RealClearHistory Articles

10 Women Who Beat Hillary to the Punch

Brandon Christensen - January 17, 2019

On Jan. 24, 1966, Indira Gandhi became the first female Prime Minister of India, which was at that time one of the newest democracies in the world. Mrs. Gandhi was elected Prime Minister by Congress after an assassination took out her predecessor.

This fact is all the more astounding when you realize just how massive India is. There are now over one billion people living in India and another 362 million in Pakistan and Bangladesh, making the Indian subcontinent one of the most densely populated places on the planet.

I couldn’t help but think of Hillary Clinton when I grasped the enormity of Mrs. Gandhi’s accomplishment. I don’t pay attention much to politics, especially around election season, and I couldn’t help but smirk to myself when I thought of Mrs. Clinton’s quixotic quest to become the first female president of the United States. Silly American politicians, thinking only of themselves and how they can get themselves to the front of the line. Here are 10 women who beat Hillary to the punch:

10. Indira Gandhi (1966-77 & 1980-84). The most important fact to point out here is that Mrs. Gandhi had absolutely no relation to Mahatma Gandhi, one of the leaders of the Indian rebellion against the British empire. An assassination brought her down in 1984, just as one had brought down her successor in 1966. Democracy is a fragile creature, and the fact that India has survived for so long as a democracy is nothing short of miraculous. One of Mrs. Gandhi’s bodyguards murdered her, by the way, after her heavy-handed tactics led to brutal communal violence.

5 Facts About Emancipation Proclamation

& Brandon Christensen - January 10, 2019

On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the famous Emancipation Proclamation, which, he argued, freed the slaves in the Confederacy. Today, Americans and others celebrate Lincoln’s proclamation as one of the major highlights of the modern world. Chattel slavery was finally abolished in arguably the last industrialized country on earth. The truth, however, was a bit more complicated than the celebratory narrative that schoolchildren are familiar with. Slavery in the Confederacy and the broader United States was part of a global network that used unpaid, coercive work to accomplish tasks that needed to be done. Here are five reasons the Emancipation Proclamation is more complicated than meets the eye:

5. The Emancipation Proclamation was a coldly calculated political move. Abraham Lincoln was like many, if not most, northerners in the U.S.: he loathed slavery as an institution but he didn’t like black people, either. Yet Lincoln understood that the war between North and South was about slavery above all else. He understood that to defeat the Confederacy, he was going to have to crush its peculiar institution and the ideas it stood for. So, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in the midst of the war, when morale was low in the North and victory an unsure outcome. (For those of you who are particularly passionate about an unpopular but morally superior position, such as ending the war on drugs, keep at it. Abolitionist sentiment was always extremely low in the United States, despite occasional public outbursts of anger over lynchings in the news cycle.)

4. The Confederacy was, for all intents and purposes, an independent country. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederacy had long since declared independence from the United States and set up a federal government of its own. Montgomery, Ala. acted as its capital city until 1861, when the Confederacy’s government moved to Richmond, Va. Lincoln viewed Richmond’s diplomacy with the British and French as the most dangerous element of the Confederacy’s secession. If Richmond could somehow manage to get a world power on its side, the consequences for the future of the republic would be dire. For London and Paris, the calculations were a bit different. If either one joined the side of the Confederacy, the other would officially join the north and a global war could ensue. The Confederacy lobbied especially hard for the British to fight on their side, but there was one issue London’s hawks, the factions that wanted a war with Washington, couldn’t get past.

3. The British Empire ended slavery in 1833. Good intentions abounded when London abolished the slave trade in 1833, but ending the slave trade soon took on a life of its own for the British Empire, and before long, the United Kingdom began fighting a continuous stream of wars in Africa under the pretense of abolishing slavery. Ending the global slave trade meant that London could push into the interior of Africa and claim large swathes of territory for the crown, and all in the name of liberty. The British were not stupid, of course. London picked off what was left of the Dutch Empire in Africa, but the Portuguese slave trade was left alone as was French-claimed Africa. The British Empire’s abolition of the slave trade in its territories enlarged the territory of the empire in Africa but also put a significant dent in the profits of slave owners in British-governed territory in the New World and Old.

Why Is Texas So Big?

Howard Tanzman - January 9, 2019

In the lower 48 states, Texas is more than 60 percent larger than the next largest state, California. How did this happen? Typically, new states were created by subdividing territories. The Louisiana purchase was divided up into several states including North and South Dakota, Iowa, Missouri and others. The Northwest territories became five states – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. However, Texas was an independent nation at the time it joined the Union, so it came in with the borders it had. And those were large. At one point in history, Texas was even larger than it is now.

The making of Texas-sized Texas turns out to be a long and winding road, almost 200 years long.

1665 - King Charles II – Colonial Charters

British colonies were financed on a ‘for profit’ basis by private investors under charters provided by the king. These charters allowed investors to colonize the land typically bounded by designated lines of latitude on the north and south. Virginia’s southern border with the Carolinas was originally set at 36 degrees north. This placed the Carolinas’ Albemarle Sound partly in Virginia, forcing Carolina settlers to pay export taxes to those entrepreneurial Virginians on goods shipped to England. They complained and in 1665, King Charles II moved the border north a half degree to 36 degrees, 30 minutes (36° 30’). This placed Albemarle Sound entirely within the Carolinas, eliminating taxes to Virginia! This line serves today as the southern border of Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and the Oklahoma panhandle.

10 Things About Christmas Battles of WW I

Brandon Christensen - December 20, 2018

As the year winds down to an end so, too, does the centennial for the end of World War I. Before we delve into the specifics of the brutal Christmas battles of the war, I thought it would be a good idea to recap some of the World War I-themed posts that appeared at RealClearHistory over the course of the year.

- 10 Countries That Played a Lesser Role in World War I

- 10 World War I Battles That Killed Christianity

- Dervish State? What’s That?

RCH's Top 10 History Films of 2018

Brandon Christensen - December 13, 2018

This was sort of a rough year for history-themed films, especially when compared to 2017. Nevertheless, some of them are worthy of your time and money. So, without further adieu, here are, in order of greatness, 2018’s Top 10 History films:

10. Mary, Queen of Scots. This one just came out, so you can still catch it in theatres. Mary explores the rivalry between the Queen of Scotland (and France) and her cousin, Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Ireland. There are love affairs, and religious themes that are smarty dealt with, but the violence alone is worth the price of admission. There is also beautiful footage of the Scottish highlands, so see it already!

9. Peterloo. If you want violence, intrigue, and a historical backdrop set in the British Empire, this film is for you. The left-wing slant was a bit too much for your correspondent, but if you can set aside the soapboxing, this film will entertain you. It’s based on the infamous Peterloo labor Massacre of 1819. If you want to read more about why labor’s struggles are overrated, check out this old piece at RealClearHistory: “10 Deadliest Riots in U.S. History.”

8. Padmaavat. This film produced violent, heated protests in India and it lives up to its billing. Based on a medieval Muslim emperor who attacked a Hindu kingdom because of the beauty of its queen, Padmaavat has stunning visuals, blood, love, and a heck of a plotline. There are some historical liberties that the filmmakers took, but other than that, its place in RealClearHistory’s Top 10 Films of the Year is well-deserved.

Manifest Destiny and President Polk

Howard Tanzman - December 12, 2018

The area of the United States is about 3.8 million square miles. The country increased its size through several historical events:

1783 Treaty Ending the Revolutionary War (~890,000 square miles)
1803 Louisiana Purchase (President Jefferson ~820,000 square miles)
1845 Texas Annexation (Presidents Tyler and Polk - ~390,000 square miles)
1846 Oregon Treaty (President Polk - ~285,000 square miles)
1848 Mexican Cession (President Polk - ~530,000 square miles)
1867 Alaska Purchase (President Johnson - ~585,000 square miles)

Three of those events occurred under President James Polk, totaling over 1.1 million square miles.

Polk was a protégé of fellow Tennessean President Andrew Jackson. He served in the House of Representatives and as governor of Tennessee.  In 1844, Martin Van Buren was the front runner to receive the Democratic presidential nomination, but after coming out against the annexation of Texas he was unable to obtain the then needed two-thirds majority vote at the Democratic convention.  On the ninth ballot, Polk, a dark horse candidate was selected. He defeated Senator Henry Clay, who also opposed the Texas annexation, in one of the closest elections in U.S. history.

10 Reasons Churchill Was More Man Than Myth

Brandon Christensen - December 6, 2018

By all accounts Winston Churchill was an incredible man and worthy of his place in history. Churchill was voted the “Best Briton of All Time” in a far-reaching poll conducted by the BBC in 2002, besting the likes of William Shakespeare and Princess Diana. The people are hardly alone in their admiration of Churchill. Here at RealClearHistory, there have been no less than two glowing hagiographies of Churchill in the past month (here and here). Historians on both the left and the right have widely admired the man (though of late his views on empire and race have fallen into disfavor with scholars).

All of the wonderful things written about Churchill are no doubt true. He was nothing less than the 20th century’s Otto von Bismarck: a man, a statesman, a gentleman who could understand theory but also put it into practice, who stood athwart history and yelled not to stop, but to reform both slowly and radically. Yet, as a libertarian and also a citizen, I find it troubling when society at large venerates men - individuals - and forgets about the rules and the agreed-upon procedures to follow such rules. Hero worship is, if not done carefully, a potent cultural complement to the political and economic decay of the rule of law. So, in the spirit of contrarianism and liberty, here are 10 reasons why you should think of Churchill as a mere man, and not as a myth.

10. Famine in Bengal, 1943-44. The most brutal of Churchill’s mistakes is also the one that is least likely his fault, a result largely due to the academy’s leftward push over the past three or four decades. A famine struck the Presidency of Bengal, an integral part of the British Empire, at the height of World War II in India. Bengal was being heavily bombed by the Japanese and Tokyo’s air raids were going almost completely unchallenged. The British military also began to employ scorched earth tactics in Bengal due to the belief that a major Japanese invasion was imminent. The wartime economy only made matters worse, as goods were directed elsewhere throughout the empire and done so based on political and military decisions rather than by supply and demand pricing. Unrest was on the rise. The tipping point came when cyclone season, an annual event, came around and devastated what few remaining crops had survived a recent fungal outbreak. The outbreak, which has been compared to the more famous Irish Potato Famine, had wiped out most of Bengal’s crops. Two to three million people starved to death. Churchill’s response? To sarcastically ask his subordinates “why Gandhi hadn’t died yet” if there was a famine. “It was wartime,” you say to yourself, but imagine FDR joking about two to three million African-Americans, or the Japanese “internees” he imprisoned throughout the country during the war, starving to death.

9. Dresden bombing, 1945. This one is relatively straightforward. Dresden is largely viewed as a war crime today, as the Allied bombed indiscriminately. Churchill knew about the bombings, and gave his explicit approval, although some biographers maintain that he did so with reservations.

Bush Stood Up to "America First" Over His Political Future

Pratik Chougule - December 5, 2018

Although foreign policy had propelled President George H.W. Bush to approval ratings of 90 percent after the Gulf War, a populist revolt over free trade became a political liability practically overnight. Toward the end of 1991, two out of three Americans believed the country was on the wrong track, the same percentage that disapproved of the President’s handling of the economy.  America had won the Cold War, but world leadership meant little to the millions of Americans suffering from the lackluster economy at home. 

At a moment when his political future was on the line, President Bush went straight to the American people, defending free trade and its importance to  the United States and to the international community. Bush lost his election, but, in doing so, sustained a political consensus that allowed the United States to expand free markets over the coming decades.

As populist anger morphed into calls for protectionism, President Bush initially attributed attacks to partisan “liberal Democratic carping.”

He soon realized, however, that the “carping” was not contained to the Democrat side of the aisle.  In October 1991, Republican David Duke defeated the White House’s candidate Buddy Roehmer in the Louisiana open primary.  The race had received international attention due to Duke’s isolationist views, Holocaust denials, and history as a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.  The Louisiana “jungle primary” proved not to be an aberration. 

How World War I Changed Map of the World

Howard Tanzman - November 29, 2018

Four empires collapsed during World War I – the German Empire, the Russian Empire, the Austria-Hungary Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. After the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, the victorious Allies redrew the maps of Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East to replace these fallen empires.

The United States entered World War I in April 1917. Nine months later, in January 1918, President Wilson articulated ‘Fourteen Points’ as the basis for negotiating a peace settlement. This speech detailed his concept of a fair and equitable peace to all parties. The British and French were concerned about the Fourteen Points. Having incurred several million casualties and severe financial hardship, they were not that interested in a generous settlement for Germany. Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau was reported to have commented that “God was satisfied with Ten Commandments. Wilson gives us fourteen.” Wilson felt that a harsh treaty would risk future war, stating in his ‘Peace Without Victory’ speech: “Victory would mean peace forced upon a loser, a victor’s terms imposed upon the vanquished… It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory upon which term of peace would rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand.” Time would prove him correct as many historians believe that the harsh Treaty of Versailles was one cause of World War II.

Several of Wilson’s points dealt with territorial issues including the provision of independent countries for each of the main ethnic groups in Europe. These concepts were accepted by the Allies and included in the Treaty of Versailles with Germany; the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary and the Treaty of Saint-Germain with Austria.


This Isn't Rosa Parks' Bus Anymore

Brandon Christensen - November 27, 2018

I hate flying. It’s not a phobia, but flying is still a terrible experience for me. I don’t know why this is. It wasn’t until adulthood that I began to hate it. I get myself all worked up. I also tell myself that flying is a lot safer than driving. It doesn’t help. Multiple scenarios are produced by my brain where I end up dying in a plane crash. The worst of these scenarios are the ones where I get sucked out of a moving plane and fall to my death, kept alive before impact by a cruel fate so that I may experience terror all the way down. I know my hatred of flying is illogical and unnecessary. I know flying is one of the safest modes of transportation in the republic today. I still hate it.

I think it was my junior year of college when the family decided to have Christmas in Utah. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and was very much against flying to Salt Lake from LAX. So, I took the bus. Specifically, I took Greyhound. The price of a bus ticket on Greyhound was almost the same as a plane ticket. About five hours into my nearly 24-hour bus ride, I told myself that I should have flown. The irrational fear and the crushing anxiety could have been managed (after all it’s not a phobia), especially since the flight from LA to Salt Lake is only three hours long.

The problem wasn’t the view. It was the clientele. I was obviously one of only two or three students on a large, packed-to-the-brim bus. The rest were people who could not afford an automobile even though they did not spend most of their weekdays in class and most of their weekends at work.

Some appeared to be fresh out of prison. Many were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Another wanted to trade sex for a place to stay in Salt Lake City. When we pulled up to one of Salt Lake City’s Greyhound terminals the SLCPD boarded the bus and, rather roughly, hauled a man out of his seat and wrestled him into the back of an unmarked police vehicle that had been waiting for us to arrive.

The Weapon That Saved Dunkirk

Steve Feinstein - November 22, 2018

Although most people under 40 are somewhat unfamiliar with it, a great worldwide armed conflict known as World War II took place from 1939-45 in the European and Pacific regions. It is relevant and important to know and understand because the outcome of World War II put into place the political, economic and geographical conditions and relationships that make the world what it is today. An understanding of the ramifications of WWII is central to comprehending how today’s world came to be. People under 40 — even under 60 — would do themselves a huge favor if they learned some history and saw how that history affected today’s world.

The 1939 war in Europe was caused mostly by the consequences of the unresolved complications and volatile conditions that persisted following the end of World War I in 1918. World War I took place from 1914-18, and was a struggle for the control of Europe, primarily between the Germans on one side against the French and British (aided by America after 1917) on the other side. Germany remained particularly unstable in the years after the end of the Great War (as WWI came to be known) and in retrospect, many historians feel that another war in Europe was inevitable.

The inevitability of another European war after 1918 became reality on Sept. 1, 1939 when Germany turned eastward and attacked Poland. Having built up its military forces in direct contravention to WWI treaties, Germany overwhelmed Poland in a matter of a few short weeks, using its newly developed Blitzkrieg tactics. Unlike the ponderous, static, slow-motion trench warfare that dominated World War I, Germany saw the potential of combining fast-moving armored forces with close-support air power (dive bombers and fast low-altitude bombers) to deliver a decisive, overpowering blow to their enemy’s critical targets in the very early stages of the action. Germany’s Blitzkrieg tactics were so successful that the term has now become part of the popular lexicon, meaning any quick, overwhelming action, whether in sports or business or some other endeavor.

Following a relatively uneventful 1939-40 winter (a time period that came to be known as the “Phony War”), Germany resumed its hostilities against Europe in the spring of 1940, turning its attention westward. German forces blasted through the “Low Countries” of Holland and Belgium and swung around to invade France from a point behind its main defensive eastern border with Germany. Following World War I, France fortified its eastern border with Germany with a massive wall of concrete and armament called the Maginot Line in an effort to prevent any future invasion by Germany. But Germany attacked Holland and Belgium to the north and west of Germany, through the supposedly impenetrably dense Ardennes forest and they swung into France from behind the Maginot Line. France’s expensive, fool-proof defense against German aggression proved to be a worthless folly.

Then and Now: Appeasement Is Folly

Garland S. Tucker - November 19, 2018

Winston Churchill left us a marker: “Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” From our 21st century vantage point, we gaze back over the most violent century in human history, the 20th century, and desperately seek the guidance of history.

Historian Paul Johnson saw the devastation of the 20th century as a result of “the rise of moral relativism, the decline of personal responsibility, and the repudiation of Judeo-Christian values.” The gaping void left by the “retreat of the old order” was an open invitation for the emergence of Nazism and Communism and their despotic regimes. More recently, historian Niall Ferguson has identified the forces of ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and empires in decline as the moving forces behind this tragic century.

However one understands the causes, there are certain lessons to be learned. One such lesson is the folly of appeasement. The long preamble to World War II is the story of misplaced confidence by men of good will in their ability to reason with aggressive dictators. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described his cabinet’s response to Hitler’s aggression as follows: “The cabinet was unanimous in the view we should not utter a threat to Herr Hitler.” Fellow cabinet minister Lord Lothian proclaimed to the public that Hitler had personally assured him that “what Germany wants is equality, not war; that she is prepared absolutely to renounce war.” 

Niall Ferguson has characterized the British appeasement policy as follows: the appeasers believed that “the correct policy for Britain to adopt was to turn Germany into a ‘good European’ by treating her as one of the European community.” Fortunately, Britain ultimately chose – almost too late — Churchill and heroism.

10 Southeast Asian Kingdoms You Need to Know About

Brandon Christensen - November 15, 2018

This week’s Historiat post, on the armistice that ended the Vietnam War, reminded your correspondent of the complicated and long-rooted history of violence and geopolitical intrigue that lays at the heart of Southeast Asia.

Hemmed in by India to the west, Australia to the south, China to the north, and the mighty Pacific Ocean to the east, southeast Asia has played gracious host to most of the world’s major religions, which have all hungrily traversed Southeast Asia in search of souls, merchant networks, and power; it has also seen experiments in every major and minor form of government known to man.

The French experience in Vietnam was short lived; the American one even shorter. In most ways the European imperialists simply grafted their colonies onto existing power structures in Southeast Asia and hoped for the best. The French in Indochina. like the British in Burma or the Dutch in Java, stumbled into their roles as colonial powers in Southeast Asia, in large part as a result of the complex history of the region.

Today, leftists and none too few libertarians like to blame Western imperialism for the problems that confront the world, but the colonies claimed by Europeans in the latter half of the 19th  century had more to do with local histories than European imperialism. And the power relations between countries in Southeast Asia today have more to do with the same local histories than does the short-term imposition of European rule there. Here are 10 now-defunct polities that continue to shape the region of the world known as Southeast Asia:

'For Valour': Lesson From Churchill

Kenneth Weisbrode - November 11, 2018

On Veterans Day with our daily news pages appearing nearly indistinguishable from the celebrity gossip pages, it is worth taking a moment to recall a different time, and a different form of celebrity.

 In February 1952, Winston Churchill paid tribute to the deceased King George VI with the words, “for valour.”

There was probably no greater tribute to make, for Churchill, following his mentor Jan Smuts, had said that there was no higher virtue for a leader, or anyone else, to possess. Both Churchill and the King respected it. Both had seen combat and death; both had overcome disability; both had struggled with the perception, at earlier points in their careers, that they were the wrong men in the wrong place at the wrong time; both, together, led their nation to victory in a terrible war.

What does it mean to be valorous today? The quality is usually ascribed to unsung or everyday heroes: rescue teams during a natural disaster; soldiers in a distant firefight; survivors of a private tragedy who, many years later, find the will to speak publicly about it.

Hitler's 10 Biggest Lies -- in Speeches

Brandon Christensen - November 8, 2018

On Nov. 9, 1942, Adolf Hitler gave one of his most famous speeches to higher ranking Nazi party officials. Performed at Munich’s Stiglmaierplatz (a public square), the speech was captured on tape and is today a one of the few artifacts to feature Hitler using his “inside voice.” The speech is famous for telling one of Hitler’s 10 biggest lies:

10. Known as the “Stalingrad speech,” Hitler spoke in a normal tone for almost the entire speech, and spent most of the time praising the German military machine. Only at the end did he begin to shout, as he told the gathered Nazi officials about Germany’s success in Stalingrad, and how the city was completely under German control. This was, of course, not true, as the Battle of Stalingrad represented a turning point for the Allies on the eastern front.

9. Weimar: July 4, 1926. The central German city of Weimar hosted the official Congress of the re-founded Nazi Party in early July, and Hitler gave the 6,000-7,000 Nazi voters in attendance exactly what they wanted: a thunderous speech introducing the Schutzstaffel (SS) to the German people. Hitler stressed the necessity of paramilitary force for not only the protection of Nazis from violence, but the entire German nation as well.

8. Berlin: Nov. 16, 1928. The Nazis performed poorly in the May 1928 elections, and the Prussian state government felt confident enough to lift a ban on public speaking that essentially targeted Hitler and the Nazis. That November, Hitler gave a speech in Berlin attended by 12,000 people, in which he disparaged German governments (federal, state, and local) for their lack of commitment to fairness. Hitler promised that the national socialists would give all Germans a voice in German social, economic, and political life.

82nd Airborne's Stunning 1-Day KIA at Normandy

Charles Houghton - November 5, 2018

By today’s standards, the 82nd  Airborne’s sacrifice in Normandy seems almost fantastical. When the elite division vaulted Nazi Germany’s Atlantikwall to launch the invasion of occupied Europe, Allied leaders fully expected few of its members would return. It was a suicidal mission, and 82nd Airborne was calculatedly sacrificed inland in hopes of ensuring indispensable amphibious landings along the coast.

Among Allied planners, casualty predictions for 82nd Airborne ranged as high as 75 percent. The most optimistic planners forecast 50  percent casualties, and by casualties, those planners meant deaths, not the generally accepted and all-inclusive definition of the word. But those losses were deemed acceptable in piercing Adolf Hitler’s Festung Europa, and Allied High Command agreed with near unanimity to sacrifice 82nd Airborne to that end.

Triggering that dire concern was the recent arrival in Normandy of two select Wehrmacht outfits, 91 Luftlande-Infanterie ‘Steel’ Division and attached Fallschirmjager Regiment 6. Intelligence had definitively placed two division elements, Grenadier-Regiment 1057 and Artillerie-Regiment 191 at La Haye-duPuits and Besneville, precise locations of two proposed 82nd Airborne drop zones, and suspected Fallschirmjager Bataillon II at Lessay, proximate to the third proposed drop zone.

In marginal concession, 82nd Airborne’s operational plan changed just 10 days before launch. The division’s drop zones were drawn 10 miles back nearer the coast, closer to 101st Airborne, and the division was essentially handed a new mission and an entirely new set of objectives. But ultimately, the change mattered little.   

10 Things About History of Antarctica

Brandon Christensen - November 1, 2018

The first murder in the history of Antarctica happened earlier this week. Two Russian scientists were involved. One of them, an engineer, stabbed the other, a welder, after the welder kept spoiling the end of the books held by the research station’s library.

The southernmost continent and the least inhabited, Antarctica’s history is brief. “Antarctic” as a term was first used by Greek mathematician and map-maker, Marinus of Tyre, in the second century AD. Amazing, Antarctica was not discovered in an official capacity until January of 1820, when two admirals in the Imperial Russian Navy - Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev - spotted the shoreline of Antarctica during a global circumnavigation exercise.

By the end of 1820, British, American, and French explorers had swarmed the continent, annexing and claiming land for their imperial dominions like there was no tomorrow. It’s quite possible that Antarctica had been known to humans before the official sightings began. Smugglers, hunters, pirates, and others who may have wanted to keep their commercial interests tight-lipped probably avoided the spotlight of discovery and fame for good reason. All speculation aside, once the discovery of Antarctica was announced in 1820, it became a part of the historical record. Here are 10 things to know about the southernmost continent:

10. Commercial and geopolitical interests took precedence in early Antarctic exploration. From discovery onward, until about 1840, the burst of activity in Antarctica from countries like Russia, France, the U.K., Japan, and the United States did not stem from scientific curiosity. It was driven by commercial interests (most countries still had massive, inefficient “trading companies” like the British East India Company, in 1820) and geopolitical considerations (the acquisition of territory was still thought to be strategically advantageous in 1820).

History of Blackface Not What You Think

Robert Cherry - October 30, 2018

Megyn Kelly has been universally condemned for claiming that in certain contexts it is acceptable to use blackface for Halloween costumes.  These critics referenced the history of blackface presentations of demeaning negative stereotypes. While this deplorable use of blackface was widespread in the mid-19th century, it has little to do with its 20th century use by primarily Jewish and black entertainers.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish women came to dominate “coon songs”; songs performed in blackface and sung in a black dialect.  These songs were the antithesis of the minstrel songs that typified 19th-century blackface. The most important practitioners of these reckless, anti-sentimental tunes were Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice.  Indeed, Brice risked her Broadway debut in the Ziegfeld Follies by demanding that she sing “Loving Joe” in blackface. She claimed that it was necessary to give an authentic sympathetic portrayal of a black man.  These Jewish coon singers paved the way for the later successes of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters.

While Brice and Tucker transitioned out of blackface, the two most noted practitioners, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson, used blackface for much of their careers.   Like the coon singers, Jolson chose blackface to give authenticity to his songs. Cantor’s blackface performances countered racist stereotypes. In his routines with the black entertainer, Bert Williams, Cantor played an effete young man who was more at home with the elite than individuals from his social class; in Whoopee! he shows the deeply racist nature of the one-drop rule of determining blackness.  

Moreover, both entertainers were exemplary in their support of black entertainers.  Jolson brought black West Coast performers to the East to be featured dancers, and an aspiring playwright to have his piece become the first drama with a majority black cast ever produced on Broadway.

Empire Strikes Out: Habsburg a Warning for E.U., U.S.

Todd G. Buchholz - October 29, 2018

One hundred years ago, in October 1918, the House of Habsburg slammed its gates forever. It was more poignant than the closing of Woolworth’s, Lehman Brothers, or even Sears. The Habsburg Empire, which had ruled middle Europe for 500 years and tried to unite many nationalities under one flag, could not hold on. Do we celebrate or mourn? Tens of millions of Americans descend from immigrants who left the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The monarchy also gave us Mozart, Freud, the Danube Waltz, weinerschnitzel, and World War I. If the Habsburgs could not straddle a diverse population, can the European Union or the United States of America?

The Habsburgs’ domain stretched from Amsterdam to Gibraltar to Bohemia, and it boasted the title Holy Roman Emperor. Though the family emerged from a Swiss castle to rule Austria in 1279, orchestrated marriages lured into the family Isabel and Ferdinand’s daughter from Spain, along with sons and daughters of nearly every other ruling family. If they had not succeeded as monarchs, the Habsburgs would have been the world’s greatest gossips and matchmakers.

But did anyone besides blood relatives and in-laws consider themselves Habsburgs? That was the problem. Though Emperor Franz Joseph I (who reigned for sixty-eight years starting in 1848) saw himself as a universal force (like the Roman Catholic Church) and even adopted the motto Virus unitis (with united forces), he never figured out how to instill the uni. To most of his subjects, he was just another Teuton, albeit one with thousands of cannons. Franz Joseph was personally popular. With his mutton chops and red sash, he was a strong brand.

My high school English teacher told me that his father, who left Hungary in the early 1900s, would “speak frequently, nostalgically of Franz Joseph, as if he were the president of the United States.” In the brilliant novel The Radetsky March – as penetrating a view of Austria as The Great Gatsby is of America -- author Joseph Roth, describes a fatherly portrait of the blue-eyed emperor, which was proudly hung in in churches, synagogues, biergartens, and brothels alike.

10 Countries That Didn't Survive the Cold War

Brandon Christensen - October 25, 2018

The Cold War spelled the end of numerous countries from 1947-91. Grenada, whose story was featured at the Historiat earlier this week , survived. Poland, Egypt, and Thailand survived, too. The country of South Vietnam, on the other hand, did not survive. On Oct. 26, 1955, South Vietnam declared its independence from Vietnam proper, kicking off a decades-long war that dragged in both Cold War superpowers and the longtime regional kingmaker in southeast Asia, China.

We all know that things ended badly for the rebels. Here are 10 more countries that didn’t survive, either:

10. Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1922-91). It’s best to start with the easiest one. The Soviet Union was one of the two superpowers responsible for the Cold War. The communist state’s story is a familiar one for most history buffs. There were many countries that lost their independence to the Soviets, from khanates in Central Asia to medieval kingdoms in the Caucasus, but by the start of the Cold War in 1947, all had been crushed and absorbed into the U.S.S.R.

9. Tibet (1912-51). Another easily recognizable name on the list, Tibet was governed by a feudal theocracy. After the Communists stamped their authority over the traditional territories of the Republic (1912-49) and the Qin Empire (1644-1912), Tibetan socialists urged China to invade and annex Tibet, in the belief that Beijing would topple the theocracy (which could be brutal) and usher Tibet into a new, more enlightened era.