Today’s show is a conversation with Michel Paradis, attorney and author of Last Mission to Tokyo. Early in WWII the U.S. launched the Doolittle Raids against Japan, attacking the Japanese mainland for the first time. Most of the raiders were able to land safely in allied China, but some were captured by the Japanese and put on trial for the attack. After the war, the Japanese officers who put the raiders on trial were, themselves, put on trial by the Americans. Last Mission to Tokyo tells the story of that trial, and plays out like a legal thriller or detective story, except the stakes are on the level of war crimes and international relations.
In 1959 a Pepsi executive successfully showcased his product at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, an event created to foster cultural exchange during the Cold War. Nikita Khrushchev himself tasted the beverage, and years later Pepsi became one of the few American products widely available in the USSR. Pepsi’s deal with the Soviet Union was essentially a gigantic barter deal: They’d ship Pepsi syrup to the USSR, and in return they’d get Stolychanaya vodka. This worked well until 1989, when a vodka boycott forced Pepsi to ask for other compensation. Instead of vodka, the USSR paid them in decommissioned naval vessels: 17 submarines, a cruiser, a frigate, and a destroyer. Because of that deal, Pepsi was briefly the sixth largest navy on Earth.
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.
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.
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.
The Korean War was supposed to be over quickly. However, due to intervention from the United Nations, China, and the Soviet Union, what would have been a quick regional conflict turned into a years-long war that involved over twenty countries and left millions dead. At the end of it, the borders between the two Koreas looked much like they had before the war, and it gradually became apparent that the division would not go away anytime soon.
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.
David Goldfield is an American historian and the author of almost twenty books. His latest, The Gifted Generation, chronicles the benefits that his peers received from the US federal government, and goes into detail about how the Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson administrations redefined the role and scope of what government does and means to Americans.
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.
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.
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.
One of the most famous and bloody incidents in samurai history is the story of the 47 ronin, a group of masterless samurai who extracted bloody revenge on behalf of their dead lord. The actual events of the incident are hard to parse out, as the facts of the events have been occluded by popular culture, drama, reinterpretation, and retelling. What we do know for sure is that in 1701 the daimyo of Ako (a domain near modern Osaka) was forced to kill himself after assaulting a courtier, Kira, in Edo. After the lord was dead, his various samurai were suddenly unemployed, and forty-seven of them planned revenge.
The traditional telling of the story is that Kira was supposed to instruct Asano in the ways of etiquette at the Shogun’s court, and that Asano was supposed to bribe him in order to be treated well. Kira was dissatisfied with Asano’s bribe, insulted the young lord, and, in a fit of rage, Asano drew his short sword and wounded the etiquette instructor. After Asano’s death, his samurai took it upon themselves to finish what Asano had started, and vowed to kill Kira.
The image below is a probably stylized rendering of Asano, the lord of Ako, drawing his weapon on Kira in a fit of rage.
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.