Category Archives: History

Integrity, Truthfulness, Purity, and Singleness of Purpose: Winfield Scott Hancock and what the United States Needs Today

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I visit Gettysburg a lot and I also write about it a lot. When I make those visits I am always humbled and learn something new. I only wish that most Americans and our leaders of both political parties as well as most media types and pundits could grasp what I experience on each visit to the “hallowed ground” of Gettysburg.

Quite honestly I do not think that the vast majority Americans regardless of their party affiliation or ideology  understand, appreciate or value in the slightest the sacrifices of the men who fought and in many cases died to preserve the Union at Gettysburg. Even among those who do I think that the object of their appreciation are the military aspects of the battle often taken in isolation, not the profound strategic dimensions of what this battle as well as the fall of Vicksburg in the west at the same time had on the war.

Nor do I think that they appreciate the massive political, ideological and social effects bought about by those Union victories in ending the war and how those effects redound to us today. This is especially true of the pundits, politicians and preachers, the “Trinity of Evil” as I call them whose shrill voices urge on divisions between our people; including some that call out for violence to maintain their groups social, economic or religious advantages over others. Quite a few even lament the fall of the South and the institution including the washed up rock and roll musician of the political right Ted Nugent who wrote in the Washington Times in July 2012: “I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War.” More recently when President Trump talked of the moral equivalence of the opposing sides at Charlottesville I was reminded of just how hateful and morally bankrupt such feelings are, I am sure that General Hancock would be appalled that an American President would make that kind of stand.

All of that concerns me as an American and a historian; because I realize how dangerous such historical ignorance and visceral propaganda is in the life of any nation. Thus when I go to Gettysburg, or for that matter any other battlefield of our American Civil War the sacrifices of those men and what they fought to maintain are again imprinted on my heart.

Abraham Lincoln eloquently noted about those soldiers who fought to turn back the Confederate tide at Gettysburg in his Gettysburg Address:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

While I am an idealist I am also a pragmatist. I respect the right of others, even those that disagree with things that I very much believe in and support. Like it or not the keystone of our governmental system is one of compromise. That being said having relatives that fought on both sides of the American Civil War that I am not a sectionalist. Nor am I a person that attempts to use the political system to ensure that others have to follow my religious beliefs or to enrich certain groups. The democracy that is part of our republic’s system of government is not a perfect system by any means. In fact as the great English Prime Minister Winston Churchill noted “democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others.”

Thus I appreciate military men who maintain their oath to the nation in times of great conflict not abandoning it to support causes that they know are wrong because the people of their state, or interest group seek to divide that Union. Winfield Scott Hancock was one of those kind of men, as was George Meade, and John Buford, all of whom played key roles in defeating the Confederates at Gettysburg.

Hancock, who earned the title “Hancock the Superb” was the commander of the Union Second Corps at Gettysburg. Upon the death of John Reynolds early on the first day of battle Hancock was appointed by George Meade as commander of the Federal Left Wing, in effect becoming Meade’s deputy commander for the rest of the battle. He was seriously wounded as Pickett’s Charge came to its bloody end at “the Angle” even as his dear friend Confederate General Lewis Armistead lay mortally wounded a few hundred yards away.

Hancock is an interesting character. He was from Pennsylvania but was a Democrat. He was not a Republican like Lincoln. Hancock was not a political ideologue but was since he was a Democrat he was suspect by leaders in the party establishments of both parties; Republicans for being a Democrat, and Democrats for serving under Lincoln. As such he never was given independent command of an Army but remained the beloved commander of the Union Second Corps.

As the nation split and friends went their separate ways Hancock gave some advice to his best friend, Lewis Armistead and their commander, Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston who were preparing to leave the Union in early 1861. In response to the states rights arguments of his friends he made himself clear. He fully believed in the principal of states rights, but he could not compromise his faithfulness to the Union. He told his friends as they departed company on their way to their destinies during the Civil War:

“I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided.” 

During the war Hancock served with distinction. At Gettysburg he was influential in determining the choice of the Union defense, in helping to repel the Rebel attacks on July 2nd 1863 and the final repulse of Pickett’s Charge where he was severely wounded and his friend Armistead died. After he recovered from his wounds he continued to lead Second Corps until the end of the war. Ulysses Grant wrote of him:

“Hancock stands the most conspicuous figure of all the general officers who did not exercise a separate command. He commanded a corps longer than any other one, and his name was never mentioned as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible. He was a man of very conspicuous personal appearance…. His genial disposition made him friends, and his personal courage and his presence with his command in the thickest of the fight won for him the confidence of troops serving under him. No matter how hard the fight, the 2d corps always felt that their commander was looking after them.”

After the war Hancock supervised the execution of those convicted of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Following that duty he served in various postings in the occupied South and attempted to mitigate some of the actions of those bent on vengeance against African Americans as well as others who tried to exploit the defeated Confederates for political or economic gain. His balanced attempt at justice was not appreciated by many people in the North or the South.

In 1880 Hancock ran for President and lost a narrow election to James A. Garfield. After his unsuccessful campaign he returned to the Army and died at the age of 61 in 1886 at his headquarters from complications from diabetes.

In death was praised by political supporters and opponents alike. Former President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote:

“if when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.” 

Another political opponent Republican General Francis A. Walker lamented not supporting Hancock in 1880 after the great corruption that engulfed the country during “Gilded Age” of the “Robber Barons” the 1880s. Walker wrote in 1893:

“Although I did not vote for General Hancock, I am strongly disposed to believe that one of the best things the nation has lost in recent years has been the example and the influence of that chivalric, stately, and splendid gentleman in the White House. Perhaps much which both parties now recognize as having been unfortunate and mischievous during the past thirteen years would have been avoided had General Hancock been elected.”

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I have stood by the monument to this fine man on East Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg many times. Each time I am struck by the bravery, courage and integrity of that remarkable man. Regardless of party affiliation I wish that we had more leaders like him today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Night to Remember

A Night to Remember

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,A couple of days ago I wrote about the sinking of the Titanic. The story transcends time in many ways, but in particular I think because it was the beginning of the end of an era. Over the past couple of weeks I have re-read Walter Lord’s classic narrative of the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember and his later work The Night Lives On.

Tonight I watched the film version of A Night to Remember for the first time since I was a child when saw it on televisionI think now, looking back over time that A Night to Remember which was filmed in 1958 is the best film involving the subject despite not having the spectacular special effects of James Cameron’s masterpiece Titanic, and its lack of major film stars was the better picture from a human and emotional point of view.

I remember reading Walter Lord’s book A Night to Remember in 7th grade at Stockton Junior High School. When I read the book I didn’t realize that it was of genre known as narrative history, That method of history is an especially effective method of communicating these kinds of tumultuous events. Lord would prove a master of the genre, writing captivating books about Pearl Harbor (Day of Infamy) , Dunkirk, the Battle of Midway (Incredible Victory), and the desegregation of Ol’e Miss, (A Time to Stand). 

The method focuses on weaving the stories of participants in the event into a story that catches the imagination of the reader. I like the method and hopefully my yet to be published books about the struggle for civil rights, the American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg it will be shown again. Walter Lord was a master of it and his works which are incredibly accurate from a historical point of view also convey the human dram of history as few other authors have done.

The senior surviving officer of Titanic, Second Officer Herbert Lightoller who was portrayed by Kenneth More was later as a civilian master of a private boat took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk, and was portrayed in the 2017 film of that name by English actor Mark Rylance.

One of the most striking thinks about the story of Titanic is the inequity between the classes of passengers. Third Class passengers, or those booked in “Steerage” paid 12 Pounds for the trip but had little in the way of amenities and when the ship sank, many of whom were forcibly kept from going to the boat deck and escaping death. That being said there were truly noble people among the First Class passengers who would forfeit their lives that others could live. Honestly I could not see many people today, regardless of being rich or poor who would willingly go down with the ship like Isidor and Ida Strauss, Benjamin Guggenheim, and John Jacob Astor as well as many others who either remained at their posts or station in life; the good, the bad, and yes the ugly.

But then there were men like the director of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay who snuck into a boat to escape death only to live in shame the rest of his life. Ismay succeeded in reducing the amount of life boats to the bare minimum required for a steamer less and a quarter her size and despite not being a mariner himself used his leverage as the director of the line to ignore those regulations.

I wonder how many men today, like Ismay, who like others of his day skirted safety regulations and advances in technology to increase their own profits. But then in an age where an American President presides over an administration that is rolling back safety, health, and environmental regulations for the sake of profit.

But that is another question for another day.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Mission Accomplished? Trump Evokes Memories Of Defeat and Shame

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote:

“No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.” 

Friday night President Trump unleashed United States Navy and Air Force assets in a coordinated strike against alleged Syrian chemical weapon sites in Damascus and at an air base outside of Homs. A total of about 110 weapons were fired from U.S. and French Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea, and from USAF, Royal Air Force, and French Air Force aircraft at these targets. It was the second time he conducted an isolated strike against the Syrians for using poison gas. In each case he seemed visibly upset about the pictures of the dead children, but cannot seem to understand that Assad does such things every day even when his forces don’t use chemical weapons, and that his lack of coherence on Syria is only helping Assad.

As the strikes proceeded the President announced his decision and reasoning for the attack. Honestly in his speech Mr. Trump said all the right things, but the well telegraphed actions gave time for the Syrians with probable Russian assistance move key components of their program out of the areas stuck by the military. They were also disconnected from any coherent military and diplomatic strategy for success which is a recipe for failure. If the President bothered to study history, especially the military history of the United States since the Second World War he would understand this, but he doesn’t.

The unfortunate thing was that his previous words pressing the military for a withdrawal from Syria had set the stage for the Syrians to launch their deadly gas attacks. The fact is that President, in thought, word, and deed has not cared enough about what happens in Syria or what Bashar Assad does when it doesn’t involve chemical weapons; nor what happens to the people who fought alongside us after we leave.

The President’s policy of stopping Syrian refugees, be they Muslim or Christian from finding refuge in the United States shows his callous heart. Not only did he prevent them from coming; he demonized them and urged other nations to reject them. It was a shameless reprise of the 1930s and 1940s America First movement that shut out the Jews and defended the Nazis.

His only consideration was the defeat of ISIS which from the time of President Obama the U.S. Military was doing. Unfortunately the decision to withdraw not only has emboldened Assad, but will help Iran, Russia, and yes even ISIS, which once free of U.S. Military pressure will rebuild and rebound from defeat just as Al Qaeda Iraq, its predecessor did in 2011.

Likewise the President began openly telegraphing his intentions days before the attack which gave plenty of warning and time for the Assad regime to work with the Russians to move anything of real importance away from the targeted sites. To add insult to injury the French Foreign Minister admitted that the Russians had been warned and given details of what was to be attacked and the American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff talked about how we had worked to “de-conflict” in regard to battle space and air space to ensure that Russian units were not hit.

In terms of military effects the Pentagon described the attack as a “one off” and admitted that despite supposedly setting back the Syrian chemical weapons program by years that the Syrians still had the capacity to use them. While U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that the United States is “locked and loaded” to resume strikes the language of the White House is somewhat ambiguous and equivocal. In Syria Assad’s supporters were overjoyed by the lack of force and American allies and opponents of Assad saw their hopes crushed. In Moscow pro-Putin demonstrators burned effigies of President Trump who on Saturday morning proclaimed “Mission Accomplished!!” on Twitter as he praised the actions of the military forces involved.

I’ve been in the military since 1981 and I am still serving, and I think that mission for mission we do our job very well, but our successes are tactical and not strategic. A “one off” missile strike is not a strategy for success. It may have been executed perfectly, but a multitude of tactical successes in absence of a clear strategy for victory and for what happens after it are meaningless in a strategic sense. The sacrifices for soldiers and national treasure for no reason other than to create a distraction from domestic problems is immoral, unethical, and under U.S. and international law illegal.

Meanwhile official Russian Troll and Bot propaganda activity on social media has increased by some 2000% since Friday. Many of those posts and tweets are being shared and spread by Trump supporters as well as insane leftist whose hatred of the United States and the West ensures that they cannot differentiate between truth and fiction. That is dangerous and it gives the Russians an upper hand because Putin’s intelligence services have succeeded in dividing Americans and the West far more effectively than the Soviets in the Cold War.

I believe that the manner in which the President launched the strike, the contradictory messages that the President sends in his tweets, the lack of coherent policy and strategy goals, and the failure to consult makes the decision to strike unwise and illegal and were more a product of his unformed mind and desire for self-preservation at all costs. When I think about these strikes and what might happen in the coming months as political pressure mounts I think of the words of the British military historian B.H. Liddell-Hart:

“I used to think that the causes of war were predominantly economic. I came to think that they were more psychological. I am now coming to think that they are decisively “personal,” arising from the defects and ambitions of those who have the power to influence the currents of nations.

Don’t get me wrong, I despise Assad and his regime and believe that Assad deserves far worse that Gaddafi or Saddam ever got, he is as the President noted an “animal.” But these strikes in the absence of a comprehensive strategy do nothing to remove him, weaken his power, or help those people he and his Russian, Iranian, or Hezbollah allies oppress and terrorize; especially when the President advertises that the United States has no desire to remain in Syria, even to protect the people that the U.S. Military has shed blood to save. The President’s policy and actions bring dishonor to a nation founded on the principle that “all men are created equal.” I strongly believe that this attack was a result of the President’s personal moral defects as his policies do not seem to be linked to any coherent strategy.

Simply doing one off strikes do nothing to redeem him or his policies; his ignorance of history and national security policy should concern and disturb even his most devoted supporters. Unless he decides to couple military power with a coherent approach to overall national security and foreign policy rooted in American values, respect for law, and human rights then regardless of how long he serves as President he will be remembered as a disingenuous fraud who used a foreign crisis to divert attention from his own crimes. Even Hitler didn’t do that.

The situation remains terribly dangerous and no the mission, whatever it is, was not accomplished unless it was to divert attention from his present political problems. If so that lasted about twenty minutes if that. When I watch him and read the President’s tweets I can only think of Lord Balfour’s words about one of his opponents in the House of Lords “If he had a little more brains he would be a half-wit.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Terrible American Good Friday

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Good Friday is somber day, and I think that there was none more somber than Good Friday 1865. Shortly after 10 P.M. at Ford’s theater a handsome and well known actor walked into the booth occupied by President Lincoln at Washington’s Ford’s Theater. The President was there with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and another couple after a very full day of business to watch the play Our American Cousin a farcical look at the visit of an American visiting his English relatives when going to settle the family estate.

Lincoln was looking forward to the play. Though the war continued the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th for all intents and purposes had placed the final nail in the Confederacy’s malevolent coffin, and it was if a burden have been removed from Lincoln’s shoulders. His task now what the reintegration of the rebellious states back into the Union, a task that he believed needed to be accomplished without malice while still seeking justice. He made this clear in his Second Inaugural Address just over a month before:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Just three days before Lincoln had given his last public speech at the White House. It was a practical speech dealing with the nuts and bolts reuniting the country including announcing his support for Negro Suffrage. He said:

“By these recent successes the re-inauguration of the national authority — reconstruction — which has had a large share of thought from the first, is pressed much more closely upon our attention. It is fraught with great difficulty. Unlike a case of a war between independent nations, there is no authorized organ for us to treat with. No one man has authority to give up the rebellion for any other man. We simply must begin with, and mould from, disorganized and discordant elements. Nor is it a small additional embarrassment that we, the loyal people, differ among ourselves as to the mode, manner, and means of reconstruction.”

In the speech Lincoln discussed the issues related to the new government of Louisiana and its dealings with African Americans, which did not go far enough for Lincoln, who was intent on extending the franchise to vote for all blacks, even if it took time to make it so. John Wilkes Booth was in attendance that day and as he listened he became ever angrier and he vowed to a fellow conspirator Lewis Powell, “That is the last speech he will make” and Booth was going to ensure this himself.

Lincoln had been troubled for some time by terrible insomnia and dreams, both bizarre and ghoulish. A few days before he had told Mary and others sharing dinner with them of a troubling dream which he described in detail, Mary and those at the table so accustomed to Lincoln’s customary wit and humor were stunned as Lincoln spoke. He closed the description with these words:

“Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and shocking, I kept on until I entered the East Room, which I entered. There I was met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and a throng of people, some gazing mournfully at the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully: ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers. ‘The President’ was the answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin!’ “Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd…” 

Mary and the others were so upset, particularly with the large number of death threats Lincoln had received throughout the war. However, Lincoln told them all not to worry as “it was only a dream.”

On that Good Friday Lincoln was determined not to mourn, instead of attending Good Friday services or contemplating the war, or reconstruction, he simply wanted to laugh and chose to attend the play, wanting General Grant and his wife to attend. However Grant needed to travel to New Jersey and declined the offer.

Despite this Lincoln was in a cheerful mood, looking forward to the future and discussing all the things that he wanted to see and do after his term in office. Mary was startled by his cheerfulness and Lincoln told her “I have never felt better in my life.” Lincoln and his party arrived late to the cheers of the cast and took their seats in the box about 8:30 to the strains of Hail to the Chief. As the play resumed Lincoln’s bodyguard slipped away to get a drink and about twelve minutes after ten Booth slipped into the box where Lincoln sat watching the play. As the crowd roared its delight at a particularly funny scene a shot rang out and Lincoln’s arm jerked up and he slumped over. Booth then jumped to the stage from the box, injuring his leg and shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” or thus always to tyrants. It was the beginning of a series of attempted assassinations designed to decapitate the Federal government, Secretary of State Seward was badly wounded by Lewis Payne, a third assassin backed out at the last minute and failed to attack Vice President Johnson.

Though physicians sought to save the President the wound was mortal, the bullet having ender the back of his head, and dug deep into his brain, lodging behind his left eye. At 7:22 A.M. Abraham Lincoln was dead. It was a disaster for the nation as the new President, Andrew Johnson was a political enemy of Lincoln and not in line with Lincoln’s understanding of reconstruction and reconciliation. A poor Southerner from Tennessee, Johnson hated the Southern plantation aristocracy and would act as a punisher, while radical reconstructionist members of the cabinet and Congress would act in such a way that reconstruction would never achieve all that Lincoln believed that it could.

While radical Confederates rejoiced in Lincoln’s death others were more circumspect. Jefferson Davis who was fleeing and hoping to continue the war realized that the South would not fare as well under Johnson as Lincoln. In fact Johnson’s lack of understanding of the nuances of northern politics as well as his loathing of blacks, his “beliefs, prejudices, personality traits were a recipe for disaster at a time when an unprecedented national crisis put a premium on the capacity to think in new and creative ways.”

The Army of the Potomac learned of Lincoln’s assassination on Easter Sunday. Joshua Chamberlain told a woman whose mansion was at the center of his division’s camp when she asked what disturbed him “It is bad news for the South.” When the woman asked if it was Lee or Davis Chamberlain told her that it was Lincoln and said “The South has lost its best friend, Madam.” 

Chamberlain ordered chaplain to conduct a field memorial for the fallen President. The division chaplain a Catholic Priest, Father Egan spoke and roused the men, and Egan ended his service “Better so, Better to die glorious, than live infamous. Better to be buried beneath a nation’s tears, than to walk the earth guilty of the nation’s blood.”

During the war Lincoln had endeared himself to his soldiers and they responded with great emotion. One burst into tears and sobbed “He was our best friend. God bless him,” another wrote home “What a hold Old Abe had on the hearts of the soldiers of the army could only be told by the way they showed their mourning for him.” Admiral David Dixon Porter wrote “The United States has lost the greatest man she ever produced.” 

The bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth was a disaster for the country. Sadly, there are some today, in particular the White Supremacist group The League of the South are choosing to celebrate the assassination of the man that they so hate, and honor the assassin as a hero. However, I have to agree with Admiral Porter, there has never been a President before or after who was anything like this man, and I dedicate myself to the quest for equality of all people and for a reconciliation. I will continue to work for that “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln so believed in.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Nothing is Unsinkable: A Lesson for the Trump Administration

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

In 1912 the Bishop of Winchester said these words in a sermon marking the end of the R.M.S. Titanic: “Titanic, name and thing, will stand as a monument and warning to human presumption,” as well it should. Sadly, it seems that that Trump administration is doing its best to strip away vital safety, health, and environmental regulations that protect people from even worse disasters than that which befell the great ship 106 years ago today.

Sadly President Donald Trump nor the sycophants in his administration or the GOP Congress will never understand the real and symbolic importance. The historian Walter Lord who was one of the most important historians that wrote about the ill-fated ship understood. He wrote in his book The Night Lives On: The Untold Stories and Secrets behind the Sinking of the “Unsinkable” Ship – Titanic:

“How close to “unsinkable” really was the Titanic? Did she embody the latest engineering techniques? Was she as staunch as man could make her? Did she at least represent what we have now come to call “the state of the art”? The answer is “No.” Far from being a triumph of safe construction, or the best that could be done with the technology available, the Titanic was the product of a trend the other way, a trend that for 50 years had seen one safety feature after another sacrificed for competitive reasons.”

The story of the Titanic has been told many times, and it should be a cautionary tale for those who in the name of profit and glory seek to dismantle safety and environmental standards. I remember reading Walter Lord’s classic treatment of the story, A Night to Remember back in 7th Grade. It made a tremendous impact on me, and every so often I will go back and read it again.

Captain Edward Smith

The Titanic’s Captain, Edward Smith, her was blinded by his faith in shipbuilding technology and had said about the Adriatic which he commanded previously, “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern ship building has gone beyond that.” A Senator Said during the hearings about the sinking of her captain, “Overconfidence seems to have dulled the faculties usually so alert.”

The story of what happened to the great ship is as hard to believe now as it was then, but then incredible tragedies be they the loss of ships, aircraft, buildings or bridges, and even spacecraft always invoke such feelings. When I was told about the Space Shuttle Challenger blowing up in 1986 I remarked to the young soldier who brought me the news “don’t be silly Space Shuttles don’t blow up.” Walter Lord, who was probably the most prolific historian and author of the Titanic disaster used to talk of the “if onlys” that haunted him about the sinking of Titanic: If only, so many if onlys. If only she had enough lifeboats. If only the watertight compartments had been higher. If only she had paid attention to the ice that night. If only the Californian did come…” 

Bruce Ismay

The word “if” probably the biggest two letter word that plagues human history, looms large in the tragedy of Titanic. The great ship, which was the largest ship and one of the fastest ocean liners of her time was the victim of her owner and operators hubris as much as she was that of the iceberg which sank her. The ship was heralded by Bruce Ismay, the Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line as unsinkable, a claim that was echoed in the press.

Her builders had no such illusions and protested the claims. Thomas Andrews the Managing Director of Harland and Wolff Shipyards where she was built commented “The press is calling these ships unsinkable and Ismay’s leadin’ the chorus. It’s just not true.” 

Titanic was designed with the latest shipbuilding innovations, watertight compartments, a double bottom and equipped with wireless. She was billed as “unsinkable” by her owners but those innovations as advanced as they were for her day were insufficient to save her when her Captain and owners chose to charge through a known ice field at full speed.  Her watertight compartments did not extent far enough up the hull to prevent water from going over them.  Likewise it was never imagined that so many watertight compartments could be compromised.

Thomas Andrews

As far as lifeboats, the great ship carried far too few. Thomas Andrews, her builder wanted 64 had his arm twisted to bring the number to 32 and Titanic sailed with only 16 plus 4 collapsible boats. Justifying himself under antiquated regulations (which were written for ships of 10,000 tons) which required just 16 boats. The fact that Titanic displaced over 40,000 tons and carried two to four times the number of passengers and crew, J. Bruce Ismay the Director of White Star Line a man who was untrained as a sailor or maritime engineer and who was focused on his company’s bottom line, told Andrews:

“Control your Irish passions, Thomas. Your uncle here tells me you proposed 64 lifeboats and he had to pull your arm to get you down to 32. Now, I will remind you just as I reminded him these are my ships. And, according to our contract, I have final say on the design. I’ll not have so many little boats, as you call them, cluttering up my decks and putting fear into my passengers.” 

Ismay’s focus was on his bottom line and Captain Smith for all of his experience at sea was negligent for not allowing intensive sea trials before the ship’s first and last voyage. Likewise for not seeming to understand the difference between how a 20,000 ton 500 foot long ship and a 40,000+ ton and nearly 900 foot long ship respond to course and speed corrections and how much more time it takes to stop such a massive ship at full speed.

But that was not all. There was no good system for the ship’s wireless operators to get critical information to bridge officers and even the messages about a large ice field ahead of Titanic were ignored, or dismissed and the ship sped on into that last dark night when she hit the iceberg.

Once she struck the berg Titanic was doomed. Her much publicized watertight compartments were not high enough to keep the massive flood of icy seawater from overwhelming damage control efforts. Other design flaws quickened her demise.

But there was  hope. Other ships were nearby but through a combination of lax regulations, bad luck, and miscommunications none would arrive before Titanic slipped into the depths of the North Atlantic.

There were so many “if only” moments. If only Captain Smith and his officers had slowed down as a precaution. If only the lookouts had binoculars to see further, if only Bruce Ismay had not been so obsessed with breaking speed records. If only the Californian had come. Californian was the nearest vessel to Titanic and in easy wireless range. However her wireless was unmanned, she did not have enough operators to man it 24 hours a day.  Her lookouts saw Titanic but despite flares being fired from Titanic she never assumed Titanic to be in extremis. The next nearest ship, Carpathia heard the call and made a valiant attempt to reach Titanic but was too late.

If only…so many “if onlys” and so many traceable to one man, the Director of White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay.  Thomas Andrews who scoffed at the ship being unsinkable would go down with the ship; but Ismay ensured his own survival by stealing away in a less than half-full lifeboat, in some accounts disguised as a woman. Ismay is symbolic of men who allow their own hubris, vanity and power to destroy the lives of many.  He is so much like those that helped bring about the various economic crises that have wracked the United States and Western Europe and so many other tragedies. He is much like Donald Trump.

After the disaster the tragedy was investigated by the United States Senate, as well as the British Board of Trade. However, the inquiry of the latter was condemned by the White Star Line’s Archivist, Paul Louden-Brown. He noted: “I think the enquiry is a complete whitewash. You have the [British] Board of Trade in effect enquiring into a disaster that’s largely of its own making.”

Ismay and Titanic are symbols of men guided only by their quest for riches and glory who revel in their power and scorn wise counsel or regulation, government or otherwise. They often believe that rules don’t apply to them. It is a cautionary tale for us today as corporations, lobbyists, and politicians seek to dismantle sensible and reasonable safety and environmental regulations for the sake of their unmitigated profit. Today we are seeing the Trump administration doing all that it can to strip away important safety, workplace, and environmental regulations in order to maximize profits. He even fought installing fire suppressing extinguisher systems in Trump Tower, something that led to the death of one of his tenants last week.

But the warning goes far beyond that, it applies to any of us who adopt the mindset, “this cannot happen to us.” After all, there are times when we all end up as victims of our own hubris, such is the human condition.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“Only Two Parties Now” The Aftermath of Fort Sumter

sumterflag

The Flag of Fort Sumter

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This is the second of two-part installment from my Civil War text. The story follows the secession crisis and the attack on Fort Sumter. I describes the reactions of people in all parts of the country, as well as the Army to those fateful shots. I find that it is remarkable and ironic that Republican lawmakers in South Carolina have introduced a bill that would allow secession if the Federal Government does anything that these legislators perceive as violating the Second Amendment so close to the date that their predecessors opened fire on Fort Sumter, but that is not the subject of today’s article. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

When the Stars and Stripes came down on April 14th 1861 the North was galvanized as never before, and “the clash at Fort Sumter brought forth an outpouring of support for the Union and President Lincoln.” [1]Abner Doubleday wrote “With the first shot fired against Fort Sumter the whole North became united.” [2] Another observer wrote: “The heather is on fire….I never knew what popular excitement can be… The whole population, men, women, and children, seem to be in the streets with Union favors and flags.” [3] The assault on Fort Sumter help to unify the North in ways not thought possible by Southern politicians who did not believe that Northerners had the mettle to go to war against them. But they were wrong, those shots, which Jefferson Davis ordered had the opposite reaction, for Northerners, even opponents of abolition who were not supporters of Lincoln, slavery in the South was one thing, but the attack on a Federal garrison by massed artillery was another; even Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s stalwart opponent of so many campaigns went to the White House for a call to national unity. Returning to Chicago he told a huge crowd just a month before his untimely death:

“There are only two sides to the question. Every man must be for the United States or against it. There can be no neutrals in this war, only patriots – or traitors” [4]

For Frederick Douglass the shots marked a new phase in abolition:

“The first flash of rebel gunpowder and shell upon the starving handful of men at Sumter instantly changed the nation’s whole policy. Until then, the ever hopeful North was dreaming of compromise…

I wrote in my newspaper; “On behalf of our enslaved and bleeding brothers and sisters, thank God! The slaveholders themselves have saved the abolition cause from ruin! The government is aroused, the dead North is alive, and its divided people united. Never was a change so sudden, so universal, and so portentous. The whole North from East to West is in arms…” [5]

Douglas died less than a month later, possibly from cirrhosis of the liver, but his impact on the Democrats in the North was immense, “for a year of more his war spirit lived among most Democrats. “Let our enemies perish by the sword,” was the theme of democratic editorials in the spring of 1861. “All squeamish sentimentality should be discarded, and bloody vengeance wreaked upon the heads of the contemptable traitors who have provoked it by their dastardly impertinence and rebellious acts.” [6]

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Dan Sickles

One of these Democrats was New York Congressman Dan Sickles. He was one of many men whose outlook toward the South changed when Sumter was fired upon. Sickles had stridently defended Southerners and Southern states rights just months before, so long as they remained in the Union, and he took the actions of his former friends personally. He then became one of the first of men who were known as Union Democrats who followed Lincoln into the war, and despite his lack of ethics in much of his life it was a cause for which he would remain true, during and after the war.

When the soldiers of South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter, Sickles, who had said that no troops would cross through New York to invade the South in 1859 proclaimed “the men of New York would go in untold thousands anywhere to protect the flag of their country and to maintain its legitimate authority.” [7] In one of his last congressional speeches Sickles lambasted the South for its threat to the United States as a whole, and condemned the new Confederacy’s policies in spite of Northern attempts to conciliate them, “has been followed by insults to our flag; by the expulsion of the United States troops and authorities from navy yards and forts and arsenals; by measures to control the vast commerce of the Mississippi and its tributaries….” [8] He also condemned the South for its seizure of U.S. funds in the sub-treasuries and mints in the South as well sending envoys to England and France.

Sickles-Excelsior-Brigade-Headquarters-City-Hall-Park.-Yorktown

After the war Sickles, who had lost his leg in the Battle of Gettysburg fighting for the Union, oversaw the early efforts of reconstruction in North Carolina and for ordering the end to the public whippings of blacks by state officials was fired by President Andrew Johnston for supporting voting rights for African Americans. Congress reinstated him but Sickles who had so earnestly supported the South as late as 1860 no longer could stomach such abuse by those men who at one time his political friends and allies. During the election of 1876 Sickles, a lifelong Democrat labeled his party as “the party of treason.” [9] He joined forces with Republicans and helped to prevent the election of New York Democrat Samuel Tilden through shrewd political electioneering in key battleground states.

For Stephen Douglas the attack on Fort Sumter meant the end of his efforts to bring about some kind of reconciliation to reunite the country and restore the Union. When the Little Giant heard the news of the attack and reports of the statements of Confederate leaders he rushed to Lincoln to offer his support. Douglas wrote of the meeting:

“I heartily approve of your proclamation calling up 75,000 militia,” I told him. “Except that I would make it 200,000. You don’t know the dishonest purposes of these southern men as well as I do.” After a review of the strategic situation with the President Douglas continued, “Mr. President,” I said. “Let me speak plainly. I remain unalterably opposed to your Administration on purely its political issues. Yet I’m prepared to sustain you in the exercise of all your constitutional functions to preserve the Union, maintain the government, and defend the capital. A firm policy and prompt action are necessary. The capital of our country is in danger, and must be defended at all hazards, and at any expense of men and money. I speak of the present and future without reference to the past.

He shook my hand, hard. “We need more patriots like you, Douglas,” he said as he walked me to the door.

“I depreciate war,” I said in parting, “but if it must come, I’m with my country and for my country, under all circumstances and in every contingency.” [10]

Douglas then went to his fellow Democrats in Washington and told them: “We must fight for our country and forget all differences. There can be only two parties now – the party of patriots and the party of traitors. We belong to the first.” [11]

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Richard Ewell

Army officers were conflicted between the Army that they had served, often for many years, the flag that they had fought under, longstanding friendships, and loyalty to their states and families. Richard Ewell who would rise to corps command in the Army of Northern Virginia, described the feelings of many officers in the ante-bellum Army: “Officers generally are very much adverse to any thing like civil war, though some of the younger ones are a bit warlike. The truth is in the army there are no sectional feelings and many from extreme ends of the Union are the most intimate friends.” [12] In California a number of those friends and their families bade tearful farewells as they parted ways. Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston and Captains Winfield Scott Hancock and Lewis Armistead gathered one last time. Hancock had already, who had great sympathy for his Southern friends, made his views known had previously announced “I shall fight not upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided.” [13] His commander, Johnston, and dear friend Armistead were departing to serve the Confederacy and the parting was painful. Almira Hancock wrote of the final night together in Los Angeles:

“The most crushed was Major Armistead, who with tears, which were contagious, streaming down his face, put his hands upon Mr. Hancock’s shoulders, while looking him steadily in the eye, said, “Hancock, good-bye; you can never know what this has cost me; and I hope God will strike me dead if I am ever induced to leave my native soil, should worse come to worst….” [14]

Colonel Robert E. Lee of Virginia looked askance at secession, but he had made the decision that no matter what he would not lead armies against the South. In fact it was clear when he left Texas to come east where his sentiments lay. He told a friend “If Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I. But if she secedes (though I do believe in secession as a constitutional right, nor that there is sufficient cause for revolution), then I will follow my native State with my sword, and if need be, with my life.” [15]When he returned to Washington D.C. he accepted a promotion to Colonel in the Regular Army less than a month before he was offered command of the Union armies by Abraham Lincoln, a position that he turned down. In his final interview with General Winfield Scott to announce his decision, he admitted that “the struggle had been hard. He did not believe in secession, he said, and if he owned every slave in the South he would free them all to bring peace; but to fight against Virginia was not in him.” [16] When Virginia seceded Lee submitted his resignation from the Army for a cause that he did not really believe was constitutional or necessary, noting in his letter:

“With all my devotion to the Union and feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore, resigned my commission in the Army, and save in the defense of my native State…I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword.” [17]

Within days Lee was appointed as a General and commander of the military forces of Virginia. When he arrived at the State House and “before he had much time to ruminate, he found himself being presented with George Washington’s sword, and hailed as a hero in a powerful tribute by the president of the convention.” [18] Even so, Lee’s decision was assailed by much of his Unionist oriented family, and many of them went on to serve the Union with distinction during the war. One relative wrote of Lee’s decision, “I feel no exalted respect for a man who takes part in a movement in which he says he can see nothing but ‘anarchy and ruin’… and yet very utterance scare passed Robt Lees lips… when he starts off with delegates to treat traitors.” [19]

Lee’s future right hand man and chief lieutenant, Thomas Jackson, the soon to be “Stonewall” Jackson was then a professor at the Virginia Military Institute. The often grim and serious Jackson saw the issue of secession as he did all of life through the prism of his Evangelical Protestant Calvinistic faith. For him it disunion was a matter of Divine Providence. When secession came and Jackson heard a minister friend in Lexington lamenting the nation’s troubles he noted:

“Why should Christians be at all disturbed about the dissolution of the Union? It can only come by God’s permission, and only will be permitted, if it is for his people’s good, for does he not say that all things shall work together for the good to them that love God?” [20]

In San Francisco Lieutenant James McPherson of the Corps of Engineers attempted to convince Lieutenant Porter Alexander from going home and joining the cause of the Confederacy. He bluntly spoke the facts of what would happen to the South in coming the war to the future Confederate artillery general:

“The population of the seceding states is only eight million while the North has twenty million. Of your 8 million over 3 million are slaves & may pose a dangerous element. You have no army, no navy, no treasury, no organization & practically none of the manufacturers – the machine shops, coal & iron mines & such things – which are necessary for the support of armies & carrying on war on a large scale.

You are but scattered agricultural communities & will be isolated from the world by blockades.

It is not possible for your cause to succeed in the end…” [21]

But Alexander, like so many Southern officers realized “that a crisis in my life was at hand. But I felt helpless to avert it or even debate the question what I should do. I could not doubt or controvert one of McPherson’s statements or arguments…” [22]

buford

John Buford

However, many Southern born officers serving in the Army did not leave. Close to half of the “Southern West Point graduates on active duty in 1860 held to their posts and remained loyal to the Union.” [23] One was Kentucky’s John Buford who would gain immortal fame at the Battle of Gettysburg. Since Buford’s family had longstanding ties to Kentucky, the pro-secession governor of Kentucky, Beriah Magoffin offered Buford a commission in that states’ militia. At the time Kentucky was still an “undeclared border slave state” and Buford loyal to his oath refused the governor’s offer. He wrote a brief letter to Magoffin and told his comrades that “I sent him word that I was a Captain in the United States Army and I intend to remain one.” [24] Around the same time the new provisional government of the Confederacy “offered Buford a general officer’s commission, which reached him by mail at Fort Crittenden.” [25] According to Buford’s biographer Edward Longacre “a well-known anecdote has him wadding up the letter while angrily announcing that whatever future had in store he would “live and die under the flag of the Union.” [26] A starker contrast could not be drawn.

Close to forty-percent of the Virginians serving on active-duty in the army remained faithful to the Union, including the Commander of the Army, General Winfield Scott and Robert E. Lee’s friend George Thomas and both were ostracized in the Old Dominion. “Thomas’s family never again communicated with him except to ask him to change his name. A young Virginian just out of West Point, acknowledged that by retaining his commission he had been shunned by all of his Southern associates; yet he still derided those who would hold their obligations so lightly as to abandon the nation when it most needed them.” [27]

But throughout the South, most people were less than circumspect and openly rejoiced at the surrender of Fort Sumter. In Richmond the night following the surrender “bonfires and fireworks of every description were illuminating in every direction- the whole city was a scene of joy owing to [the] surrender of Fort Sumter” – and Virginia wasn’t even part of the Confederacy.” [28] John Gordon, the future Confederate General was leading his Georgia volunteers to the new Confederate capital and “found the line of march an unbroken celebration: fires lighted the hilltops; fife-and-drum corps shrilled and thumped; cannons exploded their welcome.” [29]

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Ulysses Grant

Far to the north in Bangor Maine a little known professor at Bowdin College named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain read the news “could not abide the thought of a divided nation; the Founding Fathers “did not vote themselves into a people; they recognized and declared that they were a people” whose bonds out not to be severed by political, social, or economic grievances.” [30] The professor “was seized with anger that “the flag of the Nation had been insulted” and “the integrity and existence of the people of the United States had been assailed in open and bitter war.” [31] In Illinois, a former struggling former Regular Army officer and veteran of the War with Mexico, Ulysses S. Grant whose in-laws were sympathetic to the Southern cause who had volunteered to lead a regiment of Illinois volunteers, wrote “Whatever may have been my opinions before, I have but one sentiment now. That is to have a Government, and laws and a flag and they all must be sustained….There are but two parties now, Traitors and Patriots and I want hereafter to be ranked with the latter.” [32]

1st_7th_Reg_Departs

Even in cities that had often leaned toward the South like Cincinnati, people rushed to proclaim their patriotism and support of the Union. George Ticknor told an English friend “The whole population, men, women, and children, seem to be in the streets with Union favours and flags…. Civil war is freely accepted everywhere… by all, anarchy being the obvious, and perhaps the only alternative.” Pacifists who had rejected violence, even in support of righteous causes, turned bellicose. Ralph Waldo Emerson enthused, “Sometimes gunpowder smells good.” [33] As the Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry marched through the streets of New York on their way to Washington were greeted with cheers from thousands of New Yorkers. The New York Times reported the event:

“Flags were displayed at all the hotels on the route, and waving handkerchiefs from the balconies and windows signified the warm greetings of the fair sex to the brave Bay State soldiers. Opposite the New York Hotel a gray-haired old man mounted a stoop and addressing the soldiers and people, said that he had fought under the Stars and Stripes in the War of 1812 against a foreign power, and now that the flag was spit upon by those who should be its defenders. He closed his remarks by a “God bless our flag,” and left the crowd with tears streaming down his wrinkled cheeks.” [34]

The Rubicon had been crossed and there was now no going back for either side. Poet Walt Whitman wrote:

War! An arm’d race is advancing! The welcome for battle, no turning away;

War! Be it weeks, months, or years, an arm’d race is advancing to welcome it.” [35]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Cooper We Have the War Upon Us p.270

[2] Doubleday, Abner From Moultrie to Sumter in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume I Edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel Castle, Secaucus NJ p.48

[3] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.274

[4] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.274

[5] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.423

[6] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom pp.274-275

[7] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.212

[8] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.214

[9] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.525

[10] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury pp.421-422

[11] Ibid. Oates The Approaching Fury p.422

[12] Pfanz, Donald. Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 1998 p.120

[13] Jordan, David M. Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier’s Life Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1988 p.33

[14] Hancock, Almira Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock Charles L Webster and Company, New York 1887 pp.69-70

[15] Thomas, Emory Robert E. Lee W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 1995 p.187

[16] Ibid. Catton The Coming Fury p.335

[17] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.85

[18] Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters Penguin Books, New York and London 2007 p.295

[19] Ibid. Pryor Reading the Man p.295

[20] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.38

[21] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander edited by Gary Gallagher University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1989 p.24

[22] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy p.25

[23] Huntington, Samuel P. The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1957

[24] Ibid. Guelzo. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.121

[25] Longacre, Edward G. John Buford: A Military Biography Da Capo Press, Perseus Book Group, Cambridge MA p.70

[26] Ibid. Longacre John Buford p.70

[27] Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters Penguin Books, New York and London 2007 p.292

[28] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.140

[29] Smith, Jean Edward. Grant Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2001 p.99

[30] Longacre, Edward G. Joshua Chamberlain: The Soldier and the ManCombined Publishing Conshohocken PA 1999 pp.49-50

[31] Ibid. Guelzo. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.139

[32] Ibid. Smith Grant p.103

[33] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.205

[34] Holzer, Harold and Symonds, Craig L. Editors, The New York Times Complete Civil War 1861-1865 Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, New York 2010 p.75

[35] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.205

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A Crisis of Character: Trump Emulates Kaiser Wilhelm II and War Beckons

Two of a Kind: Kaiser Wilhelm II and President Trump

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

With every passing day the words of Theodore Roosevelt keep echoing in my mind. The President and hero of San Juan Hill noted: “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” That is especially true as we all await to see if the actions of President Trump live up to his Tweet storms to defy the Constitution, and unleash missiles on Syria and the forces of Russia and Iran located in that suffering country.

I could never in a million years believed that I would see the day when the manifold transgressions of an American President threaten the both the Constitution and potentially the very existence of the United Staes.  First growing number of  of crises involving multiple indictments of Trump surrogates involved with the supposedly non-existent Russian interference and the President’s threats against the press, political opponents, prosecutors, and his own Department of Justice regarding the Trump campaign collusion with Russia are frightening on their own merits. But then there is the of potential nuclear war with North Korea. But for just a dash of spice let’s mention the President’s tweets of looming strikes on Syria and taunts against Russia. Frankly as recipes for disaster go this is like adding Ghost Peppers to a Sarin laced cheesecake, but I digress…

I think that it is important to see the President’s words and actions in light of a number of factors. The first and foremost of those is character, just as Theodore Roosevelt noted. President Trump may be a character; he may even be a hoot when he gets peed on by Putin paid prostitutes (if such rumors are true) but he shows little evidence of actually having character or being a man of honor.

That dear reader is really the problem, thus it is important to know how the character other leaders at other historical  influenced how they treated people, reacted to criticism, and led their nations into disaster.

In the American experience one is hard pressed to find a President with a similar temperament and character that corresponds to Donald Trump. Yes, Nixon had some similarities, Jackson as well, but both men even at their worst did, at least in public restrain themselves and Nixon, when confronted with the reality of certain impeachment did the country a favor by resigning. Of course American history is replete with other Presidents and leaders with a corresponding lack of character but none tweeted with their iPhone in one hand and the nuclear football in the other, although I assume that he has to put at least one down to eat his friend chicken as he gets his political strategy and intelligence briefings from Sean Hannity and Steve Doocey.

But the times have changed. At onetime there were leaders in the Republican Party who chose to honor the Constitution and their oaths over blind party loyalty or their determination to pass a certain legislative act. Their resistance to President Nixon was instrumental in his resignation in 1974. But there seem to be few current members of the GOP congressional delegations willing to stand either for fear of the Trump base, or blind determination to press on with tax cuts even if it means the sacrifice of the Constitution, nuclear war, or their own integrity.

But all that being said I do think that there is a leader from historywho in temperament was much like President Trump, who ended up helping to lead his nation and the world to the abyss of World War. That is not Adolf Hitler who many people often compare the President. I think that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his reliance on his radicalized base, including armed mobs in the street, and hyper-partisan allies in the right wing media, especially Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp which serves as his de-facto state media are similar, but they do not speak to the President’s unstable, narcissistic, and paranoid behaviors. I think that the better comparison is to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany with whom the President seems to share many similarities, both in temperament and words.

As tensions built in the lead up to the First World War Kaiser Wilhelm alternated between threatening Russia with destruction and pleading with his cousin Czar Nicholas II for peace.

In his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark wrote of Wilhelm in words that are strikingly reminiscent of the President.

“It was one of this Kaiser’s many peculiarities that he was completely unable to calibrate his behaviour to the contexts in which his high office obliged him to operate. Too often he spoke not like a monarch, but like an over-excited teenager giving free rein to his current preoccupations.

‘I am the sole master of German policy,’ he remarked in a letter to the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), ‘and my country must follow me wherever I go”

“Wilhelm frequently –especially in the early years of his reign –bypassed his responsible ministers by consulting with ‘favourites’, encouraged factional strife in order to undermine the unity of government, and expounded views that had not been cleared with the relevant ministers or were at odds with the prevailing policy.

“It was in this last area –the unauthorized exposition of unsanctioned political views –that the Kaiser achieved the most hostile notice, both from contemporaries and from historians. There can be no doubt about the bizarre tone and content of many of the Kaiser’s personal communications in telegrams, letters, marginal comments, conversations, interviews and speeches on foreign and domestic political themes. Their exceptional volume alone is remarkable: the Kaiser spoke, wrote, telegraphed, scribbled and ranted more or less continuously during the thirty years of his reign, and a huge portion of these articulations was recorded and preserved for posterity…”

Max Hastings wrote that Wilhelm “was a brittle personality whose yearning for respect caused him to intersperse blandishments and threats in ill-judged succession.” Sean McMeekin in his book July 1914 wrote that Wilhelm had an “insecurity complex, a need for constant attention and acclaim. As one of his many critics put it, the kaiser needed to be “the stag at every hunt, the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral.” He also noted “Eager for praise, taking offense at the merest slight, the kaiser was a difficult man to work for. Bismarck had disdained to gratify Wilhelm II’s fragile ego after he became emperor in 1888, which led to his sacking two years later.”

Like President Trump the Kaiser did experience some push back from different governmental ministers, and was somewhat restrained during the month leading up to the war, but his constant belligerence, instability, and unscripted remarks helped set the diplomatic and governmental crisis that led to the war. Of course this was not his fault alone, the Austrian-Hungarians, Serbians, Russians, French, and British all had a hand, but the Kaiser, through his words and actions during the three decades preceding the war bears much responsibility for what happened in 1914. If the Kaiser had had a Twitter account he would have certainly used it in a similar manner to President Trump.

But Germany had no checks and balances to restrain Wilhelm. He was an absolute monarch. Americans do still have institutional checks and balances to Presidential overreach or abuses should we choose to follow the Constitution, but for that to happen the leadership of the Republican Party must also act, as did their predecessors during the Nixon administration to put principle or party, and rule of law over blind obedience. This is not about partisanship; it is about the Constitution, our form of government, and yes, even the prevention of nuclear war, that being said I don’t think that todays Republicans would pass the test that Wilhelm’s advisors failed in 1914.

Character and temperament are very important in times of crisis and elevated tensions. Character is also fate. We should all tremble when we think of the lack of character and maturity shown by our President.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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