Friday, December 15, 2017

Rights to fair trial: Restraints on the power of the police and the president



"A person charged in any state with treason, felony, or other crime, who shall flee justice, and be found in another state, shall, on demand of the executive authority of the state from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the state having jurisdiction of the crime."

Article 4, Section 2, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution


Headquarters of the United States Department of Justice, or "DOJ"

Although the president enforces the laws, they can't punish people without the courts ...

In our Constitution, it says that the president "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and shall commission all the officers of the United States" (Source: Article 2, Section 3). This includes prosecutors and police officers, I should note here. Many of these laws to be "faithfully executed" authorize particular punishments for various actions, I should further note, from fines to imprisonment to being executed (depending on the seriousness of the offense, as perceived by the Congress). If the president had carte blanche to enforce these laws passed by Congress, with no limits to this power, he could carry out these punishments anytime he said these laws were violated - or even at times when they were not. (If, that is, there were no judicial branch to check this power, and require him to prove that these violations actually happened as he claimed they did.) Thus the Constitution created a judicial branch that was as independent as possible from the President and the Congress, so that no one group would possess the power to enforce these laws at their own whim or fancy. This is one of the real bulwarks of our Constitution, and is one of the true guarantees of our liberties. Thus, I wish to spend some time on it in this post, and educate us all about our constitutional rights as American citizens - particularly those found in the Bill of Rights.


Supreme Court of the United States

... so the very existence of the court system is itself a check on the presidency

Specifically, the Constitution said that "The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may, from time to time, ordain and establish. The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behaviour, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office." (Source: Article 3, Section 1) The courts have a certain power to strike down laws passed by the Congress, I should note here, which is another important power that I should note (at least in passing) before moving on to my main topic, which is judicial restraints on the president and the police force. (I discuss striking down laws in some detail in one of my other blog posts, if you're interested in that subject. This post, by contrast, will be more focused on the Bill of Rights, and on the judicial checks on the executive branch.)


U. S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (an influential appeals court) - Pasadena, California

Rights of the accused: The balance between individual protections and criminal justice



"The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law."

Coffin et al v. United States (1895), the Supreme Court case which codified the presumption of innocence for people accused of crimes

People are innocent until proven guilty, and do not have to "prove" their innocence

There's a saying in America that is often quoted in these contexts, which is that people are "innocent until proven guilty." This saying is so familiar to Americans that we often take it for granted, I think, and we may not always realize how rare it is in the world to have this kind of default assumption. In this country, the burden of proof is on the prosecution - or in civil cases, the "plaintiff" - rather than the defendant, and the defendant is not even required to open his or her mouth to "prove" his or her own innocence. This is not written explicitly into our Constitution, I should note here, but it is implied by a number of amendments, and was codified by the Supreme Court case quoted above. When a person really is guilty of a crime (as sometimes happens), this can make it somewhat difficult to bring criminals to justice; and the police force and prosecutors have to possess a high degree of skill to provide the necessary proof of these actions. But if these protections are not in place (and many countries don't have them), then innocent people are vulnerable to an arbitrary tyranny that can punish them at will; and there are few things Americans fear more than an absolute government with unlimited power. Thus, there must be a balancing act in any free country between individual protections and criminal justice, where the people are protected against both unlimited government and violent criminals; and it might be helpful to go over some of these constitutional protections from our Bill of Rights.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The First Amendment: Protecting religion from government (and not the other way around)



"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."

- Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association, on January 1, 1802

The most hotly debated sentence in American history

The Constitution has many passages in it that are hotly debated today, and these debates will likely continue for years to come. But if I were asked what is the most hotly debated sentence in American history, my vote might well go to this one: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." (Source: First Amendment) This is the Constitution's famous First Amendment, and it is indeed the first of the ten amendments that make up our modern "Bill of Rights." It would also seem to be the first thing that the people of that time wanted to include when they endeavored to list various "rights" in the Constitution via the Bill of Rights, and so one might surmise that these rights need to be understood today by the people who live here.


Thomas Jefferson

Establishment of religion, or "prohibiting the free exercise thereof"

The very first thing that this amendment mentions, I should acknowledge here, is respecting an "establishment of religion." This clause has been sometimes associated with a famous phrase by the American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, which is "a wall of separation between Church and State." This is a phrase that rings loudly in the ears of atheists today, because of the persecution that they see from the Christian majority surrounding them. Indeed, atheists love to remind society that so many Founding Fathers were actually Deists (rather than Christians), and that they were thus somewhat different from the "Christian majority" surrounding them (which they delight in pointing out often). But between the "establishment of religion" clause and the amendment's first semicolon is one other important phrase - and only one other phrase - which is the part forbidding government from "prohibiting the free exercise" of their religion. This clause has long been associated with the phrase "freedom of religion," which is a phrase that rings loudly in the ears of Christians in the same way; and which is similarly revered as sacred.


United States Bill of Rights

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The difference between a democracy and a republic



"The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union, a republican form of government ... "

Article 4, Section 4 of the United States Constitution

Is there a difference between a "democracy" and a "republic"?

The meaning of words tends to change over time, and the words "democracy" and "republic" are no different in this respect. For example, if you were to ask Americans on the streets today whether there's a difference between the two words, many would reply that they are the same (or, at least, close to the same), and some dictionaries even define them as synonymous today. Among them is the website of Princeton University, which offers multiple definitions for each word. One of these definitions is even the same for both words, and their website lists the two words as accepted synonyms for each other in this context. Their shared definition, in case you're wondering, is that they are "a political system in which the supreme power lies in a body of citizens who can elect people to represent them" (Source: entry on "democracy" and entry on "republic") The contemporary use of these words is thus somewhat interchangeable, and the common meaning of these words would admit few (if any) distinctions between them.


James Madison

The Founding Fathers thought there actually was ...

Yet there is a historical distinction between the two that our Founding Fathers recognized, and one of them even offered these definitions explicitly in the Federalist Papers. These definitions show a distinction between the two in the mind of this particular Founding Father. The Founding Father was James Madison, and he essentially said that a democracy was a direct democracy - or in other words, where people vote on everything directly in person. His phrase for a direct democracy was a "pure democracy," and he defined it as "a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person" (Source: Federalist No. 10). A good example of this system might be Ancient Athens, the most successful city-state within the lost world of Ancient Greece. Madison's definition of a republic, by contrast, was that it was "a government in which the scheme of representation takes place" (Source: Federalist No. 10). In other words, he said, the definition of a republic is where the people elect others to make those decisions for them. Which is better, you might ask? Are there greater dangers in delegating these powers to our elected representatives, or do the greatest dangers come from other sources, like the "tyranny of the majority"?


James Madison

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Constitution has a backup plan for virtually everything



"In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve upon the Vice President, and the Congress may by law provide for the case of removal, death, resignation, or inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what officer shall then act as President, and such officer shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a President be elected."

- Article 2, Section 1, Paragraph 5 of the Constitution (which was partially changed by constitutional amendments, as I will describe later here)

The true test of a country is how it handles emergencies ...

The Constitution is well-equipped to handle the routine and the mundane, and the periods of relative stability that have marked most of this country's history. But this country's Constitution is also well-equipped to handle periods of chaos and instability where elected officials die, or resign, or become otherwise ineligible through disability. The true test of a country is sometimes found in how it handles these contingencies, and the other emergencies that it can face in its history. Thus, the Constitution has a number of backup plans about how to deal with these things; and some of them come from the original Constitution itself, and the clauses related to the succession of presidents and other elected officials. But other backup plans come from the amendments that were made since that time; and a review of these things might thus be helpful here, to show how the Constitution handles these unusual emergency situations.


White House

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Reagan and “Star Wars”: Bringing the fall of the Wall and the end of the Cold War



"Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate ... Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

- President Ronald Reagan, standing at Brandenburg Gate on 12 June 1987

Two rival superpowers with nuclear weapons

People in my generation may not always be aware of it today, but the world was afraid of a nuclear war for over forty years of the last century. It was called the "Cold War," for those who don't know, and the scariest thing about it was that this nuclear holocaust could actually happen. Two superpowers had nuclear weapons, you see - which were, of course, the United States and the Soviet Union - and these two superpowers disliked and distrusted each other greatly.


Berlin Wall, 1986

An eerie description of the Cold War from a previous century

The words of a philosopher from 300 years ago could be seen as an accurate description of this twentieth-century conflict, and an eerie one at that. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that "persons of sovereign authority [or in this case, nations] ... [are] in the state and posture of gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns upon the frontiers of their [nations]; and continual spies on their neighbors; which is a posture of war." (Source: "Leviathan" [published 1651], Chapter XIII, the subsection entitled "The incommodities of such a war") Thus, in many important ways, Thomas Hobbes' timeless quotation is an apt description of the Cold War.


Blockade (or "quarantine") of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Constitution keeps our elected officials on a short leash



"Before he [the president] enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation: I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

- Article 2, Section 1, Paragraph 7 of the Constitution

Politicians: The problem of every society ...

Virtually every nation in the world resents politicians, I think, even if they don't have the freedom to say so openly. The ones who can, do so often, as a group; and they are filled with resentment of incompetence and corrupt leadership. They tend to care deeply about who can hold political office, about the laws that they are required to follow, and even about what times the people can vote on the next batch of them in elections. They watch their legislatures carefully, and are suspicious of all attempts to keep something secret from the public. They pay close attention to how many tax dollars go to supporting the bureaucracy, and monitor the public records of these things that the Constitution requires. Americans may pay especially close attention to how much money goes to supporting the only federal institution that can determine its own salary - Congress. These issues are often touchy ones for Americans, and can bring more than one sharp word from many a suspicious American. Thus, some comments might be appropriate here about what the Constitution says on these subjects. There are a number of solutions therein for these kinds of problems.


Constitution of the United States

Friday, October 27, 2017

“Publius”: The secret pen name of three Founding Fathers



"As the perusal of the political papers under the signature of Publius has afforded me great satisfaction, I shall certainly consider them as claiming a most distinguished place in my library. I have read every performance which has been printed on one side or the other of the great question lately agitated (so far as I have been able to obtain them) and, without an unmeaning compliment, I will say that I have seen no other so well calculated (in my judgment) to produce conviction on an unbiased mind, as the Production of your Triumvirate. When the transient circumstances & fugitive performances which attended this crisis shall have disappeared, that work will merit the notice of Posterity; because in it are candidly discussed the principles of freedom & the topics of government, which will be always interesting to mankind so long as they shall be connected in Civil Society."

- George Washington, in a letter to Alexander Hamilton (August 28, 1788)

It was common at this time for Americans to write under pen names named after great Romans

During the debates over whether or not to ratify the Constitution of the United States, authors on both sides of the debate wrote a series of anonymous "letters to the editor[s]" of newspapers under various pen names. There were advantages to writing these articles anonymously, of course, when one wished to say controversial things in these debates that could offend one's friends if they were known publicly. Among these authors were many who had actually named their alter egos after people in Roman history, whose accomplishments that they wished to invoke in their arguments. The Constitution's opponents, for example, included "Brutus" (possibly Melancton Smith or Robert Yates or even John Williams), and "Cato" (possibly New York governor George Clinton). These were both names of people who had opposed the Roman monarchy (or at least, a particular manifestation of that monarchy), which thus implied that they were opposed to a repeat of such monarchy in America.


George Clinton, a possible identity of the author that called himself "Cato"

Alexander Hamilton considered Gouverneur Morris and William Duer to write as "Publius"

The Constitution's supporters wrote under classical pen names, too; and theirs were equally indebted to Greek and Roman history. Alexander Hamilton made the unfortunate mistake once of using the pen name "Caesar," and the condescending tone that he used when writing under this pen name made him almost as many enemies as the ill-chosen pen name itself. When he finally learned his lesson (and it fortunately didn't take him long to learn it), he returned to another pen name that he had used before, which was the pen name of "Publius." (Hamilton's prior use of this pen name, incidentally, was to attack fellow Federalist Samuel Chase for using some inside knowledge from Congress to try and dominate the flour market. Specifically, Hamilton used three letters under this name to question Chase's patriotism in 1778.) When he began recruiting collaborators for the now-famous Federalist Papers in 1787, Hamilton apparently approached Gouverneur Morris and William Duer about becoming contributors, before finally setting on James Madison and John Jay instead. Gouverneur Morris apparently turned down the invitation to work on the "Publius" papers, and Hamilton actually rejected three essays later written by William Duer, despite having invited him to participate in the first place. (William Duer would later write under the alternate pen name of "Philo-Publius," or "Friend of Publius," instead.)


Gouverneur Morris, who turned down the opportunity to write a portion of the Federalist Papers


William Duer, who wrote three essays that Hamilton later rejected as part of the Federalist Papers

Monday, September 25, 2017

The amendment that never made it into the Bill of Rights



"The Senators and Representatives shall receive a compensation for their services, to be ascertained by law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States."

- Article 1, Section 6, Paragraph 1 of the original Constitution

The Bill of Rights was the first ten amendments to the Constitution ...

So most people in this country today have heard of the Bill of Rights, and how it consisted of the first ten amendments to the Constitution - although many who once knew this have since forgotten in the years since they left high school. Here's the part of the story that your history classes might not have taught you, about the amendment that never made it into the Bill of Rights.


United States Bill of Rights

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A review of David Starkey's “Elizabeth”




Queen Elizabeth the First

The most powerful queen in English history

Elizabeth the First may well be the most powerful queen in English history, because she held actual political power in a way that most later queens of England did not. Victoria and Elizabeth the Second had their power limited by the British Constitution to a degree that Elizabeth the First did not. All of them had to contend with Parliament, it is true; but the monarchy still had real power in the years that we today call the "Elizabethan Era." This power was all the greater when the state religion was still under royal control. Just years before this, you see, the church had actually been under the control of the Vatican in faraway Rome. But her father's divorce from his Catholic wife had brought him the ire of the Catholic Church, and led to England's conversion to the new Protestant faith - a faith led by the monarch personally during the lifetime of Elizabeth.


King Henry the Eighth, Elizabeth's father

Monday, August 28, 2017

The First Amendment: Protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press



"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

- Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in a statement often misattributed to Voltaire (although the author rightly viewed this as an accurate paraphrase of Voltaire's sentiments)

The first thing many people think of about the Constitution

The Constitution is filled with passages that are of the utmost importance to this country, from separation of powers in the original Constitution to the Bill of Rights in the amendments. But if I were asked which passage may be the most important to the majority of Americans, my vote might well go to this part of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." (Source: First Amendment) This is the Constitution's famous First Amendment, and it is indeed the first of the ten amendments that make up our modern "Bill of Rights." It is also the first thing that most people think of when they talk about what's important to them in the Constitution, since the rights that we have are easier to visualize than abstract concepts of separation of powers and checks & balances. (Although these things are vitally important, too, as I detail in another post that I wrote elsewhere.)


United States Bill of Rights

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and the right to "petition the government"

The bedrock of American political life today may be the parts about freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These are both forms of a larger concept called "freedom of expression" - one in the spoken form, and the other in the written form. (Although I'm sure that sign language and other gestures would also be considered to be "freedom of speech" under this constitutional definition, and free expression on the Internet has long been held to be included under this amendment as well.) The right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances" is another specific form of this freedom of expression, which is usually written down on paper and other hardcopy material. But it is also sometimes found in the Internet form that I have mentioned as well; and it is well that this freedom of expression (in all of these forms) is protected by the First Amendment. It has been codified as a general principle in all political communication throughout this country - and other communication, for that matter.


Martin Luther King giving his "I Have A Dream" speech, 1963

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Impeachment is an important check even when it's not used



"Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office."

- President Richard Nixon, in the Oval Office at the White House, on August 8, 1974


Richard Nixon

Impeachment alone doesn't remove presidents ...

In the entire history of the United States, only two presidents have ever been impeached, which were Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon was never actually impeached by either house of Congress. He was, however, credibly threatened with it during the Watergate scandal, and thus forced to resign in this way. It takes both houses of Congress, you see, to remove a president from office. Thus, when the Senate refused to remove Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton during their impeachment trials, the fact that they had been impeached by the House of Representatives to start this process had only a symbolic value. They had to be convicted by the Senate after this to be actually removed from office.


Andrew Johnson


Bill Clinton

... although one president resigned under the threat of impeachment (and subsequent removal)

It is thus one of the ironies of presidential history that both of the impeachments of an American president in our history failed to remove their intended target, while the only president ever to be forced out of office did so only under threat of it. Besides making the point about how both houses of Congress have to be on board with this to pull off a successful removal (as with Nixon), there is one other point to be made here about the power of impeachment, which is that it doesn't have to be actually exercised to fulfill its intended purpose - the mere threat of it (when made credibly) is the only thing that has ever removed a president from office (so far, at least).


White House

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A review of PBS's “Henry Ford” movie



"A lot of guys have had a lot of fun joking about Henry Ford because he admitted one time that he didn't know history. He don't know it, but history will know him. He has made more history than his critics ever read."

- Will Rogers, comedian

An interesting anecdote about Henry Ford

During the lifetime of Henry Ford, a newspaper once called him an "ignorant anarchist" (or words to that effect), which would have been a fairly serious charge at that time. Henry Ford not only disputed this with considerable umbrage, but he sued the newspaper for libel and defamation, and managed to actually win the suit. When he was put on the stand during this trial, the opposition set out to prove his ignorance by asking him questions about his knowledge of history. Paraphrasing the conversation they had, the opposition asked: "Do you know anything about the Revolution?", and he said yes. "Do you know when it was?" "Yes," he said, "it was in 1812." The opposition seized on his error, and said: "Don't you know that there wasn't any revolution in 1812? Had you forgotten that this country was born in a revolution in 1776?" "Yes, I suppose I'd forgotten that." He was grilled with high school questions like this for several days, and his lack of formal education showed; but he won the libel suit anyway. The jury basically said that he might be ignorant, but he was no anarchist. More to the point, he actually became more of a folk hero after the trial than before, seeming more like a common man, and gaining the admiration of millions.


Henry Ford

There are many ways to be intelligent

Henry Ford may not have known anything about history, and I obviously would not agree with him when he said that "History is more or less bunk" - I am, after all, a history blogger, who has written about history extensively; and I am very invested in the importance of history. Nonetheless, I think that it would not be fair to call Henry Ford "ignorant," this man who knew so much about cars and business. When it came to machinery, assembly lines, and business generally; the man seems to have been a true genius; and if you'd talked to him about these things, you would have seen that he was a tremendously smart individual. But much like certain people I could name today (but won't at this time), this elitist newspaper had no respect for practical intelligence; and went out and praised thinkers to the exclusion of praising doers. The satisfying thing about this story was seeing their attacks on his education backfire on them - instead of permanently humiliating him, it created sympathy for him among the public. Suffice it to say that it was probably the least scandalous thing that anyone could have printed about him, and it had the opposite effect of making him a sort of folk hero - a humorous effect that must have been satisfying for Ford.


Henry Ford and Barney Oldfield with a racing automobile

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 on March 5, 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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Learning the basics of Ancient Greek from a book



It took me three and a half years to read this

For three and a half years, I have read C. A. E. Luschnig's "An Introduction to Ancient Greek: A Literary Approach," 2nd edition - some 280 pages of it. Specifically, I read it from 28 September 2013 through 13 May 2017, at which time I completely finished it. I did so completely from a book, and never had the benefit of a classroom, a professor, or a native speaker - or even a recording of one, for that matter! I've never heard so much as one hour of audio of the language, even from non-native speakers, and this made it somewhat daunting at times. It may have increased the difficulty level in at least some ways, and I don't recommend it to others unless other options are not available (as they were not for me). It was a long process that was sometimes tedious (though usually not at all so), but I'm nonetheless glad that I read it. It's given me access to the world of Ancient Greece, and may one day give me access to various parts of the Bible in the original.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

The conservative who liked philosophy



It's a funny thing about philosophy majors - none of them knew they wanted to major in it when they were kids. The reason is actually quite simple: With a few possible exceptions somewhere, none of them even knew what philosophy was when they were growing up. Even after graduating, many are hard-pressed to give you a good definition; because philosophers themselves argue about it until they're blue in the face (and I exaggerate only slightly). As kids, their confusion about it must be even greater.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A review of “A History of Japan” (by R. H. P. Mason & J. G. Caiger)



How did the Japanese become so successful?

This might seem a strange way to begin a blog post about Japan; but in the politics of Islamic terrorism, some have claimed that a Western-style democracy would not work in most Islamic countries, because their values and beliefs are so dramatically different from those found in the West. A liberal friend of mine in college made this argument to me; and I pointed out to him that people had once said the same thing about Japan - which was another culture where suicide was glorified for religious reasons, and used as a deliberate tactic in wartime. People in the West would not have predicted that Japan would modernize as well as it did; and yet it became one of the world's great economies, with its economic success deeply rooted in Western-style democracy and free-market capitalism. How did the Japanese become so successful, it might be asked; when countries in the Islamic world languish in such poverty, and even factional conflict?


Sunday, April 23, 2017

A review of Michael Wood's “Story of England”




Michael Wood, the series presenter

England is the dominant part of the United Kingdom today

Even a cursory look at the British population will show that the dominant part of the United Kingdom is England, since more than 80% of its people reside in England. (That's according to the country's last census in 2011.) The rest of them are often lumped together into the term "Celtic peoples"; which come from the Celtic regions of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each of these peoples has a long history of conflict with England, and the fact that they almost always speak English today (not to mention their smaller numbers, in comparison with the English) all testify to the degree that they were conquered by England. This is, of course, a major factor in British society today, and a painful situation for many a Celt.


Did prior series from the BBC cover English history too much (and Celtic history too little)?

It may have been England's predominance over internal British affairs that caused a prior series from the year 2000 - namely, Simon Schama's "A History of Britain" - to focus mainly on England in its political history, rather than to try to cover everything else in the British Isles. A number of Celts felt somewhat neglected by the larger Simon Schama history, and so the BBC made a few other series that focused more on Celtic history - such as Fergal Keane's "The Story of Ireland," Huw Edwards' "The Story of Wales," and Neil Oliver's "A History of Scotland". While these series may have served to pacify some of the Celtic audiences for the BBC, it is ironic that the BBC eventually decided to go back to English history (at least temporarily), and make another series about England - which is, of course, Michael Wood's "Story of England," the topic of this post.


King Henry VIII, the only person to be mentioned by name in an episode title

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

States' rights: The ongoing debate



"Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort."

- Article 3, Section 3, Paragraph 1 of the Constitution

States' rights was a major issue in the Civil War

In the 1860's, the United States fought a bloody civil war with itself, where 624,000 Americans (more than half a million people) died in a major rebellion. Slavery may have been the root cause of the Southern states' desire for secession, but the "states' rights" arguments were the ones they used to try and prove their legal right to do so - a "right" that they believed they were entitled to. Regardless of whether they were right or not (and I believe they weren't myself), they were symptoms of a deep-rooted debate within American society over states' rights, which had roots going back far before the Civil War and into the Constitutional Convention - perhaps even to the Declaration of Independence. States thought they had the right to nullify federal laws, and considered themselves as independent nations bound into a mere league of nations, rather than mere provinces of a larger nation. They saw the "United States of America" much like we see the "United Nations" - a collection of independent nations that work together when convenient, and which would never surrender their sovereignty when they work together.


Confederate dead at Antietam, 1862

People were willing to fight and die for their views on the subject

When the United States was no longer perceived to be useful to the Southern states, they believed they had the right to secede from it, and win that secession by bloodshed. The Northern states believed with equal fervor that they had no such right to secede, and were willing to suppress this by bloodshed. Thus both sides were willing to fight and die for their own view of states' rights, and a bitter civil war was fought partially over that divisive issue about the role of states. (Although I should acknowledge that there were other factors at work here, and there are other root causes of this war.) The debate continues in full force today (although without the "bloodshed" part), as we continue to define the role of states in the Union. Thus, a closer look at how "states' rights" works might be useful here; answering what responsibilities states have to each other, what rights they still retain at this time, and what advantages they derive from the Union in the 21st century.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A review of “The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization” (PBS Empires)



So I once read a book history of Ancient Greece, and I've even been learning the Ancient Greek language since 2013 (as some of you already know). I'm almost done reading my intro textbook on the subject, actually, and so I've spent many hours studying this topic over these past few years. (Update, 2017: I actually finished reading the intro textbook recently.) Nonetheless, I actually learned a lot from this three-hour TV program on this topic; since it is well-researched, well-presented, and it interviews the experts. I've gotten pretty deep into their culture already through these language exploits, but I nonetheless learned much from this documentary, and not just because it shows pictures of the actual places and artifacts from the time. (Although it does do plenty of that, and supplements my reading with the visuals.)


Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens

So how did I learn something from this, you might be asking? What was it that was so new to me that my textbooks hadn't shown me this information before? Why was it that I learned something from a medium that is usually brief, and occasionally superficial?


Greek statesman Cleisthenes

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Reflections on learning about history of Ancient Egypt



In 1799, one of Napoleon's soldiers discovered a mysterious stone in the Nile Delta, during the French campaigns into Egypt that year - a stone that would prove the key to Egyptology and its modern practice. The mysterious object was the Rosetta Stone, and it bore an inscription in three different languages - Egyptian hieroglyphics, a later form of the Egyptian language called "Demotic," and an ancient variety of Greek that was well-known already to Europeans. Although this soldier didn't know it then, this trilingual inscription would allow a young scholar named Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher the script when he reached adulthood, since he was only nine years old at the time that his fellow Frenchman discovered this.


The Rosetta Stone

The Napoleonic campaigns in general - and the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in particular - ignited a wave of true "Egyptomania" back in Europe, which grew into the modern discipline of Egyptology. Many great discoveries have been made in this area by archaeological digs at various sites, and some of these have uncovered information that was not known to anyone for centuries. Perhaps because of this, the discipline of Egyptology is sometimes considered a subfield of archaeology - a field broad enough to include sites from Greece to Rome to China to Central America. This classification points out that the excavations done in Egypt are just some of the many across the world that attract the attention of archaeologists; and there is truth in this claim. Nonetheless, the study of Egyptology encompasses more than just "digging in the dirt", and embraces written records as well; with languages whose grammar must be seriously studied and understood before a proper and complete history of the Egyptian past can be written. Thus, the Europeans classify Egyptology as a philological discipline (or in other words, a "linguistic" discipline); and the controversy over its classification continues today.


Monday, March 6, 2017

The complicated legacy of the “Three-Fifths Clause”



"Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons."

- Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution (later changed by constitutional amendments, as I will describe in detail later)

It appeared on the surface to be one kind of racism, but in reality was another ...

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A review of Ken Burns' “Jazz” (PBS series)



An opinion from a longtime fan and (amateur) musician ...

I should preface this review by saying that I am a longtime fan of jazz music, as well as a longtime fan of both history and the Ken Burns documentaries about it. I freely acknowledge that I am not an expert on music history (jazz or otherwise), and do not consider myself to be a true musician - much as I would like to call myself by this distinguished title. I have played piano for a long time, it is true, and I have played jazz (and other styles) by ear; but I am neither a professional musician nor particularly talented in my performance, and consider myself only an enthusiastic fan with a sometime musical hobby. That being said, I am entitled to my opinion about it as much as anyone else, and so offer this review to any who might enjoy it.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Japanese American soldiers in World War II




Japanese American children pledging allegiance to the United States in 1942, shortly before the internment started

Japanese American soldiers served with great distinction in World War II

Most Americans today have heard the story of Japanese American internment in World War II (at least in outline form), which was unquestionably one of the sadder episodes in this country's history (at least in the last century). But most Americans have not heard of the story of the Japanese American soldiers in World War II, who served with great distinction in the war. This is a part of the story that our schools have not told as well, and so I thought I'd venture to offer some coverage of it on my blog here. (This necessarily involves some background about the story of Japanese internment, I should note here; but I intend to focus this post on the military contributions of the Japanese American soldiers.)


"Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry," under Executive Order 9066

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A review of PBS's “The Gold Rush”



The California Gold Rush is one of those events that tends to have been heard of by the public, but is often overlooked by popular historians today for a number of reasons, among them that it is partially an economic story, and thus considered less "sexy" than the more "traditional" topics of politics and the military. Nonetheless, the Gold Rush is a monumental event in the history of America which had massive repercussions on the history of the West, causing the rapid colonization of California by White immigrants (and a handful of Chinese immigrants), and creating the ethnic mix that California is so known for today - since it is a race relations story as much as it is anything else, fraught with interest for anyone interested in American history. (But more on the particulars of that later.)


Sutter's Fort - California, 1849 (not to be confused with Sutter's Mill)

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