Friday, November 28, 2014

Suggestion for young scholars and bibliophiles

Don't overlook the used book sections of thrift stores. Seriously! In the past year I have found some great books in good condition. And they were really cheap.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Thought on FDR's Polio

Still plugging away at Ken Burns's The Roosevelts.  Doris Kearns Goodwin pushed the idea
that polio made FDR more sympathetic to the troubles and concerns of other people, and hence more liberal. By extension, this line suggests that FDR's polio made the New Deal. She is not the first person to suggest this, of course, but I have always been a little suspicious of this assertion. Obviously, such a monumental event in an individual's life will affect their outlook. There is no doubt that FDR was a changed man, and that he shed some of the haughty arrogance that many detected in the younger FDR. It was humbling for athletic FDR to rely on others to help him in the toilet, to get dressed, and to move. He dragged himself across his bedroom floor. Yet, parts of his outlook did not change. He remained ebullient and optimistic, and hid his fears and negative feelings very deep.

On a political level, polio might have made him feel greater genuine empathy and sympathy for the problems of common people. However, he was very much a progressive before polio deprived him the use of his legs. As a politician, he craved popularity and the New Deal was nothing if not very popular with voters, as is clearly evident in his four elections. If anything moved FDR left it was public opinion and the desire to win votes. Social Security is a great case in point. FDR wanted to draw the support Dr. Townsend was building around his proposal. The Social Security Act that FDR signed was different in many ways from what we now know as Social Security. It covered far fewer people and was setup as a self funding program (demonstrating a fiscal conservatives that lurked in FDR). It is hard for me to see how the New Deal would have been very different, or that FDR would have not adopted old age insurance, if had not been afflicted by polio.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Gilded Age Tariff Snafu

Here is an interesting story of  Gilded Age tariff comma snafu that cost the United States government $2 million, the equivalent to $38 million today. I wonder what that could have paid for?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Benedict XV: Pope during World War I

On September 3, 1914, Cardinal Giacomo Della Chiesa, the Arch-Bishop of Bologna was elected to The Unknown Pope: Benedict XV and the Pursuit of Peace, John F. Pollard paints a favorable portrait of the pontiff during the Great War. Pollard argues that although Della Chiesa was relatively unknown, even to his fellow Cardinals, he was far from a dark horse candidate. His election was seen as a compromise between the ultra conservatives represented by Pope Pius X and the more liberal faction of Pope Leo XIII. Just five days after his election, Benedict XV issued his first call for peace.
the seat of St. Peter and took the name Pope Benedict XV.  In

The war had noticeable effects on the Vatican. Travel restrictions, especially after Italy entered the war, essentially stopped transnational pilgrimages. The war also disrupted the flow of tithes from the parishes to Rome, causing financial hardships. Benedict professed neutrality, but the diplomatic situation for the Holy See was complicated to say the least. Traditionally, the Church had a close relationship with the Austrian monarch, who had until 1904 a veto over papal elections. Relations with Italy had been antagonistic since unification in 1870, and the Italian government intercepted and inspected all incoming and outgoing mail. Relations with England, France, and Russia were also poor for a variety of reasons. Benedict's efforts at mediation in 1917 also alienated England and France because they were interpreted as being too favorable to Germany (who incidentally was angry at the Pope for his condemnations of atrocities in Belgium). Pollard believes that Benedict XV acted in good faith, but that his position was somewhat compromised by an effort to prop up the doomed Austrian monarchy. Papal denunciations of atrocities against civilians, use of weapons of mass destruction, and the expansion of the war sadly fell on deaf ears. The most tangible impact Benedict XV had on the war, was in the treatment of prisoners of war, a cause the Pope took to heart. The Church arranged for chaplains, mail delivery, care packages, food, medical care, and an information clearinghouse for prisoners and their families.

In a 1920 encyclical, Pacem Dei Munus, the Pope displayed his displeasure with a peace settlement that he felt sorely lacking in Christian principles. Reparations, nationalism, and vulnerable successor states were among his criticisms of the Treaty of Versailles. He remained sensitive to human suffering and spent funds from the depleted Vatican treasury on famine relief in Russia in 1921. Conscious of the poor relations with the western allies, he made some efforts to improve relations with the English and French governments.

Although not a towering figure in Church history, Pope Benedict XV had some noticeable impacts, including taking the first steps towards the publication of the Catechism (although it would not be published until 1993!), reaching out to non-Catholic Christians, codifying canon law, and establishing native missionaries in Africa and Asia. A pious and generous man who could be irascible at times, Benedict XV died unexpectedly in 1922 at the age of 67.




Thursday, August 21, 2014

Recent Reads: Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

I must admit that I have never been a big William Jennings Bryan fan. He always struck me as a bit a whack job. In A Godly Hero, Michael Kazin reminds us that the Great Commoner played an important role in transforming the Democratic Party from the conservative, states-rights policies of Grover Cleveland to the liberal, national party associated with Franklin Roosevelt. Ironically, Kazin sees Bryan as a conservative figure that considered corporate-driven industrialization a radical force that could destroy American families, the Jeffersonian economy of farmers and mechanics, and the very project of democracy itself.

Kazin dismisses any lingering claims that the Boy Orator was selected as a dark horse in 1896, arguing instead that the crafty and ambitious Bryan had been actively working for the nomination for a year prior to the convention. By 2014 standards that would make him a late- comer, but in 1896 it was an early start. Having been nominated by the Democratic Party, Bryan ran an electrifying and novel campaign, but one that had only the slimmest possibility of success. In defeat Bryan’s supporters bonded to their hero. No other losing politician enjoyed such devoted loyalty. So potent was his spell, that the Democrats wheeled him out for two more drubbings. When not campaigning, Bryan worked his way through the lecture circuit advocating prohibition. Although his third loss more or less disqualified him from a fourth nomination in 1912, he was instrumental in steering the convention towards New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. Kazin argues that Bryan exercised some influence on the New Freedom, and it should be as much a part of his legacy as his other projects. A Godly Hero finds one major flaw in its subject: He failed to stand for racial justice and too often sided with Jim Crow.

President Wilson acknowledged both Byran's support in the 1912 convention and his standing in the party by appointing him secretary of state. Bryan, who had campaigned in 1900 on an anti-imperialism message, wanted the United States to deviate from Roosevelt's jingoism and Taft's dollar diplomacy, by adopting a moral foreign policy. He succeeded to some extent in tempering Wilson's heavy hand in Latin America. But Kazin draws attention to the tension this created for the nation's chief diplomat. Despite his own views and preferences, he still had to serve his president.

When it comes to World War I Bryan stumbled badly in the estimation of his biographer. Bryan argued that the British bore prime responsibility for the loss of American life when a German submarine torpedoed the Lusitania in May 1915. Even before the sinking, he expressed concern that Wilson's British-leaning policy compromised American neutrality. Critical of both the British blockade and the German U-Boat campaign, he argued before the cabinet that any American citizens who traveled on belligerent ships did so at their own peril. Then, when the crisis occurred, Bryan choked. Instead of using the sinking as a platform to protest the American failure to uphold neutrality, he bowed to the president's wishes and signed a strongly worded threat to Germany that he himself had objected to. Then, he resigned in such a friendly manner that it did nothing to sharpen the differences between him and the chief executive. Following his departure from the cabinet, Bryan continued to serve Wilson. Bryan campaigned for Wilson in the 1916 election, and might have played a decisive role in the president's reelection. 
After the United States entered the war, Bryan attacked profiteers and made it a point not to castigate German citizens.


Bryan's reputation might have been improved if he had gone down in a blaze of glory protesting Wilson Administration's policy. Of course, such a course was complicated by the fact that he had signed the note to Germany, a fact that leaves Kazin scratching his head. On the other hand, Bryan was a politician and wanted his party to remain in power. He had worked his whole life to see a strong Democratic administration in the White House that would use the federal government as a tool to bring about economic justice. Wilson might be wrong on war, but he was still vastly superior to a Republican president in either the mold of either Roosevelt or Taft. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Recent Reads: Russians and Dunsterforce

A couple of primary source accounts that aided me in my understanding of World War I.

Nikolai Golovin, The Russian Army in World War I (1931). Golovin served on the Russian General Staff during the war. He wrote of the many challenges facing the Russian army, but the one that stuck out the most for me is his attitude towards the western allies. According to Golovin, the Russians responded to French pleas for assistance by assaulting the Germans, and suffered enormous losses doing so. Yet, when the Russians begged for assistance in 1915, the French and English ignored the requests. I wonder if Comrade Stalin was familiar with this book, and if it sharpened his sense that Churchill and Roosevelt did not do enough for Mother Russia.

Lionel Charles Dunsterville, The Adventures of Dunsterforce (1920). If there is a forgotten front in
World War I it is the Middle East. Dunsterville led Indian troops in the northwestern frontier against tribes rebelling against British rule during most of the war. In late 1917 he was tasked with a new assignment in the wake of the Russian Revolution. He was to take a special motorized force of 400 men (all officers and NCOs) from Baghdad to the Russian city of Tiflis. The British were concerned that the Turks would drive deeper into Central Asia and that Germany would obtain access to vital oil fields in the region. Dunsterforce was to go to Tiblis, rally disaffected Russian troops (paying them as mercenaries) and anyone else they could find, and build a strong enough defense force to halt the Central Powers' drive east. The trip north from Baghdad through Persia is an odd one in the annals of warfare. They slept both in the field and in hotels and met both friendly and hostile Persians (some of whom took shots at their passing convoy). When they finally arrived in Russian territory, the local Soviet treated them as enemies, not allies. The Germans turned the tables on Dunsterville, by telling the Russians that the British were coming to take their oil. Dunsterforce's mission was abandon in September 1918.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

World War I Recent Reads: Decisive Battles Edition

In The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2009), Holger H. Herwig wrote, "The Marne was the most significant battle of the twentieth century." (p. xi) It really wasn't a single battle, but a collection of bloody engagements that marked the opening two months of the war in the west and set the tone of the conflict to come. Herwig covers the French offensive into Lorraine, known as the Battle of the Frontiers (which, like the Marne, was made up of many engagements), as well as the German attacks to the north through Belgium and in the center towards Nancy. The casualties were enormous, and the German drive on Paris was stopped. The soldiers dug in and settled into their trenches, and there would be no appreciable move in the front lines until 1918. This is an exciting read, well argued and sourced. To me, Herwig's account depicts the campaigns as a series of errors and missteps. None of the commanders come off well, with Helmuth von Moltke coming off the worst. Herwig gives attention to the German fascination with the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal's crushing victory over the Romans in 216 BCE. This fixation with a decisive knock out punch made it difficult for the Germans officers to play the kind of small ball warfare that developed. They let opportunities slip away so that they the could try to set the stage for the next attempt at a Cannae-like victory. One other thing I learned in this: I did not know that the original Schlieffen Plan called for Italians to man the Lorraine front against the French, while more German soldiers would be put in the main attack force through Belgium. Of course, the Italians opted out of their alliance with the Central Powers, and the Germans had to guard their own frontiers.

In Breakthrough: The Gorlice-Tarnow Campaign, 1915 (Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2010) Richard L. DiNardio covers the decisive battle of the eastern front. In fact, he argues that the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign re-set the war on all fronts in Germany's favor. The Central Powers regained the upper hand that they lost on the Battle of the Marne, and dealt the Russian army a blow that they did not recover from. Unlike Moltke's grand plan to reach Paris in one swift movement, Field Marshal August von Mackensen's plan moved from one objective to the next as a series of independent offensives. The first target was Przemsyl, then Lemberg, and finally Warsaw. Each one fell into their hands more easily than they thought, setting the stage for the next drive east. Unlike the Battle of the Marne, these battles were masterpieces of operational art that utilized the latest technologies, like the telephone. DiNardio has high praises for Mackensen and his staff, and takes a few swipes at General Erich von Ludendorff. Ironically, despite the clear military success of the campaign, it failed in its diplomatic objectives of persuading Italy and Romania to remain neutral. Considering their liabilities to the Allies, that might not have been a total diplomatic defeat for the Germans.

My big takeaway from these books is how difficult operational planning was during World War I. They did not always effectively utilize the latest technologies (railroads, telephones, automobiles, planes), had very limited intelligence, and little experience moving the vast formations under their command. If Herwig's book shows the failure of the Germans to set realistic and obtainable objectives, DiNardio's shows that they learned that lesson well enough.