The Historiat : RealClearHistory Blog

From Kennedy-Nixon on TV to Trump on Social Media

Brandon Christensen - September 24, 2018


On Sept.  26, 1960, the first televised presidential debate in American history took place, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The result of the debate was stark: those who watched it on television believed that the young, handsome Catholic from New England had done a better job, while those who listened to the debate on radio thought the old codger from California was a better fit for the job.

From that day on, as television surpassed radio as the most novel form of communication in American society, presidential candidates have had to take their appearance into account.

Today, Sept. 25, 2018, a former host of a television show is America’s highest-ranking elected official. You may think that the end result of television itself has been a net negative for American society, as careful statesmen have steadily given way to boastful showmen with little respect for the fact that ours is a republic governed by laws, not men. This pessimism is understandable, and unyielding, but should not be embraced. Freedom requires an optimistic mindset. Here are two reasons to become (or remain) upbeat about the future of American society.

For one thing, television has all but been replaced as a form of communication by the internet, especially for people under the age of 50. Americans have increasingly eschewed television as a form of knowledge, preferring instead to do research on candidates and issues on their own, using what is essentially the world’s largest library (the internet). There are issues that come with this, too, of course, as partisanship has become sharper since people began doing their own research. Yet the influence of large media corporations - ABC, NBC, CBS - has declined precipitously as Americans have become free to shape their own opinions once again. The fact the traditional press - the printed word - once again has a role to play in shaping American culture, through the internet, is also cause to celebrate. Sure, American society has become more polarized over the past two decades, and technology shares some of the blame, but the question has to be asked: so what if Washington can’t seem to get anything done? Gridlock is a feature, not a bug, of our constitutional system.

Happy Birthday, U.S. Air Force!

Brandon Christensen - September 17, 2018


On Sept. 18, 1947, Congress made its military air forces an official branch of the Department of Defense with the passage of the National Security Act. A major overhaul of America’s military and intelligence agencies, the N.S.A. was meant to give the American government room to maneuver in a world where Washington suddenly found itself the leader of the democratic world and at odds with the authoritarian world led by the Soviet Union, an ally in World War II just two years prior to the Act being passed (the Act also established the Central Intelligence Agency).

After the Army’s air force performed exceptionally well during World War II, many strategists argued that air superiority was going to be the key to maintaining primacy in war. In the past, either land or sea power was considered to be the key component in maintaining a military that was capable of lording over swathes of the globe, but with the advent of the air forces of Japan, the U.K., the U.S., and Germany’s Luftwaffe, and how they changed fundamentally how militaries collided, “air power” became the buzzword of choice for many policymakers in world capitals.

Aside from decentralizing a military geared toward a total war, there was also a need to scale back the sheer size of the U.S. Army and Navy after World War II and the National Security Act was the path Congress took to get there. Even though the Soviet Union and its authoritarian government was already pushing for violent revolution abroad as part of its new foreign policy platform, Washington believed that a leaner, meaner military was more desirable thanks in large part to the fact that America had always demilitarized after major wars. The Chinese and Soviet support for North Korea’s invasion of South Korea was still three years away, and Washington was, at that time, sympathetic to the decolonization efforts of rebels in British, French, and Dutch colonies, so demilitarization still seemed sensible.

The Navy continued to object to the formation of an independent Air Force up until Sept. 18 due to the fact that it would lose a significant portion of its power, but the National Security Act was supported by the likes of Eisenhower and Carl Spaatz and the Air Force became an equal partner of the Army and Navy.

5 Snapshots of America in the Middle East

Brandon Christensen - September 10, 2018


It’s been 17 years since al-Qaeda hijacked two commercial airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. In the years that followed the attack, the United States became intricately tied up to the fate of the Middle East, as the republic invaded densely-populated Iraq and sparsely-populated Afghanistan, and its operations there moved fully from the shadows of Cold War diplomacy and espionage out into the open. Today, the U.S. is actively engaged in the Middle East and its dealings are heavily monitored by the press. Washington constantly makes convenient alliances with state and non-state actors alike (groups such as anti-Turkish Kurds in Syria or Iran’s elite, anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan) in order to protect its interests (rightly or otherwise).

Yet the United States did not arrive in the Middle East overnight. It has a long presence in the Middle East. Below are 5 snapshots of American history in the Middle East:

5. The Barbary Pirates. Perhaps the most famous, pre-9/11 conflict between the U.S. and the Muslim world, the Barbary pirates were in reality a group of small political units who were almost completely autonomous, but relied on the Ottoman Empire for military protection. These North African Barbary states engaged in piracy with the Ottoman Empire’s unofficial blessing (this was common throughout the world). When Jefferson sent military ships to the region and began attacking the Barbary states, the Ottomans appealed to their North African suzerains to cease attacking American vessels and recognize the fledgling republic’s sovereignty on the high seas.

4. Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire itself had a long but relatively undistinguished relationship with the United States. After the Americans seized the Philippines from Spain in the Spanish-American War, they had to begin the long, bloody process of stamping out anti-American rebellions. The Ottoman sultan, in an act of good faith toward Washington and in his capacity as caliph of the Muslim world, instructed the sultan of Moro, the Muslim area of the Philippines at the time, to avoid getting involved in the conflict, which the Moros mostly did. The lack of hostilities between Americans and Filipino Muslims allowed the former to pacify much of the archipelago, but a Moro rebellion eventually broke out in 1904, and it was bloody.

U.S.-Soviet Hotline a Symbol of Cold War Cooperation

Richard Brownell - August 29, 2018


During the darkest days of the Cold War, in moments of extreme tension when the fate of the world was at stake, the only thing that saved America from certain doom was the red telephone on the president’s desk. It was of a basic design, and it had no numbers. All he had to do was pick it up, and an identical phone would ring on the desk of the Premier of the Soviet Union in Moscow. They would speak directly and hammer out the problem before nuclear missiles reached the sky.


A chilling image, except that reality was never like this. Contrary to news reports, movies, and books of the era, there was no red phone on the president’s desk. There was a hotline between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but the leaders of the two countries never spoke directly on it. The language barrier, the time difference, and their busy schedules would have made that impossible, anyway. However people may have imagined the hotline, it did succeed in easing tensions between the two superpowers during the Cold War and kept small crises from turning into big ones.

The hotline was formally known as the Washington-Moscow Direct Communications Link. It went live on Aug. 30, 1963, just under a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, a confrontation that brought the U.S. closer to the brink of nuclear war than any other time in history.

During the Cuban crisis, communications between Moscow and Washington were frightfully slow. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s first 3,000-word message took 12 hours to receive, decode, and translate. During that period, tensions rose significantly as American and Soviet warships began piling up in the Caribbean. While the U.S. was crafting a response, Khrushchev sent a second message that escalated the situation.

Understanding Shays' Rebellion

Brandon Christensen - August 27, 2018


On Aug. 31, 1786, a nearly year-long uprising began in western Massachusetts over tax collection that was so large it required pleas from the State of Massachusetts to the national government for assistance. The help never came, mostly because the national government, then a confederation and not yet a union, was unable to raise the funds nor garner the political support necessary for such an undertaking.

Instead, the Massachusetts state militia mustered up enough support to march into the wilds of the western part of the state and crush the rebellion in its infancy.

The result of this uprising, known as Shays’ Rebellion, has been the subject of debate by historians for decades, if not centuries. What is known is that in 1789, a constitution enacting a federal union between 13 sovereign states went into effect, just three years after Shays’ Rebellion.

Daniel Shays was a veteran of the Revolutionary War who, after being wounded in the war, was sent home - unpaid - in 1780 and immediately summoned to court over unpaid debts that had accumulated while he was away fighting the war against the United Kingdom. Because Shays had not been paid for his service to revolution, he was unable to pay his debts and soon began to be hounded by creditors and tax collectors. Shays found that many other commoner-veterans of the war against the U.K. were in the same position as him, and soon they began to meet in public locales to discuss their problems.

The Lawrence Massacre: The Civil War’s Most Infamous Atrocity

Richard Brownell - August 22, 2018


The Civil War was filled with horrors inflicted on both sides that have not been matched before or since in the American story. Perhaps none reach the level of bloodshed, violence, and sheer depravity, however, that took place on Aug. 21, 1863 in Lawrence, Kansas.

Between 160 and 190 men and teenage boys, all civilians and many unarmed, were murdered by Confederate guerillas in a day-long raid that also witnessed the destruction and looting of the town. The man who planned and ordered the massacre was William Quantrill. His guerilla band, known as Quantrill’s Raiders, were not formal members of the Confederate Army. They were Bushwhackers, men who fought against the Union by unconventional means, resorting to robbery and harassing local citizens who did not support the Confederate cause.

To understand how the massacre in Lawrence happened, it’s necessary to step back a few years to the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. After several failed attempts to solve the slavery question, Congress elected to allow each new state that entered the Union to decide by popular sovereignty whether it would be a free state or a slave state.

Kansas was a free state, but people in the neighboring slave state of Missouri had a different idea in mind. Pro-slavery forces crossed the border and attempted to persuade Kansas to vote for slavery. They tried newspaper editorials, rallies, ballot stuffing, and election rigging. When that didn’t work, they resorted to threats, kidnapping, and murder.

Sacco, Vanzetti and the Right to a Fair Trial

Brandon Christensen - August 20, 2018


On Aug. 23, 1927, the state of Massachusetts executed two Italian-born men convicted of killing two men in a robbery gone wrong. The two Italian immigrants were avowed anarchists and there was speculation that the men did not receive a fair trial, due to both their anarchist politics and their ethnic heritage. Protests were held throughout the world, the governor of Massachusetts ordered a commission to investigate the trial, and a future Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, took to the pages of the Atlantic to argue for their innocence.

The world of 1927, and especially the place of the United States in that world, was exciting, tumultuous, and unpredictable. World War I had been over for less than 10 years, but the ashes of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires were still smoldering. The United States had entered World War I as democracy’s arsenal, planning to put an end to the war and to unelected despotism in Europe once and for all. Woodrow Wilson’s dreams of an American-led international order were shattered by an isolationist Senate, and the victorious European Allies had few resources to follow-up their pyrrhic victory over Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans. Chauvinist nationalism and Bolshevism were ascendant in Europe.

The Great War had also interrupted nearly a century of globalization, too. Throughout the 19th  century, labor crossed borders with little hindrance (capital sometimes had a tougher time crossing national borders than labor, but the financial interdependence between certain countries, like that of Germany and the United Kingdom, was deep). By 1927, trans-Atlantic migration was on the ropes. Chauvinist nationalism was not limited to central and eastern Europe. In the Americas, and especially in the United States, anti-immigrant currents swelled, which was bad news for Europeans and Asians trying to make it in the land of the free.

Part of the problem with immigration is the ideas that new peoples bring to a place that’s accustomed to old ways. In the U.S. (and the Americas more broadly), the old ways of doing things are not so old, and as a result immigration has been relatively liberal since the Columbian Exchange. During the Roaring ‘20s, European immigrants brought with them to the shores of the New World left-wing political tactics (leftist ideas were well-known) that did not mesh well with the classical liberalism of the United States. Leftists in those days were far more tolerant of using violence to accomplish their aims, and their goals were often vulgar and short-sighted, such as wanting to seize all private property and give it to the state (or to worker’s cooperatives). In addition to threatening private property rights with violence, leftists had no qualms about murdering heads of state deemed to be too reactionary. A left-anarchist murdered an American president, for example, and the Bolsheviks are well-known for breaking eggs to make omelettes. (Anarchism today is a much more peaceful ideology, thanks largely to a split between those who continue to argue for appropriating property and those who have come to embrace property rights as an important bulwark against the state.)

Ford, Edison Forged Friendship, Changed World

Richard Brownell - August 15, 2018


This week in 1899, Henry Ford quit a well-paying job as a chief engineer to start up his own automobile company. His employer was none other than Thomas Edison, prolific inventor and founder of Edison Illuminating Company. Edison was sorry to see Ford go, but he encouraged the younger man to pursue his dream. It would become the start of a lifelong friendship.

Edison was already known as America’s greatest inventor when Henry Ford took a job as an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit in 1891. Edison had patented the light bulb, the phonograph, the electric generator, a system for electric lighting, and much more. He was a big deal. Edison Illuminating built and operated electrical generating stations in several cities, including New York, Boston, and a number of towns in Pennsylvania.

Ford quickly showed his skill for machine work. The son of immigrant Irish farmers living in Michigan, he knew that he didn’t want the farm life. Ford was a tinkerer from an early age, and in 1879 moved to Detroit to apprentice with machinists. He later went to work for Westinghouse servicing steam engines.

Ford moved up the ranks at Edison. In 1894, he was promoted to chief engineer, which meant that he was on call 24 hours a day to help keep the city’s electricity flowing. But Ford was not settled on working for an electrical company the rest of his life. He had dreams of horseless carriages rolling around in his head, and he wanted to make that dream a reality.

It Took 2 Tries and Plenty of Politics to Build Panama Canal

Brandon Christensen - August 13, 2018


On Aug. 15, 1914, one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels was completed in the Panama Canal Zone under the guidance of the United States. This massive canal connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and cemented America’s place at the table of major world players.

The Isthmus of Panama, where the Canal was built, is a tiny sliver of land connecting the Americas. The French were the first to try and build a canal through the isthmus, from 1881-94 (and at the height of its worldwide imperium), but their project failed miserably. The problem wasn’t engineering prowess or finances (the French were led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the engineer who built the Suez Canal), it was climate. De Lesseps and his team built a much longer canal in Egypt but did so under pristine Mediterranean conditions. When confronted with tropical jungles, the French effort faltered. To make matters worse for de Lesseps and his team, instead of dealing with the British government (as they did in their Suez endeavor), which was well adept at international cooperation and had a hefty financial incentive to complete a canal, the French had to deal with a Colombian government that was almost brand new and had virtually no international experience whatsoever.

The Colombians were so bad for the Panama Canal project that, in 1903, after years of international political machinations from Washington and Paris, Panama declared independence from Colombia and was promptly protected by the United States navy. The Americans and the new country of Panama signed a treaty creating the Panama Canal Zone and giving the U.S. government a green light to build the canal.

The political ramifications for Washington essentially stealing a province from Colombia were huge. The United States had just seized a number of overseas territories from Spain in 1898, and the imperial project was frowned upon by numerous factions for various reasons. The U.S. foray into imperialism led to governance issues in the Caribbean, where Washington found itself supporting anti-democratic autocrats, and confronting outright ethical problems in the Philippines, where the United States Army was ruthlessly putting down a revolt against its rule. So acquiring a “canal zone” in a country that was baited into leaving another country was scandalous, especially since Colombia’s reluctance to cooperate with France and the U.S. was viewed as democratic (the Colombian Senate refused to ratify several canal-related treaties with France and the U.S.), and the two Western powers were supposedly the torchbearers of democracy. To make matters worse, many elites in Panama, after agreeing to secede in exchange for protection from Colombia, felt betrayed by the terms of the Panama Canal Zone, which granted the United States sole control over the zone in perpetuity.

Campaign Politics and the Origins of the Vietnam War

Richard Brownell - August 8, 2018


This week marks the 54th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the joint act of Congress that gave President Lyndon Johnson the power to combat communist aggression in Southeast Asia.

The resolution, which was passed unanimously by the House of Representatives and all but two votes in the Senate, was the response to a clash between U.S. and North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam in the early days of August 1964. At the time, the American public and many in Congress believed that U.S. naval forces were the victims of an unprovoked attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats in international waters. For years afterward, the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident was considered the starting point of the Vietnam War. The truth behind the matter is not that simple.

Johnson was very much a political animal, and his decision to get involved in Vietnam, like many of the decisions he made as president, was heavily influenced by politics -- 1964 was an election year, and he was adamant about winning the White House in his own right, as opposed to inheriting it after the assassination of his predecessor.

Johnson’s opponent, Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, was a staunch anti-communist who believed that America should do whatever it took to stop the spread of Soviet influence, even if it meant using nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia. It wasn’t hard for Johnson to portray himself as the more moderate of the two candidates. In fact, Johnson’s campaign had a field day painting Goldwater as a radical who would lead America into a nuclear war.