August 30, 1918 – Soviet Leader Vladimir Lenin Is Shot Twice In An Assassination Attempt

On this day in history, 28-year-old anarchist Fanny Kaplan attempted to assassinate Vladimir Lenin as he emerged from a meeting at the Hammer and Sickle Factory in Moscow. She fired three shots: one missed him, but one went into his left shoulder, and one went through his neck.

Fanny Kaplan

Fanny Kaplan

Kaplan had already been arrested for terrorist activity and sentenced to Siberia, but she was released following the February Revolution of 1917 as part of the post-revolutionary political amnesty. In captivity, however, she had become almost blind. Nevertheless, she made her way to Moscow and joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR) which had expected to share power with the Bolsheviks. When the SR rejected most of Lenin’s suggestions, however, he dissolved their joint ruling assembly. The SR then vowed to eliminate Lenin, although in captivity, Kaplan claimed she came up with the idea and plan on her own.

Lenin 1917/1918

Lenin 1917/1918

On September 3, Fanny Kaplan was escorted into a garage and executed with a single bullet to the back of her head. Her corpse was bundled into a barrel, and set alight. The order came from Yakov Sverdlov, a Bolshevik party leader who, just six weeks before, had ordered the execution of the tsar and his family.

Historians question whether Kaplan was actually the one who fired the gun, since she could hardly see. (The bullet, removed from Lenin’s neck, almost four years later, was found not to have been fired from Kaplan’s gun.) Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks used the event to arouse public sympathy for the Lenin, and as an excuse to launch their campaign of “Red Terror” the next day.

The Red Terror, announced on September 3, 1918 by Sverdlov, refers to a campaign of mass killings, torture, and systematic oppression that ended about October 1918. Sverdlov, who served as Chairman of the Secretariat of the Communist Party, allegedly died of disease in March, 1919, but it is also possible he was “eliminated” just as he had eliminated so many others.

Yakov Sverdlov

Yakov Sverdlov

Review of “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary At War” by Robert M. Gates

Duty, by Robert M. Gates, is a no-holds-barred, candid account of the operation of the Department of Defense (DoD) and of the deliberations of the cabinet and national security apparatus under Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama. Gates doesn’t appear to pull any punches, and there is some very meaty stuff in this book. It is clear from the bridges burned in this book that Gates does not want, or at least anticipate, any further involvement in the political arena. In fact, he appears to detest politicians. However, he respects both Bush and Obama whom he describes as acting more like statesmen than politicians the vast majority of the time.

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Much of this memoir concerns the wars fought by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates, who had previously been head of the CIA, firmly believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and was a dangerous megalomaniac, and so Gates had supported the decision to go to war. In 2006, before becoming Secretary of Defense, Gates served on the Iraq Study Group (“ISG”), a group of distinguished national security experts which recommended a “surge” – a substantial increase in the number of American combat troops to create security in Bagdad. President Bush carried out the surge in spite of a lack of support from Democrats as well as the joint chiefs and heads of the various services. Similarly, Obama supported a surge in Afghanistan in spite of opposition. Gates commends both of these men for their decisions.

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Gates’ impressions of foreign leaders are particularly interesting. He thought Dimitri Medvedev showed promise as being a statesman with whom we could work, but he didn’t last long enough to fulfill that promise. While Bush claimed to have looked into Vladimir Putin’s soul and saw a man he could trust, Gates regarded him as “a stone-cold killer.” He considered Benjamin Netanyahu to be egomaniacal and duplicitous. Hamid Karzai, he charged, is ineffectual and crooked.

Gates describes in detail the internal debates over what to do about the Arab uprisings. Gates opposed intervening militarily in Libya, and felt we were much too quick to withdraw our support for Mubarak.

The Arab Spring as shown in The Economist,  Feb. 24, 2011

The Arab Spring as shown in The Economist, Feb. 24, 2011

For Congress, Gates has nothing but scorn despite allowing that it is an important part of government and a potential guardian of our liberty. To Gates, “Congress is best viewed from a distance—the farther the better—because up close, it is truly ugly.” He categorizes the House Foreign Affairs Committee as “rude, nasty and stupid.” The worst of the Congressmen were the hypocrites who accused the DoD of fiscal inefficiency, but who opposed any of his attempts to close unneeded bases in their districts or to discontinue unnecessary weapons programs that had suppliers in their districts. He would prepare for congressional hearings by answering “the way I really wanted to, barking and cursing and getting the anger and frustration out of my system, so that my public testimony could be dispassionate and respectful.”

Hillary Clinton receives very high praise for her wisdom, intelligence, and effort. Joe Biden is described as “impossible not to like,” but almost always wrong on serious national security issues and far too sensitive to the political repercussions from the Democratic “base.”

Hillary Clinton and Jo Biden, October 11, 2008

Hillary Clinton and Jo Biden, October 11, 2008

We finished the book perplexed as to how conservative commentators in early reviews of this book could have possibly seen this memoir as an indictment of Obama. If those commentators were honest, they would admit that Gates held Obama in very high regard. For example, he describes Obama’s decision to execute the raid on Bin Laden in violation of Pakistani sovereignty “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed at the White House.” In fact, Gates is far more critical of George W. Bush’s policies (though not of Bush personally). His complaints about the Obama administration mostly pertain to what he labels as micromanagement by staffers and bureaucrats. He does discuss Obama’s distrust of his generals, but then goes on to admit that Obama was justified in his concerns.

Gates accomplished a great deal during his tenure as Secretary. He oversaw the conduct of two wars simultaneously. He directed the redesign of the heavily armored vehicles used to transport troops, greatly reducing the incidence of injuries due to improvised explosive devices. Under his tenure, the DoD also greatly reduced the time it took to medevac injured soldiers from the battle field. Gates also claimed that he made sure that injured veterans received better medical care after their service had concluded.

Gates advocating a large cut in military spending in 2010

Gates advocating a large cut in military spending in 2010

Gates is no shrinking violet, and has a high opinion of himself. But there is no denying that he has served in important and influential positions in the American government, and that, at the very least, his insights and impressions provide a valuable perspective of America’s role in the world from an insider.

Evaluation: There is definitely a bias to this story – for example, Gates’ discussion of American concerns in Iraq and Afghanistan never once mention our interest in the oil fields of Iraq or the pipeline project in Afghanistan. But that very omission lends importance to this book too, and will provide plenty of grist for historians and political scientists.

We listened to the audiobook read by George Newbern, who did a perfectly acceptable job. Highly recommended for those with an interest in how our government operates (or doesn’t, as the case may be).

Rating: 4/5

Published unabridged on 20 compact discs (25 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2014

August 24, 1954 – President Eisenhower Signs The Communist Control Act Into Law

On this day in history, President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation outlawing the Communist Party of the United States.

President Eisenhower in 1954

President Eisenhower in 1954

Eisenhower issued a statement upon signing the act that began:

The American people are determined to protect themselves and their institutions against any organization in their midst which, purporting to be a political party within the normally accepted meaning, is actually a conspiracy dedicated to the violent overthrow of our entire form of government.”

Certainly the U.S. was concerned about plots to overthrow governments. In 1953, the CIA was instrumental in inciting the coup that overthrew the Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh. (The CIA acknowledged its role sixty years later.) Mossadegh had sought to reduce the semi-absolute role of the Shah granted by the Constitution of 1906, thus making Iran a full democracy, and to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. Not acceptable, as far as the U.S. was concerned. (It was this action that eventually culminated in the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979.)

Former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh steps off a plane in late August 1953. He was imprisoned for three years and put under house arrest until his death in 1967.

Former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh steps off a plane in late August 1953. He was imprisoned for three years and put under house arrest until his death in 1967.

In June of 1954, a CIA covert operation deposed President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán of Guatemala. The government was in fact the most democratic the country had ever had, but the president expropriated 234,000 acres of land owned by United Fruit, not offering “adequate” compensation to the company. Also not acceptable.

Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán went into exile after the coup and died in Mexico in 1971.

Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán went into exile after the coup and died in Mexico in 1971.

In other words, you could overthrow a democracy if it did not allow the U.S. to dominate the country, but in any event, it would be preferable if you let the U.S. take care of the matter.

You can read the text of The Communist Control Act here, and you can read President Eisenhower’s entire speech here.

August 22, 1950 – Althea Gibson Becomes the First African American on the U.S. Tennis Tour

On this day in history, officials of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) accepted Althea Gibson into their annual championship at Forest Hills, New York, making her the first African-American player to compete in a U.S. national tennis competition.

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Althea Gibson, born in 1927 in South Carolina, grew up in the Harlem section of New York City. Gibson’s athletic ability set her apart from her peers, and she drew more attention to herself when she won the Police Athletic League and Parks Department paddle tennis competitions. The recreation director and musician Buddy Walker recognized her talent, purchased rackets, and took her to the Harlem River Tennis Courts. Shortly thereafter, the noted Harlem Cosmopolitan Tennis Club took up a collection to provide Gibson with a membership and tennis lessons.

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Gibson’s big break occurred when two African American physicians offered her a home, secondary schooling, tennis instruction, and the encouragement and financial support to realize her potential. Gibson lived with the one family in Wilmington, North Carolina during the school year and spent the summer perfecting her tennis game on the other’s backyard tennis court in Lynchburg, Virginia. She went on to win the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA) women’s singles ten years in a row (1947 – 1956), establishing herself as the best black woman tennis player.

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In 1950, while in her first year as a basketball and tennis scholarship student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, she reached the finals before being defeated. But she was not invited to any national tournaments on segregated facilities until tennis champion Alice Marble declared in American Lawn Tennis magazine:

[Gibson] is not being judged by the yardstick of ability but by the fact that her pigmentation is somewhat different.”

1950 - Althea Gibson and Alice Marble walking to the outer court at Forest Hills where Gibson's first match was scheduled.

1950 – Althea Gibson and Alice Marble walking to the outer court at Forest Hills where Gibson’s first match was scheduled.

Largely owing to Marble’s influence, the invitations started coming in, and she entered Wimbledon in 1951, becoming the first African American to play there. She advanced to the quarterfinals before losing. Gibson’s tennis game continued to mature. In 1956, she won sixteen of the eighteen international tournaments in which she was a participant, one of which was a Grand Slam event, the French Open. With this win, Gibson became the first black person to win a major singles tennis title.

Althea Gibson defeated Darlene Hard in 1957 to win the first of her two consecutive Wimbledon titles

Althea Gibson defeated Darlene Hard in 1957 to win the first of her two consecutive Wimbledon titles

Seven years after breaking the color barrier in 1950, she established herself as champion by winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. championship in both 1957 and 1958. In 1959 she retired from amateur tennis, played exhibition tennis, appeared in movies, recorded an album, and published her biography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.

In 1964 she became a professional golfer. Gibson was the first black woman to hold an LPGA player’s card, thus breaking the color barrier in two of the most socially elite sports. Often she was the first woman of color to compete for championships on private golf courses. She married in 1965.

Althea Gibson could drive over 300 yards

Althea Gibson could drive over 300 yards

In later years, Gibson served as a professional tennis teacher and coach as well as the program director for a racquet club and athletic commissioner for the state of New Jersey. In 1994, Gibson suffered a stroke that left her confined to her home. She died in 2003 in her home city of East Orange, New Jersey.

Among Althea Gibson’s many honors were the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year (1957 – 1958), National Tennis Hall of Fame (1971), Black Athletes Hall of Fame, International Tennis Hall of Fame (1971), and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame (1980). Gibson served as an inspiration for others such as Zina Garrison, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams. The way was paved for black men, too. Arthur Ashe felt that Gibson set the stage for his own later triumphs on the court.

August 20, 1940 – Leon Trotsky Is Assassinated in Mexico

Leon Trotsky, born Lev Davidovich Bronstein in southern Ukraine, was a Marxist intellectual, revolutionary, and founder of the Red Army. He was also, unfortunately, in disagreement with Lenin over the direction of the Communist Party. Stalin took advantage of this rift to elevate his own position. In the early 1920’s, Lenin, his health deteriorating, was beginning to see the light about Stalin, and tried to ally with Trotsky against him. But Lenin was too sick, and too late. Lenin died in 1924, and Stalin continued to consolidate power. In 1929, Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party and deported.

Trotsky in 1921

Trotsky in 1921

In exile, Trotsky continued his opposition to Stalin, and denounced Stalin’s “non-aggression” pact with Hitler. But on this day in history, Trotsky was attacked in his home in Mexico with an ice axe by the Stalinist agent Ramón Mercader. Trotsky died the next day.

Mercader served 20 years in Mexican prison for the murder. Stalin presented him with an Order of Lenin in absentia, and Mercader was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union after his release in 1961.

August 16, 1819 – The Peterloo Massacre

On this day in history in Manchester, England, cavalry from the British Army charged into a crowd of some 60-80,000 people assembled to demand the reform of parliamentary representation.

The army’s attack managed to disperse the crowd, but some 11-15 were killed and between 400 and 700 people were wounded. The true number of wounded is unclear because many of the wounded hid their injuries for fear of retribution by the authorities. It is known, however, that at least 168 of the casualties were women, four of whom died either at St Peter’s Field or later as a result of their wounds.

1819 depiction of the charge of the Manchester Yeomanry on the unarmed populace in St. Peter's Fields, Manchester.

1819 depiction of the charge of the Manchester Yeomanry on the unarmed populace in St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester.

Peterloo’s immediate effect was to cause the government to crack down on reform, with the passing of what became known as the Six Acts. (You can read the text of these Acts here.)

This new legislation labelled any meeting for radical reform as “an overt act of treasonable conspiracy.” The legislation was passed on December 30, despite the opposition of the Whigs. (Apparently the fight over passage of the acts fills almost sixteen hundred pages in Hansard’s Register!)

[N.B.: Hansard is the traditional name of the verbatim transcripts of Parliamentary Debates in Britain and many Commonwealth countries. It is named after Thomas Curson Hansard (1776-1833), a London printer and publisher, who was the first official printer to the parliament at Westminster. ]

The acts were aimed at gagging radical newspapers, preventing large meetings, and reducing what the government saw as the possibility of armed insurrection.

Because of Whig opposition, as well as calmer conditions in Europe, the Six Acts were eventually dropped.

August 13, 1784 – The India Act Extends Britain’s Control Over India

On this day in history, an Act of Parliament in Great Britain provided for more government control over the affairs of India, which previously had been mainly in the hands of the East India Company.

The East India Company was founded in 1600, when Elizabeth I granted a company of 218 merchants a monopoly of trade to the east of the Cape of Good Hope, although it ended up trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent. The Company began to establish factories in India and eventually accounted for half of the world’s trade with India. Faced with the “opportunities” afforded by weak and dispersed rule in India, the Company became increasingly ambitious and powerful, eventually coming to be the de facto ruler of large areas of India by distributing bribes, negotiating treaties with local rulers, assuming administrative functions, and using its own private armies to exercise military power. Company men themselves became “princes” of India.

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A significant increase in the Company’s influence followed a military action in 1757 (The Battle of Plassey), which established Company rule in Bengal, producing a guaranteed income from Bengal’s taxpayers. The Company used this revenue to expand their military might and push the other European colonial powers such as the Dutch and the French out of South Asia. However, it also dragged the Company even deeper into the business of government, with revenue replacing commerce as the Company’s first concern.

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By 1772, however, the Company was seeking loans from the British Government to stay afloat. A famine in 1770 had wiped out a third of the population of Bengal, reducing local productivity and depressing the Company’s business. Government inquiries revealed corruption and mismanagement. In 1773, Parliament passed the Regulating Act, which established regulations “for the better Management of the Affairs of the East India Company, as well in India as in Europe”. As The Economist observed: “The government subjected the Company to ever-tighter supervision, partly because it resented bailing it out, partly because it was troubled by the argument that a company had no business in running a continent.”

The Regulating Act —although implying the ultimate sovereignty of the British Crown over these new territories — asserted that the Company could act as a sovereign power on behalf of the Crown. However, the imprecise wording of the Act left a number of problems unresolved.

William Pitt’s India Act of 1784 established a Board of Control in England both to supervise the East India Company’s affairs and to prevent the Company’s shareholders from interfering in the governance of India.

A governing board was created with six members, two of whom were members of the British Cabinet and the remaining from the Privy Council. The Board also had a president, who soon effectively became the minister for the affairs of the East India Company. The constitution set up by Pitt’s India Act did not undergo any major changes until the end of the company’s rule in India in 1858.

You can read the text of the India Act of 1784 here.

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