Summer solstice

Many calendars and almanacs label today, the day of the summer solstice as the “first day of summer.” In the United States, the beginning of summer is observed Memorial Day weekend and the end of summer comes on Labor Day weekend. Even weather forecasters now assign the term “summer” to the dates June 1—August 31, making the seasons match the months on the calendar. Few of us really treat the solstice as summer’s beginning. For William Shakespeare, the solstice marked Midsummer-Night. But the summer solstice has never inspired the celebration and festivity given to the winter solstice at the end of December.

I recently wrote a chapter for an upcoming book to be called “Murphy’s Gremlins.” In this chapter, which talks about time and seasons, I remark that our Creator is not obsessive or compulsive about time. The book of Genesis says that God created the sun and the moon to mark days and years and seasons. After the flood, God also promised a continuing cycle of planting and harvest, day and night, summer and winter. But an OCD Creator would have timed the earth’s journey around the sun for an exact number of days—probably 360 days. Such a Creator would have timed the moon’s journey around the earth and the completion of its cycle of phases for an exact number of days—probably thirty days. We would live with twelve months of thirty days in a year of 360 days and never have days left over. But God did not create that way.

Instead, the earth’s journey around the sun is roughly—not exactly, mind you, but only roughly—365 ¼ days. The moon’s journey around the earth takes between 28 and 29 days, and its passage through its phases requires a day or two more. Many cultures, including the Hebrew, the Chinese, the Arabic, and the Roman (during the Republic) began a new month with each new moon—as soon as the crescent of the moon can be seen in the sky, it is the first day of the month. At the end of the Republic, though, Julius Caesar mandated a calendar that contained twelve months but ignored the moon. Caesar also added a day to the calendar every fourth year to keep seasons from slipping away from solstices and equinoxes. It took centuries for the Julian calendar to slip; Julius Caesar may not have expected his calendar to be used for such a long time. Pope Gregory revised the Julian calendar to accommodate the reality that the earth’s journey around the sun is only roughly 365 ¼ days. It took a long time for other parts of the world to adjust to the new Gregorian calendar.

Some annual observances rely on a lunar calendar that predates the Julian Calendar. Passover, Israel’s memory of its escape from Egypt, is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month of spring—the fourteenth day being the night of the full moon. Christian observances of Easter and related holidays also are set according to the first full moon after the spring equinox. Muslim holidays and Chinese holidays are likewise set by the lunar calendar

But other observances follow the Julian-Gregorian calendar. Christians observe Christmas, the birthday of Jesus, on December 25, no matter what the moon is doing. Some people claim that Christians chose that date because of non-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice. They wanted faithful Christians to have a reason to celebrate at the same time. The date may also have been chosen through a faulty reading of Luke’s Gospel. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was burning incense in the Temple in Jerusalem when the angel Gabriel told Zechariah that Zechariah and his wife would have a son. Thinking that Zechariah was high priest and that his burning of incense was part of the Day of Atonement (which happens around the autumn equinox), they calculated that Zechariah’s son (John the Baptist) was born nine months later. Since the announcement of Christ’s coming birth came when Elizabeth (Zechariah’s wife) was in her sixth month of pregnancy, the same scholars marked the announcement by Gabriel to Mary around the spring equinox and the birth nine months later, just after the winter solstice.

On Christian calendars, the birthday of John the Baptist is observed on June 24, just after the summer solstice. But, unlike Christ’s birthday, John’s birthday is not such a big deal. Summer solstice observances have always paled in comparison to winter solstice festivities. Especially in the United States, the summer solstice has disappeared as a holiday. We begin summer at the end of May and conclude it at the start of September. In between, our biggest celebration is Independence Day, the Fourth of July, a mere two weeks after the solstice. Our enthusiasm and energy is saved for that occasion.

Seasons change. Days and months and years run their course. Solstices and equinoxes take place on schedule, as do all our man-made holidays and observances. But for those who care (if there be any out there), a joyous summer solstice to you all. J.

A little story from the past

Sometimes at work I help people learn more about their families. Many of the people who come into our part of the library are interested in genealogy. Some are getting started on the hobby; others are experienced researchers hoping to find some new information in our collections.

Sometimes I work with donated papers that give the history of various families. Someone did a lot of genealogy in the past. Now that they are gone, their children are not sure what to do with all their papers and photographs, and they offer them to the library. We accept these donations. They may be useful to people in the future who are doing genealogy—perhaps even the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those who did all the work in the first place. They may also offer information to historians looking for details about the lives of people from the past, the kind of details that aren’t generally included in standard histories of those times.

Working with papers donated by one family, I came across the kind of minor story that depicts life from an earlier time. A certain woman was born in Ohio in 1821. When she was sixteen, she got married. Her husband died a few months later. Before he died, he promised his only suit of clothes to his best friend, provided that the friend would take care of this woman and of the child she was carrying. The child, a son, was born in March 1838. The next year, this woman married the friend who had promised to take care of her and her son. Her family biographer concludes, “She always felt sorry that she had to bury” her first husband “in his work clothes.”

When I talk about wealth, I mention having enough food to eat two or more meals a day. I talk about climate-controlled houses with hot and cold running water and indoor flush toilets. I talk about owning more clothes than you can wear at one time. This man had wealth—he had a suit to wear on special occasions, as well as his work clothes. He promised away that wealth for the good of his wife and his unborn child. His widow was embarrassed that he had to be buried in his work clothes.

Have you any complaints about your wardrobe today? J.

War in Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was not as much as a surprise as many seemingly-informed people have pretended. Russian seizure of the Crimean region several years ago (and the inadequate response by the rest of the world’s governments) signaled what Vladimir Putin intended. Placing Russian troops on the border of Ukraine for so-called “training exercises” this winter was an obvious preparation for invasion. The biggest surprises thus far have been the inadequacy of the Russian army to achieve its goals and the ability of the Ukrainian army and people to resist the Russian forces with any degree of success.

All the same, Russia has far too many resources—soldiers, ammunition, and equipment—for Ukraine to prevail against a long and determined Russian assault. Economic sanctions from the rest of the world can do very little to stop Russia from doing whatever it wants. In both short-term and long-term scenarios, Russia and can will survive economic warfare. Ukrainian forces can be re-equipped by the United States and its NATO allies. Sooner or later, though, the Ukraine will run out of soldiers able to use those supplies. If Putin’s government was going to collapse and drive him from power, that would have happened in the first month of the war. He is too entrenched at the top of the Russian government to be removed by his own people. The current resistance of the Ukrainian people to the Russian invasion is inspiring. In the course of history, though, inspiring defiance does not defeat the tyranny of those who are both powerful and determined.

Henry Kissinger has suggested publicly that Ukraine will have to cede territory to Russia to end the war. This public statement is unfortunate, but it represents the realism of Kissinger’s sense of history. It would be nice for the rest of the world to present a united front against Russian aggression, but global unity against Russia is an illusion. China is content to remain on the sidelines, taking neither side in the conflict. Many nations in Africa and Latin America prefer not to offend the Russian nation and its powerful economy. Unless Russian forces themselves cross borders and go beyond Ukraine, the nations of NATO will remain unwilling to commit their own forces to the defense of Ukraine. A larger war will happen only if Russia—or some part of Russia’s invading army—makes an enormous mistake. Not only is such a mistake unlikely; the United States and its NATO allies do not really want to confront such a mistake and the world war that would be its result.

Vladimir Putin is very clever. Even though he miscalculated the ability of his army to seize control throughout Ukraine, he has timed his invasions skillfully. He recognizes weakness on the stage of world leaders. Knowing when and how to seize the Crimean peninsula, he also knew when the time was wrong to grab for more of Ukraine and when the opportunity was most in his favor.

After all, Ukraine’s history is closely entwined with Russian history. The first capital of the Russian Empire was Kyiv/Kiev. The region historically identified as “the Ukraine” has been part of other empires for most of its existence: it was once part of Poland, once part of Lithuania (yes, really!), and once part of the Mongol Empire. The Ukraine’s existence as a separate Republic in the Soviet Union was more a political convenience than a recognition by the Soviet government that Ukrainians are a distinct culture and people deserving recognition as their own nation.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is, in one sense, no more forgivable than the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Building an alliance to oppose Iraq and free Kuwait, though, was far easier than building an alliance to oppose Russia and free Ukraine. By its invasion, Russia under Putin has risked upsetting the balance of powers in the world. The risk is clever, though, because of its skillful timing, recognizing the limits other governments must place upon themselves to maintain that same balance of powers.

Future generations will recognize Vladimir Putin as a tyrant who consolidated political control in Russia and strove to regain some of the power lost by Moscow in the collapse of the Soviet Union. They will report the invasion of Ukraine as one of Putin’s mistakes, a costly mistake for his nation, in part because his invasion has revealed weaknesses in the Russian military system. But, living in the present, we cannot let history’s verdict cloud our vision of the present reality. Ukraine is in a bad place today, reeling from destruction and unable to cling to its borders and its population. Things will get darker before they improve. For the time being, Putin and his Russian Empire are here to stay. J.

History after the Cold War (final installment in my history series)

Karl Marx insisted that history is shaped by economics and by conflict between classes. He predicted a revolution led by working classes, beginning in those countries where the Industrial Revolution had begun and spreading through the entire world, first creating a socialist economy managed by the government, then followed by a communist economy in which social classes had been abolished and the government had withered and disappeared.

Marx’ predictions did not come true. Highly industrialized countries preserved capitalism by placing some regulations on industry and production, by allowing workers to be represented through labor unions, and by raising the standard of living of all people—working class as well as ruling class—so the desire for revolutionary change was diminished. Marxism was attempted in less industrialized nations, beginning with Russia, spreading to China and other east Asian countries, and also appearing in Cuba, Ethiopia, and other so-called “third world” countries. In the 1980s, China abandoned its socialist economy and returned to capitalism, and in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. As a historian and an economist, Marx was revealed to be a failure.

Ironically, many historians continue to view the world with Marxist ideas and Marxist terms. Great emphasis is still placed upon the distinction between classes. Marxist terms—such as capitalism, socialism, and communism—are still widely used. The end of the Cold War revealed the failure of Marxist thought, yet historians often view the years following the Cold War through the lens of economic struggle and the disparity of wealth.

One key term used to discuss the world since the end of the Cold War is “globalization.” The economies of various countries and civilizations are so intertwined that a change in one part of the world affects the rest of the world as well. The spread of industrialization has linked the nations of the world in such a way that military and political power seem less relevant than they were before and economic success seems to be the most important way of measuring a country’s power and influence in the world. The importance of globalization was illustrated by an adage that was true until 2008: “There has never been a war between two countries that both had McDonald’s restaurants.” (Vladimir Putin’s Russia ended that interesting truth when it invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.)

People worried about globalization point to the homogenization of culture around the world. McDonald’s and Walmart and Disney reach into the lives of people everywhere in the world, and they are the same wherever they are found. Remnants of indigenous cultures sometimes are swallowed up by the spread of this overwhelming culture. Critics of globalization worry about pollution, especially in countries trying to catch up to Europe and North America’s industrial successes. They worry about the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few successful inventors and marketers. They worry about government being replaced by a hidden conspiracy of wealthy plutocrats who decide what will happen in the world without being held accountable for the results of their decisions.

Globalization also brings many benefits to people around the world. Awareness of events elsewhere in the world is higher than ever before. People experience other cultures without leaving their hometowns: they watch movies set in other lands, they hear music representing other cultures, and they eat food from many different cultures. Many jobs rely on the fact that items produced in one place are transported and sold in many other places. Political leaders hesitate to begin wars because they measure the cost of warfare, not only to their own governments, but to the economic exchanges that benefit their systems and provide tax revenue to their governments.

In Europe, the Benelux trade cooperation expanded into the Common Market, which then became the European Economic Community. Similar trade agreements were made in other parts of the world including the North American Free Trade Agreement, which linked the economy of the United States with those of Canada and Mexico. Trade agreements had several benefits: they increased jobs, they provided more products for consumers, they lessened the likelihood of wars, and they offered opportunities for some governments to shape the values of their neighbors regarding environmental concerns, education, working conditions, and other issues.

If the Era of Globalization began around 1990 with the end of the Cold War, then it perhaps came to an end around 2015 when powerful countries began to back away from full-scale globalization. First the voters of the United Kingdom chose to end their country’s participation in the European Economic Community. The next year, voters of the United States elected Donald Trump, a President who vowed to “make America great again” by cutting back on trade agreements and focusing on government policies that favored American workers and investors. Putin’s Russia also seems to have backed away from globalization, as his government has used military force to threaten its neighbors, trying to reestablish Russian hegemony in that part of the world. The attempts of President Biden and other leaders to stifle Russian expansion through economic sanctions strikes many observers as weak and ineffective. Military power and deterrence (having enough military strength to prevent aggressive behavior on the part of other nations) are still important in 2022; history still is not shaped by economic factors alone.

What new Era will follow the Era of Globalization? Answers are not yet available. Older objectives—including nationalism and the drive for freedom—continue to be important to many, perhaps most, of the world’s citizens. Religion also has not disappeared, as historians have been predicting ever since the so-called Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. This final truth allows Christians to say with confidence that the world still belongs to God and that His plans still outweigh all the schemes and efforts of mere mortals, even the most powerful among us. J.

The Cold War in Asia

When the Qing Dynasty was overthrown and the Republic of China took its place in 1912, the Nationalist Party of Sun Yat-sen had to face several competing forces for control of the country. Among those was a Communist movement, assisted by the Soviet Union. At first, the Communists were but a small threat to the Nationalists. The famous Long March of the Communists in 1934 and 1935 was essentially a series of retreats from the forces of the Republic. During that time, the Communists became a more cohesive unit and began to recognize the leadership potential of Mao Zedong. But when Japan invaded China, starting the Second World War, Nationalists and Communists settled their differences and fought the Japanese. During the years of the war against Japan, the Communist army made many friends for itself across the land. They gained a reputation of strength, courage, and helpfulness. Within four years of the end of World War II, Mao and the Communists had gained control of twenty-one of the twenty-two provinces of China. The Nationalists, now led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to the twenty-second province, the island of Taiwan. That island had belonged to Japan from 1895 until 1945, when it was returned to China. From 1949 through the present and the foreseeable future, both governments—the People’s Republic of China in twenty-one provinces and the Republic of China in the twenty-second—have insisted that the true China has only one government, that some citizens are in revolt against that government, and that China will one day be reunited under its proper government. Their only difference concerns which of them is the proper government for all of China.

Mao’s success in China was embarrassing to the United States, which had just witnessed the creation of the Iron Curtain in Europe. Opponents of Truman’s administration stood in Congress to ask, “Who lost China?” The United States and its allies resolved to contain communism, to let no more nations fall to the opposition in the Cold War. When Kim Il-sung launched an invasion from North Korea, seeking to unite all of Korea under his Communist government, the United States led an international force, sponsored by the United Nations, to turn back the invasion. At the time, many governments of the Free World assumed that the invasion was sponsored by the Soviets, but they did little to help Kim’s invasion, either militarily or in the United Nations. Instead, as his forces were thrown back across the border by the USA-led forces, Communist China sent thousands of its forces to support North Korea. After several years of fighting, remembered in a famous television show that lasted four times as long as the war it portrayed, a settlement was reached which left the border between North and South Korea where it had been established in 1945.

Meanwhile, Communists were also involved in the French colony of Indochina. The British were relatively successful, after the World Wars, granting freedom to their colonies in Asia and Africa. The French did far less to prepare their overseas colonies for independence. Several groups fought the French in Indochina, including a Communist group led by Ho Chi Minh. After the French army had been embarrassed on the battlefield in Vietnam, they agreed to withdraw and to recognize four nations. They gave independence to Cambodia and Laos, and they also created a North and South Vietnam, divided as Germany and Korea had been divided. One million Vietnamese citizens fled south to escape the Communists led by Ho. These refugees created greater stress on the already weak government in South Vietnam. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy provided military assistance to South Vietnam, which was thrown into greater turmoil by the assassination of its President in November of 1963. To keep the Communists contained, President Johnson had to vastly increase the military presence of the USA in South Vietnam. Since the United States had not supported French and British interests in west Asia in 1956, America’s European allies offered no hope to America in east Asia in the 1960s. By 1968, the American military presence in South Vietnam had grown to half a million soldiers.

President Nixon was elected that year, in part because he had a plan to end the Vietnam War. His plan involved several components. His government negotiated with the North Vietnamese in Paris—first secretly; later in the open. American troops were gradually withdrawn from east Asia as the South Vietnamese Army became better trained to face the communist enemy. Nixon also authorized attacks upon the North Vietnamese where they established military bases and trails in Cambodia and Laos. Most significant, Nixon undermined the North Vietnamese support from their allies in the Soviet Union and in China. Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972, and an equally eventful visit to the Soviet Union later that year, contributed to a resolution to the war in Vietnam, while also accomplishing many other objectives of the American President.

For three years, negotiations with North Vietnam remained at a standstill. In 1972, following Nixon’s journeys and seeing the likelihood of his reelection, the North Vietnamese began to negotiate more sincerely. In autumn they had nearly settled their disputes; then the North Vietnamese began to reverse their progress. Nixon ordered bombing of North Vietnam and mining of its harbors at the end of 1972. Such actions had sped negotiating progress earlier in the year, and they worked again. In January 1973, the United States and North Vietnam ended hostilities. American prisoners of war were sent home. Had the terms of the treaty been enforced, South Vietnam would have remained free. But Congress denied funding to Presidents Nixon and Ford for support of the treaty. When North Vietnam saw that it could violate the treaty with impunity, it gathered its strength. In 1975, it boldly invaded and captured South Vietnam, uniting the nation under its Communist government.

Meanwhile, Mao tried to maintain his hold in China by keeping the entire nation in a state of crisis. His Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and his Cultural Revolution in the 1960s devastated China as much as any war could do. President Nixon’s visit helped the rising generation of Chinese leaders to plan for the future. In the 1980s, several years after Mao died, the Chinese government renounced socialism and established a free-market economy. Though they kept the name “Communist” and continued to hold totalitarian control of China, they abandoned the Marxist dream of socialism leading to a Communist paradise. In the 1990s, the Communist government of Vietnam followed the same path.

Free-market economies flourished in east Asia. Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea all prospered during the Cold War. In south Asia, history followed a different course. The people of India had been seeking independence from Britain for decades. When independence was granted after World War II, it came at a cost. India was divided into two nations—two pieces, called Pakistan, where Islam was in the majority; and the large piece in between, called India, where the Hindu religion prevailed. These two governments remained hostile to each other throughout the Cold War. Both flirted with the world powers—the USA and the USSR—while claiming to be unaligned with either side. In 1971, East Pakistan declared independence, making itself the country called Bangladesh.  India supported this move. On this occasion, as on many others, violence between India and Pakistan threatened to break into open war. Since both countries have developed nuclear bombs, war between them is inadvisable.

Because division of countries seemed so successful in Germany, Korea, and India/Pakistan, the British tried the same course of action in west Asia. They granted independence to Israel, a Jewish nation, and to Palestine, a Muslim nation. The Muslim neighbors of Israel immediately went to war, and Israel had to capture portions of Palestine to survive; the rest of Palestine was swallowed by Jordan. The next decade saw violence in west Asia again, including the matter of the Suez Canal. Once again, Israel prevailed against its neighbors. In 1967, the Six-Day War again favored Israel, as it captured land from Syria, Jordan, and Egypt while defending itself from attack. The 1973 war against Israel came closer to destroying the Jewish homeland. President Nixon authorized an airlift of supplies that turned the tide for Israel against its neighbors. This led to an economic crisis for the United States, as Muslim oil-producing nations first boycotted the USA, then sold oil at greatly-increased prices. Israel has survived further violence, and has sought ways to create a home for Muslim Palestinians without allowing them to threaten Israel’s continued survival. (The other option, making the Palestinians voting citizens of Israel, could overthrow the Jewish government at the ballot box.) Many of Israel’s Muslim neighbors have given up on military attacks and have instead tried to negotiate agreements with Israel, generally producing success for both sides.

During the Cold War, both the USSR and the USA viewed violence in west Asia as part of the world-wide struggle between freedom and communism. When the United States supported Israel, the Soviet Union made some friends in the Muslim world, particularly in Syria and Egypt. Other countries, including the Shah’s Iran and the Saud family’s Arabia, were strong friends of the United States. When opposition to the Shah grew in Iran during the 1970s, many American leaders assumed that the Soviet Union was behind the trouble. To their surprise, when the Shah was overthrown, the new government was hostile toward both the USA and the USSR. Meanwhile, after the 1973, President Sadat of Egypt send his Soviet advisors home and welcomed the United States as partners. A Soviet-sponsored government arose in Afghanistan, and the United States helped to equip and train opposition to that government. Once again, the United States assumed that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Soviets left Afghanistan and eventually lost power over Russia and the other Soviet Republics, but the leaders in Afghanistan did not consider the United States a friend. After the Cold War ended, those same forces the Americans had trained and equipped would engineer the most devastating attack upon the United States since the end of the Civil War. J.

The Cold War, part two

The tensions of the Cold War caused governments in the USA and the USSR—and, often but now always, in their respective allies—to view events in the world entirely through the filters of communism vs. capitalism and totalitarian control vs. freedom. Even internally, the two governments responded to their citizens based upon the rhetoric of Cold War opposition.

Since their governments were totalitarian, the USSR and its allies could be expected to shut down opposition. Citizens were watched, jailed, put on trial, imprisoned, and even executed for speaking against the government and its actions. The Soviet Union sent soldiers and military equipment into Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) to quell opposition and stifle revolutions. The USA warned that it would not tolerate similar interference with the people of Poland when they resisted their government in 1980; still, the Polish armed forces grew suddenly with soldiers who spoke no Polish and wore hastily-made uniforms, using military equipment recently repainted to obscure the identification marks of the USSR.

Communist leanings had been socially acceptable in the United States in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Those same leanings, or a history of such, were no longer tolerated in the 1950s. Government workers, entertainment figures, and other citizens were questioned by Congress about their sympathies toward Communism. Some lives and careers were unfairly maligned by these hearings, but a few traitors were also detected. Government officials (notably, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI) continued to suspect Communist influence in mass movements of the 1960s, including Civil Rights demonstrations and anti-war protests. For the most part, though, freedom prevailed in the United States. Progress was made in the area of human rights, and government officials continued to respond to the feelings and opinions of American citizens. An air of mutual suspicion continued, however, and its effects are felt down to the present.

In Europe, the allies of the USA reduced their military capacities, having endured the horrors of two World Wars in the twentieth century. Sheltered under the umbrella of NATO, they trusted the Americans to stand up to the Soviets and prevent a military take-over of western Europe. Reduction in military spending allowed western European governments to experiment with non-Marxist forms of socialism, with varying results. These governments also sought greater economic power in the world by combining their resources. Beginning with the economic alliance of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (which was named “Benelux”), the alliance gained more members and became the European Common Market. Assets of the Common Market were greatly strengthened when the United Kingdom joined in 1972. These countries were prepared for an even stronger economic union when the Cold War ended and several nations leaving the Warsaw Pact sought a place in the Common Market. This delayed the implementation of Union for a few years.

A major turning point occurred when the government of Egypt seized the Suez Canal in 1956. Britain and France wanted to intervene militarily to keep European control of the Canal, but the United States demurred, seeing an opportunity to gain friends in the so-called “Third World.” As a result, Britain and France became less involved in other events outside of Europe, which is why the Korean War saw an international alliance battle communism in eastern Asia, but the United States was left on its own to battle communism a decade later in Vietnam.

The label “Third World” was coined in the nineteenth century after the colonies of the western hemisphere—the “New World”—became independent. Colonialism continued in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, and those colonies were called the Third World. During the Cold War, Latin America was added to the perceived Third World, as it became a description of those places where agents of the USA and the USSR openly competed for political control. In Latin America, hostility toward the United States had been growing ever since Napoleon III attempted to establish an empire in Mexico. Occasional military intervention by the United States and major economic control of the region prompted resistance. Communist movements existed in nearly every country of Latin America, where most governments still belonged to caudillos, the wealthy (and generally white-skinned) elite. Fidel Castro led one of the few successful overthrows of an American ally in Latin America during the Cold War, and Cold War tensions involving Cuba brought great trauma to the United States. American foreign policy in the Third World assumed that “the enemy of my friend is my enemy.” Therefore, if a dictator professed allegiance to the United States and its values, the United States supported that dictator against any danger of rebellion.

This same principle was followed in Africa. Following the Second World War, European governments granted independence to their African colonies. The same borders drawn by European governments to establish their colonies were used to designate the borders of the new countries, meaning that many tribes were split among more than one country, and many countries contained portions of tribes who had battled one another for generations. Violence in Africa continued beyond the Cold War and still exists today. But during the Cold War, the United States always responded to violence in Africa in light of professed Cold War loyalties. Even in South Africa, the United States supported a government opposed to civil rights while it spoke about civil rights in Communist countries and even offered increased civil rights to minorities in the USA.

Since the end of the Cold War, democratic governments have been given greater opportunity to arise and thrive in Africa. Tribal rivalries remain a problem, and dictators still tend to seize power over African nations. The biggest tension in Africa today, though, is between Christian and Muslim populations. This difference, fueled by tribal differences, remains a source of conflict among Africans in the twenty-first century.

Still to come: the Cold War in Asia. J.

The Cold War

The Cold War was an inevitable confrontation, not merely between two powerful governments, but between two contrasting ways of life. The Russian Revolution, beginning in 1917 during the Great War, produced the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union. Founded upon theories from Karl Marx regarding history and economics, the Soviet movement adopted the label “Communist” to describe its aspirations of a world without government, politics, or religion, a world where people shared their labor and their wealth, “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” Contrasted to that view was an ideology that developed out of the Enlightenment principles of human rights, equality, and freedom. Epitomized by the United States of America (USA), this ideology advocated economic freedom, democracy, limited government, and human progress as guided by science and education. In contrast to the Marxist view of Communism, the older ideology described itself as “the free world,” but was derided by the oppositions as “Capitalism.”

When Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt met at Yalta in February 1945, they knew that the totalitarian governments in Germany, Italy, and Japan would be overthrown by their alliance. These three leaders agreed that new governments would be set up in conquered and liberated lands by whichever power first arrived in those lands in the course of the war. Because of that agreement, Soviet-style governments were put in place in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Albania, and North Korea. Enlightenment-style governments were established or maintained in West Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, and Japan, as well as Scandinavia, north Africa, west Asia, and the south Pacific. Churchill aptly spoke of an Iron Curtain that divided Europe during the Cold War. The United States helped form a military alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for mutual support among its allies; the Soviet Union responded with the Warsaw Pact for its allies. The United States also provided an economic program, the Marshall Plan, to offer short-term aid to the populations of war-stricken areas combined with long-term help to rebuild their economies, industries, and cities. Warsaw Pact nations refused help from the Marshall Plan, but West Germany and Japan became economic powers through the investment and support of the USA.

Ironically, Berlin became a symbol of the Cold War and of the opposing views of economics, politics, and governmental systems. The city was surrounded by Soviet-sponsored East Germany, but it was divided among the conquering allies (USA, USSR, United Kingdom, and France). The Communists blockaded West Berlin in 1948, hoping to take control of the entire city. Instead, the USA and the United Kingdom risked military confrontation with an airlift of supplies to West Berlin. Eventually, the Communists backed down and again allowed travel by land from West Germany to West Berlin. As Germans continued to escape from the Communist bloc to the free world by means of West Berlin, the Communists decided in 1961 to erect a wall, dividing free Berlin from Communist Berlin. This wall became a symbol, addressed by Presidents of the USA from Kennedy to Reagan. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. It signaled the failure of Communism to win the hearts and minds of people under its control.

Berlin was not the only place where people “voted with their feet” between the two economic/political systems. When Vietnam was divided into a Communist North and non-Communist South in 1954, about 90,000 Vietnamese people chose to move to the North, but more than ten times as many people—at least one million—chose to move to the South. People fled Communist Cuba, both when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and again twenty years later when he gave permission for the discontent to leave Cuba and about 135,000 Cubans left for the United States. By 1991, when the Soviet Union disbanded, clear historical evidence was available to anyone who could see that the totalitarian and socialist policies of the USSR and its allies were both ineffective and unpopular, while the capitalist free world retained the support of its citizens and was also the dream and hope of people locked outside its borders.

The strongest image of the difference was visible in east Asia. Free economies boomed in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. By comparison, Communist economies lagged and struggled in North Korea, Vietnam, and the Peoples’ Republic of China. In the 1980s, even before the Cold War ended, China turned its back upon socialism and reintroduced a capital economy more like that of the free world (although it has maintained a totalitarian government until the present time). Other countries that experimented with socialism in the late twentieth century, whether Marxist socialism or that of other models, also found that the cost of a socialist economy vastly outweighed its expected benefits within a few years of implementation.

Life was not carefree and rosy in the free world during the Cold War. The USA and its allies often supported dictators in other nations merely because they were not Communists. They helped dictators against political opponents with the assumption that the enemy of our friends must be an enemy—and therefore Communist. Trying to contain Communism involved the United States in wars in Korea and Vietnam. Cold War perspectives blinded leaders in the USA to complex historical and political realities in other places—especially western Asia, given the growth of Muslim political self-awareness and opposition to the state of Israel. Even inside the United States freedoms were curtailed because of fear that some citizens might be Communist sympathizers. A more detailed look at the nuances of that time shows mistakes that were made. In spite of those mistakes, the free world prevailed against the Communist world in the Cold War, not because it was richer or stronger, but because its ideas were better. J.

War in Ukraine–best case scenario

The best-case scenario to result from this week’s warfare in Ukraine is that the Russian people realize that Vladimir Putin is a failed despot, arrest him, replace him, withdraw their armed forces from Ukraine, and seek to reestablish proper diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. Sadly, we are unlikely to reach that scenario soon, not without more violence and destruction between now and then.

I can picture Putin confined to house arrest in one of his mansions, with falsified battle reports delivered to him hourly while the Russian army withdraws to its bases and leaves its neighbors unharmed. Putin could have long, rambling, pointless conversations with Presidents Biden and Macron and could tape speeches to the Russian nation which would be broadcast only inside his house. Meanwhile, a new Russian government could work diligently to repair all that Putin has broken. But Putin, like any intelligent and skillful tyrant, has removed from the Russian government all competition to his leadership. Anyone who disagreed with him in the past has been cut off from access to power. Anyone capable of running Russia without Putin has been isolated, kept from been heard by the Russian people. An uprising in Russia overthrowing Putin would be welcome news to the rest of the world, but we cannot hope to hear news of that sort in the immediate, foreseeable future.

The worst-case scenario to result from this week’s warfare is World War III and the end of civilization. Putin has been willing to risk that possibility, largely because he is confident that no other leader would allow matters to go that far. But almost as bad a scenario is that Putin and the Russian army capture control of Ukraine and make it another satellite of Russia, as subservient as Belarus and Kazakhstan. Allowing Ukraine to fall without much of a fight merely kicks the can of World War III down the road a bit, until Putin decides that he also wants to control Poland or Romania or some other nation that was once under the thumb of the Czars and of the Soviet government. Diplomacy and economic sanctions might not be enough to preserve the independence of Ukraine. Handing Putin the victory he wants today mortgages the future for the questionable benefit of a slightly longer time of peaceful coexistence in the present.

I wish I could believe that NATO’s leaders have a plan to stop Putin’s Russia in its tracks and to reverse the process of expansion and domination that Putin has been pursuing for years. If economic sanctions are sufficient to end Putin’s reign, to inspire the Russians to form a new government, I will be pleased and surprised. As for diplomacy, it is a necessary skill that has its time and place, but Putin has pushed events beyond the line where diplomacy can function. He already seized the Crimea away from Ukraine while President Obama led the United States; permitting Putin to claim and hold more pieces of Ukraine  as a way to end the current fighting does nothing more than prolong the process. Diplomacy and economic sanctions did not rescue the Crimea, and they will not suffice to rescue Ukraine this year.

A lengthy war in eastern Europe is far from ideal. War should be a last resort, not a first or second choice of methods to deal with other nations. When the other side chooses war, though, our side has scant hope to avoid war. If the battle against Russian imperialism, fought today in Ukraine, can prompt the Russian people to rise up against their tyrant and his plans, the end of ousting Putin may be worth the means of our military involvement today. Vladimir Putin has misled the Russian people long enough. In support of the true Russia and of its neighbors in today’s world, the rest of the world may be obliged to flex military muscles before the opportunity has passed. J.

The Second World War (part two)

The board game Risk was invented in 1957. Had it existed twenty years earlier, Hitler’s generals might have been able to use it to explain to the Fuhrer why his invasion of the Soviet Union was foolish—or, at best, premature. Hitler was no military genius. He and the Nazis rose to power because of blind self-confidence and illogical theories of racial superiority. They lost power and lost the world war for precisely the same reasons.

Totalitarian leaders survive by making citizens fear enemies, whether those enemies exist in the country or outside its borders. The shortcoming of leaders is less visible when the people being led are distracted by a common enemy, or at least by the appearance of an enemy. Hitler pushed himself overboard pursuing that strategy. Enemies within the borders of Germany included, according to Hitler, Jews and communists and gypsies (the Roma people). Enemies outside the borders included the Slavic people to the east, whom Hitler believed would easily be enslaved and forced to serve the interests of Germany. In both cases, he was wrong.

The Holocaust was, in once sense, about race, as Hitler imagined the Germans to represent a superior Aryan race and despised the Jews, Roma, and Slavs as inferior races. For two reasons, though, the Holocaust was not entirely about race. First, most Jews today would agree that Jewishness is neither a race nor a religion, but rather a common culture developed and passed down over many generations. Second, the victims of the Holocaust also included other groups: homosexuals, the mentally and emotionally ill, and political enemies of the Nazis—some of whom were Christian clergy. The Nazis denied civil rights to these groups. Then they imprisoned them in camps. Finally, they sentenced those millions of prisoners to death. Other nations, including the United States, knew about the Holocaust. Articles appeared in the New York Times and other newspapers. Letters were written to President Roosevelt and other leaders. Roosevelt’s answer to those letters was that the Holocaust could only be ended when Germany was defeated in the world war, and that the United States was doing everything possible to achieve that goal.

Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, combined with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, drew the United States and the United Kingdom into an uneasy alliance with Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union. Stalin was known to be as dangerous a totalitarian despot as Hitler and Mussolini. But, to defeat the combined powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan, the free nations of the world had to fight alongside the Soviet Union. Economic differences were set aside long enough to defeat a common enemy.

The leaders of the Great Powers—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—met in Tehran, Iran, at the end of 1943. They met again at Yalta, on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea, in February 1945. The third meeting, at Potsdam, Germany, in July 1945, also included Stalin. Roosevelt had died and been replaced by Harry S. Truman; Churchill had lost and election and been replaced by Clement Attlee. These three conferences were dedicated first to cooperation in defeating German and Japan, but second to planning a new world order following that victory. The United Nations would replace the impotent League of Nations. Germany and Japan would be weakened so they could not threaten the world again. Most significant, each government would be responsible for creating and supporting new governments in lands they had captured or liberated. This meant that eastern European countries, including Poland and Hungary and Romania, would have soviet-style governments imposed upon them. Finally, the Soviet Union agreed to enter the war against Japan three months after the fall of Germany. One consequence of the last two points was the eventual division of Korea into North Korea and South Korea.

The battle of Stalingrad was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. From August 23, 1942, to February 2, 1943, German forces attacked the Russian city and Soviet forces defended the city. Both sides were committed to total victory. More than two million soldiers died in the conflict—in fact, the Soviet Union lost more soldiers in that one battle than the United States lost in the entire world war. The failure of the German army began a long, slow retreat across Europe that ended with the fall of Berlin in May 1945. Allied forces had taken north Africa, Italy, France, and parts of western Germany by that time. Rather than admit defeat, Hitler committed suicide. His Third Reich, promised to endure a thousand years, fell short by 988 years.

Meanwhile, Japan had instigated the Second World War by its attacks upon China in the 1930s. Japan already had control of Korea and Taiwan; in 1940, it added the French colonies of Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor near the end of 1941 coincided with invasions of Thailand and of British and Dutch territories in southeast Asia and the south Pacific. While these forays were initially successful, they brought the United States and the United Kingdom into the war against Japan. Naval and air forces from Alaska to Australia began to push back the Japanese Empire. By the summer of 1945, the Allies were prepared to invade the islands of Japan. President Truman authorized the use of newly-developed atomic bombs to shorten the war. This decision saved lives on both sides of the conflict (even compared to lives lost by Japan in the two bombings) and lessened the grasp of the Soviet Union that had just entered the war, already seizing Manchuria in China along with northern Korea. Japan surrendered, and the Second World War was finally at an end. This, of course, set the stage for the Cold War, involving the United States, the Soviet Union, and most other countries in the world. J.

The Second World War, part one

A few historians suggest that the two world wars were, in reality, one war of roughly thirty years, with a treaty separating the earlier hostilities from the final stage of the war. Their model for this suggestion is the Hundred Years War between England and France. That war began in 1337 and extended until 1453, but it consisted of three stages of fighting and two truces—one of roughly ten years and the other of nearly twenty-five years.

Both at the time and in retrospect, one could defend the proposition that the Second World War picked up where the first World War ended. But unlike the Hundred Years War, in which the governments of England and France both remained stable (even as kings died and were replaced), the governments that brought about the Second World War were largely different from those that had fought in the Great War. Hitler and the Nazis had little connection to the Kaiser’s government in Germany or that of the Emperor of Austria. The Italy of Mussolini was far different from Italy of the Great War, an Italy which joined the Allies to battle against Germany and Austria. The Czar of the Soviet Union had been displaced by Stalin and the Communists. Even Japan—which, for the most part, sat out the Great War—was changed. At the height of the Victorian Era, Japan consciously imitated the most successful policies they saw in Europe and North America. During the Great Depression, Japanese leaders saw more hope in imitating (and joining with) Hitler and Mussolini. All these nations embraced totalitarianism, and a totalitarian government needs continual enemies to battle, or the nation’s people will rise up against their government and overthrow it.

Therefore, Italy under Mussolini and the Fascists first invaded their neighbor, Albania, and then set out to colonize Ethiopia. When the League of Nations criticized these actions, Italy quit the League of Nations. Japan provoked an incident in China, using it as an excuse to invade and colonize northeastern China. When the League of Nations criticized these actions, Japan quit the League of Nations. With help from Stalin’s Soviet government, Hitler rebuilt Germany’s armed forces. He expanded German national power by absorbing Austria in the Anschluss, a union which many Austrians welcomed. Hitler then moved to claim a section of Czechoslovakia on the grounds that German-speaking people lived there. The British government was ready to challenge this expansion; instead, negotiators decided to appease Hitler, assuming that giving him what he wanted would keep him quiet. (Try this sort of appeasement with a five-year-old child in the grocery store!) Hitler then concluded that the rest of Czechoslovakia was too weak to survive, so he placed that land under German control as well.

Meanwhile, the League of Nations was also too weak to prevent civil war in Spain. The Spanish government first was overthrown by Communist forces, supported by the Soviet Union, who declared Spain a Republic. But, with help from Germany and Italy, General Franco struck back at the Republic, invading his own country from north Africa. Most other countries, including the United States, remained officially neutral, although some American volunteers did serve in Spain—helping the Communist Republic defend itself against Franco’s Nationalist forces. The war in Spain allowed both sides of the coming World War to test new technology that had not existed in 1918. Franco eventually won the war, and his Fascist government remained in power until his death in 1975.

Where and when did the Second World War begin? European historians point to the division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the incursion of German troops into Poland on September 1, 1939. But, since the war ended with the surrender of Japan, historians increasingly look to the Japanese invasion of China in 1936 to identify the beginning of the war. As Japan sought to increase its power at the expense of China, it changed a set of regional conflicts into a world-wide conflict. Germany’s successes in Europe enabled Japan to seize British and French colonies in eastern Asia. Even though the largest empire in history, counting only dry land, was the Mongolian Empire of Genghis Khan around 1225, if one includes control over ocean regions the Japanese Empire in 1942 was marginally larger than the Mongolian Empire.

Germany’s invasion of Poland caused France and the United Kingdom to declare war. The next year, Denmark and Norway both fell under German control, and the Germans then repeated their effort of 1914 to strike France quickly through the Netherlands and Belgium. This time, German forces made it to Paris. Motorized military vehicles overcame the risk of trench warfare which had happened in 1914. Germany’s Blitzkrieg, or “Lightning War,” seemed effective in overwhelming the opposition. In fact, Blitzkrieg was the only kind of fighting Germany could afford; a protracted bout of fighting would have driven the nation into insolvency and defeat. The United Kingdom managed to survive the Battle of Britain, and if Hitler had been satisfied with his gains in the early stages of the war, the course of history from that time until the present might have been far different.

Two things changed the course of the war. First, Hitler turned against his ally to the east and invaded the Soviet Union. He thought that the Blitzkrieg would work as well in eastern Europe as it had worked in Poland and in France. Hitler also hoped that Japan would invade the Soviet Union from the Pacific, forcing the Russians to fight on two fronts. Japan elected to wait and see before committing itself to battle the Soviets. Instead, six months after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, Japanese forces bombed American positions at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japan hoped to prevent American interference in its Pacific empire. Instead, by bringing both the Soviet Union and the United States into the World War, Germany and Japan guaranteed their eventual defeat. J.