October 23, 1973 – “Saturday Night Massacre”

In June 1972, five men associated both with the CIA and with the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (i.e., President Richard Nixon) broke into the Democratic National Committee’s offices in the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. They were discovered by a security guard, and a scandal erupted.

The Watergate Complex from the air

The Watergate Complex from the air

That August, President Nixon announced that John Dean, who served as White House Counsel for United States President Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973, completed an investigation into the Watergate case and found no involvement with anyone in the White House.

John Dean while serving as White House Counsel

John Dean while serving as White House Counsel

Nevertheless, on February 7, 1973, the U.S. Senate created a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to begin its own investigation. Various Nixon administration officials, including Dean, who made a deal to cooperate with investigators, alleged that Nixon’s innermost circle had orchestrated both the break-in, the cover-up of the break-in, and other illegal activities.

Honoring a promise that he had made during his confirmation hearings, Attorney General Elliott Richardson appointed lawyer Archibald Cox to serve as a special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate case if his own nomination garnered approval.

Elliot Richardson is sworn in as Secretary of Defense in February of 1973.

Elliot Richardson is sworn in as Secretary of Defense in February of 1973.

Cox demanded that Nixon produce tape recordings he had made in the Oval Office during the time period in question, and Nixon refused, claiming “executive privilege.”

On the night of October 23, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Because Richardson had promised Congress he would appoint Cox, Richardson refused, and resigned in protest. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus to fire Cox, and Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned. The Solicitor General, Robert Bork, agreed to fire Cox, in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

Former Watergate Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox in 1983. Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post

Former Watergate Special Prosecutor,
Archibald Cox in 1983.
Lucian Perkins — The Washington Post

Congress was so outraged it introduced bills of impeachment, charging Nixon with abuse of power and obstruction of justice. Meanwhile, Cox’s successor, Leon Jaworski, followed in Cox’s footsteps, much to Nixon’s chagrin. The Supreme Court weighed in as well, and on July 24, 1974, Chief Justice Burger announced the Court’s decision in United States v. Nixon (418 U.S. 683, 1974) requiring Nixon to produce the Oval Office tapes. However, there was an eighteen-minute gap in the transcripts, never found, that Nixon claimed resulted from an error by his secretary.

But what had not been deleted was damaging enough, and on August 8, 1974, Nixon became the first U.S. President to resign from office. Vice President Gerald Ford assumed the presidency, and on September 8, 1974, he pardoned Nixon for any crimes associated with the Watergate affair.

U.S. President Richard M. Nixon as he announces his resignation on television  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

U.S. President Richard M. Nixon as he announces his resignation on television (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Review of “Assault in Norway: Sabotaging the Nazi Nuclear Program” by Thomas Gallagher

In 1943 and 1944, a couple of amazing raids by Norwegian volunteers removed the supply of heavy water – used by the Germans to develop nuclear weapons – from the Norsk Hydro plant at Vemork, Norway.

Heavy water differs from ordinary water in that the former is made with hydrogen isotopes, each of which has a neutron in addition to the proton in its nucleus. This isotope is called deuterium and is uncommon in nature. Heavy water acts as a moderator for nuclear fission, thus making possible the production of atomic bombs. It is difficult to manufacture, and at that time, there was only one plant in the world capable of making it in significant quantities: Norsk Hydro. When the Germans occupied Norway in 1940, they took over the plant. But the success of the intrepid saboteurs eliminated any chance for the Germans to develop a nuclear bomb before the Americans.

Gallagher provides a play-by-play of the sabotage efforts, from the insertion of the operatives onto the barren wastes of ice and snow in Norway, to the destruction of the remaining barrels of heavy water two years later.

You follow the small team as they learn to stomach reindeer eyeballs to survive; as they climb the snow-and-ice-covered walls of a sheer 600-foot gorge to wire the factory with explosives (and then climb back down); as one of them literally races from six Germans on skis, out-skis all but one, and then stands stock-still as the German empties his Lugar from forty-feet (but into the sun, so he misses). And that’s only a few highlights of this incredible adventure.

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant at Rjukan, Norway in 1935. The front building was the Norsk Hydro hydrogen production plant

Evaluation: The beginning might seem a bit slow as you are introduced to the volunteers, and as they wait for the weather to be favorable. But persevere: you won’t be disappointed! By the end, this gripping story will seem like the action-packed opening scene in the movie “True Lies,” and you will be hanging on the edge of your seat! James Bond has nothing on these guys, except maybe a taste for martinis rather than reindeer parts.

Rating: 3/5 for the beginning; 6/5 for the second half

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1975

October 18, 1945 – Activist Paul Robeson Gets a Medal

In 1945 Paul Robeson won the prestigious NAACP Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by an African American.

What a shame that Paul Robeson isn’t better known as a hero and role-model. Martin Duberman’s biography tells the story of a remarkable man, born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey to a father who was an escaped slave and who later became a Presbyterian minister. At seventeen, Robeson was given a scholarship to Rutgers University (called Rutgers College at that time), where he received an unprecedented twelve major letters in sports in four years and was also his class valedictorian. After graduating he went on to Columbia University Law School, and, in the early 1920s, took a job with a New York law firm. No white secretary would assist a black man, however, so he turned to performing arts, a field in which blacks were more accepted. He attained international fame as an actor and singer, and traveled the world performing benefits for causes of social justice (he spoke fifteen languages).

Paul Robeson, a 1919 Rutgers graduate and distinguished student, in his yearbook photo. Photo: Rutgers University

His European trips exposed him to the unusual experience of a black being treated like a man. He became more politically outspoken, and his criticism of racism, combined with his intelligence and popularity, aroused the ire of the State Department. He had his passport revoked, and was hounded by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Robeson testified:

“In Russia, I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being, where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel in this committee today.”

“Why do you not stay in Russia?” Gordon Scherer, House Un-American Activities Committee member, asked Robeson.

“Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I’m going to stay here and have a part of it just like you,” Robeson replied to Scherer. “And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it.”

Admirably, all the insults and setbacks and threats and injustice never cowed him. In 1953 when reporters baited him for “hurting your cause by allying yourself with Communists,” he lashed out angrily at them:

Is this what you want? For me to bend and bow and shuffle along and be a nice, kindly colored man and say please when I ask for better treatment for my people? Well, it doesn’t work!”

Robeson also rejected the notion of “gradualism” in the struggle for civil rights as “but another form of race discrimination: in no other area of our society are lawbreakers granted an indefinite time to comply with the provisions of the law.”

One final anecdote shows his outstanding bravery and brilliance (but there are many many such anecdotes in the book). He was visiting the USSR in 1948, which, unbeknownst to the world, was in the middle of carrying out Stalin’s purges against Jews. Robeson kept inquiring about his Jewish friend, the Soviet Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer and wanted to see him. In actuality, Feffer had been arrested (and would be executed subsequent to Robeson’s visit on “The Night of the Murdered Poets”). In an attempt to cover up what was going on, the authorities brought Feffer to see Robeson in his hotel room on Robeson’s final night in Moscow. Feffer could not tell Robeson the truth in the room that he assumed to be bugged, but tried to communicate his fate through gestures. After their visit, Robeson proceeded with his concert. At the end, he asked for quiet, and announced he would sing one encore. He said the song was in honor of his friend Feffer, and then sang (with no preparation at all), the “Resistance Song” from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, first in Russian, then in Yiddish. Incredible story, incredible guy.

Soviet Yiddish writer Itsik Fefer, singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson, and the legendary Soviet Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels at the Soviet Consulate, 1943. (via Milken Archive)

In the end, it is possible he was poisoned by Hoover’s FBI in 1961. (See testimony by his son, here.)

Paul Robeson, an incredibly popular personality while alive, has had all memory of him virtually erased from American history. As reported by Dr. Mark D. Naison, Chair of the Department of African American Studies, Fordham University, New York, NY.:

In response to a coordinated effort to impugn his patriotism, that extended from the FBI and US State Department to Congressional and state investigating committees, Robeson was barred from the commercial theater, the Hollywood film industry, radio and television, and from the concert stage. During those years, no major concert hall, stadium or amphitheater would sponsor a Paul Robeson concert, and two of his largest concerts held on private land, his Peekskill concerts of 1949, were the subject of mob attacks spurred on by veterans organizations. The American establishment also tried to erase the record of his achievements.”

It is a tragedy that the memory of this man of such exceptional courage has been virtually written out of American history.

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Book Review of “A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East” by David Fromkin

A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin provides an excellent glimpse at the mind-boggling complexity of international relations. This is a history of the creation of the modern Middle East, and the interrelationships among all the interested parties. Most of the transactions read like my very favorite joke from The Joys of Yiddish:

The two traveling salesmen, competitors in selling notions, spied each other on the platform. “Hello, Liebowitz.” “Hello, Posner.” Silence. “So – where are you going?” asked Liebowitz. “To Minsk,” said Posner. Silence. “Listen, Posner,” sighed Liebowitz, who was a very bright shaygets [in this sense: clever lad; rascal], “when you say you’re going to Minsk, you want me to think you’re going to Pinsk. But I happen to know that you ARE going to Minsk – so why are you lying?!!”

Multiply the idea conveyed in the joke by adding in all the players for the Middle East: Britain, France, Russia, Turkey, Arabs (with rival clans), Jews (with varying ideologies), the United States, Italy, and so on. You need a constantly readjusted flow chart to ascertain who is on which side and whose side the other side thinks the other side is on!

This masterful narrative focuses on the restructuring of the modern Middle East between the years 1914-1922: the fabrication of Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia by Britain, the setting of the frontiers of Syria and Lebanon by France, and the creation of the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan by Russia. Fromkin contends that the conflicts that unsettle the region today are largely a result of the presumptuous manipulation of peoples and places by the imperialist ambitions of the Triple Entente.

The first prize to be divvied up was the Ottoman Empire. Even before the war, secret pacts divided the “Sick Man of Europe” among the allies in anticipation of its seemingly inevitable demise. But one of Britain’s largest mistakes was underestimating the Turks, both as military actors and as a people capable of self-determination, in part because of racism.

The Middle East in 1923

The Middle East in 1923

Another racist current coloring events was a pervasive anti-Semitism among the British governing classes. It caused them to believe that Jews were conspiring with the Germans, the Turks, and the Russians for power. (Although many Bolsheviks were born into the Jewish religion, they could be identified as Jews in “racial” terms only.) As Fromkin notes, “The Foreign Office believed that the Jewish communities in America and, above all, Russia, wielded great power.” This led them to bizarre misunderstandings of the motives and goals of their adversaries, and to policy formation geared toward an accommodation of the non-existent Jewish conspiracies they saw looming around every corner.

The story, told from the perspective of British involvement, begins with the decision by the War Minister, Lord Kitchener, to partition the Middle East after World War I. After Lord Kitchener’s death in 1916, David Lloyd George (Chancellor of the Exchequer and later Prime Minister) and Winston Churchill (serving in several different capacities) played larger roles in the British enterprise in the Middle East. “Winston Churchill,” Fromkin writes, “above all, presides over the pages of this book: a dominating figure whose genius animated events and whose larger-than-life personality colored and enlivened them.”

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Fromkin vehemently argues against aspersions cast on Churchill’s reputation that arose from his policies in WWI, particularly in regard to the ill-fated action in Gallipoli. Contrary to statements of Churchill’s contemporaries (with their own reputations to protect), Fromkin’s research shows that Churchill first opposed the Gallipoli option, then tried to make it contingent on a joint army-navy operation, then tried to salvage what was left with what he was given. When disaster ensued (a suspension of the failed campaign after a quarter of a million casualties on Britain’s side and a similar amount on Turkey’s), Churchill was made the scapegoat for the ill-conceived and miscarried engagement.

Churchill’s worth was recognized by British leaders, however, and he continued to help formulate policy even after he left the government. After the war, Churchill alone recognized that Britain’s terms could not be imposed if Britain’s armies left the field; and he most forcefully argued that the Moslem character of Britain’s remaining troops in the East must be taken into account lest the army’s loyalty be compromised.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson comes off poorly in Fromkin’s telling — his insistence on attending peace negotiations upset protocol and added nothing to the process, since he came with “many general opinions but without specific proposals….” “Lacking both detailed knowledge and negotiating skills, Wilson was reduced to an obstructive role….” Naïve and ill-informed, he was manipulated by Lloyd George into furthering Britain’s imperial aims. Back home, Wilson “committed one political blunder after another, driving even potential supporters to oppose him.” Nevertheless, Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” played an influential role in the politics of Europe.

Fromkin ends his fascinating account by observing that following WWI, “administration of most of the planet was conducted in a European mode, according to European precepts, and in accordance with European concepts.” Native political structures and cultures were ignored, destroyed, and/or replaced. But legitimacy cannot be conferred by drawing lines on a map; the legacy of the dissection of the Middle East by the great powers informs our politics yet today, and thus the events discussed in this book remain highly relevant and absorbing.

Note: National Book Critics Circle Award (1989)

Rating: 5/5

Published by Henry Holt & Company, 1989

October 11, 1991 – Anita Hill’s Statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee About Clarence Thomas

In 1991, Thurgood Marshall, named to the Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson, and the first African-American to be appointed to the Court, decided to retire. Republican President George Bush saw Justice Marshall’s retirement as an opportunity to appoint a more conservative judge to the Supreme Court. He selected Clarence Thomas, a forty-three year old conservative African-American from Pinpoint, Georgia. Although black, Thomas was sufficiently conservative to insure a more right-leaning make-up to the Court.

The nomination of Clarence Thomas was instantly controversial. Many African-American groups, Civil Rights organizations, and groups supporting women’s rights opposed the Thomas nomination, fearing Thomas’s conservativism would lead to a reversal of the gains blacks had seen during Marshall’s tenure. Even the legal community voiced apprehension about Thomas’s clear lack of judicial experience.

Then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas during confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, Sept. 10, 1991. PHOTO: J. DAVID AKE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas during confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, Sept. 10, 1991.
PHOTO: J. DAVID AKE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Nevertheless, the Thomas nomination proceeded to the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation hearings. The hearings took a dramatic turn when Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, came forward with accusations that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Hill had worked for Thomas years earlier when he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). For three days, millions of Americans watched the hearings that were broadcasted on live TV.

University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in 1991. AP

University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in 1991. AP

Thomas denied the allegations, calling the hearings “a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks.” It became a he-said-she-said issue, and in the end, the Senate voted 52-48 to confirm Clarence Thomas as associate justice of the Supreme Court.

But Anita Hill’s testimony is considered to be one of the “Top 100 American speeches of the 20th century.” She said in part:

It is only after a great deal of agonizing consideration that I am able to talk of these unpleasant matters to anyone except my closest friends. As I’ve said before these last few days have been very trying and very hard for me, and it hasn’t just been the last few days this week. It has actually been over a month now that I have been under the strain of this issue.

Telling the world is the most difficult experience of my life, but it is very close to having to live through the experience that occasion this meeting. I may have used poor judgment early on in my relationship with this issue. I was aware, however, that telling at any point in my career could adversely affect my future career. And I did not want early on to burn all the bridges to the EEOC.

As I said, I may have used poor judgment. Perhaps I should have taken angry or even militant steps, both when I was in the agency, or after I left it. But I must confess to the world that the course that I took seemed the better as well as the easier approach.

I declined any comment to newspapers, but later when Senate staff asked me about these matters I felt I had a duty to report. I have no personal vendetta against Clarence Thomas. I seek only to provide the committee with information which it may regard as relevant.

It would have been more comfortable to remain silent. It took no initiative to inform anyone — I took no initiative to inform anyone. But when I was asked by a representative of this committee to report my experience, I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent.”

You can read the full text of her remarks here.

As The Huffington Post reports:

Hill’s impact was tangible. Her testimony set off a greater national understanding of what sexual harassment looks like in the workplace, pushing employers to institute trainings on the subject. In 1991, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC, where Hill had worked under Thomas) reported 3,349 charges filed alleging sexual harassment. In 1992, that number shot up to 5,607.”

October 9, 1846 – English Noble Charles Trevelyan Shuts Down Irish Famine Relief

Following the potato blight of 1845 and 1846, the Irish were starving to death in large numbers. Ironically, there was plenty of food produced in Ireland, but it was all marked for export (a practice enforced by British soldiers). For the British to mandate that the food had to remain on Irish soil to feed the hungry (for free!) was contrary to their belief in laissez faire, i.e., unfettered free markets.

Lord John Russell, Britain’s Prime Minister put his chief economic advisor, Sir Charles Trevelyan, in charge of dealing with Irish starvation. Treveylan laid out his policy in a letter on this day in history to an anglo-Irish landlord, Thomas Spring-Rice, Lord Mounteagle.

He wrote:

It forms no part of the functions of government to provide supplies of food or to increase the productive powers of the land. In the great institutions of the business of society, it falls to the share of government to protect the merchant and the agriculturist in the free exercise of their respective employments, but not itself to carry on these employments; and the condition of a community depends upon the result of the efforts which each member of it makes in his private and individual capacity. …”

Charles Trevelyan

Charles Trevelyan

He even contended that culling the numbers of the Irish was all part of Divine Providence:

I hope I am not guilty of irreverence in thinking that, this being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure has been applied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence in a manner as unexpected and unthought as it is likely to be effectual.”

Review of “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt” by Daniel Rasmussen

The riveting book American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen will keep you glued to your chair from start to finish. Rasmussen tells the story of the largest slave revolt in United States history – a story that is most striking for the fact that it has been virtually eliminated from textbooks.

In January of 1811, approximately 500 slaves from plantations in the New Orleans area tried to seize power and win freedom for those who labored in the sugar cane fields. The sugar cane industry was notorious for the intense workload and high death rate among the slaves. During harvest time, slaves worked sixteen hours a day. Yet the profits were so high, planters were unaffected by the fact that less than one-third of slaves survived past the third or fourth year. Louisiana planters claimed that Africans were “uniquely matched to the hot weather and tough work.” But this claim was belied by the high death rate as well as the necessity for whips, spiked iron collars, and face masks used on the slaves. As Rasmussen observes,

These colonial plantations were as close to a death camp as one could come in the late eighteenth century.”

The author recounts the incredible story of how the slave rebellion was organized, carried out, and viciously crushed by the combined forces of the planters and the U.S. Army and Navy. He details the brutal retaliation exacted by the planters, who decapitated some one hundred slaves, putting their heads on spikes all along the levee. He also decries the fact that the names of the brave rebel leaders – Kook, Quamana, Harry Kenner, and Charles Deslondes – have been lost to history, and he tells you exactly how and why the memory of this revolt was suppressed almost immediately. And in a fascinating twist, he explains how the slave rebellion and its aftermath became a factor in the victory of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans a year later, a victory that ultimately led to his presidency. Jackson, “the nation’s most celebrated killer of Native Americans,” was only one of several presidents dedicated to the hegemony of white Americans over the vast expanse of the American continent.

Rasmussen wants us to draw at least two important lessons from this story:

Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.”

Secondly, he mentions other black Americans who have fought against the U.S. government, such as Robert F. Williams (see my review of his story in the book by Timothy Tyson here). He observes that only those blacks who strike a conciliatory pose toward the government through peaceful resistance (such as Martin Luther King, Jr.) get written into history. The others get written out:

Robert F.Williams, like Kook and Quamana, like Charles Deslondes, took up arms against the United States of America in the name of freedom. They fought against U.S. government agents, they supported the overthrow of legally sanctioned racism, and they were exiled or executed for their actions.”

He concludes:

Coming to terms with American history means addressing the 1811 uprising and the story of Robert F.Williams – not brushing these events under the rug because they upset safe understandings about who were are as a nation.”

Evaluation: This is a fabulous book about a horrible subject. It is non-fiction but reads like a suspense novel. In addition, it contains critical information about our nation’s history, and how the government treated anyone who got in the way of the profit-maximizing and imperialist mission of the young country. I’d call it a must-read.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Harper, 2011

Author Daniel Rasmussen