Category Archives: History

Essays on historical events by Wayne K. Spear

Kerry channels shame of Munich in bid for strike against Syria

1938 Munich Agreement

ONE DECADE AGO, the French distaste for war against Saddam Hussein inspired Freedom Fries, the conventional name for this ubiquitous side-dish having been removed from Congressional cafeteria menus at the direction of Republicans Bob Ney and Walter Jones. On US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Paris, to make the case for a limited strike against Syria, the reception was by contrast positive. Yet the forms of the arguments reveal a tension in the prevailing views of military engagements whose roots reach back to the First World War.

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Richard Nixon’s failed attempt to bankrupt the American political system

NixonReagan and Bush


I‘LL FOREVER BE SURPRISED by current day apologists of Richard Nixon, who are able (much like admirers of John Kennedy and Bill Clinton) to side-step quite a bit of nastiness to put forward the triumphs — in this case concerning China and the Soviet Union and the often cited “détente.” And indeed this was the chief tactic of Nixon himself, who discounted the Watergate disclosures and who preferred to talk instead about his efforts “to build peace in the world.”

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Jackie Robinson and the Business of Black Baseball

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey

IMAGINE IT, if you can. The date is November 1945, and you are about to be discharged from an institution whose blood-soaked campaign against global Aryan dominance and industrialized race murder has absorbed the last three years of your young life. However, you did not (as it is said in war’s loathsome and euphemistic lexicon) see action in the theatre of Europe. The battle you have fought has been against racial segregation and mastery, upheld by the very people who demand that you give your life in the service of “your” country.

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Joseph Ratzinger Should Be Remembered for His Crimes


JAMIE DOWARD’S April 24, 2005 Guardian column, “The Pope, the letter and the child sex claim,” closes with the assertion that the reign of Benedict XVI may well be judged in relation to the sexual crimes and criminals long cloistered by the Vatican, and indeed Mr. Ratzinger himself. As the current Pope departs, the time is full for a summation of these crimes as well as these criminals.

As consequence of the courage and tenacity of the victims — of which there are as many as ten thousand, according to the John Jay College report — an indictment of the church’s topmost offices may now be assembled. For years, rarely a month has passed without some new and lurid disclosure thickening the already rotten stench of a closed-rank institution obsessed with its self preservation. In January we were informed of the Cardinal Roger Mahony’s removal from duties and the release of priest files which contain the “terribly sad and evil” acts (as Archbishop Gomez termed them) committed throughout the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

This latest revisiting of a decade-long, international outrage recalls what is perhaps the most notorious case of Boston’s then Archbishop, Bernard Law, whose cover-ups of child rape led to disgrace and resignation late in 2002. Since that time many thousands of allegations have issued, and a disgusting pattern of institutional obfuscation and evasion, guided from the very top, has emerged. The rot did not begin with the Holy See’s current Pontiff, as Gratian’s De Poenitentia shows. An internal discussion over management of sexual crimes — or sins, if you prefer — has run across the centuries. What has changed is the capacity of the Catholic church and its agents to appoint themselves the exclusive judge and jury. Of this depraved and failed effort, let the public record show that Joseph Ratzinger was a leading proponent.

Modern-day policy derives from Vatican documents of the 1960s. Having anticipated a public scandal, the church under John Paul II initiated an internal investigation, under the auspices of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — an office earlier known as the Roman Inquisition and placed in 1981 under the Prefect Ratzinger. Doward’s two Guardian columns of April 24 — the second is titled “Pope ‘obstructed’ sex abuse inquiry” — capture the tone and substance of the present Pope’s effort to contain the uncontainable, by deferring to the long-standing policy of secrecy and silence, “under the penalty of excommunication” for renegade priests.

For as long as possible, the Vatican enforced the secrets. For as long as possible, senior officials arrogated to themselves the roles of judge and jury. When these efforts collapsed soon after 2000 under the weight of public disclosure, scrutiny and outrage, Mr. Ratzinger charged the crimes to the accounts of secularism, asserting that “pedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children.” Suddenly the church, that sacred chalice from which alone flowed the absolute knowledge of beauty and moral rectitude and God’s Truth, was simply an unwitting victim of moral relativism.

The truth however is more nuanced than that, and less amenable to the Vatican’s propaganda. Whatever one may say of moral relativism, it happens that every step forward, under Benedict XVI, was compelled by secular pressure. Once the multiple defensive tactics had failed, apologies were issued and commitments to doing better were made. In Ireland, the church was compelled by law to report crimes to secular authorities, while in Canada a flood of lawsuits brought lawyers for the Catholic Entities into negotiations of the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

In the meanwhile, the disgraces of both Bernard Law and Roger Mahony were rewarded by Ratzinger with rich appointments — in particular to the Roman Curia, the central governing body of the Catholic church. Both Law and Mahony participated in the Papal Conclave which selected the now-retiring Vicar of Christ, as Mahony will do once again in the choosing of a successor. Also participating in the 2005 conclave was Ratzinger-ally and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who in 2010 characterized abuse allegations as “petty gossip of the moment” and who seven years earlier had intervened on behalf of the convicted sexual abuser Marcial Maciel in an effort to shut down the investigation.

With filth such as this at the very core of the Vatican, we should not be surprised that above all imperatives obtains a cardinal injunction to somehow renew and revive an institution caught in the act. Mr. Ratzinger’s Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, for example, dwells pitifully upon the tribulations of the Roman Church in the late 1600s, inadvertently reminding us of a more recent Ireland and more recent sacrifices of children to the same sordid religious tribalisms. Joseph Ratzinger not only failed to renew the Catholic church — he created the very conditions which will make a meaningful renewal improbable.

The story of Richard III proves history is written by the victors

Richard III reconstruction

MOST OF WHAT is today recorded of Richard of Gloucester was first compiled under the dominance of the House of Tudor, from Thomas More’s 1520 History of King Richard III, in the time of Henry VIII, to Raphael Holinshed’s ambitious but abandoned Elizabethan-era Chronicles, published in two editions of 1577 and 1587. From the later of these two publications, originally conceived as a history from the Flood onwards, Shakespeare derived a good amount of material for his historical and tragic plays. His Tragedy of King Richard the Third is generally placed in the former category, but sometimes also the second, an ambiguity which fittingly mirrors Richard III’s legend-rich niche in English history.

Given that the ascendance of Henry VII arrived on the battlefield and with Richard III’s demise (the succession of Tudor to the House of York, on August 22, 1485, was the last such transition effected by means of physical combat), a degree of outright propaganda must be expected in the Renaissance account. In their 1954 introduction to the Elizabethan chroniclers, contained in the anthology The Renaissance in England, Hyder E. Rollins and Herschel Baker write that “with a few exceptions” these histories “are partisan, plagiaristic, uncritical, and virtually innocent of form or style.”  As one would expect, Shakespeare’s Richard III as in the case of earlier accounts is crude, cunning, malformed and above all wicked.

As early as More, however, a critical eye had fallen upon the human failings to which the living Tudor king would prove himself prone. There is a chasm for instance between the inquisitional Henry VIII and More’s King Utopus, who decrees “that it should be lawful for every man to favor and follow what religion he would.” Read as a work contemporary with Utopia, published in 1516 but begun around the same time, the History of Richard III could be seen along with its fictional companion as More’s critique of human arrogance and cruelty, of which the contemporary sovereign was an egregious practitioner. A devout Catholic but also a humanist, More was eventually at the receiving end of Henry VIII’s vindictiveness, paying with his life for the “treasonous” act of refusing absolute submission to the dictator’s ever-broadening claims.

The recent Leicester excavation and even more astonishing reconstruction of Richard III’s remains now provides fresh cause to reconsider the legends. Doubtless less wicked than commonly portrayed — but necessarily capable of ruthlessness, as were his predecessors and in some cases successors — he may indeed have been as well-formed and even attractive as Nicolas von Poppelau and the superannuated Katherine FitzGerald had once recalled.

What is certain is that Richard lived at a time in which a degree of ruthlessness was a royal aspirant’s prerequisite, and the elimination of one’s rivals, both real and potential as well as past and present, a matter to be taken as granted. As late as 1541, a much crueler and much more rapacious Henry VIII was purging the already severely attenuated Plantagenet line — in this instance by ordering the execution of sixty-seven year-old Margaret Pole. (The niece of Richard III and daughter of George Plantagenet, whose legendary death in “a butt of Malmsey wine” was dramatized by Shakespeare, Pole’s gruesome beheading required eleven strokes of the executioner.) Richard III is arguably a retrospective victim of this Tudor purge.

Debate about the character and deeds of the man is certain to continue, just as the present spat between Leicester and York recalls the bloody contests between Plantagenet’s rival houses. Only with the rise of Henry Tudor were the warring roses combined. The shedding of English blood over this business of religious and clan and territorial rivalry, however, was far from over.

The McLaughlin Buick, a King, and the Great American Novel

1927 McLaughlin Buick

IN OUR AGE of traffic congestion and global terrorism, we’ve forgotten the time in which the prospect of travel by automobile or airplane summoned notions of luxury and elegance. The author Peter Pigott, who has produced a number of books on these and other modes of transport, rehearses in his “Royal Transport: An Inside Look at The History of British Royal Travel” the long and intimate relationship of British royalty to the Canadian made McLaughlin-Buick — one of which is soon to be auctioned in the United Kingdom.

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A Two-State Solution Without Statesmen

Palestine and Israel

FORMER US PRESIDENT Jimmy Carter, in a New York Times editorial “Two-State Solution on the Line,” invokes his view a month previous at the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem and reflects that

The rate of settlement growth in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is staggering. There are now more than 500,000 Israeli settlers living beyond the Green Line, in violation of international law. Their numbers have doubled since the Oslo peace accords of 1993. Thousands more settlement homes are planned or under construction.

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Looking Back at the Mau Mau Uprising

Mau Mau Uprising

THE KENYA MAU MAU uprising, whose 60th anniversary arrives on October 7, has a legacy which reaches into some surprising places. Recall for instance Mike Huckabee’s comment of late February 2011, on The Steve Malzberg Show:

“If you think about it, [President Obama’s] perspective as growing up in Kenya, with a Kenyan father and grandfather — their view of the Mau Mau Revolution in Kenya is very different than ours because he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather.”

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A Clothing Store, Hitler, Gandhi and Indian Independence

Hitler and India

ALMOST PRECISELY seventy years ago, in March of 1942, Winston Churchill dispatched his Marxist-leaning cabinet minister and political rival Stafford Cripps to secure India’s co-operation in the war against Hitler. Partly a result of the well-founded suspicions of Indian nationalists — chief among whom were Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajaji, Subhas Chandra Bose and Mohandas Gandhi — but mostly the result of Churchill’s covert efforts, the negotiations of the Cripps mission failed (as Churchill all along intended). In the subsequent months Gandhi, anticipating a German-Japanese victory, led his colleagues in the Quit India movement, demanding the withdrawal of Britain and immediate Indian independence.

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Ripples from the War of 1812 are still being felt

IN RECENT MONTHS, there has been debate over the federal government’s decision to spend a yet-undisclosed sum commemorating the War of 1812. The Americans will doubtless overlook this bit of their history, but I’m unable to imagine any Canadian government ignoring the two-hundred-year anniversary of a conflict that could have converted Upper and Lower Canada into two of the coldest states of the Union.

According to the official government website announcing the initiative, “Canadians gave [the Harper Government] a strong mandate to celebrate important historical events”: in this instance a war which — again, from the Government’s website —

… helped establish Canada’s path toward becoming an independent and free country, united under the Crown, with respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity. Simply put, the War of 1812 helped define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we honour. Against great odds, it took the combined efforts of Canadians of all ancestries to repel the American invasion and defend Canada in a time of crisis.

A grand feel-good take on the conflict, and who could disagree? Jeffrey Simpson, for one, who on October 7, 2011 characterized the war as horrible and stupid, and “among the dumbest ever fought.” Whether agreeing with this assessment or agreeing not, one should probably award points for the spot-on retort of Dorchester Review editor, C.P. Champion:

Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist at The Globe & Mail, thinks Canada should not celebrate the upcoming 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 because the conflict was “stupid” and “dumb,” with “bad leadership” and “messy battles.” If that is the standard, we had better forget celebrating much of our history. Get out your calendar and scratch off Remembrance Day, November 11. That date commemorates the allied victory in 1918 that marked the end of the First World War — a conflict that presumably fits Simpson’s definition of a stupid and messy war.

A good point. All wars are indeed irrational and vicious and stupid, even when necessary, their accomplishments invariably measured in the numbers of children turned into corpses and summoning to one’s mind these lines of Hamlet:

… to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain.

So the question remains, Why commemorate war in general, and the War of 1812 in particular?

Journalist Steven Chase has reported a Department of Canadian Heritage study showing in detail what we should already know, that most Canadians are unfamiliar with the details of the War of 1812 — the countries involved, the causes, the individuals who played prominent roles, the locations of battles, and so on. The figures are as a general rule appalling and culminate in the pronouncement that “only one of the 1,835 respondents correctly identified all six of the historical figures from a list.” Here one should put due emphasis on the cadence from a list, which tells us that the respondents probably didn’t know anything about other historical events either, and therefore were unable to arrive at an answer by means of elimination. This state of collective amnesia is probably as good a reason as any to do some commemorative work, commemorate being a verb meaning “to bring to remembrance.”

An honest and candid assessment of the period 1812-1814 will show that the war was started on false grounds, by American jingoists and super-patriots, as Simpson asserts. However, once started, the people of Upper and Lower Canada had good reason to fight. Also, while the war was lost by the inept and over-confident Americans as much as it was won by the British and the Canadians —and the Canadiens — the character and accomplishments of — for example — Major General Isaac Brock were what they were. The 1814 Treaty of Ghent confirmed the pre-war, and indeed post-Revolution, territories and borders of British North America and the United States, and while the Harper government will tell you that peace followed as a result and ever since, the fact may well be that the Americans would have accomplished at a later date what they could not accomplish in 1812-1814, had they not had vast western and southern frontiers to divert their apparent boundless attention and energy.

In other words, the legacy of the war was neither territorial nor geopolitical, but rather psychological. After 1814 the occupants of territories north of the 49th parallel were possessed of what is today termed “Canadian identity,” which may be summarized in the phrase “not American”. Although there has been peace between Canada and the United States ever since 1814, suspicion and a vague condescension toward the Americans was henceforth a permanent feature of the Canadian psyche. An early example of the Canadian apprehension of Uncle Sam — and of the Canadian habit of arriving at self-understanding by looking south — can be found in Thomas Haliburton’s acerbic 1836 novel The Clockmaker. In this work the satire cuts both ways, reflecting a deeper and uncomfortable awareness that Canada must either side with Britain or else be absorbed by America.

In the preceding paragraph I have stated that “after 1814 the occupants of territories north of the 49th parallel were possessed of what is today termed Canadian identity.” There is of course a large and important exception, the indigenous peoples of this land. One of the principal immediate causes of the war was the growing conflict between a brutal and expansionist settler population and its indigenous resistance, among whose most famous leaders in 1812 was Tecumseh. In the three decades leading up to 1812, the Haudenosaunee (like Tecumseh’s people, and indeed all indigenous groups) had been dispossessed of their land base at an alarming rate. The 1812 war offered an opportunity to extract concessions from Britain and Canada through military alliance, a strategy which had served the League in the past and might do so again. It was a military alliance with Britain, during the American Revolution, which yielded to the Six Nations the Haldimand Tract, in Ontario. Ninety-five percent of this land would eventually revert to Canada through a series of transfers, some of which are held by the Six Nations to have involved deception and outright theft. (The current-day Caledonia dispute is a direct legacy of this period.) Not a promising record, but in 1812 military alliances still counted for something, and then as now there were things for which it was worth fighting.

As it happened, the War of 1812 marked the end of the historical era of British-Indian and French-Indian military alliances. European rivalries having been settled on the continent, the provinces within a couple decades of the war’s conclusion were formulating a new, inward-looking Indian policy at the centre of which was assimilation and absorption of indigenous peoples into the sea-sea-sea body politic. Before the War of 1812, indigenous peoples were viewed by Canadian and American alike either as dangerous enemies or as military allies; after the war, they were increasingly viewed as a problem to be resolved through absorption and legislation. The war probably hastened what would have occurred anyway. Nonetheless, whatever victory Canada may justly claim, it is the case that to the indigenous people who fought alongside the British loyalists, as to the later generations who would do the same on European soil, there fell few of the spoils. An emergent outward-facing nation became after 1814 preponderantly inward-looking, the Indian problem thereafter, and to this day, displacing colonial rivalries of the previous centuries.

How J.S. Woodsworth opposed the war and saved capitalism

J. S. Woodsworth

ONE MIGHT HAVE anticipated, with all the recent talk of conscience rights, that J.S. Woodsworth would soon enough become a hash tag. But not as the object of a slander. The man who once led the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was nothing if not conscience driven. His lifelong, principled commitments to the Social Gospel, socialism and pacifism were amply rewarded — both by the Methodist church and the nation which he dutifully served — with accusations of sedition, criminal charges, harassment and imprisonment. Whatever one’s politics, one could do worse than to emulate the spine of this man.

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The great achievement of the Charter

Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms

I neither have a horse in, nor would desire to enter one into, the race between Alberta’s Progressive Conservative candidate Alison Redford and her Wildrose rival Danielle Smith. My interests furthermore were of no concern in the American Senator Roy Blunt’s “conscience amendment” — appended to a transportation bill in response to President Barack Obama’s mandate to extend employer health coverage to contraception. In these and many other related developments around the world I am a mere observer, and so I might well say, and would prefer to say, “Best of luck to you” — and leave it at that. Unfortunately, this stuff is in the air. Wherever you happen to be, the winds are blowing in your direction. The principle of minding one’s own private business is now on a course of collision with the incipient work of fitting the square pegs of public policy into the round holes of private conscience.

Thirty years ago Queen Elizabeth II authorized the Constitution Act, thereby entrenching the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Whatever your view of the Charter, the work of sorting out intrinsically incompatible world views and notions of personal rights, and balancing these against the public interest, is the core challenge of our generation. Today this rights challenge arrives in multiple forms, from petitions for accommodation of Sharia to endorsement of gay marriage. Each challenge must be met individually, on its own merits or lack thereof. As the Wildrose candidacy of Edmonton South’s Allan Hunsperger this week drifts onto the media’s front pages, I am reminded (as if I needed a reminder) of the living notion that homosexuals will “suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering.” A conscience of a definite kind may be inferred from this assertion, and while it’s light years from my own, in my view there must be peaceful co-habitation of the skin of this Earth by the differently thinking, whenever this is both principled and possible. Now that the Wildrose party is proposing to institute a conscience-based alternative to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, I find myself keen to know what folks like Allan Hunsperger — the avid compilers of lists of the hell-bound — mean to do with it.

The balancing of competing rights and interests will stand as the supreme object of policy deliberation, at least until the world’s ideology-driven moral police get the upper hand. Balance may seem the tepid object of soft-headed middle-of-the-roaders, but in fact it requires moral courage. In the case of President Obama’s contraception health coverage mandate, there was earlier this year a widely perceived over-reaching of state power and a concomitant infringement of religious rights, thereafter succeeded by a compromise. Obama’s conciliatory conscience exemptions, although imperfect, satisfied many — but not all. The few holdouts, one could argue, were simply adhering to their own internal logic: if you are of the conviction that contraception is immoral, how it is paid for is irrelevant. The necessary thing is to keep others from having it. Once engaged on this issue, the most vocal and obdurate opponents seemed hardly to care for a compromise. But the extremists as a rule fail, because they do not represent a credible way forward. The unpleasant truth, if you happen to be an anti-contraceptives Catholic bishop, is that lay Catholics have their consciences too — and that by means of these consciences they have found contraception to be quite compatible with morality.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not a perfect document, but what in this human world is perfect? Present-day criticisms of the Charter, and of related institutions and legislation such as the Canadian Human Rights Act, demonstrate the necessary work of seeking reasonable and principled balance. Those who wish to discuss and critique and engage in heated disagreement uphold the very principles of human rights, dignity, and freedom. Those who seek to impose their views on others, by means of violence or subterfuge, uphold only their selfish will.

Russia’s War with the West is Not Over

Vladimir Putin

WHEN IN THE final days of his anti-climactic election campaign Vladimir Putin sought the blessing of the Theotokos of Tikhvin, he confirmed symbolically an attachment both to the Russian Orthodox Church and the czarist tradition. Add to the pious optics of this gesture the state dominated, and eastern Europe dominating, megacorporation Gazprom as well as the country’s informal ‘silovik’ network of former security operatives—embedded into the country’s banking, commercial, media, and energy sectors—and one would have in a single photo-op a complete representation of the current Russian state.

Continued …

Were the Nazis atheists?

Y OU DOUBTLESS have come upon the Associated Press headline of a Julie Watson article informing the world that “US Marines posed with [a] Nazi symbol in Afghanistan.” I myself suspect, but cannot yet prove, that this represents an instance of all-too-familiar ignorance, plain and simple. Having taught military-aged youth, I’m depressingly aquainted with the history-challenged. This is quite bad enough, and also indicative of a systemic rot, the depth of which was soon revealed in the even more objectionable media coverage which ensued. I submit to the court of opinion the following example:

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Looking Back at Pearl Harbour

THE DECEMBER 7, 1941 Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbour swiftly entered the realm of national mythology and for many years subsequently abetted the work of war propaganda and, after 1945, the projection of American power abroad — on the conviction that American interests were at stake. Only September 11, 2001 rivals this date as a rude interruption of American exceptionalism, the idea that America is somehow exempt from the European  business of invasion and attack.

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