Thursday, April 26, 2007

Lindsey A.J. Hughes, 1949-2007

Word came from the UK today of the death of Lindsey Hughes, Professor of Russian History at University College, London. She had been ill on and off with cancer with several years, and it finally killed her today.

Lindsey Hughes wrote two superlative books in her specialty, Russia in the era of Peter the Great. One was a lengthy, academic study of Peter the Great, later shortened into a biography for general readers. I don't think I fully understood the transformation of the Russia under Peter before I read this work. She drew a general picture for the reader, then filled it in with all kinds of intriguing details, for example the exacting social and sartorial rules Peter imposed on the "new Russians" he forced to come to St. Petersburg to live in his mosquito-infested "Paradise." Peter so micromanaged their lives that he imposed a fine after a certain period of time for those who still did not learn how to sail, as European people did. Anyone caught using oars would be in big trouble. The other book she wrote that was so great concerned Sophia, Peter the Great's half sister. For many years prior to LIndsey's reappraisal, Sophia was a scheming witch hell-bent on destroying her half brother's life. In Lindsey's view, she was a highly intelligent, well-educated woman who wanted very much to rule herself--she certainly was every bit as capable as Peter--and, well, played hardball, used all the resources at her disposal to help her own cause. Lindsey was always surprising you, and she knew whereof she spoke. She worked in archives no westerner had seen before.

Lindsey was as down-to-earth as she was renowned. She was quick to laugh, told delightful stories of university life in Britain, and absolutely loved Cambridge, her alma mater and my personal favorite-ever university town. She will be missed at each and every conference and gathering in the future. Her books, however, assure that she will live on for years to come.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Godspeed, David Halberstam

I was deeply saddened to learn yesterday of the death of David Halberstam. History 388 students should all read his book "The Best and the Brightest," a cautionary tale about American hubris. He profiled the "bright young men" of the Kennedy administration and led readers to the inescapable conclusion that they believed completely in American omnipotence, the ability of America to impose its will on any people, any situation anywhere in the world. Then they should go on to read his Vietnam reportage, highly critical of Kennedy policy, which so enraged Saint Jack Kennedy that he lobbied to get Halberstam fired. Well, we all know who was right about Vietnam in the long run.

Or you can sample any number of other Halberstam masterpieces, small and large: his portrait of the firehouse near his apartment on 66th street in New York City and the men who had suffered so greviously on September ll, his many works on sports, his masterful portrait of the l950s in America. There were few writers more perceptive or insightful about a wide range of American phenomena.

Halberstam wrote a letter to his daughter a few years ago. I thought the following lines were especially a propos in view of our study of the Vietnam conflict and the growing difficulties in Iraq:

"I do not think I was alone in what I went through in those years. I think I was simply a part of a great national interior debate taking place throughout the country; we were reexamining not just America in Vietnam, but America itself. If we doubted that we were in the right war, or even on the right side, it did not mean that we loved our country any less. If anything, knowing America’s faults and imperfections, perhaps I love it more than your grandfather and great-grandfather, for perhaps I love it more wisely. During all those years, I kept on my desk a small quote from Albert Camus which he had written during France’s war in Algeria: ‘I should like to be able to love my country and love justice.”

I have thought long and hard about Vietnam over the last 20 years, for something like this does not lightly leave you, and I have decided that the true innocents are not those — as Washington would have it — who are afraid to use force and thus do not understand the real world, but in fact those who still think that in this day and age we can impose our values and our will upon peasants by force. And your godfather was right: I wish in fact that someone had shown me a photo of Vietcong bodies and I had cried."

I too believe that you should be able to love your country and love justice. Rest well, David Halberstam. Your immortality is assured in your writings.

My Bad--388 final WEDNESDAY

I must have eaten too much New York car exhaust this weekend--I said yesterday that I would see 388 students on MONDAY for the 388 final.

In fact, we are scheduled for WEDNESDAY, May 2, 5:45-7:45. If you have 395 as well, you're scheduled for the same day at l:30.

The evil schedulers simply cannot provide you people with any respite. We shall have to go to war with them. Meantime, please spread the word if you see fellow class members.

The Yeltsin post-mortem, installment I

A well-connected and insightful Russia-watching friend had the following to say about Boris Yeltsin vis-a-vis his handpicked successor, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin:

"Whatever he(Yelstin) actually did, in his ham-handed way; and whatever happened by accident on his watch, or even in spite of his actions was more to the benefit of the country than whatever VVP has done deliberately, in the name of "progress" and "democracy". The sad thing (and this is perpetually the problem with Russians and Russia) is that the people have very short attention spans, memories and even patience; and they have always cared very little for the intangibles, like open borders and a free press. What most will remember Yeltsin for is the debacle with privatization (they don't realize that they have Chubais to thank for that) and the resulting inequities in society (the birth of the oligarchs).

I also think that poor, often drunk and sick BN was jerked around by a coterie of arrogant, unscrupulous types (including his daughter) who took advantage of the situation and made matters even worse. Unfortunately, Putin's blanket pardon of BN and his family (why he did that defies reason) has put all of them effectively beyond the pale of punishment. And a bunch of them are still grabbing what they can, and with both hands (Chernomyrdin, Borodin, etc.).

The fact remains, however, that, any thinking individual would always choose the chaos, mess of a Yeltsin era over the order, discipline of the Putin one. The operative word here is "thinking". And we've all been told too many times that Russians prefer "feeling" over "thinking"..."

Amen, amen, amen!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Hangin' with the Hungarians

Tonight the conference reconvened at the Hungarian Consulate on E. 53rd street. The consul-general received every conference attendee graciously, talked to us at some length about his duties and assessed the state of Hungarian-American relations, which he pronounced excellent. I did note that when he introduced a prominent visiting member of the Magyar Democratic Union, he noted that she had been talking to both Republicans and Democrats in the Congress...these people know it pays to cultivate good relations with the opposition as well as the party in power. Afterwards, a fine time was had by all--everyone schmoozed over Hungarian mushrooms, cold cuts, fruit, dessert and Hungarian wine of all kinds. These gatherings always go better with Hungarian wine.

Afterward we viewed a strange documentary film about the Austrian woman who won Miss Universe in l929. Her best friend was a Hungarian, and the film followed both their lives into the tragedy of World War II, from which they did not emerge unscathed. Earlier, we were at the conference site, St. John's University, Manhattan, which is a block from the World Trade Center site. I couldn't help thinking what a drop in the bucket, relatively speaking, September 11 was. Europe had two world wars and millions and millions of dead...we had the one day in September, 3000 killed. It kind of put it all in perspective, which is why you go to these kinds of events.

Now, a total non-sequitir: Borders New York permits non-service dogs in their stores...i came across three today in the downtown Borders. One woman was talking to her Yorkie as if he were her small child(!)...

Thursday, April 19, 2007

New Amsterdam report

Manhattan stands tall and proud...the visit proceeds briskly. We visited Lincoln Center last night, to see the Puccini opera about east vs. west, Madame Butterfly. This morning, a rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic, which is nearing an important milestone--15,000 concerts since the days when P.I. Tchaikovsky was guest conducting. Then this afternoon, the "New Colossus," the grande dame in the harbor, who accepts at least some of the tired, poor huddled masses who yearn to be free, and the immigrant processing center where my grandparents and many thousands of others got their first glance of the USA. The Hungarians welcome us tomorrow--that is, after we inspect the Brooklyn Bridge. Oh, and there was a glimpse of the place where they used to have a wall to separate whites from the's a street now, don't you know, with dollar signs on it.

Message to everybody: Manhattan or Bust!!

What a week

And not in a good way. Today is the 11th anniversary of the Murrow Federal Building in Oklahoma City and tomorrow is the 8th anniversary of Columbine. With the horrific tragedy at Virginia Tech, this is not the greatest week in American history.

On the world front, according to the BBC,the British Army was cleared of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Londonderry, Northern Ireland on January 30, 1972. The day started as a peaceful civil rights protest by Londonderry Catholics and ended with 13 people dead, 17 injured and over 60 people arrested.

Ironically, April 20, 1974 claimed the 1,000 victim of "The Troubles." Again, according to the BBC, James Murphy, a gas station owner, was killed and dumped at the side of the road. Hmmmmm, this isn't a good week for Northern Ireland's history either.

My thoughts go out to those who are dealing with their losses at VT and those who are remembering loved ones claimed in Oklahoma City and Littleton.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A dark anniversary indeed

It nearly went by me, but our Hoosier correspondent reminds us that today is the 90th anniversary of the Nivelle Offensive, or the battle of the Chemin des Dames, the riding preserve of the French royal women in the l7th and l8th centuries. This was one in the series of "surefire breakthroughs" on the western front after September l9l4, coming between First Ypres(l9l4, the smash-through to Calais and Dunkirk), Second Ypres(l9l5, gas) Verdun l9l6(let's bleed the French white), the Somme(l9l6, take some pressure off the French)and 3rd Ypres/Passchendaele(knock out the Uboat ports), the spring l9l8 German all-out offensive and Meuse-Argonne. But it wasn't just your garden-variety offensive--its first days of unabated slaughter ended in widespread mutinities that affected nearly all of the French army on the western front. It was key to the launching of the British 3rd Ypres and made the US entry all the more urgent. You might find some good material for the final in the IHT writeup, which you can find by clicking here.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

395 final

To drum roll accompaniment, the final exam for the Great War:

H395/455—World War I
Final exam
Spring ’07

Directions question I(100%) Prepare all three questions, making use as usual of videos, lectures, outside reading, guest speakers, inside reading and reflection. You will do ONE of them on test day, but you do not know WHICH one, so be ready for anything. There are NO identifications because you will cover all of them in doing these questions.

1. The Great War is generally regarded as a transformative event, an event that fundamentally changed the world. Those are fine-sounding words. Now, tell me what they mean. Make a list of all the changes you can think of and identify three(3) that you judge most important. Then develop and explain each one in an essay which you will conclude by indicating which was most significant long-term, and WHY. Be specific…

2. l9l7 was a year of fateful exits and entries. Discuss briefly the reasons behind EITHER the U.S. entry into the war OR the Russian exit from the war in l9l7 and evaluate the impact of the entry/exit on the outcome of the war.

3. Write an essay in which you identify and discuss some of the challenges faced by the makers of the peace treaties that ended the World War. To what extent did the final product(s) reflect the outline sketched by President Wilson in the Fourteen Points?

4. My late, great graduate adviser used to say that November ll, l9l8 and the peace treaties that followed solved none of the problems that caused this war. What problems might she have been referring to, and do you agree or disagree with her assessment?

Congratulations! You now know far more than 99.9% of your fellow citizens about the most important event of the last century. There's virtue in that for you, stars in your crown.

HCTV week

Everyone ought to make a point of watching "America at a Crossroads" on PBS this week. Robin McNeil, a sober, serious journalist late of the McNeil-Lehrer news hour, has tried to paint a portrait of America and the world after 9-11. KYVE website describes the series thus:

AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS explores the challenges confronting the world post 9/11. The series of eleven documentaries over twelve hours will examine the war on terrorism; the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; the experience of American troops; the struggle for balance within the Islamic world and Muslim life in America; and America's role in the world. Hosted by PBS journalist Robert MacNeil, the programs feature discussions with United States military personnel, leading policy experts, leaders of the Muslim American community, scholars from across the country as well as members of the public.

If you watch this series, and then attend the Leroy Ashby lecture on 4-25 at WSUTC, you will have a start on understanding the era in which we are all now living, i.e. the "new normal(?!)."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Happy Birthday, Barbara!

Today is Barbara Jelavich's 84th birthday. Barbara was one of my graduate advisers at Indiana, the academic and life partner of Charles Jelavich, who remains a going concern in every possible way. She left our mortal world l2 years ago, but she is very much alive in the hearts of those who knew her.

Barbara was an academic "brat," the only child of a UC Berkeley English Professor. Proving that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, she became an historian and had a distinguished career as an author, mentor to graduate students and all-around remarkable person. One of her books, titled simply History of the Balkans(2 volumes), does the impossible in breaking down the myriad peoples and issues of the Balkan region for any non-specialist to understand. She is succinct, cogent and dispassionate in that work, in fact in all her works, proof of which is the fact that the Balkan history has been translated into and made available in ALL the Balkan languages. That's a loaves-and-fishes kind of miracle in that contentious region of the world.

Barbara could be formidable, because she was a world-class historian, but mostly she was friendl, conscientious, and always capable of surprising people. She was an opera maven who loved hockey and baseball for the possibility of a bench-clearing brawl. Her word was law when making critical comments on papers, but she leavened the severity by becoming "La Dauphine" as the person doing the grading. She could wow an audience of academics with a lecture, then giggle with students about how she used to sneak out of the house in California and chat up sailors when she was "quite young." She also had an appealingly twisted sense of humor. One year, students of hers in a seminar wanted to mark her birthday with a cake during class. They got the cake, brought it into the room, delighting her, and then opened the box to read, on the cake, "Happy Bar Mitzvah, Harry!" I never saw Barbara laugh so hard...she couldn't get her breath for about twenty minutes. Neither could anyone else!

I wish anyone reading this had had a chance to know Barbara, but we are lucky, because she left an extensive last will and testament in her many good works on German and east European history. Happy Birthday, Barbara, wherever you are. You will never be forgotten.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Get in the Gagarin game!

So what are your plans for Yuri's night 2007? You mean you're not sure what Yuri's night IS? Why, it's the St. Patrick's Day, or Cinco de Mayo, of space. It's a worldwide extravaganza, a phenomenon, a Happening! You should start making your plans to mark Yuri's day, or night, now. If you go to this site, you will find some tips and/or scenes you can make if you don't have time to stage your own celebration. Don't fail to mark this key anniversary in 20th century history!

Christy's website

If you heard Christy Leskovar's talk on her family memoir, "One Night in a Bad Inn," yesterday, you can get more information on the book here. It deals with some of Christy's more colorful relatives, immigrant turn-of-the-century Butte, Montana, World War I, peace, love, murder, occasional mayhem...quite a story.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Today's quiz

Time for the quiz, one of the occasional features here at the Blogside Inn:

1. What is Globish?

2. What is the dominant language of Asia?

3. What is the common language of Jihadis worldwide?

The answers are sure to surprise you--you can find them here. Afterwards, a silent prayer of thanks for your birthplace and linguistic environment will be in order. You lucky pup!

Sunday, April 8, 2007


Tomorrow is Easter Monday and the 91st anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, which eventually brought forth an independent Irish state. In the words of the balladier,

"Oh the bravest fell, and the requiem bell rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Eastertide in the springing of the year
And the world did gaze, in deep amaze, at those fearless men, but few
Who bore the fight that freedom's light might shine through the foggy dew."

As with the Russian revolutions, I doubt the Irish rebels would have had an opportunity to launch this campaign without the reality of a grinding, costly and all-consuming struggle on the western front...they hit the British government at a moment of maximum vulnerability. No Great War, no Communist Russia, and likely no Irish Republic, either, at least not so soon into the 20th century.

The light at the end of the tunnel?

We just surveyed the sad final months of the Lyndon Johnson presidency, in which he viewed the failing US effort in Vietnam as a public relations problem. He believed he could "sell" the viability of the war to the American public with some high-profile speeches and appearances among the troops in Vietnam. This effort came to a definitive halt with the so-called "TET" lunar New Year's offensive, when the Viet Cong launched attacks against the US embassy in Saigon as well as in 50 cities and towns across south Vietnam. Suddenly all those assurances about how there was finally light at the end of the tunnel, the enemy was finished, it was all but over, etc., rang hollow. It was obvious to everyone that the OPPOSITE was true--we were in deep trouble, in deep quagmire, with no easy exit in sight. Lyndon Johnson was subsequently forced to withdraw from the l968 Presidential campaign and retired to his ranch in Texas.

Now John McCain, fresh off a public relations disaster of his own in a Baghdad neighborhood, is going to rerun the Johnson strategy. To quote the Washington Post, "Senator John McCain will launch a high-profile effort this week to convince Americans that the Iraq war is winnable, embracing the unpopular conflict with renewed vigor as he attempts to reignite his stalling bid for the presidency."

We faced one civil conflict in Vietnam, the north Vietnamese Communists vs. the south Vietnamese status quo, and didn't come close to victory. Now we face... Shiia militias and mobs fighting each other for power and influence over the lucrative Basra port, religious Shiia militias fighting each other for the allegiance of believers, Sunni Iraqis vs. the Shiite central government over power and influence in the national government, Al Quaeda and Baathist insurgents vs. the United States in Anbar province, and now Arabs vs. Kurds for control of Kirkuk and its oil. That's at least five different wars, and McCain thinks that we can prevail in military terms?!

Is this delusional thinking or an old navy man's "damn the torpedoes" stubbornness? Either way, it's hard to see how he avoids LBJ's outcome.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

388 final

and the envelope, please...

History 388
Spring ‘07
Final exam

Part I(70%): Directions: Prepare the following essays, drawing upon readings, videos, lectures and/or any personal reflection or outside reading you have done. You will do ONE of them. You MAY have a choice on test day but you will not know until you arrive, so make sure you can do any of them. It’s fine, even encouraged, to study with friends, provided that each person writes his own essays, does his own work in the end.

1. The Vietnam conflict damaged the reputation of John F. Kennedy, drove Lyndon Johnson from office in despair and fatally distorted Richard Nixon’s judgment, destroying his Presidency in the Watergate scandal. Why couldn’t Presidents Nixon or Johnson bring the war to an end, in spite of unparalleled tonnage of bombs, ground troops, billions of dollars and the latest in high-tech weaponry?

2. Unlike previous wars of the 20th century, the Vietnam war became the target of increasingly emphatic opposition after the introduction of ground troops in l966. Discuss some of the reasons which brought forth protest, then explain how protests played out at the University of Wisconsin in l967. Use specific incidents from the David Maraniss books in your answer where possible. . Conclude by evaluating the influence that dissent has had—or not had-- on the current conflict in Iraq

3. Everyone who fought in Vietnam, or lived through the era in which that drama played out, has his or her own “Vietnam war.” Michael Herr and Philip Caputo, authors of Dispatches and A Rumor of War, certainly had theirs. Write an essay in which you compare some of their impressions of and experiences in the Vietnam conflict.

4. Harry Truman—or was it Winston Churchill?—once said, “There is no end to lessons.” Assume that it is 2008 and you are now an advisor to the new President. Identify THREE lessons you have learned from the Vietnam war and make clear to him how they could inform the foreign policy of the United States.

Part II: Ids. Identify, discuss briefly and give the significance of the following. You’ll do three of five or six on test day.

Gulf of Tonkin resolution, Tet offensive, Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall and Women’s Memorial, Laos and Cambodia, “Clean Gene” McCarthy, “hawks and doves,” Vietnamization, Kent State, Robert F. Kennedy

I realize this will be an ordeal, but it's still a lot easier than the Georgetown Russian history finals back in the day, which were routinely scheduled for " 1 pm-sundown."

Romneys and Vietnam

Everyone is watching the candidacy of Mitt Romney for the GOP Presidential nomination. Both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain have stumbled in the last few days, so it could be that Mitt will catch some mo. As we contemplated the tragic fall of Lyndon Johnson the other day, I couldn't help recalling that the Vietnam war ruined Mitt's dad, too.

George Romney was an automobile executive, a devotee of public service and a three-time Republican governor of Michigan. He was a good-government kind of Republican, fond of low taxes and a good business climate, but also a friend of civil rights and other progressive initiatives. He was considered a front-runner for the Presidency on the GOP ticket in l968, running ahead even of Richard Nixon, the eventual nominee and winner. That is, until he gave an interview in late l967 or early l968, I can't remember which, in which Romney came out against the Vietnam war, declaring he had been "brainwashed" during a l965 fact-finding mission in Vietnam. Some people took offense at what they believed was his insensitivity, in view of the ordeal of prisoners-of-war being paraded on TV. Other people thought he had a screw loose--how could a reasonable, balanced person have been "brainwashed?" It went over, as they say, like a pregnant pole really ruined his reputation and sank his campaign. It was too bad, because George Romney was fundamentally a good guy.

It is too early to tell how, or if, the Iraq war will affect the younger Romney. But his father's experience is just another example of how destructive the Vietnam war was--it ruined everyone it touched.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Midweek Movies

The Hoosier state--you know, the place where they have summer markets just like Baghdad's--has checked in again with a great addition to the lexicon of contemporary history: Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the Ost(East), or East Germany. The Ost of Germany has been gone lo these many years, but apparently people have begun to miss it. It was quite a phenomenon...

Two films about East Germany are worth seeing in the near future: one you can get at Blockbuster, or from me if you're around, called "Goodbye, Lenin." That's a comedy about a dedicated east German Communist who falls into a coma shortly before the end of East German Communism, then wakes up about ten years later. She's not to have any stress or upset in her life, so her children conspire to re-construct an east Germany inside her hospital and apartment. She eventually finds them out, but not before a lot of hilarious make-believe...if you need a laugh, that's a great one.

The other one, appropriately titled "The Lives of Others," tackles a more serious matter, the all-pervasive influence of the German secret police, the Stasi, in East German society. The Stasi was much more diligent than the KGB in Russia...when the files were made available to people after the fall of the Communist regime, quite a few people found out that their parents, their friends or even their spouses had been informing on them. Timothy Garton Ash wrote a book about his own Stasi dossier, called the File; now German filmmakers explore the influence of the Stasi for the first time. You can read about it here.