December 9, 1881 – Appointment of African-American William H. Smith as Librarian of the House of Representatives

On this day in history, William Henry Smith, an African-American, was appointed Librarian of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Smith, a native of D.C. born in 1833, served as a library messenger as early as 1864, according to records of the House. He had help in securing the job by the ardent abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. He was elevated to Librarian for the 47th Congress.

As the House history site reports:

The appointment proved controversial for . . . the Republican majority because Smith became one of the highest-ranking African Americans in the federal government at a time when the hard-won rights of many freedmen in the South were being rolled back. Despite some opposition from southern Representatives, the New York Times reported, ‘the generally expressed opinion that Smith was the ablest man possible to place in charge of the library, and his popularity as a capable and attentive official, carried the day and he kept the place.’ Members of both parties regarded him as a reference ‘authority’ with a ‘memory of speeches, and points made by different public men in debate, [that] was remarkable.’”

Nevertheless, in the next Congress, when Democrats regained control, Smith was demoted to Assistant Librarian serving under a white man, William Butler, the brother of Senator Matthew C. Butler of South Carolina, a former Confederate general. When Republicans regained the majority in 1888, Smith was once again restored to the position of Librarian. He retired from the House at the conclusion of the 51st Congress in 1891.

Smith was active in abolitionist causes, joining with Frederick Douglass to oppose the establishment of segregated schools. In 1892, Smith was named custodian of the library and art gallery of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He died in 1903.


December 7, 1941 – Attack on Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor. Over 2400 service people were killed in the attack. Intelligence reports had indicated Japan would strike the U.S., but most expected it would be in the Philippines.

The U.S. Naval Historical Center has an excellent collection of web resources on the attack, such as ships present, Pearl Harbor Base History, and oral histories of survivors. You might start with the summary Infographic, here. There are some excellent images on the site as well.

USS Arizona (BB-39) ablaze, immediately following the explosion of her forward magazines, Dec. 7, 1941. Frame clipped from a color motion picture taken from on board USS Solace (AH-5). Official U.S. Navy photograph, National Archives.

USS Arizona (BB-39) ablaze, immediately following the explosion of her forward magazines, Dec. 7, 1941. Frame clipped from a color motion picture taken from on board USS Solace (AH-5). Official U.S. Navy photograph, National Archives.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation the next day, on December 8, declaring December 7 to be “a date which will live in infamy.” He said “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a State of War has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

His speech is included on the video below. It begins with the attack on Pearl Harbor. If you would like to start with Roosevelt’s speech, fast forward to 4:55 minutes.

Review of “The Cold War: A New History” by John Lewis Gaddis

The rivalry of the “official” Cold War may have ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December, 1991, but John Lewis Gaddis still has an ax to grind. In his mind, the USSR was never anything but The Evil Empire, and the U.S. never had anything but good intentions. And the most important factor in striking down that Evil was none other than that alleged towering paragon of strategy and tactics, Ronald Reagan.

The Cold War: A New History provides an excellent example of the ideological biases of a historian creating a skewed misrepresentation of the facts about an era in order to conform with biased perceptions. This so-called “new history” is full of sweeping generalizations, unwarranted conclusions, and dubious assertions that scream out bias at every turn. I’m just going to point out a few that irritated me more than the rest.

Gaddis is an unabashed Reagan idolizer, although he himself is the only “authority” he can come up with to footnote when he bestows lavish praises upon Reagan. His thesis is that it was Ronald Reagan, more than anyone or any event, who was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. In support of this dubious allegation, Gaddis asserts: “Reagan was as skillful a politician as the nation had seen for many years, and one of its sharpest grand strategists ever.” In a sentence worthy of Animal Farm, Gaddis declares about Reagan, “His strength lay in his ability to see beyond complexity to simplicity.”

Almost all other accounts tell a different story. Reagan’s biographer Lou Cannon wrote that Reagan came to the White House “notoriously ill-informed about foreign affairs” and that Bill Clark, his second national security advisor, found that he could only teach Reagan about issues by showing him movies.

Robert McFarlane (quoted by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Richard Rhodes, in Arsenals of Folly) explained that the fundamentalist Reagan derived his commitment to strategic defense “primarily from his belief that Armageddon was approaching.” McFarlane went on:

He sees himself as a romantic, heroic figure who believes in the power of a hero to overcome even Armageddon. I think it may come from Hollywood.” Frank Carlucci, one of Reagan’s five national security advisers, confirmed that Reagan was guided in his decision-making by the belief that, as Reagan said in 1971, “Everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ.”

Without the Bible (or a script) around as a guide, however, Reagan was in trouble. When he met with Gorbachev, he read from a pocket set of color-coded cue cards he carried, full of clichés. As Rhodes reported, Gorbachev was appalled at Reagan’s index cards with their vapid maxims and his initial unwillingness to engage Gorbachev directly, recalling ‘the blank, uncomprehending eyes of the president, who mumbled banalities from a piece of paper.’”

Rhodes tells about the time Reagan dropped his cue cards, and was literally unable to continue with the meeting after that.

But let’s go back to the beginning, when the seeds for the Cold War were just getting planted. Gaddis traces the intellectual underpinnings of the Cold War, which followed World War II, to the visions of both Wilson and Lenin at the end of World War I.

To me, the most egregious misrepresentation in the book is the portrait Gaddis paints of Woodrow Wilson, one of the most reprehensible presidents in our American pantheon. Wilson, yet another president guided by his understanding of the Bible (this characteristic seems to elevate the decision-making process of a president in Gaddis’s estimation), is made out by Gaddis to be democracy’s champion. Wilson, Gaddis explains, saw a world that could be made better by capitalism, and Lenin saw one that could be improved by socialism. So far, so good. But then Gaddis continues that although both ideologies were meant to offer hope, one of them (socialism) depended upon the creation of fear, while the other “had no need to do so. Therein lay the basic ideological asymmetry of the Cold War.”

President Woodrow Wilson

Writing this about Wilson is just pure, unadulterated garbage. Wilson is the president who, as World War I began, put into force a 200,000 member American Protective League, who reported to the Justice Department’s new internal security agency headed by J. Edgar Hoover, and whose mission was to spy on neighbors and coworkers for “loyalty.” Another force, the “Minute Men,” ultimately exceeding over 100,000 in number, gave patriotic speeches before meetings, movies, and shows. George Creel, named by Wilson to head the Minute Men, told his workers that “fear was an important element to be bred in the civilian population” (my emphasis). Creel’s organization also advised citizens to spy on one another and “If you find a disloyal person in your search, give his name to the Department of Justice in Washington and tell them where to find him.”

Wilson’s government arrested union men for “disloyalty,” and put socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs in prison for ten years for “opposing the war.” Wisconsin Congressman Victor Berger, the first Socialist elected to Congress, was sentenced to twenty years under the Wilson-initiated Espionage Act for doing the same. [The Espionage Act of June, 1917, made it a crime to “convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies when the United States is at war, to cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or to willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States.” The violator of this Act could be fined $10,000 and sentenced to twenty years in prison. In May 1918, Congress at Wilson’s request increased the government’s power to control opinion with the Sedition Act, which basically was a set of amendments to the Espionage Act. It added to the list of punishable crimes anyone who used “disloyal, scurrilous, profane or abusive language” about the U.S. government, the armed forces, the flag, or the Constitution. The Sedition Act was repealed on December 13, 1920, but the Espionage Act is still in force.]

It is also true that Wilson’s devotion to hope and liberty only extended to the “superior” white race. His response to seeing the racist movie “Birth of a Nation” is indicative of his attitude. (“The Birth of A Nation,” the highest grossing film of the silent film era, portrays black men (played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, and shows the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force.) Reportedly Wilson said, “My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” When the NAACP tried to have the movie banned, Wilson’s endorsement was used to promote the film for months, before political pressure caused him to dissociate himself from it. But Wilson of course is also the one who allowed his Cabinet leaders to extend segregation throughout the federal bureaucracy, telling black leaders that it would reduce friction and therefore “It is as far as possible from being a movement against the Negroes. I sincerely believe it to be in their interest.” (For more on Wilson, see The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I by Thomas Fleming).

Racism is also absent from Gaddis’s very brief coverage of the McCarthy Era during the Cold War, when Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy led a witch hunt against American citizens, and in particular those who had “leftist” sympathies. During the McCarthy era (lasting roughly from the late 1940s to the late 1950s), thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. In spite of inconclusive or questionable evidence, many people suffered loss of employment, destruction of their careers, and even imprisonment. Some committed suicide. Among those who lost their jobs was the brilliant J. Robert Oppenheimer, who helped develop the atomic bomb in World War II. His opposition to its continued use and to the development of the hydrogen bomb was seen as “proof” of his disloyalty.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1946

It also happened that many prominent blacks during this time were determined to have leftist sympathies, since vocalizing objections to the treatment of blacks in America was also considered disloyal. Among those attacked were Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, and W.E.B. DuBois.

This horrible period in American history merits a whole one and one half paragraphs in this book, with Gaddis’s summarizing it by commenting: “with the onset of McCarthyism in the United States and with irrefutable evidence that espionage had taken place on both sides of the Atlantic….” In other words, it wasn’t so bad, and anyway, McCarthy was right.

The entire orientation of this book is that the U.S. was a largely innocent force of good in the world, and the USSR wanted nothing more than to sabotage the American way of life. But the so-called American way of life was (1) only open to whites; (2) only free to the extent the government decided to allow it at any one time; and (3) characterized by organizations dedicated to spying and sabotage that were every bit as nefarious as those operating in the Soviet Union.

George Kennan, whose 1946 analysis of the Soviet Union became the basis for U.S. Cold War strategy, stated that he “believed that the American focus on the Russian military threat was a misguided American projection onto Russia of a danger that would confer legitimacy on the continued existence of the immense military establishment that the formerly isolationist United States had built up during the war.” (“Wise Men Against the Grain,” William Pfaff, NYReview of Books, June 9, 2011)

Credit: Richard Cole, in Z Magazine

Years after the fact, “tidbits” get admitted, such as:

  • The overthrow of the democratically elected but leftist Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in the 1950’s [this mission led by none other than Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore, and the blowback for which included the taking of American hostages in 1979];
  • Operation Northwoods, a 1962 plan drafted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calling for terrorist attacks on Americans secretly committed by the U.S. but blamed on the Cubans to justify an attack on Cuba;
  • The CIA-backed ouster of the democratically elected leftist President Allende of Chile in 1973;
  • CIA-backed Contra invasions in Nicaragua directed by Reagan in the 1980’s; [In 1984 the CIA mined three Nicaraguan harbors. Nicaragua took this action to the World Court, for which an $18 billion judgment was rendered against the U.S. In response, the U.S. refused to recognize the Court’s jurisdiction in the case.]

One could go on and on.

None of these episodes are explored by Gaddis. His recital of Cold War crimes is almost exclusively limited to those committed by the USSR.

Gaddis continues his biased reporting into the modern era. He devotes considerable verbiage to the multiple crises in the early 1960’s, attributing blame on Krushchev for bringing us to the brink of nuclear war. Yet Frederick Kempe, in his convincing analysis of John F. Kennedy’s contributions to the Cold War (Berlin 1961), concludes that:

Kennedy’s indecisiveness in the early states of the [Berlin wall] crisis produced the wall itself, an exponential increase in East-West tension, and, in the half-century that followed, other fateful consequences that included the Cuban missile crisis…”

Yes, it was Krushchev who sent the missiles to Cuba. But Krushchev also needed to restore his prestige after Kennedy approved The Bay of Pigs Invasion. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba by a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles, with support and encouragement from the US government, in an attempt to overthrow the Cuban government of Fidel Castro. The invasion was launched in April 1961, less than three months after John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency in the United States. (Nixon proposed it, Eisenhower planned it, and Kennedy approved it.)

Gaddis, however, claims that all the blame should be laid on the door of Krushchev; it was he who did not think things through, and “allowed his ideological romanticism to overrun whatever capacity he had for strategic analysis.” [Sounds to me like an analysis of The Bay of Pigs invasion….] “He was like a petulant child,” Gaddis asserts, and claims that Khrushchev got some of what he wanted “as children sometimes do.” There was no suggestion whatsoever that the fault was at least in part due to Kennedy’s blunders rather than Krushchev’s tantrums.

(Gaddis claims that the Cuban missile crisis is “universally regarded now as the closest the world came, during the second half of the 20th century, to a third world war…” This is patently untrue, however, and represents yet another attempt by Gaddis to put the onus for irrationally risky behavior on the Soviets. In 1983, a nine-day NATO military exercise designated ABLE ARCHER 83 came closer. The drill turned out to be different from previous ones, and a bit too realistic. Robert Gates is among those who observes that the KGB was convinced American forces had begun a countdown to nuclear war. The Soviets took a number of steps to enhance their military readiness short of mobilization. Afterwards, Reagan was “surprised and shocked that the Soviets had taken his years of militant rhetoric and his massive arms buildup seriously.” (Gates, Robert M., From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War, 1996, and Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly.) As British author Fred Inglis points out (The Cruel Peace: Everyday Life and the Cold War):

The foreign policy of the Reagan years turned out to be an unappetizing mixture of grudging hypercaution at the arms limitation negotiating tables, reckless and unendearing braggartry in front of the microphones, and minor acts of war that combined bullying and cowardice in about equal proportions.”

Mikhail Gorbachev, Time's Man of the Decade

As for Gorbachev, whose brilliance and vision is noted by other historians, Gaddis is condescending, charging that U.S. Secretary of State Shultz had to “educate” Gorbachev on economics. (Here he footnotes Shultz’s self-serving memoirs.) Gaddis even goes so far as to aver that when Gorbechev made a dramatic speech, he was “borrowing a trick from Reagan.” Good grief! And finally, he holds that Gorbachev, who was was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War, “was never a leader in the manner of Vaclav Havel, John Paul II, Deng Xiaoping, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa – even Boris Yeltsin.” Boris YELTSIN? Come on! As Neil MacFarlane, professor of international relations at Oxford says of Yeltsin, “his record of governance is pretty mixed, and the government was substantially weakened during his time.” It was also Yeltsin who failed to control the growing political influence of wealthy oligarchs who still wield inordinate power in Russia. After Yeltsin’s death, the Economist reported that:

Mr Yeltsin’s great rival, Mikhail Gorbachev, reflected the mood of most Russians when, amid the polite tributes and saccharine television montages, he alluded to the dead man’s “serious mistakes”. Mr Yeltsin’s had been a “tragic fate”, said Mr Gorbachev. Even before he left office, a majority of Russians, from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka, despised him, partly on account of the raging inflation, unpaid salaries and oligarchic larceny of his rule, but even more for the shame many thought he brought on Russia through his clownish drunkenness.”

It is apparent that for Gaddis to elevate the role of Gorbachev, even over Yeltsin, would be to diminish the role of Reagan, a path the author wants to avoid. In Rhodes’s history of the Cold War, however, Gorbachev is the incontrovertible hero of the situation.

Gaddis begins and ends his book with a discussion of the nature of war, as part of his eventual argument that the Cold War changed that nature forever. He cites Thucydides who predicted that there would always be a propensity for violence, “human nature being what it is.” Gaddis draws the ridiculous conclusion, however, that because of the success of the political game strategy Mutual Assured Destruction (or MAD), “Contrary to the lesson Thucydides drew from the greatest war of his time, human nature did change – and the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began the process by which it did so.” What?!!! MAD is a strategy that in fact is based on the inevitability of violence, that posits that only by each side holding a gun to each other’s head simultaneously (and assuming participation by rational actors), would that violence be deterred. Note: the violence is deterred by a rational calculation of odds. There is no change in propensity! The relentless continuation of wars and skirmishes since the Cold War make manifest the utter absurdity of Gaddis’s argument.

Raytheon's AMRAAM Missiles

Gaddis has two main conclusions about the Cold War in general. One is that the Cold War is “the point at which military strength, a defining characteristic of ‘power’ itself for the past five centuries, ceased to be that.” Gosh, that’s not what the military-industrial complex thinks. I wonder if Raytheon, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics, and so on have heard the news…. The second is that the Cold War “disproved Marx’s indictment of capitalism as elevating greed above all else.” I’m glad to hear that. All those CEOs making millions and the bankers taking advantage of the poor’s desire for housing in order to ensure their own enrichment are just aberrations. Thank heavens!

Evaluation: Beware of books claiming to be history books! This one doesn’t meet the most basic criteria of objective reporting of the facts.

Rating: 1.5/5

Published by Penguin Press, 2005

December 4, 2012 – Africatown Listed on the National Register of Historic Places

Article 1 Section 9 of the United States Constitution (1787) stipulated that the slave trade could not be interfered with for the next twenty years. Only beginning in January 1, 1808, could laws become effective to end it. The Constitution did not, however, require Congress to ban it.

Nevertheless in 1807 the United States took official steps to end the international slave trade with the U.S. Slave Trade Act, specifying that, as of January 1, 1808, it would be illegal to import into the United States “negroes, mulattos, or persons of color” as slaves. However, if it turned out that Africans did reach the United States illegally, they could still be sold and enslaved. Moreover, the Act did nothing to prohibit slavery already in place.

[Even worse, the effort to end the slave trade – seemingly so progressive on its surface, created even more of a horror story for enslaved women. Now the only legal [sic] way owners had to increase their number of slaves was either by enforced “mating” of their slaves, or by enforced mating with their slaves. Not only were women of child-bearing age raped repeatedly, but infertile women were punished by being sold away from their families and friends. (Usually, buyers were unsuspecting, because they too would have wanted to use female slaves for forced reproduction. That this occurred frequently is attested to by the number of judicial cases brought by new owners for fraud in such circumstances.) (If you have the stomach, you can read more about the egregious practice of the rape of women slaves here.)]

So the slave trade and the increase of slaves already within the borders of the U.S. [read: rape of enslaved women helpless to resist] continued. Tougher laws against importation were enacted, but with small penalties and without much enforcement. In 1850, the South even tried to get international slave trading re-opened. They did not succeed, but illegal importation did increase between 1850 and 1860.

Location of Benin

Location of Benin

In 1860, the schooner Clotilda, carrying between 110 and 116 captives from Benin and Nigeria landed in Mobile, Alabama. The Clotilda is believed to have been the last slave ship to bring slaves to the United States. (Timothy Meaher, a Mobile businessman, sent the Clotilda to Africa on a bet that he could “bring a shipful of niggers right into Mobile Bay under the officers’ noses.” He of course won the bet.)

Arriving as a slave on that vessel was Cudjo Lewis from Benin. Lewis was one of 32 slaves who ended up on Meaher’s estate. Freed in 1865, he became a leader of a group of Clotilda veterans in Mobile. They started their own community they named African Town with the goal of preserving African traditions. Lewis outlived his fellow Clotilda companions, dying on July 26, 1935 at the estimated age of 94. He is considered to be the last survivor of the last slave ship to enter the United States.

Cudjo Lewis

Cudjo Lewis, also known by his African name of Kazoola

Up until World War II, African Town remained a rather distinct community in Mobile County. Now called AfricaTown, it is still home to the descendants of the men and women from the Clotilda. It was incorporated into the city of Mobile in 1948. As of this date in history, it was officially placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Parks Service.


Review of “1917: Vladimir Lenin, Woodrow Wilson, and the Year that Created the Modern Age” by Arthur Herman

Arthur Herman’s 1917 was published this year in observation of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and of significant developments in World War I. The unifying theme of the book is to contrast the actions and characters of the two most influential persons on the world stage that year—Woodrow Wilson, president of the U.S. from March, 1913 to March, 1921, and Vladimir Lenin, who served as head of government of Soviet Russia from 1917 to 1924 and of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1924.

The author states that one mission of the book is to show how “these two intellectuals and dreamers” managed to overthrow traditional geopolitics and alter the distribution of world power. For Wilson’s part, he got Congress to declare war on Germany in spite of his campaign promises to keep the country out of war. After the war was over, Wilson’s words stimulated nationalist quests around the world, much to the Allies’ chagrin, and to the benefit of Lenin, as will be explained below.

Lenin successfully established the world’s first one party state dictatorship which he imposed on a vast and diverse country on the basis of an ideology some historians have, to account for its success, likened to a religious cult. Certainly the Soviets adapted some of the tropes of religion (Lenin loves the little children!) to push their agenda.

Perhaps more importantly, Herman avers, the age was “shaped as much by what Lenin and Wilson aimed and failed to do as by what they succeeded in doing.” Both worked for a new world order, and both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were indeed changed radically, but not in the directions either of them intended or foresaw.

Two (only somewhat) lesser players in Herman’s drama are Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Alexander Kerensky, the principal rivals of, respectively, Wilson and Lenin. Herman contrasts the hard headed, realistic approaches of Lodge and Kerensky with the more theoretical and utopian approaches of Wilson and Lenin. But while Lodge, through his influence in Congress, prevailed in curtailing Wilson’s agenda, Kerensky was pushed aside by Lenin, who succeeded in overthrowing Kerensky and his democratic government.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge

Ironically, Wilson was on the winning side of the war, yet he failed to achieve his long term goals of setting up an effective multinational agency to maintain the peace. Lenin, on the other hand, not only overturned a long ruling monarchy, but successfully set in motion the entrenchment of a completely new kind of state. Herman attributes Lenin’s relative (compared to Wilson’s) success to his extreme ruthlessness and willingness to use “revolutionary violence” to achieve his ends. Herman might also have mentioned the very different natures of the polities each man strove to direct. Lenin, in a way, had more “freedom” to exercise his will in his non-free society than Wilson did in his democracy with the shared power of different branches of government.

Europe Post WWI

It is also relevant to Herman’s theme to note the observations of historian David Reynolds, the author of in The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century. Reynolds points out that after the war, Wilson not only did not make himself any friends abroad, but unwittingly aided the cause of Lenin and communism. By lecturing Europe on the need for “self-determination” of minorities, Wilson roiled up anti-colonial agitators and alienated most of the other world leaders. They scoffed at Wilson for his hypocrisy and excoriated him for not understanding the effects “his seductive words would set in motion.” In response to the hostility of the Allied leadership against Wilson for stirring up trouble without knowing what he was talking about, Wilson not only backed down, stating that he had spoken “without the knowledge that nationalities existed….” but acquiesced in the imperialist policies of his allies. That precipitated a backlash against Wilson throughout the world outside America by the people as well as their leaders, with disillusioned nationalists turning to communism. Reynolds argues, “Right across the colonial world, in fact, Leninism gained from Wilson’s shattered credibility.”

Woodrow Wilson returns from the Versailles Peace Conference on July 9, 1919.

Evaluation: 1917 was certainly a pivotal year in history, with the legacy of both Wilson and Lenin affecting the political climate long after they left the world scene. Herman’s account provides an interesting way to frame some of the most important events that shaped the 20th century.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2017

November 30, 1874 – Birth of Winston Churchill & Review of “Hero of The Empire” by Candice Millard

This book, subtitled “The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill” is a history of Winston Churchill’s early life, with a focus on the years 1899-1900. It was during this time that Churchill traveled as a journalist to the Boer War in South Africa, ended up a prisoner, and effected a daring escape.


Churchill believed that he was destined for power and fame. In fact, his self-confidence and belief in his special destiny were quite remarkable. It is true he came from a powerful family; his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had served as Secretary of State for India and later Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. His mother, Jennie Churchill, was considered to be one of the most beautiful and influential women of her time. But the extent of Churchill’s belief in his singularity was still astounding. As just one of many examples, while taking part in 1897 Siege of Malakand in colonial British India’s North West Frontier Province, he wrote his mother he wasn’t worried about bullets: “I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”

Churchill in 1899 (age 24)

Churchill in 1899 (age 24)

What he wanted most though, was to gain a reputation for personal courage, and by all accounts, he consistently acquitted himself well in that respect. As Millard writes: “Although Churchill had been called many things – opportunist, braggart, blowhard – no one had ever questioned his bravery.” He didn’t have much of a chance to evince it however until the Second Boer War broke out in South Africa in October of 1899.

The Boers had lived in the region relatively unmolested until they discovered diamonds and gold. The area was previously occupied by the San, Khoikhoi, Xhosa, and Zulu peoples. When the Dutch and German Huguenots arrived, later known collectively as Boers, their diseases wiped out a large number of the natives. The whites thought the surviving native people only suitable for slavery. The British had outlawed slavery; although they believed whites to be superior to darker races, and that these darker races might merit abuse and social scorn, they drew the line at enslaving them outright.

South Africa at the time of the Second Boer War

South Africa at the time of the Second Boer War

But the Boers persisted in doing what they wanted, and thus the British became convinced that the “insolent” Boers must be curbed. Churchill in particular had argued that “war was the only answer.” [Whether the British umbrage was over the outrage of slavery or over the outrage that the Boers, rather than the British, had control of the gold and diamonds is not entirely clarified. It seems as if it were a bit of both.]

When Churchill arrived in South Africa, he gushed over the land: “All Nature smiles, and here at last is a land where white men may rule and prosper.” Although, as Millard points out, “the white men Churchill had in mind for ruling and prospering in South Africa were certainly not the Boers . . . “

Nevertheless, she reports:

. . . the [Boers] had had the same rush of desire and deep sense of entitlement when they first laid eyes on Natal. Since the earliest days of the war, both the Boers and the British had held an unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause and the unworthiness of their enemy. Neither group, however, had given a moment’s thought or would have cared if they had, to the fact that the land over which they were fighting did not belong to either one of them.”

On November 15, 1899, a month after Churchill arrived in South Africa, champing at the bit to see action, he joined a reconnaissance mission on an armored train. Louis Botha and his Boers successfully attacked the train, and took some sixty captives, including Churchill.

General Louis Botha

General Louis Botha

Although the officers, with Churchill among them, were housed in surprisingly good accommodations, Churchill could not bear not being the master of his own fate, and became obsessed with escaping. He was supposed to be a part of a group of three escapees, but after Churchill climbed over the fence, the others had no opportunity to join him. Thus he was on his own, with hardly any food and not much of a plan.

In spite of these negative odds, the incredible luck he had always experienced continued to favor him, and the author details how Churchill traversed the 300 miles from Pretoria to freedom in what is now Mozambique. She manages to outline the journey in a way that is full of suspense and excitement, even though we know the outcome.

Churchill's Wanted Poster

Churchill’s Wanted Poster

Discussion: It’s hard to warm up to Churchill. He was spoiled and full of a sense of entitlement, both from being born to a rich noble family and just from being a white male. He insisted that whites were “a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race,” and thus believed deeply and ardently in Britain’s right to rule over others. His confidence and “chutzpah” knew few bounds.

Yet he also had many admirable qualities, and this book in particular highlights his fortitude, and how he proved himself to be “resilient, resourceful and, even in the face of extreme danger, utterly unruffled.” The book also provides a good analysis of the situation in South Africa and the Second Boer War.

The hardcover edition includes maps and photos.

Evaluation: This is a very entertaining, informative, and perhaps lesser-known (at least in the U.S.) story about someone considered to be one of the great leaders of the 20th Century.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Simon Vance performs up to his usual impeccable standards, and is especially convincing when he speaks in the voice of Winston Churchill.

Published unabridged on 8 CDs (10 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Random House, 2016

November 28, 1975 – John Paul Stevens Nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court

John Paul Stevens sat as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from December 19, 1975 until his retirement on June 29, 2010. Stevens served with three Chief Justices during his time on the Court: Warren E. Burger, William Rehnquist, and John G. Roberts.

At the time of his retirement, he was the oldest justice then serving, the second-oldest serving justice in the history of the Court, and the third-longest serving Supreme Court Justice in history. He was nominated on this day in history by President Gerald Ford to replace the Court’s longest-serving justice, William O. Douglas.

Stevens was born into a wealthy family in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. In 1933, his father, uncle, and grandfather were all indicted on embezzlement charges. His father was eventually acquitted, but lost the family business. Stevens, nevertheless, or in spite of, the family travails, excelled in school; served in the Navy as a codebreaker during World War II (for which he was awarded a bronze star); and went on to law school afterwards. He graduated from Northwestern Law School magna cum laude with the highest GPA in the law school’s history.

Stevens gained a reputation as a talented antitrust lawyer and was invited to teach at the law schools at both Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. He also held several positions as special counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Attorney General’s office.

In 1970, President Nixon appointed Justice Stevens to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Five years later, Stevens was elevated to Supreme Court when Justice William Douglas stepped down. Although appointed by a republican, over time Justice Stevens emerged as a leader for the Court’s liberal wing. Among other notable contributions, he dissented on the Citizens United case (No. 08–205, January 21, 2010) (joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, and Justice Sotomayor, concurring in part and dissenting in part), a decision which opened the door to unlimited corporate campaign spending, opining, as he summarized it later, that “while money is used to finance speech, money is not speech.”

Since leaving the court (at age 90!), Stevens has written two books, regular columns for “The New York Review of Books,” and has spoken to many legal and lay audiences. In particular, he has advocated for some constitutional revisions, as he wrote in his 2014 book Six Amendments, How and Why We Should Change The Constitution. They include abolishing the death penalty, and reinterpreting the Second Amendment. As he has stated many times about the Second Amendment (see for example, this interview): “It was enacted for the states to be able to provide arms for their militias. And it was not intended to give private citizens who do not serve in the militia any right to bear arms.”

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens in 2014