars. Put it this way: If the authors were full of shit, and everyone had good reason to believe that, no one would feel threatened–just annoyed. It’s like that political fringe nut who thinks the queen of England is a drug dealer. The suggestion is not credible enough for the monarchy, or its defenders, to take seriously.

This book was very much worth my time.


What your keys used to do, long ago

What did they do? Why did they have weird names? Why on earth are some of our current computer keys called as they are?

This is an IBM Selectric typewriter. If you think electric typewriters sound painful to write with, you need to try a manual. For one thing, on a manual, light strokes would produce light or no impressions. You had to try for a consistent level of physical force when hitting keys; if you didn’t produce enough power, the type character might not make it to the ribbon at all.

I included this picture so that you didn’t have to guess what my 1980s writing implement looked like.





Starting along the top, the Mar Rel stood for Margin Release. Once you set your margins, the carriage (the typing ball and its mechanism) would not move past them. If you wanted to finish a word that went one character past the margin, you hit Mar Rel so that it would let you past just this once.

I’m serious.

The Tab worked much as it does today, except that it relied upon ‘tab stops’ which one set wherever one wanted to indent. Typical was five spaces in from the left margin, for para indents, but one could set more tab stops. As the web came along, this morphed into a way to cycle through links and fields, as one does now on a fillable PDF or online form.

I don’t even remember how we got [brackets] on the 1. On the number keys, of course, we got the symbols instead by holding down the Shift key–not different from now. For the alphabet, of course, that’s how we did upper case on a letter-by-letter basis. To get italics, we had to change out the ball, which was easy enough but tedious to do very often–if, of course, one had a ball with italic type of the same style. I never did, but I assume they existed. The Selectric was way ahead of other typewriters because you could change out the ball. Different fonts! Miraculous!

Notice that the shifted 6 is the ¢ sign, which one now has to hunt up in the ASCII character set. Nowadays you get the ^ (caret) for a shifted 6. The caret was unknown on the electric typewriter.

See the with the _ above it? Since we didn’t have italics or bold, by and large, we did emphasis using the underbar. We typed the text, backspaced to where we wanted to start underlining, and held down Shift and the hyphen. In both its forms, that key was one of the machinegun keys–if you held it down, it kept striking until you let up (as all modern computer keys seem to do). Very good when you wanted to underline a whole sentence. I do not remember the full inventory of machinegun keys from that era, but my hands would remember them. If you held down a key that was not a machinegun key, it typed its symbol once and did nothing further.

Backspace backed you up one space without deleting anything. In effect, it was the left arrow key. To delete something, you either painted it with white-out, or put tape over it or slipped in a sort of white carbon paper, and re-struck the key. Since photocopies cost $0.10 each in 1978 dollars (minimum wage was about $2.20 or so per hour; imagine if copies cost about $0.40 now), we used carbon paper, or ditto machines. Some forms still use carbons, mostly in government. Of course, if you made a mistake, you’d have to fix it on all the carbons. Sensibly, Backspace was a machinegun key.

Index has vanished as a concept. What did that thing do? It turned the carriage roller–advancing the paper one line–without returning the carriage to the left margin. It was more precise than turning the roller by hand, since the roller could be turned less than a full line. It clicked as one turned it, unless one released the catch that kept it in synch–then it rolled smoothly with nothing keeping it in horizontal alignment. Do that, and you would have a hell of a time getting it back into perfect alignment.

On the second row, notice that the ! has its own key, which shifted to °. For years, typewriter manufacturers varied on what symbol belonged with the number 1. (We obviously did not have a separate number pad, arrows, num lock, or accompanying mathematical operators. Had the number pad not come along early in the computer world, I’m not sure what accountants would have done. Seppuku, perhaps.) In any case, this is where IBM was putting the exclamation point on this model of the Selectric.

Return has become the Enter key, but you still hear people call it by the old name; early in the PC days, it retained that label. That was an important key because it advanced the roller one line and ran the carriage back to the left margin; one did it at the end of each line. On manual typewriters, this was truly manual. They had a bar one grabbed and ran the carriage back with physical effort. As word processors came along, we got the soft return and the hard return as concepts. Soft returns change positions with margin, font, etc. changes. A hard return says: “Start a new para no matter what.” Novice authors usually clutter their mss with loose hard returns. You’d be amazed how many create these awesome title pages (which should have been their very last act, not their first) and use a bunch of hard returns to center the title rather than use the software’s functions correctly.

Some writers don’t know how to tab or indent. They instead just hit the space bar five times. Dirty secret of editing: when I first begin to edit a ms, I clean up all the incontinent extra hard returns littering the place. I then do a global search and replace for two spaces with one, which fixes all the archaic and novice misuses of two spaces. Except that sometimes it’s ten spaces. I re-run the S&R until it makes no corrections. Even dirtier editing secret: I judge my client’s word processing software usage competence by the quantity of loose spaces and hard returns. If there are a lot of these, I know that my client doesn’t really understand much about document creation’s technical details. She may be a superb writer, but that’s not coupled to her user level on software. I’ve had clients come out and call themselves techno-doofuses, even those whose uses of English were at high levels.

This affects me because clients generally expect me to provide them with free Word tech support, especially with regard to tracking changes. I dread this; since this feature is central to my work, I don’t really have a choice. If they can’t use it, they can’t process my efforts efficiently, but it’s also hard to make people understand that I am not necessarily seeing what they see and can’t always just walk them through changes. The only place where I flat decline is typesetting; i.e. finishing the document. I don’t know the software well enough to help with that, it is beyond my scope, and I may punt.

The Clr/Set rocker was how we set our tab stops. The On/Off rocker is self-explanatory. When typing, things were clackety-clack noisy; when not typing, there was a quiet whirring hum.

The Lock you see at left, third row, is the caps lock. Num lock and scroll lock came along with computers.

Shift, of course, got us the upper case or other shifted character outcome. We needed one on each side because we were coached to station our fingers on the home row: asdf jkl; . Thus, if you wanted an A, your right hand did the shifting. If you wanted a P, your left pinky held down shift (if you were doing it exactly as taught). My high school had a yearbook advisor who had lost an arm in some accident, and having two Shifts must have been pivotal for him.

They called it the Space Bar because that’s what we used it for, much as now: advance the carriage one space without any image. Except there’s a big difference that I don’t think a majority of computer users grasp. While the space looks to people like an absence of something, to a computer jock or sophisticated user, it’s a character. It has more in common with an ñ or F or ^ than with nothingness. When you hit the space bar now, you type a character; it just happens to be a blank character.

We did not have: Esc, Ctrl, Alt, any of the F keys, `/~, \ / | (the backslash and vertical bar, in case that looks weird), Ins, Home, PgUp, PgDn, Del, End, Pause, or the stupid Windows keys I always pop off my keyboards. A typist circa 1975 would have wondered what in hell all those weird keys did.

“Pause? It pauses any time I do nothing. I don’t need a key for that!”

“PgDn? Page down, you mean? That’ll just spit the current sheet out. Pointless.”

“Esc? I’d like to escape, all right; I’d like to escape back into what I know, which isn’t this.”

Thing is, the transition happened by degrees and with variations before the advent of the 84-key keyboard (had only ten function keys, arrayed at left; combined directional keys with number pad). Only portables, then laptops had the number pad mushed into the main keyboard (which sucked then and sucks now). Each time there has been change, it has taken time to absorb. Some have made sense, but some have made none.

In any case, if you’re looking at a fiftysomething, now you see where he or she learned to type. And that fiftysomething probably learned on an electric typewriter; imagine the heckling he or she took from the die-hard manual typewriter oldsters as to how easy it was now.

I assure you of this: I completed a degree in history, resulting in a stack of term and other papers an inch and a half thick. And I typed every one of them three times (at least) on an electric typewriter. There actually was college before an Internet, and you’d be surprised how much we managed to learn without the ability to google anything.

Stuff I spend time explaining over and over about history

Because I’m interested in history–or more likely, because I can’t learn to shush about the subject–friends and acquaintances ask me a steady stream of questions about it. Now and then, I even know the answer. If I don’t, it may inspire me to learn something, maybe order a book, develop at least a basic background.

There are also a few things those who ask tend to forget, and it is very natural. Perspective matters. When you’re seeking historical understanding, it’ll come easier when you bear uppermost in mind that:

Back then, the participants did not know how the future would unfold. Let’s take, for example, the legend of the Holy Grail. The evidence for its existence is, well, more a matter of faith than of evidence. It isn’t hard to imagine that such a relic would take on legendary status, provided one assumes that the persons in the story had a functional and updated crystal ball with up-to-date prophecy software. The idea is that a charismatic religious figure’s followers, or at any rate someone, saved a dining utensil from a group dinner (which they knew 100% was their final meal together, ever). And that this follower, or presumably someone else to whom the event was important, took the utensil to a Roman public execution and used it to catch the blood of the suffering religious figure. We are then asked to imagine that this artifact survived, and can ever be proven authentic to our modern satisfaction.

Well, if you take it on faith, that’s fine by me, but faith is not germane here. What’s germane is the assumption demanded by the whole tale: that at the time, anyone had the faintest understanding that this religious figure would become the center of a family of faiths that would shape and dominate Western civilization for many centuries. Absent this foreknowledge, this crystal ball, there is no reason anyone’s going to think to grab the wine goblet from the dinner. It would seem a little macabre to go scoop up some of the blood of the condemned, rather disrespectful. Granted, customs differed back then, but was that the norm? “Rachel, take this cup and go catch us some of Uncle Flavius’s blood. Quick like bunny, before the legionary spots you!”

But let’s say someone did save this cup; what then? Did he or she (just because one tale ascribes it to Joseph of Arimathea does not make that automatic truth; it could as easily have been a woman) put it on a shelf in the pantry? On the mantel? Sure, if that person could foresee the days of Constantine, he or she would have saved it, but everyone who was an adult in CE 30 or so would be elderly before the Christian movement numbered more than a few thousand. Christianity did not become the dominant faith of the Empire for at least two centuries. There was no way to know the future, thus (again, absent a faith-based conclusion, which cannot be addressed by evidence or logic; that’s why it’s called faith) no reason to expect anyone to keep track of a dish. Even if someone did save it, odds loom long against its ongoing survival and identification for even a century, much less two millennia. Within fifty years of the Crucifixion, any wiseacre could have taken a likely-looking chalice and proclaimed it the Holy Grail. Within five hundred, many had done just that.

They did not know, in the moment, what the future held–unless you bring in questions of faith and prophecy, which is your perfect right. But when you do, you depart from history and enter theology. It is unreasonable for anyone to expect anyone else to accept one’s own theology as history, for there are too many theologies. Whether we can ever know it or not, there was only one authentic history; modern interpretations and perspectives on that history may vary, but the events were one sole version when they occurred.


A year back then took as long as a year does now. We have the tendency, even the temptation, to compress ancient time. The farther back it is, the greater the compression. Oh, we do not do this if we give it careful thought; it is a tendency rather than an automatic event. Here is an example.

The War of American Independence began in 1775 and ended in 1783. That is eight years. Right? Eight years are a re-elected presidential administration. In eight years, a newborn grows to t-ball age. Eight years normally span a combined secondary and collegiate education. Imagine that the war had been declared around the time of Obama’s inauguration, and just ended last month. That’s how long it took. No less, no more.

I recently read a rather stupid message board post asserting that the Muslim Conquests (622-750 CE) had been “rapid.” This is a perfect example. One hundred and twenty-eight years are “rapid” only if we’re referring to matters that normally take millennia or more, like geological shifts and the evolution of new species. For a military imperial expansion, that’s a long time–including plenty of timeouts here and there to consolidate control, make hummus, build mosques, and so on. As I write, one hundred twenty-eight years ago, it was 1889 CE:

  • The European powers were just getting a head of steam dividing up most of Africa. (Most of the Africans would not be consulted.)
  • The Chinese Empire was nearing its last two decades, but the Japanese Empire was vaulting itself into the modern era by pure force of dedication.
  • The United States military was still fighting the Indian wars, had bought Alaska just twenty-two years prior, and had limited ability to project overseas power.
  • Nearly every European country had a monarch.

Look at all that has happened in 128 years, then tell me it was “rapid.” Twelve decades is plenty of time for plenty to happen.

Because in 9748 BCE, and in 47 BCE, and in 244 CE, and in 1889 CE, a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade, and a century took just as long as they do now. Time didn’t speed up just because an Egyptian dynasty lasted maybe a millennium. That millennium still took one thousand years.

Put into perspective: the Roman Republic lasted nearly five centuries. The western Empire lasted another four and a half centuries after that, and the eastern Empire outlasted its western kin-empire by a millennium. Four and a half centuries ago, it was 1667–the era of Cromwell, the Dutch on Manhattan Island, and Issac Newton. Five centuries ago, it was 1617; the Jamestown colony was a decade old. One millennium ago is just fifty years before the Norman Conquest of England, and just eighty years before the first Crusade stormed Jerusalem. That’s how long those timeframes are.

Why am I hammering on this seeming obviousness? Because it sneaks up on us. We tend to compress ancient times; the farther back, the more quickly we treat it as having passed. Rome became a republic in 509 BCE and, arguably, an empire in 27 BCE. The Rome of 27 BCE had not undergone any form of “rapid” transformation from its early republican days; the process had taken long enough to span the longest imaginable lifespans of five consecutive persons. It had taken over twice the current lifespan of the United States. If you think it’s been quite a while since Lexington and Concord, one presumes, you think twice that while is quite a greater while. That approximates the lifespan of Rome as a republic. Some tidbits to help this sink in:

  • Caligula ruled Rome for about the length of a U.S. presidential term.
  • The Napoleonic Wars lasted twelve years, about the time from birth to puberty.
  • The American Civil War took about as long as it takes to get a bachelor’s degree.
  • The golden age of piracy, if such a thing can be so described, only lasted about thirty years–as of 2017, the time elapsed since George H.W. Bush was stepping up his run for the presidency, or Snooki’s birth. (No, I’m not going to apologize for associating that name with an historical discussion. Whatever it takes to get across the length of time involved, that’s what I’ll use.)
  • The Pony Express only operated for eighteen months. In eighteen months, a newborn infant transforms into a toddler doing her best to emulate a howler monkey on cocaine. Or: in eighteen months, two human pregnancies can be laid end to end (not that I recommend it).


It’s not enough to address the question. One ought to question the assumptions implicit in the question. This is closely allied with the first guidance, but deserves its own portion. Let’s say we are looking into the mind and motives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with regard to U.S. entry into World War II. Some would say that he talked isolationism out his mouth, for public consumption, yet deliberately took actions that would lead his country into global war. You might ask:

  • Do we know at what point in time FDR considered U.S. entry inevitable?
  • Pursuant to that: have we evidence that he so considered? How strong is that evidence?
  • Is it imaginable of him that he would have maneuvered his country toward war in order to complete its economic recovery?
  • Pursuant to that: was it even understood at the time that such a war might have that effect on a Depression-recovering economy?
  • There seems little doubt that FDR shaded U.S. policy well toward the Allies, but is there an imaginable circumstance in which we might have shifted to strict neutrality or even a pro-Axis stance?
  • Pursuant to that: is there anything now known about the war, that FDR could not know at the time, that would have caused a shift? A full apprehension of the magnitude of the Holocaust? The realization that Churchill most surely sought to maneuver the U.S. into a war few of its people desired?

When someone spouts off about history, in particular about the motivations of an historical figure, there are strong grounds for posing a lot of questions–and for questioning the underlying assumptions. That’s how a sound historical argument is constructed: one examines and researches all one’s own assumptions, because when someone comes along to counter it, that person’s best odds to crumble it is by kicking out its underpinnings. For example:

There’s a conspiracy theory about former Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, once a close confidant of Adolf Hitler, who flew to Britain in an escort fighter. The story generally told and believed is that Hess was nutty, and that he acted without Hitler’s approval, and that in any case in no way were the British willing to discuss ending the war unless Hitler were ready to abandon his conquests. There are reasons to question that story, and there’s a whole tinfoil argument about Hess’s motives for flying to Scotland. The portion of the theory I want to address is the notion that Hess died during the war, in captivity, in a flying boat crash off Scotland; this view goes on to state that the Hess tried at Nuremberg and incarcerated at Spandau was a double seeking to put one over on at least some of the world.

Want to leave that theory bleeding in the Ditch of Discarded Zany Ideas? For example:

  • How easy is it to get someone, who just happens to look a hell of a lot like Hess, to go on trial and do life in prison for war crimes he did not actually commit?
  • What possible motive could the Allies have for covering up such a plane crash and the guy’s death, if authentic?
  • Some twenty years into his sentence, Hess (‘ ‘) finally agreed to see his wife and son. Not only did they believe him genuine, they lobbied as hard as possible for his release. Could a phony version of you fool your child? Your spouse? How could that impostor have the shared memories to discuss? If the assertion is that they were in on the cover-up, someone has to present a credible case for why they would do that.
  • We have photos of Hess (‘ ‘) in his old age at Spandau. Rudolf Hess was a very distinctive-looking character, with eyebrows that would have been a generous donation to Brows of Love if such a thing existed. In those photos, he looks exactly like one might expect an elderly Hess to look. An impostor might not age nearly as authentically.
  • The other Spandau prisoners knew Hess from before and during the war. Why should we believe that they couldn’t tell an impostor? Failing that, why should we deduce that they all agreed to maintain a conspiracy?

The theory of Hess’s death is so fragile that all of these questions, and more that you could probably think of, must be answered with compelling evidence in order for us to waste any further time on such a theory. Since it’s a zany theory that demands people to have acted counter to their predictable behaviors and interests, and because it really doesn’t make a lot of fundamental sense as to motives, it is fragile. So much so that, if any one of those questions does not have a full and powerful answer, the absence of that answer is probably enough to make the theory collapse into nonsensicality.


Just because most of a story is flawed does not mean all of it can be discounted. History is rarely so simplistic. Let’s go back to Hess. To my mind, by far the most tantalizing tinfoil question in play is: what if Hess acted with Hitler’s approval (with planned disavowal in case of failure), expected an audience that was ready to negotiate, and definitely planned to return home?

Could a faction of His Majesty’s Government have been ready to throw in the towel? The Hess flight happened just after the Blitz ended; Hitler may have known he was calling off the bombing campaign, but it’s unlikely Churchill knew that. In short: were the British expecting Hess, and was Britain much closer to a separate peace than it would be politic to become public?

One tantalizing story, not fully verified, is that the portion of the Hess files that remains classified has been sought by researchers (perhaps insiders), and that the files contain only the notice that the material is on permanent loan to the Windsor Archives. That would mean that, short of the personal command of the reigning monarch, no power in the United Kingdom could compel their release. If something in there were terribly embarrassing to part of the aristocracy, that would be an elegant monkey wrench in the investigative machinery. I am not aware of any firm proof that this situation obtains, but were it to come to light, it would seem to catch the Royal family hiding something. We would then ask all the logical questions as to what it might be, and why they might do that. If they had good enough answers, we might have a theory.

The point, though, is that this information comes from the same tinfoil book that claims Spandau’s Hess to be a double. Does the zaniness of that idea help the book’s overall credibility? Well, what do you think? However, does that zaniness mean that the authors are incapable of getting any facts correct? Surely not. Could the aroma of a more interesting and plausible story be wafting from the ruin of a collapsed argument? I believe that it could be.

Here’s another: the Salem Witch Trials. The airy ‘science’ argument is to blame it all on ergotism, a hallucinatory condition associated with a mold found in rye. Hardly anyone questions it. It ends the conversation: “They freaked out because science, duh.”

Oh, really?

Fine. Then one of two things is true: people of that time knew of the properties of ergot, or they did not. If they did, someone should explain why a slave (by definition the most vulnerable member of Salem society), who is not recorded as being a complete suicidal idiot, would administer such a substance to teenage girls when that was most likely to bring wrath down upon her defenseless head. Or why the girls administered it to themselves, which is only plausible if they knew how to find a nice concentration of the stuff.

Or they didn’t know about it, in which case we are to believe that somehow, one of the most attention-seeking and drama-prone demographics in the human species–the pubescent female–all blundered upon this One Potent Batch of ergot-tainted food that somehow, the rest of their families did not ingest. We would ask: why weren’t whole families losing it? Why wasn’t the whole community coming unglued?

Put another way: why was the group most repressed by the religious social straitjacket of Salem, the most blamed for any potential sexual misconduct, the least free to do what it wanted, suddenly acting up? If no one poisoned them–and it makes no sense anyone would do that unless we are to imagine that the girls knew how to do so, and it was like an acid trip–why have fits? We don’t know, but “to get attention, because teenage” is a path of low resistance.

While we are at it, why not ask: if it was accidental ergotism, how come the ‘bewitchings’ went away when the community finished hanging and pressing witches? Unless we’re going to assume that the prosecution was correct and that the thankful community got all the miscreants (or scared the rest into abjuring their witchy ways), there would logically be more freakouts. But if there’s a record of those, I’m unaware of it.

My reading of the record is that the community realized that the hysteria had gone too far, and it suggests a likely reason the girls ceased their histrionics: the realization that their drama queen lark had cost a number of lives. They might be afraid to confess their little game, but they had probably gotten all the attention they could ever want, kind of like an ignored kid who starts a fire in the kitchen and realizes he can’t control it.


The jury of historians rarely completes its deliberations with a unanimous, unambiguous verdict. The best we can get is a broad consensus. How we get at, evaluate, question, support, doubt, undermine, and otherwise address that consensus–that is what historians do.

And the joy is that it’s open to anyone who cares enough about the relevant events to invest the time exploring.

Prof. Jon Bridgman (1930-2015)

Some academics are endured, some are neither here nor there, some are liked, and some are revered. Prof. Jon Bridgman has passed away. He was one of the most revered professors in the history of the University of Washington, and I had the privilege of majoring in history during his lengthy tenure.

UW hired young Prof. Bridgman in 1961, near the end of his grad studies at Stanford. He joined the Department of History, with a focus on modern European (especially German) history. He retired in 1997. I had the good fortune to attend UW and major in history during Bridgman’s his early fifties, when he was very well established as one of the three or four professors whose class one must take if one were to get the very best out of UW.

In those days, the Daily (campus newspaper) always published a welcome issue for incoming freshmen: best things to do, best professors, best places to eat, everything worth experiencing. It may have been the very most useful issue of each year, the one that a freshman might save for months. Each year, high on the list of professors and classes to take was the introductory Western Civilization History survey series, HST 111 (ancient), 112 (medieval), and modern (113). Bridgman was the reason, and these classes were held in the enormous lecture halls of Kane. Kane 130 seated 764.

Please absorb that for a moment. That’s a lot of people. That’s a substantial movie theater complete with balcony and two lecterns. That requires TAs to teach nearly two dozen quiz sections (on Friday, class was held in a normal room and led by a grad student). All about history. If you have any affection for the subject at all, the prospect is magical in concept, but I assure you I am not exaggerating.

My own early days at UW were inauspicious. Like so many students, I entered higher education on a late September Monday morning by walking into an 8:30 class in Kane 130. I looked around at a classroom that seated more students than even resided in the town I had come from, and the shock set in.

From a graduating class of eleven, in a high school of roughly fifty, in a town of about 750, to a freshman class of thousands at a university of 35,000 in a city of two million. I was seventeen, and immature even for my age, and I was finally meeting my match. This is the jolt: while I wasn’t always happy about the distinction, as it caused me no end of torment, in every class I’d been in from K-12, it had been an article of faith (and unfairly, I think, in many cases) that I was the most gifted kid in the class, maybe the school. It sank in: Guess what, kid: so were all 763 other people in here. Pack your lunch. You aren’t the most gifted student, the most gifted freshman, the most gifted in this classroom, nor even the most gifted of the fifty-two other souls living on 8th Floor North, McMahon Hall.

In fact, I wasn’t even the most gifted student in the cluster holding rooms 801, 803, 805, and 807. I wasn’t even the most gifted student in room 805; my roommate was taking the notoriously terrifying Honors calculus series, MATH 134. Most people took MATH 124 and found it involved enough; the Daily had warned us about MATH 134. Matthew, a very patient and well-prepared young man from West Seattle, didn’t think it was that hard. Meanwhile, I was floundering in pre-calc, which I had to take twice. The lesson of intellectual humility, the ability to see that there were always people brighter than me, and that intellectual gifts did not extend to every field, was the great lesson of my educational shock treatment. I have a dear friend whose typing is peppered with disaster, but at all things in the natural world, she is a genius. I have a wife whom I cannot cure of em dashes and ellipses in writing, but has the magical gift of knowing how to handle all people. My father was a dogmatic idiot when it came to theology, but with computers, mathematics, mechanics, and electronics, he simply understood them in a Spocklike fashion.

In my second quarter, I’d heard enough, and I took Bridgman’s HST 112 medieval survey. This time it was in a smaller Kane lecture hall, but there were still nearly 400 students. I was hooked. My TA, who is now a professor and author, was also the undergrad advisor, and I changed majors. Prof. Bridgman had a great deal to do with that. Until I’d taken quite a few other large lecture classes, I didn’t realize how truly great his method was.

To begin with, Bridgman had a unique voice and diction. To watch him without sound, one might have thought him very nervous and excitable. He would pace back and forth, rubbing his goatee, speaking all the while, then stop and face the audience to punctuate a point with hand gestures. I dug up a Youtube of one of his lectures from 2012, because there is no way to describe his voice. In this video, he sounds much as I remember him, but it seems he became more physically sedate as time advanced. Give him a listen, if you wish:

Bridgman from 2012 lecturing on 1939

In this video, he seems to have a mild case of Tourette’s, which was not in evidence in the 1980s. It manifests as what sounds like bursts of laughter or surprise. I don’t know the story there, but we can see that it didn’t detract from the audience’s rapt attention. Imagine him without those small and rare bursts, but moving between two podiums, scrawling notes on the transparency now and then, making animated gestures. Now, at roughly the age he was when I first took his class, I understand what it was. It was his love of history, of teaching, of sharing his knowledge, of presenting the subject so freshly that the class would vary a bit from year to year. Jon Bridgman did not recycle notes or lectures. A very humble and pleasant man, he said that this was because he could not read his own handwriting on older paperwork.

I only had one personal contact with him, and it had to do with my final grade (I’d rather not say what it was, but it was nothing to be proud of…I had not yet learned to learn, nor had I grown up, and I underachieved). I did it wrong. My transcript came out, and I had received a 0.0. I knew that had to be a mistake. This was in college before e-mail, before the web, and before mobile phones. I happened to encounter him near the HUB lawn, and approached him there. (As you can see, I didn’t have the maturity to realize that I ought to have gone to his office hours.) I was in my ROTC uniform, and I explained the situation. Despite my poor timing, Prof. Bridgman put up with me. “What grade did you expect?” he asked. I told him. “All right. Here is what to do. Please write a note and slip it under my office door, with your name and student ID number and class, and say that the grade should be that.” That simple. And that’s what I got. I never saw him anything but cheerful, and well he might be, considering the place he held in the hearts of the UW community.

One day, as Prof. Bridgman was motoring back and forth between lecterns, he stopped at the left-side one and wrote with the water-soluble marker. Words appeared on the screen. He cranked the roller; the words did not move. He turned it a bit more, then his voice lowered from its usual projected volume as he faced the class: “Good heavens. There’s been a terrible mistake. I’ve written on the glass.” Glancing about in minor embarrassment, like a child caught doing something mildly naughty, he muttered, “Oh, well…” and went to the other lectern, where the transparency wasn’t at the end of the roll.

I recall the day he was teaching the Reformation and events leading up to it. He explained that a key point of theology was the question of what constituted Christian baptism. Looking at the Bible itself, Bridgman explained with a smile, nothing contained therein said that baptism had to come from the Roman Catholic Church. “In fact,” he said, “I could stand here with a hose, read all your names, say ‘I baptize thee…’ and baptize you all. And there’d be nothing you could do about it! You can’t refuse baptism!” The class laughed. Then, in a smaller but puckish voice: “And I just might do that sometime, too.” His sense of humor punctuated all his teaching.

Prof. Bridgman was the one who taught me, in HST 113 (modern), why Orwell’s 1984 was such an important book. In HST 111, he taught me to appreciate the ancient Greek advances in government and philosophy, as well as the Roman sense of gravitas that governed actions of state under the Republic. When one day I stood upon the Akropolis, gazing down upon the Pnyx, where once was said: “Who would speak?” and the voice came, “I, Pericles,” I thought of Professor Bridgman’s voice explaining the importance of Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides’ account. I thought of him when I gazed upon the helmet of Miltiades, hero of Marathon, at the museum near Olympia. I listened to his 1939 lecture in the background while composing this, just for the pleasure of the memories his voice brings.

One of his most important books had a key purpose. There remain those who, in spite of all the compelling evidence, continue to attempt to deny or minimize the Holocaust. That is a felony in Germany and Austria; in the United States, it’s simple foolishness. Prof. Bridgman decided to demolish Holocaust denial, and thus wrote The End of the Holocaust: The Liberation of the Camps. An expert in the field, who could not be thought to have any inherent bias, and a job very well done.

When Prof. Bridgman retired, he met with resistance to the concept. Alumni took up collections for two purposes: to endow a Jon Bridgman Professorship in history at UW, and to sponsor a lecture series inviting him to come and lecture as he might desire, on any topic that he might choose. The video presented was from that series, which remained a success and lasted until at least 2012, as you can see. If only I had lived nearer Seattle, I would have attended every one.

Though he was elderly, and his passing was thus not a tremendous surprise, it still affects so many of us. All of us associated with UW will miss him, but those of us whose lives he touched will remember him when we are his age and beyond. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family and personal friends.

As for me, simply, thank you, Professor Bridgman. I didn’t know how much I could love the study of history until you showed me.

Stuff most of you did not know about well-known historical events

This isn’t a debunking piece, but a tidbits piece. I combed my brain to think of small stuff that might make events more interesting.

The Nazi German battleship Bismarck was not only not the mightiest battleship of World War II, it was far from the heaviest-armed. The British had a couple of heavies that outgunned her a bit (HMS Rodney, HMS Nelson), and so did the US Navy even before the Iowa-class superbattleships went to war. Japan’s Yamato, which was on Bismarck‘s side, outgunned it handily. Bismarck, however, was itself a superbattleship in that it could take far more punishment than a typical WWII battlewagon, on a par with the Yamato (Japan built two; Musashi was the other) and Iowa classes. The major powers built only eight superbattleships during the war: four for the US, two for Germany, two for Japan (they laid down a third, but converted it to a heavy fleet carrier).

When the Royal Navy was hunting Bismarck in 1941 (and its sister ship Tirpitz, which never did much), the problem was that battleship guns of the day could beat on Bismarck all day without sinking it–which is about what happened. Of course, once the Royal Navy hammered her guns and propulsion out of action, Bismarck was doomed.

Why didn’t the B-25s that made up Doolittle’s 1942 Tokyo raid return to their carrier? For one thing, they could take off from a carrier but could not land on one, which made their mission a one-way run requiring balls of titanium. Dockside equipment had to winch the planes aboard at San Francisco. For another, their host–the carrier USS Hornet–had to get so close to Japan in order to launch the B-25s that its escorts sank a Japanese picket trawler whose job was to make sure no one got that close to Japan without some sort of warning. That was dangerous on a grand strategic level, because the USN could not afford to lose a single carrier. Thus, as soon as the last B-25 began to climb away, Hornet‘s task force was getting the hell out of there.

Despite their reputation, German WWII tanks were not all that superior to those of the Allies. France, Britain and the Soviet Union all had tanks that were all but impervious to their German adversaries of the time: the French Char B1 bis, the British Matilda II, and the Soviet KV-1 and T-34. By the time German armor met the US Army, the German tanks had better weaponry and range, which was good for the Germans, because they were a) outnumbered, b) prone in some cases to mechanical trouble, c) running out of fuel, and d) subject to death by rocket attack from the Army Air Force.

Why, then, the mystique surrounding the Panzers? For one thing, the Germans pioneered armor/close air support tactics and audacious mobile warfare leadership, which compensated for some deficiencies. (“No, I can’t blow up your tank. But Uncle Stuka can.”) For another, in the US, history is told mainly from a US perspective, and the short version there is that the early US Sherman and Lee tanks were in serious trouble against the German models they faced. Given that the German crews also had far more experience, to us, their performance seemed badass. To the British and Soviets, who had fought and beaten German armor, the latter seemed quite mortal (though deserving healthy respect).

To those unfamiliar with black powder weaponry, Revolutionary (1775-83), Napoleonic (1805-15) and US Civil War (1861-65) weaponry looks pretty similar: muzzle-loading muskets, right? The first two were indeed fought with similar weapons, mainly smoothbore muskets (which were unlikely to hurt anyone farther away than fifty yards). In the Civil War, both sides’ main weapon was the rifled musket, which could hurt someone two hundred yards away and more.

If you think about how armies closed to engage, the situation is explained. Napoleonic armies, when in range to take fire, were a long field goal away from engaging with cold steel. Civil War armies could bang away at the oncoming enemy starting two football fields away. This subtle but key modernization affected tactics throughout the war.

Why didn’t World War I planes break the trench deadlock with bombing? There were not enough aircraft, nor could they carry enough bombs to make a difference. Arguably the highest use of WWI warplanes was to gain aerial reconnaissance information–an art in its infancy–or deny the same to the enemy. Okay, why didn’t tanks break it? To a degree, they did, but the tanks were a) few, b) slower than a walking infantryman, and c) not very reliable. Fun fact: the British had ‘male’ and ‘female’ tanks. The female tank had a vulva surrounded with coiled wire, the better to attract the male tank to mount her, and wore a steel brassiere for comfort.

Okay, okay. The he-tank had a long gun, and the she-tank just had machine guns.

Did the British really march and fight in bright red rows in the Revolutionary War? When the terrain was suitable, yes–but that was a strength, not a weakness. If you leave it up to every individual soldier to fire, military science has learned, a minority have any potential to harm the enemy, and they shoot where they feel like. The European system incorporated this realization, and made sure that nearly everyone did everything at once, which meant that everyone shot, in the same direction, with said direction being chosen by a senior sergeant or officer (who was likely to know where the volley was most needed). In any case, a lot of the Revolution pitted colonial militia against Loyalist militia, where neither side had a significant tactical advantage.

Could the United States have won the Vietnam War? Let’s ask what it would have taken. War ends when one side gives up; thus it would have required the North Vietnamese, and their Viet Cong allies in the south, to give up. The Revolutionary War had something in common with Vietnam (which is why Ho Chi Minh, who was not a fool, took some time to study George Washington): like the colonials, the Communists could only lose if they decided they could fight no more. In Vietnam, the US, South Vietnamese, and their allies killed and wounded well over a million soldiers, guerrillas and civilians–at least one person in twenty. Would it have taken two in twenty? Five in twenty? That approaches the proportion of death that occurred shortly after the war under Pol Pot in Cambodia; would we really have wished to go down in history as a parallel to his kind? Even then, would the Viet Cong have given up?

What if the US-led forces had launched a conventional invasion of North Vietnam, even taken Hanoi? Would China have intervened, as it did in Korea when the UN got too close to its border? Would there have been a nuclear crisis? A fair answer, in my view: “Perhaps we could have…but would it have been worth the cost?” Too many hypotheticals complicate the answer, which is why people are still arguing about it.

Is there any chance at all that Hitler got away to South America? Nope. The NKVD sifted his bunker with all the thoroughness you’d expect of Stalin’s secret police, and went so far as to confirm Hitler’s dental work with his dentist. Stalin found it advantageous to raise doubt in the Allies about the issue after the war. Our best evidence is that most of what the NKVD dug up from the Führerbunker was quietly buried at a Soviet Air Force base at Magdeburg, East Germany, where it sat until the base’s 1970 handover to the East German Air Force. Before the handover, the KGB leadership ordered the remains exhumed, incinerated, crushed, and chucked into a river. There is no credible evidence to suggest that this account is false, nor any reason to doubt it, revealed as it was shortly after the collapse of the USSR.

In any case, even had Hitler escaped, it is unlikely he would have lived much longer. He was a mess by 1945, thanks to a combination of stress, deteriorating sanity, the effects of the 1944 assassination attempt, and quack drug prescriptions such as meth. Yes, meth.

How come the Japanese kicked the crap out of the Anglo-Dutch-Americans at first in WWII? The Dutch had little to fight with (though that little acquitted itself well). The Anglo-Americans were tactically and strategically surprised at the outset, and very much underestimated the Japanese on all levels. It took the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor (a strategic failure, in hindsight), occupying the Dutch East Indies with its oil wealth, and grabbing the Philippines (humiliating the Americans in Asian eyes, which was an idea with political currency in the time and region) for the Allies to learn that their Japanese adversary was brave, well-equipped, highly motivated, and committed to winning or dying.

Gods only know how it might have gone if the Japanese had imagined that dumb foreigners could break some of their naval codes, or if the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy had cooperated better. By the way, had the Anglo-Americans shown their erstwhile WWI ally Japan a little more respect, there might not have been a war at all. Of course, that would have meant letting Japan do as it wished in China, and what Japan wished to do was loot China’s resources and crush opposition without mercy. Considering that the West had done that in Africa and Asia without much remorse, the Japanese didn’t understand why they couldn’t join the colonial exploitation club.

World War II didn’t start on December 7, 1941. That’s just when the US made its entry official (we had been leaning to the Allies for over two years). It could be argued that it began on September 1, 1939, except that the Asian conflict at that point was Japan vs. China, with no direct connection to the European war. The Japanese full-dress invasion of China began July 7, 1937, when Japanese troops left Manchuria (which they had grabbed in 1931) to invade the rest of China. So you can argue that it began in 1941, or 1939, or 1937, or 1931 depending on perspective and your definition of a global war. Of course, go that far back, and you can argue that WWII was a resumption of WWI after a mismanaged intermission.

When it comes to the root cause of the Civil War, there aren’t many objective commentators. While the Confederacy talked big about ‘states’ rights,’ the primary right in question was to continue slavery, and to extend it into new states. If all new states became free states, Southern leaders could see that they would begin to lose sooner rather than later in both Congressional houses. And while the Union made plenty of noise about slavery, hardly anyone in the North would have willingly gone to war to eradicate human bondage. To the Union, the war was an insurrection to be suppressed, representing the transition from a loose association of self-governing states (the original vision, which the Confederacy more closely resembled) to a strong Federalized power.

For the United States’ first seventy-five years or so, the available money was inconsistent enough in value to bring to mind Bitcoins. We did not mint nearly enough coinage for commerce, so foreign silver circulated in large amounts that didn’t always match up to round-number $US conversions. Banknotes were just that, paper money issued by a bank, tending to decrease in value as the bill traveled farther from the issuing bank. And if the bank went bust (and before the FDIC, more banks did), so did its money.

You probably know that Columbus didn’t ‘discover America,’ because in the first place it was already fully discovered by the Native Americans who populated it, and in the second, there is unimpeachable evidence at least of previous Norse visits, and reasonable suspicion of others. It’s pretty simple: the American continental mass blocked all sea travel from the Arctic ice sheet to a point several hundred miles from Antarctica, which means if anyone traveled by sea and sailed in the right direction, and survived long enough, he would hit the Americas. Survival was the main problem, since ships could run short of fresh water on long voyages. Inability to determine longitude was the other. In 1492, a European sailing vessel knew exactly how far north or south it was, but not exactly how far east or west.

Okay, what did Columbus actually do? He first landed, we believe, in the Bahamas. We have no evidence he ever set foot on the future territory of the fifty United States (though he did in Puerto Rico, and at least spotted the Virgin Islands). He did land in America, but it was Central America, and only on his fourth voyage. He didn’t initiate the Transatlantic slave trade, but did enslave, rape and torture Natives. The idea of naming anything after him, especially a religious fraternal order or a celebratory day, is disgusting.

The golden age of piracy, as we see it in the Western world, didn’t really last very long; one might date it from 1650-1730 CE. It has a fair analogy to the gold rushes of the American West, in that very few actually practicing piracy got wealthy, but a lot of people got wealthy off piracy without ever turning pirate. Why? All that stolen swag was either money or goods. Pirates could spend the money with merchants. Merchants could buy the goods at criminally cheap prices and resell them for great profit. A very, very few pirates themselves retired wealthy. It’s also important to distinguish between privateers, who were legal pirates in a sense provided they preyed only upon certain powers’ shipping, and pirates, who had no legal sanction.

If a World War II country deserves to be remembered for a never-quit attitude, it’s Poland. The first Western country to have its territory subdued by warfare rather than diplomatic bullying, Poles showed up on land, sea and air for nearly every Allied campaign for the duration of the war. They also kept up an obstinate resistance on home soil in spite of one the most ruthless and protracted occupations of the war. A Polish destroyer helped chase the Bismarck to its fate. Poles fought in the snow at Narvik, flew in the Battle of Britain, defended the Maginot Line, fought the Afrika Korps in the Western Desert, stormed Monte Cassino when other highly regarded troops could not, and jumped in with three Allied airborne divisions in Operation Market-Garden.

The War of 1812 had elements of Revolutionary War Round 2, but like the Revolutionary War, was to some degree a sideshow of a greater conflict. In the Western world at that time, the central power struggle was France vs. Britain, the classic land power vs. the classic naval power. The colonies (later states) were never Britain’s biggest worry. That worry was the potential for the stars to align enabling France to invade Britain in force; whether due to a weather event that broke the Royal Navy’s screen, or some mistake by an admiral, this was necessarily uppermost in British strategic thought. As hard as it may be for us to accept, we just weren’t that important in the grand scheme of things–except, of course, to ourselves.

Hitler’s SS (Schutzstaffel) was not just an elite, brutal striking force (nor was all of it elite or brutal). It more resembled a megacorporation with a military arm, and that arm was not of universally high fighting ability, nor did all of it commit atrocities. The SS recruited over a dozen divisions that were not even of Germanic background, plus many smaller units; some fought well, while some were semi-useless or even mutinous. Some units (of various backgrounds) were guilty of systematic atrocities, while others have no documented record of war crimes.

In World War I, why didn’t they just blow up all that wire and trenching with artillery, and break the stalemate? They tried, and it did not work. WWI artillery of the day, assuming it struck precisely where it should, didn’t clear a usable path through barbed wire. It would have an impact on the trenches just by landing near them, but only direct hits had potential to clean out a small local section of trench defense, which could be reinforced quickly enough. The trench systems were several levels deep, with connecting trenching, so it wasn’t just a matter of getting lucky enough to take out one whole sector of the front.

World War II came home to the United States in more ways than just a few Japanese balloon incendiaries and crap-your-pants shelling from submarine deck guns. Very shortly after the US entered the war, German submarines entered a very productive period of sinking our tonnage. Our anti-submarine capability and tactics were awful at first, leading to many sinkings within sight of US shores. The government, not unreasonably, kept the magnitude of this from the public. The British and Canadians, with a vested interest in getting our warmaking means across the Atlantic, tried to recommend better tactics. Our pigheadedness cost thousands of American mariners’ lives.

The country that could have decided World War II in Europe: Turkey. Except for the pro forma war declaration near the end, the Turkish Republic remained neutral, with not a single Turkish soldier dying in combat. Let us imagine that Turkey had joined the Axis in early 1942: immediately the Soviet flank is turned in the Caucasus, the British flank is turned in the Near East with probable loss of Egypt, Germany and Italy grab the Caucasian oil fields–and most likely those in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula as well. The Suez closes to Allied shipping. A disaster of the first magnitude.

Or, let’s suppose Turkey joined the Allies at that same time. Right when he could least spare it, Hitler would have to scrape up a force to hold Bulgaria and Greece, and even if he brought enough muscle to drive the Turks from Thrace, he’d still have Istanbul to control and an angry Turkey bristling from the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara. The Soviet Caucasus front would acquire more depth; Turkish troops might tip the balance in North Africa, or at least free up the Commonwealth garrisons in Palestine, Syria and Iraq. Even granting that Turkey would not welcome Soviet troops on its soil except in the gravest extreme, there is no reasonable scenario that imagines the Axis conquering an Allied (mountainous, rugged, obstinately defended) Turkey while watching the French coastline, trying to conquer Egypt, keeping many subject populations suppressed, and fully engaged in the USSR. Turkish airbases would have made it very practical for the Allies to bomb the Ploesti oil facilities in Axis-aligned Romania. There are reasons Churchill had as a key geopolitical goal the persuasion of Turkish President İsmet İnönü to enter the war as an Ally, well beyond the urgency to keep him from entering the Axis.

The Roman Empire did and did not last a thousand years. Let’s sort this out once and for all. For its first 250 years, Rome was a kingdom, ruled for the last century of that monarchy by kings of Etruscan heritage. (Etruria is modern Tuscany, where you go in search of dolce vita and Chianti after reading too much Frances Mayes.) For its next 500 years, Rome had a republican form of government. It did not consolidate the rule of the Italian peninsula until the second half of this period, and did not begin to show imperial ambitions until the last 200 years, mostly as a result of wars to the knife with Carthage. In the Republic’s last century, when Rome had become master of most of the Mediterranean, civil war began to tear apart the fabric of republican government.

The question of when Rome transitioned from republic to empire is not so clear-cut as people usually make it out to be. Julius Caesar was never Emperor of Rome, though he seized as much power over the state as he could grasp. After his famed assassination, and some more civil war, Octavian (who became Augustus, the name by which history remembers him) was voted power much like Caesar’s, but still went through the republican motions. So did his son Tiberius, to a degree, though it began to be polite fiction in his day. That gets us from 45 BCE (Caesar’s primacy) to 37 CE, when Gaius (you know him as Caligula) ceased any pretense of republicanism–a span of eighty-two years.

The Empire began to crack into halves around 300 CE, and by 363 its division seemed irreparable. Within just a bit more than a century, the Western Empire found itself overrun by mostly Germanic peoples, but the Eastern Empire survived and became what we know as the Byzantine Empire, dominated more by Greek culture than Roman. The last Byzantine bastion, Byzantium itself, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE. Whether it was still much of an empire in 1400 is a fair question, since Byzantium had been in decline for two centuries, but at least in that form, the Roman Empire did last for well over a millennium. At what point it ceased to deserve the label ‘Roman’ is as valid a question as when Byzantium deteriorated into a mere city-state with some hinterland. However, there is no valid doubt that Byzantium was the unbroken successor government to the Eastern Roman Empire.

Ancient Sparta’s military prowess was directed more inward than outward. The Spartan city-state depended upon helots–slaves–for its economic viability. Much like antebellum Virginia, a major slave revolt sent chills up and down spines. The Spartan army had the primary duty of making sure the helots didn’t rebel. Admire Sparta if you wish for its toughness, but do remember that its society was morally on a level with the harshest examples, even stereotypes, of plantation slavery in US history.

We’re looking at the wrong imperial downfall model

Of this I am convinced.

The conventional analogy most often given for the United States’ rise and (anticipated by some) fall is that of the Roman Empire. That analogy has a lot of problems. Rome began as a bucolic thorp on the western Italian coast, dominated for the first two and a half centuries by Etruscan or Etruscan-backed kings. In time it threw them off, and formed the Roman Republic. This was never a democracy as we would reckon it today, but it was a step up from despotism, and evolved over its five centuries of existence. Yes. Rome was a republic for as long as has passed for us since Cristobal Colón landed in the Bahamas and got lasting credit for discovering an inhabited continent whose land territory he never saw. (How that continent became named for a Florentine latecomer is one of history’s stranger tales. I guess ‘Vespuccia’ just didn’t have that ring to it.)

In those five centuries, Rome consolidated first the Italian peninsula, then nearby islands and territories under its hegemony. In its final century, the Republic became hegemon over the entire Mediterranean. Alexander of Macedon (called ‘the Great’) went east against Persia rather than west against Rome and Carthage, and his former eastern Mediterranean holdings fell under full Roman control about three centuries after he was gone.

Rome did not go from republic to empire in a day, nor was Julius Caesar ever emperor. In its final century as a republic, infighting grew into chronic civil war. Representative government and civil war don’t coexist very well. When everyone was ready for peace, the state bestowed upon a First Citizen (Augustus) enough power to do much as he saw fit. We tend to call this his Emperorhood, but in reality, the role took several decades to realize that title’s full implications. The Roman Empire lasted in unity (most of the time, anyway) for three centuries, until it was reorganized by splitting in two pieces: eastern (which would endure for another millennium as the Byzantine Empire, a Greek state pretending to be Roman) and western (headquartered at Ravenna rather than decadent Rome). After another century and a half, the western half collapsed under the weight of sustained Germanic and Hunnic migrations/invasions (sometimes the line grew blurry), but left the legacy of a Christian Roman imperium which European states would seek to appropriate well into the 1800s.

As an analogy for the United States, this has plenty of problems, starting with the question of splitting the nation into two self-governing halves (one surviving a long time). There’s always noise about that, but little groundswell to think it likely, and especially not voluntarily. Rome either conquered and administered territory or not, which doesn’t fit the pattern of the rise of US power. And while some take satisfaction in the common perception that the western Roman fall came about due to increased economic stratification (with many Romans seeing nothing worth defending), the record does not really bear that out. The record suggests that when Rome began losing battles, armies and provinces to numerous Germanic invaders, that turned the tax base the wrong direction at a time when that was the worst possible news for the state. If Goths occupied Thrace, not only did they stop sending taxes to Ravenna, they might demand bribes to refrain from further violence. Less money–at a time when more was needed to rebuild destroyed armies–was a self-compounding problem leading to more lost tax base. That problem was at times patched by hiring Germanic mercenaries of questionable potential loyalty, especially if used as ballista fodder. When enough provinces turned from payers to non-payers, or became money sinks, the western Empire was finished.

The rise of US global influence and domestic authoritarianism doesn’t fit most of these patterns. Illegal aliens, despite what some think, are not a good analogy for Alaric the Visigoth. And despite republican trappings, Rome had always been oligarchic and plutocratic. Rome also didn’t have allied independent states, for the most part: there were Roman provinces, and bordering lands. Rome either wanted these, to conquer and Romanize, or it did not. And as mentioned, half the Empire didn’t fall at all, and exerted itself very little to keep the other half from Germanic conquest.

Little presented, but more pertinent, is the example of Athens. Perhaps this is because Americans are more ignorant of the Athenian Empire of the 5th century BCE, and perhaps it’s our conceit: Athens’ empire was too small and brief to compare. In size, that is true. In duration, comparison is not so far apart. In 500 BCE, Athens was perhaps the first among equals of the Greek poleis (city-states). By mid-century it was an empire. By 400, it was defeated and eclipsed by other Hellenic poleis. How’d that journey go?

In 500, Athens was pioneering the basics of thimokratia (we pronounce it ‘democracy’). It had rejected the notion of strongmen ruling by force. Not long after, the mighty, enlightened and quite cosmopolitan Persian Empire sought to convert Greece (which included many dozens of city-states in the Aegean and along what would one day become the Turkish coast) into yet another Persian satrapy. Persian dominion was far better than most previous Near Eastern forms, especially the unlamented Assyrian methods, but most Greeks had zero interest in Persian overlordship. This led to the famous battles of Thermopylae (mostly Spartans on land), Cape Artemision (mostly Athenians at sea), Marathon (mostly Athenians on land) and Salamis (mostly Athenians at sea).

By 480, a frustrated Persia had shelved the notion of absorbing most Greeks into its empire, unless opportunity jumped up and bit them. From that time dated the rise of Athenian power and prestige in the Greek world. The analogy is imperfect, but we might see parallels in the burgeoning of US power and prestige as we helped the Soviets and British/Commonwealth defeat the Axis. And as Sparta had been co-belligerent with Athens against Persian invasion, so did the US join with and assist the much-distrusted Soviet Union to lay low Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy.

While Athens had rivals in Thebes, Sparta and Corinth whose power merited respect, it was the great power of its region. Athens wasn’t large enough to dominate all Greece by conquest, but it was the power with whom no one wanted to tangle–not even Sparta, a cautious place deeply concerned with keeping its slaves in check. As an ostensible peace-and-collective-security move, Athens organized many of the Greek poleis into the Delian League. I’ve been to Delos, and it’s hard to imagine those windswept ruins as a major neutral meeting and trading zone, but they once were. The idea was to arbitrate disputes, gather membership dues to deal with major problems, and keep the Persians from picking them off one by one. Seemed prudent at the time.

Athenian concepts of democracy advanced as the century reached midpoint, with free male commoners actually gaining the ability to participate in government (which is ahead of where the USA was at independence). Athenian naval vessels kept the sea safe for Athenian foreign trade. Athens grew rich and prestigious, thinking itself the apogee of human development. Persia was still a potential threat, and the Athenians’ major Greek neighbors did not trust them, but peace and prosperity generally reigned. For Athens, that became more true after the discovery of silver in Attica (the peninsula on which Athens rests).

In between speeches telling Athenians how great they were, Athenian leaders spent the silver on monumental building, fortifications and naval vessels. Athenian domestic politics became more fickle and bitter, with ostrakismos (exile by public vote) the common fate of any great statesman or general. ‘For safekeeping,’ Athens moved the Delian League treasury to Athens, and began dipping into the till. When poleis sought to withdraw from the Delian League, they learned that withdrawal was unacceptable. If Athenian soldiers came to the defense of a League member polis, they came to stay. The Athenian military budget was by far the largest in Greece.

Never an alliance of equals to begin with, this Delian League boiled down to something like Mafia protection. You paid up, shut up and did as told, or you got a lesson. Some people grumbled that the comparison to Persian dominion was disadvantageous. The Athenians didn’t listen, since that was only their jealous inferiors talking, who didn’t realize that what was good for Athens was good for all Greeks. In the Athenian mind, they were spending all this money of their own, asking a pittance from member states, and setting the perfect example of democracy. Those ingrates, who ought to be forever grateful to their obvious betters, had the nerve to complain and question the judgment of the cultural and financial paragons who had saved all other Greeks from the need to cringe and scrape before Eastern potentates.

No alliance that amounts to a senior partner expecting gratitude from junior partners for exploiting and bullying them can long endure, especially if the external threat recedes. The membership will start edging away as soon as the senior partner falters, especially if they get some form of encouragement from the senior partner’s rivals. The Mafia can crush one or three rebels, but it cannot crush them all at one time, nor can it cannot simultaneously crush them all and fight off a serious rival operation.

Hybris is a legacy from Classical Greek. As ‘hubris,’ it is one of tens of thousands in modern English. Today we define it as excessive pride, the sort that goes before a fall. In Classical times, of which we speak, the meaning differed a bit: in general terms, we might describe its Classical meaning as spiking the ball and taunting your defeated rival. Our modern definition perfectly describes Athens circa 440 BCE. Athenians believed that every polis’s most important relationship must be that with the most important city this side of Persepolis: Athens, the pinnacle of wealth, culture and power.

By 431 BCE, the Athenians had ignored the resentful side effects of hubris long enough. Sparta was not a naval power, but on land it was formidable. War came to most Greek-speaking poleis, with Sparta and Athens as the major players. Athens engaged in a far-flung and disastrous expedition to Sicily, a foreign war for wealth and power disguised as protecting an ally. Athens’ Spartan rivals found it expedient to support those ready to make trouble for the Athenian Empire, which had begun as the Delian League. Most Delian cities rested within or ringed the Aegean, and had navies in some form. In union they could challenge the Athenian fleet, without which Athens could not hold its empire.

In 404, the war drew to a close. Exhausted in every imaginable way, the Athenians lay at Spartan mercy. They were amazed when Sparta failed to treat Athens as Athens might have treated Sparta, and had treated its some of its own vanquished over the years. The thug mentality has a fatal flaw: it presumes that everyone else is a thug. When you see the powerful behave as callous, exploitative thugs, doing as they please and using others because they can, you see a hated power that dares not slip or let down its guard.

The example seems instructive, more so than that of Rome.

History lessons with my wife

So, I was mostly minding my business tonight while Deb watched Grey’s Anatomy. During a commercial, I looked up from my read of a book on the decline of the Ottoman Empire to read her a passage which I thought said a lot about Napoleon’s ability to influence peoples (though I was in fact a bit wrong about that). She said, in her outside voice as is traditional, “You don’t know history at all!”

“I don’t?”

“No. If you did, you would know that his last name was not really Bonaparte…”–I grew kind of excited–“…but Bone Together. ‘Bonaparte’ was an attempt by him to draw people away from him so he could have sex with the enemy’s women. That’s why he won the war!”


“Come at me, big daddy. Ask me anything. Bring it.”

“Okay, very well. What is the significance of Çatalhöyük?”

She fixed me with a gaze of shock and dismay. “You don’t know what Saddle Who You was? Listen and learn. When they wanted to build the Trojan Horse, they needed a saddle that could hold a lot of people. So they made one, and named it Saddle Who You, which is derived from Saddle Hookah. This enabled them to deliver rubbers.”

I looked at her and just laughed. “Rubbers?”

“Duh. Why do you think it was called the Trojan Horse?” I sat silent, like any good husband slow in the uptake. “See? You don’t know your history. Ask me anything else.”

“Fine. Who did Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeat at Poitiers?”

She looked aghast that I could be so clueless. “Charles Martel defeated Le Peu Nailé, which of course means ‘the nail.'” I cracked up again, couldn’t help it. “Keep it coming. Ask me anything.”

“Okay, dear. What was the significance of Charlotte Corday?”

A sigh. “Charlotte Corduroy, you mean. She invented pants, but they were corduroy pants. They were also called ‘whisper pants,’ and the idea was to give them to the enemy so they would whisper when they walked.”


“Absolutely. I’m really sad for anyone like you, with a degree in history, to be so un-knowledgeable.”

“I think you meant ‘ignorant,’ dear.”

“NO! I said ‘un-knowledgeable’ and I meant ‘un-knowledgeable!’ Now come on. Ask me another. I can see I have a lot to teach you.”

“Fine. Please name one of the Spanish explorers of North America.”

She thought for a minute, consulting her stores of learning. “Well, his name was Julio El De Massmainebostainia. There are some states named after him. He came with his wife Maria, their daughter Nina, and some pinto beans.”

At that point, there was nothing for it but to come put it on the blog.

Books: The Last Lion Vol. 3, Defender of the Realm

If you ever sought to research Winston Churchill, you at least examined William Manchester’s The Last Lion Vol. 1 (Visions of Glory) and Vol. 2 (Alone). Authors have an interesting time writing biographies of Churchill, because the old bulldog offered his own version. Whether you can believe Winston gives you the whole truth and nothing but the truth, which you should at least question, he could out-prose almost anyone. Truest words he ever said: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

There was to be a Vol. 3 (Defender of the Realm) in the early 2000s, but Manchester’s health failed before he could complete the work. He passed in 2004, a tremendous loss to the art of historical biography. During his final illness, Manchester asked journalist and friend Paul Reid to complete the work. Interesting choice: Reid was a newspaper reporter who had never authored a book. He had all Manchester’s notes to work with, but that’s much like a pretty good college baseball player yanked from alma mater’s dugout and marched up to the plate in a major league playoff game with men on base.

Having waited for this for ten years, you might say I was ardent to start reading.

I’m about halfway through, just after the start of Barbarossa (Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the USSR) and Operation Crusader (Auchinleck’s Western Desert offensive). While I like most of it, I see some weaknesses. Manchester chose Reid for his writing talent rather than his historical immersion, and it shows. I’ve noted a few side stories worthy of exploration, not generally known to most non-historians and WWII buffs, which Reid does not mention–yet which were directly pertinent to Churchill’s life and prime ministry. Manchester got what he wanted, though, for Reid is a capable writer and doesn’t shield us from his subject’s weaknesses.

The word on why it took this long is the combination of Manchester’s semi-legible scrawled notes, the sheer volume of the work undertaken, and Reid’s non-historical orientation. Considering what he went through in order to do this, I have to respect what Reid accomplished. I find that article fair in that Reid did not hew slavishly to all Manchester’s decidedly pro-Churchill stances, and despite discovering the depth of the sea only through repeated dives into it, kept at it until he finished the job.

Definitely good biography. I think those who insisted on having the first two books in hardcover will be happy.