The Iran-Contra affair was a failure. It didn’t topple the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, nor did it improve U.S. relations with Iran. And yet, the subsequent cover-up and damage-control by the Reagan administration was a success. Almost no one talks about the scandal now. Despite damning evidence against the administration being out in the open, the scandal did not impact Reagan’s legacy in the way Watergate did Nixon’s, or Clinton’s scandals did his. It was also, oddly enough, probably the best thing to ever happen to Oliver North’s career.
Duncan Ryuken Williams’s new book, American Sutra, explores Japanese Internment with a focus on Buddhism. Most Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were Buddhists, and before and during internment these members of the Japanese-American community were treated very differently than those who’d converted to Christianity. Buddhists in internment camps found ways to practice their faith, despite it being discouraged, and Buddhist soldiers were crucial to the American war effort, both in Europe and the Pacific.
In the early 1980s the Reagan administration changed how the U.S. engaged with Communism abroad. Instead of following a policy of containment, the U.S. would actively support anti-Communist insurgents around the world. This policy, which later became known as the Reagan administration, positioned the US as the supporter and benefactor of fighters like the Afghan Mujahideen and the Nicaraguan Contras.
However, Reagan’s policy of intervention didn’t garner universal support, especially in light of atrocities committed by the Contras. News of American intervention in Nicaragua angered many in the U.S. In 1982 and 1984 Congress attached amendments to routine appropriations bills that prevented the CIA and State Department from providing funds to the Contras. These amendments, known as the Boland Amendments, prevented the executive branch from taking further action in Nicaragua.
If the administration wished to support the Contras further, they would have to break the law.
The Cold War defined geopolitics for much of the 20th century, often turning local conflicts and regional politics into large, proxy battles between the United States and Soviet Union. In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) successfully ousted Nicaragua’s Somoza regime, ending four decades of dictatorship. Almost immediately after the revolution, though, the remnants of the old regime began fighting back. These new rebel fighters, the Contras, received support from the American CIA as early as 1981.
The revolution set the stage for one of the strangest episodes of the Cold War, the Iran-Contra affair, in which US officials, in the name of supporting rebel fighters in Central America, would turn to cloak-and-dagger deals with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In 1983 a Soviet satellite system erroneously detected five incoming American nuclear missiles. Stanislav Petrov, the man tasked with reporting the alert to the USSR’s leadership, suddenly had a dire choice: He could do his duty and start a nuclear war, or ignore the report in hopes that it was a false alarm. He chose the latter, and in doing so saved the world.
This week we close out our look at North Korea with three different scenarios for the future: War, reform, and reunification. None of the these futures are good. A war would kill millions. Reform could entrench a brutal dictatorship. Reunification could create an impoverished underclass in a new Korea for a generation.
Escaping North Korea is difficult, but it can be done. Notable escapees include Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok, a South Korean actress and director who Kim Jong Il captured and forced to make movies, like the Godzilla knockoff Pulgasari, pictured below. Kenji Fujimoto is the pseudonym for Kim’s personal chef who escaped to Japan in 2001. But, the vast majority of North Koreans escape the country because of famine and desperation, and the trip is a long and arduous one through China and Southeast Asia.
Happy Defenestration Day! On May 23rd, 1618 a bunch of angry Bohemian nobles shoved some government officials out of a window. The Second Defenestration of Prague kicked off the Thirty Years’ War, but today we mark it as a sesquipedalian occasion to celebrate very large words.
The transition of power from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il was a gradual one. From 1980 until 1994, it’s probably that the younger Kim did most of the day-to-day ruling of North Korea, with Kim Il Sung acting in a more removed capacity. When Kim Il Sung did die, it was at an opportune time. His son assumed power in 1994, just in time to preside over a famine that would kill over two million North Korean citizens.
The 1980s and early 1990s were a bad time for North Korea. The DPRK had to endure South Korea hosting the 1988 Olympics, the country sunk billions of dollars into wasteful infrastructure projects, and the Cold War ended, depriving them of Soviet aid. After that, North Korea suffered a symbolic blow in 1994 when Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, died at the age of eighty two.
For years South Korea was a dysfunctional military dictatorship under leaders like Rhee Syngman and Park Chun Hee. Assassination, martial law, and political repression were the order of the day. North Korean propaganda was able to exploit the militarism, chaos, and violence in their neighbor in propaganda, but after democratic reforms in the 1980s, the relative stability of the Korean peninsula is very different. For the most part. South Korea still does have the occasional presidential scandal.
During the Cold War, North Korea primarily interacted with South Korea and the United States via building the DMZ, several assassination attempts on South Korean presidents, and the taking of the USS Pueblo, the crew of which are pictured below. Note how they held their fingers when being photographed by their North Korean captors.
Prior to the Korean War, both North and South saw themselves as the legitimate government for the entire peninsula. At the time, the North was considered the more advanced, industrialized part of the peninsula, and Kim Il Sung believed that he could win a war with the more rural South. Stalin gave Kim permission for an invasion, and the Soviet premier believed that the war would be small, regional, and over quickly. However, the United States was able to mobilize the United Nations for what was termed a “police action” to intervene on the peninsula. The was would be regional, but it would drag on for years and involve several major world powers.
After WWII, the Korean peninsula was briefly united again as The People’s Republic of Korea. However, the unification wouldn’t last. American and Soviet forces divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, and in the north the Soviet Union set about creating a puppet state. However, the leader they chose, Kim Il Sung, and the founding ideology of their new state would not play out entirely as they had planned.
Japanese occupation changed North Korea, with various citizens either collaborating with or actively resisting it. One of those resistors was a guerrilla fighter named Kim Song Ju, who would later be known as Kim Il Sung. If you believe North Korean propaganda (which you shouldn’t) Kim Il Sung was born of humble farmers and formed a secret Korean resistance during the occupation. In fact, his grandfather was a Protestant minister, he spent most of his youth in China, and the units he fought with were organized either by the Chinese or Russians.
This year, we’re doing a long-form series on North Korea. We’ll get into the history, culture, and ideology of the isolated, totalitarian country. In order to get proper context, we’re starting with a (very) brief overview of Korean history. In the twentieth century, Korea is often thought of as a country in tumult, and one that is at the mercy of its more powerful neighbors. However, for most of Korea’s history, it was anything but.
Sarah Fraser is the author of The Last Highlander, which details the life of Simon Fraser, the 11th Lord Lovat. Fraser’s life was one of political intrigue, feuds, international deal making, and rebellion. He was eventually beheaded in 1747, the last British peer to face such a fate.
This episode is a little different. It’s about a topic that I’ve previously written and spoken about, though not on the podcast. Vanport was one of the largest federal housing projects in the United States during WWII. It went up hastily and cheaply just outside of Portland, Oregon, producing supply ships in less than two months, and was Oregon’s first major African-American population center. In 1948, though, it was destroyed by a cataclysmic flood that wiped the then second-largest town in Oregon off the map entirely.
Maybe the most famous part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a ladder that’s been propped onto the side of the building since at least the 1750s. The church is sacred to six different Christian sects, all of whom have to agree unanimously on anything in order to change any features of the church. For the past 250 plus years, none of them have agreed on where the ladder came from, who owns it, or where it should go. Tensions have occasionally led to fistfights at the Church of the holy Sepulchre, and the ladder remains a symbol of inter-sectarian non-cooperation.
Confederate statues have been in the news lately. Memorials always reflect the time they were built in moreso than the time they commemorate, and the vast majority of confederate statues were built in the Jim Crow era, in the early 1900s as part of a neo-Confederate propaganda campaign to bolster the South’s reputation. Most of the statues were built quickly and cheaply by the Monumental Bronze Company, which mass-produced both Union and Confederate monuments.
Aside from glorifying white supremacy and slavery, the statues (in this podcaster’s opinion) are bad history. Eastern bloc memorials such as Budapest’s Memmento Park could offer some guidance about what to do with monumental propaganda to an oppressive regime.
After the Kingdom of Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, Mussolini was a prisoner. But, during a German invasion of Northern Italy, he was sprung from his cell by German commandos and put in charge of the Italian Social Republic, a Nazi puppet state. Mussolini’s new assignment would prove to be short-lived. In less than two years the former dictator would be executed, and his body ripped apart by an angry mob.
Italy did not perform well in WWII. The Italian economy was not able to support an effective industrial war machine, and Italy saw defeat in Greece, Ethiopia, and in North Africa. In 1943 Allied forces invaded Sicily, and with the noose gradually tightening, the High Council of Fascism voted Mussolini out of power.
Italy was not well-positioned going into World War II. The Italian economy was still largely agricultural, and its industrial output was small compared with every other European great power. Also, Mussolini felt himself more and more unable to control Hitler. At the 1938 Munich conference Mussolini brokered a deal between Nazi Germany and the other European powers that gave Hitler the Sudetenland in return for not invading Czechoslovakia. A few months later, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia anyway. Mussolini’s deal was kaput, and the Italian dictator was revealed to be powerless over Hitler.
Despite being a regime birthed in martial rhetoric and symbolism, fascist Italy was in no shape, economically or diplomatically at the start of World War II. Instead of leaping into the conflict alongside it’s ally, Germany, Italy wouldn’t join the war until 1940.
This week’s episode is an interview with Meagan Zurn (or “Zee,” co-producer of The British History Podcast) about Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was a socialist, journalist, and briefly a member of the Italian parliament before getting thrown in jail by Mussolini’s regime in 1926. He died in prison in 1937. His writings, especially his prison writings, outlined the relationship of power and culture, and his insights are especially useful for understanding the rise of fascism in Italy, as well as how power and hegemony function everywhere else.
Italian fascism came to power (and solidified power) by co-opting existing political organizations and interests in Italy. That included the Catholic Church. Since Italian Unification the Church had been at odds with liberal Italy, and for fifty-nine years pope did not even set foot outside the Vatican. In 1929, though Mussolini offered the papacy a way out, with the creation of Vatican City as an independent state. Unfortunately, this would not go entirely well for the church.
After Mussolini proclaimed dictatorship in January of 1925 fascist Italy became the first modern totalitarian state. The regime extended its power and influence to everything from the national and local government, to the press, to unions, and even to the private lives of ordinary Italians.
Following the March on Rome Mussolini and the fascists cemented their grasp on power via an electoral reform known as the Acerbo Law, voter suppression and intimidation in the 1924 election, and (possibly) by killing one of their biggest opponents, the socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti.
The March on Rome is often cited as the beginning of Italian fascism. However, there was a fair amount of a run-up to the actual blackshirt invasion of the capital. Right-wing violence ravaged the Italian provinces for years before the actual march and, when Mussolini came to power, he formed a coalition government with conservative liberals and Catholics. In the coming years, Italy’s liberal democracy would be gradually dismantled. Nevertheless, the march was a turning point, and it introduced fascist elements into the Italian governmental leadership.
Fascism is the most malignant of the major political ideologies, and one of the least understood. For fascism, the nation (and therefore state) are paramount. Considerations for the needs of social classes or individuals are subordinate to the state, if they are considered at all. While Germany is easily the most famous fascist state, this ideology had its origins in Italy following WWI.
Prior to 1870 the term “Italy” was a geographic designation, referring to a collection of kingdoms, city-states, and papal states that happened to share a boot-shaped peninsula. Curiously, this collection of disparate elements would form not only a national identity, but a particularly violent, extreme one. One that would form the basis of probably the most destructive ideology of the past one hundred years.
In 1854 the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings made their debut into American politics. They ran candidates in 76 of the 82 available House of Representatives races, and won 35 of those seats. At the same time, they also became a force to be reckoned with in state and local governments. After their initial success, the Know-Nothings installed one of their own as the Speaker of the House and, at the local level, began passing laws and ordinances that restricted the rights of immigrants.
In 1856 they made a play for the Oval Office, nominating former president Millard Fillmore. As president, Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act that led to the dissolution of the Whig party and (indirectly) to the power vacuum that allowed for the Know-Nothings’ ascendancy. Fillmore did not identify with the Know-Nothings, but saw the nomination as a chance to form a national party that was untroubled by the issue of slaver.
Unfortunately for Fillmore and the Know-Nothings, slavery is possibly the most contentious and important political issue in American history. The issue of slavery (and secession and disunion) dominated the 1856 election. The anti-immigrant Know-Nothings continued to ignore the issue, and after 1856 the momentarily successful party slid into irrelevance.
Decades before the modern versions of the Democratic and Republican parties formed, the US also had a few other major political parties. One was the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Another was the Whigs, who had intermittent success before collapsing in the middle 1800s. Out of the ashes of the Whig party two other parties rose to take its place: The anti-slavery Republican party, and the anti-immigrant American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings.
The Know-Nothings opposed immigration to the United States, particularly from Catholics. Anti-Catholic paranoia has a long history in the US. Catholics (the thinking went) were more likely to be loyal to the pope than the country they lived in, were unable to work with people whom they deemed to be “heretics” and were, in general, less hardworking and virtuous than their fellow Protestants. This xenophobia, paranoia, and bigotry was prevalent enough that in the election of 1856 the Know-Nothings would contend as a major political party, albeit a failed one.
This week’s episode is an interview with author Bill Lascher about his upcoming book Eve of a Hundred Midnights, about two American war correspondents covering the East Asian theater of WWII. In it, Lascher details how they got into journalism, what it was like to cover wartime China, and their various encounters with and escapes from the dangers of war.
Eve of a Hundred Midnights comes out on June 21st, 2016.
“Sure, Mussolini was bad, but at least he made the trains run on time.”
You’ve probably said it. Or, you’ve been in a conversation and you heard somebody say it. Or you’ve seen it written somewhere. This cliche has been repeated time and again in countless different media (such as in the panel below, from DC’s New Earth series) to the point that one is almost more likely to associate the Italian dictator with railways than with the fascist ideology he invented. However, the commonly repeated trope does not have a basis in fact.
Supposedly punctual trains were part of Mussolini’s propaganda machine that put up a facade of well-functioning infrastructure for foreigners, suppressed reports of train collisions and accidents, and took credit for improvements implemented by earlier democratic regimes. There was no real bright side or silver lining to the authoritarian dictator’s reign. Not even well-functioning trains.
After successfully defeating the Ottoman-Egyptian and British forces at Khartoum, Sudan formed an independent government based around Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi or “expected one.” Unfortunately for Sudan, though, Ahmad died of Typhus only six months after the birth of the new state, and Mahdist Sudan was almost immediately faced with a succession crisis.
It would only be the first of many trials for the new state. Regional rebellions and border skirmishes, a war with neighboring Ethiopia, and economic isolation and famine would all take their toll on Sudan, and over the lifetime of the Mahdist state, millions of Sudanese citizens would die as a result of violence and privation.
In the early 1880s Sudan suffered under the heel of the Ottoman empire. Military occupation and heavy taxes led to widespread discontent that eventually led to a religiously-infused rebellion. Muhammad Ahmad styled himself as the Mahdi or “expected one,” a prophesized Islamic figure, and drawing on discontent, Ahmad led a rebellion throughout the country.
The British officer Charles George Gordon (pictured below) was put in charge of evacuating Egyptians and other foreigners from the Sudan. But, because of his poor relations with the British and the Ottoman-Egyptian governments, Gordon ended up holed up in Khartoum, under siege by the rebel forces, and eventually dead at the hands of the Sudanese. The Mahdi had successfully defeated the foreign occupiers, and a new state formed under his religiously-inspired revolutionary power.
Depending on how you measure and define things, the longest war in human history may very well have been between the Netherlands and a tiny collection of islands 28 miles off the coast of Britain known as the Isles of Scilly (the flag of which is pictured below) . The “war” lasted for three hundred and thirty five years and consisted of zero battles. It was a “war” only in the sense that the Netherlands had made a declaration of war in the 1600s, and then simply forgot to rescind it.
In 1986 a historian on Scilly set out to debunk what he thought was a local legend but, instead, ended up confirming that, yes, his small island community was technically still at war with the Netherlands. The historian alerted the relevant authorities, the Dutch ambassador visited the isles, read a scroll aloud, and declared peace. After 335 years of “war,” one of the longest declared military conflicts ended without the loss of a single human life.
Contemporary political commentators have, in the past, complained and ranted about a supposed secular war on Christmas, a crusade to erase spirituality and religion from late December, a campaign to turn the occasion of the Nativity into merely “the Holidays.” But, Christmas has always been a season more about revelry and celebration than spirituality. The holiday is a re-appropriating by Christianity of pre-existing Roman festivals such as Saturnalia and the birthdate of Sol Invictus the sun god. Christian reinterpretations are just that: Reinterpretations.
One group that knew this very well was the Puritans, who saw Christmas as a fundamentally ungodly holiday, and sought to ban it and all of its various trappings in both England and Massachusetts. Puritan leaders such as Cotton Mather (pictured below) saw the holiday not as something for the glory of God or Christianity, but directly counter to it. In Puritan-controlled areas shops and businesses stayed open on Christmas, and anyone caught celebrating the offensive holiday was fined the sum of five shillings.
The tiny island nation of Nauru once had one of the highest GDPs per capita on Earth. Today, the country has been stripped of resources and impoverished. Nauru’s booming economy during the 20th century was based on strip mining away the small island’s phosphorous-rich bird guano soil. The money flowed in, but a series of bad investments, con jobs, and one very bad London musical left the island impoverished. Nauru turned to money laundering and selling passports to foreign nationals to raise funds, but to no avail. Today, the island and its economy are both depleted shells of what they once were.
1932 was a bad year for farmers in Australia. Hot weather withered grain, because of the Great Depression, promised agricultural subsidies were not forthcoming and, worst of all, there were emus. The large flightless bird devoured Australian grain, prompting the government to go after them with machine guns.
Hong Xiuquan and his Taiping rebels successfully founded a new kingdom in southern China. The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace sought to overthrow the Manchurian Qing Dynasty and form a new, radically different China. Hong, the supposed younger brother of Jesus Christ, retreated to a life of luxury in an opulent palace, and the actual governance of the kingdom was carried out by his cousin Hong Rengan, who acted as essentially the Heavenly Kingdom’s prime minister. Hong sought out aide from foreign powers to assist the Taiping in their struggle against the Qing, but none came.
Instead, the Manchurian Dynasty and the United Kingdom would join forces to crush the rebels, and the supposed brother of Christ would die ingloriously while besieged in his palace. The image below is a memorial Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in Guanxi.
In the 1850s a man who styled himself as the younger brother of Jesus Christ led China into a bloody rebellion. China in the early 1800s was ravaged by famine, natural disasters, and British meddling that introduced opium (and the Opium Wars) to the population. The country was ripe for rebellion against the Qing Dynasty who, being Manchurian, were often perceived as foreigners by many of China’s Han population. Into all of this chaos and discontent came a man called Hong Xiuquan who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Hong founded an organization called the God Worshipping Society, and he and his Christian rebels would attempt to destroy not only the Qing Dynasty, but also prevailing Chinese ideas of religion and civilization.
This week’s show tracks the reasons behind China’s Taiping Rebellion, and gives a bit of background about Hong himself. Next week’s show will focus on the war itself, and the eventual fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The image below (made some time after the Taiping rebellion in 1886) shows Chinese Imperial soldiers retaking a provincial capital from Taiping rebels.
In 1904 a Greek-American playboy, Ion Perdicaris was, along with his stepson Cromwell, kidnapped in Morocco by a man who would later be called “The last of the Barbary pirates.” The incident sparked a degree of outrage in the US, and was a talking point for Theodore Roosevelt in the 1904 presidential election. But… Perdicaris himself didn’t mind being kidnapped. In fact, he had a great time being held hostage by a roving band of desert brigands.
The 1904 cartoon below from the Review of Reviews shows the US boldly telling the Sultan of Morocco to… pretty much give in to a kidnappers demands.
Probably the most violent singular example of post-slavery racial violence in the US happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. Mobs of armed whites burned buildings, killed African-Americans, and utterly destroyed what had been known as Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street.” For years the incident was not extensively talked or written about, but it is now more widely known as one of the most horrifying examples of domestic terror that the US has ever known.
In 1979 a group of religious extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and began a siege that would last over two weeks. The bloody event shook the Muslim world, and prompted reactions in Saudi Arabia that affect that country to this day.
Maximilian’s rule over Mexico was never truly solidified or legitimized, and the would-be emperor faced relentless resistance from liberal Mexican forces led by reformist president Benito Juarez. Eventually the emperor (always just a puppet of the French) would lose his foreign backing, get holed up in a siege, get captured, and eventually die ingloriously in front of a firing squad.
The painting below by Edouard Manet shows the execution of Maximilian and two of his generals by Juarez’s republican forces.
One of the most definitive and dramatic struggles against European monarchy happened in Mexico. France attempted to install Maximilian, a member of Austrian royal family as a puppet emperor of Mexico in the 1860s. The would-be emperor, though, was resisted by one of Mexico’s most successful and well-known presidents, Benito Juarez. The liberal leader led an opposition government, fought against both foreign powers and Mexican conservatives, and destroyed the Second Mexican Empire.
The 1867 painting beleow by Cesare Dell’Acqua, depicts Maximilian accepting the Mexican throne in Trieste, Italy.
The Korean Demilitarized Zone is a strange place. In 2008 I was a tourist visiting the peninsula, and I learned about one of the strangest incidents in the DMZ’s history. It was something straight out of a slasher movie, and has gone down in history as The Axe Murder Incident.
Footage of a DMZ tour. I did not take this footage, but the tour shown here is very similar to the one I went on.
A photograph of the fight itself. While the picture is old and blurry, it does portray fatal violence, so I felt it would have been in poor taste to put it directly on the sight.