The Russian Revolution; A New History by Sean McMeekin. Basic Books, 2017.


            The Russian Revolution became entangled with both a civil war in Russia and the last months of the Great War on the Eastern Front. It had many turns and Sean McMeekin has given greater order to this momentous event. It involved the “Reds” – an alliance of Bolsheviks, Poles, Russian army officers and their Cossack regiments – and the urban “bourgeois” calling themselves the “Whites.” Neither side of this civil war had any enthusiasm for continuing the Great War.

Sorting out the first years of the Russian revolution is, however, complicated. It was shaped by the active involvement of revolutionaries, Alexander Kerensky and Vladimir Lenin. Kerensky was the Minister of War and then Premier in the last days of Czar Nicholas II’s reign. he led the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The more ambitious of the two parties, the Bolsheviks hoped to export their revolution around the world. The SRs were ultimately overwhelmed by the Lenin-led Bolsheviks.

            After his abdication the Czar and his family were held under house arrest; the Bolsheviks feared that Britain or perhaps even the United States would try to liberate Nicholas and restore him to the Russian thrown. Fearing this outcome, he was executed by the Bolsheviks along with his four daughters and his son and heir.

McMeekin relates the interesting story of the relationship between the Russian and German Empires over the course of war and revolution. When the Great War began, the two empires were on opposite sides of an Eastern Front. The Germans realized that the war-weary Russian state could be further weakened by introducing the Bolshevik revolutionaries into the political mixture. Thus Lenin was allowed to travel across Germany and the Eastern front and reach St. Petersburg (Petrograd) safely.

The Bolsheviks were advocating a popular decision to leave the war, coinciding with Woodrow Wilson’s talk of a “war without victory.” Kerensky had, upon acquiring power, launched a disastrous offensive that had failed, making it clear that, despite Russia’s wealth in agricultural land, it was not going to win a prolonged war with the Germans. The Bolsheviks initiated a negotiation for an armistice along the lines of Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

The Russian army still had some fight left in its officers and men. However large numbers of Russian troops surrendered to the Germans and there were instances of German and Russian troops fraternizing. Agreement between Germany and Russia was hurriedly negotiated at the German military headquarters at Brest-Litovsk on 14 March 1918.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk reflected the growing weakness of the Russian Empire.  The Germans insisted that the Baltics and Ukraine be cleared of Russian troops leaving the region as a zone of occupation. And there were huge territorial concessions in Eastern Europe. Germany was acknowledged as a protector of the large German population in these Borderlands and in Russia. Russian civilians and soldiers felt that they had been betrayed by the Bolsheviks.

 As the civilian and military regimes in Russia collapsed and the Bolsheviks appeared to be winning the civil war, Russia’s wartime Allies decided that they had no option but to intervene in the civil war. British and American troops landed in Murmansk and Archangel with the intention of supporting the “Whites” fighting the “Reds.” Equally unwise was the Allied support for the Czechoslovak Legion, one of several armies serving in Russia, which complicated any settlement. The Legion seized large portions of the Trans-Siberian Railroad eventually all the way to Vladivostok.  In 1920 after the Revolution, they were evacuated from Vladivostok by the British and US.

Herbert Hoover was known for his relief efforts after the War, the American Relief Agency. Russian agriculture and their rail system were not able to feed the population. Hoover placed conditions on the Bolshevik government in return for US grain and other scarce commodities. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to make food relief to Russia and Poland part of a diplomatic give and take. Having to take handouts from a capitalist-bourgeoisie land was a bitter pill for the Bolsheviks to swallow.

Perhaps most offensive in Western eyes was that the Soviets confiscated the gold held by private individuals and then went after the churches. They were systematically stripped of their gold and their icons.  This gold was used to pay for food shipments.

What an informative book. Sean McMeekin has corrected the work of earlier historians of the Russian Revolution. And he has probably created his share of new stories that will then be reshaped as historians dig deeper into the archives of the Russian state.

The Long  Shadow; The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds. W.W. Norton, 2015 paper.


David Reynolds explores how the Great War has shaped the rest of the twentieth century. He notes that by the end of the Second World War, historians were no longer talking about the Great War, but instead were referring to the European warfare between 1914 and 1918 as the First World War, the Second World War 1939-1945, and the years between the two wars became tagged the “Interwar Period.”

The history of the Interwar Years, The Long Shadow, has been well-charted: the Russian Revolution that ended Imperial Russia, the diplomacy surrounding the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations, the rise of nation-states in Eastern Europe to replace empires, the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain. These years were also economically unsettling: reparation payments and hyper-inflation in Germany, the coming of the Depression in the US, the rise of the Welfare State in Britain.

Some historians lump the two wars together, including this Interwar period, calling the years from 1914 to 1945 a second “thirty-years war,” referring back to the prolonged warfare in Central Europe in the 1700s.

The death toll from the First World War was huge. Perhaps the most significant consequences of the war were the demographics that followed from that slaughter. Reynolds might have speculated on the impact of the death of so many men in their twenties and thirties in Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany. The loss of so many young men to the Great War’s killing machine affected many families over several generations.

The Great War is remembered for the trench warfare that is characteristic of the French-Belgium front. But the war also was a war of movement, and Reynolds makes that point. The term Blitzkrieg is associated with World War II; the German invasion of France in 1914 was equally and unexpectedly rapid, an earlier Blitzkrieg. Neither the tank nor the plane were important to outcomes in the First World War. But they were introduced. The horse and the cavalry charge disappeared, in favor of infantry armed with machine guns. Bombardment by heavy guns was true of both wars. German submarine warfare was one of the legacies of the Great War. The tank and the heavily armed truck saw their day only in the Second World War.

Reynolds suggests that an entirely appropriate response in the interwar period was pacifism, particularly in Britain. That response is a partial explanation for Neville Chamberlain’s fateful visits to Germany in 1938 to negotiate the agreement, involving the sudetenlanders  – Germans who had been included in Czechoslovakia by the Versailles settlement in 1918. Chamberlain returned from Germany, claiming that the agreement brought “peace for our time.”

Chamberlain and his government were also responding to the German complaint that Versailles had been a dictate and the reparations demanded from Germany too steep and detrimental to the post-war European economy. An eminent British economist, John Maynard Keynes, agreed. Germany paid those reparations with inflated Deutsch marks that further complicated the post-war economies of Central Europe.

How best to demonstrate the inappropriateness of the European imperialism after 1918 is to look at the mandate. The Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern lands were divided between France and Britain much to the detriment of an eventual peace in the area. At some point in the midst of the Great War, Britain came to the conclusion that in the future oil would fire its war machine, not Welsh coal and the most likely source of that oil would be the Middle East.

In November 1917 Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Minister in the wartime Conservative Government proclaimed Palestine as the national homeland for European Jewry. He ignored the fact that there was a population of Palestinians that would have to be forced off their lands. Balfour was also hoping that his Declaration would find favor with Russian and American Jews and get the former to pursue its war aims more rigorously and the latter to enter the war on Britain’s side. We now live in the shadow of that diplomacy.

To explain the German war machine’s collapse in 1918, German conservatives came up with the “stab in the back” myth. It was widely believed that the German Army had not lost the War but was instead betrayed by Weimar politicians. This theory was promoted by Erick Ludendorff, a General in the German army, who was given credit for the military victory at Tannenberg early in the Great War, later a prominent nationalist leader, and Paul von Hindenburg, later President of the German Republic.

The last veterans of World War I are gone. Soon there will be no living memory of the Great War. Veterans from World War II will follow them.  How we view that war will be left to the historians and to the rituals of remembrance that are performed by the descendants of those warriors.

When I was growing up in a small Iowa town, honoring those who served in both wars was a yearly Memorial Day ritual. Small flags and bouquets of lilacs were placed on their graves. The high school band played some patriotic tunes, there was a gun salute, and we then retired to our homes for a day off, having remembered for the moment those who had fought in both World Wars. How much longer will these remembrances cast their shadows over our homes and hearts?

When London Was Capital of America by Julie Flavell. Yale University Press, 2011 paper.

When London Was Capital of America by Julie Flavell. Yale University Press, 2011 paper.

            In the decades of the 1750s and 1760s London was a city of nearly 750,000 souls. Julie Flavell speaks of the city as the capital of America because the original thirteen colonies along the eastern seaboard had in varying ways made London their metropolis and, despite the long sea passage, flocked to its urban environment.

Most New Englanders that came to London did so on business. London was the banking center for the American colonies; it financed the triangular trade between Britain, West Africa, and the North American and Caribbean colonies. The major commodities traded were sugar, tobacco, and leather (later cotton) in exchange for what Flavell calls consumer goods. The American colonies remained Britain’s major trading partner until after the American War Of Independence.

Colonials looked to Britain for their “higher” education. The Inns of Court for the legal profession and the several teaching hospitals in London for medicine, eventually Edinburgh University. The more politically ambitious came to seek positions in the elaborate Imperial governing structure, the Franklin’s for example.

And they also came for the entertainments that London had to offer, London theater, then as now. Some of the available entertainments were considered to be unsavory. There were prostitutes and street brawls to make study breaks more interesting. Many of these North Americans sought the persona of the ‘macaroni’ a mid-eighteenth-century Englishman who dressed and spoke in the fashion of the day. The more politically inclined young man might take up the cause of John Wilkes and the radicals. Easy to understand why American parents were reluctant to set their sons loose in London.  

The colonials sought out their own kind in the coffee houses they chose to patronize. New Englanders were particularly clickish. They tended to live apart from visitors from the middle colonies who were a mixed Dutch, German, French, Irish, and African. Those from the American South wished not to be mistaken for provincial Englishmen.

Thrifty American planters often brought a slave or two with them to avoid having to hire out of the urban servant class who in Georgian London could shop around for the best position; they had options. They were determined to preserve the modest privileges of the serving class in the presence of New World slavery. They were not controlled by the whip. Unthinkable! The colonials thought them “spoiled” by American standards. The city’s serving class was disinclined to associate with the “Blackamoors” from the New World


The British slave trade, financed through London credit, was not prohibited until 1807. It was a profitable business for the British merchant marine. However a court decision in 1772 had held that no slave, once domiciled in England for a period of time, could be sent back to the colonies. Except as a free man. The decision effectively ended slavery in England, Scotland and Wales.  T

The American slave also benefited for a domicile in London. It gave him what he considered to be an urban polish. And his own ideas about his status as a piece of property.   

Flavell makes use of the correspondence between Benjamin Franklin and William Franklin, Ben’s acknowledged illegitimate son, to describe the patronage system that brought colonials to London to seek positions. William, at the elder Franklin’s instance, was appointed the Governor of New Jersey. Ben Franklin took advantage of the patronage system. He was the Deputy Postmaster General, appointed by the Crown. He served as the London agent for Pennsylvania and three other colonies. His knowing the right people in London also allowed Ben to speculate in western land.

Father and son eventually split over the conflict between the British Empire and the American colonies. William, remaining loyal to the Crown, continued to hold the New Jersey Governor’s office until American independence.

The American Revolution resulted in the exit of most Americans then living in London. On the other hand an estimated 7,000 of the 60,000 to 80,000 colonial royalists fled to London during the Revolution.

Would that we could journey back to a London when it was the Capital of America to understand better the character of the First British Empire. Julie Flavell’s book might be the next best thing.  




My Fellow Soldiers; General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War by Andrew Carroll. Penguin Press, 2017.


Andrew Carroll has used letters and diaries written by American participants in the Great War to frame an account of the military career of John Pershing. Pershing was the senior most commander of American troops on the Western Front. Pershing was the commander of the American Expeditionary Force that was sent to the Western Front to assist French, Belgium, and British forces, locked in the trench warfare for which the First World War was notorious. Carroll has also used Pershing’s letters to his family and colleagues.

(It is interesting that the focus of letter-writing was to a “mother” rather than a “father” as it had been in the Civil War. Carroll doesn’t speculate on why this was so, and how that correspondence with a mother could indicate a different family structure fifty years later.)

Pershing’s military career did not begin in Europe. He commanded the forces that pursued Pancho Villa in west Texas and New Mexico just as the war in Europe began, August 1014. Having settled with Pancho Villa, Pershing arrived in Europe in June 1917.

From the beginning, Pershing insisted that the American doughboys be kept in their own units with American commanders, rather than being used as replacements in depleted French and British units.

Pershing was a career officer who had served in the Philippines before giving command of the Pancho Villa expedition. Tragically his wife and daughters died in a house fire in military housing in the Presidio in San Francisco. Pershing had failed to make arrangements for accommodations in Texas, and blamed himself for their tragic death.

General Pershing was, like many Americans enthusiastic about getting “over there” while the fight was still going on. However, Americans were not allowed to serve in foreign armies – swear allegiance to a foreign military establishment (We had not yet declared war on Germany.), but American volunteers could join the French Foreign Legion.

Pershing had been sent to the Western Front as an observer, despite President Woodrow Wilson’s pledge not to get us involved in “European entanglements.” Wilson was under pressure to enter the war against Germany. Three German “outrages” motivated American public opinion: the sinking of the passenger liner the Lusitania with the loss of American lives, the willful destruction of the Belgium town of Louvain, and the execution of an American nurse-volunteer, Edith Cavell.

Wilson was finally forced to declare war but he made it a declaration of war against “the Imperial German Government” not the German people. There was a sizeable community of German-Americans who, Wilson worried, would not be enthusiastic participants. President Wilson’s hand was forced as a result of the Zimmermann telegram. Arthur Zimmermann, then the German foreign secretary had sent a telegram to his ambassador to Mexico that proposed the Mexican government join the European war, promising his assistance in regaining the huge territory lost to the U.S. The telegram was leaked to the press. (Then as now the press was being used to weaken the federal government’s foreign policy.)

The war in Europe was not so glorious as the popular songs of the day made it out to be. Those trenches that American volunteers would be entering were filled with water and hence mud. And soldiers who helped win the war had to deal with new weaponry: tanks and armored trucks, flamethrowers, chlorine gas, rapid-firing machine guns, and heavy field pieces for long-range bombardment.

A system of bases were established here in the States, mostly in the South for training purposes. But before they were actually sent to the trenches, Pershing’s “fellow soldiers” were trained behind the lines and supervised by the generals who would be commanding the troops in battle.

That only partially solved the problem of training African-Americans for their role in the fight. African-American soldiers entered a racist military. Mostly they were responsible for the transportation essential the fighting force but generally kept apart from white soldiers. While Pershing had insisted on keeping his troops together, rather than their functioning as replacements, he did agree to use African-American troops to rebuild French African units rather than American. Those who continued to serve under Pershing established a reputation for bravery; eventually they came to be called the Harlem Hellfighters.

Some of Pershing’s soldiers later gained fame in World War II: George Marshall, Bill Donavan, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. Truman and Eisenhower had subsequent political careers as well. Pershing was mentioned as a potential Presidential candidate for the Republican Party in the 1920 Presidential election, but no offer came his way, and Pershing had no interest in campaigning for office. The Republicans, instead chose one of their own, Senator Warren G. Harding, and Pershing retired as a respected former commander of the American Expeditionary Force in the First World War and to a grave in Arlington Cemetery. 


March 1917; On the Brink of War and Revolution by Will Englund. W.W. Norton, 2017.

Will Englund has described a fateful turn of events in both the Russian Revolution and the Great War focusing on March 1917 and two individuals, US President Woodrow Wilson and Russia’s Czar Nicholas II.

When war broke out in 1914, Europe’s major powers were divided into a complicated alliance system, the Russian Empire and its allies Great Britain and France – the Triple Entente. They were opposed by the Central Powers, the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires and Italy, though the latter only entered the Great War in its last years. The US stood clear of these “European entanglements” as of March 1917, but we were gradually drawn into the conflict.

Englund does not mention the history of this system of alliances and alignments. It was largely the work of Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of the German Empire from 1871 to 1890. He dominated European affairs and kept the peace despite an armed continent and insurgent nationalism.

Fighting began with the German invasion of Belgium and France. Russia then sent armies into Germany’s Prussia and into Galicia to engage the Austro-Hungarian forces there. Germany provoked the US into joining the Entente after it declared a blockade of the North Atlantic to reduce the flow of military supplies and food to Great Britain. To enforce the blockade, German submarines began sinking British shipping, including the luxury passenger ship, the Lusitania, with American casualties.

This submarine warfare created a major international crisis which challenged President Wilson’s promise to “keep us out of the war.” Wilson fancied himself a peace keeper. (He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.) In a speech to a joint session of Congress in January 1917, he announced a shift in our intentions to achieving “peace without victory.”

Given the huge number of casualties in WWI, it is difficult for us to understand how so many Europeans could have welcomed the outbreak of a war.  Perhaps to clarify the prolonged armed peace and its tangled diplomacy? Many young men saw it as the opportunity for them to show their valor. They assumed that it would be a brief war that their side would win.

Seventy million men got their opportunity. There were 9 to 11 million military casualties and 5 to 6 million civilians killed or wounded. Those estimates don’t include either prisoners of war, many of whom died of starvation, or those missing in action and presumed dead.

President Wilson’s efforts to keep us out of the war ended with a sensational intelligence master stroke. The Brits had been deciphering the codes used by the German Foreign Ministry. In late 1916 Arthur Zimmerman, the German Foreign Minister, sent a telegraph to his counterpart in Mexico, suggesting a military alliance between the two countries and support for Mexico’s recovery of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, lost in the Mexican War of 1846-1848.  When made public, the telegram became a raison d’être for American entry into the European War. Despite his reluctance, President Wilson had no option but to declare war, as many prominent Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, had been urging him to do.

Wilson also found it easier to enter the war in 1917 because the Russian revolution and fall of the Czar’s regime had “changed the calculus” (Englund). Russia had joined the “liberal democratic camp” with a provisional government headed by Alexander Kerensky.  Not winning the war on the eastern front, the Russian army was still intact. Kerensky even ordered it to take the offense. And the army could still be counted on to back Nicholas II’s effort to control crowds of workers in the capital and in Moscow and put down mutinies of sailors at the Kronstadt naval base.

At this point Germany made what Englund calls an “investment in the Russian revolution.” It allowed Vladimir Lenin and several of his lieutenants to leave their Swiss exile and travel across Germany and the Eastern Front to reach St. Petersburg (soon to be Petrograd). The Bolshevik coup d’état that followed brought the Party to power. The Bolsheviks began a negotiation with the Germans that resulted in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in early 1918, ending Soviet Russia’s participation in the Great War.

We declared war in December 1917, which brought some respite to the British Empire troops fighting on the Western Front. The “yanks are coming” as the famous song went. One of those many young males hoping for some excitement in the Great War was my father. From a small Iowa town, just turned 18, and facing conscription, he volunteered and had a great adventure, though he never got abroad.

The Great War, Englund argues, did not make the world safe for democracy. Nor did it usher in a new world order based on President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Russia turned the Great War’s destructive forces upon itself. They fueled a deadly revolution, their socialist experiment, and a fast and deadly famine.

Easygoing Guide to Natural Florida; Volume 2, Central Florida by Douglas Waitley. Pineapple Press, paper 2008.

Easygoing Guide to Natural Florida; Volume 2, Central Florida by Douglas Waitley. Pineapple Press, paper 2008.

Douglas Waitley has, indeed, provided us with an easy-does-it guide to Florida’s wonderful and accessible natural areas. That does not mean, however, that he is easygoing in his opinions, which are presented to us in large doses. He gets around in his car, avoids overnight camping and arduous hikes. He boards riverboats rather than paddling a canoe. He notes that cyclists are interested in speed, not terrain. Mostly traveling alone, he gets into one-on-one conversations with the solitary fishermen that he encounters. Or birdwatchers.

Next to fishermen, birdwatchers constitute the largest audience for his often contrary remarks. He talked with a woman who had been watching a hawk fishing and voiced her admiration for this aggressive bird. Waitley’s dry response to her exuberance: “What about the fish?”

The first half of the book finds him at the headwaters of the St. Johns River, where he contemplates this largely managed river and the chain of lakes which it drains. Much of the area is in the Ocala National Forest, east and south of Ocala. Several magnificent springs feed the St. Johns its waters, via the Ocklawaha River. The St. Johns is perhaps the most “historic” of Florida’s rivers. It saw action in the Civil War, participated in the cattle business, and later the cotton economy. Its fresh waters have been the cause of many a squabble over water rights.

Much of the area was logged in the early part of the last century, and the forests that Waitley admires are mostly second growth. Exotic flora and fauna are a major problem; “suburban estates” are a relatively recent exotic. But the original biodiversity of the swamps and drier areas is recovering. He admires the mix of longleaf pines, turkey oaks, and wiregrass. Lots of water birds and indigenous mammals, including the black bear, are coming back – despite the fragmentation of the forests. There is a continuing threat of wild fires, usually caused by lightening.

The St Johns acquired a tourist industry in the early twentieth century. President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp and the Works Progress Administration acquired land and built infrastructure to facilitate that use. The pleasantly quaint structures are now serving as visitor centers

More recently the proposal for a Cross Florida Barge Canal threatened to alter the Ocklawaha and other tributaries of the St. Johns. Begun in the 1930s during the New Deal, the Canal’s construction was halted during WWII. Fortunately the Canal never happened thanks to The Florida Defenders of the Environment. But we still have the Kirkpatrick Dam, part of the Canal’s infrastructure, and hence their continuing demand that we “Set the Ocklawaha Free.”

On to the “Nature Coast,” beginning at Tampa Bay. Waitley has crossed over a peninsular “divide,” a central “highland” that results in the St. Johns and its tributaries flowing north into the Atlantic, while another set of rivers on the west side of the Florida peninsula flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

Florida’s Gulf Coast is a product of its salt marshes which dominate the mouths of its rivers, the Withlacoochee and the Suwannee. The Gulf does not provide waves, hence no sandy beaches. The Big Bend’s most prominent vegetation are the mangrove swamps. Its bays shelter several good-sized mammals: the porpoise (dolphin) and the manatee. The marshes are the winter habitat for migratory birds. This region is looked after by the Southwest Water Management District called Swiftmud.

Cedar Key is perhaps the most interesting of the Gulf’s coastal towns. This and adjoining keys lost their cedar trees, harvested to be used as railroad ties. After the adoption of creosote, cedar railroad ties were phased out. Cedar was a common ingredient in lead pencils and Cedar Key continued to be a manufacturing town. It was also a port city, being the terminus of a railroad from its wharfs to Fernandina, on the Atlantic Ocean side. The Key’s mangrove swamps are recovering nicely from a hard freeze 30 years ago.

Leaving the salt marshes and driving north and east brings the motorist into Gainesville and the nearby Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park and Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The Devil’s Millhopper is a huge sink hole, the result of Florida being on a limestone shelf that is vulnerable to salt water intrusion and collapse, in this case centuries ago. The Prairie is the remains of a large, shallow lake. It played a role in the establishment and then demise of the region’s citrus industry.

Waitley pays relatively little attention to the Seminoles or other Native Americans, the invasion of their lands by white agriculturalists and their slave workforce. Nor does he mention East Florida and West Florida, chunks of the Spanish New World along the Gulf Coast.

I’ll take Douglas Waitley’s Easygoing Guide to Natural Florida with me when I explore the various State Parks and Preserves. The parks are a wonderful resource, and damn it, not to be swallowed up by coastal condominiums and golf courses.

Cattle Kingdom; The Hidden History of the Cowboy West by Christopher Knowlton. Harcourt, 2017.

Cattle Kingdom; The Hidden History of the Cowboy West by Christopher Knowlton. Harcourt, 2017.

Some years ago the eminent historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, located the closing of the American land frontier in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Christopher Knowlton has made a similar declaration to explain the history of the ‘cattle frontier’. Cattlemen were exploiting the grass lands of the Great Plains to fatten their cattle. The US investing community saw opportunities and bought up huge parcels of ranchland being used for grazing. The construction of trans-continental railroads and cow towns along their right-of-way facilitated the growth of the ‘kingdom.’ Eventually the cattle kingdom reached its environmental limits.

Knowlton includes a colorful description of these cow towns and their institutions, their saloons, ramshackle hotels, and retailers that supplied the cowboys with their needs. The most famous cow towns were Dodge City and Abilene in Kansas and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

It was impractical to ship livestock in cattle cars for long distances, so the cattle were converted into beef steak and then transported. That in turn required refrigerated railroad cars. Chicago, where those cross-continental rail lines terminated, became the center of a meat-packing industry.

Not just US investors got involved. English and Scottish nobility were intrigued by the cattle business, entertained by the lore of the cattle drive and the cowboy it fashioned. The cattle kingdom offered employment and adventure for their younger sons. (Winston Churchill’s father had tried his hand at herding cattle on the Great Plains.)

These European nobles joined young males from prominent US families hoping to prove their manly virility. Theodore Roosevelt had some fun playing cowboy “out west”. In 1884, he interrupted his political career, bought a ranch in the Dakotas, and took on a cattleman persona. He learned the hard way about the perils of the business; a severe freeze in the winter of 1886-87 devastated his herd.

Most ‘cowboys’ were hard-up for employment and the cattle business, though seasonal, was an opportunity. The required skill-set was minimal. The would-be cowboys tended to specialize: shooters or skinners, cooks in charge of the chuck wagons, wranglers who looked after the saddle horses.

The Western prairie had not always been as “empty” as it appeared in the last decades of the nineteenth century. It was empty only because of the slaughter of the vast bison (buffalo) herds for their hides, long exploited by Native Americans. Recreational hunters joined in the decimation. A motivation not acknowledged at the time was to rid the plains of the bison and its population of migratory Indian tribes, creating that empty space that the cattle industry could exploit.

While Knowlton acknowledges the gun violence of these cattle towns, he contends that they were no more violent than the eastern seaboard cities. The problem was law enforcement. In the absence of a working justice system, there were numerous “necktie occasions.” Cattle rustlers and horse thieves were the most common offenders that were strung up, usually without a legal procedure.

Although the cowboys did not normally go around armed, there were armed confrontations generated by feuds between homesteaders and small ranch owners vs. the owners of the large spreads and the gangs they employed to keep order, including Pinkerton Detectives.

Perhaps the most violent episode in the years of the cattle business on the Great Plains was the Johnson County War in Wyoming. Knowlton describes in some detail the feud between one group of wealthy ranch owners associated with the Wyoming Stockowners Association headquartered in Cheyenne and another group, mostly smaller ranchers, challenging their dominance. The former accused the latter of cattle and horse theft. There were several impromptu hangings and shootouts by hired gunmen out of Texas. Eventually a unit of cavalry from Fort McKinney near present-day Buffalo, Wyoming was sent in to quell the violence. The story of the War was later retold in a novel published in 1902 by Owen Wister entitled The Virginian.

Knowlton acknowledges that the Johnson County War may have had environmental elements as well. The overgrazing of the Great Plains in these years had pitted ranchers against ranchers. He also suggests that the disappearing cattle may have been the result of the revival of the gray wolf.

Cattle Kingdom; The Hidden History of the Cowboy West explains a good deal of the standard plot of the ‘Western’ book genre that my dad’s generation enjoyed.  That cavalry sent out to quell disturbances pictured in many a Western film thrilled my generation of youthful movie goers in the 1950s and 1960s.



Empire of Cotton A Global History by Sven Beckert. Vintage, paper 2015.

Empire of Cotton; A Global History by Sven Beckert. Vintage, paper 2015.

Sven Beckert’s history of the cotton trade contends that the production of cotton yarn and cloth was one of man’s greatest accomplishments. For almost a millennium, cotton production was the world’s most important manufacturing industry. And for most of that time, raw cotton was the most valuable agricultural commodity as well. Critics of Empire of Cotton believe, however, that Beckert has understated the negative side of cotton production: the expropriation of land from indigenous peoples, exhaustion of the soil, and the enslavement of an agricultural workforce. On the other hand, he gives due credit to the manufacturing regions and country-sides that pioneered the cotton economy.

There are four different species of cotton. Gossypium hirsutum or “upland cotton” is Mesoamerican in origin; it represents 95% of the cotton crop grown in the US. It is the best species both in terms of the length and uniformity of its fiber. Cotton will grow where there are two hundred frost-free days.

Manchester was the initial location of England’s spinning and weaving mills, and England dominated the cotton trade for the fifty years between 1775 and 1825. The enclosure movement in England and Scotland had created a class of landless labor that could then be recruited by the cotton mills. And without any overwhelming loss of agricultural productivity.

Cotton production has always been associated with technological ingenuity. The most frequently mentioned example is the development of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in the 1790s. His machine drastically reduced the workforce needed to prepare the cotton for the spinning process. And many small adjustments and improvements in the machinery kept improving productivity at little extra cost. “British tinkering,” Beckert calls it.

Britain then became the major source for machinery. Falling water was the first form of energy that ran the machinery in these humongous mills. Later steam power.

Britain did not grow the cotton that it used in its mills. The New World dominated raw cotton production, the American South, Mexico, and Peru in particular. The growth of British sea power and its empire can be explained by this need to connect cotton growing with manufacturing.

Cotton production came to a screeching halt during the American Civil War, 1861 to 1863 and the resulting ‘cotton famine’ produced a scramble for cotton and an effort to find both a new labor force and suitable lands for growing cotton. Eventually Southern planters worked out an arrangement called sharecropping and a set of social-racial arrangements that became Jim Crow. Land was made available for this cotton production by the removal of Native Americans from regions west of the Mississippi. Confiscation!

There is a strong relationship between the success of the cotton economy and the expansion of European colonies into Asia and Africa. It was, Beckert argues, the continuing demand for raw cotton that shaped Britain’s colonial expansion. The British Empire in India is the best example of this connection. The manufacture of cotton yarn had long been a cottage industry and successful as an export sector.  Most generally the work of women in their cottages.

In the 1890s an Indian mill sector established itself, concentrated in Ahmedabad and Bombay (Mumbi) in western India. The spread of the milling sector eventually led to competition with India’s home-spun cottons both exports and local consumption. Nothing was done; the Government of India believed in the dictates of the market place. But more to the point, it would be inopportune to levy duties on British cotton cloth.

The Government of India was less willing, however, to stand aside and watch Japanese cotton cloth undermine local production. The Brits also felt it necessary to cultivate the Bombay Millowner’s Association. In the 1930s they decided to impose a duty on cotton imports from Japan to protect the Indian machine industry. It was done under the pretext of cotton production being an infant industry.

One of the most interesting aspects about the Indian market is the way in which it utilized traditional institutions within caste and kinship networks for capital mobilization. Entrepreneurs were drawn from Eurasian diaspora communities: Armenians, Parsees, Georgians, Jews, and in India: banias, chettis, Muslim merchants, and British East India Company employees.

Perhaps the most unsavory aspect of the cotton economy in the nineteenth century was the importance of child labor in the workforce.  The largest number of workers in Britain were in the age range of ten to eighteen. Very young girls and boys and unmarried women lived in dormitories associated with a mill. This first industrial force was mobile. Absenteeism was high. Shifts were as long as eleven hours.

Cotton cloth overwhelmed other fabrics, woolens, linens, and silk. We are now experiencing the replacement of cottons by polyesters.

Hitler’s American Model; The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law by James Q. Whitman. Princeton University, Press, 2017.

Hitler’s American Model; The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law by James Q. Whitman. Princeton University, Press, 2017.

The Nuremberg Laws were drawn up in the first years of the National Socialist Government in Germany. The inspiration for Nazi racial law was, James Whitman claims, was the racial regime in the US. In particular, Adolf Hitler admired the segregation in the public schools in the South, in transportation, restrooms, and even drinking fountains. The Nazi lawyers that drew up the earliest version of the Nuremburg Laws were, however, more interested in our interest in the “science of eugenics,  immigration law, and our decades-old success at pushing Native Americans out of tribal lands. The latter they found comparable to the Nazi geopolitical goal of lebensraum.

Provisions in American immigration laws were aimed at the feeblemindedness and other inheritable diseases. Strains of the American pseudo-science of eugenics and German racial murder.

Our exclusion of immigrants on the basis of race, ethnicity, and religion dated back to the early years of the Republic. But the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 clarified what had long been a series of federal and state laws, based on a percentage of the number of immigrants of that nationality that were already living here, 2%. That favored Immigrants from Ireland, Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany. It penalized immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and particularly, Italians, Russians and Polish Jews. Our National Origins and Asian Exclusion Acts excluded all Chinese and Japanese immigrants from the West Coast and Hawaii, mostly at the urging of Californians concerned about the “yellow peril”.

Perhaps the Nazi Party official most responsible for the Nuremberg Laws and the interest in American models was the Nazi Minister of Justice, Franz Gürtner. He had been an early enthusiast for the National Socialist Party and had secured Hitler’s release from prison after his arrest for participation in the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Yet he argued for borrowing carefully from the American judicial practice. It was based on a longer tradition of liberal legal traditions with which he and his fellow jurists disagreed. He admired the independence of the American judiciary, but dubious of the harshness of our criminal law.

On the other hand, Gürtner found our separation of the US population into two categories, Caucasian and non-Caucasian, would have been far too simplistic for Germany. Whitman points out that the creation of a German race law must take into account the presence of substantial Jewish populations in eastern Germany. That was not an issue in the US.

The Nuremberg Laws had first to define the ethnic category “Jew.” Germans had lived amongst other ethnic groups for centuries, and found America’s “one-drop” rule impossible. In Germany you were deemed to be a Jew if either of your parents were Jewish or descended from two fully Jewish grandparents. Or, and this had nothing to do with ethnicity or race, if you belonged to a Jewish community or subsequent to the legislation were to marry into a Jewish family.

While the Germans who drew up the Nuremberg Laws found the legal and social structure of our Jim Crow South to be close to what they hoped to create, they were less admiring of the liberal outlook of the Amreican legal system in general. The US had many social-political arrangements that had matured over the decades and were worthy of German emulation. But the reverse was not so much the case. By the mid-1930s, there was considerable street violence in German cities which was abhorrent to most Americans.

In many ways German jurists believed our race laws to be “harsher” than theirs. For example the Germans were, even then, struck by the harshness of our criminal law and particularly our treatment of repeat offenders.

Wisely Whitman is careful not to exaggerate this, but Germans were, he reports, taken with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and its similarity to the German success in easing the severe depression with which both countries were contending. While there were no doubt more differences that congruencies between the two socio-economic programs, both involved authoritarian elements in their relief programs.

James Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model; The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law tells the story of forty-five Nazi lawyers put on a luxury ocean liner in September 1935 bound for the US on a “study trip” to look firsthand at the structure of American racial law. By the time it arrived at our shores, things were chaotic, and no doubt these German Nazi lawyers welcomed a return to the ‘order’ that the National Socialists brought to Germany.


Fear Itself; The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Kra Katznelson. Liveright, paper, 2014.

Fear Itself; The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Kra Katznelson. Liveright, paper, 2014.

Kra Katznelson’s book looks at the New Deal, including both the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman Administrations, a twenty-two year span dominated by Democratic control of both Houses. He admires both Presidents but does not fail to mention their omissions. “Fear Itself” is taken from FDR’s inaugural address in 1933, “[The] only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The author’s grand theme is the importance of the Southern Democrats in forming the New Deal. Its essential support in those years explains FDR’s unwillingness to take on its social system: Jim Crow involved white supremacy, a restrictive franchise, and racial segregation. The ‘solid South’ also opposed the international role that the Roosevelt-Truman Administrations resolved to play in World War II and its aftermath.

One criticism of Fear Itself is that Katznelson doesn’t discuss the Hoover Administration, its efforts to deal with the country’s massive unemployment prior to 1932 and the role that the alliance of Southern Democrats played in limiting Hoover’s response to the Depression. Roosevelt understood that revitalizing the national economy and rebuilding our armed forces in the face of German aggression would include a huge increase in military spending. that greater federal efforts to restore the economy would require a larger bureaucracy. Hence the construction of the Pentagon building in 1941-1943.

Not only did the Southern Democrats shape American response to depression and war, they were also able to shape racial policy during the New Deal. The new Pentagon was a segregated building as were most federal office space. The Armed Services also remained segregated throughout both world wars. Truman ordered their integration in 1948 at the beginning of his second term.

But African-Americans served in our segregated army and hence should be given the opportunity to vote. “Ballots for Soldiers” would seem to have been a given. Yet federal intervention to expand the franchise threatened Jim Crow. Katznelson points out that there were difficulties involved in facilitating voting by soldiers stationed overseas. Also voter registration in the South was in the hands of local and state officials. Collecting the poll tax, common in the South, could not be part of any federal initiative.  Roosevelt’s solution was to create a simple federal ballot, but leaving its administration in the hands of those state and local officials

Historians talk of two New Deals, the First New Deal (1933-1935) involved an array of federal interventions into the American capitalist economy. Those first hundred days of the Roosevelt Administration have become a model for nearly all subsequent pro-active Administrations.

The Second New Deal (1935 to 1941) was in part the result of the Southern Democrats and their continuing “veto” as a restraint on a federal response to the Depression. (FDR was also having difficulty getting his legislation through court challenges.) However the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the passage of the Civilian Conservation Corps got past the Southern “veto.” Both authorized relief programs that employed unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25.  The camps were segregated and the benefits to African-Americans fewer. The CCC was perhaps the most popular measure of the Second New Deal, and many of its projects are still around for everyone to enjoy.

Americans watched while fascist regimes triumphed in both Italy and Germany. We felt comparatively safe from European entanglements, oceans protecting us. From a distance the US could admire the Italian and German regimes addressed their own troubled economies in ways not open to a capitalist democracy.

We were divided over Roosevelt’s isolationist position. The various Neutrality Acts passed in 1930s were intended to ensure that the US would not become entangled in European conflict.

Roosevelt found ways, however, to support Britain, most notably the Lend Lease Act. War materiel from destroyers to machine guns were supplied on credit in exchange for bases on various islands within the British Empire – Destroyers for Bases. In the meantime we began our own rearmament efforts. This time the South was not left behind with the industrial surge resulting from that war production.

The fear of which Roosevelt spoke in his first inaugural was the result of economic collapse. We now feared German submarines sinking American merchant ships in the North Atlantic. We had no German bombers dropping their loads on our cities, or American boys dying on the battlefield. But we anguished as the British cities were bombed repeatedly and the Russians lost millions of young men on the Eastern Front. In 1941 we entered World War II.

Several final chapters discuss the anxiety of atomic warfare in the late 1940s. Looking back, it seems to have been an effort to keep the nation mobilized for a prolonged ‘cold war’ with the Soviet Union. 1952 is a good year to end the story that Ira Katznelson tells. General Dwight Eisenhower’s two presidential terms provided a different set of fears and anxieties. Who can forget the grade school drills when we crouched under our desks fearing an atomic attack?