Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Chaos in Cuba: Communist revolution, Bay of Pigs, and a close call with nuclear disaster



Historians have dedicated much attention to the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early sixties, and for good reason - it was the time in our history when the world came closest to nuclear war, which was a dramatic event worthy of serious attention from both historians and the general public. Less visible, however, is the communist revolution that rocked Cuba during most of the fifties; and the "Bay of Pigs" incident that was fairly prominent in the minds of both sides during the later crisis. It is not often that these events are covered together, since any one of these things is a complex topic in its own right; but these events in Cuba would nonetheless seem to be linked together (at least somewhat); and by more than just their closeness in time and place. The common theme running through all of them would seem to be the great worldwide struggle known as the "Cold War" - a war that was fought in Cuba ferociously during these tumultuous times, and which had importance far beyond the island itself on more than one occasion.


Picture from the Cuban War of Independence, 1898

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A review of Alistair Cooke's “America: A Personal History of the United States”



" ... these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved ... "

- The American Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776)

The British writer George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have once told a joke about the relationship between Britain and America. "The United States and Great Britain," he said, "are two countries separated by a common language." We argue about how to spell words and how to pronounce them, I think, and the "common ground" between us can sometimes be a battleground. All kidding aside, though, there is something special about the relationship between our two countries; and our shared English language could just be the most obvious manifestation of this extreme closeness. In ways that we sometimes take for granted, I think, we understand each other's humor and share each other's values. Our love of democracy and liberty, furthermore, is a characteristic that is somewhat rare in the world; and though it is found abundantly in both countries, it is not often found elsewhere to the same degree.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt meets with Winston Churchill aboard the HMS Prince of Wales - Atlantic Charter, 1941

The divide between the Americans and the British

Our culture is much the same, I think, and our view of the world is identical in many ways. But there are some differences between us that cause us both to misunderstand the other at times. It is somewhat unfortunate that my fellow Americans, for example, sometimes see the British as stuffy and unemotional (perhaps even snobbish), while the British sometimes see Americans as unsophisticated rubes who can be impetuous (and even obnoxious). I suspect that these differences have their origins in the fact that our histories diverged somewhat after the American Revolution, when the colonies declared that "all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved" (in the words of our Declaration of Independence). Thus, we have some significant differences between us, it is true; but these differences are not insurmountable. Thus, the BBC made this series about the history of America in 1973. This series was hosted by the famed journalist Alistair Cooke. This series attempted to explain us Americans - and I am an American, as you may have guessed - to our valued brethren in Britain. Thus, it helped to bridge the occasional gap of misunderstanding that sometimes pops up between us. (Although the misunderstandings are still pretty minimal even without this, and we are still a common family that gets along well most of the time.)


Alistair Cooke, the series presenter

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A review of “Korea: The Forgotten War” (Timeless Media Group)



So I recently finished watching "Korea: The Forgotten War," which is a five-hour series from Timeless Media Group. (Not to be confused with other documentaries having the same title - there seems to be at least one other series with this name out there, which I have not seen.) This popular title is entirely correct, of course, that Korea is a "forgotten war"; but this title may be stretching it a little by calling it "the forgotten war." Many wars have been forgotten, I think; from Ancient Greece's "Peloponnesian War" to the Boer Wars in South Africa. (Many more, I think, will be forgotten in the future.) But there are worse features in a documentary than a little exaggeration for the purpose of creating interest, and this documentary has a number of redeeming features that help to compensate for this weakness. (It has many other weaknesses besides this title, to be sure; but with the dearth of media options on this topic, one hasn't the luxury of being picky about the storytelling quality.)


This series is best entered with low expectations

To be sure, the five-hour length of this documentary is part of what recommended it to me in the first place. After comparing many documentaries on the Korean War (and I searched the Internet for a number of them), I came to the conclusion that this was the longest one that I could find. (I am not aware, at least, of any others on this topic which have a comparable runtime; although if you know of any, I'd appreciate it if you left a comment below about it.) The filmmakers are to be commended for attempting to tell this story for television here, and the amount of time that they're willing to dedicate to this topic is a rarity in the world of documentaries, if not entirely unique. There are problems with this documentary, though, that necessitate going into it with somewhat lower expectations. This documentary doesn't have very high production values, for example, and the music leaves something to be desired. (It is a bit melodramatic at times, you see, and even anti-climactic.) The narration is not very well-written, either, and the delivery of the narrator doesn't really do anything for the series. Viewers used to the high production values of Ken Burns' "The Civil War" or the British series "The World at War" may find this series a disappointment in (at least some) ways.


Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Berlin Blockade: The first crisis after World War II



"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an IRON CURTAIN has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in some form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow."

- Winston Churchill, in his "Sinews of Peace" address, given in Fulton, Missouri in 1946

The wartime alliance against Nazi Germany

This might seem a strange way to begin a post about the Berlin Blockade, but politics makes for strange bedfellows. There are few bedfellows more strange, as it turns out, than the United States and Soviet Russia. During World War II, they had been allied (somewhat ironically) in the struggle against Nazi Germany. Now they distrusted each other greatly (although the distrust wasn't all that new, in the grand scheme of things), almost as much as they had distrusted their common enemy, the Nazis. After the war was over, you see, they were supposedly working together to undo Nazism; but the people of this time had reason to wonder if this was actually happening. The Soviets had made several promises in the postwar peace treaties that they were now breaking, and they weren't exactly tiny promises. They'd promised freedom to the several countries in Eastern Europe (which the Soviet troops were now occupying), and the Soviets pledged that they would "remove their troops soon." But there was a problem with this, since the troops were still there; and freedom wasn't exactly high on the Soviets' priority list.


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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A review of David Starkey's “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”



Warning: This post contains some mature themes in it. Although I have tried to discuss them tastefully, there's no way to take them out of this story - it's Henry the Eighth, after all.

The three things you're not supposed to talk about at a party (and they're all here)

It's been said that there are three things that one should not talk about at a party - sex, politics, and religion. The story of Henry the Eighth is, at once, about all of these things - a story that began as being about marriage and intimacy, but ended up as a story about state religion and world geopolitics. It changed England from a Catholic country to a Protestant country, and had massive repercussions for generations to come.


King Henry the Eighth

Friday, May 26, 2017

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A review of PBS's “Dolley Madison” movie



Most women who marry heads-of-state seem forever destined to languish in obscurity. They are usually known by those who study their husbands' lives, but few are ever fortunate enough to escape the shadows of their husbands. They seem relegated to some kind of second-class status in the history books, unfortunately, and the role that they play in the success of their husbands' administrations is too often forgotten by history. Dolley Madison is a fortunate exception to this pattern, and one surmises that if PBS did something about her life without a comparable film about her husband's life, they must consider her pretty important (and rightly so). Their neglect of her husband James Madison strikes one as somewhat strange, I must admit, since he is the Father of the Constitution and a prominent Founding Father. Nonetheless, it is fortunate that they did not treat his wife with the same neglect that they treated him, and there is enough in this film (I think) about both individuals to satisfy fans of either one.


Dolley Madison

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