The Historiat : RealClearHistory Blog

Lessons Learned From Annexation of Hawaii

Brandon Christensen - January 21, 2019


On Jan. 24, 1895, the Queen of Hawaii was forced to abdicate her throne, thus paving the way for American annexation of the islands (which culminated in statehood in 1959). The American annexation of Hawaii had three important ramifications:

1. It set up a clash with the Japanese that ended with World War II. At the time of the Hawaiian monarch’s abdication, the Japanese and Americans were competing for influence in Hawaii and the broader Pacific Islands region by subsidizing settler immigration to various isles. The Japanese had more people in Hawaii than the Americans, and were easily winning the culture war there, but the Americans had more money and Washington was more willing to flex its muscle in Hawaii on the settlers’ behalfs.

Above all else, Washington’s willingness to subsidize a parallel legal system in Hawaii was the deciding factor in the American triumph over both the Japanese and the Hawaiians. Sally Engle Merry, a legal anthropologist at NYU’s Law School, wrote an excellent, readable book explaining how the American legal system came to dominate political life in Hawaii and why most people didn’t care all that much (save for the Hawaiian aristocracy).

Nobody in 1895 could have predicted that Japan and the United States would fight a major, worldwide war against each other 50 years later, but the strategy that led to Queen Liliuokalani’s abdication and the eventual annexation of Hawaii by the United States played a role in the war that was fought between the two budding imperial powers for supremacy over the Pacific. That the Japanese chose to bomb Pearl Harbor first, rather than somewhere like the Philippines, was no coincidence.

Cassius Clay: The Greatest (20th-Century) American?

Brandon Christensen - January 15, 2019


On Jan. 17, 1942, Cassius Clay was born in Louisville, Ken. Clay would go on to have an incredible career in the brutal sport of boxing, but his position as one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century extends far beyond his 56-5 record in the ring.

Cassius Clay symbolizes the struggle of African-Americans in the United States, that much is obvious. But Cassius Clay - aka Muhammad Ali - also symbolizes the true triumph of the United States in the Cold War. The young republic did not defeat a foreign enemy so much as it, through the lens of Muhammad Ali’s life, defeated the racism that had characterized much of the world prior to the end of World War II.

Born into Kentucky’s Upper South society, Cassius Clay grew up in a segregated society that had two sets of laws, one for first-class citizens and one for second-class citizens. In that America, class citizenship was determined by skin color rather than by, say, religion or income or family land-holding status. At the age of 12, he took up boxing to help keep him out of trouble and 10 years later he was the world champion of his sport.
That was in 1964, a time of great racial strife in the United States.

It was also the heyday of the Cold War, a nearly 50-year struggle for power between the liberal-capitalist United States and the socialist Soviet Union. The struggle was real (as the kids say today). The United States and its allies were losing, too, at least in the realm of ideas. The Soviet Union was funding groups that would today be considered progressive -- anti-racist and anti-capitalist -- around the world. One of the sticks that Moscow used to beat the West with was racism in the United States, especially in the officially segregated South.

Crazy Horse's Last Battle

Brandon Christensen - January 7, 2019


On Jan. 8, 1877, the United States Army clashed with a combined Sioux-Cheyenne force during a brutally cold winter in the Tongue River Valley of Montana Territory. Less than 10 people died in the Battle of Wolf Mountain, but it was a clear psychological victory for the U.S. Army: the Sioux and Cheyenne could no longer take refuge in the Rockies during winter on the plains. The Americans had learned how to track, and fight in the snow.

To make matters worse, the realization that the Sioux and other Indian nations could not regroup during the winter prompted the great Sioux tactician Crazy Horse to call it quits and surrender to the United States government. The Indians that fought the U.S. Army often traveled with women and children, so the Rocky Mountain winter, coupled with relentless pursuit by professional soldiers, made Crazy Horse’s choice to surrender an easy one. By May, he and his family were in Nebraska on a reservation. By the end of September, Crazy Horse had been murdered, stabbed in the back to be exact, by reservation guards.

The wars between the U.S. Army and various indigenous actors in the 19th century were not unique to the republic. The Zulu in what is now South Africa gained fame for sometimes beating the British Empire. The same went for the Ashanti in what is now Ghana. Argentina and Chile both launched campaigns against the Mapuche in the late 1800s, and both failed republics got licked from time to time by the Mapuche. The French Empire fought numerous indigenous enemies in its “French Sudan” campaigns, with the Wassoulou in particular fighting bravely, but futilely against Western expansion.

When the Indian wars were underway, the battles were characterized as two very different peoples fighting against each other. Today, this view is still espoused, but the logic underneath has changed. Today, the American Indian fighting the American soldier has come to be viewed as more of a civil war than a clash of civilizations. The Native Americans are deeply intertwined in our culture, our history. As historical research gets better, thanks in part to the fact that our society continues to get wealthier and wealthier, the indigenous actors who helped shape American history receive more attention, empirically and theoretically.

Wars and the Evolution of Christmas in America

Brandon Christensen - December 17, 2018


Christmas is too complex a topic to tackle in one short blog post, so instead here are some anecdotes from Christmases past here in America.

The Pilgrims and Christmas

The Pilgrims hated Christmas. Some of them even called it “Foolstide” rather than Christmas, and it was viewed as a Pagan holiday rather than as a celebration of the birth of Christ. The Pilgrims tried, and succeeded in some years, to ban the holiday outright. In 1620, the first year the Pilgrims landed in the New World, the faithful in Massachusetts worked on erecting their first building (unknown to us now) in the Americas on Christmas Day as a way to thumb their pious noses at their eternal theological foes, the Papists, and idolaters who celebrated such an obnoxious holiday.

Sociologist James Harwood Barnett called the work on Christmas Day a “studied neglect” of the holiday revelry, which was much more of a public affair in the 1620s than it is today. Indeed, the Christmas holiday of the 17th century consisted of drunken brawls, an elected Lord of Misrule who would preside over merrymaking, gluttonous feasts, the blurring of lines between the classes, dancing, and, of course, loud music of all sorts being played long into the dark of winter night.

The American Women Who Shaped Churchill, and Great Britain

Brandon Christensen - December 10, 2018


Winston Churchill’s mother was an American. This is no insignificant fact. The maternal side of a man’s family is always important, in all cultures, but in Churchill’s case it played a prominent role in the beloved Prime Minister’s ceaseless quest to bring the United Kingdom and the United States closer together during a time in world history when national socialism and international socialism were ascendant and threatening the liberal order of the British Empire and the American republic.

Churchill’s American side also played an important role in the United Kingdom’s constitutional crisis of 1936, when King Edward VIII abdicated the throne in the name of love. And the apple of the king’s eye? An American woman who was wed to an American-born British business magnate. The intricate connection between British aristocracy and the upper crust of American commercial society deserves an essay of its own, but here at the Historiat we will focus our efforts on Churchill’s response to the constitutional crisis created by the king and his American woman.

The British constitution is unwritten and therefore sometimes the object of playful derision by Americans of a more nerdy bent, but the United Kingdom has one and it explicitly places the monarchy in the realm of ceremony rather than policy.

King Edward VIII’s short reign was in no way confrontational to the democratic order of the British constitution, either. Edward VIII’s politics included visiting a deindustrializing region in Wales and commenting that “something must be done,” publicly mocking Labor’s elected ministers (he called some of them “cranks”), and vocally opposing some of the British Empire’s foreign-policy decisions. All of this fell safely into the realm of “ceremonial,” but just barely.

Flight 19 and the Bermuda Triangle

Brandon Christensen - December 3, 2018


On Dec. 5, 1945, a squadron of U.S. Naval aircraft bombers disappeared off the coast of Florida in what is popularly known as the Bermuda Triangle. Five torpedo bombers known as Flight 19 were lost and all 14 members vanished from the face of the earth. Nobody has ever found any remains. To make matters even crazier, the 13-man crew that was dispatched to find Flight 19 disappeared as well, just hours after embarking on its mission to find the lost flight.

As a man of science, I have more than a fleeting interest in discovering why 27 members of the world’s most powerful military, fresh off its victory in the world’s most devastating conflict ever (World War II), disappeared without a trace off the coast of Florida. Scientists, bless their hearts, have tried for years to explain the Bermuda Triangle, and in general I believe them, if only because the non-scientific explanations are even more unbelievable.

Hypotheses for the Bermuda Triangle include magnetic variations that disorient compasses, the powerful Gulf Stream, which can easily carry off floating objects into its wake, good old-fashioned human error, violent weather (do a Google search on “air bombs” if you have the time), and methane hydrates, which can sink ships by increasing the density of the water they are floating in. All of these are perfectly acceptable answers, and, should you find yourself in a bar or tavern discussing the Bermuda Triangle or Flight 19, you should defer to these explanations. If scientific analysis does not do the trick for you, just remember that the Bermuda Triangle is one of the most heavily-trafficked areas in the world and almost nothing has ever happened.

However, the disappearance of military men and equipment at the end of World War II is nothing to ignore. How was it possible that the world’s most powerful, utterly victorious military lost (and never recovered) 27 men and millions of dollars worth of equipment?

Nov. 11: A Tale of 2 Armistices

Brandon Christensen - November 12, 2018


Nov. 11 is celebrated in the United States as Veteran’s Day, and celebrated elsewhere in the world as the end of World War I (called “Armistice Day”). In the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th  month of the year (1918), World War I - “the Great War” as many patriots called it - ended with a harsh treaty for Germany and a bitter ending for all who participated.

The Russian Empire collapsed, and in place arose a murderous and incompetent socialist dictatorship that starved millions. The Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire disappeared from the map, replaced by “nation-states” that at once began purifying their domains of minority subjects with bouts of ethnic cleansing. The Western Empires fared much better territorially, as each gained land, but they all lost an entire generation of men to machine guns and chemical weapons.

The German Empire, at least according to French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, got off relatively easy, too. Yes, the Germans lost their overseas empire, but they got to keep their country (which had only been a country for less than 50 years). Foch thought that the armistice of 1918 was too lenient to the Germans, and that the German Empire should end up like the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian ones: broken up into smaller states that could never again threaten the Empires of the West. Cooler heads than Foch’s argued that breaking up Germany in the Ottoman/Austro-Hungarian manner would only lead to more of the ethnic cleansing that occured in those lands, and might even lead to something far worse: another Bolshevik revolution.

Ethnic cleansing and forced population swaps between new nation-states were one thing, but having a second country join Russia’s anti-capitalist revolution was quite another. Germany could keep its European realm intact, and a close eye was kept on events in German-held territories following the 1918 armistice. The collapse of the German Empire ended not with a Bolshevik revolution but a republic that tried too hard to please too many radicals. For the victors of World War I (including Americans), this was fine. We all know how the Treaty of Versailles ended up. We all know what happened with the outcome of the armistice.

Elijah Lovejoy and the Pro-Slavery Mobs of the North

Brandon Christensen - November 5, 2018


On Nov. 7, 1837, a pro-slavery mob in the northern state of Illinois descended on the headquarters of an abolitionist newspaper and murdered the editor, Elijah Lovejoy. The attack on an abolitionist publication so far north sent shockwaves throughout the country. The fledgling republic was struggling with not only the legality and morality of slavery, but with free speech as well.

Lovejoy himself was a Presbyterian pastor who was born, raised, and educated in the northeast. His editorial career began almost immediately after he was ordained a minister in 1833, just four years before his murder in Illinois. He moved to St. Louis and ran the newly-founded St. Louis Observer. Lovejoy’s early articles focused on attacking the Catholic Church and Catholics in general, which was spurred by not only the bigotry of the 1830s towards Catholics, but also the relatively large Catholic community in St. Louis at the time. Lovejoy immediately made enemies.

To make matters more complicated, Lovejoy publicly encouraged the temperance movement and called for men to severely restrict their use of alcohol and tobacco. In the 1830s, drinking and smoking were rampant, so rampant in fact that the 1830s represented the peak of alcohol consumption in American history. St. Louis, which was a bustling, growing metropolis with a frontier town’s edge, did not take kindly to Lovejoy’s pontificating, either.

Lovejoy’s passion for temperance and hating Catholics reached its crescendo, though, when his abolitionist viewpoints were thrown into the mix. St. Louis was a cosmopolitan port city in Missouri, a southern state surrounded by free ones, which meant that Lovejoy’s abolitionist stance added fuel to a social fire that was already raging between pro- and anti-slavery factions. St. Louis was also a city where free blacks and enslaved ones both worked, sometimes side-by-side. In 1836, an African-American sailor was arrested by two St. Louis cops, but before they could haul him off to jail, he stabbed them both. One died, the other was severely injured. A mob found the sailor and tied him up before burning him to death.

Luck and the Improbable Career of Ralph Bramel Lloyd

Michael Adamson - October 30, 2018


Immerse yourself in the management literature and you may conclude that with smart planning, decision making, and effort, it is possible to control business outcomes. And that the results from such deliberative efforts are entirely merited, to be claimed wholly as your own. The literature also may convince you that you can make our own luck—that it is possible to leave nothing to chance. Less often, as historian Mansel G. Blackford has noted, do you read about the extent to which luck is responsible for the fate of a business enterprise.

Ralph Bramel Lloyd was a small businessman who made a large and lasting regional impact through two of the industries in which he operated. As an independent oilman, he was instrumental in the development of the gigantic Ventura Avenue oil field in Southern California—America’s 12th  largest onshore field of the 20th century, with more than one billion barrels of crude oil produced to date. As a real estate developer, Lloyd catalyzed the materialization of several commercial districts, most significantly on the east side of Portland, Ore., where an entire district bears his name. In my new book, Oil and Urbanization on the Pacific Coast: Ralph Bramel Lloyd and the Shaping of the Urban West, I describe and explain the achievements and travails that Lloyd experienced in both industries, paying close attention to the capital flows that linked the two. It is clear that Lloyd exercised agency over what by any measure was a fabulous career. At the same time, his career was also a highly improbable one, shaped by luck, as the following three examples illustrate.

Acquisition of Ranchlands in Ventura County, California. The development of the Ventura Avenue oil field, which was foundational to Lloyd’s success as a small businessman, was a “life work,” as he later put it. As luck would have it, his father Lewis Lloyd’s speculation in real estate put him in position to orchestrate it.

Lewis Lloyd was a lawyer who was admitted to the Missouri bar on the eve of the Civil War. He threw his lot with the Confederacy and for that reason he was disbarred during Reconstruction. Eventually he succeeded in business, married, and settled down in Neosho, Mo. in the southwest part of the state, where Ralph Lloyd was born in 1875. In 1878, Lewis Lloyd was elected to the Missouri Senate.

The Successful Failure of Truman Assassination Attempt

Brandon Christensen - October 29, 2018


On Nov. 1, 1950, two gunmen attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman at the guest residence of the White House in Washington, DC. Two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to storm the Blair House and gun down the sitting president. The men never got past the security gates, but two men died in the shootout.
The assassination attempt came just as the Cold War (and McCarthyism) was beginning to ramp up, and it had international implications, which is just what the assassins aimed for.

Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo were Puerto Ricans who had been living in New York for a few years prior to the assassination attempt, and had, due to any number of circumstances, been drawn in to the Puerto Rican nationalist movement, which was stronger in 1950s than it is today. Armed uprisings began in 1950 after the island’s most popular nationalist party, the boringly-named Nationalist Party, called for a violent uprising against the colonial policy of the United States. (The call for an armed rebellion came after repeated electoral defeats at the hands of the Popular Democratic Party, which wanted to renegotiate Puerto Rico’s status within the American imperium.)

Torresola and Collazo didn’t have much of a plan. They took a train from NYC to D.C. and approached Blair House, planning to shoot their way to Truman. Torresola walked up to the guest house and shot guard Leslie Coffelt four times at point-blank range, and Collazo started a gun fight with several guards. Torresola tried to find Collazo, leaving Coffelt for dead, but Coffelt somehow managed to get off a shot and it hit Torresola in the head, immediately killing him. Collazo was shot several times but managed to survive. It was the heaviest and longest gun fight in Secret Service history.

Truman, who was said to be napping on the second floor, awoke and went to the window to see what the commotion was about. He wasn’t hit, or even shot at, but Secret Service agents nevertheless pulled him from the window and smothered him with bodies until the gunfire stopped.