September 22, 1915 – Birthdate of Civil Rights Attorney Charles Lund Black, Jr.

Charles Lund Black, Jr. was born on Sept. 22, 1915, in racist Austin, Texas, one of three children of a prominent lawyer. In 1931, as a 16-year-old freshman studying Greek classics at the University of Texas at Austin, he happened to hear Louis Armstrong play. He later wrote in the Yale Law Journal:

He was the first genius I had ever seen. … It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year-old southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black. We literally never saw a black then in any but a servant’s capacity. It was just then that I started toward the Brown case where I belonged.”

Armstrong himself, according to jazz critic Nat Hentoff, wrote in a September, 1941 letter:

I’d like to recall one of my most inspiring moments. I was playing a concert date in a Miami auditorium. I walked on stage and there I saw something I’d never seen. I saw thousands of people, colored and white, on the main floor. Not segregated in one row of whites and another row of Negroes. Just all together – naturally. I thought I was in the wrong state. When you see things like that, you know you’re going forward.”

Louis Armstrong in 1934

Louis Armstrong in 1934

In 1954, Black, then a white professor of constitutional law, helped Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. to write the legal brief for Linda Brown, a 10-year-old student in Topeka, Kansas, whose historic case, Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483), decided May 17, 1954, became the Supreme Court’s definitive judgment on segregation in American education.

Professor Charles Black

Professor Charles Black

Professor Black taught generations of law students, first at Columbia from 1947 to 1956, then at Yale for 30 years, and then at Columbia from 1986 until his health began to fail prior to his death in 2001. Black was the first Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale, and in 1975 he became the Sterling Professor of Law, the highest academic rank at Yale. He also wrote more than 20 books and many articles on constitutional law, admiralty law, capital punishment, the role of the judiciary and other legal subjects, including Impeachment: A Handbook, that was widely praised in 1974, when President Richard M. Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal, and also when reissued during the 1999 proceedings against President Bill Clinton. His last book, A New Birth of Freedom (1997), re-examined the Declaration of Independence and the Ninth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution as a basis for unwritten human rights.

[Sources for this post came from Columbia University, The New York Times (5/08/01), and The Wall Street Journal (1/15/09).] You can read more about Black’s recollections of Louis Armstrong here. He said in this article:

All men, to be sure, are kin, but Southern whites and Negroes are bound in a special bond. In a peculiar way, they are the same kind of people. They are happy alike, they are poor alike. Their strife is fratricidal, born of ignorance. And the tragedy itself has, of course, deepened the kinship; indeed, it created it.

My dream is simply that sight will one day clear and that each of the participants will recognize the other.”


Review of “Cultures of War” by John W. Dower

John Dower is one of our most respected historians, having won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his brilliant studies of the war against Japan in World War II. In Cultures of War, he again returns to Japan in WWII, this time to compare the U.S. response to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the war with Japan to the attack of 9/11 on the U.S. and subsequent war against Iraq.

Dower argues that the “clash of civilizations” argument to explain both wars is insufficient to understand why they took place, and in any event, is based on a postulate of “an imagined essentialism” about everyone in the cultures in question. It is largely invoked to contrast the alleged rational and enlightened outlook of Westerners with the irrational, nonwhite Eastern foreigner. But as Dower maintains, as often as the West exhibits “more civilized” behavior, it is also apt to exhibit “wishful thinking, delusion, and herd behavior” at top levels of government. For example, he shows how irrational notions characterized both the American attitude toward the Japanese before WWII, and toward the Islamists six decades later. As an example, he cites the Admiral of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor explaining why he ignored “war warning” messages just prior to the attack:

I never thought those little yellow sons-of-bitches could pull off such an attack, so far from Japan.”

Similarly, in spite of repeated warnings about bin Laden and Al Qaeda from the CIA and the National Security Council, the Bush Administration chose to ignore them. As Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s “bin Laden unit” until 1999 reported:

The elites simply could not fathom that ‘a polyglot bunch of Arabs wearing robes, sporting scraggly beards, and squatting around campfires in Afghan deserts and mountains could pose a mortal threat the United States.’”

In other words, the U.S. was surprised both in 1941 and 2001 because of the same “racial arrogance and cultural condescension.”

Aftermath of the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo, March, 1945

Furthermore, Dower charges, it is absurd to assert that the Japanese in the 1940’s or the Islamists, Muslims and Arabs in current times, do not value human life as much as people do in the West, just because so many civilians died on 9/11. The U.S. can only make this argument by sanitizing our own history. Dower adduces plenty of evidence to show that the Allies deliberately targeted civilians in WWII with fire bombing to “break morale.” He reserves special disgust for “the ardor” with which the U.S. military reconstructed German and Japanese houses in the U.S. desert beginning in 1943, to test how thoroughly they could be incinerated. And in fact, “somewhere around one million German and Japanese noncombatants were killed in Allied bombing missions between 1943 and 1945.”

Cartoon from a Muslim publication decrying hypocrisy of the West

Moreover, Dower argues convincingly that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons was less about ending the war (and thus saving American lives) as is usually contended, but more about demonstrating our strength to the Soviets:

The decision makers opted [to use] the bomb essentially without warning in a manner that would shock and awe the Russians every bit as much as the Japanese – and, in the process, ideally deter them from their territorial ambitions in eastern Europe while simultaneously undercutting them in Asia.”

He even gives evidence of a rush to drop the bombs on Japan prior to their expected surrender, which was considered inevitable as soon as the Soviets entered the war against them. Thus the weapons were shipped out even before they were tested. Japan, according to sociologist Michael Sherry, was “viewed as little more than ‘a vast laboratory in destruction.’”

Hiroshima after the atomic bomb

Nevertheless, the U.S. Government felt it necessary to justify the bombs by harking back to the patriotic fervor drummed up after Pearl Harbor, and to the racism against the Japanese that had fueled the fighting against them thereafter.

U.S. racist propaganda poster during WWII about the Japanese

A similar process of racism, mendacity and deception characterized the war on Iraq, Dower avers. He begins with the failure of intelligence, or rather, the Administration’s refusal to acknowledge the intelligence. He then goes into the justification given to the American people and the rest of the world for the Iraq War, reasons which were later shown to have been false.

He also writes about the “rebuilding” process in Iraq after the war, and why it has been such a failure compared to the same process in Japan. Some of the most important reasons include that in Japan, McArthur went in with a lot of advanced planning in place, whereas in Iraq, planning was rejected in favor of what Dower calls “faith-based policy making” – i.e., the conviction that a new government would just emerge “somewhat by magic.” Moreover, although the U.S. State Department had prepared plans, they were rejected in large part because of bureaucratic turf wars between the Departments of Defense and State.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, left, with Emperor Hirohito during the Japanese emperor's visit to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in 1945. Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS

After WWII, it was important that while the U.S. guided Japan, they made sure the Japanese themselves were part of the recovery and became self-sufficient. Laws were passed at the urging of the U.S. to provide protection from “international as well as domestic predators.” Iraq has been a different story altogether. Most reconstruction work was given over to the private sector in the U.S. (and funded by citizen tax money): much to the Iraqis’ bitter disappointment, Iraq’s “own skilled workforce was obviously deemed incapable of handling such engineering projects.” The U.S. permitted 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi firms and tax-free repatriation of all investment profits. Iraq became “a gold rush”; “a carpetbaggers’ free-for-all”; especially for Republican supporters. Outsourcing the rebuilding to private and largely American contractors resulted in “confusion, cronyism, non-transparency, and corruption that had no counterpart in Japan.”

One of many protest cartoons circulating about the privatization of Iraq rebuilding efforts

Like other policies imposed upon Iraq, these only served to create more resentment, and to facilitate recruiting for Arab terrorist organizations.

In sum, Dower accuses the U.S., particularly during the Bush years, of “racial arrogance and cultural blindness,” “historical cherry-picking” for propaganda purposes, “irrationality and groupthink” and “strategic imbecility.” But this is all part, he argues, of what he identifies as the concept of war culture. This meticulous scholar backs up his accusations with irrefutable facts from an enormous amount of documentation.

Evaluation: Dower is a first-rate historian who expresses a great deal of frustration over what he considers to have been ill-conceived strategies of the U.S. in responding to the 9/11 attacks; abuses of international law; and perversion of the historical record. This book is extremely illuminating for anyone seeking to understand what happened immediately preceding and after 9/11. It is neither dry nor dispassionate, and while some might maintain that Dower has a political agenda, I would identify his bias to be more one of anger over the taking of lives in service of a “war culture” no matter which side perpetrates these acts.

Rating: 4.5/5

Note: Quite a few photos are included in the book, which was a 2010 National Book Award Finalist.

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2011

September 17, 1952 – Charlie Chaplin Denied Re-Entry to U.S. After a Visit to London

On this day in history, the British film star Charlie Chaplin was told by the U.S. Government that he could not return to the U.S. until he could “prove his worth” to the United States.

Charlie Chaplin as a young film director

A month later, Chaplin was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 17, and awarded the French Legion of Honor on October 31. But to the United States, the most salient attributes of Chaplin were allegations of immoral conduct and his alleged left-wing sympathies. (This was of course in spite of the fact that Chaplin produced, directed, and starred in the famous 1940 pre-World War II film attacking Adolph Hitler, The Great Dictator.). It is generally thought that the charges of moral turpitude were an excuse for the FBI to damage Chaplin’s image on account of his criticisms of capitalism in general, and of war in particular. Chaplin denied being a “communist” but rather labeled himself as a “peacemonger,” which was also anathema to the FBI. He compounded his “sins” by not taking American citizenship and by openly protesting the trials of alleged Communist Party members by HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Chaplin did not return to the U.S. for twenty years, until he was awarded an honorary Oscar on April 10, 1972, for his contributions to film as an art and for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.” When Chaplin accepted the Oscar, the audience gave him a 12-minute standing ovation. His films The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator are still ranked on industry lists as some of the greatest films of all time. In 1998, the film critic Andrew Sarris called Chaplin “arguably the single most important artist produced by the cinema, certainly its most extraordinary performer and probably still its most universal icon.”

Chaplin (right) receiving his Honorary Academy Award from Jack Lemmon in 1972

Chaplin first rose to fame during the era of silent film. He became a worldwide star through his screen persona “the Tramp.” Moreover, Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in, and composed the music for most of his films.

You can read the FBI file on Chaplin here. The online information consists of two types of files, ranging in date from 1922 to 1978. One involves a White Slave Traffic Act (or interstate prostitution) investigation, and the second concerns a domestic security file concerning Chaplin’s ties to communist organizations in the U.S.

Charlie Chaplin as the “Tramp” character.

Review of “Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story” by Ken Mochizuki for kids

If you ever doubt your faith in mankind, this true story will restore it for you.

Obon Festival in Japan

Obon Festival in Japan

Passage to Freedom tells the amazing story of Chiune Sugihara, who single-handedly saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis. His story was told by his son Hiroki to the author, based on Hiroki’s recollections. Hiroki was five in 1940 when his father, Chiune Sugihara, who was the Japanese consul in Lithuania, was begged by Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi onslaught for visas to escape. The Sugiharas were stationed in Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania, situated between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Jews who came to them were from Poland. Ironically, the Lithuanian Jews were not allowed to leave, but at this time, in June, 1940, the Soviets agreed to let Polish Jews leave if they could get travel documents.


Chiune cabled his government for permission, but it was denied. He cabled twice more, and again his government said “absolutely not.” But he could not say no to what was right. As the Japanese proverb said, “Even a hunter cannot kill a bird that comes to him for refuge.” He gathered his family together and explained to them:

I have to do something. I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t I will be disobeying God.”

Chiune Sugihara

Chiune Sugihara

As Ron Greene reports in a book on Chiune Sugihara:

For 29 days, from July 31 to August 28, 1940, Mr. and Mrs. Sugihara sat for endless hours writing and signing visas by hand. Hour after hour, day after day, for these three weeks, they wrote and signed visas. They wrote over 300 visas a day, which would normally be one month’s worth of work for the consul. Yukiko also helped him register these visas. At the end of the day, she would massage his fatigued hands. He did not even stop to eat. His wife supplied him with sandwiches.” (VISAS FOR LIFE: The Remarkable Story of Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara by Ron Greene.)

As Passage to Freedom ends, the family is being transferred to Berlin. Even as the train pulled out, Chiune was still signed visas, handing the permission papers out through the windows of the train. Hiroki said,

Back then, I did not fully understand what the three of them [his mother, father, and aunt] had done, or why it was so important. I do now.”

Hiroki Sugihara

Hiroki Sugihara as a child

An afterword by (the adult) Hiroki explains that following their departure, the family was imprisoned for 18 months in a Soviet internment camp, and thereafter, Chiune was asked to resign from diplomatic service. In the 1960’s, Chiune started hearing from people who called themselves “Sugihara survivors” and he received a “Righteous Among Nations” Award from the Holocaust organization in Israel. He was the first and only Asian to receive this honor.

The sepia-toned illustrations by talented Dom Lee are excellent, and seem very realistic. Resembling photographs from the 1940’s, they were created by etching on beeswax applied to paper, and then painting over the etchings.


Evaluation: I cannot stress how inspirational this story is. As Hiroki says, “It is a story that proves that one person can make a difference.” And in fact, the book is dedicated not only to Chiune Sugihara and his family, but also “to all others who place the welfare of others before themselves.” Today, two generations later, it is estimated that there may be more than 40,000 who owe their lives to the Sugiharas.

Although I recommend this book for all ages, it would make an excellent introduction to the Holocaust for children. (There is nothing explicitly frightening here; just the acknowledgment that these people would die if not helped by the Sugiharas.)

Certainly more people would know about this story if Steven Spielberg made a movie about it! (Sugihara has been called “the Japanese Schindler.”) But PBS did make a documentary. You can watch an excerpt here. Even this 6 minute clip will affect you powerfully.

Waiting to plead for visas outside the gates of the Japanese consulate

Jews waiting to plead for visas outside the gates of the Japanese consulate

Rating: 5/5

Published by Lee & Low Books, Inc., 1997

Note: The author is the son of Japanese parents who were sent to an American internment camp in Idaho during World War II.

September 13, 1759 – British Defeat French at Quebec on the Plains of Abraham

Conflict between Great Britain and France broke out in 1754 when the British attacked disputed French positions in North America, starting with George Washington’s ambush of a small French force at the Battle of Jumonville Glen on 28 May 1754. The Americans called the ensuing conflict “The French and Indian War” but it was really more of a global war.

Map of the British and French settlements in North America in 1750, before the French and Indian War (1754 to 1763), that was part of the Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’ War as it became known overseas involved every European great power of the time and spanned five continents, affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. Europe was split into two coalitions, led by Great Britain on one side and France on the other.

On this day in history, a pivotal battle was fought by the British Army and Navy against the French Army on a plateau just outside the walls of Quebec City, on land that was originally owned by a farmer named Abraham Martin, hence the name of the battle.

Old postcard showing the fortress “Citadel” of Quebec City on an inaccesible steep cliff with the plains of Abraham behind.

British General James Wolfe took his 4,500 army and navy troops up the St. Lawrence River at night. They then scaled incredibly steep cliffs up to the Plains of Abraham, surprising the French Army, who were defeated comprehensively. Some accounts say the battle lasted an hour with skirmishes for several more, while other accounts say the main conflict lasted only about 15 minutes. General Wolfe, however, was mortally wounded during the battle, as was the leader of the French forces, General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm.

After the battle, the French evacuated the city. The decisive success of the British forces and the subsequent capture of Quebec City formed part of what became known as the “Annus Mirabilis” in Great Britain. Within four years, France ceded most of its possessions in eastern North America to Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris.

James Wolfe and Marquis de Montcalm sculpture in front of Parliament Building (Quebec)

James Wolfe and Marquis de Montcalm sculpture in front of Parliament Building (Quebec)

As Radio Canada reports:

The battle of Quebec signaled a major turning point in world history. From that point on, French influence and control in the continent was all but extinguished, and indeed diminished in other areas around the world. . . . [But] the British victors, in respect of the French military’s able defence in years of battle, decided to allow the citizenry to retain their language and Catholic religion, and civil laws. . . . . what is now the province of Quebec remains a mostly French-speaking region.”

September 11, 1962 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Telegraphs Warning to President Kennedy

On this day in history, Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy, outlining his fears about Civil Rights unrest:

I have learned from authentic sources that negroes are arming themselves in many quarters where this reign of terror is alive. I will continue to urge my people to be nonviolent in the face of bitterest opposition, but I fear that my counsel will fall on deaf ears if the federal government does not take decisive action. If negroes are tempted to turn to retaliatory violence, we shall see a dark night of rioting all over the South.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

September 9, 1791 – The Nation’s New Capital is Officially Named Washington

In July of 1790, a congressional act empowered President Washington to choose a location for the national capital along the Potomac River and to appoint three commissioners to oversee its development. Washington selected a ten square mile area of land from property in Maryland and Virginia that lay on both sides of the Potomac.

Andrew Ellicott, a surveyor, and Benjamin Banneker, a free black and self-taught scientist, were selected to survey the 100-square-mile diamond-shaped area. Forty stone markers, each a mile apart, were erected to mark the boundary from the celestial calculations made by Banneker.

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker

Within the diamond, which would become the District of Columbia, a smaller area was laid out as the City of Washington. A third commissioner, Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French artist and engineer, was given the job of devising the layout for the city.

According to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., President Washington originally referred to the newly-created town as “the Federal City.” But at a meeting on this day in history, September 9, 1791, the commissioners agreed that the “Federal district shall be called the ‘Territory of Columbia’ and the Federal City the ‘City of Washington.’” The website explains:

The term “district” was more popular than “territory” and officially replaced it when the capital was incorporated in 1871.) The name “Washington” was chosen by the commissioners to honor the President. “Columbia,” a feminine form of “Columbus,” was popularized as a name for America in patriotic poetry and song after the Revolutionary War. The term idealized America’s qualities as a land of liberty.”

Thackara & Vallance's March 1792 print of Ellicott's [sic] “Plan of the City of Washington".

Thackara & Vallance’s March 1792 print of Ellicott’s [sic] “Plan of the City of Washington”.