Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Why Canada Is Not Part Of The United States

They moved in two parties in the dark and through the raging blizzard, footsteps muffled by the gathering snow.  The plan was to approach the lower city from opposite sides, meet in the center and then go over the wall into the upper city, surprising the sleeping garrison.

The larger group met resistance in the lower city.  The commander, a dynamic and inspirational leader, was wounded in the leg and had to be carried off the field but his subordinate, also a talented soldier, led the remaining men over the wall and into the city, where they then found themselves alone as the enemy troops rallied - where was the other contingent?

The smaller group, led by the overall commander of the little army, had entered the lower city at the other end.  Encountering a blockhouse they exchanged fire with the defenders, who fired a shot from their one cannon, before beginning to retreat.  It hit the commander in the head, killing him instantly.  His command fell apart, and in the ensuing confusion most of the men were captured.  One of the few to escape was a future Vice President of the United States.

Abandoned in the upper city, the other group fought on, but was surrounded and most, including the subordinate commander, were captured.  It was all over.

It was the early morning hours of December 31, 1775.  The commander of the larger group was Benedict Arnold (see September 1780), his subordinate was Daniel Morgan, who after confinement on a British prison ship would be repatriated and then, five years later, demolish a British force at the pivotal Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina (see October 1780).  The dead commander was Richard Montgomery, and the officer who escaped was Aaron Burr, who would survive to be American's third Vice-President, the killer of Alexander Hamilton, a organizer of a murky conspiracy to divide the newborn United States and the reigning rogue and scoundrel of the early American Republic.

(Montgomery, Arnold, Morgan, Burr)

The invasion of Canada was born out of the early successes of the American rebels.  By the summer of 1775, the Continental Army, under newly appointed General George Washington, besieged the British in Boston.  In New York, Fort Ticonderoga, recently captured in a daring raid led by Ethan Allen and Arnold, protected the Hudson River Valley.  To the north lay Canada, a British bastion and potential launching point for invasion against the rebellious colonies.  The Americans were also aware that most Canadians were French Catholics and only became subjects of the British Protestants since 1763.  Out of these circumstances arose the idea of an American attack on Canada with the expectation that the French settlers would rise in support.

The Americans advanced on two fronts.  About 1,200 men under General Richard Montgomery left Fort Ticonderoga, heading north towards Montreal, which he captured in mid-November, reaching the area around the city of Quebec (capital of British Canada) on December 2.  Upon his arrival, he found Colonel Arnold and 600 ragged soldiers, survivors of one of the epic marches in American history.

Arnold set out on his expedition with 1100 men (and carrying orders from General Washington to allow freedom of conscience for Canadian Catholics; "While we are Contending for own own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others; ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of Men and to him only in this Case they are answerable", see All Possess Alike Liberty of Conscience), leaving from Fort Western (now Augusta, Maine) on September 25.  One  battalion was commanded by Captain Daniel Morgan consisting of his well-trained Pennsylvania and Virginia riflemen.  Little was known of the wild, wooded and wet route to Quebec City from Maine.  Arnold thought it was less than 200 miles; it was actually 350.   For the next 45 days the expedition battled heavy rain, snow, flooding, cold and starvation.  On November 9, the survivors reached the St Lawrence River opposite Quebec.  The American portion of Arnold's route was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and you can find an excellent fictional retelling of the ordeal in Kenneth Roberts' Arundel (1938).

The combined American force was about 1,200.  The British, well-provisioned inside the fortified city, totalled about 1,500.  The Americans had little artillery, were ill-equipped for the winter, and the enlistments of Arnold's men would expire on January 1. They also knew large British reinforcements would be arriving in the spring.  Montgomery and Arnold decided to take a chance and storm the city.

The snowstorm that started on the night of December 30, 1775 provided perfect cover for the Americans to approach the city and they moved out around 4am on December 31.  Though the attack went awry, despite the American casualties and the expiration of enlistments, Benedict Arnold refused to raise the siege, maintaining it despite being outnumbered three to one and not leaving the Quebec area until early May of 1776.  Montreal was recaptured by the British the next month.

With the failure of the expedition, America's dream of conquering (or liberating, depending on your perspective), Canada was ended; at least until it was revived, and again left unfulfilled, in the War of 1812.

The British attempted to move south into New York in the late summer and early fall of 1776 to take advantage of the disarray among the Americans.  Their plans were thwarted by Arnold who oversaw the building from scratch of a fleet of American gunboats to be used on Lake Champlain, which he used to battle the British to a standstill at the Battle of Valcour Island in October 1776, delaying British plans for a further advance until 1777.

The Americans put the year they gained to good use, building a large army in the Albany area, which  defeated and captured a British army commanded by Johnny Burgoyne.  Once again Benedict Arnold played a key role, rallying the Americans at a critical moment at the Second Battle of Saratoga and, once again, suffering a severe leg wound.  And Daniel Morgan's riflemen inflicted large casualties on the British forces in both Saratoga battles. The American victory led directly to the decision of the King of France to enter the war against England in support of the American rebels.

The Canada campaign contained quite a rogue's gallery on the American side.  In addition to Arnold and Burr, there was also James Wilkinson, who joined Arnold as an aide during his retreat from Quebec.  Wilkinson went on to become part of Horatio Gates' efforts to remove George Washington as commander of American forces, and later, when he commanded the United States Army in the 1800s, was in cahoots with Burr in his conspiracy, while also serving as a spy for Spain (for more, read The General Was A Spy).

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Gulag Archipelago Published

On February 12, 1974 KGB agents came to the Moscow apartment of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and took him to the notorious Lefortorvo prison where he was strip-searched and interrogated.  The next day, he was bundled onto a plane and sent to Frankfort, West Germany.  The day after that he was charged with treason and stripped of his Soviet citizenship.

These events were triggered by the French publishing house issuance on December 28, 1973 of The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation.  The publication was an electrifying event in the West and set off a panicked reaction by the Soviet government.

While some memoirs of prisoners of the Gulag had previously been published, including by Solzhenitsyn during the Khrushchev-era thaw in the early 1960s (which ended with his overthrow in 1964) and Khrushchev himself had given his famous secret speech in 1956 (the text of which was obtained by Israeli intelligence and disseminated in the West) denouncing Stalin's excesses, there was still no comprehensive picture of what had happened in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin and Vasily Grossman's towering novelistic portrayal and comparison of Communism and Nazism, Life and Fate, had not yet been smuggled to the West.  In the West, Robert Conquest had published his seminal work, The Great Terror, on the purges of the late 1930s but he, and the book, came under sustained attack from American academic "experts" on the Soviet Union.  It was not until the Soviet archives became available in the 1990s that Conquest's view was proved accurate prompting the mocking suggestion that the next edition of The Great Terror should be retitled I Told You So, You F**k**g Fools (this has been inaccurately attributed to Conquest himself; the British author Kingsley Amis was the real perpetrator).

Even Khrushchev's 1956 speech was only the Soviet version of a "modified limited hang out".  It attributed all crimes to Stalin, focusing on his persecution of fellow Communist Party members and not on the sufferings of millions of designated "class enemies".

What was stunning about The Gulag Archipelago was it's definitive linking of the creation of the terror state to Lenin and his henchmen like Nikolai Krylenko, Chairman of the Revolutionary Tribunal (1918-22) and later Chief State Prosecutor at innumerable show-trials, who stated "in regard to convicted hostile-class elements . . . correction is impotent and purposeless" and in a more recent book by another author, is quoted exclaiming "We must execute not only the guilty.  Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more!" (in 1938, Krylenko was arrested in one of Stalin's purges and after a 20-minute trial was immediately shot; no one was impressed).  Stalin merely inherited and then perfected what Lenin created.  And the book contained voluminous documentation along with witness testimony.  The American diplomat, George Kennan, called it:

"the most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levied in modern times"

The author, a decorated WWII veteran, had been imprisoned in the Gulag in 1945 for making disparaging remarks about Stalin in a letter.  Released in 1956 (Stalin died in 1953 and over the next three years the Gulag camps were mostly emptied), he secretly, and at great personal risk, set to compiling his history of the Gulag, completing it in 1968. Because of the danger of discovery and confiscation he never worked on the entire manuscript at once, storing it in sections with trusted friends at various locations in and around Moscow.  The manuscript was eventually copied onto microfilm and was smuggled to France.  Meanwhile, the KGB became aware of the book and began frantic attempts to seize it to prevent publication (not yet being aware that the microfilm version had already reached the West).  At the time there were still three typewritten versions of the manuscript in the Soviet Union and in the summer of 1973 the KGB found one of them after interrogating one of Solzhenitsyn's trusted typists.  The distraught typist hung herself a few days after being released.

For the Soviet leadership, Solzhenitsyn's book questioned the very legitimacy of the Soviet state and its founding, but one thing had changed by 1974.  Under Stalin and Lenin, Solzhenitsyn would have been quickly imprisoned and then shot. By the 1970s the choices were mostly reduced to imprisonment, internal exile or expulsion (though untraceable murder was still occasionally employed on dissidents).  Solzhenitsyn posed a difficult dilemma.  In 1970 he had received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, an account of life in a Gulag camp published during the Khrushchev thaw.  Deciding that imprisonment or internal exile would turn him into a martyr and constant source of Western pressure for his release the regime decided expulsion was the better course.

The Gulag Archipelago is not a dry history.  It is brimming with passion, anger, contempt, caustic wit and acerbic asides.  The accretion of detail on person after person, on trial after trial, on lawless and arbitrary decrees and on the squalid dehumanizing world of the camps is relentless and overwhelming and the translation by Thomas P Whitney captures it all.

To give you a flavor for its power, below is an excerpt  from The Gulag Archipelago Two (in the U.S the book was published in two volumes, each about 700 pages).  It's from a chapter is entitled "The Archipelago Metastasizes", which tells the sorrowful tale of the building of the White Sea-Baltic canal in the early 1930s.  Stalin demanded the building of a canal that would allow the passage of Soviet naval vessels from one sea to the other in order to avoid the Arctic Ocean, setting a 20-month deadline for completion.  Hundreds of thousands of prisoners were assigned to its construction.  The canal was dug by hand without any mechanical equipment under terrible physical conditions and brutal oversight from abusive guards with 250,000 dying during its construction.  The canal was poorly designed and never functioned as planned. Solzhenitsyn is unsparing in his portrayal of this debacle and near the end of the chapter recounts a visit he made to the canal in 1966 as he was completing the book and of the official tour he took:

"It's so shallow", complained the chief of the guard, "that not even submarines can pass through it under their own power, they have to be loaded on barges, and only then can they be hauled through."
And what about the cruisers?  Oh, you hermit-tyrant!  You nighttime lunatic!  In what nightmare did you dream up all this?

And where, cursed one, were you hurrying to?  What was it that burned and pricked you - to set a deadline of twenty months?  For those quarter-million men could have remained alive.  Well, so the Esperantists stuck in your throat, but think how much work those peasant lads could have done for you!  How many times you could have roused them to attack - for the Motherland, for Stalin!

"It was very costly", I said to the guard.

"But it was built very quickly!", he answered me with self-assurance.

Your bones should be in it!
The chapter ends with this summing of accounts:

My Lord!  What canal is there deep enough for us to drown that past in?
(Building the canal)
From West Germany, Solzhenitsyn emigrated to the United States moving to Vermont where he lived for many years.  In the summer of 1975 he was invited to speak by George Meany, President of the AFL-CIO, to speak at the organization's dinner in Washington DC where he said:

I have tried to convey to your countrymen the constrained breathing of the inhabitants of Eastern Europe in these weeks when an amicable agreement of diplomatic shovels will inter in a common grave bodies that are still breathing. I have tried to explain to Americans that 1973, the tender dawn of détente, was precisely the year when the starvation rations in Soviet prisons and concentration camps were reduced even further. And in recent months, when more and more Western speechmakers have pointed to the beneficial consequences of détente, the Soviet Union has adopted a novel and important improvement in its system of punishment: to retain their glorious supremacy in the invention of forced-labor camps, Soviet prison specialists have now established a new form of solitary confinement -- forced labor in solitary cells. That means cold, hunger, lack of fresh air, insufficient light, and impossible work norms; the failure to fulfill these norms is punished by confinement under even more brutal conditions.  
While in DC,  Meany and others tried to arrange a meeting between Solzhenitsyn and President Gerald Ford. Ford, with the concurrence of Henry Kissinger, refused to invited the author to the White House, for fear of endangering the emerging detente with the Soviet Union.

In 1990, Solzhenitsyn's Soviet citizenship was restored in the waning days of that country's existence and he returned to Russia in 1994, dying in 2008 at the age of 89.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

10 Least Successful Holiday Specials

From John Scalzi:

My favorites:

Ayn Rand’s A Selfish Christmas (1951)
In this hour-long radio drama, Santa struggles with the increasing demands of providing gifts for millions of spoiled, ungrateful brats across the world, until a single elf, in the engineering department of his workshop, convinces Santa to go on strike. The special ends with the entropic collapse of the civilization of takers and the spectacle of children trudging across the bitterly cold, dark tundra to offer Santa cash for his services, acknowledging at last that his genius makes the gifts — and therefore Christmas — possible. Prior to broadcast, Mutual Broadcast System executives raised objections to the radio play, noting that 56 minutes of the hour-long broadcast went to a philosophical manifesto by the elf and of the four remaining minutes, three went to a love scene between Santa and the cold, practical Mrs. Claus that was rendered into radio through the use of grunts and the shattering of several dozen whiskey tumblers. In later letters, Rand sneeringly described these executives as “anti-life.”

The Lost Star Trek Christmas Episode: “A Most Illogical Holiday” (1968)
Mr. Spock, with his pointy ears, is hailed as a messiah on a wintry world where elves toil for a mysterious master, revealed to be Santa just prior to the first commercial break. Santa, enraged, kills Ensign Jones and attacks the Enterprise in his sleigh. As Scotty works to keep the power flowing to the shields, Kirk and Bones infiltrate Santa’s headquarters. With the help of the comely and lonely Mrs. Claus, Kirk is led to the heart of the workshop, where he learns the truth: Santa is himself a pawn to a master computer, whose initial program is based on an ancient book of children’s Christmas tales. Kirk engages the master computer in a battle of wits, demanding the computer explain how it is physically possible for Santa to deliver gifts to all the children in the universe in a single night. The master computer, confronted with this computational anomaly, self-destructs; Santa, freed from mental enslavement, releases the elves and begins a new, democratic society. Back on the ship, Bones and Spock bicker about the meaning of Christmas, an argument which ends when Scotty appears on the bridge with egg nog made with Romulan Ale.

Stupor Mundi

Stupor Mundi ("the wonder of the world") is how some referred to Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1194-1250), King of Sicily (1197-1250), Holy Roman Emperor (1220-50), King of Jerusalem (1229-43)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Vocals by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan.  Ella gets my vote for best vocalist of the 20th century.  Incredible tone control no matter where she is in the register and she makes it seem so smooth and effortless.  THC has featured her once before doing a stunning version of Summertime on German TV in 1968 and it's an incredible performance even with the crummy YouTube sound. UPDATE:  The version of Summertime linked to in the prior post does not work.  You can find an active version here.

Louis Jordan is not well-known today but was a very popular singer and bandleader in the 1940s and early 1950s and was one of the first black artists to have crossover hits with a white audience.  From 1942 through 1950 he had 36 Top 3 singles on the Billboard R&B charts along with 12 Top 10 on the Billboard US and Country charts, including three number 1s.  He's credited as one of the key originators of the R&B style that evolved into Rock n Roll in the early 1950s and was cited as an inspiration by Chuck Berry, Little Richard and James Brown.

Baby, It's Cold Outside was written by Frank Loesser, who also wrote the lyrics and music for Guys and Dolls and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.  He wrote it in 1944 for a house party and performed it as a duet with his wife.  It made its first commercial appearance in the 1949 film, Neptune's Daughter, where it was performed twice, once by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams and then by Red Skelton(!) and Betsy Garrett.  Loesser won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

The song was immediately recorded by many artists with seven versions being released just in 1949 and it is still often covered today (including by Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell in Elf).  The Ella/Louis version was part of that first wave in 1949.