Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Are we clearer now?

This excellent explanation of the globalization phenomenon comes from a friend in Washington, DC, who until recently lived in one of the capitals of globalization, Mumbai:

Question: What is the truest definition of Globalization?

Answer: Princess Diana's death.

Question: How come?


An English princess
with an Egyptian boyfriend
crashes in a French tunnel,
driving a German car
with a Dutch engine,
driven by a Belgian who was drunk
on Scottish whisky,
(check the bottle before you change the spelling) followed closely by
Italian Paparazzi, on Japanese motorcycles, treated by an American
doctor using Brazilian medicines.

This is sent to you by an Englishman,
using Bill Gates' software,
and you're probably reading this on a computer that uses Taiwanese
chips and a Korean monitor, assembled by Bangladeshi workers in a
Singapore plant, transported by Indian lorry-drivers, hijacked by
Indonesians, unloaded by Sicilian longshoremen, and trucked to you by
Mexican illegals...

That, my friends, is Globalization!

I thought that was pretty well formulated...

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Perspective, people!

I always am in a state of semi-annoyance in February, because there are so many things demanding my attention at once: faculty meetings, committee proceedings(graduate admissions committee has to read all the applicant files and pass judgment on them), classes, exams, correcting exams, trying to fill out grant applications. Students have a similar set of concerns, especially those at our school, since almost everybody works in addition to going to school. February just is not a very good time, and the weather is awful, compounding everyone's feelings of gloom.

Well, I think I have the just the thing for your bad mood. Go read this post from the father of a Baghdad college student and get a sense of what students and faculty face there, during their round of midterm exams--yes, they are taking them, too, right now.

I'm stunned and sobered. You really don't think very much about people giving and taking exams under constant threat not of FAILURE, or a BAD GRADE, or TOO MANY TESTS TO GRADE, but DEATH!!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Paradigm shift?

One of the things that has always impressed me is how well foreigners know American pop culture. No matter how negative their feelings about the president, or American power, they all know American music and movies. In Russia, many people I have met know "Gone with the Wind" almost by heart. They identify with the heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, seeing in her survival instinct some of their own determination not to be defeated. People in Hungary know and love Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Bruce Springsteen. Some think nothing of driving two or three hours to Budapest to hear a concert by an American rocker. And the Irish? They seem to know everything and everybody on the cultural scene.

Now, it seems that 21st century technological advances might be changing and diversifying world preferences. As usual, the United States has had a hand in these developments...

Friday, February 23, 2007

Site o' the night

One of the regular Blogside publicans recommends that we all visit historynet. A great idea...they have an incredible array of features and articles culled from at least half a dozen history magazines. He gave me a couple of URLs, but they will not copy from yahoo mail, so you should just go there for some personal exploration.

I see that one of tonight's features is a profile of Colonel John Paul Vann, the subject of the brilliant Neil Sheehan book, "A Bright Shining Lie." Vann went to Vietnam just before John F. Kennedy took office, very excited about the prospect of training a native south Vietnamese army to fight effectively against Ho Chi Minh. It didn't take long for him to become disillusioned, then alarmed...he tried to tell anyone who would listen in Washington that the Diem regime was rotten to the core, that the army would never function effectively, and that the US should immediately re-assess its position on supporting the south Vietnamese army. No one listened to him, and he was haunted by his Vietnam experience the rest of his life.

There seems to be something for everyone there...go to it.

"Shot at Dawn"

I forgot to include last night the website for the "shot at dawn" campaign in the UK. You can go there by clicking here. Curiously, when you visit the Commonwealth War Cemeteries on the western front, you can read in the guidebooks that such-and-such cemetery has "shot at dawn" burials, often even telling you where they are located. They lie alongside their comrades with no indication of their fate.

That's in its own way a moment of grace--but no one back home could miss the fact that a given individual's name failed to appear on the local war memorial.

HIS 395 - Food for thought

I know that we in the United States probably will never go through what the Armenians or the Jews went through but if you were a genocide survivor forced out of your home, would you want to go back home? Why or why not? This question came to me after Mo commented on why would the Armenians want to go back to their demolished towns?

What would I do? On one hand, there would be many harsh memories and would I want to endure that pain? It's been almost one year since my Mom died and I still refuse to drive by the apartments she use to live in because the memory is too painful. On the other hand, as a land owner, would I want to abandon my property? Something familiar and a part of my heart and soul? Isn't that why the folks who lost
property in New Orleans go back, even though there are no services and their home are condemned? I wonder if the decisions are based on how well people are able to adapt. Those who can't, or won't go on want to live in what was comfortable. Those who can go with the flow or maybe have too painful memories are more than willing to move on. I'm not sure what I would do and again, I am grateful that I do live in the U.S. where Mother Nature probably would be the only force to destry my property.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Disgraced no more

Lots of news tonight about the Great War. Some people undoubtedly know what "shot at dawn" means in the context of this war. The phrase refers to the fate of people executed for cowardice or desertion--you were arrested, imprisoned, tried, then "shot at dawn."

This punishment was very severe in its implications--it meant that widows and families were ineligible for death benefits or pensions the executed soldier would otherwise have been entitled to. It was also the cause of great grief, anguish and shame. Lots of people never found out about their relative "shot at dawn" for decades, maybe only after the widow or mother's death. In recent years, there has been a movement to clear the names of those so punished, because so many people suffered unending trauma and psychological stress in repeated battles in which thousands and thousands of soldiers were slaughtered or blown to pieces. This campaign hasn't been without controversy, but last fall, in an armed forces bill, Parliament finally granted posthumous rehabilitation to all 300 "shot at dawn" casualties. Two of these 300--Harry Farr and James Swaine-- were honored this week with an official ceremony near their homes in London. The Guardian's account read, in part:

"Family members were among those at the dedication and remembrance service at the Wealdstone war memorial in north-west London. Pte Farr's daughter Gertrude Harris, 94, said: "I have always argued that my father's refusal to rejoin the front line, described in the court martial as resulting from cowardice, was in fact the result of shell shock. I believe many other soldiers also suffered from its effects." She said the service was "the icing on the cake" after his pardon. "I cannot believe that his name is now going to be remembered for future years, proving that he wasn't a coward but a very brave soldier."

Pte Farr fought on the front line for more than two years and served at several of the bloodiest conflicts, including the Battle of the Somme, before refusing to return to the front on September 17 1916. He was accused of cowardice and told a court martial that he could not bear the shell fire. He had been taken to hospital for shell shock on several previous occasions.

Pte Swaine was on the front line for 17 months but failed to return from home leave after falling sick. He was arrested and sent back to France where he was found guilty of desertion and shot at dawn. His grandson, Terry Morrish, said he only found out after his mother died in 1975. "I was handed some papers at the funeral which provided details of my grandfather's execution. It was a family secret and I was completely taken aback by the news."

By summer, Farr and Swaine's names will be added to their neighborhood war memorial, in official recognition of their having served their country honorably in the most horrific circumstances.

Meet the diggers of Ypres

There's interesting archeological/forensic work about to start in Ypres, graveyard of the British army owing to four major battles there between l9l4-l9l8. British and Belgian archeologists and historians are set to begin excavations on a series of tunnels and dugouts, in an attempt to understand more fully how soldiers used them. I assume all of this is preparatory to the upcoming 90th anniversary of the battle of Passchendaele, which began at the end of July l9l7.

The Passchedaele commemorations ought to be at the top of your list if you are planning to be anywhere in Europe this summer. For maximum effect, though, you need to visit in September and August, when those fields turn to muck so thick that people can(and often did) actually drown in it. This particular episode in the war is not known as the "Battle in the Mud" for nothing.

Got Art?

One of the great things about the digital/cyber world is that it makes available most of the world's great art museums to armchair afficionados. A favorite stop of mine in London is the Tate, which now actually is two museums--the original and the newer Tate modern. You can visit both at the same time by going here. You can browse the collection, see what they have of your favorite artists and even take an art history course online, for free. It's the next best thing to being there, though you need to put it on your London agenda. If you are there in person, you can go straight to the cafeteria and have a terrific shepherd's pie and tea after you get your cultural work done...

Monday, February 19, 2007

He's baaaaack...

Franz Ferdinand--the murdered heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, not the rock group--has made a rare appearance in the news of the 21st century. His wife's family lost their home under a post-Great War law mandating the seizure of all Habsburg properties. Now Sophie's descendants are crying foul--the morganatic marriage to Franz Ferdinand wrote them OUT of the royal register and they never were really Habsburgs after all...so they should get their confiscated castle back, right?

You can read the whole cultural/legal/political real estate saga here.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Heads-up for students(official and unofficial)of the Vietnam war

A sharp-eyed former 388 student has just advised me that the New York Review of Books has an excellent article on the Kennedy adminstration and its Vietnam policy. He thinks it could help some of the Wednesday test-takers. You could read it, then browse the Reagan article and possibly the feature on Kurdish history. You could cover three areas of the world and never leave the site...

That's why blogs exist, to bring interesting articles and viewpoints to readers' attention...go check it out.

Basra or bust(?!)

The London Daily Telegraph is reporting today that Prince Harry, Queen Elizabeth's grandson and the brother of Prince William, is headed for Iraq before the end of the month. He is scheduled to join an armored recon unit at Basra, where the bulk of British forces are stationed.

The Prince follows in the footsteps of many relatives who saw active duty in the service of the nation. His uncle, Prince Andrew, served as a helicopter pilot in the Falklands war in l982. Prince Philip, Harry's grandfather, fought throughout World War II in the British navy. Perhaps most significantly, a cousin, Prince Maurice Victor Donald of Battenberg, a grandson of Queen Victoria, fought in the difficult early months on the western front and died leading an infantry charge on October 27, l9l4, in the first battle of Ypres. His grave is easy to find--it's in the Ypres town cemetery.

Prince Harry has said in interviews that he plans to go anywhere his fellow soldiers in the Queen's Household cavalry go, and do everything they do. He wants no special treatment, in other words. I can't help wondering, though, whether his fellow soldiers will feel they've got a big bullseye on them. What more tempting target could there be for kidnap-minded insurgents than a Prince Royal and some fellows? Maybe the best thing he could do for his men is to stay home, given the circumstances of this particular conflict.

BTW, Prince William will NOT be going anywhere near Iraq or Afghanistan. He is getting acquainted with all the armed forces during his army duty, since he will one day be their boss.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Revisiting "Ronnie" in the Review

My grandmother dearly loved Ronald Reagan. She was fond of him even as governor of California, decades before his successful run for the Presidency. "That's my Ronnie," she would exclaim when she saw him on TV.

If you love Ronald Reagan, and even if you don't, you owe it to yourself to read the New York Review of Books rundown on a spate of recent books about the 40th President of the US. There is a lot of writing to comment on there, much of it positive and fresh. President Reagan's rating, while always better than average, has risen in recent years; the author of one of the books reviewed ranks him right up there with the "two or three greatest Presidents" in US history.

Everyone interested in history should bookmark the Review's site after going there for the Reagan article and visit every couple of weeks. What it does bi-weekly is bring together the best books by theme and commissions an expert to review/comment on them. It is a unique way to keep current on all books of compelling national interest, and it will teach you a lot--painlessly-- about the subjects under review, e.g. Ronald Reagan or the history of the Kurds.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Bravo for "breach"

For my money, the must-see film of this season is "Breach," Billy Ray's portrayal of the quest to catch FBI agent Robert Hanssen in the act of turning over classified documents to the Russians. Hanssen was arrested in 2001, ending a career as one of the most notorious and successful traitors in US history.

Robert Hanssen is a real downer as a spy, in that he did it for money. Most of his predecessors, like Kim Philby or the other "Cambridge traitors" of the l930s and l940s, spied out of conviction. They believed in Communism. Hanssen, it turns out, was strictly pragmatic, a treasonous capitalist. But what a head case he was: a super-patriotic G- man who betrayed his country, a devout Catholic with an addiction to pornography, a superficially straight-up guy who led not one, not two, but several separate lives. I am anxious to see how the director makes this character go.

File this one under" s "for sex, "t" for treason, "m" for money, and/or "f" for fascination. Oh, and "r," for russkis. I'm there already.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Holy Henry VIII!

News from the London Times tonight to the effect that Catholics are set to surpass Anglicans in the UK religious census. This will get people's attention since England has been one of the major Catholic vs. Protestant battlegrounds since the time of the Henry who had all those wives.

The reason for this development is the influx of Poles into London and the UK generally--some 600,000 have settled in London alone since Poland became an EU member. Poles and other refugees from the "New Europe" are doing much as Hispanics do here, i.e. taking the jobs Londoners and British don't care for--dishwashing, house-cleaning, child care, hospital orderly, etc. etc. And they have brought their religious convictions with them, accounting for Catholics' much-improved numbers in the UK.

Reports from Irish newspapers and websites indicate that Polish residents in Ireland have similarly brought the Catholic Church back from disgrace, even death in some cases. The church there has been reeling from the priest abuse scandals, the revelations about the Madeleine sisters, the tyrannical role it sometimes played in rural life. But the Poles know very little of this and have repopulated and revitalized many parishes all over Ireland, generally delighting their neighbors, Irish citizens dismayed at the state of their church.

Just as in the US, immigration is changing the face of the British Isles, every single day. This is just the latest, maybe most dramatic, evidence.

Oh what a tangled web there is...in Eastern/East Central/New Europe

There's an interesting controversy brewing in one of the Baltic states--Estonia, to be precise. Legislators have just voted to remove a monument to the Soviet, or Red Army's liberation of the Estonian people from Nazi invaders in World War II. Estonians are ecstatic; Russians are preparing mass protests of the removal.

If you wonder why this is a controversy, why it is a big deal, you are not alone. There's a convoluted history between Estonia and the USSR that begins when the Baltic states were conquered by Russia during the Imperial period, in the l8th century. Those Baltic peoples never appreciated their lives under Russian rule, and became independent after the l9l7 revolution in Russia. However, that independence was short-lived, ending in l939, when the Germans and Russians signed the infamous Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. The secret protocol provided for the Russians' reconquest of the Baltic states and parts of Poland and Romania, in exchange for standing aside as the Germans took their half of Poland and attacked Great Britain. When the Germans double-crossed Stalin and invaded Soviet territory, they gave the Russians a chance to confront them and then drive them all the way back to Berlin, where they linked up with their friends, the United States and Britain, to put an end to Nazi Germany. The Soviet forces liberated or re-occupied the Baltic states, depending on your point of view, and the Balts faced another long period of living under Russian rule, in the Soviet Union. Just to make sure it would be very difficult for them to break away, Stalin deported many Balts to Siberia or Kazakhstan and resettled Russians there, so that the percentages of Balts vs. Russians were very close in each state.

In l991, of course, the Soviet Union fell. The Baltic peoples understandably vented their indignation, their fury, at their fate, condemning their forcible inclusion ino the Soviet Union. Less understandably, they took out their frustrations on the Russian residents, who after all were not given a choice in their resettlement. They slapped restrictions on the Russians, namely the requirement that every Russian learn the Estonian language, an exceedingly difficult language, within three years as a condition of citizenship. Estonia was particularly adamant about this. Estonian leaders were forced to back off these draconian conditions when they applied for EU admission, but the tensions between Estonian and Russian residents continue.

Now, the removal of this statue appears to the Russian residents as another gratuitous insult directed at them. They place a high premium on the sacrifices of the Red Army on behalf of Baltic residents and believe the memorial's disappearance is an intolerable insult. There is talk of general and hunger strikes in order to force the leadership to renounce their decision. It just goes to show you how difficult life remains for some citizens on the post-Communist political landscape in eastern Europe. It also demonstrates dramatically how the past is not prologue at all. It is not, in fact, even past.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Southeast Asia rising

There's great news in culture and travel today...the city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia(or "Cambodja," as President Kennedy used to say)is open for business and has become all the rage for those seeking the Next Hot Place in Asia. They've even begun to refer to it as the Prague of southeast Asia, and we all know how popular Prague has become in recent years.

It's hard to get there during school, but you can assess Phnom Penh's recovery after years of dictatorship, war and genocide here and jump on the new Cambodia bandwagon.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Female fatalities

Everyone knows women are banned from combat operations in the US armed forces. But, as with so much else, Iraq has broken the rules--in this case, of engagement. Anyone care to guess how many women have been killed in Iraq? How about the last two or three wars?

Autodidact opportunity

If you have some catching up to do on Islamic history--what I do not know about the middle east and/or Islam would fill several medium-sized countries in the region--you should go here and read or listen to the history of the Sunni-Shia conflict. NPR has a series that begins with an explanation of the split and takes you through how it has played out to the present day.

One of the unintended consequences of the Iraq and Afghan war is the rise of Shiite Islam, as embodied in the state of Iran and the sizeable minorities in Syria and Lebanon. Sunni Islam has ruled the Islamic world for much of the post-Mohammad era, but the Shiia are rising fast. Some people believe that the Sunni-Shiia conflict could erupt into a general sectarian war among all the above-mentioned states, admittedly not the happiest thought.

Once you get a handle on this split, you will be far ahead of many of our legislators in Congress. There's a guy who works for one of the Capitol Hill newspapers who regularly asks Congressmen and women what the split is about, and to which tradition Bin Laden and Al-Quaeda belong. Quite often, they are clueless. Do you know this off the top of your head? If not, slink off quietly to the website and autodidact, i.e. teach yourself. As Harry S. Truman said so memorably, there is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.

By popular(?!)demand...

In case you've lost your copy of next Wednesday's 388 exam, here it is, through the miracle of cyberspace:

History 388—US and Vietnam
Midterm exam
For Wednesday, February 20, 2007.

Directions Part I(70%): Prepare answers to the following questions, gathering concrete evidence to support the points you make. Use the text, videos, lectures and any outside readings and reflection you have done. You will do ONE of these on test day, but you do not know WHICH one for sure, so it is wise to prepare all three.

1. The chief architect of the Vietnam war, Robert Strange McNamara, listed as one of his life lessons, “Emphathize with your enemy” in a conflict or war. You are an advisor to Robert McNamara and the year is l961, the year JFK came to office. Adopting the perspective of the Viet Minh leadership, write a profile of the group for McNamara, including what conditions in the country account for their appearance, what their objectives are and why they seem to be so popular among ordinary Vietnamese. Conclude by describing how they view Diem and the United States, and what you believe the United States should do about them.

2.As a senator, President John F. Kennedy visited Vietnam in the last years of the Viet Minh’s war with the French. He and his brother Robert declared that the US should not stand in the way of “rekindled nationalism” and criticized their father and others who had backed the re-imposition of French rule on Vietnam after the war. Yet this was the same John Kennedy who told his advisers in l962 that United States foreign policy” must be credible” and the “place to make it credible is Vietnam.” Write an essay in which you explained what changed his mind, and what concrete measures he took with respect to the American presence there.

3.Ngo Dinh Diem was the United States’ choice to head an anti-Communist south Vietnamese government. On paper, he was a good candidate: he was intelligent, well-spoken and religious. President Eisenhower and others hoped that he would convince the Vietnamese to embrace “capitalist” or “western” values—freedom of speech, movement, press, economy. Why wasn’t Diem able to succeed in this?

Directions Part II(30%): Ids. Identify, briefly discuss and GIVE THE SIGNIFICANCE of the following. You will do THREE of FOUR on test day:

General Giap, l7th parallel, Trung sisters, “mission civilizatrice,” counterinsurgency, Dienbienphu

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The wrap

A couple days late, last week's summary...kind of like the soap opera updates in the morning paper, i guess.


This week, the war was mired in stalemate after the Christmas truce of l9l4. It was clear that it was suicidal to try to challenge the enemy’s position, because of the ability of the machine gun and the high-intensity shell to destroy waves of soldiers simultaneously. The Germans were stuck with the gains of August-December l9l4, the British and French in their defensive positions as of the same time. No one was going anywhere anytime soon.
Therefore, at least on the western front, the obsession of the war planners soon became breaking through the stalemate and coming up with a piece of weaponry, or novel strategy, that would land a knockout punch and bring the sought-after victory. The Germans struck first in the second battle of Ypres, just east of the town at St. Julian. On April 22, l9l5, the Germans launched their first gas cylinders against Senegalese French colonial troops. The gas had its desired effect, immobilizing some troops and causing others to panic and flee, but the Germans proved unprepared to rush enough troops to the spot to break through; they didn’t know that the gas would work, so they basically just stood there. Although they gassed the Canadian lines two days later as well, the Germans’ opponents—the British and the French—had fortified the break in the line and prepared for the next gas attack. Therefore, no breakthrough occurred. The Germans were able to take a bit of high ground, but did not advance their position. The first deployment of WMD in war was a big bust, in other words. There was no appreciable difference in the lines.
Meanwhile, the British were contemplating an invasion of the Ottoman empire, at the Dardanelles/Gallipoli peninsula, some of the most valuable real estate in Europe/near East because it is the gateway to the Black Sea. The Admiralty had several reasons for taking this course of action. First, the weakest member of the Triple Alliance, Russia, was already running short on all kinds of supplies. It was crucial to find a way to resupply her, and that was difficult because the overland route to Russia was too difficult and/or a battlefield, it was impossible to try to access the northern ports because they were mostly icebound and the Turks would not allow supplies to Russia to pass through the straits. The British wanted to be able to access the Black Sea. Second, the Ottoman empire was crumbling and vulnerable. A strong naval bombardment might scare Turkish troops and throw the leadership into panic and chaos; so that the “entire rotten edifice” would come crashing down and Turkey would be knocked out of the war. The Russian Tsar could then be awarded Constantinople, the capital of Orthodoxy until l453. Third, if the Turks were knocked out of the war quickly, perhaps Bulgaria, Romania and Italy might be enticed to join the British, French and Russians. Those nations were sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the right rewards package and/or watching for an emerging winner, so that they could join that side and claim rewards at the peace table. Romania was destined to be particularly richly rewarded in this regard.
There were dangers, chiefly that the Dardanelles is a narrow waterway with high, rocky cliffs alongside. A very defensible position, in other words, with a few machine gunners. But British officials, including Winnie Churchill, believed that Turkish troops were inferior and incapable of defending the Straits.
In March, an initial naval bombardment failed, as the Turks mined the entrance to the Straits. In April, an amphibious assault, carried out mainly by Australia/New Zealand troops, commenced. The Turks initially retreated, but were galvanized by a mathematician-turned-soldier, Mustafa Kemal, who ordered the panicked troops to stand and fight. They did, and the invasion stalled. The Dardanelles/Gallipoli operation turned into a near Eastern version of the western front, with the Anzacs dug in on the hillside and the Turks machine-gunning and shelling from above. No one knew what to do save hurl more and more troops into the breach in efforts to get up the cliffs, with predictable results. After 8 months of futility, the Gallipoli force was withdrawn quietly.
No breakthrough with gas, no breakthrough at Gallipoli. The stalemate held fast in l9l5.

Here the US was looking at yet another war in Vietnam—this time, with the US as the foreign influence. After the l954 Geneva agreement temporarily dividing the country in two at the l7th parallel, the US backed Ngo Din Diem, made him “Our Man in Vietnam,” so to speak, and tried to build him up to the point where he could challenge Ho Chi Minh for the hearts and minds of Vietnamese people in the l956 elections. Unfortunately, Diem proved to be anything but a good American surrogate—he persecuted non-Catholics in Vietnam, his brother-in-law sicked the secret police on political opponents, and he desecrated the graves of his enemies, a terrible trespass on Vietnamese sensibilities. Diem’s oppressive rule, combined with his refusal to hold the l956 elections, convinced Ho Chi Minh that he would have to fight yet again for the country’s liberation from foreigners. He summoned his supporters, called upon all those who opposed Diem and foreign influence in Vietnam to join him, and declared war against the Diem regime. By l960, there was another war in Vietnam, this time between the Viet Minh—newly rebranded as the National Liberation Front—and the US-backed government of Diem.
In l961, John F. Kennedy became the 35th President of the United States. He knew quite a lot about Vietnam, based on a l951 visit there with his brother, and had said he believed the French return was a mistake and that the US had erred in backing them in the war. He and his brother concluded that most of the Vietnamese people wanted Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, and that the group was more anti-foreign than pro-Communist. In his inaugural address, JFK launched a shot against the Communists’ bow, with words such as “let every nation know…that we will pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe” who challenged the spread of democracy throughout the war. But he and his staff talked through all the issues related to Vietnam—whether Ho was a Communist, and if so, was he a slavish follower of Moscow or an independent Communist like Tito, and whether or not it made sense to support the Diem government if everyone wanted Ho Chi Minh. It wasn’t clear what he would do about Vietnam.
Then came three incidents that would induce Kennedy to take a hard line on Vietnam. The Bay of Pigs invasion, which Kennedy launched against his better judgment, failed miserably and brought all kinds of allegations that he was too young, too soft, too indecisive. The Russians took note of this, especially their leader, Nikita Khrushchev, and judged Kennedy to be a paper tiger. At Vienna in l961, Khrushchev bullied and lectured Kennedy, threatening him with nuclear war if he tried to oppose the Soviet Union, especially in Berlin but also in emerging nations like Vietnam. Then in August, Khrushchev authorized the construction of the Berlin wall, an alarming development since he effectively shut off half of a free city from the world. Kennedy thought Khrushchev was very dangerous and very ambitious, and decided he had to oppose him EVERYWHERE. There was no room for error or nuance, and so he determined to “make our policy credible” in Vietnam: support the Diem government and try to prevent Ho Chi Minh from coming to power. He would throw a couple of new elements into the mix—principally counter-insurgency, the idea that the south Vietnamese army could be trained to play Ho Chi Minh’s game—guerilla warfare—better than Ho did. Our advisors would train the south Vietnamese in the same techniques that Ho and the NLF did and thereby prevent the introduction of American combat troops.

The French firstie

While we're on the subject of American Presidential firsties, we shouldn't forget about France's first female Presidential contender, Segolene Royal. She's running on the socialist ticket against the establishment candidate, Nicholas Sarkozy, the darling of expat Hungarians since his parents apparently came to France from Hungary.

Royal is still finding her way on the French trail. She got good reviews for her domestic platform, declaring that she wants for all French children what she was able to give her own: a secure upbringing, a good education, promising job prospects. But she committed a couple of gaffes, too, this week. One was not so serious: she failed to mention China's dismal human rights record when going on record favoring closer French-Chinese ties. The other was rather more consequential, as she proclaimed herself all for "the liberty and sovereignty of Quebec," long a sore subject with Canadian authorities since Quebec citizens have been agitating for decades for separation from, or at least a special relationship with, Canada. Sacrebleu, one might say.

Mrs. Clinton had a rocky week, too, as audiences repeatedly pressed her for an explanation of her vote for the Iraq war, i.e. why she will not disavow it. It's not clear why she won't: it could be that she truly believes that was the right call at the time, or she may be trying to burnish her bona fides as a Woman Unafraid to Wage War.

One thing is clear: in neither country are the voters or the press charmed out of their professional judgment by the mere fact that women are running for office. So much the better for all of us.

Today's required reading

No matter what your position on the Iraq war, you should sit down with General William Odom's piece in this morning's Washington Post. General Odom addresses all the reasons commonly cited for which a)this war was a great idea and b)why we must follow through to "victory," whatever that means. The title is fairly telling: "Victory is not an option."

Everyone who reads this is presumably interested in and involved with history and culture, broadly defined. This accounts for why the following are my favorite excerpts from General Odom's piece, because I believe no one making decisions about the Iraq war looked at precedent or the record of democracy in this century, or for that matter the history of the United States, probably the most fertile soil anywhere for a flowering of democracy. Instead, as General Odom outlines, they decided on war based on ideology and a kind of magical thinking.

"First, the assumption that the United States could create a liberal, constitutional democracy in Iraq defies just about everything known by professional students of the topic. Of the more than 40 democracies created since World War II, fewer than 10 can be considered truly "constitutional" -- meaning that their domestic order is protected by a broadly accepted rule of law, and has survived for at least a generation. None is a country with Arabic and Muslim political cultures. None has deep sectarian and ethnic fissures like those in Iraq."

Not only did the people who planned the war ignore precedent, they actively sought to put down and discredit those who DID try to bring the history of the 20th century into the discussion. I personally remember being told on more than one occasion that I must "hate freedom" because I thought this enterprise was a bad idea.

"Strangely, American political scientists whose business it is to know these things have been irresponsibly quiet. In the lead-up to the March 2003 invasion, neoconservative agitators shouted insults at anyone who dared to mention the many findings of academic research on how democracies evolve. They also ignored our own struggles over two centuries to create the democracy Americans enjoy today. Somehow Iraqis are now expected to create a constitutional order in a country with no conditions favoring it."

It is true that history can be an imperfect guide, because it never repeats itself precisely. But I join General Odom in declaring that history would have been a much better guide than theory and hope against hope in the decision for this misbegotten enterprise.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Now that Barack Obama has officially thrown his hat into the Presidential contest, it's time to assess the three "firsties" in the race: Obama as the first African-American with a realistic chance of getting the nomination, Mrs. Clinton as the first female with same, and Mitt Romney as the first serious LDS contender.

Who is the likeliest to go the distance? Who has the greatest set of obstacles to overcome? How would you advise one or all of these hopefuls as they proceed? For example, would you advise Mitt to confront the religious issue directly, as John F. Kennedy did with the Baptist ministers in Houston early in his campaign? JFK reminded the ministers that no one asked him about his religion when he volunteered to defend the country in World War II, and he declared he could not believe he lost any chance to be President of the US by dint of being born into a Catholic family. That was un-American, he said in essence. Mitt could do something like that...he could point to the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, and prominent Republican senator Orrin Hatch, as examples of successful LDS public servants. The sky did not fall on the evangelical Protestants when those fellows were elected.

I personally believe Mrs. Clinton is traveling the rockiest road, not because of her gender, but of the LONG shadow cast by that prominent pol to whom she is married. What is his role? Whatcha gonna do with a First ex-President Husband?

A Putin evolution?

Something shocking almost happened today. The President of Russia, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, has actually said something that indicates he knows the Cold War is over. He opined today that what he perceives as the US's excessive reliance on and use of military force has destabilized the world, forcing many nations to seek nuclear weapons as insurance against preventive strikes. I think that is at least worthy of discussion, because the election of Ahmadinejad and the launch of the nuclear campaign in Iran seems to date from President Bush's speech branding Iran as a member of the "Axis of Evil" states, along with Iraq and north Korea. We all know what happened to Iraq, so I'm not sure it was unreasonable of Iran to go nationalist in electing Ahmadinejad and launching a campaign to go nuclear. I'd like to hear from people on the question of whether the US under President Bush has relied inordinately on military solutions to conflicts in the post-9/11 environment.

But alas, it was too much to expect that Our Man from the KGB would abandon his Cold War rhetoric for long. He ruined everything towards the end of his remarks by whining about encirclement. The Guardian correspondent in attendance reported, "(Putin) reserved his bitterest complaints, however, for the US drive to expand Nato into former Soviet eastern Europe and for the plans to deploy parts of the missile shield in central Europe. 'Why do you need to move your military infrastructure to our borders?' he declared.

Vintage boilerplate paranoia from the USSR...the more things change, the more they stay the same!

Friday, February 9, 2007

Article about Vietnam

Here is an article in the Seattle PI about the U.S. pledging $400K more to help clean Agent Orange from Vietnam. Please cut and paste as I still can't figure how the link option works.


Thursday, February 8, 2007

The name game

I just noticed that Turkmenistan--you know the 'stans, here a 'stan, there a 'stan, everywhere a 'stan, 'stan--has a new President. The Moscow Times informs us that Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has taken over the ship of Turkmen state following the death of Saparmurat Niayzov, or Turkmenbashi, a few weeks ago. The latter was the man who had most days of the week, as well as most of the months of the year, named for him. He was a pistol!

These names got me to thinking about one of my favorite subjects: the strangest(relatively speaking), longest, and/or most unpronounceable names of foreign leaders. I offer as examples those two Turkmen gems. But recent Indonesian leaders Sasilo Bambang Yadhoyono and Megawati Sukamoputri are quite competitive in this category, too, and among "blasts from the past," I always cite the immortal Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili, better known as Stalin. Among the strange but entirely pronounceable since we know them, Robert STRANGE McNamara and Warren GAMALIEL Harding. The best-sounding strange moniker must surely be ATATURK, or Mustafa Kemal. You see his name and you just want to call out, "Atta Turks!"

Who gets your nod in the "interestingly named foreign(or even domestic) leaders" competition?

A spokeswoman for mainstream Islam(!)

If you are among those who believe that moderate voices in islam ought to try harder to make themselves heard, meet Gina Khan. She's a Briton who despises the radicalization of her fellow Muslims in Birmingham and celebrates Britain as a nation of opportunity for Muslims, especially women. She wants to see British authorities do even more--specifically, to crack down on madrassas and imams who inculcate the young with hatred and imprison women with arranged marriages and informal polygamous arrangements. In other words, she wants Britain to present itself as the liberal society it is by condemning and attempting to root out illiberalism.

I'm not sure how liberal societies can "root out" illiberalism and anti-modernism, because they are by nature laissez-faire about personal morals, but I wish someone could find a way at least to counter them in public. In any event, an intriguing and hopeful portrait, courtesy of the London Times.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Now for something really different

This is a total non-sequitir, in view of the ongoing conversation about the John Burns/Iraq comments, but I couldn't help passing along the chance to get a unique piece of gadgetry.

CLOCKY is a roly-poly little alarm that not only rouses you from sleep, but FORCES YOU TO GET UP and give chase once it starts working. it rolls off your nightstand and runs away--it can absorb numerous two-foot falls and keeps right on annoying you when it won't beep rhythmically.

i don't need this because I've got a canine alarm clock, but if CLOCKY is for you, you can get it here

And when you get it, please bring for show and tell!

Changing times for the copter?

At least one student I know is working on the role of the helicopter in the evolution of war in the 20th century. In the wake of four copter crashes in Iraq over the last couple of weeks, NY Times reporters Richard Oppel and James Glanz write in the February 8 edition of the paper,

"Historically, improved tactics in shooting down helicopters have proved to be important factors in conflicts in which guerrillas have achieved victories against major powers, including battles in Somalia, Afghanistan and Vietnam."

While no one has established that these crashes are related, or that insurgents are responsible for them, I certainly had never thought of helicopters as useful in this way...I'm going to have to think about that one.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Relax :-)

Since stuff is getting heavy here...how about something on the relaxing side. If I had carte blanche to travel to Vietnam, I would want to start here: http://www.sixsenses.com/hideaway-anamandara/index.php. Check out the photo gallery on the left margin. It's just a little slice of heaven!!

A verdict on trying to change the course of history in Iraq

This is John Burns, the New York Times correspondent, who has managed to survive four years in Baghdad while getting in and around some of the most dangerous places there. He recently spoke with National Review's John Podhoretz and delivered this verdict on American involvement(and by extension, further involvement)there:

"We just didn't understand, and perhaps didn't work hard enough to understand, what lay beneath this carapace which is a deeply fractured society that had always been held together, since the British constructed it, by drawing geometric lines on the map — Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia in the 1920s — a country that had really always been held together by force and varying degrees repression. The King, King Faisal, is remembered, the King who was assassinated in 1958, as a kind of golden era, but even that is really, was not really a parliamentary democracy. It was still basically an autocratic state and I think we needed to understand better the forces that we were going to liberate.

And my guess is that history will say that the forces that we liberated by invading Iraq were so powerful and so uncontrollable that virtually nothing the United States might have done, except to impose its own repressive state with half a million troops, which might have had to last ten years or more, nothing we could have done would have effectively prevented this disintegration that is now occurring."

I think that is a powerful argument for a real disengagement there.

A rich vein on the Gallipoli landings

An engaged 395 student found a great siteon the Gallipoli landings, concentrating on the Australian/New Zealand experience there. Be sure to visit and do some reading in the various sections. Living history at its best, available to you 24/7.

FYI to all 395 people: We have secured the auditorium for our showing of the Peter Weir film "Gallipoli" for tomorrow(5-7), Monday and the following Wednesday--Valentine's Day-- when we will take a break from the misery of stalemate and mass death to watch Laurel Piippo's slides of Croatia and Slovenia. There's actually a connection there to the World War...you will see up close and personal why these areas were so attractive to both Italians and Croats, Slovenes and Serbs from the Habsburg Monarchy.

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Iraq brain trust

There's a great articlein today's Washington Post about the brainy bunch General David Petraeus has assembled to find a successful way forward in Iraq. It is truly an impressive group--all its members are combat-tested veterans of Iraq who also have done good work in political science, international relations, anthropology and history.

I think it's a great idea to bring on board guys who have done a lot of reading and thinking. But I wonder if they will be able to create an Iraqi nationality where none presently exists. This is the key, because without that, there IS no national Iraqi army, only an army comprised of Shiites who will likely only throw themselves into fighting against Sunnis, not their own sectarian extremists. And without an Iraqi nationality, there IS no Iraqi national government, only a Shiite government unacceptable to Sunni residents. This is a task that eluded Tito in Yugoslavia, probably the individual with the best chance of forging a nationality out of disparate groups since he successfully led Serbs, Croats and Slovenes through the crucible of World War II.

Reading a lot of books and plotting a successful counterinsurgency strategy can't hurt, probably, but a creating a common destiny and bonds of national unity in a shattered state will likely be beyond Petraeus and the Ph.Ds, too.

Equality in America

A request for any and all readers: would you take a moment to share some thoughts about equality in America? We are brought up knowing that "all men are created equal" here, but what does this mean in practice in this country? I am supposed to lead a community discussion on this topic here in about a week, so I would appreciate any thoughts and perspective you would like to offer.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Wilson agonistes

It's well known that President Woodrow Wilson suffered debilitating illness during and after his high-profile role in the negotiation of the Versailles Treaty in l9l9. In today's Washington Post, there are new disclosuresabout just how bad the President's health was, particularly after the stroke he suffered in the fall of l9l9. No one dared pronounce him incompetent to continue, but it's clear someone should have done so.

If you are ever in Washington DC, you should take the time to visit the Woodrow Wilson house, the President's residence after he left the White House. It is not hard to find, located just a few blocks from the Dupont Circle metro station. There, the extent of his disability becomes evident when you learn that the President could not negotiate stairs. You also get a sense of how proud the he was of the new Europe he helped create when you enter his study. There is a huge portrait of the President sitting at his desk, smiling serenely, with the postwar map of the continent clearly visible behind him.

You can only be happy for the President that he did not live to see what happened to his new Europe just 20 years after its creation.

HCTV week

This week's highlights, from PBS to TCM, if you've got it:

The PBS series "American Experience" looks at American efforts to develop germ warfare in "The Living Weapon," Monday evening at 9. Part II of the PBS "biography" of the US Supreme Court airs at 9 pm Wednesday. That's a great series, because it combines perspective from historians with commentary from current Supremes' Chief Justice John Roberts. He's turned out to be a very accessible fellow, in contrast to his predecessor and some of his colleagues.

If you've got Turner Classic Movies, look for the classic "Battle of Algiers" at 7 pm Sunday-- cinema verite, with the French battling a Muslim insurgency in Algeria in the l950s and making liberal use of torture. "The Shop on Main Street," one of the classics of Czech postwar cinema, follows at l0.

Happy viewing!

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Weekly recap

As promised, the weekly recap of 395 and 388:

395 students witnessed the sudden halt of the German advance into Belgium and France--the "Paris for lunch" part of the war plan--and the implosion of Count Schleiffen's scheme to win the war quickly. When the Germans were stopped by British and French forces along the river Marne, the Schleiffen plan became inoperative. An improvised Plan B called for a quick swing up north, to the Belgian coast, and the capture of the Channel ports at Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. If German forces were able to take those, the British supply lines would be cut and the British forces already in the country would be trapped. The ensuing "race to the sea," the Germans trying to take the Channel ports and the British desperate to defend them, put the sleepy town of Ypres/Ieper in the eye of the storm. There followed a furious "first battle of Ypres," Germans v. British. Although the Germans had superior numbers, their ranks were populated by the greenest of warriors--students fresh out of school--and they faced professionals on the British side. The British won the this first battle of Ypres, slaughtering thousands of Germans, and the ports were temporarily saved. After this, both sides settled into established lines and dug themselves into the earth, as attacks and raids were far too costly in the era of the machine gun and the high-intensity shell. After the famous Christmas Truce of December l9l4, the war planners would be obsessed with scoring the big breakthrough that would end the war favorably for their side. The search for that breakthrough would dominate the rest of the war.

In 388, the French colonial era in Vietnam ended with the French defeat at Dienbienphu by Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh. This was huge for colonial peoples everywhere, in that a Great White Power was felled by a group of low-tech brown people, but especially for the Viet Minh as this marked their third victory in three conflicts. The Viet Minh believed they finally had won the right to govern Vietnam, but the Big Guys Who Decide Things for Everyone had other ideas: the Geneva meeting devised a compromise that awarded south Vietnam to the French and US-affiliated anti-Communists, with the Viet Minh administering the north of the country. The country was divided at the l7th parallel, and both sides agreed that there would be elections in two years that would determine who would administer Vietnam. Convinced that Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh were the advance party for monolithic Communism, the United States decided to prevent a Viet Minh victory in the election at any cost. Military intervention was out, because all the influential military people were against it, so it was decided to find a surrogate for American power, or "our values," and build him up in hopes of countering Ho's popularity. Diem became our man, and it was clear early on that his rule would be, um, problematic--but there was no one else through which we could prevent a Communist Vietnam. Next week: John F. Kennedy confronts the growing problem of southeast Asia and...reverses himself!

Did I miss anything?