Review of “The Myth of the Great War” by John Mosier

In The Myth of the Great War, John Mosier seeks to dispel several views held by historians about WWI. He shows that the Germans were invariably more successful on the battlefield than either the British or the French, even though Germany lost the war. He concludes that were it not for the influx of money, explosives, and men from the United States, the Allies could never have won. He contends “the myth” that the British and French essentially won the war came about because the allied professional soldiers did not tell their respective publics, or even their political superiors, what was really happening.

Mosier avers that the striking success of the Germans in the early part of WWII should be attributed not only to the achievements of the German Army of 1914, but to an equal extent, the foolhardiness of Germany’s adversaries.

WWI was unusual in that it was the first war in which the majority of combat deaths were caused by artillery, not by small arms fire. The Germans suffered far fewer combat deaths than did the British because of superior tactics and training. They seldom if ever launched the kind of massed suicidal attacks that were standard British tactics, but rather, fought more on the defensive. They also used mortars and heavy artillery to a greater extent than did the Allies.

France’s army on the eve of WWI was weak because of lack of central command, underfunding, poor doctrine, and lousy tactics. French doctrine posited that battles would be won by bayonets! At war’s end, casualties caused by edged weapons were less than one quarter of one percent of total casualties. Increasing numbers of soldiers with machine guns could mow down any infantry wielding bayonets.

French WWI Bayonet Charge

French WWI Bayonet Charge

The Germans knew they would be greatly outnumbered, but they had a big advantage in firepower. They had much heavier artillery pieces and could fire them at a much higher trajectory. In the first month of the war, the Germans swept through Belgium without any real infantry engagements—their artillery reduced the Belgian forts to rubble, and the forts simply surrendered. The army marched into northern France, then turned southeast in an effort to surround two French armies and pinch off Verdun from Paris. But the Germans found themselves overextended, and so drew back to a defensible position north of Paris. The so-called Battle of the Marne was hardly a battle at all: the Germans had simply abandoned the position near the Marne to take an entrenched position along a more northerly ridge.

In the first half of 1915, a German engineer-general, Bruno von Mudra, developed tactics for seizing terrain at relatively low cost. It started with an intense, but short, bombardment, followed by small groups of men attacking with flamethrowers, pistols, and grenades. The French, by contrast, attempted large scale assaults, involving hundreds of thousands of men over a large segment of the front. The French typically gained a few hundred yards at the cost of tens of thousands of men. The Germans typically gained a few hundred yards at the cost of dozens of men. French Chief of Staff Joseph Joffre thought the French could overwhelm the Germans by sheer numbers. He was mistaken because the Germans had greater firepower and did not need superior numbers.

French Chief of Staff Joseph Joffre

On July 1, 1916, the British and French launched the Battle of the Somme, a massacre in which they sustained about 700,000 casualties (compared to 250,000 for the Germans) and gained about 200 square kilometers. The British tactics were especially suicidal, using waves of infantry walking slowly in formation, carrying over 40 pounds of provisions per man.

The year ended with the British launching another semi-suicidal attack at Cambrai. The initial result was the gain of a few kilometers of ground and the announcement to the home government of a great victory. However, the Germans, as usual, held back their troops until the British had exhausted their charge, then counter-attacked successfully, driving the British back to their original start line.

In 1917, the Germans switched to the offensive, hoping to knock the British and the French out of the war before the Americans could arrive with a whole new army. Mosier sees the years 1917-18 as a great race between Germany and the U.S.A.

The Germans launched a great offensive in March 1918 and almost destroyed the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders. They were stopped by French reserves, however. The Germans then attacked farther east and south, but there ran into the Americans, who fought exceptionally well and defeated them at Belleau Wood. For the first time, the Germans did not dominate the battlefield. Shortly thereafter, the Americans took back territory the French had been unable to take for the last four years of fighting.

American Expeditionary Forces Commander-in-Chief John J. Pershing

The German general staff realized that the American army would probably prevail. Their government contacted President Wilson directly, and said it would be willing to stop the war based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The German army was still intact and on French and Belgian soil. Mosier argues that the Allies wanted to continue with the war, but they knew the Americans held all the cards. He writes, “The Allies caved in. … Suddenly, the Great War was over. Peace had broken out.”

Evaluation: Mosier, an English professor, is an amateur historian who relies on secondary sources for his analyses. He tends to focus on the operational level of war, and his observations on the course of individual battles are generally sound. But he lacks an understanding of the political milieu in which the war was fought. Nor is he willing to broaden his conceptual lenses to admit evidence that contravenes his uninformed theories. It is true the British were reluctant to give up the old tactics of war that worked so well in the past but proved woefully inappropriate in modern settings with advances in weaponry. Nevertheless, Mosier’s theory about the sudden collapse of the German army in the face of the American threat is simply inaccurate. This ignores the effects of the British blockade, to name just one significant factor, which led to the sinking of German ships carrying nitrates for explosives and fertilizer for farmers, the starvation of German citizens (a fifth of all the calories consumed in Germany before the war had come from abroad), and diminution of support for the war by the German public. Other factors were in play as well; Mosier’s alternative interpretation of history is just too simplistic to hold up in the complex light of reality.

Maps and pictures are included in the book. Recommended for details of battles, but not for the theoretical scaffolding in which Mosier places them.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Harper, 2001

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April 13, 1743 – Jefferson’s Birthdate & Review of Jefferson’s Pillow by Roger Wilkins

I loved this book. Wilkins, former Afro-American historian at Virginia’s George Mason University, looks back at the achievements of four Virginian founding fathers – George Mason, George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson – in light of their inability to divest themselves of slaves or even push for the abolition of slavery, all the while touting the virtues of liberty.

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Rather than adhering to a dry academic approach, Wilkins welcomes you into his own world to share with you his private thoughts and his personal history as well as his insightful analyses. His descriptions of the complexities of the Founders are masterful.

George Mason, he observes, “ruled as a sovereign over an estate that depended, in virtually all respects, upon the perpetual subordination of the people whose freedom, labor, hope, and natural rights he was stealing.” Slaves were even required to kneel when they spoke to him. Yet Mason was a staunch abolitionist.

Washington, who decreed that his slaves should be freed after the death of both him and his wife, “was a disciplined member of the landed gentry. The aristocrat could be haughty and distant and overly fond of pomp. He could also be worshipful of wealth and jealous of his property – including his human property.”

Madison is famous of course for favoring any compromise that would keep the South tied to the North.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Of Jefferson, Wilkins notes: “[he] was a rather dreamy and self-indulgent rural aristocrat…” His slaves “gave him the leisure to study, to reflect, and to write.” …And also, to bear additional children, who, borne by slave Sally Hemings, were among the only slaves Jefferson freed upon his death. At the time Jefferson wrote the Declaration, he owned more than one hundred slaves. Many of Jefferson’s best ideas were rephrasings of Mason’s writing, but Wilkins finds no fault with this: “He didn’t have to be original; it was the elegance of his prose, fueled by his passion, that moved human spirits and made him immortal.” Wilkins writes, “He was a dizzying mixture of searing brilliance and infuriating self-indulgence, of idealism and base racism, of soaring patriotism and myopic self-involvement. He was America writ small.”

The founding generation was obsessed with the possibility of retaliatory violence from the slaves, and for good reason. Wilkins describes the conditions of eighteenth century slaves, including his own relatives, and takes us with him on his journey to reconcile his sorrow and anger with his pride and patriotism. He charges that the myths tying American virtue to American whiteness have wrought profound psychological damage on African-Americans, which Wilkins believes must be rectified.

Wilkins also explores the addiction of privilege, and how it could have easily afflicted the Founders. They themselves were all too aware of human weaknesses, but these do not gainsay the amazing accomplishments of these men.

Evaluation: If you are seeking a better understanding of how our Founding Fathers could be so favored and so flawed, and what our country owes to the contributions of the slaves who helped build it, this book will not disappoint. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Beacon Press, 2001

April 6, 1862 – Battle of Shiloh Begins

The Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, was a major battle in the Western Theater of the American Civil War, fought on April 6 and 7, 1862 in southwestern Tennessee.

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The Confederates under General Sidney Johnston had massed 42,000 men at Corinth, Mississippi. Meanwhile, Union Commander Henry Halleck sent Ulysses S. Grant to Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River, twenty miles north of Corinth, and ordered Don Buell to join him there with additional troops. Combined, they would have 75,000 men. As James McPherson writes in Battle Cry of Freedom, Grant should have been prepared but he was not: “Once again, he focused his mind so intently on plans for attacking the rebels that he could spare no thoughts for what the rebels might be planning to do to him.” Thus, Grant’s men did not prepare any defensive lines. Their picket posts and patrols were inadequate. William Sherman was also overconfident, saying “[Confederate General] Beauregard is not such a fool as to leave his base of operations and attack us in ours.”

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Against all odds, the Confederates achieved a surprise, and early on the morning of April 6, thousands of screaming rebels burst out of the woods near Grant’s encampment at Shiloh Church. It appeared at first as though the rebels would win, but Grant was finally reinforced with Buell, and with fresh troops and more men, the Yankees beat the rebels back.

The number of killed and wounded at Shiloh was nearly double the casualties of previous battles combined. Before Shiloh, both Grant and Sherman thought the Civil War would be over quickly. After Shiloh, Grant “gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”

In the book Confederates In the Attic by Tony Horwitz, the author tours around various Civil War battlefields, and picks up some fascinating information from the park historians he meets about what really happened on the fields of battle.

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At Shiloh in particular, what he finds out is extremely interesting. He spoke with Paul Hawke, a park historian trained in physical anthropology. Hawke observed that “[t]raditional historians tend to ignore the best primary source out there – the ground. If you read it right, you realize a lot of the written history is simply wrong.”

For example, most history books describe Shiloh during the battle as a thicket of impenetrable spring woods. But Allen studied old weather charts and farm records and discovered that spring came to Shiloh very late in 1862, and most of the trees were still bare. He suggests that the confusion at the battle was probably more due to smoke, dust, and poor maps than to dense trees.

Furthermore, after the two-day fight, Grant ordered the dead of both armies buried in mass graves right where they fell. What Allen discovered to his surprise was that no burial trenches had been found near the “Hornet’s Nest,” where a group of Union defenders supposedly held the line against repeated onslaughts and turned the battle. He then did time and motion studies of units that claimed to have fought in and around the Nest and concluded that many of them couldn’t possibly have been where they claimed they were. Also, the casualty rates for these units were comparatively light.

Hornet's Nest

Hornet's Nest

What does all this mean? Allen believes there are several reasons for the stories about the Hornet’s Nest. One is that the men there could not see the rest of the battlefield. They may have felt like they fought the battle all on their own. A second is that many of them became prisoners of war, and had months to talk over the battle and firm up, to their minds, what happened. They also formed a veteran’s group after the war called the Hornet’s Nest Brigade led by their commanding officer who had become an influential politician. “He was eager to foster the impression that the Hornet’s Nest and his role there were crucial to the battle,” Allen said. ‘He played it up big, particularly later in life.’”

So gradually, reports Horwitz, the myth grew, until the Hornet’s Nest became the battle’s turning point. Allen said to Horwitz, “Grant once said that Shiloh was the most misunderstood battle of the Civil War. It’s taken me awhile to grasp how true that was.”

There are many more interesting vignettes and insights into battles in this delightful book. It’s not by any means a complete history of the Civil War, but rather a series of “dispatches” as Horwitz follows Civil War reenactors around the country. Highly recommended!

Review of “Trespassers on the Roof of the World” by Peter Hopkirk

This little book on the history of the infiltration of Tibet by the West is quite fascinating. Beginning in the mid-1800’s, a number of brave and/or crazy but ultimately unsuccessful explorers and missionaries from England, Russia, America, France, India, and China were “hell-bent” on being the first into the holy city of Lhasa – at 12,000 feet the world’s highest capital. The terrain was perilous, the weather worse, and the Tibetans resistant. It was not until a British mission was put together in 1903 with more than a thousand soldiers, 7,000 mules, 4,000 yaks, and 10,000 “coolies” that the mission was accomplished. The British had to fight a battle though to get through the last barrier, Karo Pass. At 16,000 feet, the skirmish was fought at a higher altitude than any other engagement in history. (The British, with their advanced weaponry, lost five men with another 13 wounded, while the Tibetans suffered more than four hundred dead and wounded.) Once the British crossed into Lhasa, however, they saw this squalid and unprepossessing city full of wild roaming pigs and dogs, and wondered what all the fuss had been about….

The story of the early attempts to get to Lhasa are pretty awe-inspiring, beginning with the Indian spies trained by the British. They wandered through Tibet for years disguised as holy men, with measuring and recording instruments hidden inside Buddhist prayer wheels and Tibetan rosaries. They never succeeded in getting to Lhasa however, as there was little incentive for locals to assist them: Tibetans who were discovered helping foreigners get to Lhasa, even by selling them food or providing shelter, would be tortured and killed. Then there was the young missionary couple whose newborn died as they trudged along at sixteen and seventeen thousand feet, not understanding that little lungs were inadequate to the challenge. A couple of the adventurers were even women traveling alone.

The book ends with the unfortunate story of the transfer of Tibet’s sovereignty to China in 1950, and the failure of the rest of the world to respond to Tibet’s pleas for help. Tibetans suffered religious and political persecution, and it is estimated that up to one million Tibetans may have died in the repression by the Chinese and attempts at resistance to it. In 1980, some reforms were instituted by the Chinese government, including the decision to allow tourists to visit certain areas. But calls for independence by Tibet halted the liberalization. China keeps a tight control over press coverage in Tibet, and it seems as difficult as it ever was for the West to know what is going on in Lhasa.

Discussion: I found this book very interesting, and I especially enjoyed learning about Tibetan Buddhism. As for Tibet’s sad history, I’d have to agree with Hopkirk’s closing statement:

“…it is hard not to feel some sympathy for this gentle, cheerful and long-suffering people who only ever asked one thing of the outside world. And that was to be left alone.”

Evaluation: This book was written in 1982 and updated in 1994, but while dated, it is still considered to be one of the better resources for understanding Tibet and the history of its exploration and conquest. If you just want to know some quick facts about Tibet (especially about the awe-inspiring harshness of its terrain), you can get some information here.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Kodansha America, Inc., 1995

March 15, 1767 – Birth of Andrew Jackson & Review of “American Lion” by Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham won a Pulitzer Prize for this biography of Andrew Jackson, probably because it is well-written, and most Americans know precious little about Jackson or the United States in the 1830’s. In my opinion, however, the book suffers from the author’s emphasis on the interpersonal relations between Jackson and his surrogate family (his wife died shortly after he was elected president), while giving somewhat short shrift to the key political and economic issues of the day. Even when discussing the key issues, Meacham spends more ink on who was winning (Jackson almost always won) than the merits of the disputes.

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Jackson was born on this day in history into the Scots-Irish community in the Waxhaw Settlement between North Carolina and South Carolina, British America. His early life is summarized by Meacham, but the focus of this book is on his presidency. Jackson and his Vice Presidential candidate John C. Calhoun handily defeated John Quincy Adams in 1828. Many today don’t realize that during the election, Jackson’s opponents referred to him as a “jackass”. Jackson liked the name and used the jackass as a symbol for a while, but it died out. However, it became the symbol for the Democratic Party when cartoonist Thomas Nast popularized it later in the century.

1837 lithograph believed to be the first ever image associating the jackass with Jackson’s party.

1837 lithograph believed to be the first ever image associating the jackass with Jackson’s party.

In office, Jackson appointed John Henry Eaton as his Secretary of War. Jackson had been instrumental in introducing Eaton to his wife, Margaret, known as Peggy. Peggy became a liability for both Eton and Jackson because she was intemperate and outspoken and because she seems to have married Eaton while still married to another man. Jackson had great sympathy for the Eatons, perhaps because their situation was somewhat similar to Jackson’s with his wife, Rachael, whom he may have married a little before her divorce.

John Henry Eaton

John Henry Eaton

Meacham expends many words on the Eaton affair as a public scandal and source of contention in his cabinet, and perhaps that is appropriate. At least one entire cabinet meeting was devoted to resolving how to deal with the issue. Indeed, Meacham attributes the success of Martin Van Buren and the failure of John C. Calhoun to influence Jackson to their respective stances on the Eaton affair. Yet, I can’t help thinking Meacham could have devoted more space to issues like Indian removal and the Bank of the United States and less to the question of which Washington wives were willing to exchange visits with the Eatons.

One issue Meacham does handle adroitly is that of the crisis over the tariff and South Carolina’s efforts to “nullify” it. Southern planters did not like having to pay Yankee manufacturers “exorbitant” prices for goods. Had not a comprehensive protective tariff been imposed upon them by the northern states, the goods could have been purchased from foreign suppliers at lower prices. Of even more concern to them was the possibility that the northern states would use their leverage to restrict or eliminate slavery through legislation. Thus Calhoun and others promulgated a doctrine of nullification that would have permitted individual states to ignore federal legislation unfavorable to them.

Cartoon drawn during the nullification controversy showing the manufacturing North getting fat at Southern expense.

Cartoon drawn during the nullification controversy showing the manufacturing North getting fat at Southern expense.

Jackson saw the nullification theory as tantamount to the power to secede from the Union. Jackson asked for and received from Congress authority to enforce the tariff by military force if necessary. However, he was also instrumental in reducing the rates of many of the import duties. One of the main thrusts of Jackson’s second inaugural address was directed at opposing the nullification doctrine. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln analyzed Jackson’s address in formulating his own legal theories in opposition to the South’s later secession. The combination of the authorized military action, reduced duties, and Jackson’s eloquence was sufficient to defuse the nullification crisis, and the southern states did not ignore federal law for another twenty-four years.

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In contrast to his coverage of nullification, Meacham says little about Indian removal (the forceful relocation of virtually all Indians from the southern states to lands west of the Mississippi) except to point out that Jackson was its leading proponent. [White Georgians wanted the valuable land in their state for themselves and the state legislature enacted laws designed to force Native Americans to migrate west. John Marshall’s Supreme Court declared the Georgia laws invalid, but Jackson ignored this decision. When the Cherokees refused to leave, Jackson sent troops who forced them at gunpoint to sign a treaty giving up their lands. Three years later they were driven along the “trail of tears” to the barren wastes of Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma). Thousands died during or just after this journey. For excellent coverage of this issue, see the book Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep.]

Map of United States Indian Removal, 1830-1835

Map of United States Indian Removal, 1830-1835

Even less satisfying is Meacham’s treatment of the controversy over the Bank of the United States, the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton. We learn that Jackson was against it, saying it financed the political campaigns of his enemies, and that Nicholas Biddle, the Bank president, was for it. Nowhere does he discuss the merits of the bank (remember, this was before there was a federal reserve) or whether Jackson’s allegations of favoritism toward his rivals had any substance to them. Only one paragraph is devoted to the fact that a financial panic and severe depression struck the country just months after Jackson left office. Meacham mentions that there is “much historical debate” over the effects of Jackson’s economic policies, but doesn’t characterize or even describe the debate.

Meacham’s description of Jackson as a person is well-wrought. He owned 150 slaves, and freed none of them, even upon his death. He was formidable and an exceptionally strong leader. After Jackson’s death, when one of his slaves was asked whether he thought Jackson had gone to heaven, the slave answered, “If the General wants to go, who’s going to stop him?”

He was the first president to use the veto power against legislation simply because he disagreed with it — prior presidents had vetoed only bills they thought were unconstitutional. He justified his exercise of power by the fact that the president was the only person elected by “all the people.” (In those days, senators were elected by state legislatures.) This exercise of power, however, included the tendency to reward those loyal to him and punish his enemies. But the conflicts were couched in such a way as to make it seem as if it were the will of the people versus a disdainful elite. Meacham does not analyze the repercussions of this type of populism.

Andrew Jackson as most people know him today

Andrew Jackson as most people know him today

Evaluation: This book focuses too much on the personal to the detriment of the political. In the current political climate, readers could benefit by learning about a president who claimed to represent the little people, and then used to office to go after his internal enemies no matter what the cost to country and decency. Those who choose this book should make careful comparison to other historical treatments of Jackson, in order to get the full story.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Random House, 2008

Review of “Improbable Patriot” by Harlow Giles Unger

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, born on this day in history, was a brilliant inventor, musician, composer, businessman, diplomat, and the man most responsible for supplying critical aid to the floundering Americans during their revolution, thus ensuring its success. He was also a staunch advocate of the equality of man, influential in the court of Louis XV, and he worked tirelessly and at great expense to send the Americans munitions, gunpowder, clothing, tents, and other war matériel. He was also the prodigy who wrote “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro” as well as inventing the wristwatch!

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

An early French supporter of American independence, Beaumarchais oversaw covert aid from the French and Spanish governments to supply arms and financial assistance to the rebels in the years before France’s formal entry into the war in 1778. He later struggled to recover money he had personally invested in the scheme.

Beaumarchais is still best known, however, for his theatrical works, especially the three Figaro plays. American history has largely forgotten him.

Historian Harlow Giles Unger seeks to redress this great injustice in a small but significant way by bringing his story to a contemporary American audience in the book Improbable Patriot.

Beaumarchais used three main arguments to convince the French government to help the American colonists: (1) revenge for its humiliating loss to Britain during the Seven Years’ War (known in America as The French and Indian War); (2) a chance to reclaim Canada; and (3) special trading privileges with the new colonies. But still the French were reluctant: they could not be seen by Britain in assisting the colonies since they were not ready to fight another war. Beaumarchais drafted a scheme to provision the Americans in such a way that the British could not prove the involvement of the French government. Furthermore, at the same time he would rid the French military of surplus or obsolete matériel (which would, however, still be valuable to the Americans) and enable them to restock with the money-in-kind to be paid by the Americans.

Although the French Government would help, it insisted that Beaumarchais come up with a significant portion of the money, and also agree to incur all risk on his own. Unfortunately, as was mentioned above, the American Congress refused to pay. After the war, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Alexander Hamilton all pleaded with Congress to square accounts with Beaumarchais and — after he died– with his estate, but Congress consistently refused. It wasn’t until 1835 that the U.S. Government, about to make a claim of its own against France, agreed to settle with the Beaumarchais heirs, and paid them about 35 percent of what the government owed.

Statue of Beaumarchais by Louis Clausade (1895), in the 4th arrondissement of Paris

What specifically did Beaumarchais do? By the winter of 1776 the American Revolution was considered to be all but won by the British. Once numbering 30,000 men, Washington’s troops were reduced by desertions to some 5,200. They had no tents, and their feet were wrapped in rags, leaves, and twigs. They were out of ammunition. Congress refused to raise taxes to allocate funds for them. Beaumarchais borrowed money to procure everything they needed, including the ships and crews to get the goods to the Americans. On March 17, 1777, the first ship from France sailed into the harbor at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, carrying 12,000 muskets, 50 brass cannon, powder and ammunition, 1,000 tents, and clothes for 10,000 men. More ships followed. In all, Beaumarchais shipped supplies too them worth more than $210 million in today’s dollars, including more than 80 percent of the Continental Army’s entire supply of gunpowder! The deal was that the ships were to return from America filled with tobacco, rice, flour and wood. But they always returned empty. Nevertheless, Beaumarchais kept sending supplies. It is not an exaggeration to say that the war could not have been won without him.

Unger does not have much good to say about Congress, charging them with “incessant, often infantile backbiting that they euphemistically called congressional debate.” Some things never change…

Evaluation: Beaumarchais is a fascinating character, and Unger paints a sympathetic portrait of him as he gets victimized time after time by those who are jealous, greedy, corrupt, selfish, or who can’t resist taking advantage of the kindness of others. Beaumarchais’s contribution to the victory of the Continental Army should be required knowledge by American citizens.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by University Press of New England, 2011

February 26, 1925  Birth of Robert F. Williams, Civil Rights Activist, & Review of “Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power”

The biography of Robert F. Williams by Timothy B. Tyson provides a picture of the odyssey that the African American freedom movement took through the lens of Williams’ life: survival during the overwhelming hegemony of white supremacist groups prior to World War II, the significance of the war for inspiring black consciousness, the development of nonviolent resistance to Jim Crow, the struggles of the Black Power movement, and the sometimes tenuous but improved accommodation of the races after the turbulent Sixties.

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Williams’ journey began with a seminal event in his life: as an eleven-year-old boy in 1936, he witnessed Jesse Helms, Sr., a policeman in Monroe, North Carolina, accost a black woman on the street, beat her, and drag her off to be raped. He never forgot the violence and the abuse, nor the laughter of white spectators. This, more than any other event, informed the future politics of Robert Williams.

Williams joined the army during World War II, but felt bitter over both the racism in the service, and the irony of blacks risking their lives abroad for “democracy” when they had no freedom at home. His unwillingness to be pushed around by white men in the army resulted in a stockade sentence, but at his hearing he said:

I told them that I was black, and that prison did not scare me because black men are born in prison. All they could do was put me in a smaller prison.”

In the prison he felt proud, he later wrote, because “they would have preferred to have me as a nigger than locked up, but I preferred to be locked up than to be what they considered a nigger.”

Returning black veterans faced racial violence because whites were outraged at the idea that fighting alongside them in the war somehow gave blacks equal rights, or that they could now presume to be “as good as any white people.” Further, as Tyson avers, “behind the virulent opposition to racial equality was the ever-present shadow of miscegenation that undergirded white determination to preserve segregation.” What was good for the white goose was never good for the black gander. Thus, as Tyson reports, “the violence across the South immediately after the war produced dozens of dead, hundreds of injured, and thousands of terrified citizens for whom the protection of the law meant little or nothing.”

1943 - After a white woman claimed she had been raped by a black man in Beaumont, Texas, some 3000 whites rampaged nearby black neighborhoods,   destroying property  and attacking African-American citizens.   More than 100 black-owned homes were burned.

1943 – After a white woman claimed she had been raped by a black man in Beaumont, Texas, some 3000 whites rampaged nearby black neighborhoods, destroying property and attacking African-American citizens. More than 100 black-owned homes were burned.

After 1945, the Cold War ironically marked a sea change for the struggle for equality, as America desired to prove the moral superiority of “democracy for all” to the communist world. On the one hand, agitating against racial discrimination was now seen as aiding and abetting the communist cause. On the other, the U.S. was interested in countering negative publicity vis-à-vis the communists.

Egregious behavior by southern white supremacists still characterized the South, however, and Robert Williams strove to do something about it. He organized other black veterans in an attempt to protect the black citizens of Monroe from the very active Ku Klux Klan. He clashed with the NAACP about his use of defensive tactics; “nonviolence,” he contended, “depended on the conscience of the adversary; “rattlesnakes,” he observed, “were immune to such appeals, as were many Southern white supremacists.” What Williams advocated, then, was the principle of “armed self-reliance.” He did not agree with Black Power groups that violence was an end, or even a means, to racial justice. Rather, he saw it as just a necessary component of self-defense because protection by the law was not available to blacks in the South.

Robert F. Williams, May 1961

Robert F. Williams, May 1961

He constantly tweaked the leadership of the country on its hypocrisy. When Adlai Stevenson defended the Bay of Pigs incident to the U.N. on the grounds of Cuba’s oppressive regime, Williams sent him a telegram:

Please convey to Mr. Adlai Stevenson: Now that the United States has proclaimed support for people willing to rebel against oppression, oppressed negroes of the South urgently request tanks, artillery, bombs, money and the use of American airfields and white mercenaries to crush the racist tyrants who have betrayed the American Revolution and Civil War. We also request prayers for this undertaking.”

Williams was forced to flee to Cuba and later China after a race riot in Monroe during which he organized an armed defense. As in many instances in the South, the victims were blamed for the outbreak and perpetuation of violence. While abroad, Williams began broadcasting “Radio Free Dixie” every Friday night, to provide encouragement and support to Southern blacks. He was finally allowed back in the U.S. after the Nixon Administration made its rapprochement with China, and was able to live out his life quietly in Michigan until his death from Hodgkin’s disease in 1996.

Rob and Mabel Williams in a recording studio in Havana, Cuba

Rob and Mabel Williams in a recording studio in Havana, Cuba

Throughout his life, Robert Williams fought FBI harassment (which included threatening potential employers not to hire him because he advocated the “Communist” idea of “equality”); he fought white supremacists in his community who tried to kill him and his family; he fought the national black leadership for trying to ostracize him for what they considered to be inflammatory tactics; and he fought the national white leadership for not taking a moral stand to help their own citizens live peaceful lives.

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Tyson argues that Williams’ life and influence among other black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement demonstrates that the relationship between the nonviolent and aggressive philosophies of resistance are more complex than commonly believed. The current version of history served up to America that stresses the centrality of the nonviolent protest, as Tyson writes:

. . . idealizes black history, downplays the oppression of Jim Crow society, and even understates the achievements of African American resistance. Worse still, our cinematic civil rights movement blurs the racial dilemmas that follow us into the twenty-first century.”

Tyson wants us to know that the toppling of Jim Crow was a complicated matter, and that nonviolence alone probably could not have accomplished it. He wants us to know that “there existed among African Americans an indigenous current of militancy, a current that included the willingness to defend home and community by force.” He wants us to be aware that blacks, whenever possible, did in fact strive to protect their homes and their families even when it could mean serious injury or death.

Robert Williams would have been amazed and elated over the results of the 2008 presidential election. His courage and inspiration were surely pivotal in making this day happen. We can only hope he was watching somewhere, and rejoicing.

Rating: 5/5

Published by The University of North Carolina Press, 1999

You can hear some excerpts from Radio Free Dixie here.