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)


October 7, 1885 – Birthdate of Niels Bohr

It is impossible to overestimate the contributions to science made by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Not only did he come up with the theory of electrons traveling in discrete orbits around an atom’s nucleus, but he also originated the idea of the quantum leap between orbits – the basis of quantum theory. Moreover, he came up with the important idea of “complementarity” — that things may have a dual nature (both particle and wave), even though we can only experience one aspect at a time. (It should be noted that scientific discoveries are generally not made in vacuums. Bohr’s work built on the research of many who preceded him, including Sir J.J. Thomson, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, and Albert Einstein among others.)

Niels Bohr

Niels Bohr

In 1921 Bohr founded the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Copenhagen (renamed The Niels Bohr Institute in 1965) and remained director for the rest of his life. Bohr’s personal warmth, good humor, and hospitality helped make Copenhagen a refuge for many of the century’s greatest theoretical physicists who needed to escape Hitler’s juggernaut. Those who came to do research included Wolfgang Pauli (the grumpy physicist who said a theory by a student was so bad it was “not even wrong”), Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Edward Teller, and George Gamov.

Original building of the Institute for Theoretical Physics

Original building of the Institute for Theoretical Physics

In 1922, Bohr was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics “for his services in the investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them.”

Bohr's 1913 model of the atom showing the quantum leap

Bohr's 1913 model of the atom showing the quantum leap

As the Encyclopedia Britannica reports:

In the fall of 1943, the political situation in Denmark changed dramatically after the Danish government’s collaboration with the German occupiers broke down. After being warned about his imminent arrest, Bohr escaped by boat with his family across the narrow sound to Sweden. In Stockholm the invitation to England was repeated, and Bohr was brought by a military airplane to Scotland and then on to London. Only a few days later he was joined by his son Aage, a fledgling physicist of age 21, who would serve as his father’s indispensable sounding board during their absence from Denmark.”

Bohr played an advisory role in the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico during World War II, a project dedicated to the development of the atomic bomb. He later became an advocate for sharing the bomb with the Russians in the name of peace, although, unlike American Robert Oppenheimer, he managed to escape suspicions of Communist sympathies.

It is no exaggeration to say that Niels Bohr helped to change the world in a way few people ever have. He died in Copenhagen on November 18, 1962. One of his sons, Aage Bohr, who also won a Nobel Prize in Physics, died on September 8, 2009. Aage used to joke that the most famous physicists in the world were all his “uncles.”

Niels Bohr (on the right) and his son Aage

Niels Bohr (on the right) and his son Aage

Review of “Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race” by Richard Rhodes

Beginning with a gripping blow-by-blow account of the Chernobyl accident, Rhodes explores the nuclear arms race from 1986 through the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 in this important and thought-provoking book. He demonstrates that throughout the entire Cold War period, the U.S. had superior numbers of strategic nuclear bombs and warheads. The U.S. political debates that conjured the threat and fear of Soviet first-strike capabilities were “as divorced from reality as the debates of medieval scholars about the characteristics of seraphim and cherubim.”

What accounts from this divergence of fact and policy? One astute observation by Rhodes is that military leaders made “what philosophy calls a category mistake, an assumption that nuclear explosives are military weapons in any meaningful sense of the term, and that [therefore] a sufficient quantity of such weapons can make us secure.” That is, unlike conventional weapons, nuclear weapons are so qualitatively different in terms of both short and long term effects, that a strictly quantitative comparison is not valid.

Political concerns also have played a large role in nuclear arms accumulation. Rhodes points out that the Reagan administration sponsored “the largest peacetime buildup in American history.” Rhodes suggests that some of the motivation was “to starve the beast of government domestic spending, part of the conservative Republican agenda.”

In addition (in a harbinger of things to come), advisors to Reagan, Ford, and Bush such as Richard Perle, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz blatantly twisted intelligence to conform to a bias that was anti-Soviet and pro-military-industrial complex. Particularly in the case of Reagan, advisors had more freedom for manipulation given a president who could not speak coherently without cue cards.

One riveting section of the book describes a very close call to nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that took place in November 1983. “That,” Rhodes charges, “was the return on the neoconservatives’ long, cynical, and radically partisan investment in threat inflation and arms-race escalation.”

A continuing thread in the book is the intelligence, courage, and perseverance of Mikhail Gorbachev. Not only did he have to overcome the ossification of the Soviet system to effect perestroika, or reform, but the resistance of U.S. hardliners as well.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

How appropriate that Rhodes ends his book with a quote from J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose opposition to a nuclear arms build-up helped to vitiate his career. Oppenheimer observed presciently in 1953:

“We may anticipate a state of affairs in which two Great Powers will each be in a position to put an end to the civilization and life of the other, though not without risking its own. We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.”

As Rhodes charges, the U.S. chose “to distend ourselves into the largest scorpion in the bottle.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer

The risks of accidental nuclear war remain high. You can read accounts of some frightening “near misses” here and here. And now, with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump trading hostile rhetoric, the threat of non-accidental nuclear war has once again reared its head.

Evaluation: This well-written history and cautionary tale continues to have relevance.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Knopf, 2007

A 1953 detonation of the 23 kiloton XX-34 Badger at the Nevada Test Site.

September 28, 1938 – Cubs Game History of “Homer in the Gloamin”

Charles Leo “Gabby” Hartnett (December 20, 1900 – December 20, 1972) was an National Major League Baseball catcher and manager who played nearly his entire career with the Chicago Cubs. He is widely considered to have been the greatest National League catcher in the first half of the 20th century.


“Homer in the Gloamin'” refers to a game-winning home run hit by Hartnett in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sept. 28, 1938. The Cubs were trailing Pittsburgh by only half a game, and the lightless Wrigley Field was gradually being overcome by darkness. The score was tied 5-5; if it had become too dark, the game would have had to be replayed from the beginning. With two out in the bottom of the ninth, two strikes on him, and the umpires ready to end the game, Hartnett launched a shot into the gloom and haze which would be remembered as his “Homer in the Gloamin'”. The Cubs were now in first place, culminating a tremendous 19-3-1 September run, and the pennant would be clinched three days later. Unfortunately, the Cubs were swept in the World Series by the New York Yankees, their fourth Series loss in ten years.

The Cubs have appeared in a total of eleven World Series. The 1906 Cubs won 116 games, finishing 116–36 and posting a modern-era record winning percentage of .763, before losing the World Series to the Chicago White Sox (“The Hitless Wonders”) by four games to two. The Cubs won back-to-back World Series championships in 1907 and 1908, becoming the first major league team to play in three consecutive World Series, and the first to win it twice. Then there was a long drought; it took 108 years for the Cubs to win another World Series, which they did in 2016.

The Drought Is Over

The Drought Is Over

The story of “Homer in the Gloamin” seems to be known by every single person in the entire Chicago metropolitan area, although not so much outside of it.

September 24, 1755 – Birth of John Marshall, Fourth Chief Justice of U.S. Supreme Court

John Marshall was born in a rural community on the Virginia frontier, in what is now Fauquier County, on September 24, 1755.

His parents decided John was to be a lawyer, and John’s father bought him a copy of William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England for John to read and study. After serving in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, Marshall read law under the famous Chancellor of the College of William and Mary, George Wythe; was elected to Phi Beta Kappa; and was admitted to the Bar in 1780. He was in private practice in Fauquier County before entering politics.

In 1788, Marshall was selected as a delegate to the Virginia convention responsible for ratifying or rejecting the United States Constitution, which had been proposed by the Philadelphia Convention a year earlier. Together with his fellow Virginians James Madison and Edmund Randolph, Marshall led the fight for ratification. He was especially active in defense of Article III, which provides for the Federal judiciary. Marshall identified with the new Federalist Party (which supported a strong national government and commercial interests), and opposed Jefferson’s Republican Party (which advocated states’ rights and idealized the yeoman farmer and the French Revolution).

John Marshall painting from 1797

In 1798, Marshall declined a Supreme Court appointment by President John Adams, recommending Bushrod Washington, who would later become one of Marshall’s staunchest allies on the Court. Instead, Adams named Marshall as Secretary of State.

Adams and the Federalists were defeated in the presidential election of 1800, but the President and the lame duck Congress passed what came to be known as the Midnight Judges Act, which made sweeping changes to the federal judiciary, including a reduction in the number of Justices from six to five (upon the next vacancy in the court) so as to deny Jefferson an appointment until two vacancies occurred. In addition, since the incumbent Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth was in poor health, Adams nominated Marshall. Marshall was confirmed by the Senate on January 27, 1801, and received his commission on January 31, 1801. President John Adams offered this appraisal of Marshall’s impact: “My gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life.”

Marshall served as Chief Justice during the administrations of six Presidents: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He helped to establish the Supreme Court as the final authority on the meaning of the Constitution in cases and controversies that must be decided by the federal courts. According to the Oyez Project, Marshall’s impact on constitutional law is without peer, and his imprint on the Court’s jurisprudence remains indelible.

In the excellent book John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved The Union by Harlow Giles Unger, Unger takes the interesting approach of illuminating the contributions of John Marshall to the protection and preservation of the Constitution by describing the many ways in which Thomas Jefferson sought to subvert it. This book will educate readers about the actual operations of the early republic, rather than the usual “patriotic” myths fed to students of history. Although revered as a “Founding Father,” Jefferson was in truth often interested more in advancing his own ideas and ambition than in honoring the Constitution.


Marshall’s legacy as the 4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was the assurance of “the integrity and eminence of the Constitution and the federal government.” Marshall, who was the longest serving Chief Justice in American history, signed over 1,180 decisions, writing 549 of them. As Unger shows:

In the course of his Supreme Court leadership Marshall stood at the center of the most riveting – and most important – courtroom dramas in the nation’s formative years. Case by case he defined, asserted, and when necessary, invented the authority he and the Court needed to render justice, stabilize the federal government, and preserve the Union and its Constitution.”

Because of Marshall’s efforts, the judiciary became an equal branch of the federal government. But it was not a predetermined outcome. When Jefferson didn’t get his way, he used every means at his disposal to try to vitiate the judiciary. To his chagrin, however, even when he appointed his own men to the bench, they became so impressed with Marshall’s erudition, devotion to the law, and integrity, that one by one, they became Marshall men instead of Jefferson men.

John marshall painting 1828

To this day, the decisions written or influenced by Marshall continue to shape the American polity. From his opinion in Marbury v. Madison, in which he established the independence of the federal judiciary, to his insistence in U.S. v. Burr that no one, not even the president, is above the law, Marshall made a lasting and positive imprint on the character of the country. And while Jefferson continued to insist, even when retired, that the federal and state governments represented two independent and equal sovereigns, Marshall, in McCulloch v. Maryland, set forth the precedent that state action may not impede valid constitutional exercises of power by the Federal government. The United States would be a radically different place had it not been for “the great,the good, the wise” John Marshall, as he was described by another famous and well-respected Supreme Court Justice, Joseph Story.

Daguerreotype of Supreme Court justice Joseph Story, 1844

Discussion: One reason I like Unger very much as a historian is that he has always been able to avoid portraying the Founding Fathers in sepia tones with golden halos. He is not loathe to point out, for example, that Jefferson was a vicious man who operated sub rosa through lackeys to destroy the careers and lives of anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. He is not reluctant to provide evidence for how much of the Declaration of Independence was lifted by Jefferson from other writings, such as those of John Locke, or how pusillanimously Jefferson behaved when the fighting broke out in the American Revolution. He also takes Jefferson to task for his treasonous acts against President John Adams when Jefferson himself was serving as Vice President. (This includes the concealment of evidence by Jefferson that would exonerate Adams from charges of impeachment, a movement for which Jefferson was leading the chorus.) And he doesn’t hesitate to speak of Jefferson’s bribes to members of the press to calumniate his opponents; his threats to start a Civil War if he were not elected in 1800; his blatant disdain of the Constitution when it got in the way of what he wanted to do; and his attempts to emasculate the judiciary so that it could not rule against any of his decisions.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Jefferson largely escapes such a close look at his behavior because of the need for the American narrative to show him as a great man, who joined other great men to create a great nation. Even the recent DNA evidence of Jefferson’s long-time affair with Sally Hemings has been downplayed, and those who acknowledge it are quick to point out Jefferson’s long-standing relationship with her, as if his alleged monogamy would make up for his taking up with a fifteen-year old girl when he was forty-six, a girl who was in his care as a slave, unable not to do his bidding. The entire time she was his mistress, she continued to serve as his slave, in addition to being pregnant almost continuously when he was in town. She was not even freed by his will when he died. But collective memory serves to establish moral, political, and social lessons, and to help form an understanding of who we are as a people. Truth can often fall by the wayside.

Unger, however, has a respect for facts.

He also has a keen eye for those early figures in our history who displayed more character, more nuance, more courage, and more loyalty to the aims of the young country. One of those was John Marshall. This well-written story will keep your attention from beginning to end. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5

Published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2014

John Marshall by Henry Inman, 1832

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.”

August 7, 1782 – George Washington Creates the Badge of Military Merit, Which Became the Purple Heart

On this day in history, George Washington issued an order to create the Badge of Military Merit to recognize meritorious action.

“… The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit directs whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding.”

The Badge of Military Merit circa 1783 Image copyright: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

The Badge of Military Merit circa 1783
Image copyright: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

There are only three known recipients of the Badge of Military Merit, all from the American Revolutionary War: Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons, later the 2nd Legionary Corps; Sergeant William Brown, 5th Connecticut Regiment, and Sergeant Daniel Bissell, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry (later Colonel of the 5th Infantry).

Once the American Revolution ended, the Badge of Merit was all but forgotten until the 20th century.

In 1932 army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur revived the badge renaming it the Purple Heart. General Order No.3 announced the establishment of the award:

“…By order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart, established by General George Washington at Newburgh, August 7, 1782, during the War of the Revolution is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.

By order of the Secretary of War:
Douglas MacArthur
General, Chief of Staff”

MacArthur himself was the first recipient, on the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1932.

General Pershing (second from left) decorates Brigadier General MacArthur (third from left) with the Distinguished Service Cross.

General Pershing (second from left) decorates Brigadier General MacArthur (third from left) with the Distinguished Service Cross.

The medal is primarily designed to recognize meritorious service. The Purple Heart is also given to soldiers wounded or killed in battle.

In April of 1942 the military allowed posthumous awards of Purple Hearts, and in September 1942 the War Department designated the award to be given exclusively for wounds or deaths in combat.

John F. Kennedy, wounded in action in August of 1943, is the only U.S. president to have received the honor.

Various rulings in recent years have ruled out frostbite, heat stroke, and PTSD as eligible injuries.

In 1996 the regulations were amended to allow prisoners of war to receive the Purple Heart.