April 23, 1856 – Birthday of Granville T. Woods, “The Black Edison”

Granville T. Woods was an African American born in Columbus, Ohio on this date in 1856. The most prolific African-American inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he came up with numerous inventions including a steam-boiler furnace, telephone, telegraph system, electric railway and automatic air brake for railroad safety. If you thought that whites, and in particular Thomas Edison, would get the most credit for these ideas, you would be correct. Black inventors had little if any protection for their intellectual property at this time in history.

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Woods only attended school until the age of ten. Thereafter, while working in a machine shop repairing railroad equipment and machinery, he became intrigued by the electricity that powered the machinery. He studied machine workers as they worked with equipment and paid other workers to sit down and explain electrical concepts to him. Eventually, he was able to afford formal engineering training.

Unfortunately, despite his high aptitude and valuable education and expertise, Woods was denied opportunities and promotions because of the color of his skin. Out of frustration and a desire to promote his abilities, Woods, along with his brother Lyates, formed the Woods Railway Telegraph Company in 1884.

The company manufactured and sold telephone, telegraph and electrical equipment. Inventions from the company include an improved steam boiler furnace and an improved telephone transmitter. In 1885, Woods patented a system combining the telephone and telegraph and thus allowing stations to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. The device was so successful that he later sold it to the American Bell Telephone Company. (As a black inventor, Woods had difficulty in marketing his inventions and had little choice but to sell them to white-owned corporations.)

In 1887, Woods developed a telegraph that allowed for messages to be sent from moving trains and railway stations. By enabling dispatchers to know the location of each train, it provided for greater safety and a decrease in railway accidents.

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Granville Woods often had difficulties in enjoying his success as other inventors made claims to his devices. Thomas Edison made one of these claims, stating that he had first created a similar telegraph and that he was entitled to the patent for the device. Woods was twice successful in defending himself, proving that there were no other devices upon which he could have depended or relied upon to make his device.

Over the course of his lifetime Granville Woods would obtain more than 50 patents for inventions, including an automatic brake and an egg incubator and patents for improvements to other inventions such as safety circuits, telegraphs, telephones, and phonographs. When he died on January 30, 1910 in New York City he had become an admired and well-respected inventor. Nevertheless, he spent the last years of his life in virtual poverty as he battled in court for control of his inventions.

You can learn more about Woods in the book Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation by Rayvon Fouchi.

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The author examines the life and work of three African Americans: Granville Woods (1856–1910), an independent inventor; Lewis Latimer (1848–1928), a corporate engineer with General Electric; and Shelby Davidson (1868–1930), who worked in the U.S. Treasury Department. Fouchi explains how each man used invention as a means to technical stature in a Jim Crow institutional setting. As Johns Hopkins University Press writes, “Fouchi provides a nuanced view of African American contributions to — and relationships with — technology during a period of rapid industrialization and mounting national attention to the inequities of a separate-but-equal social order.”

April 21, 1968 – British Politician Enoch Powell Delivers “Rivers of Blood” Speech Against Immigration

Enoch Powell was a Conservative right-winger in Great Britain who is most famous for attacking his government’s immigration policy at a meeting in Birmingham, in a speech now known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech.

Enoch Powell

In this speech Powell argued that “we must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents.” He added, “as I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ ”

He further estimated, playing to the fears of his audience, that by the year 2000 up to seven million people – or one in ten of the population – would be of immigrant descent.

The Times of London called it “an evil speech,” and the first direct appeal to “racial hatred” made by a senior British politician. Mr. Powell was summarily dismissed from his post by the Conservative party leader, Edward Heath.

Nevertheless, thousands of workers staged strikes and marches in support of his views and he was inundated with letters from well wishers. The Birmingham Mail reported that “A poll at the time suggested that 74 per cent of the UK population agreed with Powell’s opinions and his supporters claim that this large public following which Powell attracted helped the Conservatives to win the 1970 general election.”

As British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor wrote for the New York Times in December, 2016:

There are parallels between the way Mr. Powell gave voice to white working-class anxiety and Mr. Trump’s primary campaigning. And like Mr. Trump, Mr. Powell discovered a ready audience: A Gallup poll a few weeks later found that 74 percent of those surveyed agreed with what Mr. Powell had said. For immigrants like my father, who arrived in Britain from Pakistan in the early 1960s, it wasn’t Mr. Powell’s words that were frightening so much as that so many seemed to agree with them.”

Illustration of Trump and Powell from the New York Times

He continued:

Mr. Trump, like Mr. Powell before him, speaks for those convulsed by fear. In his 1968 speech, Mr. Powell quoted a constituent who dreaded a future when “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” That paranoia — an ugly delusion that inverts the actual history of slavery — was unfounded. Yet what is striking today is that though Mr. Powell was cast into the wilderness for his views, arguably his warning about the challenges to social cohesion from immigration was prescient.”

You can read the entire “Rivers of Blood” speech by Powell here.

April 19, 1984 – District Court Reverses Conviction of Korematsu

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fear and prejudice towards the Japanese reached a fever pitch. These attitudes extended to both citizens and non-citizens of Japanese descent living in the United States.

At the time, approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent lived on the West Coast, and about 70,000 of these were American citizens. There was never at that time, however, nor thereafter, any proven case of espionage or sabotage on the part of Japanese or Japanese-Americans in the United States.

Nonetheless, in February 1942, General John DeWitt, the commanding officer of the Western Defense Command, recommended that “Japanese and other subversive persons” be evacuated from the Pacific Coast. He claimed:

The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted. To conclude otherwise is to expect that children born of white parents on Japanese soil sever all racial affinity and become loyal Japanese subjects ready to fight and, if necessary, to die for Japan in a war against the nation of their parents.”

Children at the Weill public school in San Francisco pledge allegiance to the American flag in April 1942, prior to the internment of Japanese Americans.

Children at the Weill public school in San Francisco pledge allegiance to the American flag in April 1942, prior to the internment of Japanese Americans.

He also said that there was “no ground for assuming that any Japanese, barred from assimilation by convention as he is, though born and raised in the United States, will not turn against this nation when the final test of loyalty comes.”

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt (known himself for not having enlightened attitudes about the Japanese) acted on this recommendation by signing Executive Order 9066. This authorized the Secretary of War or any designated commander, at their sole discretion, to limit and even prohibit some people from being in areas that were deemed critical to national defense and potentially vulnerable to espionage. The ensuing restrictions on people of Japanese origin included forced removal to assembly and relocation centers much farther inland. Ten relocation camps scattered across the West were built to accommodate the Japanese that included the group of 70,000 American citizens.

Map of forced internment camp locations — used for the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II.

Map of forced internment camp locations — used for the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II.

Soon after the order was enacted, Congress sanctioned the executive order by passing a law that imposed penalties for those who violated the restrictions pursuant to the order.

Fred Korematsu was an American-born citizen of Japanese descent who grew up in Oakland, California. When Japanese internment began in California, Korematsu evaded the order and moved to a nearby town so he could remain near his (non-Japanese) girlfriend. He was later arrested and convicted of violating Exclusion Order No. 34 issued by General DeWitt, which barred all persons of Japanese descent from the “military area” of San Leandro, California. There was no question at the time of conviction that Korematsu had been loyal to the United States and he was not a threat to the war effort.

Fred Korematsu

Fred Korematsu

Korematsu challenged his conviction but the federal appeals court ruled in favor of the United States, and Korematsu’s appeal brought the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States (323 U.S. 214, 1944).

On December 18, 1944 the Supreme Court decided the case, with a 6-3 majority on the Court upholding Korematsu’s conviction.

Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority, sided with the government and held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed Korematsu’s rights. He stated that “we cannot reject as unfounded the judgment of the military authorities.” Justice Black argued that compulsory exclusion, though constitutionally suspect, is justified during circumstances of “emergency and peril.”

Justice Hugo Black

Justice Hugo Black

Justice Robert Jackson dissented, expressing his view that the military ruling had no place in law under the Constitution. Korematsu’s only crime, he wrote, was “merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived.” Nevertheless, he opined that “The military reasonableness of these orders can only be determined by military superiors. I do not suggest that the courts should have attempted to interfere with the Army in carrying out its task.”

apanese-Americans in California being sent to internment camps in 1942.

Justice Owen Roberts disagreed, writing “I dissent, because I think the indisputable facts exhibit a clear violation of Constitutional rights.” He also objected that a relocation center “was a euphemism for prison,” and that the internment of the Japanese was based upon “the disinformation, half-truths and insinuations that for years have been directed against Japanese Americans by people with racial and economic prejudices.”

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Justice Frank Murphy agreed with Roberts in his dissent, finding that “this exclusion of ‘all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien,’ from the Pacific Coast area on a plea of military necessity in the absence of martial law ought not to be approved. Such exclusion goes over ‘the very brink of constitutional power,’ and falls into the ugly abyss of racism.”

In 1984, Korematsu challenged the earlier decision through a writ of coram nobis in Korematsu v. United States, 584 F. Supp. 1406 (N.D. Cal. 1984). (A writ of coram nobis is the name of a legal order allowing a court to reopen and correct its judgment upon discovery of a substantial error not appearing in the records of the original judgement’s proceedings which, if known at the time of judgment, would have prevented the judgment from being pronounced.)

In this later case, Korematsu provided evidence establishing that the Justice Department had suppressed information from governmental sources that contradicted the Army’s assertion that the Japanese American community represented a national defense risk. The District Court granted his writ and overturned Korematsu’s original conviction. However, the District Court emphasized that in issuing this decision, it had the power to correct only errors of fact, not errors of law. The essential holding of the 1944 Korematsu decision — namely, that a race-based exclusion program founded on considerations of military judgment did not violate the Constitution — remained untouched.

The U.S. Government officially apologized for the internment in the 1980s and paid reparations totaling $1.2 billion, as well as an additional $400 million in benefits signed into law by George H. W. Bush in 1992. In January of 1998, President Bill Clinton named Fred Korematsu a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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Korematsu has never been officially overturned, and as Dean M. Hashimoto in “The Legacy of Korematsu v. United States: A Dangerous Narrative Retold” notes: “Popular wisdom has it that Korematsu has silently passed away as legal precedent.” But in fact, as he points out, “The Korematsu case has been applied in a traditional manner under stare decisis, primarily from the 1940s through the 1960s, in cases involving postwar regulation, immigration law, and national security law.” From the 1980’s onward, however, as he shows, treatment of the case changed:

Justices assign negative persuasive weight to the result reached in Korematsu. This approach recognizes that Korematsu is now publicly perceived to have been decided incorrectly. By placing Korematsu in its historical context, the Court therefore is able to use it in a way substantially different from ordinary stare decisis.”

As he observes, “The Court’s reliance on evolving interpretive methodologies has mirrored changing public sentiments about the Japanese internment.”

Book Review of “Jacksonland” by Steve Inskeep

It is ironic that Andrew Jackson, a murderer, kidnapper, slave owner, slave trader, land speculator acting on inside information, and last but not least, the cruel architect of Indian genocide, should hold such a revered place in the pantheon of American presidents – so much so, that when the question arose of who’s image to replace on money, it was the image of Hamilton that garnered the most attention. [Ironic as well, since it was Jackson who was obsessively opposed to a federal bank, vetoing a bill to recharter the Bank of the United States, which led to an economic depression, and Hamilton, a fiscal genius, who championed the idea.] As much as Americans have been shocked or disappointed over the behavior of some of our recent presidents – at least until the 2016 election – their actions are minor peccadillos compared to the abhorrent and morally horrific activities of Andrew Jackson.

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Steve Inskeep, a cohost of NPR’s Morning Edition, and someone who has received multiple awards for investigative journalism, tells Jackson’s story, juxtaposing it to the story of the leader of the Cherokee people, John Ross. It is not hard for Ross to come off looking better.

It was truly difficult to listen to all the outrages committed by Jackson, and against the Native American people, and yet it is essential to understand this part of American history.

Evaluation: If you only read one nonfiction book this year, I hope you will make it this one. It is critically important that Americans understand what kind of man Andrew Jackson really was, and what was done to the Native Americans who occupied the land he coveted. It is an outstanding book, and a pleasure to experience via audio.

Rating: 5/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

It’s almost unfair to compare other narrators to the cohost of one of the most widely heard radio news programs in the United States. Inskeep knows how to “read for the ear” and his impassioned narration hits all the right notes.

Published unabridged on 10 CDs (12 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2015

April 16, 1862 – D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act

On this day in history, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia. Passage of this law came eight and one-half months before President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.

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Upon signing the bill, Lincoln issued the following statement:

“FELLOW CITIZENS OF THE SENATE AND THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES:

The act entitled “an act for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia,” has this day been approved and signed.

I have never doubted the constitutional authority of Congress to abolish slavery in this district, and I have ever desired to see the National Capital freed from the institution in some satisfactory way. Hence there has never been in my mind any question upon the subject except the one of expediency, arising in view of all the circumstances. If there be matters within and about this act which might have taken a course or shape more satisfactory to my judgments, I do not attempt to specify them. I am gratified that the two principles of compensation and colonization are both recognized and practically applied in the act.

In the matter of compensation, it is provided that claims may be presented within ninety days from the passage of the act, “but not thereafter”, and there is no savings for minors, femes covert, insane or absent persons, I presume this is an omission by mere oversight, and I recommend that it be supplied by an amendatory or supplemental act.”

ABRAHAM LINCOLN.
Washington, April 16, 1862

The act provided for immediate emancipation, compensation to former owners who were loyal to the Union of up to $300 for each freed slave, voluntary colonization of former slaves to locations outside the United States, and payments of up to $100 for each person choosing emigration. To that end, the act set aside $1 million. Over the next 9 months, the Board of Commissioners appointed to administer the act approved 930 petitions, completely or in part, from former owners for the freedom of 2,989 former slaves.

In Washington, D.C., African Americans greeted emancipation with great jubilation. Until 1901, they celebrated Emancipation Day on April 16 with parades and festivals, when a lack of financial and organizational support forced the tradition to stop. It restarted in 2002.

In 2005, pursuant to D.C. Law 15-288, April 16th would become a recognized legal public holiday in D.C. and the DC Emancipation Day parade along Pennsylvania Avenue took place again after an absence of more than one hundred years.

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You can find out more about current celebrations of D.C. Emancipation Day here.

April 13, 1743 – Birth of Thomas Jefferson & Review of “The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 at his family home in Shadwell in the Colony of Virginia, the third of ten children. Today he is considered to be an icon of individual liberty, democracy, and republicanism, hailed as the architect of the American Revolution.

But was Jefferson actually a great man or just one whose reputation was immeasurably enhanced by the need of Americans to turn their Founders into saints?

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Little interests me more than the process of historiography – i.e., the study of historical writing, and the ways in which interpretations of the past change depending on the individual historian and interpretative needs of the present. Books about Jefferson provide a great opportunity to see historiography at work.

What historians choose to focus on regarding Jefferson has important implications for our national identity, making biographies of him all the more significant. The determination of what to include about “a Founder” and how to interpret it not only reflects upon the legitimacy of the American experiment, but also on the continuing social and political order, given our valorizing of “the intent of the Founding Fathers.”

So history is not just a chronicle; it has ideological contours. It not only helps shape what we believe about ourselves, but reveals what we want to believe, and what we want to forget.

For those who want their idealized perceptions of the Founding Fathers left intact, this book is the perfect anodyne to the recent spate of critical works about Jefferson.

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Meacham takes great pains to present Jefferson as positively as possible, and in the event of overwhelming facts to the contrary, he has three different approaches to impose his view of Jefferson on the reader. When Meacham is recounting what amounts to dirty tricks, underhandedness, manipulation, and hypocrisy (most of which Jefferson put Madison and others up to doing rather than exposing his own role), Meacham either pleads the different standards of Jefferson’s times, or simply redefines what Jefferson did as “practical” or “adaptable” or “savvy” or even “wise” (a move that Yale History Professor Marci Shore has referred to in a different context as “the teleological deceptions of retrospect”). Most often, however, Meacham takes a third approach and simply omits less savory aspects of Jefferson’s behavior.

James Madison, always willing to do Jefferson's bidding

James Madison, always willing to do Jefferson’s bidding

Leaving out some events and selecting others creates a narrow shadowbox revealing only what the box’s creator wants you to see. No other voices challenge the dominant narrative. Whether consciously or not, the images of the particular history are filtered and focused to impose one version of the past over another.

Consider these facts:

In 1769 Jefferson paid for a very detailed ad in the Virginia Gazette for the capture and return of a runaway mulatto slave. The next year, as a young lawyer, Jefferson defended a mulatto slave who was suing for his freedom. Jefferson argued, “under the law of nature, we are all born free.” (At this time, he owned more than 20 slaves.)

Meanwhile, in 1776, while writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had 83 slaves. This was a low number for him: from 1774 to 1826, he had around 200 slaves at any one time, owning more than 600 people during his lifetime. Most famously, he used one of them as his concubine, starting up with the not-yet-16 year old Sally Hemings when he was 46. She was almost continuously pregnant when he was in town. When she first became pregnant, while acting as a chaperone for Jefferson’s daughter in France, and where she would have had the opportunity to stay there and be free, Jefferson “bribed” her to come back to Virginia (as his slave) by promising that their children could be set free from slavery at age 21. [Jefferson did keep his word to some extent, and set Sally’s children free in his will, although by then they were considerably older than age 21. Sally, by contrast, was not set free by the will. It is thought he gave verbal instructions to his family to that effect, but there is no proof. In the event, it was only eight years after Jefferson died, that his legitimate daughter Martha allowed Sally to leave.]

Meacham describes a number of times when the younger Jefferson indeed tried to get anti-slavery measures passed but could not. He avers that Jefferson came to believe abolition was politically lethal; he was not, therefore, willing to risk his popularity for what was “a lost cause”. Nevertheless, Jefferson not once made a move to free his own slaves, so how sincere was he really? John and Abigail Adams refused to have slaves; George Washington arranged to have his slaves freed after he and his wife died; and in 1796, one of Jefferson’s relatives, the statesman and eminent scholar George Tucker (who wrote a new edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries that was considered a valuable reference work for many American lawyers and law students in the early 19th century), wrote and published the pamphlet “A Dissertation on Slavery: With A Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It in the State of Virginia.” In short, it wasn’t as if no one else in Jefferson’s time opted for and acted upon a moral course of action.

George Tucker, 1752-1827

George Tucker, 1752-1827

It seems clear that Jefferson’s extravagant tastes and sense of entitlement prevented him from having such a large contingent of paid servants on the payroll. He had expensive taste in imported wines, foodstuffs, furniture, linens, silver, paintings, books, and entertainment. He did not care to live without these things, even if it meant that a large number of people had to live in slavery. Further, he was not above instructing his overseer to punish slaves who were not deemed to be adequately productive. The historian Henry Wiencek recounts a story (totally omitted by Meacham), describing how Monticello’s young black boys, “the small ones,” age 10, 11 or 12, were whipped to get them to work harder in Jefferson’s nail factory, the profits of which paid the mansion’s grocery bills. Some slaves, Jefferson wrote, “require a vigour of discipline to make them do reasonable work.”

Living the good life at Montecello - the Tea Room

Living the good life at Montecello – the Tea Room

Nor does Meacham spend time on Jefferson’s detailed calculations about how much money he could make from the “propagation” of black slaves (a 4 percent profit every year, he noted). He boasted of it to George Washington.

Last but not least, Jefferson wrote about blacks as being “racially inferior“ and “as incapable as children.” He thought that even if slaves were freed, they should all be deported (except, we presume, for Sally, who was, apparently, capable of at least one thing not commonly considered to be “childlike”.)

Meacham does, at the very end, give consideration to the contradiction of Jefferson’s beliefs about freedom for all of mankind and his continued investment in the institution of slavery, but doesn’t really resolve these contradictions, other to say that because Jefferson couldn’t push abolition through, “[h]e gave up.” Meacham did not convince me on that score, especially because when Jefferson wanted anything else done, he took every conceivable step, whether through pressure, mud-slinging, reputation-destroying, or deal-making, to achieve his aims.

Vegetable garden at Montecello - it took a village, or at least a very large contingent of slaves, to maintain

Vegetable garden at Montecello – it took a village, or at least a very large contingent of slaves, to maintain

Another big issue Meacham elides over is the hypocritical way in which Jefferson became apoplectic over what he considered the “monarchical” tendencies of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and other Federalists. Yet Jefferson’s presidency pushed the limits of a strong executive in ways never before done so, and in ways that Jefferson would have considered anathema if someone else had made those moves. The Louisiana purchase, for example, was clearly unconstitutional – even Jefferson admitted it (in secret). The embargo on sending goods to Great Britain was also a curtailment of liberty and an extension of the reach of the federal government that would have had Jefferson crying treason if his predecessors had engaged in these acts. Meacham concedes this, but contends that Jefferson’s usurpations of power showed how “brilliantly” he could remold his ideology when “the future of the country” was at stake.

And on and on….

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Nevertheless, Jefferson endures, as Meacham avers. He holds that Jefferson passes the fundamental test of leadership:

Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and drams deferred, he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the area of public life.”

I would agree that the idea of Jefferson, and more precisely, the ideals of Jefferson, endure, and have changed the nation for the better. As Meacham observes:

All the … Jeffersons – the emblematic ones, the metaphorical ones, the ones different generations and differing partisans interpret and invent, seeking inspiration from his example and sanction from his name – all these Jeffersons tell us more about ourselves than they do about the man himself.”

The ideals Jefferson inscribed into the Declaration of Independence gave us a bridge from what was (and is) to what we wanted (and still want) to be. Although “we the people” only referred to some of the people, the bridge was in place: now we could aspire to reach the other side.

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And certainly his contributions to the cause of freedom from and of religion cannot be denied. (This was a cause surely as emotionally fraught as slavery, albeit without the same economic repercussions. Yet Jefferson worked tirelessly to ensure that America would be a country that was based on a separation of church and state.) As for the man himself, I wish we could acknowledge the great uses to which he has been put, without having to deify him in the process.

Evaluation: I listened to the audio version of this book. Edward Herrmann did a very good job at narrating, and the text (in spite of my complaints about its selectivity) never lost my interest. I would only caution that, as with any historical interpretation, it is advisable to read other accounts along with it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Random House Audio, unabridged on 15 compact discs, 2012.

April 11, 1951 – President Truman Fires General Douglas MacArthur

Even before World War II ended, American strategists had concerns about potential Soviet incursions into other countries. In particular, the State Department thought it critical to keep the Soviets out of Korea – because not only would Korea provide ice-free ports to the USSR, but it would allow them a strategic advantage in relation both to China and Japan.

As Max Hastings reported in his book, The Korean War, less than twenty-four hours after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the U.S. military was planning to occupy Korea. The Russians of course objected and the U.N. got involved, dividing the country along the 38th Parallel.

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North of the line, the Soviets installed the ruthless dictator Kim Il Sung, and south of the line the Americans sponsored its own ruthless dictator, Syngman Rhee. Relations were not good between the two parts of Korea, and by 1949 border skirmishes were frequent. The defeat of the American-sponsored Nationalist army of Chiang Kai Shek by the Communist army of Mao Tse Tung hardened American attitudes and exacerbated fears about the Communists. Thus when Kim Il Sung decided (with Stalin’s express permission) to invade South Korea in 1950, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. went to war.

In the early months of the war, the Americans and South Koreans were nearly driven off the peninsula, but they rallied under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, who planned and executed a dramatic amphibious landing at Inchon, behind the North Koran lines. The Americans then drove north, captured the North Korean capital, and approached the border of China, which had not yet entered the fighting. Against specific instructions from Truman, MacArthur continued to drive north, provoking a surprise Chinese intervention which turned the tide once again and threatened to push the Americans out of Korea. (This possibility was precisely why Truman had objected.) With his troops retreating, MacArthur tried to get Truman to approve the use of atomic weapons against the Chinese and North Koreans.

MacArthur observes the naval shelling of Inchon from USS Mount McKinley, 15 September 1950

MacArthur observes the naval shelling of Inchon from USS Mount McKinley, 15 September 1950

On December 24, 1950, MacArthur even submitted to Truman a list of targets he wanted to bomb in North Korea and China, requiring twenty-six atomic bombs.

Fortunately, Truman decided against the nuclear option, but the U.S. had come close. Hastings reports that the military was much more enthusiastic about taking this step than the Truman Administration, and he opines:

…had the Chinese proved able to convert the defeat of the UN forces into their destruction, had the Eighth Army been unable to check its retreat, and been driven headlong for the coastal ports with massive casualties, it is impossible to declare with certainty that Truman could have resisted the demand for an atomic demonstration against China. The pressure upon the politicians from the military leaders of America might well have become irresistible in the face of military disaster.”

Tensions between the two continued to escalate, and on this day in history, President Truman fired MacArthur and replaced him with Gen. Matthew Ridgeway. That night, Truman addressed the nation and explained his actions. He began by defending his overall policy in Korea, declaring, “It is right for us to be in Korea.” He excoriated the “communists in the Kremlin [who] are engaged in a monstrous conspiracy to stamp out freedom all over the world.” Nevertheless, he explained, it “would be wrong—tragically wrong—for us to take the initiative in extending the war… Our aim is to avoid the spread of the conflict.” The president continued, “I believe that we must try to limit the war to Korea for these vital reasons: To make sure that the precious lives of our fighting men are not wasted; to see that the security of our country and the free world is not needlessly jeopardized; and to prevent a third world war.” General MacArthur had been fired “so that there would be no doubt or confusion as to the real purpose and aim of our policy.”

Later, in Plain Speaking, an oral biography of Truman by Merle Miller, Truman recalled the incident.

The subject that made Truman the angriest, Miller said, was MacArthur.

Miller:
Mr. President, I know why you fired MacArthur, but if you don’t mind I’d like to hear it in your own words.

Truman:
I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. That’s the answer to that. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the laws for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail. That’s why when a good one comes along like General [George] Marshall, why you’ve got to hang onto them, and I did….

Miller:
Mr. President, how can you explain a man like that?

Truman:
I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I have finally concluded… decided that there were times when he . . . well, I’m afraid when he wasn’t right in the head. And there never was anyone around to him to keep in line. He didn’t have anyone on his staff who wasn’t an ass kisser….

President Harry Truman

President Harry Truman