February 25, 1956 – Nikita Khrushchev Delivers His “Secret Speech”

On February 25, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Soviet Union, delivered a so-called “Secret Speech” to an unofficial, closed session of the Twentieth Party Communist Party Congress. The contents of the speech were leaked – some say by Khrushchev himself, and the repercussions both within and outside the USSR were monumental.

Nikita Khrushchev, February 24, 1956

In the speech, Khrushchev enumerated and denounced Stalin’s crimes and the “cult of personality” surrounding Stalin. [Even calling Stalin’s policies “crimes” was a radical departure from the past.] Khrushchev had several aims in making this speech, one of which was the ironic goal of saving Communism by blaming its failings primarily on a particular individual (who was now safely dead). But the fallout rocked the very foundation of the USSR.

A “thaw” was initiated inside the Soviet Union, and tens of thousands of political prisoners were set free. The speech also laid the groundwork for piecemeal reforms, paving the way for Gorbachev’s perestroika (the restructuring of the Soviet economy and bureaucracy that began in the mid 1980s).

In Eastern Europe, the revelations ignited stirrings for self-determination. But Khrushchev had no intention of diminishing the might of the Soviet Union, or of liberating its satellite states. Those in the East Communist countries thinking otherwise were quickly disabused of this impression. In Poland, Russian troops were dispatched to put down a labor strike, and in Hungary, where the dream of freedom quickly turned into an uprising, Khrushchev had to resort to even more force. He could not afford for the West to perceive him as weak, and the Soviets brutally suppressed the revolution. According to political scientist William Taubman in his Pulitizer Prize winning biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, “Soviet tanks and troops crushed the Hungarian Revolution at a cost of some twenty thousand Hungarian and fifteen hundred Soviet casualties.”

Soviet tanks in Budapest, 1956

Soviet tanks in Budapest, 1956

Inside the USSR, many were suffering guilt – even Khrushchev, for whom the speech was also an act of repentance, again according to Taubman. He reports that when Khrushchev was asked late in life what he most regretted, he said, “The blood. My arms are up to the elbows in blood. That is the most terrible thing that lies in my soul.”

February 24, 1948 – Top Secret Memo by George F. Kennan on The Bane of Altruism

On this day in history, George F. Kennan, Head of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff, wrote a memo outlining priorities for American foreign policy. In a preface he stated “The paper is submitted merely for information, and does not call for approval,” but Kennan was widely respected, and his analyses taken seriously.

George F. Kennan

George F. Kennan

In the section on the Far East of this very interesting and prescient memo, Kennan avers:

… we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”

[By world-benefaction Kennan means benevolence, kindness, or contributions of money or assistance.]

He continues on with harsh assessments about each area of the post-war world.

Of the Soviets, Kennan observes:

We are still faced with an extremely serious threat to our whole security in the form of the men in the Kremlin. These men are an able, shrewd and utterly ruthless group, absolutely devoid of respect for us or our institutions. They wish for nothing more than the destruction of our national strength.”

[One could of course say the same thing from their perspective about us.]

In his concluding paragraph he admonishes: “In all areas of the world, we still find ourselves the victims of many of the romantic and universalistic concepts with which we emerged from the recent war.”

Clearly, there was not much place in the State Department for “benefaction” or “romantic” notions. Occasionally, he admits, such idealism “served a useful purpose”:

But by and large it has created more problems than it has solved, and has led to a considerable dispersal of our diplomatic effort.”

You can read the entire text of this important and influential memo here.

February 22, 1932 – Birthdate of Edward M. Kennedy

On this day in history, Edward “Ted” Kennedy was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Ted Kennedy was the youngest brother of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. He was elected to the Senate when he was 30, and continued to work in Congress throughout his life. Kennedy, known as “The Lion of the Senate” was viewed as an icon of political progressivism and liberal thought by the time of his death from a brain tumor, on August 25, 2009.


You can learn more about Kennedy’s record and influence from The Edward M. Kennedy Project hosted online by the University of Virginia Miller Center. As the website explains:

The Edward M. Kennedy Project interviews cover a broad range of politically and biographically important topics, including Kennedy’s pre-Senate years and mastering politics, his relationship to his brothers and their career choices, his rise to the Senate leadership, his political style, his Senate and presidential campaigns, his public causes and how he sought to advance them, and his legacy.”

Most notably, the project has posted online 280 oral history interviews, 29 of those with Senator Kennedy himself. You can see the list of interviewees as well as access the interviews here.

Senator Kennedy speaking at an event to help promote comprehensive immigration reform in 2007.

Senator Kennedy speaking at an event to help promote comprehensive immigration reform in 2007.

Book Review of “On China” by Henry Kissinger

It’s a shame the neither the current U.S. President nor his advisors seem aware of Chinese history. It would help them understand the lack of wisdom in their precipitate policies.

Chinese written history goes back more than 2500 years. Its earliest myths speak of a Yellow Emperor, who does not establish or found the civilization, but rather restores order to an already ancient kingdom. Throughout their long history, the Chinese thought of themselves as the center of the world, the “Middle Kingdom.” The Chinese believe their empire grew not from conquest, but rather by absorption of surrounding barbarian peoples who fervently wished to become Chinese. The Chinese persisted in perceiving themselves as innately superior to other ethnicities throughout their long history until much of their country was colonized by Europeans and the Japanese in the 19th century.

Henry Kissinger’s On China begins with a synopsis of that long history because he believes it is necessary in order to understand the path of Chinese diplomacy in the modern world. His account details Chinese diplomacy from the 19th century through the present day, with an emphasis on the period after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1948. He credits modern Chinese leaders from Mao Zedong through Deng Xiaoping through Jiang Zemin with having great patience and an extraordinarily long-term view of world history. Zhou Enlai, Kissinger’s counterpart under Mao, when asked what he thought of the French Revolution, replied that “it was too early to tell.”

Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai in 1971

An organizing theme in Kissinger’s analysis of relations between China and the West is the contrast between the board games of wei qi and chess. [Wei qi is the game known as “Go” in English.] The Chinese approach, like good strategy in wei qi, requires the avoidance of encirclement. The Western powers historically have sought head-on clashes with clear winners and losers, more like chess. Kissinger uses this analogy to describe Chinese behavior in the Korean War, the Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950’s, and China’s 1962 war with India.

Wei Qi, or Go game board

Not renowned for his humility, Kissinger might have subtitled this book “How I personally Saved Western Civilization.” Nevertheless, he is an appropriate chronicler of recent Chinese history since he (along with Richard Nixon, Mao, and Zhou) may have had as much to do with China’s “opening up” to the West as any other human being. The implicit evaluations in his account are somewhat influenced by his personal interactions with the other dramatis personae. For example, Kissinger seems to admire Mao, crediting him with great wisdom despite the fact that his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution resulted in starvation or political persecution for millions of Chinese, in addition to stultifying China’s economy for at least a decade.

Kissinger argues that China, unlike the Soviet Union, has not attempted to expand communism beyond its historical territorial limits. China’s principal strategic problem since the founding of the Peoples’ Republic has been that it is surrounded by unfriendly neighbor states that claim some of the territory historically ruled by China. For example, the Soviet Union sought to control Outer Mongolia despite its ostensible communal bonds of communist ideology. In addition, India and China have long disputed their boundary in the Himalayas, and even fought a short nasty war over its location in 1962. In Kissinger’s view, China’s intervention in the Korean War was not motivated so much by a desire to protect a fraternal communist state as it was a straight forward defense of its own frontier.

Nixon and Kissinger were relatively indifferent to Chinese internal politics, and were able to reach an accommodation with Mao over many international issues because of their mutual distrust of Soviet expansionism. China did not intervene in America’s Vietnam War in any meaningful way because it valued its growing relationship with the United States. In fact, China and Vietnam are historical rivals and even fought a brief war with each other once the United States abandoned the area.

The most difficult issue between the United States and China has been the status of Taiwan, which China views as its own breakaway province. Kissinger and Nixon had to contend with a powerful “China lobby” in the U.S. Congress that favored recognizing the Nationalist government in Taipei over Mao’s government. Nevertheless, Kissinger was able to reach an accommodation with the communists because of their patience and long-term approach to international relations. The temporary “solution” was embodied in the so-called Shanghai Communiqué, whereby the United States recognized that there was only one China, which included both the mainland and Taiwan. For their part, the Chinese communist government was willing to wait (Mao said for “a hundred years”) to settle who was to rule that entire single country. Mao did not renounce the potential use of force to unite the country and tested Western resolve with several probes by artillery shelling two offshore islands controlled by the Nationalists. However, communist forbearance from escalating the violence has made it possible to live in relative peace.

Kissinger and Deng Xiaoping in 1985

Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, pretty much abandoned the centrally controlled communist economic ideology in favor of a more market-driven model. As a result, China’s economy has made great strides. Deng and his successors, however, have maintained tight control over the political process. China remains a one-party state, with all political power residing in the “Party,” even if it remains communist in name only.

Kissinger muses on the tension between the “realist” and “idealist” schools of American foreign policy. Complicating the current relationship between the U.S. and China has been the idealistic movement in U.S. policy to push for the recognition of “human rights” in foreign countries, something that probably never occurred to Kissinger when he was in power. Ever pragmatic, Kissinger recognizes that a realistic approach to policy must be aware of the power of idealistic concepts to influence behavior. The Chinese, on the other hand, highly resent any effort by foreigners to influence the internal affairs of China.

Mutual distrust of the Soviet Union thrust the U.S. and China together. One might expect that the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. would provide the occasion to cease cooperation. In fact, one of the tensest periods in U.S.-China relations occurred in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union when the Chinese brutally suppressed their own people in the Tiananmen Square riots. Careful diplomacy by George H. W. Bush’s government assured the Chinese that the U.S. would not interfere with China’s internal politics, although it had to make some disparaging remarks to assuage American domestic opinion. Thus, despite the significant differences in perceptions and approaches, the U.S. and China have avoided armed conflict with one another since 1954 and have become highly integrated with each other’s economy.

On June 4, 1989, Chinese troops and tanks attacked pro-democracy protesters who had occupied Beijing's central Tiananmen Square for more than six weeks.

In the final chapter, Kissinger discusses the difficulty in maintaining peaceful relations with China stemming from the inevitable tension caused by overlapping of national interests of the two nations in East Asia and the Western Pacific. Major challenges to dealing with China in the future will be how much the U.S. attempts to prod the Chinese toward establishing democratic institutions and how aggressively China asserts its new found economic and military power in that area. Kissinger remains cautiously optimistic that competent diplomacy on both sides can avoid serious conflict.

Evaluation: Although one can make fun of Kissinger’s enormous self-confidence, he really knows his stuff. This book is articulate, accurate, probing, and comprehensive. I highly recommend it, especially to those currently trying to formulate policy for the region.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Penguin Press, 2011

February 18, 1965 – Black Civil Rights Peaceful Protestor Beaten and Shot By Police in Alabama

Jimmie Lee Jackson was a civil rights activist in Marion, Alabama, and a deacon in the Baptist church.

Jackson had tried to register to vote in Alabama without success for four years. He was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., who had come with other Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) staff to Selma, Alabama, to help local activists in their voter registration campaign.

Jimmie Lee Jackson

Jimmie Lee Jackson

On this night in history, about 500 people organized by the SCLC left Zion United Methodist Church in Marion and attempted a peaceful walk to the Perry County jail, about a half a block away, where young civil-rights worker James Orange was being held. The demonstrators planned to sing hymns and return to the church, but the processional was interrupted by Marion police, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers, who stopped the marchers and then began to beat them.

Police later said that the attack was based on their belief that the crowd was planning a jailbreak. Among those beaten were two United Press International photographers, whose cameras were smashed, and NBC News correspondent Richard Valeriani, who was beaten so badly that he was hospitalized. The marchers turned and scattered back toward the church.

Richard Valeriani filing from his Selma hospital bed on Feb. 19, 1965 (photo courtesy NBC News)

Richard Valeriani filing from his Selma hospital bed on Feb. 19, 1965 (photo courtesy NBC News)

Jackson, his mother Viola Jackson, and his 82-year-old grandfather Cager Lee, ran into Mack’s Café behind the church, pursued by state troopers. Police clubbed Lee to the floor in the kitchen; when Viola attempted to pull the police off, she was also beaten. When Jackson tried to protect his mother, one trooper threw him against a cigarette machine. A second trooper, James Fowler, shot Jackson twice in the abdomen. The wounded Jackson fled the café, suffering additional blows by the police, and collapsed in front of the bus station.

Jackson, who had been unarmed as were the other protestors, died eight days later in the hospital. Jackson was buried in Heard Cemetery, an old slave burial ground, next to his father, with a headstone paid for by the Perry County Civic League. His headstone has been vandalized, bearing the marks of at least one shotgun blast.

Jackson’s death was part of the inspiration for the Selma to Montgomery marches in March 1965, a major event in the American Civil Rights Movement that helped gain Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 2007 former trooper Fowler was indicted in Jackson’s death, and in 2010 he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

February 16, 1847 – Missouri Outlaws Education of Black Slaves

The issue of statehood for Missouri triggered a national controversy as Congress debated the future status of slavery in the land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. The “Missouri Compromise” allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, thus keeping the balance of slave and free states equal in Congress.


In 1825, Missouri passed laws imposing various restrictions on both enslaved and free blacks. The General Assembly also endeavored to prevent abolitionist influence on Missouri slaves, and in 1837 passed an act to “prohibit the publication, circulation, and promulgation of the abolition doctrines” with hefty fines and/or imprisonment stipulated for violators.

By 1840, nearly 13 percent of Missouri’s population was composed of enslaved black people, while free black people made up less than one percent of the state’s residents. Still, the mood in the country was volatile, and the white people of the state feared a possible rebellion [of their allegedly happy slaves].

On this day in history, the Missouri General Assembly passed a law stating:

… [n]o person shall keep or teach any school for the instruction of negroes or mulattoes, in reading or writing, in this State.” ‖ Act of February 16, 1847, § 1, 1847 Mo. Laws 103.

As explained on the website of the Missouri State Government:

An uneducated black population made white citizens feel more secure against both abolitionists and slave uprisings, although it probably did little to suppress the desire for freedom.”

The act also forbade the migration of free blacks to the state. The penalty for anyone violating any of the law’s provisions was a fine not to exceed five thousand dollars, a jail term not to exceed six months, or a combination of fine and jail sentence.

February 14, 1818 – Birthday of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on February 14, 1818 (he did not know the exact date, but chose this one).

As the Oxford African American Studies Center tells the story, “Despite his situation, Frederick managed to learn to read and write, sometimes by bribing white boys into teaching him in exchange for bits of bread. At the age of about twelve, he acquired a copy of the Columbian Orator, a book of famous speeches that formed the basis for his later skills as an outstanding public lecturer. After he gained basic literacy, Frederick began to reach out to others, assisting his fellow slaves to read and operating a forbidden Sunday school. As he gained more knowledge of the world at large, he could no longer passively submit to a life of slavery. In September 1838, he borrowed the identification papers of a free black sailor and boarded a train for the North. Locating in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he took the name Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, The Lady in the Lake.”

Frederick Douglass as a young man

Frederick Douglass as a young man

Within a few years Douglass gained fame as an abolitionist, author, and orator. He published his narrative detailing his time as a slave, edited his own newspaper, and traveled throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on important civil rights and social justice topics. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Douglass was twice invited to the White House to see President Abraham Lincoln, and then acted as a recruiter for African American troops. At the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park, Douglass was pressed to speak, and after he did, received a standing ovation, as well as a gift from Mary Todd Lincoln of Lincoln’s favorite walking stick.

Frederick Douglass in later life

Frederick Douglass in later life

Following the war, Douglass continued speaking, writing, advising presidents, and encouraging civil rights movements. Douglass died of a heart attack at Cedar Hill on 20 February 1895, having just returned from a rally for women’s suffrage. He was buried in Rochester, NY, where many members of his family still lived.

Douglass’s three autobiographies are still read and respected: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892). His famous speeches make him one of the most quoted men of the nineteenth century.

There are many resources on the life and thought of Frederick Douglass. For those of you who are Lincoln fans, you can combine the two interests in the book The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics by James Oakes.