The Historiat : RealClearHistory Blog

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Jill R. Dorson - July 16, 2018

The Forgotten Success of Skylab

Richard Brownell - July 11, 2018

The one thing that most people seem to remember about Skylab is that it was the space station that crashed to Earth. On July 11, 1979, the NASA space station’s orbit completely deteriorated after five years above the planet. America’s long-term experiment with living in space had come to a fiery end.

Skylab was much more than a fireworks display to observers in July of ’79. It was America’s first space station, and one of the world’s most successful orbital platforms until construction began on the International Space Station in 1998. Skylab gathered tons of data about the Earth’s atmosphere and performed some of the first in-depth studies of the sun, data that formed the foundation for solar studies to this day.

The idea of a manned space station goes back to early days of NASA. Wernher Von Braun, rocket scientist and father of the Saturn V, originally conceived a path to the moon by way of an orbital space platform that would double as an observatory and communications relay station. The advent of satellite technology made a manned orbital platform above the earth obsolete. Von Braun’s space station plan was scrapped for a cheaper, more direct route to the moon via Earth-launched rockets.

Von Braun did not give up on his dream, though. Even while designing and building the mighty Saturn V rocket and guiding America’s moon shot, he continued to push the idea of developing a space station that would orbit the Earth and be equipped to house scientists and equipment for long stays. Von Braun’s interest in the space station was two-fold. First, he was forever dedicated to the conquest of space. Second, he wanted his team to have a job after the Apollo missions concluded.

Brief History of 'The Equality State'

Brandon Christensen - July 9, 2018

On July 10, 1890, the Territory of Wyoming entered the American republic as the 44th state of the union. It’s nickname, the “Equality State” can seem somewhat of a misnomer given Wyoming’s conservative politics and high GDP (PPP) per capita (it ranks seventh in the union), but a closer look at this state’s relatively unknown history highlights how and why Wyoming came to be known as the Equality State.

First, though, let’s get some facts out of the way. Wyoming is the least populous state in the union, with only half a million people residing there. The largest city (and capital), Cheyenne, is home to about 64,000 souls, and the city of Laramie is its cultural capital. The University of Wyoming calls Laramie home.

Wyoming is considered to be the home state of the Cheney political dynasty, too, and Wyoming’s sole representative in the U.S. House is Liz Cheney, daughter of the much-loathed Dick Cheney, former vice president of the United States. Wyoming turned decidedly Republican in the mid-1960s with the advent of a new mining boom in the country. Somewhat ironically, Wyoming gets more federal money than any other state in the union save for Alaska (which is also dominated by the GOP, but not nearly as completely as Wyoming).
In 1889, Wyoming’s voters approved the first constitution in the world to grant women the right to vote. When the territory became a state one year later, suffrage was carried over and Wyoming became the first state in the union to grant voting rights to women. (Hence the nickname Equality State.)

Other states in the Rockies quickly followed Wyoming’s lead, with Idaho (1896), Utah (1896), and Colorado (1893) all granting full voting rights to women before the turn of the century. The fifth state to grant women’s suffrage, Washington, did not do so until 1910, well over a decade after Utah and Idaho granted suffrage.

The Agonizing Death of James Garfield

Richard Brownell - July 4, 2018

James Garfield was the second president assassinated in American history, shot by a deranged man in a Washington, D.C. railroad station on July 2, 1881. The president did not die straight away, however, hanging on for two-and-a-half months as doctors tried to keep him alive. It could be said that Garfield passed away despite the best efforts of his attending physicians, but history reveals that he may have actually died because of them.

Garfield entered office in 1881 amid a long string of mostly unremarkable post-Civil War presidents. America was rapidly growing in size, stature, and wealth, and the general feeling of the time was that the best way to preserve that growth was for the country’s chief executive to stay out of the way.

Garfield served with distinction in the Union Army during the early years of the Civil War, but new assignments took him further from the battlefield, which was where he wanted to be. Rather than push paper for the Army, Garfield ran for Congress from his home state of Ohio, winning office in 1862. He served continuously until 1880, when he was drawn into the Republican contest for President.

Garfield is the last U.S. president to date who rose to the White House directly from the House of Representatives. He began his term on March 4, 1881, and he had few opportunities to distinguish himself before the Fourth of July holiday, when he decided to leave the stuffy, sweltering capital to join his family on the Jersey Shore.

Battle of Vicksburg and the 4th of July

Brandon Christensen - July 2, 2018

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, a holiday celebrating our nation’s independence from the Great Britain. Fireworks will be lit. Beer will be drunk. BBQ will be eaten. And watermelon will be devoured. The more pensive among us will also think, if only briefly, about the institutions that the rebellion produced: a constitution protecting individual rights, an electorate that governs instead of being governed, checks and balances, and a culture of compromise.

That culture of compromise, though, led to the institutionalization of slavery at the federal level, and a large-scale war just 72 years after the implementation of the federal republic over the issue of slavery. (As an aside, my favorite analysis of the founding of the republic is David Hendrickson’s Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding.) One of the most important battles of this large-scale war was the Siege of Vicksburg, which began on May 18, 1863 and ended with a rebel surrender on July 4 of that same year.

There are better play-by-play analyses of the Battle of Vicksburg out there, so I’ll outsource to them, but the gist of Vicksburg is a Union victory in Mississippi, led by Ulysses S. Grant, and the effective splitting in half of the Confederacy. Grant’s success led to even more success in the future, including in federal politics, and the South was never able to recover from its loss at Vicksburg. The sea opened up to northern traffic, the Confederate army became geographically, as well as numerically and technologically disadvantaged, and the victory of Union troops on a Fourth of July disheartened the Confederacy as a whole.

The losing general, John C. Pemberton, was vilified by the Southern press. The media went so far as to suggest that Pemberton, born and raised in Philadelphia, had joined the Confederacy solely to betray the rebellion when the time was ripe. Conspiracy theories were more well-received by both the general public and elites alike in those days. (Indeed, historian Bernard Bailyn points out in his magnificent 1967 book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution that conspiracy theories played an important role in the founding generation’s thinking.) But Pemberton’s decision to join the Confederacy, and thus take up arms against his two younger brothers in the Union Army, had more to do with the fact that he married a Virginian and fell in love with the Southern way of life after fighting, with distinction, in the Seminole Wars and the Mexican-American War (Pemberton also fought against Sioux in Minnesota, Mormons in Utah, and Canadian militiamen in New Brunswick).

Triumph of the Berlin Airlift

Richard Brownell - June 27, 2018

After World War II Europe was rapidly becoming the front line for two competing visions for the future — a free and democratic world order led by the United States or a communist dictatorship under the control of the Soviet Union. Nowhere was this more evident than in the divided city of Berlin.

Germany was divided into occupation zones, with the Soviets controlling the eastern half and the U.S., Great Britain, and France controlling the western half. The former German capital of Berlin was similarly divided, but Berlin was 100 miles within the Soviet sector. This meant that the U.S., British, and French had to rely on the Soviets for open access to land and water routes to the city.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin counted on the allies growing tired of their occupation of West Berlin and leaving it to the communists. When the allies dug in to support free elections and create democratic governments in West Germany and across Europe, it became evident that they didn’t plan on going anywhere. Stalin decided to give them a push.

In March 1948, the Soviets began restricting Western military and civilian access to Berlin. The U.S. responded on June 3 with the Marshall Plan, a $13 billion aid program to prop up the countries of Europe and keep them from slipping under Soviet control. The Soviets tightened the screws, further interrupting Allied civilian and military traffic into and out of Berlin. When the Allies introduced the German Deutschmark on June 18, the Soviets decided a more forceful message was needed. So, on June 24 they cut off all access to the city.

How Refreshing! Honesty Cost Blagojevich His Job

- June 25, 2018

On June 27, 2011, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was convicted and sentenced to prison for 17 political crimes committed against the people of Illinois. The press called it “corruption.” This isn’t an article about the history of corruption in Illinois, though (that would take at least a book to write). It’s about Blagojevich’s rise and fall, and also how American history is full of so-called corruption.

Blagojevich himself is a product of Chicago. He was born there (his parents were immigrants from Yugoslavia) and played basketball and boxed as a youth. (He had a 6-1 record when he called it quits.) He went to Northwestern and earned his law degree at Pepperdine way out in Malibu, Calif. As with most politicians, he started out as a government prosecutor.

Blagojevich, who voted for Reagan twice as a youth, was elected to Congress in 1992 as a Democrat and spent 10 years in Washington before running for governor in Illinois (one of his last votes was on the Iraq War, which he voted in favor of).

Federal agents arrested Blagojevich at his home in Chicago on Dec. 9, 2008, and charged the governor with dozens of crimes. A month later Blagojevich was impeached and barred from ever holding public office again. Among his corruption charges was attempting to sell Barack Obama’s senate seat to the highest bidder.
The only crime Blagojevich truly committed, though, was being too forthright about what his job as a politician entailed. The poor scoundrel was too honest in the end. A better politician would have never admitted that his senate appointment was about money. Blagojevich, who spent his youth on the basketball courts and in the boxing rings of Chicago, just didn’t understand, tacitly, how the American political system works.

Roosevelt, Taft and the Nasty 1912 GOP Convention

Richard Brownell - June 20, 2018

These days, national political party conventions are little more than a formality meant to stir up the base for the general election ahead. The presidential aspirants usually come into the proceedings with enough delegates to seize the nomination, and there is little need for balloting or floor fights. The party rallies around their candidate and prepares for the fight ahead. The Republican National Convention that began in Chicago on June 18, 1912 was a much different story.

The GOP standard bearer, incumbent William Howard Taft, went into the convention facing a formidable opponent in none other than former president Theodore Roosevelt. Taft, like many incumbents before him, did not expect to be challenged for reelection from within his own party. This has always been a rare occurrence in American politics, but Roosevelt was a rare kind of man.

Roosevelt had served nearly two full terms in the White House as the 26th president, becoming America’s youngest chief executive when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. He cemented his legacy as a trust-buster, a friend to the environment, a booster of America on the world stage, and more. When he was resoundingly reelected in 1904, Roosevelt vowed not to run again after his second term was complete.

When that second term ended, Roosevelt had the power and the popularity to pick his successor. He chose longtime friend and supporter William Howard Taft. Taft was an accomplished politician with a sharp legal mind, and with Roosevelt’s blessing he was elected in 1908.

General Stand Watie and Cherokee Confederates

Brandon Christensen - June 18, 2018

On June 23, 1865, the last formal surrender of Confederate troops occurred at Doaksville in the Choctaw Nation (what is now Oklahoma). The brigadier general who signed the ceasefire agreement with Union troops was Stand Watie, the only Native American to attain the rank of general in the Confederate Army and one of the most powerful political figures in Cherokee politics at the time.

Where to begin? Let’s start with sovereignty. Up until the end of the Civil War, the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma was designated by the federal government as a place for the Five Civilized Tribes - Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw - to govern themselves far from European settlement. The lands were guaranteed to be protected, again by the federal government, from white settlement and the tribes were considered to be sovereign nations by Washington.

When the Civil War began, the Five Civilized Tribes were split on which side to support. The Seminoles and Creeks supported the Union, while the Chickasaw and Choctaw supported the Confederacy. (The latter two tribes were punished harshly by Washington at the end of the war.) The Cherokee were split between the Union and Confederacy, so much so that a civil war within a civil war was fought in Indian Territory between pro-Union and pro-Confederacy forces.

Stand Watie was a slave and plantation owner whose family had been in Indian Territory long before the Trail of Tears took place in 1838. His family, long politically powerful, had signed a treaty with the federal government and had voluntarily moved to Oklahoma as part of the deal. His family was also paid handsomely, and many Cherokees who remained (the ones who were forcibly removed in the Trail of Tears) viewed Watie’s family as traitors. The Cherokee politicians who signed away the last remnants of Cherokee land in the Old South became known as Treaty Party Men in Indian Territory.

Benedict Arnold's Yearning for Respect Led to Treason

Richard Brownell - June 13, 2018

Benedict Arnold strove all his life to be recognized as a man of distinction. His brain for business and later, his skill as a military leader would have carved out a glorious place for him in history, but his vanity got the better of him. When Arnold felt unjustly treated by the Americans for his contributions to the Revolutionary War effort, he hoped to fare better with the British. He was dreadfully wrong.

The distinction Arnold ultimately achieved was as a traitor to his people. His name became synonymous with treachery, and his legend remains notorious to this day. Things started out quite differently, though.

Arnold was born in 1741 in Norwich, Conn. to a wealthy family that was part of the upper crust of Colonial society. He became a prosperous businessman and began a lucrative trade that extended from Quebec to the West Indies. He became rabidly anti-British after the 1764 Sugar Act and1765 Stamp Act placed heavy fees and burdens on his businesses. Like many other colonists, Arnold resented the stranglehold Britain had placed on the colonies.

Arnold married Margaret Mansfield in 1767 and they started a family. Their lives were interrupted in 1775, however, when the American Revolution broke out. Arnold joined the war as a militia captain, and in May, with the help of Ethan Allen, captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British in upstate New York. Upon returning home from the campaign, he learned that his wife had died while he was away.