02 June 2010

Long-Forgotten Memories of Our Fallen Glory: America 1845-1989

Written for my Core Humanities class as the spring final.  Reading it over again, I love this irreverent writing format when I use it.  So enjoy.

Question 1: On the Mexican-American War and great Americans therein.
On April 25, 1846, the Mexican army slaughtered 70 innocent, defenseless Americans along the border. This wasn't over drugs or work visas like an attack of that nature would be in 2010. This was over Texas. Ten years previous Texas had earned its independence and in 1845 it got annexed by the United States. To Mexico this was a slap in the face.
President James K. Polk reacted to Mexicans on American soil about as nicely as Arizona governor Jan Brewer; he wanted them out. Unlike Brewer, however, Polk managed to convince Congress that a good ol' fashioned military throwdown was in order, so on May 11, the United States declared war on Mexico.
Thanks to generals like Zachary Taylor, who would succeed Polk as President when the latter decided not to run for re-election in 1848, and John C. Fremont, a frontiersman of the highest order who knew the terrain and his enemy like the back of his hand, what started as a war turned into us kicking the holy burritos out of the Mexicans. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, gave the United States all of present-day California, Nevada, Utah most of Arizona except for the Gadsden Purchase which is mostly significant for having a chunk of Interstate 8 running through it today, and parts of Colorado and New Mexico west of the Continental Divide.
So there's your three dates and three people, but what of the war itself? Said John O'Sullivan in the Democratic Review, “it must be our manifest destiny to overspread the continent alloted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Indeed, popular incitement for the idea that quite possibly all of the New World, or at least that part of it that we could get our army onto, ought to be an American fiefdom animated popular support for the war.
Then again, there was another consequence of the war. In much the same way as the Spaniards spent 781 years from the Moorish invasion in 711 to the unification of Castile and Aragon in 1492 on a Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula from its Muslim invaders, the Mexicans have launched a bit of a Reconquista of their own in recent decades, swarming over the border, overrunning American settlements in the hitherto primarily white-occupied areas of the American Southwest, and trying to do for “possession is nine-tenths of the law” what Genghis Khan did for Russia.
Which brings me back to Arizona. In much the same way as 9/11 would bring up the issue of “is racial profiling acceptable when you are under attack?”, people in the Grand Canyon State struggle with that same question. It is perhaps only a matter of time before someone brings up the point that had the Moors engaged in conciliatory respect for civil rights rather than fighting off their Spanish would-be usurpers, Spain might have been reconquered in the eighth century rather than the fifteenth. Too bad nobody in the Tea Party can read.
Question 3: Why did the good guys win the American Civil War?
(oh come on, you knew something like that was coming. Moving on...)
The Germans have a saying about total war: “Der Krieg ernährt den Krieg”, which is a translation of Cato the Elder's Latin pronouncement that “Bellum se ipsum alet”, or “war feeds itself.” Such an attitude was on display in the American Civil War, when the industrial might of the North and a willingness to completely destroy the enemy's capacity to feed and clothe its troops and people and carry on the conduct of a war of attrition led to the North emerging victorious.
To understand why, one must consider Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage from economics. In short, a society benefits from specialization and free trade far more than it does from trying to produce everything itself, because industrial efficiency dictates that where labor, materiel, and expertise are concentrated where they can do the most local good, the greatest output can be achieved.
All of this is all well and good, but in America it led to a national attitude that the factories, craftsmen, and capitalists would inhabit the cities of the North while the raw materials were grown on plantations staffed by slave labor in the South. It was a good arrangement for a fair length of time, but eventually even the Northern states came to find themselves rich in the very resource that was most essential for the conduct of nineteenth-century warfare: Iron. Iron mines in what is today known as the Rust Belt ensured a steady supply of steel out of the city of Pittsburgh, augmented by the invention of the Bessemer process by Henry Bessemer in 1859. With pig iron and Pittsburgh steel and armaments manufactured throughout the loyal states, the North quite simply had more and better guns than the South.
This war of attrition was made possible as well by the fact that even though the South had, in theory, plenty of cotton to make clothing and bandages, they lacked the industrial capacity to turn that cotton into actual cloth. Meanwhile, by virtue of the Union navy being king of the sea, the North was able to import cotton and produce plenty of cloth of its own. Once again the concept of total war was on display; one cannot stress enough just how decisive that industrial might was to the conduct of the war.
As if that weren't enough, even superior military generalship wasn't enough for the South. Sure, they had Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston while President Lincoln had to content himself with trying to convince General George McClellan that perhaps a bit of actual fighting might be in order if indeed war is to be won. But on July 4, 1863, not only did Lee commit what may have been his greatest blunder by suicidally charging Pickett's battalion against a fortified Union position, but down in the Deep South, Ulysses S. Grant gave Johnny Reb fifty bucks' worth of hell in Vicksburg, effectively cutting the Confederacy in half at the Mississippi River and ensuring that the supply line between the western and eastern halves would never again be effective.
Meanwhile, one William Tecumseh Sherman stamped his name on the annals of history by doing to the Southern plantations what Romans did to Carthage after the Third Punic War. Union troops advanced in a swath like a Biblical plague of locusts, living off the land while there and burning it before departure to ensure that the men in gray would gain no value from that land for the remainder of the war. For his trouble, he got a tank named after him eighty years later and his name still strikes anger and vengeance into the heart of any good Southerner even today.
In short, the combination of industrial might, economic power, and one audacious and destructive fellow from Lancaster, Ohio combined to ensure that America would remain one nation, at least for the time being.
Question 7: On the World Wars and that damned industrial might thing again.
There is an exchange on an episode of The Simpsons (“Treehouse of Horror”, episode 18.04) in which the nature of the world wars is brought into perfect focus during a scene set in the Great Depression:
Abe Simpson: I didn't think it would come to this when I fought in the First World War.
Lenny: "First World War"? Why do you keep calling it that?
Abe: Oh, you'll see!
Indeed, it seems that humanity's capacity for destroying itself was on full display between 1914 and 1945. Unrestricted submarine warfare brought us into the First World War; Japanese bombers at Pearl Harbor brought us into the Second. And in each case the industrial might of the United States swung the balance in favor of the Allied side.
The First World War is a bit of a forgotten war. While the History Channel and video game developers fall all over themselves to re-create the Second World War and the Nazis make a convenient stand-in for “the bad guys” in fiction even today, the Great War was far too much of a meat grinder with too many moral gray areas to be of much use to a society dumbed down to the intellectual level of a comic book. Innovations in the Great War were primarily a matter of making more grunts die more gruesomely. Between the perfection of the machine gun, the first aerial warfare with the invention of the Lewis gun, chlorine and phosgene gas shells to ensure that a trench wasn't just dirty but poisonous, gas masks to ensure that the men stuck around in those trenches regardless, and finally a little honey of a tank called the Renault FT-17, there were plenty of inventions to go around.
Meanwhile, World War II had innovations of its own. Blitzkrieg tactics, M4A1 Sherman tanks, Zeroes, Messerschmitt BF-109s, air raids, practical flamethrowers, and a couple of big radioactive explosions headlined the roster of advances in the means of making men good and dead. Let us also consider the invention of the industrial-strength gas chamber by the Nazis...if only for a moment, and the subsequent invention of the Zionist tactic of using the Holocaust as a catchall for whining every time someone suggests that perhaps the actions of Israel are not quite kosher.
World War I was all about America protecting its merchant shipping. We hear the phrase “no blood for oil” used by protestors of modern wars in the Middle East. Had Wilson not maintained a virtual police state in 1917, one might have heard “no blood for capitalist fat cats”, since the bulk of the profits were going to that small upper class in the form of passenger fares and cargo fees, at least when the passengers and cargo didn't encounter German U-boats en route.
World War II, on the other hand, was all about “they attacked us, let's go kick their asses.” Strong isolationist sentiment prevented the Roosevelt administration from throwing in its lot with the Allies, but when Pearl Harbor got hit, that was enough to awaken the sleeping giant. We were mad as hell and ready to kick the sushi out of the Japanese. If a few Nazis got turned into sauerkraut along the way, more's the better. World War I was nebulous; World War II was personal.
On the other side of the coin, the Germans and Japanese would probably have been a bit less belligerent if not for the fact that one cannot conduct a modern industrial economy, much less a war, without oil, and there is no oil under either of those two countries. They had to go looking for it elsewhere, and as a general matter when someone else's army shows up in your country looking for your stuff, the logical response is to shoot every damned one of them. Indeed, the main strategic thrusts of the war in both theaters involved the question of who was going to control the vital supplies of oil at places like Baku, the Dutch East Indies, and north Africa. The mere fact that the good guys had the oil and the bad guys didn't is the single simplest explanation for how the war ultimately turned out. Well, that and the gigantic radioactive booms in Hiroshima and Nagasaki...
Question 8: On the Roaring Twenties, or “Screw the law, I need a drink!”
Short version to answer your questions: The Twenties ended when the Thirties began, FDR was a Commie, and Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. Next question.
OK, OK, I've been trying that crap for two semesters and ten papers now and it hasn't worked yet. The Roaring Twenties, as the name implies, were a rollicking, devil-may-care economic boom the likes of which the world had never seen before. All those dead meatbags from World War One meant lots of unused manufacturing capacity, and lots of unused capacity tends to follow the rule of “nature abhors a vacuum”. Those who were left were press-ganged into service to the new consumer economy---at least the first-draft version of it.
Meanwhile, Prohibition was intended to ensure that nobody could go out and have themselves some Miller Time after work, but fat lot of good that did; speakeasies, organized crime, and the sort of source material for gangster films marked the cultural zeitgeist of the era. Women wore “flapper” skirts that were barely a step removed from them being naked from the waist down, morals were loose and the rule of law looser, and the whole time was glorious in a way that led people to think that the good times would go on forever.
Well, October 1929 happened. The stock market, drunk at the wheel from violating Prohibition, crashed. Unemployment shot up to 100%, children had to walk nine miles to school uphill both ways in the snow while selling pencils at a nickel apiece except nobody had a nickel because everyone was unemployed, parents beat their kids with belts every night and the kids liked it, and nobody was in color because color wasn't invented until it was a secret project during the war. I know all this because my grandfather told me so, repeatedly, when I was a kid in the 1980s. To mark this section of the paper down for factual inaccuracy is to risk the old dog, who is still alive at age 89, coming to your house, a fate that still scares the bajeezus out of me thirty years later!
Meanwhile in the White House, President Hoover decided that he was going to take a very historical inspiration from all of these events and do something worthy of the glories of Ancient Rome. That is to say, he fiddled while Rome burned. Unfortunately for the country, Hoover's Roman hero was Emperor Nero. This didn't go over well with the electorate, so in March of 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the oath of office and immediately set about Doing Something™ about the economy. If the private sector wasn't going to provide jobs, then by the gods, the government would do it for them.
“Communism!” came the cry from the wealthy. “Screw you, rich fat cats!” came the cry from a grateful public, no longer forced to boil their shoes for soup. The Works Progress Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority, Hoover Dam, and various other government programs that would today be called an “economic stimulus” and draw similar opposition from Republicans made sure that America got back to work...and built up our industrial might to a point where it was quite conveniently ready to kick some Nazi ass a decade later.
Meanwhile, those alphabet soup organizations couldn't employ everyone. There was still the elderly, the disabled, and those out of work through no fault of their own to consider. Enter Social Security and unemployment insurance, which to this day ensure that even a recession as nasty as the one the rest of the country just got out of (even if Nevada is still mired in it with no end in sight) will not lead to the sorts of things that will be nightmare fuel for our own grandchildren fifty years hence. Say what you will about interventionism, but the prospect of living in Hoover's America? I'll leave that to grandpa's memories.
Question 9: The Domino Effect, or “What does lousy pizza have to do with Communism anyway?”
In the aftermath of World War II, the formerly friendly US and USSR went from being allies to being mortal enemies. The Russians wanted to spread Communism around the world and rule from Moscow. The Americans wanted to sell consumer goods to everyone and their dog, and having everyone and their dog go Communist isn't very good for business. Our foreign policy was codified in the Truman Doctrine of “containment”; we would not engage in provocative wars of aggression to wipe out entrenched Commie positions but we would fight tooth and nail to prevent the problem from getting any bigger.
The first test of this particular belief came in Korea; never before has a stalemate been so decisive a victory. Merely by chasing the North Koreans back across the 39th parallel, the Truman Doctrine passed its first test. Unfortunately for us, victories would not come so easily in the coming years. “Never fight a land war in Asia” was about to be brutally proven.
The French, being the French, have a remarkable capacity for losing wars and getting the brie and Bordeaux kicked out of them. 1954 at Dien Bien Phu (gesundheit!) was another stellar example of this Gallic penchant for getting pounded like cheap veal. Having chased out the French, the Vietnamese immediately proceeded to start squabbling, bickering, and pitting Ngo Dinh Diem against Ho Chi Minh in a battle for which item off a Chinese restaurant menu would rule what had been French Indochina.
Trouble was, Ho was a Communist. America couldn't allow that, so we cooked up an “incident” in the Gulf of Tonkin, passed a resolution saying “and we shall fight a war that will make for really good war movies in fifteen or twenty years”, and went off to give the world some plot spoilers for Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. The Domino Effect was cited, which basically said that bastions of capitalism are like Christmas lights; if one goes out, they all go out. Never mind that we lost the war in Vietnam and I'm pretty sure the Soviet Union didn't end up ruling the world; I was around from 1977 onward and I think someone would've told me to stop playing baseball and eating apple pie with Mom and start reciting Communist Party propaganda slogans or something. So what Vietnam amounted to was basically a bunch of pointless death and carnage, a ready-made stab in the back myth for American right-wingers thanks to the hippie movement that's coming in handy during our latest military adventures, and the aforementioned war movies.
We also got a bunch of shell-shocked soldiers who seem to have been trained in the arts of guerrilla begging and asymmetrical chemical warfare with the way they smell. I don't think even the most ardent warmonger wants to turn their son into a fiftysomething post traumatic stress disorder sufferer holding up a cardboard sign near a Wal-Mart that says “homeless veteran please help”. So if we got anything positive from Vietnam, at least we got rid of the draft.
Meanwhile, the Cold War was not won by the Truman Doctrine and police action. It was won by an ice hockey team, blue jeans, and Ronald Reagan. At least I'm going to tell my own grandchildren that. If there is a bright side to old age, at least your childhood becomes de facto folk history. But Vietnam? A lot of pointless killing for no strategic gain leading to America falling in disgrace in war for the first time in its history. Yeah. Nice job breaking it, President Johnson.


  1. Bravo Fox. I hope you get a perfect score. But. Everyone else in the world remembers the Great War well. Seriously.

  2. Thanks for the kind word. I got an A on the paper, capping a 5-for-5 semester---five papers, five A's.


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