August 1, 1899 – Elihu Root Appointed the 41st U.S. Secretary of War

Elihu Root, born in 1845, was an American lawyer and statesman who served as Secretary of War for both William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, first appointed to that position on this day in history.

Root was the son of a professor of mathematics at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Attending Hamilton himself, Root graduated first in his class in 1864 at the age of nineteen. He taught school for one year, graduated from the Law School of New York University in 1867, and founded a law firm after one year of practice. By the time he was thirty Root had established himself as a prominent lawyer specializing in corporate affairs.

In 1899, President McKinley invited him to become his Secretary of War, saying that he needed a lawyer in the post, not a military man. Root served in this capacity from 1899 to 1904. The much-later appointed Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson said of Root “no such intelligent, constructive, and vital force” had occupied that post in American history.

Elihu Root in 1902

Elihu Root in 1902

As the biography on the Nobel Prize website (Root won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912) reports:

Root reorganized the administrative system of the War Department, established new procedures for promotion, founded the War College, enlarged West Point, opened schools for special branches of the service, created a general staff, strengthened control over the National Guard, restored discipline within the department. He was most concerned, however, about the three dependencies acquired as a result of the war. He devised a plan for returning Cuba to the Cubans; wrote a democratic charter for the governance of the Philippines, designing it to insure free government, to protect local customs, and to bring eventual self-determination; and eliminated tariffs on Puerto Rican goods imported into the United States.”

Root returned to his private legal practice in 1904, but answered President Theodore Roosevelt’s call to serve as his Secretary of State in 1905. Again, Root compiled an impressive record.

From 1909 to 1915, Root served as a United States Senator from New York, but he declined a candidacy for reelection thereafter. He did remain active as a statesman, however, accepting President Woodrow Wilson’s appointment as ambassador on a special diplomatic mission to Russia in 1917.

Théobald Chartran’s portrait of Elihu Root was painted in 1903, as Root served as what was then secretary of war under President Theodore Roosevelt.

Théobald Chartran’s portrait of Elihu Root was painted in 1903, as Root served as what was then secretary of war under President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1922, when Root was 77, President Warren G. Harding appointed him as a delegate of an American team to the Washington Naval Conference (International Conference on the Limitation of Armaments).

Root also worked with Andrew Carnegie on programs for international peace and the advancement of science, becoming the first president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was also among the founders of the American Law Institute in 1923, and helped create the Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands. In addition, he served as vice president of the American Peace Society, which publishes World Affairs, the oldest U.S. journal on international relations.

In addition to receiving the Nobel Prize, Root was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown (from Belgium) and the Grand Commander of the Order of George I (from Greece).

Root died in 1937 in New York City, with his family by his side.

Review of “The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage” by Selina Alko


As the Author explains in an Afterword to this book, she is white and her husband, fellow illustrator Sean Qualls, is African-American. They fell in love and were married in 2003. Alko writes:

“I must admit, it’s difficult to imagine that just decades ago couples just like us not only faced discrimination, but were told by their governments that their love was unlawful.”

But it was only in 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared that anti-mixed marriage statutes were unconstitutional, in the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia. Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the Court, declared that statutes preventing marriage solely on the basis of racial classification violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

At the time of this decision, Virginia was one of sixteen states prohibiting and punishing marriages on the basis of racial classification. According to one Virginia statute, a “white person” was absolutely prohibited from marrying anyone other than another “white person.” The license-issuing official had to be satisfied that applicants’ statements as to their race were correct, and certificates of “racial composition” had to be kept by both state and local registrars.


This book tells the story of two Virginia residents, Mildred Jeter, part African-American and part Cherokee, and Richard Loving, a fair-skinned white boy. The two fell in love, but had to travel to Washington, D.C. to get married legally, which they did in 1958. Shortly thereafter, they returned to Virginia and took up residence.


They’d been married just a few weeks when, in the middle of the night in July, 1958, the county sheriff and two deputies, acting on an anonymous tip that the Lovings were in violation of the law, stormed into the couple’s bedroom. They informed the Lovings that their marriage license was no good in Virginia, and hauled Richard and the pregnant Mildred off to jail.

The couple eventually pleaded guilty to violating the Virginia law, which recognized citizens as “pure white” only if they could claim white lineage all the way back to 1684. The presiding judge ruled:

“Almighty God created the races white, white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.” And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The Lovings were convicted and sentenced to one year in jail; however, the trial judge suspended the sentence for 25 years on the condition that the Lovings leave Virginia. They moved to D.C., but missed their friends and family and the Virginia countryside. In 1964, frustrated by their inability to travel together to visit their families in Virginia, Mildred Loving wrote in protest to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy referred the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union.


The ACLU filed a motion on the Lovings’ behalf to vacate the judgment and set aside the sentence on the ground that the statute, the “Racial Integrity Act of 1924,” violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Lovings also filed a class action in federal court to have the Virginia statutory scheme declared unconstitutional. This began a series of procedures and appeals that ultimately reached the Supreme Court.

Mildred and Richard Loving with their three children on the front porch of their Virginia home in the late 1960’s.

Mildred and Richard Loving with their three children on the front porch of their Virginia home in the late 1960’s.

Mildred and Richard Loving went on to have three children: Donald, Peggy and Sidney Loving. In the book, the authors aver that the Loving family, back in Virginia, lived “happily (and legally!) ever after.” But the truth is more tragic. Richard Loving died at age 41 in 1975, when a drunken driver struck their car. Mildred Loving lost her right eye in the same accident.

Mildred Loving died of pneumonia in 2008, in Milford, Virginia, at age 68. Her daughter Peggy Fortune said “I want [people] to remember her as being strong and brave yet humble — and believ[ing] in love.”

Mildred and Richard Loving in 1967

Mildred and Richard Loving in 1967

This book is a testament to that love, and also to the love between the Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. For the art work, they collaborated, using paint and collage in bold and beautiful colors. This is their first book together, but you can see in this book the influence of their previous (separate) books about mixed race relationships, such as Who Will I Be, Lord? by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Sean Qualls, Illustrator, and I’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother by Selina Alko (both author and illustrator).

Evaluation: This story is told truthfully, but with the focus on the positive aspects of love, family, and the conviction that “Brand-new ideas, like equal rights for people of all colors, were replacing old, fearful ways of thinking.” One can only hope that faith continues to be justified.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2015

July 28, 1848 – Frederick Douglass on Women’s Rights

On this date in history, Frederick Douglass published in his newspaper, “The North Star,” his impressions from attending the Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls. He was the only man in attendance. He wrote:

. . . in respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express are conviction that all political rights that it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for woman. All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being, is equally true of woman; and if that government only is just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administering the laws of the land. Our doctrine is that “right is of no sex.” We therefore bid the women engaged in this movement our humble Godspeed.”

Frederick Douglass (1818 - 1895)

Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895)

You can read the entire article here.

Susan B. Anthony later said that “From that day until the day of his death Frederick Douglass was an honorary member of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. In all our conventions, he was the honored guest who sat on our platform and spoke in our gatherings.”

But their relationship wasn’t perfect. In fact, many in the women’s suffrage movement shared racist attitudes or at the very least, did not want to risk winning support for their movement by aligning with those seeking rights for blacks. On one occasion Anthony even asked Douglass not to attend a gathering in Atlanta, Georgia because, as she later recalled: “I did not want anything to get in the way of bringing the Southern white women into our suffrage association.”

Susan B. Anthony (1820 - 1906)

Susan B. Anthony (1820 – 1906)

July 25, 1866 – Ulysses S. Grant Becomes the First Four-Star General in U.S. History

Military commanders have always been popular and deemed a threat to political leaders, so such honors as bestowing four stars upon a general were not conferred lightly.

In fact, the U.S. Congress refused to authorize a rank higher than major general until 1798. That year, fears that France might invade the United States induced Congress to name George Washington General of the Armies. When Washington died in December 1799, the rank died with him.

George Washington

George Washington

After Washington’s death, an Act of May 14, 1800, specifically authorized President Adams to suspend any further appointment to the office of General of the Armies of the United States.

The idea of resurrecting the rank of lieutenant general was introduced to Congress on December 7, 1863, by Representative Elihu B. Washburne, who represented Grant’s home district in Illinois. Grant took pains to assure Lincoln that Grant had no political ambitions, and thus Lincoln lent his support to the bill. After it passed with comfortable majorities in both the House and the Senate, Lincoln signed it into law on February 29 and submitted Grant’s name to Congress as his choice to fill the post.

President Abraham Lincoln called his cabinet to the Executive Mansion on March 9, 1864, to witness his presentation of Ulysses S. Grant with his commission as a lieutenant general. Only George Washington had risen to that rank in the U.S. Army before him.

On this day in history, Congress enacted legislation authorizing the grade of General of the Army, and on that same date the new grade was conferred on Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The grade was recognized and continued in various acts until the Act of July 15, 1870, which contained the requirement that “the offices of general and lieutenant general shall continue until a vacancy shall exist in the same, and no longer, and when such vacancy shall occur in either of said offices shall become inoperative, and shall, by virtue of this act, from thence forward be held to be repealed.”

General U.S. Grant

General U.S. Grant

William T. Sherman, Grant’s successor as Commanding General of the Army, was appointed as General of the Army on March 4, 1869, and upon his retirement in February 1884 was placed on the retired list as General of the Army.

Sherman’s successor was Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan, who could not be promoted to General of the Army because of the 1870 law. Congress, however, enacted legislation on June 1, 1888, shortly before Sheridan’s death, that discontinued the grade of lieutenant general and merged it with that of General of the Army. The grade of General of the Army was conferred on Sheridan and was discontinued when he died, while still on active duty on August 5, 1888.

Congress revived the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by Public Law 45, approved September 3, 1919, to honor General John J. Pershing for his wartime service. He retired with that rank on September 13, 1924, and held it until his death on July 15, 1948.

General John J. Pershing

No other officer held this specific title until 1976, when President Ford appointed George Washington posthumously as General of the Armies of the United States and specified that he would rank first among all officers of the Army, past and present.

Review of “Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II” by Michael Burleigh

To some, it may seem oxymoronic to talk about morality and war in the same sentence, and yet each side in modern wars tends to think that it alone is on the side of God. Indeed, the Crusades, full of bloody cruelty, were a series of religiously sanctioned military campaigns waged by much of Roman Catholic Europe. The American Civil War, to take a more recent example, was considered – especially by Northerners- to be primarily a moral conflict. As Lincoln famously noted in his Second Inaugural address:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

World War II was called “the good war” by the Western allies, who used the language of morality to justify both the entry into the war and the manner in which it was waged. “What is our policy?” Churchill asked in 1940: “To wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.”

It seems fitting, then, that Michael Burleigh has written a history of World War II from a moral (rather than the more common operational) perspective. And in this war we can see that, as with all wars, many ethical compromises were made in the effort to eradicate perceived evil.

Burleigh describes in detail episodes that required moral judgments on the part of the participants, who had to make such judgments in the face of extraordinarily difficult and complex circumstances. He maintains that the Nazis “tried fundamentally to alter the moral understanding of humanity, in ways that differed from the moral norms of Western civilization.”

The first great moral issue faced by the Western countries was how to deal with the predator nations of Germany, Japan, and Italy. Burleigh deals sympathetically with British appeasers led by Chamberlain, who “saw themselves as realists, although their own chimerical quest for a general European peace settlement, without alliances or threats of war to strengthen their own hand, was incredibly idealistic…what Churchill would call the pursuit of ‘futile good intentions.’” What the appeasers were unable to fathom was that the dictators of Germany and Italy were not “fundamentally reasonable, decent men” like themselves.

Chamberlain and Hitler in 1938

Burleigh’s account of the “rape of Poland” details how egregiously the Nazis trampled on traditional Western notions of morality. Soviet behavior in the same area and time was not much better. The massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn Forrest has only recently been formally acknowledged by the Soviet government.

Conditions of life under Nazi occupation varied significantly from country to country, depending how “Aryan” the population was. The occupation was [relatively] less onerous in Denmark, as the Nazis thought the Danes to be racially similar to themselves. At the other end of the spectrum, conditions for the natives in Poland or the USSR were bestial. Conditions in France were intermediate.

Nazi occupation posed two significant moral problems for the indigenous population. One moral issue was how much to “collaborate,” in particular, whether to assist the Nazis in identifying Jews or to assist the Jews in hiding or escaping, for which the punishment was death.

A second issue was faced by the “resistance,” the natives who became saboteurs. Killing Nazi soldiers or effecting significant damage to key assets invited savage reprisals, usually the execution of innocent hostages. In addition, the Germans usually replaced the Nazis assassinated with someone even more vicious than the person killed.

Sometimes politics trumped morality in the decision to assassinate. The Czech resistance killed Reinhard Heydrich knowing the German reaction would bring barbaric reprisals on the Czech people, but they feared the Germans might seek a negotiated peace resulting in the disappearance of the Czech nation all together. Edvard Beneš, the future prime minister of Czechoslovakia, on learning of the assassination said, “What the Germans are doing is horrible, but from the political point of view they gave us one certainty: under no circumstances can anyone doubt Czechoslovakia’s national integrity and her right to independence.”

Edvard Beneš - President of Czechoslovakia, 1942

Treatment of prisoners was another area in which conceptions of morality differed among the combatants. The Japanese had no tradition of surrender and thought it was dishonorable. Hence, they treated prisoners with contempt, often starving or beheading them. Toward the end of the war, the Japanese themselves were often short of rations, and were not inclined to share them with the dishonorable dogs who had surrendered to them.

The Germans and Soviets each took hundreds of thousands of each other’s prisoners; only about 10-15% survived the war. In stark contrast, the Allies perceived the Germans fighting in North Africa to be honorable opponents. In general, treatment of prisoners on the western front was far better than in the east or the Pacific.

Methods of motivating the fighting forces also raised moral issues in the different approaches used by the combatant parties. Both the Germans and the Soviets utilized fear, executing thousands of their own forces for cowardice or desertion. The Soviets executed an astounding 200,000 of their own men, 13,500 in the battle of Stalingrad alone!

Soviet Soldiers at Stalingrad (from

Nazi immorality is nowhere evinced more clearly than in their barbarism toward the Jews. Burleigh points out that that widespread coercion of the German populace was not necessary to impose the “final solution”: “there were always enough volunteers.”

Some of the most gruesome moral decisions of the war were thrust upon the Jewish Councils of Elders that were established in the ghettos and concentration camps. They were often tasked with selecting which members of their group would be relocated to extermination camps. Many Council members simply refused to co-operate in such life-and-death decisions, either by committing suicide or being shot after registering their dissent.

Burleigh devotes an entire chapter to the issue of whether the Allies could have done more to ease the plight of the Jews. In particular, the Allies have been condemned for their failure to bomb the Auschwitz concentration camp. Jewish leaders pleaded with the Allies to sacrifice those already in the camp for the benefit of the many more who would be sent there in the future.

Burleigh seems to agree that anti-Semitism played a role in the decision-making process when he points out: (1) “the only apparent interest of the U.S. government was to block Nazi-induced Jewish immigration”; (2) “[t]here is no point in denying that British politicians like Foreign Secretary Eden were biased in favour of Arabs over Jews,” undoubtedly because of oil; and (3) “[t]he US military was also keenly sensitive to avoid anything that might suggest that Gentile soldiers were dying to save Jewish lives.”

Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden in 1943

Nevertheless, and irrespective of any implicit anti-Semitism on the part of the Western powers, Burleigh points out the problems a mission to bomb the camp entailed. “The practical difficulties and extremely remote prospect of success have been forcefully demonstrated by distinguished historians of the air war…” He concludes [untenably, some might counter] that the British and American decision not to bomb the camps “categorically had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and everything to do with Allied priorities for winning the war.”

The decision to drop the two atomic bombs over Japan was (and still is) justified [again, quite controversially] as a means of reducing the total number of people killed by the war, particularly innocent civilians:

Those who object to the dropping of two atomic bombs might ask themselves how many Americans (and Russians) they would have preferred to see killed. Would they prefer that LeMay’s fleets continued to burn their way through cities? How many civilian Japanese would they prefer to have been slaughtered or starved to death by a tightening naval blockade that had cut all food imports, while, as in Europe, conventional bombing wrecked the entire transport infrastructure?”

The Mushroom Cloud Over Nagasaki

Evaluation: This book is a very rich and probing investigation of many difficult and often subtle moral decisions that were made and forced upon various people, famous and unknown, powerful and impotent, by the circumstances of World War II. This review covers some, but not nearly all, of the issues elaborated therein. Not everyone will agree with all of the author’s interpretations and conclusions, but the book is well-written and thoroughly researched. I highly recommend this for any student of history, as well as for any book club that includes non-fiction selections.

Rating: 4/5

Published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2010

July 21, 1899 – Birthdate of Nathan Ross Margold

Nathan Margold, who drew up the blueprint for NAACP’s strategy in Brown v. Board of Education, was born on this day in history in Romania. His parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1901, and he was raised in Brooklyn, New York. He attended law school at Harvard, where he served on the law review along with Charles Hamilton Houston, the first black member of the Harvard Law Review and later the influential dean of Howard Law School. After graduation, Margold served as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

In 1927, Felix Frankfurter recruited Margold to teach criminal law at Harvard, and he taught there for a year before the law school decided that two Jewish reformers on the faculty were at least one too many; Margold returned to practice in New York.

In 1930, both Frankfurter and Charles Houston recruited Margold to serve as Special Counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Margold was hired to coordinate the NAACP’s strategic litigation plan “to give the Southern Negro his constitutional rights, [and] his political and civil equality.”

To that end, Margold wrote a 218-page report outlining a legal strategy for desegregating public schools in the South.

The Margold Report, The New York Public Library

The Margold Report, The New York Public Library

As Eva Paterson reports of Margold:

He proposed a twofold litigation strategy: (1) “boldly challenge the constitutional validity of segregation if and when accompanied irremediably by discrimination” due to the lack of a state statute obligating school officials to comply with Plessy v. Ferguson; and (2) rely on Yick Wo v. Hopkins to challenge facially neutral state segregation laws that denied equal protection because of unequal application by school officials. Hence, Margold’s plan was thoroughly laced with court-based rights advocacy and became the bedrock of the NAACP legal strategy toward Brown.” (Eva Paterson et al., Equal Justice—Same Vision in a New Day, Yale L.J. (The Pocket Part), Nov. 2005.)

Margold left the NAACP in 1933 to join other former students of Felix Frankfurter in the new Franklin Roosevelt administration, serving as solicitor for the Department of Interior until 1942. FDR appointed him as a judge for the Municipal Court for the District of Columbia, and in 1945 he moved to the District Court, where he served until his death in 1947.

Meanwhile, after Margold left the NAACP, Houston took over as Special Counsel, and continued to direct efforts to end segregation, recruiting his top student at Howard, Thurgood Marshall, to assist him.

Thurgood Marshall in 1936 at the beginning of his career with the NAACP

Thurgood Marshall in 1936 at the beginning of his career with the NAACP

Review of “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945” by Tony Judt

Tony Judt’s detailed monumental work (over 800 pages) is well-written and well-organized. He begins by documenting the devastation in Europe following World War II. Post-war planning for Europe was heavily influenced by the knowledge that both fascism and communism thrived on social despair; ergo “the physical and moral condition of the citizenry” became a matter of common interest for both the victors and the vanquished. Economic recovery was deemed to be essential. A brutal winter in 1947 exacerbated the urgency. U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s plan for a European Recovery program, proposed in the summer of 1947, helped avert a political crisis in Europe. It’s real benefit, however, was psychological: the infusion of money and aid helped Europeans to “break decisively with a legacy of chauvinism, depression and authoritarian solutions.”


There was a continuing interest in Communism as a promising ideology throughout the world, although it attenuated after Krushchev’s “secret speech” in February, 1956 revealing Stalin’s crimes. Moreover, the invasion of tanks into Hungary in November, 1956 “dispelled any illusions about this new,’reformed’ Soviet model.” But as Judt observes, “enthusiasm for Communism in theory was characteristically present in inverse proportion to direct experience of it in practice.” For Eastern Europeans, however, there was no longer any choice but to accept existence within the Soviet orbit. After 1956, Judt laments, “the Communist states of Eastern Europe, like the Soviet Union itself, began their descent into a decades-long twilight of stagnation, corruption and cynicism.”

Khrushchev's "secret speech" in 1956

Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956

Judt adduces evidence to support his claim that when Communism fell in 1989 it was “Mr. Gorbachev’s revolution.” Not only did Gorbachev liberalize his own country, but he let it be known that he would not intervene in the internal politics of his colonies. Without the threat of military action from Moscow, there wasn’t much to keep them in their antiquated inefficient systems. Much of the book is devoted to a detailed explanation of how each of the Eastern European countries went through the process of liberation. [It should be noted that, contrary to the American narrative, most reputable historians give the lion’s share of credit to Mr. Gorbachev, not Mr. Reagan, for dismantling Communism.]

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

Another helpful section outlines the concerns of the European Union, and just what membership means for both members and non-members. In a discussion of the culture of today’s Europe, Judt speculates on the future of identity in Europe, with nationalism competing with Europeanism and now even with Islam.

His final chapter explores the nature of memory itself in Europe; in particular, how the different nations have negotiated the rocky shoals of Holocaust memory. As he emphasizes, “A nation has first to have remembered something before it can begin to forget it.” For many nations, their complicity in Fascism is something they prefer not to acknowledge. He ends by relating a popular Soviet-era joke: a listener calls up ‘Armenian Radio’ with a question: ‘Is it possible’, he asks, ‘to foretell the future?’ Answer: ‘Yes, no problem. We know exactly what the future will be. Our problem is with the past: that keeps changing.'” Therein, Judt writes, lies the challenge: “If in years to come we are to remember why it seemed so important to build a certain sort of Europe out of the crematoria of Auschwitz, only history can help us.”

Published by The Penguin Press, 2005

Note: Awards for this book include:
Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
Winner of the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award
One of the New York Times’Ten Best Books of the Year
European Book Prize (2008)
Arthur Ross Book Award for Gold Medal (2006)
Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction Nominee (2006)