Sunday, August 19, 2018

A review of “The Roman Empire in the First Century” (PBS Empires)



“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

- The New Testament, “The Gospel According to St. Luke,” Chapter 2, Verse 1 (as translated by the King James Version of the Bible)

Since this documentary was first shown in 2001, there have been a few other documentaries made about Ancient Rome. These include a six-hour program by the BBC, and a ten-hour program by the History Channel. By contrast, this PBS program is only four hours long, so you might expect it not to be as “in-depth.” If so, you'd be wrong; because these other programs cover much broader time periods than just the first century. This gives them an advantage over PBS in these other periods, but it also means that they can't cover this narrower period in as much depth as PBS does. If it's the first century you're after, this is definitely the documentary to go to; and so it has a lot to offer in this regard. Nonetheless, all of these programs add something to one's knowledge of the history; so the true Roman Empire buff will probably want to consult all of them. If you prefer dramatizations with lots of re-enactments, the BBC and the History Channel are probably more up your alley than this PBS program. But if you like period images (including statues and archaeological sites), you will find much to enjoy in this documentary by PBS.



Friday, August 17, 2018

How my views on government are influenced by my faith



“That our belief with regard to earthly governments and laws in general may not be misinterpreted nor misunderstood, we have thought proper to present, at the close of this volume, our opinion concerning the same.”

- Heading to "Doctrine & Covenants" (a Latter-Day Saint scripture), Section 134 (written 1835)

I am a Latter-Day Saint (also known as a “Mormon”), which influences how I see the world …

Since the presidential elections of 2012, Mormon candidates have featured prominently in the United States. People who normally have no interest in hearing about Mormon beliefs would sometimes make exceptions for hearing about Mormon candidate Mitt Romney, because of his being the Republican presidential nominee. Ironically, the church has long made it clear that it “does not endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms,” and that it does not “attempt to direct its members as to which candidate or party they should give their votes to.” (Source: The Mormon Newsroom). However, it does speak out on some political issues at times, and its scriptures include some prominent beliefs about governments and laws. Thus, I thought I would go over these beliefs about governments and laws here, and allow people outside the church to hear them (if they so choose) from a practicing Mormon.


American flag

Monday, August 13, 2018

Behind the Iron Curtain: Occupation by the Soviet Union



"While the Wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system - for all the world to see - we take no satisfaction in it; for it is, as your mayor [of West Berlin] has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together."

- American president John F. Kennedy, in his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech (June 26, 1963)

World War II had just ended; but for parts of Eastern Europe, the nightmare was just beginning ...

During the Second World War, Eastern Europe was unfortunately caught in the crossfire between Hitler's Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Russia. Conquest by either one meant certain tyranny and subjugation, but to be caught on the losing side of this struggle for the Eastern Front would mark one's country for revenge, terrible and swift. It was not known yet who would be the winner, and the two sides were so ruthless to begin with that any additional punishment from the eventual victor was a terrifying prospect for them. Perhaps partially for this, the nations of Eastern Europe decided to choose sides in this struggle, hoping to promote their interest; and some paid a heavy price for making the wrong choices in these matters. But all were doomed to suffer in one way or another, and even the ones whose alliances had actually served their interest in these years were condemned to suffer in a communist occupation later on, regardless of which side they had served at this earlier time. The eventual winner on the "Eastern Front" was, of course, Soviet Russia; and it imposed its will without any mercy on the nations that it had conquered.


Red Army raises Soviet flag in Berlin after taking the city, May 1945

Some parts of Eastern Europe were already occupied before World War II

To be clear, some of these nations were already conquered before the war started, and some had been part of the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" (or "USSR") since the moment of its creation in 1922. (This is the political entity that is better known today - and was known then - as the "Soviet Union.") They were thus already puppet states that had been annexed by the USSR. Others became puppet states that were made part of the Soviet Union in 1940 - after World War II had begun in Europe, but before the Soviet entry into the war in 1941. These states were annexed at this time instead. Others became puppet states much later on in the war - or even after, in some cases. Although some of these states were never actually annexed into the Soviet Union - possibly to create the illusion that the Russians were actually keeping their World War II treaty promises of non-interference - they were nonetheless controlled from Moscow as much as any of the others. These included Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania - and, for a brief time, Yugoslavia and Albania. (More on the special status of these two nations later in this post.) Together with the Soviet states, these nations were all then part of what was called the "Eastern Bloc." For these nations, the ordeal of Soviet occupation began during - and in some cases, after - World War II, and the long nightmare of "no peace" would be followed by the even longer nightmare of no freedom. It is these nations that I will focus on here, since their distance from the center of Soviet power encouraged them to attempt more revolts against the communist occupation - revolts that (unfortunately), before 1989, did not succeed.


Border changes in the Eastern Bloc, from 1938 to 1948

Monday, August 6, 2018

Why dropping the bombs on Japan was the RIGHT thing to do



“We the undersigned, acting by authority of the German High Command, hereby surrender unconditionally to the Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force and simultaneously to the Supreme High Command of the Red Army all forces on land, at sea, and in the air who are at this date under German control.”

“Act of Military Surrender Signed at Berlin,” on 8 May 1945

Nazi Germany had just surrendered, but the war in the Pacific continued in full force …

In May 1945, Nazi Germany finally surrendered to the Allies. It was a day of great rejoicing, and the Allies had cause to rejoice at that time. But the Second World War was not yet over, because there was another conflict going on in the Pacific. That conflict was with Japan; and it continued to produce American losses as a great battle raged at Okinawa. My grandfather was fighting there at Okinawa, and he was among a number who were psychologically scarred by the experience. Others were physically scarred, and others were sent home in coffins, never to be heard from again (or seen alive again). Okinawan civilians jumped off cliffs at this time, in the “certain” knowledge that they would be mistreated by the Americans. The few survivors were glad to find out that the Americans were much nicer than the Japanese propaganda films portrayed them to be; but many a Japanese soldier preferred suicide to surrender, and actually committed suicide at this time. If we had been forced to invade the Japanese home islands, it seems that this scenario would have been repeated time and time again, with the same grim costs in human life. Such was the wisdom of instead bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


US Marines pass a dead Japanese soldier in a destroyed village - Okinawa, April 1945

Saturday, July 21, 2018

A review of “Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites” (PBS Empires)



“And David perceived that the LORD had confirmed him king over Israel, for his kingdom was lifted up on high, because of his people Israel.”

- The Hebrew Bible, “The First Book of the Chronicles,” Chapter 14, Verse 2 (as translated by the King James Version of the Bible)

The title of this documentary is only partially correct – it's not about the “Kingdom of David”

The title of this documentary is only partially correct. This is indeed “The Saga of the Israelites,” but it actually has very little coverage of the “Kingdom of David” itself (although it's still a great documentary despite this). It is actually a documentary on a different topic, and has a broader focus than the brief “Kingdom of David.” It instead covers a much broader period of history, including Judaism's clashes with the Greeks and Romans. If you go into this documentary expecting its title to be accurate, you may thus be somewhat disappointed. But this documentary has much to offer despite these things, and covers some history that you may not have heard about. A few Americans will have already heard these stories, I think, but I suspect that most have not; and I was definitely in this category before watching this. I think I can recommend this documentary to everyone – both Jews and Gentiles.



Monday, July 16, 2018

Bedtime stories about Armageddon: The lessons of the Cold War about nuclear weapons



“I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture … 'And I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Julius Robert Oppenheimer, speaking of the “Trinity” explosion (1945), the first nuclear detonation

The Americans were the first to acquire (and later use) nuclear weapons

In July 1945, the world's first nuclear detonation went off in the American state of New Mexico. The explosion was in the desert near Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range. (This area is now part of White Sands Missile Range.) This was near the end of World War II, and the Cold War had not yet begun at this time. But it would have massive importance in the coming struggle with Soviet Russia. In August 1945, the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which would have an even greater effect on the coming conflict. The frightening effects of these two bombs would haunt the world throughout the Cold War, as a chilling warning of what would happen if they were on the receiving end of a nuclear attack. Indeed, the nuclear weapons first introduced in 1945 were the most important aspect of the global confrontation now known as the “Cold War.” It is the biggest reason why the two major superpowers – which were the United States and the Soviet Union – did not directly engage each other in open conflict on a battlefield, except on a few rare occasions (which I will not elaborate on here).


“Trinity” explosion - New Mexico, United States (16 July 1945)

Why is it called the “Cold War,” when there were so many “hot wars” within it?

The reason that we call it the “Cold War” is that most of the time, the conflict did not involve actual shooting; which would be more characteristic of a “hot war.” Instead, it was usually just a “cold war” with the threat of a nuclear holocaust – although there were some notable exceptions where actual shooting occurred. (Such as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan; which were all part of the larger “Cold War.”) This post will not attempt to cover these “hot wars” within the Cold War, and it will not attempt anything like an overview of this massive worldwide conflict. Rather, it will focus on the most important aspect of it, which is nuclear weapons. (Although if you're interested in the other parts of the Cold War, I cover some of them elsewhere on this blog here, for anyone that is interested.) Despite the problems caused by nuclear weapons since their first introduction in 1945, it is well that the Americans (and the free world generally) got this technology before the Nazis or the communists did, sine the prospect of these regimes getting the bomb first would have been chilling indeed. (And the Nazis almost did get it before the Americans did.)


Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions, 6 and 9 August 1945

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Blackstone quoted in Federalist Papers: The influence of Blackstone's “Commentaries”



"The observations of the judicious Blackstone,1 in reference to the latter; are well worthy of recital: 'To bereave a man of life,' says he, 'or by violence to confiscate his estate, without accusation or trial, would be so gross and notorious an act of despotism, as must at once convey the alarm of tyranny throughout the whole nation; but confinement of the person, by secretly hurrying him to jail, where his sufferings are unknown or forgotten, is a less public, a less striking, and therefore A MORE DANGEROUS ENGINE of arbitrary government.' And as a remedy for this fatal evil he is everywhere peculiarly emphatical in his encomiums on the habeas-corpus act, which in one place he calls 'the BULWARK of the British Constitution.'2"

- Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist Papers (Federalist No. 84)

Blackstone was on the other side of the Revolutionary War from our Founding Fathers ...

When the United States declared independence from Britain, it was not breaking with its British heritage to the degree that you might have expected then. The Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, and the English Bill of Rights remained influential in the thirteen states, you see. Ironically, one of the prior philosophers that most influenced our Founding Fathers was on the other side of the Revolutionary War from them, and he remained loyal to the British side even until his death in 1780 (five years into the War of Independence which had not yet ended). He had once received the patronage of Prince George, I might add here, who later became "King George III" - the nemesis of the Revolution.


William Blackstone

... but his name still appears in the Federalist Papers no less than five times

The great philosopher was William Blackstone (of Blackstone's "Commentaries"), and he wrote his "Commentaries on the Laws of England" in 1765 - ten years before the first shots of the Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord. (The four volumes of Blackstone's "Commentaries" were virtually required reading for students of the law in English-speaking countries. They thus had a powerful influence on these countries' legal traditions, and they were sometimes the only law books that lawyers on the frontier could read. In a young republic without a long-standing legal tradition of its own, they were the most influential description of the laws of the mother country.) Mr. Blackstone was a powerful influence on the Founding Fathers even despite his being on the other side of the war from them, I might note here, and his name actually appears in the Federalist Papers no less than five times. He continues to be quoted in Supreme Court decisions in America, and he influenced several generations on the American frontier (including a country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln). But it is his influence on the founding of our country - and specifically, on the writers of the Federalist Papers - that I will be discussing here.

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