The Historiat : RealClearHistory Blog

Nixon's Soviet Lesson on American Humility

Brandon Christensen - May 24, 2019

On May 22, 1972, Richard Nixon went to Moscow. The Historiat has already covered at historic visit here, but there is plenty more to glean from the encounter.

The Kitchen Debate of 1959, for example, where Nixon, ever the lawyer from California, got into an impromptu debate with Nikita Khrushchev (ever the socialist) over the merits of their different systems of governance and economy. Nixon’s 1959 trip so impressed the Soviet First Secretary that Khrushchev later declared he did everything in his power to prevent Nixon from being elected President in 1960.

There is also the eternal unanswered question: Why Nixon? How did the staunch anti-communist end up making two trips to the Soviet Union in the heat of the Cold War? Perhaps it is because only warriors can make a lasting peace. Or maybe, as Rick Brownell recently argued, it’s because Nixon was actually a Progressive. Trump himself, after all, said that Republicans and Conservatives are two different animals, and the Progressive tradition has a long history of operating within the GOP.

On May 28 of that eventful 1972 summit, Nixon became the first American president to address the Soviet people directly. He did so on live radio and television, two mediums where he had mixed success in the past, and in English. In his memoirs, Nixon stated that he wanted to reach the Soviet people as plainly as he could, with no interpreters to muck up his message, and no censors. The Cold War lasted another 20 years after that speech, so it has been easy for Nixon’s detractors to downplay the significance of the 1972 speech.

5 Battles That Defined Mexican-American War

Brandon Christensen - May 15, 2019

On May 13, 1846, the United States Congress, egged on President James K. Polk, declared war on Mexico. In 1879, Ulysses S. Grant, who had fought in the war as a strapping young lad, described the whole affair as “wicked” and that the land grab made him “ashamed of [his] country.” Abraham Lincoln was a freshman in the House of Representatives during the war, and he was one of its harshest critics. Alas, Mr. Lincoln was voted in to office after war had already been declared.

It wasn’t just Whigs who opposed the war, either. John C. Calhoun, one of Polk’s fellow Democrats, was relentless in opposing Manifest Destiny. For him, like the Whigs in the North, any territory taken from Mexico would only augment the wound of slavery throughout the republic.

The war itself lasted only two years, from 1846-48, but the consequences were of lasting importance. The United States of America annexed more than half of Mexico’s territory and established itself as the strongman of the region. Here are the five battles that made it all happen:

5. Siege of Veracruz (March 9–29, 1847). Like most of the battles and sieges of the war, this one ended with an American victory. The siege also marked the first official amphibious assault of the U.S. military. Capturing Veracruz was no small feat. At the time, Veracruz was considered the most impenetrable fortress in North America. The victory helped the Americans establish themselves deep in Mexican territory and paved a relatively clear path towards the Mexican capital.

America's Oddest Riot: The Opera Riot at Astor Place

Brandon Christensen - May 8, 2019

“Class distinctions in America are so complicated and subtle that foreign visitors often miss the nuances and sometimes even the existence of a class structure. So powerful is ‘the fable of equality,’ as Frances Trollope called it when she toured America in 1832, so embarrassed is the government to confront the subject [...] that it’s easy for visitors not to notice the way the class system works.”

- Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System 

On May 10, 1849, the oddest riot in American history took place in and around a theatre in Manhattan. Hundreds of people were injured in the Astor Place Riot, and somewhere between 22-31 people died in the violence.

The Astor Opera House was conceived as an upscale retreat for upper class Manhattanites looking to avoid the rabble that often attended theatre performances in the 19th century. Unfortunately, the founders of the Astor Place couldn’t quite keep non-elites out the way they’d hoped; part of the reason for this was for the simple fact that New York, and the United States more broadly, couldn’t attract many opera performances, nor could it attract consistent top-level theatre talent from the United Kingdom. In order to stay afloat of the books, then, the founders of the Astor Place had to take honestly earned money from theater goers who worked for a living.

Thus the Astor Place, like every other theater in the United States, was unable to make itself too exclusive. Its founders, like those who founded the republic itself, had to find a way to live with an equality that was democratic in nature. Democratic equality was, and is, a different monster than the equality Europeans had been grappling with since Late Antiquity (the tail end of the Roman Empire). The old equality was based on Christianity and on the feudalistic property rights regimes that undergirded Europe. Democratic equality, on the other hand, is based on notions of self-rule and on capitalistic property rights. Basically, in Western culture, free men and money replaced piety and honor when it came to mutual understandings of equality.

Urban Entertainment in the Early 19th Century

When Did Mother Jones Go All in for Labor?

Brandon Christensen - May 1, 2019

It’s May Day, a holiday celebrated by leftists all over the world. In Venezuela, a leftist government is starving its citizens and shooting the complainers. In Russia, a country that was once the epicenter of violent socialist revolution, a May Day celebration is held, but the real activity is centered around preparations for the May 9 parade celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.

The United States has never had a strong socialist movement, and it’s better off because of it, but individuals in this country have long taken advantage of the freedom found here to pursue leftist causes. Mary “Mother” Harris Jones is one such individual. This is her story.

Jones was born into a Catholic farming family in Ireland that had to flee the Emerald Isle due to the famine. The Harris family first tried to eek out a living in the United States, but found life to be too hard, so the family moved to Canada. The Canadian experience proved to be a brutal one for a woman who would become one of the American Left’s most beloved icons. Anti-Catholic hostility was rampant (Canada was still a part of the British Empire at the time) and anti-immigration sentiment was at an all-time high.

Mother Jones migrated back to the U.S. in 1859, to Michigan, and then drifted into Chicago before moving to Memphis. Mary Harris married a labor organizer in Memphis in 1861, and bore him four children. Her husband and all four children died in a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1867.

Does Progress Flow Down From Rockies?

Brandon Christensen - April 23, 2019

April 20 was  national pot-smoking dayin the United States. In Colorado, you can buy marijuana legally, smoke it legally, and grow it legally. In January 2014, the state officially legalized pot. Since then, several other states have joined Colorado in legalizing the wacky weed and one CBS poll says that 65% of Americans now favor legalizing pot.

Colorado is not just a trendsetter for today, either. In 1967, its governor, John Love, signed a bill on April 25 that legalized abortion. The controversy surrounding Colorado’s legislation has been unending, and still goes on today, but the now national issues all started in Colorado. Governor Love was a Republican, by the way, and served in the Navy during World War II. He earned not one, but two Distinguished Flying Crosses.

If you think legalizing pot and abortion was bad, Colorado was also the first state to grant women, by popular referendum, the right to vote (in 1893). Utah was technically the first state to grant universal suffrage, but most people discount Salt Lake’s “first” because of polygamy. The logic behind this line of thinking goes something like this: the polygamists wanted women to have the right to vote so that they could tell their wives how to vote, thus enhancing the voices of polygamists in democratic politics. Colorado had no such baggage when its men voted to give its women equal voting rights.

Left-leaning political legislation isn’t the only thing Colorado does first. In 1976 the American Basketball Association held its All-Star game in Denver, and the first-ever slam dunk contest was held. Guess who won? None other than Julius Erving. (He beat out George Gervin, Artis Gilmore, Larry Kenon, and David Thompson.)

Jackie Robinson's Life Wasn't All Baseball

Brandon Christensen - April 16, 2019

By now you all know April 15 isn’t just tax day, it’s also “Jackie Robinson Day.”

Since 2004, all Major League Baseball players have worn Robinson’s number (42) on that day in honor of his courage in becoming the first black baseball player in the Major Leagues. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, which is a polite way of saying he broke racist segregation in professional American baseball. You all know who he is. Hopefully you were able to check out Bryce Harper’s tribute to Jackie Robinson this year, too. (Here’s a good link.)

Robinson’s background is even more interesting than his baseball career. He was born into a sharecropping family in Georgia in 1919. Sharecropping was a popular form of livelihood in the Reconstructed South. Sharecropping is where farmers tend land that’s not theirs and are allowed to keep a significant portion of the crops they raise. Luckily for Robinson, his family relocated to Pasadena just a year after he was born, so he never had to experience that harsh realities of the Reconstructed South. Sharecropping still exists today, in large swathes of Africa and Asia, but the only people who practice this method of farming in the U.S. are those who live in hippie cooperatives or religious communes.

Instead, he got to grow up in Los Angeles, where he found himself “Not Allowed” into many places because of the color of his skin. The institutionalized racism couldn’t keep Robinson down, though, not even as a kid. He lettered in five sports at John Muir High School: baseball, basketball, football, track and field, and … tennis. Yes, tennis. He won a boys singles tournament as a junior. This was in the 1930s, and -- get this -- the name of the tournament was “Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament.” Segregation abounded, and not just in the Old South.

Silas Dinsmoor: Trials and Tribulations of an Indian Agent

Brandon Christensen - April 9, 2019

You’ve probably never heard of Silas Dinsmoor. He was an Indian agent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, at a time when Indian agents were viewed by Washington policymakers more as diplomats than as corrupt, racist bureaucrats.

The early American presidents knew that the Native American nations surrounding their fragile republic posed an existential threat. In the early era of the republic, there were three competing factions when it came to the West (the Appalachian Mountains): the federal government; western colonists from Europe; and the Indians, who were usually further divided into pro- and anti-American factions. The aims and ends of these three factions are easy to predict.

The federal government tended to fill its Indian agent positions with Ivy League graduates. Silas Dinsmoor was a Dartmouth man. Dinsmoor replaced a Princeton man. The man who replaced Dinsmoor in Cherokee country was also a Dartmouth man. The federal government wanted to acculturate the Natives who lived along the republic’s long western border into broader American society. The aim of acculturation was not charity. Acculturation was as much about Realpolitik as Andrew Jackson’s ethnic cleansing campaign in the 1830s.

Most of the the Native countries were allied with the United Kingdom or Spain. Many Natives had deep, centuries-long commercial ties with the French. The colonists advancing westward from America’s port cities wanted land and a government that would support their desires, so the leaders of the early republic had much to fret about.

History of United States and Its Alliances

Brandon Christensen - April 1, 2019

On April 4, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will turn 70. This is an incredible historical feat. Alliances never last long, and the fact that NATO transcends oceans and continents makes the longevity of this alliance all the more impressive.

There are those in the United States who have never liked the alliance, or at least America’s participation in it, and often argue that America’s growth into the most powerful polity in world history, with the world’s freest people enjoying their liberties, has been done unilaterally thanks to our unique culture and set of institutions. Daniel Larison, a senior editor at The American Conservative with a PhD in History from the University of Chicago, is probably the most sophisticated proponent of this line of argument. Ron Paul, the former Congressman from Texas, is probably the most well-known proponent.

Unilateralists call themselves “non-interventionists” in the United States (their opponents refer to them disparagingly as “isolationists”) and while I don’t agree with them, they make a really good argument using history as their guide.

Prior to World War II, the United States had signed just one official alliance with another polity: the Treaty of Alliance with France that lasted from 1778-80. So from the start of the Revolutionary War (which was really a secession from the British Empire rather than an actual revolution) in 1776 to Washington’s entrance into World War II in late 1941, the United States had joined one alliance, and it was a short-lived alliance that would make or break the existence of the republic. (During World War I, the United States was an “affiliated partner” rather than an official ally.)

Common Sense and the American Frontier

Brandon Christensen - March 25, 2019

On March 4, 1897, Grover Cleveland left office for the last time. His second go-round as president of the United States is often used as a milepost that marks the end of the Frontier Era in American history. The so-called Wild West had come and gone, but so had the era on Republican domination of the Presidency and Reconstruction of the South.

In just 32 years, between 1865-97, the American republic swallowed up half of a continent after it took mostly English colonists and American republicans roughly 245 years, from Plymouth Rock to the onset of the Civil War in 1861, to reach the eastern bank of the mighty, muddy Mississippi and establish constitutional governance.

How did this explosion of territorial gain happen in such a short period of time?

Common sense easily explains this rapid expansion, but with history departments everywhere operating under the thumb of identity obsessed ideologues, common sense has often been pushed aside in the name of highfalutin theory. So, in honor of those who came before us, here were the main impediments to territorial acquisition in the pre-Civil War era.

Debunking the Myth of Wyatt Earp

Brandon Christensen - March 18, 2019

Wyatt Earp was born on March 19, 1848. When I was a teenager my grandparents took me and my sister to Arizona during spring break to catch Spring Training. We took breaks from baseball to see Nogales, a couple of museums, and Tombstone. It was awesome. To celebrate Earp’s 171st birthday, and to pay tribute to my grandparents (they’re both still alive!), I figured I’d set the record straight on Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral gunfight.

First things first: the gunfight at O.K. Corral did not actually take place at the O.K. Corral. The 30-second gunfight took place six lots away from the Corral’s back entrance. Crazy, right? Just think: the further back you go in time, the more shrouded events can become in legend and outright falsities.

The gunfight wasn’t exactly as black-and-white as Hollywood films would have you believe, either. While I happily acknowledge that the 1993 movie Tombstone is still the best Western of all-time, and that Doc Holliday was Val Kilmer’s best-ever performance (Kurt Douglas outdid himself in Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 film Hateful Eight, otherwise it would have been his greatest performance of all-time too), the Earps weren’t exactly upstanding citizens of Arizona Territory or the republic.

Wyatt Earp and his brothers - Virgil, Morgan, James, and Warren - sold booze, dreams, land, and sex in America’s frontier, and they weren’t above using the law to their advantage to make a little extra profit. Wyatt himself was mostly just a gambler in his youth (that’s how he became friends with Doc Holliday), but he also had an arrest record that followed him from Iowa, where he grew up (he was born in Illinois), to Wichita, Kan. Earp was mostly picked up for frequenting whore houses, but he was also arrested for stealing horses and “vagrancy.”