Have You No Decency Sir? Part Two- Joseph McCarthy: Separating Fact from Fiction

Is it true what they say about Joe McCarthy? Did he have any “decency?”

  1. IV. In carrying out his “Witch Hunts” it is believed that McCarthy was cruel, disrespectful, and contemptuous toward his witnesses with little regard for their constitutional rights. Eager to put these so-called “commies” in jail, the standard histories say, the impatient, nasty, mean-spirited Senator from Wisconsin and his gang of assassins ran roughshod over innocent victims with little regard for fairness while his helpless Senate colleagues watched in utter dismay afraid to challenge him lest they too be accused of Communism. Surely, his was a reign of terror, a Washington version of the Salem witch trials.

Narrative historian William Manchester knows a rat when he sees one: “Tydings (Democrat committee chair in 1950) had won all the battles of reason and decency, but McCarthy had never tried to be reasonable or decent; he was a political charlatan, etc..” 1

Kenneth Davis in DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY calls him “this scruffy, mean-spirited alcoholic..” -among other things. And that’s one of his nicer comments.2

In the textbook LIBERTY, EQUALITY, AND POWER the authors assert that McCarthy “bullied witnesses..”3

David Halberstam,( usually one of my favorite narrative historians), can’t find anything nice to say either: “..a serious drinker ..who…after berating vulnerable witnesses during the day… had a talent for imagining conspiracy…a marvelous actor who knew instinctively how to brush aside the protests of his witnesses, how to humiliate scared, vulnerable people..” Gosh, McCarthy was not only a drunk, but a mean one at that! 4

These are but a few comments from the standard histories- representative of what we’ll find in book after book, all on the same anti-McCarthy page.

So… do we accept this at face value, the widely held belief that McCarthy was a particularly nasty Nazi? That the devil himself was running loose in Washington from 1950 to 1954? True or false? I say:


The evidence doesn’t support this.

Consider these comments from Samuel Shaffer of Newsweek in the Spring of 1953 quoting a Democratic member of McCarthy’s committee:

“I must say I have a more favorable opinion of McCarthy than I used to have before I came on this committee. He is a very able lawyer. He is damn sharp. He is fair and COURTEOUS (emphasis mine) to members of his committee. He doesn’t bulldoze his witnesses as much as I expected him to. In fact, he has permitted hostile witnesses to speak at great length.” 4

McCarthy “courteous?” How could anyone who had ACTUALLY BEEN WITH McCarthy say such as thing?

And another. That same year Willard Edwards of the Chicago Tribune observed:

“Many will be astonished by this but the fact is that McCarthy is an extraordinarily patient man. He has more self-control than almost any public figure I have encountered in the past two decades. This writer has had..almost numberless occasions to marvel at his control under persistent and insulting questions by hostile reporters…An abusive Fifth Amendment witness gets slapped down promptly but ordinarily McCarthy maintains an even temperament. ” 5

Stanton Evans tells us to forget the standard histories, textbooks compiled by lazy historians simply regurgitating the party line, “movie history” and to doubt contemporary editorials* from hostile newspapers like the Washington Post. Instead look at primary sources, namely the transcripts of the ACTUAL Senate hearings, the official Congressional record, thousands of pages detailing McCarthy and his colleagues going about their daily business.

Primary sources? Seems I remember reading once that REAL historians were supposed to take a strong interest in such things.

“Anyone,” Evans tells us, ” will be struck by the contrast between the picture they(transcripts-primary sources) convey and the accepted image of McCarthy…exchanges between McCarthy and his democratic colleagues at this time (early 1953) were..quite cordial..he was patient with harangues from hostile witnesses..Another salient feature ..was the rule that no one should be named as a Communist, pro-Communist, or subversive unless the person named was given notice and the opportunity to respond directly ..with counsel present.”6

It is particularly interesting that even in the bit of film shown in the movie GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK where we see McCarthy and Cohn being questioned in the McCarthy-Army hearings in 1954 by attorney Joseph Welch (who is clearly enjoying himself), McCarthy and Roy Cohn appear subdued, cooperative and even respectful demonstrating the “even-temperament” cited by   Willard Edwards. Even in this carefully selected bit-of-film we do not view an out-of-control bully, a bulldozer of civil and constitutional rights.

Furthermore, in the famous “gotcha” moment, when McCarthy produces the name of Welch’s associate as a potential subversive and a member of a highly questionable organization, he does so calmly and deliberately ONLY after being incessantly goaded and “double-dog dared” to do so by the grandstanding Welch (playing to the hoots, catcalls, and cheers of the anti-McCarthy audience) who had delivered one silly contemptuous remark after another such as: “Show me just one Communist and I’ll tell the FBI myself!” Clearly it is McCarthy and Cohn who are being bullied here! Watch this short bit of film objectively and forget for a few minutes what it is you’re supposed to believe about McCarthy the school-yard bully and simply observe what is  occurring in this piece of film.

Yes, McCarthy did in this instance, by the way, “name a name.” But, he did so only after being challenged and goaded into doing so. (More on this later)

GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, a drama telling the story of the gallant Edward R. Murrow’s “heroic” and long overdue attack against the beast McCarthy was produced and funded by the imminent Hollywood historian George Clooney.

By the way, the real Joe McCarthy was filmed many times. If a bit of film showing him in a very unsympathetic, “bullying” light does indeed exist, I’ve got a feeling that Clooney and company would have used it. Maybe they didn’t because such a bit of film doesn’t exist.

Arthur Hermann, author of a well-regarded modern book-length study of the much maligned senator offers a far more believable appraisal. He tells us that:

“McCarthy was a warm, engaging, intensely physical man…the kind of person who cornered you and buttonholed you at a party…charming and engaging. Most people-even his political opponents-found him a very likeable individual. 7

An application of common sense might be in order here. McCarthy was elected to high political office in 1946 in what was usually considered a progressive state and RE-ELECTED in 1952 in the midst of his Communist-chasing campaign. An unlikeable, crude, “scruffy” drunken brute might, just might, win the first election but a reelection? I doubt it. From what I’ve read, McCarthy was popular back home and had little trouble getting himself reelected. This suggests to me that in 1952 the people of Wisconsin,( not Alabama) liked their senator and liked what he was doing!

Oh, one last thing. Remember Joe Kennedy and his boys John and Robert, that Irish-Catholic bunch from Massachusetts? More bad news for lazy historians.  They loved Joe McCarthy as well and had him over for visits to their family home on Hyannis Port at Cape Cod several times. The feisty young Robert even served as McCarthy’s assistant for a few months in 1954. When JFK ran for the Senate in 1952, McCarthy refused to campaign against his good friend, much to the disgust of fellow Republican Henry Cabot Lodge the incumbent who, of course, lost his Senate seat to the young Democrat challenger and future president.

The friendship of McCarthy to the Kennedys has been a problem for McCarthy-hating historians. Few standard histories will even bring it up. I haven’t found any mention of it in the dozen or so bargain textbooks I own. Best not to, I guess; such an application of truth just confuses the issue and softens the picture of Joe McCarthy the caveman. After all, that’s the picture we’ve been programmed to see.

In conclusion, the standard histories have mostly presented us with a simplistic one-dimensional cartoon Nazi, an inquisitor, a “Witch-hunter,” a melodramatic bad guy straight out of a 1950’s Hollywood B-rate movie that bears scant resemblance to the real Joe McCarthy.

Here’s to you Kenneth Davis, as your book title indicates, you ( and your textbook colleagues) really “don’t know much about history.” At the very least, you guys are abysmally ignorant, and willfully so, when it comes to Senator McCarthy. Dig a little deeper boys and girls. Grow up. Quit insulting our intelligence. And give us, and the Senator, a break.


More to come.


*When we base our view of Joe McCarthy on negative newspaper editorials of his day aren’t we, in a sense, like future researchers basing their view of President Barak Obama on information gleaned from U-tube videos of Bill O’Reilly (Fox News) commentaries? My Democrat friends certainly hope that their grandchildren will dig a little deeper than that!


  1. Manchester, William. THE GLORY AND THE DREAM Vol. 1, p. 648.
  3. Murrin, et al. LIBERTY, EQUALITY, AND POWER. p. 742.
  4. David Halberstam, THE FIFTIES. (p.54)
  5. Evans, M. Stanton: BLACKLISTED BY HISTORY, p. 458
  6. Evans, etc.




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“Have You No Decency Sir?” Senator Joseph McCarthy: Separating Fact from Fiction

th2SHRBBVMIt’s hard to find a historian these days who will say anything good about Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957). For that matter it’s hard to find anyone who will. There is nearly universal agreement that the fellow was bad news. Still the question must be asked: Is this fair? Is this accurate? Or do we simply “run with the herd” on this? Jump on the anti-McCarthy bandwagon and end all further inquiry into the matter? Or, should we re-open the case, so to speak, and take a fresh look? Have his faults been exaggerated and his virtues ignored? Can we say that maybe, just maybe, it ain’t all that simple? Not “black and white?” Good vs evil?

“Have you no decency sir?” This question was directed toward McCarthy by attorney Joseph Welch in the 1954 Army vs McCarthy hearings, an episode that effectively ended the anti-Communist crusade of the controversial Wisconsin senator. It’s a question worth exploring.

First, let’s look at the facts. Joseph McCarthy, the “infamous” senator from Wisconsin, was a Republican US senator between the years 1947 and 1957 and rose to national prominence immediately after a speech given in Wheeling, WV in February, 1950 in which he announced the presence of Communists in the state department. No recording of the speech exists. Exactly what he said on that occasion remains a matter of dispute. From that point forward, over the next three and a half years, he was the most publicized and best known US American politician except for presidents Truman and Eisenhower. His principal goal was to identify and remove Communists or Communist sympathizers in the US government, particularly those in sensitive government positions. Nowadays the term “McCarthyism” is a negative term used to describe a person(s) employing reckless, callous methods to identify alleged wrongdoers within a large group resulting in irreparable damage done to innocent people and instituting a climate of fear. After an official Senate censure in 1954, McCarthy faded from public view and died in 1957 at the age of 49 from liver disease due to an excessive consumption of alcohol.

I’m suggesting that we reopen the case” and look again at the various charges made against the Senator by his many opponents and see if, sixty years later, they still hold up. During the period of his fame and intense activity (1950-1954), the vast majority of his opponents were Democrats in Congress and in the state department, the liberal intelligentsia and the mainline big-city newspapers. McCarthy was constantly under fire and burdened himself by investigations designed to bring him down. His many critics, then and now, have said that:

  1. 1. “Tailgunner Joe” (as he was often called) never served in the military during WW II. False. At the outbreak of WW II, in his early thirties, he volunteered for the Marine Corps and served in the PTO or Pacific Theatre. Exactly how many combat missions he flew is still debated but the general consensus is that he flew twelve, maybe thirteen. He later exaggerated the number of missions upon application for the DSC (Distinguished Flying Cross) which he did receive. Still his exaggerated tales of military service pale when compared to the exaggerated tales offered by other US politicians in those days such as Lyndon Johnson, who managed to get a Silver Star for spending about fifteen minutes in the air on a routine flight where it was highly doubtful that his plane ever came under fire! When McCarthy became a US senator in 1946 at the age of 39, he was the first veteran of WW II to enter that body.
  2. 2. He never identified a single real, honest-to-God Communist. His accusations and grandstanding was all for naught, say his critics then and now, “sound and fury signifying nothing.” ONLY the innocent suffered as McCarthy and his colleagues in various congressional hearings dragged their reputations through the mud. He could never locate any real Communists, so it goes, but merely fanned the flames of anti-Communist hysteria. Real Communists seemed strangely elusive and out-of-reach for this big bully of a Senator. So said his critics.

Again False. Among those McCarthy identified as dangerous Communists were T.A. Bisson, Mary Jane Keeney, Cedric Belfrage, Solomon Adler, Franz Neumann, Leonard Mins, Gustavo Duran, and William Remington. All, at various times in their lives, McCarthy believed, were committed Communists and serious security risks or worse .

Remington, for example, came under suspicion by the US government after WW II (long before McCarthy) for passing classified info to the Soviets. He was charged by the FBI in the late forties but the charges were dropped. Due to the urging of McCarthy, Roy Cohn, (McCarthy’s legal assistant) and others, his case was reopened and Remington, who had held several government positions, was finally brought to trial in 1954, found guilty, sentenced and sent to prison to serve a three year sentence. He was murdered while in prison.

Mary Jane Keeny, an employee of the United Nations representing the US government, was pegged as a Communist by McCarthy in February 1950. She and her husband Joe were part of the “Silvermaster Spy Ring” connected to the GRU, or Soviet military intelligence. The two had long been under suspicion by the US government when McCarthy mentioned her in a speech. She was dismissed from her job. In 1952 the Keenys were convicted on contempt of Congress before a senate committee but their convictions were later reversed on appeal. Later research into declassified documents in the 1990s by cold war historian John E. Haynes firmly established their treasonous espionage activities.

In both cases McCarthy examined their files and was incensed that such persons were still working for the US government. In the Keeny case, McCarthy had no idea at the time as to the extent of their treason; it was far worse than even he suspected. They never served a day in jail but, due to the work of the Senator, they also never again served in a government position, an outcome that likely suited him just fine. He knew that getting convictions against such persons was a long-term, expensive process. Simply getting them out of the civil service would have to do.

Solomon Adler, though never called in person to the Senate floor, was named twice by the controversial Senator in the hearings. Adler, an unapologetic admirer of Mao, was part of the US state-department China circle in the nineteen-forties. When the heat turned in his direction in 1950 he bolted the USA and went to England, the place of his birth. Later, in 1960, he returned to mainland China and spent the remainder of his life in service to his adopted country living to a ripe old age . Look him up on Wiki-pedia. Sounds like a “Commie” to me.

Of course, three names do not let McCarthy of the hook completely. He mentioned lots of folks in the hearings, most of whom easily escaped further Senate notice. But NOT FBI notice. Or the notice of McCarthy supporters who were convinced that he was on the right track.

McCarthy moved through a long list of names and got almost no support from Millard Tydings, the Democrat Chairman of the sub-committee assigned to handle the McCarthy business. Why? More on that later.

  1. Joe McCarthy called General George C. Marshall a “traitor” and a “Communist.” Again false. No way. Though the textbooks often say it, he never used those words. But…. his June 14, 1951 anti-Marshall speech on the Senate floor was probably his greatest tactical error. The upstart young Senator from Wisconsin was David against Washington’s Goliath this time. Caught up in the heat of the moment McCarthy let loose a blistering diatribe against the sainted general that would cause his enemies to go into overdrive and his friends to cringe. But, to the thoughtful, it was obvious that McCarthy was squarely on target regarding much of what he said. Among other things, in his late 1945 visit to China, McCarthy believed, the sainted general had been swayed by advisors and associates such as Solomon Adler negatively disposed to Nationalist leader Chiang Kai -shek and had been manipulated into disastrous decisions that hurt Chaing and helped Mao Tse-tung. The triumph of Communism in mainland China had occurred only a few weeks before McCarthy’s initial speech in Wheeling. In one fell swoop, another one fourth of the world’s population went under the hammer and sickle. Those were dark days indeed for the cause of freedom and democracy.

McCarthy was not Marshall’s only critic. In a disaster of that magnitude, heads will roll. Ordinarily. But not this time. The sainted general and his China associates in this episode would keep theirs. Marshall was, in the view of millions, beyond criticism, a pillar of virtue. And his associates? Innocent by association. But not in the eyes of Joe McCarthy. Right or wrong, the Irish Catholic street-brawler from Wisconsin had clearly crossed a line in this speech. And his enemies would not forget it. And, in the coming years, nor would many lazy historians compiling their dubious US history textbooks, books for which one pays a hundred dollars one year and is lucky to resell the next year for a fraction of that!


More on McCarthy next time. More charges and more rebuttals.




Sources: BLACKLISTED BY HISTORY, M. Stanton Evans, Wiki-pedia, and JOSEPH MCCARTHY: Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America’s Most Hated Senator by Arthur Hermann.

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The Battle of New Orleans: A Bicentennial Look Back


US position in Chalmette National Military Park

In EIghteen and fifteen we took a little trip, down with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississipp

We took a little bacon and we took a little beans and we fought the bloody British in the Battle a’ New Orleans.


We’ve all heard the song, a catchy Country & Western ditty originally performed some fifty years or so ago by singer Johnny Horton, telling the story, though not with great accuracy, of how Andrew Jackson and his rag tag band of frontiersmen defeated a larger force of seasoned British regulars driving the survivors back onto their ships never to return. And if we know our US history as we should, from that point on the US had no more serious problems from Britain, our old nemesis, who had no choice but to take on a new found respect for their former colonies. One cannot overestimate the importance of this battle. For many years, Jan.8, the day of battle, was celebrated as a national holiday.

At the time it must have seemed miraculous. The odds all seemed in favor of the British.

It was a battle that never should have been fought. At the time it occurred, a treaty designed to bring hostilities to an end had already been signed weeks before. But neither the invading British or anyone on the US continent yet knew of it in early 1815.

A US delegation consisting of Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, and three others had arrived in Ghent, Belgium  in the Spring of 1814 eager to meet with their British counterparts and bring an end to an utterly frustrating war that had gone on for nearly two years. Though there had been some success on the high seas and the Great Lakes, things had not gone so well for the US. Poorly led forays into Canada had only resulted in US reverses on the ground. Worst of all, a British raid, in retaliation for one of these US raids into Canada, had resulted in the humiliating near destruction of the new capitol Washington City.

The principal cause of the war had been the impressments of US sailors on the high seas by British ship captains. Time and again US ships had been boarded and forced to give up seamen to serve on British naval vessels sorely in need of crews to fight in their protracted war against France, always on the pretext that the men thus  seized  were really Englishmen and therefore belong on a British ship. “Once an Englishman, always an Englishman” they would say.  The British delegation had made it clear that they would not budge on this.

In addition, they refused to surrender any part of Canada. The expeditions into Canadian territory had been for naught. Still the US delegates were hopeful that the Brits just might agree to stay out of Indian affairs in the old Northwest, what is now Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. That was something. But it wasn’t much, and certainly didn’t justify the cost in men and material already expended in a war with an enemy like Great Britain. The treaty, if signed, would be simply a return to the pre-war status quo putting an end to hostilities.

Unsatisfactory it was. But the time had come to bring the war to an end, time to cut US losses and accept something far short of victory. Those were the orders from a tired, beleaguered president James Madison, more or less. Bring this to an end even if it meant that the US gained little or nothing.

For months the delegates in Ghent tried to do just that but the British delegation, a group of lower level diplomats who seemed to hold little real authority, kept putting off meetings with their US counterparts, stalling and postponing as if they held little enthusiasm for an end to hostilities, waiting for a better situation to develop from which they might bargain from an even stronger position. The desire for peace seemed one sided indeed. For the US delegates in Ghent, it was a humiliating state of affairs.

Finally in  December 1814 they met once again, worked out a deal and signed the papers on Christmas Eve ostensibly bringing hostilities to an end and a return to the pre-war status quo. On the subject of impressments the paper, as expected, was silent. The US simply hoped that with the war in Europe ended and Napoleon in exile, (which had been accomplished by that time), the British need for seamen would be diminished. Furthermore, they hoped that the Brits would quit meddling in Indian affairs south of the Canadian border. Based on hope, good faith and the possibility of mutual respect, the thing really had no teeth in it. Most unsatisfying.

The US delegates still sensed something odd with the Brits,  as if there was unfinished business, as if they were hiding something.  We must ask: did the British commissioners know what their people were up to in America? It’s hard to say, but  surely they had an inkling of it. Surely they had heard rumors of British plans for America.

Three  weeks  before the signing occurred  Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane  sailed from Jamaica with ships full of British troops toward the mouth of the Mississippi Rivers and the biggest Gulf Coast prize possible : the city of New Orleans. His ships contained thousands of highly disciplined veterans of the Napoleonic War, arguably some of the best soldiers on the planet.

These soldiers had little reason to worry about what awaited them. In the opening phase of the war in the Northern theatre around the Niagara Falls area and the Great Lakes, poorly led US troops, both state militia and regulars, had met with little success. Later when the British made their raid on Washington City, the Maryland state militia that marched out to defend the new capital city had been scattered and dispersed by British troops in a matter of minutes, their performance a profound embarrassment. No, the British troops filling those ships bound for New Orleans weren’t worried. By all reports, the American army, if it could be called an army at all, would give them little trouble.

Once the fleet departed whatever occurred in Ghent would be of  little consequence. News traveled very slowly in the early nineteenth century. As he set sail from Jamaica Admiral Cochrane still had no word of a signed treaty or of any cessation of hostilities. Though he likely knew that such a thing was in the works, until he had word of it and was ordered by his superiors to turn around, he and his army colleagues would sail for New Orleans. That city would be a good bargaining chip. It was only sensible. They would sail up the river, take the city and whatever they found useful and valuable there, and await further orders from king and parliament, who, they were quite sure, would be reluctant to relinquish such a prize once it was in British hands, regardless of what those silly commissioners in Ghent did. The British had never recognized the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 anyway, a highly questionable transaction between Napoleon, their mortal enemy and an illegitimate ruler to boot, and the Americans.

Furthermore, any treaty signed in Ghent had to be ratified by Parliament . With New Orleans in British hands, that fussy bunch might decide that the treaty just wasn’t acceptable in its present form and needed more work and send their commissioners back to Ghent and back to the drawing board. They could delay and postpone indefinitely while the city was emptied of all valuables, spoils of war. If the Americans did not like it? Too bad.

There was precedent for this. The British had, after all, stayed in New York and Charleston for nearly two years after the surrender at Yorktown. The Americans fumed and fussed but there was little they could do about it. The British government pulled troops out of those places only when they were good and ready and the Treaty of Paris was complete. Thirty years later they could do the same in New Orleans. That is if they ever decided to give it back at all. Which they just might not.

But there was no time to waste. It had to be done quickly.

Meanwhile back in US territory just north of Mobile Bay, General Andrew Jackson, a seasoned Indian fighter nicknamed “Old Hickory” with a three thousand man “army” of Tennessee and Kentucky frontier militia, having just wound up a successful campaign against the Creek Indians turned his attention to reports he had received that British ships were preparing to depart for New Orleans. Without delay he put his men on the road and they all headed for the Crescent City. There were some forces already at that place he had been informed, who, coupled with his, stood a good chance of turning back the invasion. Jackson had no experience fighting the British or Canadians or any modern army, only Indians. That didn’t stop him or, as far as we know, or give him the slightest hesitation.

About two weeks later, Jackson and his small army walked into New Orleans to a grand welcome about the time the British sailed from Jamaica. The British were coming and everybody knew it. They got to work immediately, organizing the city’s defenders, constructing fortifications, and scouting and studying the terrain downstream to assess just what approach to the city the British army might take. Jackson and his men worked steadily and efficiently and even succeeded in enlisting help from the well known local pirate- smuggler, Jean Lafitte- a wise move indeed. No one knew the territory better than this fellow.

Bad news met the British as soon as they arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi in mid December.

First, Jackson had beat them to New Orleans. Cochrane had suspected it. Rats. Spies in Jamaica. But he had to be philosophical, it’s hard to hide a dozen of Britain’s finest warships filling up with thousands of soldiers in a busy harbor, hard to keep such a thing secret. Word would surely get out. And where were those ships full of troops headed? It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. New Orleans was the only logical destination.

Second piece of bad news, the British discovered that none of the approaches to the city were without big problems. Due to their deep draft, the big warships and transports couldn’t travel the main channel to bring the troops close to the city. They could have done this with shallow-draft vessels but they didn’t bring enough of these. Unable to unload his troops close to the city, Cochrane had no choice but to unload them fifteen miles or so downstream from the city and let his generals attempt more creative solutions over l

It got worse. After a day or two of inquiry among locals, reconnaissance, and scouting, the British discovered that none of the paths to New Orleans were without substantial risk. Moving thousands of men and animals and baggage, etc. from point A to point B fifteen or twenty miles down the road is not always a simple matter even in the best of terrain. In this place of bayou-swamp, water, and squishy-soggy terrain, any movement of a large body of troops across what little firm land was available could be easily anticipated and blocked by Jackson’s men.

The Brits quickly came to the grim realization that the area would be much more easily defended than they had at first supposed and that they would probably be forced to make the fight on ground that their enemy had carefully chosen. Being veteran warriors they knew well that a smart defender would attempt to draw his attacker into a trap. Already they sensed that Jackson was not the sort of fool that the British and Canadians had usually opposed in the far North on the other end (so to speak), of the Mississippi River. Cochrane and his generals, at least privately, started to get a bit nervous. So the story goes.

On December 23 a slow-moving reconnaissance-in-force under the command of General John Keane marched toward the city and came under attack by General John Coffee’s Tennesseans. The Brits held firm and ran the attackers off. Casualties on both sides were moderate. Historians have speculated that this was a golden opportunity for the British, that Jackson’s command was in some disarray at that moment and thus vulnerable to a determined British counterattack and advance. But hearing reports that Jackson had many thousands waiting for him just down the road, Keane choose caution. He took up a defensive position and waited for further orders with his enemy blocking that road to New Orleans as before and growing stronger by the minute. The American “rabble”, Keane was forced to admit to comrades, had performed reasonably well. They wouldn’t be a pushover.

The British were heartened by the arrival on Christmas Day of Sir Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law to the famous Duke of Wellington. Surely this fine military leader would have some answers. Outwardly he exuded confidence. It was rumored that he had already been commissioned to serve as governor of Louisiana once the American rabble had been brushed aside and the city seized.

Pakenham wasn’t impressed with the British performance so far and seemed more than a bit worried in the initial meetings of general staff and officers. Predictably enough, he and Cochrane quarreled prompting the admiral to say: “If the army shrinks from the attack here, I will bring up my sailors and marines from the fleet…and march into the city.” Regardless of his personal misgivings, Pakenham would not let that challenge go unanswered. One way or the other, the army would make the fight.

Jackson made sure that Pakenham would get all the fighting he had bargained for and then some. For his defensive position, he settled upon a thin strip of land on the Chalmette Plantation about twelve hundred yards long with a cypress swamp on the left and the Mississippi River on the right. Over the course of two weeks his men erected a long thin wall or rampart of various types of material including cotton bales parallel to a canal in their front that served as a moat. Field artillery with trained crews and plenty of ammunition was placed at appropriate intervals all along the line. His frontiersmen, fellow Tennesseans and Kentuckians, sharpshooters all, would defend the left side of the wall and an assortment of others, including a regular US army unit, a Louisiana militia comprised of free “men of color”, and Jean Lafitte’s men, would defend the right flank by the river. The wide open field out front was always soggy and devoid of any cover. It was a good position.

The British, located but a half mile or so in their front, had to leave them alone giving them plenty of time to improve and strengthen the wall. The plain in front of the US position was far too mushy even for harassing British field artillery to be deployed and the large guns on the warships couldn’t be used since it was too risky to bring those enormous vessels with their deep draft within range of the US position on the river. Therefore the Brits could not use their biggest and best weapons . And they had brought along no heavy long range mortars. They could only wait nearby and watch the Americans, that backwoods rabble, make their strong position even stronger. It must have been maddening.

British officers knew that the only path to New Orleans was through the Chalmette Plantation. Still they weren’t, for the most part, overly concerned. Most fully expected the bunch they now called the “dirty shirts” behind that crude wall to abandon their position and run for home once they saw the his majesty’s splendid scarlet legions drawn up in battle formation with fixed bayonets coming toward them.

Others, particularly the rank and file carrying muskets, weren’t so sure. For them one thing was certain: even if they did manage to push the Americans aside and take New Orleans, it would come at a high cost. Many of them would never see the place.

Whatever the case, a withdrawal from this American homespun rabble was unthinkable. To go home without a fight? Preposterus! They had come too far to turn back. Honor demanded a resolution of the business, one way or the other. They had gone to a great trouble and expense to get to this point and they had no choice but to finish what they had started. They would make the fight.

Though this was his first time to war with the British, the American commander behind the wall with four thousand under his command was equally determined not to disappoint them. It was well known that Andrew Jackson held a special contempt for the redcoats, ever since a British officer had whacked him over the head with his sword for refusing to clean his boots when he was but a boy of twelve during the Revolutionary War. His family and friends had suffered greatly during those years. Jackson was not a forgiving man. He was one to hold grudges. Now it was time for payback.

As every US school boy and girl once knew, the main British attack came the morning of January 8. It has been universally understood that the British attack was nothing but a rash, risky and bold frontal assault against a strong American position. Was it? Not exactly. There was a bit more to it than that.

Along with the main assault across the Chalmette plain, an amphibious task force of several hundred men commanded by one of Pakenham’s finest officers, Colonel William Thornton, would be dispatched to seize an American position on the West bank of the river located within artillery range of and covering Jackson’s right flank. If that position could be quickly taken just prior to the main assault, the guns already there could be turned on Jackson’s Chalmette line in an enfilading barrage that would substantially weaken that part of the line giving the main assault a far better chance of success. Still, this plan, sensible as it was, depended on careful coordination, a cooperative river current, the element of surprise, and most of all, a bit of luck.

But luck was not with the British that day. The two armies had been staring at one another for nearly a month now. With a great sense of relief, the British regiments marched toward the US position. By all accounts, they looked splendid, banners waving, mounted officers shouting commands, and the field music, including bagpipes with two highlander units, echoing across the soggy plain. With a thick fog obscuring their view, the Americans waiting anxiously behind the ramparts could not at first see but only hear the British, which worked briefly to the advantage of the latter. But within minutes the fog melted away in the sun and the full splendor of the British advance came into view.

It was an unforgettable sight, one that those American warriors would talk about for the rest of their lives. It must have seemed a terrible shame to destroy a thing of such pageantry, splendor and beauty. Most of the Americans, unlike their commander, held no personal grudge against the British. Many were descendants of English immigrants. But they had a job to do and the time to do it was at hand. No man on the American side, as far as we know, wavered. They held fast and waited for the order to fire. The bulk of the British army seemed to be headed toward the Tennesseans and Kentuckians on the US left. Those fellows let out a loud cheer and waved their arms in a broad invitation. “Come on boys!” they stood and shouted, “we’re ready for ya.”

As soon as they were within range, the US artillery opened up tearing wide gaps in the magnificent scarlet lines. They closed ranks and pressed forward. These grim-faced veterans of the Napoleonic wars, among them the Ninety-third Highlanders and the Forty-fourth Irish regiment of foot, came on without hesitation into what the poet Tennyson would have called: “the valley of death.” No it wasn’t a valley but a broad now well lit soggy plain, but for these brave soldiers equally deadly, a killing field unlike any field they’d ever marched across. The wide-eyed US soldiers gripped their rifles and muskets and waited for the order to fire. It must have seemed an eternity. And the British came on.

All at once, when the British had come within 200 yards the order was given. American rifle and musket fire exploded into a continuous boom. Within the clouds of thick gunpowder smoke carefully rehearsed Americans all along the line in teams of four stepped up to their place in line and fired, then fell back a few feet to reload as the next man stepped up to take his place, take aim, and do likewise. For thirty to forty minutes they maintained this process and poured a continuous barrage of deadly fire into the exposed scarlet ranks. No, they didn’t look like much but they didn’t turn and run as most of the British had predicted. They stood fast and fired their weapons as ordered. Ammunition wasn’t a problem, they had had weeks to get ready for this.

On the American side of the wall it was mighty noisy, hard to breathe and hard to hear the officers and sergeants shouting orders but otherwise it was fine. Very few were getting hurt. In some portions of the line no one was getting hurt.

In front of the American wall, out in that vast soggy plain, it was pure hell. Entire portions of the front line evaporated as men went down and others fell back in the withering hail of lead. The Ninety-Third Highlanders steeped into the breach in front of the Tennesseans and advanced to the front, bagpipes roaring. For a minute or two all around them, determined survivors of the front lines, took heart and attempted to close ranks, ready to follow them should they lay ramps down, cross the moat, throw up ladders, and scale the ramparts. But the colonel of the ninety-third was shot down by grapeshot almost instantly.

One hundred yards from the American line the British hesitated and began to fall back. Men dropped every second. Pakenham himself spurred his horse and rushed toward them waving his sword shouting words of encouragement as men fled from what had become a murderous melee. Struck by a missile, his horse faltered and went down taking the general with him. As he struggled to his feet, he was stuck in the lower back, paralyzed, and carried from the field. All other generals in the assault went down as well.

After thirty minutes or so of the slaughter, the only general still on his feet was John Lambert, a veteran of many battles, several hundred yards in the rear commanding the reserve battalion . He watched in agony, as the splendid army disintegrated. Hundreds of wounded and dazed British soldiers staggered toward him and his waiting men drawn up in anticipation of a coup de grace that would never happen. He could only watch the terrible drama unfold before his very eyes, unbelieving. It was the most shocking, humiliating moment of his long military career.

Across the river on the West Bank, things had gone little better for the British, but not good enough. Colonel Thornton’s men had managed to take the fort and scatter the American garrison. But there had been delays (as always happens in war) and they were too late in accomplishing this. Just prior to fleeing, the American artillerymen had had time to spike the cannon, rendering them useless to the British who, like Lambert and his men, were then forced to watch helplessly at the disaster unfolding across the river on the Chalmette Plain. Had they taken the fort earlier and done so quick enough to capture the guns intact, they could have turned them on the American line as planned at just the right time and the outcome of the battle might have been different.   But that was merely what might have been, not what was. The fort was a prize that meant nothing now. Thornton and his command were ordered to abandon it, return to their boats, and rejoin what was left of the British army.

The bloody thing was over. With no general left to command them, all had been shot down, the British abandoned the field in great confusion leaving large piles of their dead and wounded in front of the Americans. Pakenham himself died shortly after being taken to the rear. Among the great battles of US history, the Battle of New Orleans has to be the shortest in duration. The actual fighting lasted, astonishingly, only about thirty minutes. It had taken that long for the Americans to transform a well led, confident army of five to six thousand of the best soldiers on earth into a leaderless, dazed and demoralized army of about three to four thousand. Thirty minutes.

Furthermore, it is hard to find a more lopsided victory in our history. About seven Americans were killed and six wounded. For the British, approximately three hundred were killed and thirteen hundred wounded and over four hundred captured. Two thirds of the attacking force including all generals became casualties. The British had boldly marched into a massacre. And the city had been saved.

By all accounts it is hard to measure who was more shocked at the outcome, the Americans or the British. Tennessean John Coffee, Jackson’s right hand man, saw the hand of God: “Surely Providence has had a hand in the thing.” William Carroll came to a similar conclusion. Stunned and shaken, the British knew that they would have a lot of explaining to do when they returned to friendly territory. It had been one of the most decisive and embarrassing defeats in English history. Ten days later, they sailed away. There have been no British invasions of US territory since.

Word of the victory at New Orleans reached Washington on Feb 4 and New York and various other major cities on the eastern seaboard over the next few days as fast as horse and rider could accomplish it. Victory celebrations broke out across the nation and everywhere people toasted Andrew Jackson, their new hero.

News of the Treaty of Ghent and the offer of peace from Great Britain arrived a bit later, in the midst of the great victory celebration already in progress. Though most government officials knew better, to the man on the street it appeared that the British had sued for peace because after the bitter defeat way down South they had no choice. Hooray! The war was over and the US had won, an impression that Washington officials and nearly all elected political leaders made no attempt to change. This suited them just fine.

Andrew Jackson had unknowingly taken a humiliating, inglorious stalemate and transformed it into a glorious victory . The treaty of Ghent was all but forgotten. Jackson’s battle outside New Orleans is still being celebrated.  Twelve years later General  Jackson became President Jackson and arguably, one of our most influential.

No, this fledgling new nation across the Atlantic was not to be trifled with. From 1815 onward, if the British wanted to expand their colonial empire, they would have to look elsewhere. Thirty years later, when the US finally got around to making an offer, the British would cheerfully relinquish control of the Pacific northwest territory, and all claims to any lands now contained within the “lower forty eight.” No longer a threat, the British would become in the next century a close friend and ally in two world wars and several smaller ones. Nowadays the UK is likely our closest ally.

But none of this, so it seems, would have happened had they not been soundly defeated at New Orleans. Before the US and Britain could be friends and allies, the British had to get a real drubbing from an American army. They had to be taught a hard lesson. The Battle of New Orleans was about as decisive as it gets, every bit as important as Saratoga or Yorktown. In a sense, this battle put a grand finishing touch on the American Revolution. After the Battle of New Orleans, our Revolutionary War was finally over and the task of building a nation could now begin in earnest with no more fear of British interference.



Sources: 1812: THE WAR THAT FORGED A NATION, Walter Bourneman. Harper Perreniel. 2004

THE NASHVILLE RETROSPECT, The War of 1812, Part X, by Tom Kannon.   January 2015.








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The Battle of Nashville- 150 years later Musings on an Old Piece of Iron

His name was Alvis Holladay. No one called him “Alvis” however. To friends and family he was “Buster.” And he was obsessed with relic hunting. Civil War relics that is. Socially awkward and a bit of a nerd he was unconcerned about the usual teenaged high school social rituals of dating, sports, fast cars, etc. Instead, nearly every weekend he put his trusty metal detector in his beat up red 62 Dodge and went out in search of metal things hidden in the ground from a hundred years before, the debris of war- various types of rifle and artillery projectiles or fragments thereof, buttons from uniforms, belt buckles, connector pieces from knapsacks and leather gear, and much, much more.

It wasn’t all treasure. Mostly he got trash. The detector would sound off into his headphones at the presence of any sort of metal, trash or treasure, and in the years since the war, a great deal of trash had accumulated on CW sites. There were days when he spent hours out in a weedy field and got nothing for his trouble but chigger bites, a bad sunburn, and lots of rusted tin cans. But, old Buster had some lucky days too, lots of ’em, and by the time he was eighteen years old, around 1969, he had gathered an impressive collection of Civil War artifacts which he piled into every nick and cranny of his bedroom.

On three or four occasions I went out with Buster to try my luck. We scoured the ground at Shiloh (just off park property), an old farm near the Stones River in Murfreesboro, the old Johnsonville site on the Tennessee River, and at a property just South of Abbot Martin Road in Green Hills here in Nashville. At this place I got lucky and unearthed a fascinating bit of history still in my possession.

It was the Summer of 69. Astonishingly enough, the place we walked over that day was a small cattle farm-a field of cows and cow paddies ringed by an electric fence-just a few acres adjoining a large development of ranch style homes and the commercial district of Green Hills along Hillsboro Road. Even then this cattle farm seemed out of place, a farm in the middle of suburbia. But there it was.

It was no ordinary cattle farm for another reason. At the top of a long gradual rise SW of the main house there was an unnatural formation rising from the ground about four to five feet high, five or six feet wide, and seventy five yards or so long. Even to the untrained eye it appeared man made. To a Civil War buff, it was clearly the eroded remnant of an earthwork fortification.

Two years previous Buster had discovered this site after receiving a tip from a friend. After getting permission from the property owners to dig (as long as he refilled his holes), he took his detector out of the car, crossed the electric fence, turned on the device, and swept it a few inches over the ground a few feet in front of the old earthwork. Immediately the thing began sounding off like nothing he had ever seen before. Within minutes he filled a box with iron fragments of exploded artillery shells. He could hardly dig fast enough. He stopped only when darkness fell and he could no longer see. As soon as he could he returned and found more relics including one entire unexploded projectile. Clearly this was a place that had come under a severe artillery bombardment during the Battle of Nashville. It didn’t take Buster long to come to the conclusion that he had discovered the precise location of Redoubt Number 4, a Confederate fortification where such a thing had indeed occurred on the afternoon of December 15, 1864. He returned to the site again and again over the next few months. He told no one other than his family about it. It was his spot. No one else, so far as I know, hunted there or even knew about it until years later- a relic hunter’s dream come true.

Buster had already found several boxes full when he took me out there that Summer day and let me try my luck. And my efforts were rewarded. A few inches below the surface approximately a hundred feet or so below the earthwork I found my hunk of CW iron, the back of a “Hotchkiss” artillery shell, a conical shaped “bolt” fired from a 3″ordnance gun, a rifled piece of field artillery. I still have it, my chief relic of the Nashville battle sitting on my desk, a heavy iron chunk of CW history fired from one of about twenty or so guns located on a ridge a half mile or so to the West along what is now Estes Road near the present site of Harpeth Hall girls academy. These guns pummeled Redoubt Four, a detached exposed enemy position, for about an hour and a half. The Union fire was deadly accurate as evidenced by the proximity of the shell fragments to the earthwork.

Sergeant Maxwell of Lumsden’s Batttery tells in his account of the defense of Redoubt Four: “a Federal four gun battery opened on us, completely enfilading our four guns..our number three (gunner) Horton, was shot down..with a bullet in his groin and rushed to the rear..Hilen L. Rosser ..a lad of seventeen, the youngest of three brothers that belonged to the battery, had his head shot off by a shell, scattering his brains in the face of Capt. Lumsden.” (p.53, EYEWITNESSES AT THE BATTLE OF NASHVILLE, ed. by David Logsdon.*

The doomed Confederate defenders, only about a hundred or so Alabamians with a few dozen artillerymen manning four brass smoothbore artillery pieces, never had a chance. Soon after the Union guns had done their work and the smoke had cleared, the shell shocked survivors caught sight of two brigades of Union infantry coming up the long rise straight at them. The defenders fired what they had in their single shot rifles at the approaching horde and then fled toward their own lines a miles or so away to the East as fast as their legs could carry them.

The fall of Redoubt Four was but one episode in the Battle of Nashville, one hundred and fifty years ago today. This decisive battle of the US Civil War occurred in the hills south of Tennessee’s capital city putting an end to the last hopes of the Western Confederacy. Though the fabled Army of Tennessee wasn’t completely destroyed the next day on December 16, it fled the area in disorder never to return, no longer a threat to Union installations in the area. For John B. Hood’s shrunken, demoralized army, the battle of Nashville was an unmitigated disaster. For the Union, it was, arguably, their most brilliant success. For the Union commander George Thomas, everything went according to plan; something that rarely happens in any battle anywhere, anytime. Back in Washington City, president Abraham Lincoln was delighted- a major worry crossed off his list.

When the battle opened on December 15 Confederate forces under the command of the youthful John B. Hood had been dug in a long thin line facing the Union fortifications just south of town for about two weeks. After the terrible blood-letting at Franklin on November 30 Hood and his badly mauled army pursued the fleeing Twenty-Third Corps under Schofield North but being unable to catch him as he slipped into Nashville and the safety of the extensive fortifications there, had simply dug in and waited. What exactly Hood, with the depleted, badly equipped and demoralized forces at his disposal planned to do outside Nashville has always been a bit uncertain. Technically he was carrying out a classic siege, but realistically the Union forces in Nashville only grew stronger, not weaker, while Hood watched and waited and pleaded for reinforcements that would never come.

The fortifications encircling Nashville were much too strong for even the headstrong and reckless Hood to challenge. Maybe, Hood must have thought, they will attack me as I did at Franklin and maybe, just maybe, we can do to them what they did to us and a seriously weakened Union force might abandon the city. But this was a forlorn hope. George Thomas, the Federal commander in Nashville was one of Mr. Lincoln’s most capable generals, a Virginian, who, unlike his old friend Robert E. Lee, refused to change loyalties when his home state seceded. This officer, known as the “Rock of Chickamauga,” would fight hard. But unlike Hood, he would fight smart. Besides, he had all the advantages. His gathering army would be better equipped, better fed, more confident in their commander, and, most of all, would enjoy a more than two to one advantage in numbers in the coming battle. Thomas determined to leave the safety of his fortifications and move against Hood only when he was good and ready and not a moment before even though his anxious superiors in Washington threatened to relieve him of his command at one point. Thomas, well aware that Hood could only watch and wait, would not be rushed. He had that luxury knowing that the massive Federal installation in Nashville that had built up since the city had fallen to Union forces two and a half years before was never in any real jeopardy. With each passing day Hood’s weary, hungry forces grew weaker and Thomas’ grew stronger. Time was on his side.

The Confederates were saved by darkness at the end of the first day of the battle, Dec. 15, as the army withdrew a couple of miles to a second line of defense and dug in just South of what is now Battery Lane. The Union army followed them, formed up, in a long parallel line just North of their enemy and started blasting away at them with artillery the next morning. As the Confederates responded as best they could with their own artillery and hunkered down to await the next onslaught, Union dismounted cavalry under James Wilson slowly worked their way around the extreme Confederate left. On what came to be known as Shy’s Hill the tired cold defenders never really had a chance against the legions of Union soldiers who came up the slopes from three sides. They broke and ran and within minutes the entire Confederate line began collapsing to the East like a row of dominoes.

At the end of the day on December 16 Hood’s army was in full retreat cramming onto Franklin Road and Granny White Pike with the Union cavalry in hot pursuit. Thousands had been taken prisoner and were making their sullen dispirited way North under guard toward internment pens in Nashville where they would be processed before being shipped North to POW camps in Illinois and Ohio. The exhausted remains of Hood’s army would finally cross the Tennessee River near the Alabama state line a week or so later to spend a miserable Christmas in the camp of the defeated. Knowing that all hope was gone, many would desert and head for home leaving the fabled Army of Tennessee a mere shadow of what it had been only six weeks before when it had crossed into Middle Tennessee full of energy and renewed hope.

Most of the blame for this debacle can be placed on the commander himself- John B. Hood and his poor decisions made in late November at Spring Hill and the terrible decision he made on Winstead Hill just South of Franklin to assault the Union position there. It was a judgment call Hood, who survived the war, never(unfortunately) regretted. In his memoirs he choose to blame the men of Cheatham’s Corps, the brave men who made the charge and died in droves, that they were timid and had grown too accustomed to fighting behind breastworks and fortifications. It was an assertion that insulted the proud veterans of his army. They might forgive him for a bad mistake but to put the blame on the them and their dead comrades for a mistake for which Hood and Hood alone was responsible? They wouldn’t forgive him for this. They turned their back on him and refused to speak his name at reunions. They spit on the ground on those rare occasions when his name was mentioned. Few attended his funeral. In the West their beloved commander was Joe Johnston. In the East it was, of course, Robert E. Lee. Among the rank and file Hood was universally despised.

Was the Battle of Nashville a foregone conclusion? I think so. The cold, hungry, war weary Confederates encamped South of town could, in the days prior to the battle, clearly see across the deforested plain the mighty host gathering against them Any fool could tell that the fates had turned against them. When the battle began, most of them stayed at their posts and fought anyway-until they were killed, wounded, overwhelmed and captured or ordered to fall back. In the hills South of Nashville their glory days were over. Here there would be no ecstasy, only agony. But it wouldn’t last much longer. The bloodletting was drawing to a close. The end of the long cruel war was near.

All this comes to mind when I reach over and pick up my one lb relic of that fight, my iron chunk of history, a small part of the means by which the more numerous industrial Northern states brought the agriculturally oriented Southern Confederacy to its knees in our biggest American war. A little piece of rusted iron can say a lot. I wonder who loaded it into the gun and pulled the friction primer to fire it toward the doomed Confederate position a mile or so to the East. Did a portion of this shell kill the 17 year old Confederate gunner? Gosh, If it could only talk.


*a heavy enfilading fire upon your position would be something not easily forgotten. Having inspected the remains of the earthworks at Redoubt Four, it is easy to see that they run East-West as if anticipating an attack from the North, which, of course, was the location of the enemy when the thing was constructed. (many battle maps erroneously show the works facing West- NW) Thomas, however, did not cooperate. His guns were placed due West of the redoubt, about twenty in all, firing from a mile or so away, rendering the fortification almost useless. To return fire, Lumsden had to relocate at least two of those guns out in the open. But they offered little challenge to the Feds in this most unequal contest.

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Seventy years ago today our boys hit the beaches of Northern France and parachuted into nearby fields in the opening phase of the long anticipated second front against the Nazi war machine. Eleven months later Adolf Hitler was dead. Caught in a deadly vise between American, British, and various other national forces to the West and the massive Soviet juggernaut in the East, high ranking German generals finally called it quits in May 1945 and accepted Allied demands for unconditional surrender bringing the war in Europe to a close.

Of course, June 6, 1944 or “D-Day” was not the beginning of hostilities between the US and Germany. The US and Germany had been at war for over two years by mid 1944. In the opening months of 1942 the US warred with German U-Boats. Once this threat was minimized the US was able to get men and material “over there.” Fighting on the ground between US and German forces occurred first in North Africa, then in Sicily, and then in Italy. But prior to D-Day no US soldier had yet touched the soil of occupied France.

At the very beginning, most US military leaders had favored an immediate invasion of Northern France. They saw little reason to wait. But British leaders considered this rash, reckless and ill advised-doomed to failure. The US simply wasn’t ready. Our people needed more training and experience. Roosevelt reluctantly sided with them on this and our boys headed to North Africa instead.

Things went well for the Allies in North Africa and Sicily but the Italian campaign was a different story. Forces under American general Mark Clark found it a hard slog “up the boot” against a German army commanded by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, a brilliant defensive strategist and tactician who took advantage of every hill and mountain forcing allied armies to a hard expensive crawl that produced many embarrassing episodes and few celebrations.

To the North, the US waged war in the air. Flying out of bases in England, huge formations of heavy bombers conducted a relentless daily bombing of the German heartland in a massive unprecedented effort to destroy factories making war material and to demoralize the German people. Tens of thousands of German civilians perished. By early 1944, the center of many large cities such as Hamburg and Berlin had been reduced to piles of ash and rubble. But proud strong, and tenacious, the German people held on. Much of their war production under the brilliant direction of Albert Speer, simply moved underground and out of harm’s way.

Historians in our time are undecided as to just how important a part the air war played in bringing Germany to her knees. Some argue that the air war accomplished little and was never more than a thorn in her side. Others argue differently. This debate will continue.

There is no disputing this: Germany’s biggest challenge was her bitter fight against the Soviet Union. After brilliant success the first two years, the tide finally turned in early 1943 in favor ofthe Soviet Union and the Germans and their allies found themselves on the defensive fighting for their lives. But the absence of any great threat far in their rear to the West enabled Germany to keep enormous forces along the long Eastern making the Soviets pay dearly for every acre of ground recaptured. Again and again the beleaguered war-weary Joseph Stalin badgered Roosevelt and Churchill with one persistent question: When does this war get a second front?

Stalin had good reason to ask. He and his people were convinced that they had, so far, done most of the hard work, heavy lifting, and shedding of blood in the fight against Germany. By early 1944 US deaths in the ETO (European theatre of Operations) could be counted in the tens of thousands. Russian losses, both civilian and military, could be counted in the millions. Stalin was more than ready for his allies in the West to step up to the plate and do their share. In early June 1944, as far as Stalin was concerned, the US and Britain had not yet entered the fight.

It was universally understood that both the Italian campaign and the strategic bombing of Germany from the air, regardless of how well these efforts went, would be sideshows. The big show in the West, the decisive campaign that would drive the allied dagger into the heart of Nazi Germany would be “boots on the ground” in Northern France launched from bases in nearby England-a second front. It was simply a matter of time.
The Germans were well aware of this as well. And so they prepared for the invasion that was sure to come. Their most famous and respected General, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the “desert fox” was sent to northern France to oversee the construction of defenses there. Month after month he worked twelve hour days visiting beach after beach directing the construction of massive concrete fortifications, pillboxes, and the placement of hundreds of thousands of mines in a colossal effort to turn back the invasion with a deadly reception on the beaches.
After being assured by his weather consultants that uncooperative weather would prevent an allied landing, an exhausted Rommel finally took a break and hopped in a staff car to make the long drive to visit his wife in Germany on her birthday- June 6.
For the Allies, careful, meticulous planning was also an absolute necessity. For a year or so prior to June 6, the US had been sending men and material to England. In most towns and villages in the southern part of that country, US servicemen outnumbered the English. They waited and they trained. Mostly they trained. Day after day ships from the states unloaded cargoes of men and material. Everyone knew what it was for-the invasion of continental Europe.
Yet only a handful of top allied planners knew exactly where on the long coast of Northern France the invasion force would land. This was top secret and closely guarded. If the Germans discovered this and were able to prepare accordingly, a crucial aspect of the element of surprise would be lost and the invasion likely doomed to failure. The Germans must be kept guessing.
Hitler and his staff thought that they knew. For a variety of reasons, including the counsel of Hitler’s astrologers, they were convinced that the invasion would occur in the Pas de Calais in Northeastern part of France. A crack German army was sent there in early 1944. Nevertheless, Hitler was persuaded by prudent advisors to place German airfields and several highly mobile panzer divisions in reserve within a reasonable striking distance of the entire coastline. Mostly they would count on their tanks, the Luftwaffe, or German air force, was only a shadow of what it had once been.
Rommel was forced to do the best he could with what he had. With the bulk of the Wehrmacht or German army tied down in the East, nearly all of the German divisions in the West were under strength. And so he had to deploy his forces wisely.

Rommel was not only dissatisfied with the quantity of forces at his disposal, the quality of those forces was a problem as well. Quite simply Germany was running out of manpower. Along the coast of Northern France many units were filled with teenagers belonging to the “Hitlerjungen” or Hitler youth- ideologically pure but mere boys. Other units were filled with the former wounded and sickly. Others were filled with old men. It was not unusual to view in a group of German prisoners on or after D-Day a sixty-five year old man standing next to a fifteen year old posing next to a twenty-five year old with a patch over one eye and a hand missing. The Germans were scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel. They would be no match for American units of well trained, highly motivated college aged young men at the peak of their physical powers.
Even worse (from the German view) were the “Ost” or East units along the coast filled with men who spoke little or no German who nevertheless wore the German uniform, Russian POWs who had been given a choice: serve the Fuhrer and be fed or sit in a POW camp and slowly starve to death. So they chose the former. But reliable they were not. When the going got tough German leaders feared that they would throw up their arms and embrace the POW status once again-this time as prisoners of the Americans or British where they were likely to be fed, and treated well. Still it was worth a try: they just might fight long enough to keep the Yanks or Brits off the beach. A Russian in a pillbox sitting behind a machinegun on the day of the invasion was better than an unmanned pillbox. Would they fight or immediately surrender? This and a thousands other questions kept the Field Marshall up at night.

The biggest question of all was exactly when the invasion would come. Even Dwight Eisenhower at SHAEF headquarters did not know. It would be weather dependent. The English channel could be treacherous, even in early June. TO send the invasion armada out in bad weather would invite disaster. A few centuries before the Spanish Armada had found out the hard way.
Most of us know that the weather cooperated and the invasion did finally come on June 6 and it was a great success. Our boys landed not at Pas de Calais but at Normandy even though Hitler and his closest planners for several days, astonishingly, refused to believe that the business at Normandy was anything more than a diversion.
Over the years some prominent historians such as Richard Overy, have doubted that D-Day was as important as we have been told. They maintain that the war in the East was what really decided things and spelled the end for Nazi Germany.
There is some justification for this view. Without question, the biggest part of the German war effort was in the East. Two thirds of the German soldiers who died in WW II died there. The biggest land battles of the war, Stanlingrad and Kursk, were on the Eastern Front. Compared to these colossal struggles, darn near anything that occurred in the West, with the exception of the battle of the Bulge, was a much smaller affair. Due to the severe depletion of manpower and material in the East, the Germans had little left to fight a big war in the West. The German who fought the American and Englishman in the West, in this view, was a warrior already weak from a severe loss of blood in the East. By rights the laurels of victory belonged to the hard fighting Russians, not to any English or French speaking warriors. The warriors of the Soviet Union did the lion’s share of the dirty work and the Americans and their partners simply moved in for the final coup de gras.
Historian Stephen Ambrose had a huge problem with this view. He believed that total victory and the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany would never have been possible without a second front. Though Stalin had given assurances to Roosevelt and Churchill that such thing would never occur, Allied leaders were scared that an impatient and exhausted Stalin could have parlayed for a separate peace, a cessation of hostilities not unlike the Armistice of 1918. A non-agression pact had existed between the two nations from 1939 to 1941, and though they were bitter enemies, there was plenty of reason to believe that the Germans would have surrendered all of the conquered Russian territory and simply returned to the positions of 1939, a move that would have assured the survival of Nazi Germany and freed up dozens of crack, battle hardened divisions to travel West to reinforce their comrades already in place in Northern France. This would surely have doomed any hope of a successful invasion. This was a real possibility, Ambrose argued, a persistent fear that haunted American and British planners. They trusted comrade Stalin as far as they could throw him.
They could not forget something very important: in 1917 the Russians had given up, abandoned the fight against Germany and gone home to fight among themselves. Overnight, the Germans suddenly had a manageable situation. Massive reinforcements were sent to the Western front. The two front war became a one-front war-all to Germany’s advantage. And so the war dragged on another year only to end in an unsatisfactory truce. And even that would not have occurred if the US had not joined the fight.
Well, allied leaders reasoned, this could happen again.
There was no time to lose. To prevent a separate peace in the East, a successful invasion in the West had to take place as soon as possible. To the Americans and British, any sort of armistice, cease fire or negotiated terms with Nazi Germany was completely unacceptable. A commitment to the unconditional surrender of Germany had been made early in 1943 at Casablanca in North Africa and they were sticking to it. There would be no repeat of the mistakes of 1918 and the Versailles Treaty.
In short, it is possible that the European half of World War Two could have ended without a second front in the West. It was NOT necessary for a truce or armistice, or cessation of hostilities. That could have, and indeed, probably would have occurred in the East without the second front. But….Nazi Germany would have survived-a most unsatisfactory conclusion to the war, not what we were fighting for, not why we were “over there.”
To Stephen Ambrose the importance of D-Day, June 6, cannot be overstated. It was the decisive day of the European war, the real beginning of the end for Germany. It meant a two front war, something Germany could not sustain. At the end of what is often called “the longest day”, the worst fears of sensible German planners and strategists had come to fruition. They were doomed and they knew it. A few weeks later a large group of desperate German officers knowing of the bitter future that awaited their nation if something wasn’t done quickly, sponsored an attempt on the life of Hitler. They almost succeeded.
Tonight I watched a TV special narrated by journalist Brian Williams as he followed and reminisced with four aged veterans at the Normandy coast. One had been a paratrooper, one a sailor and the other two soldiers on the scene that fateful day. Mostly these old fellows spoke of the comrades that didn’t survive the hard business of that day and they strolled teary eyed through rows of crosses in the carefully maintained US cemetery above “Omaha” beach, a place this writer wants to visit someday.
When Eisenhower gave the orders to proceed late on June 5 and unleashed that mighty force against the enemy held French coast, it was all out of his hands and up to these fellows- paratroopers of the British 1st airborne and the US 101st and 82nd divisions, sailors of the US and British Navy, soldiers of the US 1st, 4th, and 29th Infantry divisions, and many more British, Canadians, and Free French forces. It was up to them to take that  thirty mile long beach away from Axis forces and hold it firmly until more men and material could arrive. And more. And more. Until Germany felt the full wrath of an aroused democracy. It was the common soldier, young men mostly in their early twenties that accomplished it, that got the job done and opened the much-needed second front in the West. Until this was accomplished, there was good reason to believe that Nazi Germany, in one form or another, could and probably would, survive. By the end of the day on June 6 there was good reason to believe that Nazi Germany was doomed. D-Day made all the difference.



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Walter Reed and the Deadly Yellow Jack

During the Spanish-American War, Robert Cooke and two other soldiers of the US army volunteered for an especially hazardous and unusual job. They agreed to come face to face with an enemy that had, over the course of the previous century and before, taken down thousands of US soldiers, an enemy far deadlier than any human brandishing a weapon. As part of a noble experiment, these brave men agreed to spend twenty days in a simple frame structure full of filthy, smelly carpet, bedding, and other textiles. They would exchange their uniforms for the filthy stinking ones they found in the building. The conventional wisdom was that these men would never walk out of this building. They would have to be carried out. And if they survived, it would be by the grace of the Almighty God. Quite simply most regarded it as a suicide mission.

Their commanding officer thought otherwise. He was in charge at Camp Lazear, a unique experimental facility in Cuba in late 1900. He was sure that these healthy men would get sick to their stomach and lose a meal or two in that filthy place, but otherwise they would be fine. The dreaded enemy wouldn’t bother them. Though he was sure they would come to no real harm, Dr. Walter Reed admired their courage nevertheless. He hated it that human volunteers, human guinea pigs, were so necessary for this project. But there was no other way.

The dreaded enemy was Yellow Fever, often called “Yellow Jack.” And it was serious. This malady, a scourge of American civilization, seemed to have originated in Africa in the early years of the slave trade. Traveling over the Atlantic in ships loaded with their sad human cargos, it was a deadly import to the Americas, afflicting slave trading Europeans as a sort of divine revenge growing in proportion to the slave trade itself. Major epidemics afflicted English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies and plantations, especially in the Caribbean and in Southern ports along the Gulf Coast. Native Americans, at least those who had survived the various smallpox epidemics now had another worry. Only the Africans seemed, for the most part, immune. Unfortunately this didn’t help them. Since they weren’t particularly vulnerable to the malady, this made them all the more desirable as slaves. And the terrible slave trade continued until finally outlawed in the Americas in the mid-nineteenth century. By then Yellow Fever was firmly established.

Yellow Fever was the most dreaded disease in North America for over two hundred years. There was no cure. All that could be done was to try to keep it from breaking out in the first place or to keep it from spreading when it did break out. Upon arrival in a port ships were often quarantined and the crews forced to remain on board until local authorities, after making the necessary examinations, were sure that no sick persons were aboard. When epidemics broke out in towns and cities healthy persons fled to the countryside and sick persons were kept in hospitals apart from the general population. Their clothing and bedding was burned. Floors were scrubbed with chemicals and every effort was made to keep the “infection” from spreading. But all too often it seemed that the epidemics, despite the best efforts of doctors and health officials, simply had to run their course. And, curiously enough, those epidemics always broke out in warm or hot weather. In more temperate areas, with the first frost and the coming of cooler weather, new cases diminished and finally ceased.

US history is replete with Yellow Fever epidemics. The worst occurred in the city of Memphis, Tennessee in the summer of 1878, when it seemed that the wrath of God visited that place. At the beginning of the terrible episode half the population departed and stayed away until the thing had run its course. Many businesses closed, some never to reopen. Thousands died, especially among those who stayed in the city. No class or ethnic group was spared. Entire families perished. “Death wagons” with coffins piled high, rolled down the streets collecting the latest victims day after day, week after week. Memphis nearly became a ghost town. Even now one can visit Memphis cemeteries filled with Yellow Jack victims. Many graves are unknown because when buried, no persons remained alive who could identify the deceased. Curiously enough, the African-American population was the least affected. Their death rate was much lower.

The symptoms of Yellow Fever are easy enough to spot. First, the victim feels a severe headache and loss of energy. Then comes a painful sensitivity to light. Then comes a terrible high fever, the body’s attempt to kill the invader. The victim feels as if his/her bones are cracking. If the condition worsens, the kidneys shut down and the body is poisoned. Blood seeps from the eyes and nose. The tongue swells and turns purple. A black vomit pours out and the whites of the eyes turn yellow shortly before death-thus the disease is named. When fatal, the whole process usually lasts about seven to ten agonizing days. It’s not a pleasant way to go.

The malady is not always fatal. As often as not, the victim recovers. When this occurs, he/she develops immunity, and is likely to survive the next epidemic. Often such survivors later rushed to assist in areas where epidemics had broken out. A number of those working in US army hospitals in 1900 in Cuba were survivors of the 1878 Memphis plague.

Yellow Fever and Malaria were the big killers in the Spanish-American War. Of the 5000 or so Americans who died, only 180 died as a result of warfare. The Spanish military was the least of our problems in that popular, “splendid little war.”

Major Walter Reed, a native of Virginia in his late forties, a career soldier and longtime member of the medical corps, was determined to do something about it. Though highly regarded by his peers, most of these respectfully disagreed with him on his theories regarding Yellow Fever, including the surgeon general himself. Nevertheless, because of the magnitude of the problem, he was able to secure permission and funding for a bold experiment in Cuba. His laboratory would be Camp Lazear, named in honor of a comrade and dear friend who had perished the previous year in Yellow Fever research.

Reed believed that the infection was spread, not by any sort of human contact or through contact with the possessions of yellow fever victims but by the bite of the lowly mosquito. That was, in his view, the ONLY way contract the disease. No one could ever get it by contact with a diseased person or his things. Quite simply, it couldn’t spread in this way. In 1900, this was a highly controversial view, a view scoffed at by most of Reed’s peers.

Walter Reed was not the first to suggest this. Other doctors and researchers had published papers and made reports along similar lines. But none of these had been able to offer real scientific proof. In 1900, it was still widely believed that Yellow Fever was contagious and spread from person to person through close contact or somehow upon or within the possessions of sick persons in a manner similar to smallpox or cholera. Gases emanating from swamps could spread the sickness as well it was thought. Malaria, interestingly enough, had been linked to the mosquito, but the medical community, for various reasons, refused to do the same with Yellow Fever.

When Cooke and his two friends happily emerged from the Infected Clothing Building after an unpleasant, but uneventful twenty day stay, Reed felt vindicated. As he had predicted, they were fine. No one had been stricken with the disease even though they had been deliberately exposed to clothing, bedding and other textiles that had been used by or come in close contact with yellow fever patients.

This was huge. For years people had been burning clothing, furniture, and cleansing buildings in an attempt to halt “contagion.” For many years people had been quarantined and separated from loved ones when stricken with the deadly pestilence. Extraordinary and expensive measures, born of fear and desperation, had been the accepted mode of dealing with Yellow Fever epidemics such as the departure of nearly half the population of Memphis from the city in 1878 when it was announced that the disease had appeared in their city. By getting away from the diseased and their infected homes and possessions, one would probably avoid the disease.

In one bold stroke, Walter Reed and his associates proved that nearly all of these oft employed extreme measures were utterly useless and needlessly cruel. Yellow Fever was not contagious like smallpox. If anything could give a person Yellow Fever, wearing the stinking, filthy, vomit stained uniform of a Yellow Fever patient should do it. Sleeping on the bedding or using the blankets and sheets from a Yellow Fever patient should do it. But it didn’t. The test had been unpleasant and sickening for Cooke and his comrades. Their stay in the Infected Clothing Building made them sick at their stomachs but hadn’t made them sick with Yellow Fever.

Reed wasn’t finished. It had long been a universally accepted fact that one could “catch” Yellow Fever from a sick person, that it was contagious and therefore spread by human contact. Reed thought not. A human being couldn’t give you the disease. This was an even more radical notion than his belief that “infected “ things were harmless. He had observed that many of the non-immune volunteers at hospitals full of Yellow Fever patients NEVER came down with it. In those areas stricken with epidemics, plenty of people who had come in close contact with the diseased never developed the malady. For a non-immune person, working at a hospital or being around the sick at home or elsewhere was risky, but it was not a surety that he/she would develop the malady. Furthermore, many of those who had fled Memphis in 1878, people who had had no contact with the sick, nevertheless came down with it. It almost seemed to be in the air they breathed but that really didn’t make any sense. Something else was spreading it. And Reed had a good idea as just what was responsible.

Now, Reed knew, was the time and place to prove it. He made ready for the next experiment. They were a long ways from a cure, but finding out just how the disease spread, or rather did NOT spread, would be a major step. Now they would seek to answer this question: If not through human contact, just how was a healthy person infected with Yellow Fever? It had to be the mosquito. Nothing else made sense.

The theory that the lowly, tiny mosquito spread the pestilence from one person to another(as mentioned before) was not a new one. Walter Reed was not the first research doctor to hold this idea. At Camp Lazear he resolved once and for all to answer the question: was this little bug the culprit? Could it be that the simple mosquito bite was the thing to be avoided, not contact with an infected person, either direct or indirect? Reed had to prove it. The many skeptics out there, particularly in the medical community, demanded hard proof. Until this was produced, the old ways of dealing with the disease would continue.

In another one room building called the Infected Mosquito Building at Camp Lazear, Reed conducted the next important experiment. Into this building he placed three healthy, non-immune volunteers. A large screen or tight-woven net was placed down the middle with two men on one side and John Moran on the other. All three men breathed the same air, used the same linens, ate the same food, wore the same clothing etc. except for one important difference: Carefully selected mosquitoes raised and cultivated in a nearby laboratory were released on Moran’s side of the net. He allowed himself to be bit multiple times. On the “safe side” the other two were protected. They received no bug bites.

It didn’t take long to get results. On Christmas Day John Moran, after only four days in the building, awoke with a headache and chill. Later that day his temperature was 104 degrees. He remained in the room and was treated there. Without a doubt he had contracted Yellow Fever. Over the course of his illness he lost twenty pounds. But, fortunately, he survived and lived to tell the tale. The two men on the other side of the building watched it all and stayed for the entire allotted time staying in close proximity to Moran. They never contracted the illness.
Walter Reed was elated. Finally, the long-awaited scientific breakthrough had been accomplished. It was the mosquito all along and only the mosquito. There was no longer any doubt.
No one had yet identified just what the nasty little bug was doing to its human victims, but he was doing more than simply taking blood OUT of humans and moving their blood around from person to person: he was putting something deadly INTO a human at the same time. We know now of the Yellow Fever virus. But it would be several more years and many more hours in laboratories before this tiny, tiny sneaky and highly adaptable killer would be isolated and identified. Other forms of Yellow Fever, different from the American variety, would be discovered in Africa. More researchers would die. Although it has largely been banished from the Americas, (for the time being)Yellow Fever, in various forms, remains a terrible scourge worldwide.

Walter Reed and his brave volunteers simply pointed us in the right direction. Not only did they not discover the virus, the real enemy, they didn’t discover a cure for Yellow Fever. But finally at long last, the means by which that tiny enemy was injected into humans had been identified. For all practical purposes the mosquito WAS the enemy. And in most wars, enemy identification is half the battle. Reed and his associates discovered that the more a person was protected from mosquito bites, the better were his chances of avoiding a bout with Yellow Fever. It was that simple. Fight the mosquito and you fight Yellow Fever.

Reed’s findings gained quick acceptance and a war against the mosquito ensued. When possible, swamps were drained and stagnant pools emptied. Extensive use of insect repellants and netting helped as well. The results were remarkable. When, a few years later, enormous crews arrived in Panama to resume the construction of the long-awaited canal, they did the smart thing and attacked the mosquito first. Yellow Fever casualties were kept to a minimum. This time there was no epidemic and one of the greatest engineering feats in human history, the Panama Canal, was finally completed in 1914. Reed and his courageous volunteers at Camp Lazear had made this possible.

Walter Reed returned to the United States a hero, the recipient of promotions, awards and honorary degrees. He is best remembered in our time for the Washington DC military hospital that bears his name. Unfortunately he didn’t enjoy his new found success for long. He died in 1902 of a ruptured appendix at the age of 51.
Today Walter Reed is regarded as the brilliant research doctor who gave humankind a long-awaited breakthrough, the first great victory in the long war with a deadly killer: Yellow Fever. We owe him a great debt.

SOURCE: THE AMERICAN PLAGUE by Molly Caldwell Crosby, Berkley Books, New York, 2006.



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Wartime atrocities are a tricky, difficult subject. And it’s hard, very hard to fight a “clean” war, even a war that is justifiable and necessary, where only the guilty are punished and all participants conduct themselves honorably. There are simply too many people involved. And even among the “good” guys, even in the good apple barrel, there will be a few rotten apples.
Only those nations who allow others to fight the wars can plead innocence. Sweden, for example, stayed out of World War Two. They were fortunate. When it came to defeating Hitler and his legions, the British, Americans, Russians, and many others, even Brazilians, did the dirty work. They expended their blood and treasure to stamp out the worst threat to humanity ever to appear in that part of the world. Therefore nations like Sweden and Switzerland are off the hook when it comes to war atrocities. They get no blame. In a sense, they stayed in the house and watched someone else dig the sewer line by hand in the pouring rain. Once it was done, they used their restroom and took great pride in their clean hands.

Of course, they get no credit either.

Bad guys, rogue nations, and oppressive regimes do not go down without a fight. And those nations who join the fight to bring them down will, inevitably, cross some lines and make some poor moral choices. In the course of the terrible business, the painful but necessary operation they will do things they later regret.

Often Americans say something like this: “Sure, the Germans did bad things in WW II. But so did we. The US did terrible things and violated the rules of warfare in Vietnam. We’re no better than they were.” I’ve actually heard otherwise intelligent people say things of this sort.

When I hear such things I’m usually not sure where to begin the discussion-if there is to be one. Often such remarks are tossed out by people with few facts at their disposal and no intention of honestly debating the matter. (Indeed few people know HOW to really debate an issue, to enter into a respectful discussion where the ground rules are understood, the perimeters of the issue are defined, etc.)On such occasions, I do my best to keep my composure and temper.

But….let me take a stab at this.

Let’s compare the 1968 My Lai Massacre in Vietnam (a US wartime atrocity) to the work of German police battalion 101 in Poland (examined closely in Daniel J. Goldhagen’s HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS-see previous article) and raise the following questions: Was the crime of Lt. Calley and the men of “Charlie Company” in Vietnam just as bad, just as deplorable, just as heinous , as the crime of Major Trapp and his men in Poland 25 years before in the village of Jozefow in the Spring of 1942? Will such a comparison result in a moral equivalency between the two events? Are we, in a sense, comparing rotten apples to rotten apples or are were comparing rotten apples to a poisonous fruit?

First, consider what occurred in the village of My Lai in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. Essentially a company of US combat infantry operating in a war zone let their emotions, their anger, their battle fatigue, frustration, whatever one may call it, get the better of them and methodically slaughtered, tortured and raped over four hundred innocent villagers. The end result was a huge pile of dead civilians- elderly men, women, and children, non-combatants-an awful business, contrary to the rules of war, contrary to their own code of conduct, a deed that caused the US great embarrassment when the gruesome photos were published in Life and other magazine a year later. My Lai is considered by many the “most shocking episode of the Vietnam war.”
One must, however, recognize some important differences in the two scenarios.

FIRST, the big picture is quite different. US servicemen were not sent to South Vietnam to massacre South Vietnamese civilians. There was no policy of genocide. Prejudice against the South Vietnamese was not promoted by the US government . Ostensibly, it was just the opposite. From Eisenhower to Nixon, over the long course of this cold-war conflict, the South Vietnamese were regarded as victims of Communist aggression and the US was there to help. US officials were in constant and widely publicized contact with SV leaders. The official US position was one of concern and respect toward the South Vietnamese government and its people.

Of course, this official position was not always honored by Americans in Vietnam. There was hypocrisy. Among the rank and file, “Gook” and other insulting words in regards to Asians were thrown around a great deal. Racism of many varieties was still quite common in the US and they brought such attitudes to Vietnam. Furthermore, if the enemy is racially different , racism is to be expected-particularly in a war zone. The enemy and the civilians, who give him aid and comfort, will not be spoken of in complementary tones or treated with respect. And, it must be admitted, My Lai was not the only atrocity committed by US forces in the Vietnam war. There were others, many others-a subject far beyond the scope of this paper.

On the other hand, at least according to a good friend of mine who served as an infantry company commander and did (unlike most Vietnam Veterans) experience combat, many US servicemen were under strict orders to treat the locals with the utmost courtesy, especially AFTER the sorry My Lai business. There was a positive result. US forces “in the bush” were, for the most part, much better behaved after My Lai.

Whether or not Lt. Calley actually had orders from his commanding officer, Capt Ernest Medina, to murder noncombatants as he saw fit, remains uncertain. At the official Army Criminal Investigation Inquiries held in late 1969 and early 1970 Medina, though he admitted “sugar-coating” his reports and participating in the cover-up, he denied giving orders to execute innocent civilians. Fortunately for him, he was not present in My Lai while the murders were occurring. In November 1970, after many attempts by US army leaders in the related chain of command to whitewash or cover up the sorry business, fourteen officers, including the division commander himself, were brought up on charges. One by one men were exonerated and charges were dropped. Once all was said and done, 2nd Lt William Calley was the only fellow left standing, the only one actually court-martialed and convicted of the charges leveled against him. He had personally shot 22 civilians. This he admitted. He had no choice. There were so many witnesses he couldn’t deny it. The testimony against him was overwhelming.

Yet Calley had friends. Many in high places, including retired military leaders and politicians, defended him as the guy who simply became the “scapegoat” for US atrocities in Vietnam in general, but they could not stop his court-martial and conviction and were only able to see that he served no time in prison, that his “imprisonment” was merely a three-year house arrest.
There was some merit to their defense of the beleaguered Lieutenant, but by early 1970 it became obvious to the US government that somebody had to pay for My Lai, and most of all, the damned thing needed to disappear from the headlines. Domestic opposition to the war, already at an uncomfortable level by the late sixties, only increased when the news of My Lai broke.

Considering the pig picture, as to German Police battalion 101, there is no debate: this unit was sent to Poland by the German government on a chilling but simple mission: locate, assemble, and kill Jews. Their mission was made very clear to the five hundred or so men of that unit prior to the firing of the first shot. At the beginning, the men knew that they were to be instruments in genocide. In testimony offered years after the war, none of those questioned doubted their mission. They were sent to Poland to kill Jews. The Jews, essentially non-combatants, were the “enemy.” It was all very simple and straightforward.

Imagine if you can, a country where cold-blooded, systematic massacres in an otherwise “peaceful” situation, massacres that make our more recent Sandy Hook and Columbine shootings in the US seem pretty tame by comparison, are occurring EVERYDAY for several terrible years. No, the Poles didn’t see reports of this on CNN. They didn’t even read about it in the newspapers. But everyone knew what the Germans (with Polish collaborators) were doing. News of this sort travels quickly from person to person and house to house. What the Germans were up to was no secret. That was Poland during WW II.

SECOND, the My Lai massacre was performed by combat troops in a war zone where they were fighting an elusive but deadly enemy who often blended into the local population. Prior to that terrible day in 1968, Lt. Calley’s unit had suffered real losses to a real enemy, 28 men killed and wounded.

Police battalion 101 did NOT operate in a war zone. The real war on the Eastern front and elsewhere, was hundreds of miles away. Furthermore, the men of #101 had NOT been in combat, had suffered no losses and, according to Goldhagen, during their fifteen month tour of duty in Poland were NEVER engaged in deadly combat with a real enemy. They were executioners, not soldiers, though they often prided themselves on their “dedication and courage” and took pride in the commendations the unit received from a grateful government. * What they did was both inexcusable and beyond understanding to a rational, reasoning mind, a mind where a conventional morality is held.

THIRD, once the deeds of Lt. Calley and his men were brought to light by US journalists, there was a scandal. The US government was embarrassed and Calley was relieved of his command and brought up on charges. High-ranking officers who had participated in the cover-up were stripped of decorations and sent letters of censure. Even Calley’s division commander was demoted from major general to brigadier and lost his position as commandant at West Point. There were consequences and repercussions up the chain of command.

In Nazi Germany there was no scandal, no need for any “cover-up.” No participants of the German Police Battalions were brought up on charges for the murder of Jews by the Nazi Government. Quite the opposite. They received praise and commendations of gratitude from their government. Clearly, the German government was proud of these men.

FOURTH, a few Americans, notably High Thompson, a helicopter pilot who stumbled onto the grisly business as it was happening at My Lai, tried to intervene and rescue Vietnamese civilians. Though shunned by some of his comrades initially, he was later commended by his superiors and awarded a Bronze Star for heroism.

As far as we know German Police battalion 101 did their work without hindrance. No fellow Germans tried to stop them. Had anyone tried they would have gotten themselves into big trouble.

FIFTH, Charlie Company did this terrible thing, the murder of somewhere between 350 to 400 civilians, only once. It had not happened before and it did not happen again.

The story is dramatically different for Police Battalion 101 twenty five years before. The massacre at Jozefow was only the beginning. They continued from place to place with their grisly business, doing the same thing over and over again. Author Goldhagen believes that this unit alone was responsible directly or in part, for the deaths of over eighty thousand innocent civilians!

The deeds of the police battalions were never officially made public until well after war’s end, though many in the Fatherland knew of them. Any zealous reporter or journalist who attempted to announce the business of the police battalions to the German public would have found him or herself in prison. Or worse. Nazi Germany was a police state. There was no American style freedom of the press or free speech. Major Trapp was never brought up on charges. There was no scandal involving Major Trapp with the German press or the Nazi government. On the contrary, his unit was ordered to proceed to other towns and villages and murder more Jews. Again and again.

To this writer, a comparison of these two groups is a little like comparing the fellow who kills someone in a barroom brawl to the deeds of Jack the Ripper, a serial killer! (best comparison I can think of at the moment)

Now to call the question: Is there any real similarity between the deeds of Lt. Calley and his men to the deeds of Major Trapp and his men?
I say not much.


Lt Calley and the men of Charlie Company operated within a universally recognized moral universe, a system of right and wrong, good verses evil, sanctioned and approved by the society from which they originated and the nation they served. In the months following the My Lai incident they attempted to hide their deeds and “sugar-coat” the after-action reports using language that gave no real indication of the terrible truth. They tried to “sweep it under the rug.” But they did not succeed. The truth came out and they had to own up to their deeds.

The men of Charlie Company sitting on the docket knew well that many of their comrades in other units who had done similar things (though not on the scale of My Lai) would escape official scrutiny. In this they can be compared to the fellow motoring along in a crowd of rapidly moving vehicles who finds himself pulled over and ticketed for speeding. He was not only in violation of the law, he was just plain unlucky. But…. it didn’t make him right and he had to pay the fine.

The frightening question is this: would I, had I been a part of that unit, succumbed to powerful peer pressure, a mob mentality, and violated the standards of morality and decency and fair play that Americans celebrate and hold dear? Or would I have exercised appropriated self-control and said “No” when all around me my comrades are saying “Yes” to the demons that had laid hold of their souls that terrible day at My Lai? Would I have kept my moral wits when even my best buddies, all other members of my unit, were losing theirs?

As bad as My Lai was, German Police Battalion 101 presents us with a much different and far more sobering situation. They operated in an entirely different moral universe, one where traditional ideas and standards of right and wrong had been discarded altogether, a new morality, one where the dominant groups deserved to exist and prosper and lesser social groups, especially the Jews, a group officially deemed sub-human, did not deserve to exist at all. For the good of Germany and the world, they needed to be exterminated.

In November, 1961 Kurt Mobius, a former member of Police Battalion 101 testified thus: “ it did not occur to me that these orders (to murder Jews) could be unjust…I believed the propaganda that all Jews were criminals and subhumans.. the thought that one should evade the order to exterminate them did not enter my mind at all.” P.179

Put simply, this man was part of a nation where a vastly different moral universe was acknowledged. That such a twisted, bizarre system of values could hold sway over the hearts and minds of people in a nation where a powerful, and pervasive Christian tradition existed, is chilling beyond words. The men of Police Battalion 101, unlike the men of Charlie Company, weren’t violating their own moral standards when they murdered innocent civilians, they were honoring those standards, doing what they thought was right and proper. They did not, as far as we know, harbor any guilt about it-at least not for a long time, at least not until they were forced to confront all this sorry business years later by their astonished conquerors.

In excusing themselves, attempting to cover up or gloss over or hide the My Lai massacre the men of Charlie Company and those in authority over them did at least acknowledge that a terrible, inexcusable thing had occurred at My Lai. In the months following they ran away from it and distanced themselves from it as fast as they could. My Lai was a big failure and failure, as the old saying goes, is an “orphan.” Though many of the participants may have muttered various rationales, justifications, and excuses amongst themselves for the terrible business at My Lai, no American officer or official ever claimed that Charlie Company had done “the right thing”.

On the opposite hand, the men of Police Battalion 101 and the officials in charge did not, for many years, believe that they had done anything wrong. On the whole, all the evidence and testimony suggests that they were quite proud of what they had done. Furthermore, I suspect that many of them never thought twice about their deeds and went to their graves with a clear conscience!

In general, the work of the German Police Battalions in Poland during World War Two represents a far more chilling, frightening scenario than the moral lapses of US servicemen in Vietnam in that war.

Is there a moral equivalency between the two scenarios?
Absolutely not. Though the end result (for one day’s work) was the same, they’re far more different than they are similar. Charlie Company in 1968 was a “rotten apple”- good guys gone bad. But German Police Battalion 101 in 1942 was “a poisonous fruit”-deadly by nature.

Jim Hardaway December, 2013


*Of the 38 Police battalions that participated in genocide, author Goldhagen tells us that a few of these units were sent East to a real war zone and actually DID engage in combat with the Soviets, a real, rather than imaginary “Jewish” enemy.

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