The Historiat : RealClearHistory Blog

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.

U.S. Designed to Self Govern -- Not Govern Others

Brandon Christensen - October 22, 2018


On Oct. 25, 1983, President Ronald Reagan ordered troops to invade and occupy the tiny island country of Grenada after a communist coup took over the government of the island. The American troops were gone within a week, the former democratically-elected government restored, and suspected communists rounded up and imprisoned. The left wing of the Democratic Party was livid. The mainstream press screamed bloody murder about “imperialism” and “fascism.” The United Nations General Assembly even proclaimed, once the Americans had left the island, that the Americans had “flagrantly violated international law.” Reagan, for his part, claimed victory for freedom in yet another Cold War battle.

Grenada is a small island in the Caribbean about 100 miles to the north of Venezuela. The island gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1974 and held elections that year. In 1979, communists violently overthrew the democratically elected government of Grenada and installed a dictatorship. By 1983, infighting between communist factions produced yet another coup, and the leader of the first coup was murdered and replaced by a more hardline Marxist faction (the New Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education, and Liberation, or New JEWEL, movement). Pleas from democrats inside Grenada were heard by Reagan and he ordered the invasion of Grenada, which was bolstered by troops from most of Grenada’s neighbors. Today, Oct. 25 is celebrated in Grenada as Thanksgiving Day, in honor of the United States coming to the defense of Grenada’s fledgling democracy.

(Margaret Thatcher, by the way, is said to have privately opposed the invasion because Grenada was still in the U.K.’s imperial orbit, but publicly stood by the Reagan administration.)

The hostility of the left to Reagan’s invasion, coupled with the gratitude of the Grenadian people, reminds me of when my older brother came to visit me in Austin a little over a year ago. We were at a bar with two others: an old friend from our small town in California, and one of my brother’s graduate school friends. My older brother is a socialist with a PhD in literature (from a good school, I might add). After a few rounds of locally made craft beers, the graduate school friend and my older brother began to mock Ronald Reagan bitterly.

The Crimean War: When America and Russia Were Friends

Brandon Christensen - October 15, 2018


On Oct. 16, 1853, the Ottoman Empire declared war on the Russian Empire. France, the U.K., and Piedmont-Sardinia, the wealthiest polity on the Italian peninsula, quickly joined the Ottomans in their war against Russia. (This weekend’s “Top 10” is a global history of the Crimean War, so stay tuned!)

The United States stayed neutral during the war, but it was hardly inactive. The press and the general public were particularly pro-Russian, though there were exceptions (to be discussed below). Washington sent food and material goods to Russia and helped the Imperial Navy by building its warships in New York’s massive shipyards. American doctors flocked to Crimea, where most of the world’s press focused its attention, in order to help the overwhelmed medical establishment of the Russian Empire.

America’s relationship to Russia had been mostly nonexistent in 1853 (with the notable exception of American engineers essentially building Russia’s railroad system in the 1840s). While Alexis de Tocqueville had made his famous 1835 prediction about America and Russia one day competing with each other for global dominance, in 1853 the two transcontinental polities were still figuring out how to govern their vast, newly-acquired territories. So their lack of a relationship had less to do with perceived antagonisms and more to do with a lack of personnel resources.

The two future superpower rivals had more in common than mere future greatness, though. Both were expanding rapidly, gobbling up huge swaths of territory at the expense of isolated polities like the Khiva Khanate and the Sioux confederacy, and hapless autocracies like Mexico and the Ottoman Empire. Russia and the United States also shared common foes - France and the U.K. - due mostly to the fact that American and Russian expansion was beginning to step on French and British toes. Both empires - one democratic, the other autocratic - also had looming labor crises that overshadowed everything they did in international affairs: slavery and serfdom.

Red River Battle Isn't Just a Football Game

Brandon Christensen - October 8, 2018


The Red River rivalry between the flagship universities of Oklahoma and Texas is one of college sports’ best, and Saturday’s game did not disappoint. As a west coast transplant to Texas, I was a little surprised at the high level of animosity these two schools have for each other. As a history enthusiast, I couldn’t help but think of another episode in the Red River’s history that deserves to mentioned.

On Oct. 7, 1759, Spain and Tlaxcala lost a decisive battle to a hodgepodge alliance of “norteno” Indians and forever ceded control of the frontier to the Comanche. The Battle of Twin Villages was fought long before the establishment of the United States, but it nonetheless provides another peek into the bloody history of the American experience.

Two villages of Wichita Indians were built along the north of the Red River in reaction to Spanish attempts at bringing the region to heel in the mid 16th century,  just a few decades after Spain and Tlaxcala defeated the Aztec Empire. Spain sought to bring all of what is now Texas and Oklahoma under its domain, but a number of agricultural (stationary) Indian nations, as well as a few nomadic Indian nations like the Comanche and Apache, preferred to remain sovereign and free from Spanish rule. The Apache eventually forged an alliance with Spain, as they believed the Spanish were a lesser evil than the Comanche, but the Wichita allied with the French, who had a very sparse presence in the region, dominated by fur trappers and merchants rather than conquistadors, but enough of one to broker alliances and frustrate Spain.

The villages themselves were fortified and manned by French soldiers, a rarity in that region and those days, and the leader of Spain’s expedition north noted in his diary that a French flag flew from the fortified walls. To make matters worse for the Spanish, the Comanche had joined the French-Wichita alliance after hearing that the Apache had joined forces with Spain (the Comanche and Apache really hated each other), and the same diary of the Spanish military leader noted that several hundred Comanche tipis were present just outside of the village. Spain, in modern metaphorical parlance, had brought a knife to a gun fight.

America Deserves Better Than Harvard and Yale

Brandon Christensen - October 1, 2018


Thurgood Marshall was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee (69-11) to become the first African-American to sit on the Supreme Court on Sept. 2, 1967. There are volumes upon volumes of literature on our first black Supreme Court Justice, but a connection between Marshall and today’s justices exists that needs to be better explored: that of their law schools.

Marshall attended Howard Law School and when he sat on the court (1967-91) the law schools of Stanford (Rehnquist, O’Connor), Yale (Fortas, Stewart, White), St. Paul College of Law in Minnesota (Burger), Northwestern (Stevens), NYU (Harlan), Harvard (Souter, Blackmun, Powell, Scalia, Kennedy, Brennan), Cal-Berkeley (Warren), Columbia (Douglas), and Alabama (Black) were all represented alongside Howard on the Supreme Court at one time or another.

These law schools represented almost every region of the United States and catered to all socio-economic classes and ethnic groups. With Marshall on the court, the third branch of government, the least democratic of all the branches, steered the republic through much of the Cold War and oversaw a dramatic cultural shift through the late 1960s and 1970s. The court did not avoid divisiveness, or accusations of unfairness. The court, with only one black man on it, and only one woman, also could not avoid charges of racial and gender bias, but it was generally seen as a bulwark against the prejudices of the day, and an exemplar of justice in an era of segregation.

Sure, there were uncomfortable debates in the Senate Judicial Committee and bitter rulings that divided the country. These were done in the midst of unpopular overseas wars and constant geopolitical challenges to liberal democracy abroad.