Monthly Archives: June 2011

Seventy years ago this month

On June 22, 1941 Operation Barbarossa, the German attack upon RUssia was launched. Over three million Germans poised on the border suddenly and ruthlessly instituted a military campaign that was without question, the largest in history. The attack on Pearly Harbor that so shocked the US a few months later was a mere fleabite in comparison. And for the next few years this war on the “Eastern Front” would completely consume the efforts of Stalin and his subjects. In the end, they would emerge victorious, but the cost would be high, very high.

It was a surprise attack that calm Summer day along the Polish border when hundreds of pieces of German field artillery opened up for the initial bombardment preceding the “blitzkreig” or “lightning war”- amassive movement of planes, tanks, and infantry. The earlier conquest of France and the low countries had been a mere rehearsal.

Stalin, like Chamberlin, and many others, had been fooled by Herr Hitler two years earlier when they had made a pact that sliced Poland down the middle with the Germans taking the Western half and the Soviet Union the Eastern half. The poor Poles never had a chance. Stalin, in spite of his raging paranoia that sent millions of his countrymen to artic Gulags, was inexplicably and astonishingly unafraid of Hitler. Had he never read MEIN KAMF, Hitler’s manifesto published years earlier in which he made quite clear his ultimate goal of “Lebensraum”, the  Manifest Destiny of the German people to spread out and go East? Apparently not.  In his book Hitler also made no secret of his feelings about COmmunism and the inherent inferiority of the Slavic people the their ultimate status as servants of the Teutonic race. Still, Stalin ignored all this and in doing so nearly saw the conquest of his empire.

And so the war that had come to something of a standstill in the West after the German defeat over the skies of Britain, exploded into something gigantic on the Polish border seventy years ago this month.

Nearly all observors predicted the defeat of the Soviet Union at the time. Over the remainder of the Summer and unto the early Fall, German advances across the steppes of Russia were relentless as the Soviet army seemed to melt away in their path. So confident of success were the Germans that their soldiers had not been issued Winter clothing. It was assumed that they would be safely billeted in homes and buildings in Moscow by the time the snows fell in late October. Though it the end it was, of course, poor planning and overconfidence on the part of the Germans, it was not apparent to them at the time. They were winning and the Russians seemed to be able to do little to stop them.

It is simplistic to say that the Russian winter defeated the Germans. BUt it did halt the intial German advance, giving the stunned and beleagered Russians a chance to organize a proper defense and launch their first real counterattack. Later in the Spring of 1942, the German offensive continued and once again it appeared that the Soviet Union was going down. But things had changed somewhat. The Russians had a new friend, the US, and we were managing to get thousands of tons of supplies, including vehicles and planes to them. By early 1943 the Germans were handed their first major defeat in that campaign at Stalingrad. The tide had turned.

The greatest help given to the Soviets however, was the opening of the second front with the invasion of Normandy, three long years after the initiation of hostilities in the East. Historian Stephen Ambrose argues that had that not occured, there was always the real possibility that Stalin and Hitler could have sign a treaty and gone back to the old 1939 lines. But the Germans could not sustain a real two-front war and everyone knew it. WIth D-Day, the battle that AMbrose called the most decisive of the war, the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed once and for all.

When the casualties were counted at war’s end, it was a toss up as to whether the Chinese or the Soviets had lost more people. THough historians are much fuzzier on full extent of the sufferings of the Chinese under the Japanese, it seems that roughly twenty million Soviet citizens perished, or about forty to forty five of them for every AMerican that died. More Russians would die in one campaign, the siege of Leningrad, than AMericans would die in the entire war-a staggering comparison. ANd of course there was the Holocaust. About three million Russian Jews would perish.

And it all began seventy years ago this month, the largest military campaign history, when Nazi Germany bit off more than it could chew, the invasion of the Soviet Union, a campaign that nearly suceeded.

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Custer died for your sins?

A few years ago I traveled on a bus out West with a large group of boy scouts. One of the stops was a brief foray into Montana to visit the Little Bighorn historic site, the place where Colonel George A Custer and a fair portion of the US 7th cavalry were wiped out by forces of hostile Native Americans under the command of Sitting Bull, a chief of the LaKota s. It is a place I’d always wanted to visit and it was expecially frustrating that we were given only about ninety minutes there, so I had to make the best of it. The visitor center is located only a hundred yards or so from the spot where the famous Colonel fell. He is buried with his men on that hillside, their graves in random clusters, all 256 of them buried where they fell instead of being moved elsewhere and laid out in neat rows as is the custom for military cemeteries. It all happened on this day, June 25 way out in the middle of nowhere, far from any white settlement of note, not far from the sacred black hill of South Dakota.

What do we make of the unfortunate Colonel now one-hundred thirty-five years on? Was he a fool who rushed into a dangerous situation blind to obvious warnings, namely the counsel of his skiddish Crow scouts?  Or was he, as the trial and hearings that followed the affair seemed to bear out, the victim of subordinates who stayed put and hesitated though they must have suspected that their leader and the companies of soldiers with him were surely in deep trouble? In recent years Hollywood has portrayed Custer, at least in the movie LITTLE BIG MAN as a crazed fool.

HIstorian Robert Utley has suggested that though Colonel Custer had the reputation of a man with a high opinion of his own abilities who often acted first and thought about it later, he was no fool, that at Little Bighorn that fateful day he was more a victim of bad luck than anything else. At each step of the way, Utley insists, Custer made sensible decisions based upon his years of chasing “hostiles” around the plains, Indians who survived not by joining the battle whenever there was opportunity to do so but by doing the opposite- dispersing and fleeing into the hills. Custer wanted a battle, one that would put his name on the American map, his chance for glory. He had every reason to believe that his men could easily deal with any hostile force if, just if, they would stay and fight. Utley argues that Capt B enteen and Major Reno could have come to his rescue, but, fearing for their own skins, stayed put instead. Utley also argues that CUster and his men were bested by LaKoata INdians who along with various other tribes, a confederation Custer couldn’t have anticipated, were highly motivated and well led. They had decided this time to give the Colonel the battle he wanted before they dispersed and fled into the  hills toward Canada. But in the end, Utley insists, Custer was simply unlucky, not foolish.

Indian wars had been occuring in North America since the first time a native group made contact with the Spanish in the old Southwest. By the time Custer met his end in what was, in all honesty, to be the final real battle of the Indian wars, Indian fighting was an old-time honored tradition. Fourteen years later in 1890, and not too terribly far away at a place called Wounded Knee, the final battle, and it was more of a massacre than a real battle, the final shots were fired between Indians and soldiers.  

The subjugation of the natives by white authorities and their concentration into “reservations” is an unhappy, tragic part of our history. Could it have happened differently? We’ll never know. We do know this: when it came to Westward expansion and “progress” the Indian was in the way. And whatever it took to get them out of the way was, at the time, justified. It is strange that so little mind was paid to what future generations might think. 

I used to see a bumper sticker that read: Custer died for your sins, as if he were some sort of scapegoat or sacrificial lamb. That’s one way to look at it I suppose. It was never a message that angered or bothered me. If I were native American, well..I’m not sure how I’d feel. One thing is for sure: US history would be a painful subject.

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Was the US Civil War over slavery?

Was the the US Civil War fought over the institution of slavery? Was the North or the Federal government fighting to end it? Was the SOuthern Confederacy fighting to keep it intact? This continues to be a hotly debated question.

The answer depends on who you ask. If we ask Mr. Lincoln, it seems pretty certain, especially if we read his 2nd inaugural address, that he considered slavery to be the root cause of the war. Once when he spoke with Harriet B. Stowe, the author of the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” he said to her: “So you’re the little lady who started this war!Her  book, of course, was an unsympathetic portrayal of slavery. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, an event in which Lincoln held a series of public debates with his rival for the Senate Stephen Douglas, was a lively discussion of the burning issue s relating to the extension of slavery into the new territories. Lincoln was against any  extension of slavery while Douglas promoted the idea of popular sovereignty.

Many studies have been done exploring Mr. Lincoln’s views on the subject. Though he often  waffled on the subject, though he was a political realist who tolerated slavery in the unseceded border states in the hope that they would remain loyal, it’s a sure thing that our 16th president had a negative view of the South’s “peculiar institution” and, when and if given the chance, would do something about ending it which is what he did with the Emancipation Proclamation, an act that didn’t end slavery but surely gave it a mortal blow.

The debate over slavery that bedeviled the Union in pre-war years was, in Mr.Lincoln’s view, the cause of the agitation that produced the secession of the deep South states in early 1861, a development that he found unacceptable. But…did the secession of those states, a bold act  su performed to preserve slavery, clearly spelled out in the documents produced by SOuthern writers at the time, make a war necessary?

In Mr.Lincoln’s view, this “rebellion”, especially after the commencement of hostilities at Fort Sumter, could only be ended by force. As so there was a war. And it was a far bigger, more costly affair than anyone had supposed. Make no mistake, it was a war of agression into and upon the states of the Confederacy and would be ended, by Mr. Lincoln’s reckoning, only when those “states in rebellion” gave up their bid for independence and separation from the federal government.

Nevertheless, in Mr. Lincoln’s view, the debate and agitation that had produced the crisis concerned the presence of slavery in the US and the it’s possible extension into the new territories coming into statehood in the West. Southernors staged a “pre-emptive counterrevolution” in 1861, according to one historian and Mr. Lincoln refused to walk away from the challenge. Could he have done so? Could he have simply shrugged his shoulders and said: “Oh well, if they want out, let ’em go?”

This is highly doubtful.  Lincoln did not view the constitutional arrangement of the states in that way, as a contract that could be broken at any time.  Besides, both Southern and  Northern states were spoiling for a fight. And a fight, a big fight, is what they got.

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Civil War News

Anybody watch the show “American Pickers?” Two collectors roam the countryside looking for cool old junk, depositing themselves on the doorsteps of eccentric hoarders who have lots of things piled up in old neglected barns and sheds or often  just out in the open exposed to the elements. The pickers are witty and fun, taking their tips from a cute heavily tatooed young woman back at headquarters. It’s a pretty good show, often quite entertaining.

Tonight they were roaming about looking for artifacts for a CW museum in Gettysburg. They found a private collector with some nice items for which our dashing duo had to pay real money. Needless to say the things they purchased were not found outdoors in an abandoned shed.

Part of the show was an utterly silly day-long foray into CW reenacting. The pickers put on uniforms, clowned around with men dressed for each side of the conflict, and with them staged a little mock battle/skirmish. They had a heck of a good time.

Yet, there was a problem. It wasn’t the little mock battle.  That wasn’t intended to be taken seriously. The problem was the reenactors. Though they were doing the best they could, bless their hearts (as we say down here inDixie), they bore little resemblence to real CW soldiers. It doesn’t matter how well they perform on the parade ground, how well they know the manual of arms, or how much they know about the war, they may be doing more harm than good.  Despite their most heroic efforts to be “authentic”, they do not and cannot look like the real thing. And looks are important. Sorry.

All across the country mock battles and presentations are being staged for the public by middle-aged, overweight “reenactors” like those who frolicked with the pickers. Am I being overly-critical here? Harsh?  I don’t think so. Like most wars, it was a young man’s war. Our Civil War was fought by skinny, dirty, smelly young men who, most of the time, sported bad teeth, ill-fitting well-worn, hand sewn, often-repaired clothing, and if they were COnfederates, marched in shoes that were likely falling apart. Theirs was a hard life, and very few men over fifty wanted any part of it.  The re-enactors of today only resemble the real CW soldiers when they gathered for reunions long after the war’s end.  The fellows gathered around the pickers were, as far as I could tell, all over fifty.  The irony of it is that the pickers, who seem to be in their late thirties, looked more like real Civil warriors than the reenactors. Our biggest, most costly war was not fought by well-fed, grey-haired, middle-aged men. Unfortunately the millions watching this show will not catch this. So the misinformation continues.  Most of these reenactors (I suspect) know this but by golly they’re just having too much fun to let it go. And besides, the reproduction gear for an CW infantryman is much cheaper than a Harley-Davidson.  A retired fellow has to think about this when he is  on a fixed income.

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Book Review “1942” by Winston Groom

A year or so ago I read “1942: The Year that Tried Men’s Souls” by Winston Groom. This is the man who gave us Forrest Gump, not the movie, which was wonderful, which he had little to do with, of course, but the book upon which the movie was based, a pure delight and insanely funny in itself. “1942” covers the first year of America’s experience in World War Two. I’d be tempted to sacrifice one of my body parts if  I could only write like this fellow. Once I started it, I found it difficult to put down. A year later, I ignored the stack of unread books on my desk and read “1942” again. It’s that good.

Basically it is what it purports to be: an engaging chronicle of our first year in the “good war.” We’re reminded of how ill prepared our country was and of how maddening it was to hear of losses and defeats at places like Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Bataan, Corregidor, and Savo Island. Groom helps us to better understand the exhilaration of the Doolittle Raid, the miracle at Midway, and the heroic defense of Guadalcanal. He introduces us to little known episodes such as the business on “Cat Island” on the Gulf Coast, a government-funded attempt to train hordes of dogs to rush the Pacific beaches and attack the Japanese, a laugh- out- loud, bizarre footnote in history that demonstrates just how desperate things were that fateful year.

Groom doesn’t shy away from controversy. He gives a careful and thoughtful explanation of the infamous executive order #9066 and reminds of what really happened. He reminds us that it is grossly simplistic and unfair to say that the US government, with no justifiable cause, cruelly rounded up and shipped persons of Japanese ancestry “off to concentration camps”-as we have heard so many times.  It wasn’t exactly like that nor was it exactly that simple. Though I doubt that he will put the matter to rest, he tries to set the record straight.

Did Roosevelt know that Pearl Harbor would be attacked in late 1941? Since the “day of infamy” many have maintained that the President, with full knowledge of the axe that was about to fall simply “looked the other way” and allowed it to happen to insure that the US would enter the war.  Groom unapologetically regards this conspiratorial school of thought as preposterous. That Roosevelt, who clearly wanted the US to enter the war, would have wanted his country to enter the war with it’s Pacific fleet at the bottom of Pearl Harbor flies in the face of simple logic (p.96) More than anything else, Groom reminds us, the whole Pearl Harbor business was just bad luck and miscalculation.

The first few months of 1942 were pretty bad, Groom makes clear. Again and again Americans watched helplessly as Hitler’s U-boats played havoc with our Merchant Marine within sight of our major ports. But we as a nation grew up that year, which is in large measure the point of the book, and by the end of the year had turned the tide. It was a truly remarkable achievement, Groom insists, one from which we should continue to draw pride and encouragement.

The accolades for “1942-The Year that Tried Men’s Souls” are many.  General Wesley Clark says it: “is fast-moving readable pose, spiced with lively commentary and quotations…a roaring pace, a broad perspective and telling revalation about events that shape the fate of nations.” Groom doesn’t disappoint.” I agree.  This book is worth your time.

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From the 8/20 post- Don’t know much about history

These words are taken from Truman’s famous executive order 9981 mandating the desegregation of the armed forces.

African Americans have had an active participation in every US war, from the Revolution to the present. But until this executive order was issued in 1948, their roles in the military had been mostly limited to the types of roles assigned to them in civilian life-cooks, laborers, clean-up details, and various other non-combat duties, much of a menial nature. In “colored” combat units in the Civil War, all officers were white. By World War Two, this had changed a little, but most officers were still white. Blacks and whites enlisted separately, trained separately, and served in separate units whether stateside or in a war zone. Jim Crow was the officer of the day, every day.

Consider the 92nd, the famous “Buffalo Soldier” infantry division in World War Two who saw service with the 5th army in the Italian campaign.  They did not compile an impressive combat record. Various evaluations of the unit cited reasons of poor “morale” and “esprit de corps.” It’s hard to fight two wars at the same time. The soldiers of the 92nd had to battle the Germans and Jim Crow.   Since a “negro” was not, for the most part, suitable for a commission in army tradition, (blacks were not allowed to enter West Point until the late nineteen-thirties and then only a handful) nearly all field, staff, and executive officers and even a large number of company or junior officers in the 92nd division were white.  A black captain, and there were a few, could not expect a salute from a white lieutenant he happened to encounter. And it would indeed be a rare event at any rate since it was extremely unlikely a white lieutenant would be in his company and thus under his command. White men commanded colored men, not the other way around. The commanding general, Edward M.Almond, was an unapologetic racist who later strongly opposed the 1948 executive order #9981 issued by Harry Truman mandating the desegregation of the armed forces. No wonder morale was bad in the 92nd.

Back in the states black soldiers often performed guard duty at camps housing German POWs in  segregated southern states. When detachments of prisoners went into town they would often visit local restaurants and were astonished to discover that their own guards had to eat outside while they ate inside at tables alongside local whites. They, the enemy, were treated with more respect than US soldiers!

At the war’s end President Truman had simply heard one story too many. Enough was enough. American “negroes” in uniform had performed vital services during the war making victory in Europe and the Pacific possible. This ongoing officially sanctioned humiliation had to stop. As commander in chief Truman had the power to officially discharge Jim Crow and so he did with Executive Order 9981 mandating the desegregation of the Armed Forces.

Old traditions die hard. Many units, especially state operated national guard units, remained segregated for years afterward. Many old-timers such as General Almond, did what they could to keep African-Americans out of West Point and OCS (Officer Candidate School) and ROTC programs. But they were fighting a losing battle; they were fighting the future. Jim Crow had been dealt a mortal blow. Toward the end of the Korean War American blacks and whites were serving alongside one another in combat units for the first time in our history. To his credit, Harry S. stood up, made a stand, and did the right thing.

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