May 19th 1848: Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

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The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

 

On this day in 1848 Mexico ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, thus ending the Mexican-American War. The war broke out in 1846 after the United States, as a last act of outgoing President John Tyler, annexed Texas from Mexico in 1845. Texas was Mexican territory but had declared itself independent in 1836 and requested to join the United States. The American debate over Texas revolved mostly around the slavery issue, as the admission of Texas (a slaveholding region) to the Union would once again flare sectional tensions over the divisive issue of slavery in the United States. The annexation heightened tensions between Mexico and the United States, and war eventually broke out in 1846 when a Mexican cavalry unit killed some American soldiers. The war lasted for almost two years, ending with a resounding victory for the United States.

 

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The Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War

 

 

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the war but also provided for the sale of a huge portion of Mexican land to America – the ‘Mexican Cession’ – for $15 million. This new area of land encompassed modern California, Nevada, Utah, much of Arizona and New Mexico and small parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Many Americans, especially the Democratic administration of James K. Polk, celebrated the expansion of America to the Pacific coast. However the acquisition raised further problems over the slavery issue which were eventually settled by the controversial Compromise of 1850, often considered a mere armistice which eventually led the nation into civil war. In fact, one historian (Gary Kornblith) has argued that no Mexican War, no Civil War. He pinpoints the ‘point of no return’ as the expansionist Polk’s election in 1844 over the more moderate Whig Henry Clay. Without this popular endorsement of Manifest Destiny – the idea that America’s destiny is to expand across the continent – Tyler would have been unable to push annexation through Congress. There would thus have been no war, no Mexican Cession to debate slavery over, no Compromise of 1850 which enflared sectional tensions, and thus no secession and no war. It is an interesting argument and while many may disagree, shows just how important the Mexican War, and the treaty that ended it, is to American history.

 

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Map showing the Mexican Cession

 

“The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prescient warning over war with Mexico as it would incite the slavery debate

March 8th 1970: Hard Hat Riot

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A scene from the Hard Hat Riot

 

On this day in 1970 construction workers in New York City attacked a group of protestors. The latter group, made up of around 1,000 students and others, were anti-war protestors moved to action by the shootings at Kent State University four days before which resulted in the deaths of four protestors. Around two hundred of the so-called ‘hard hats’, who supported President Nixon’s policy in Vietnam, took to the streets in a counter-protest. They were particularly incensed by the mayor’s decision to keep the City Hall flags at half mast in honour of the Kent State victims, a move they considered unpatriotic. Around seventy people were injured in the riot, but only six were arrested in the aftermath. President Nixon didn’t directly endorse the actions of the hard-hats, but later was presented with a hard hat by a delegation of union leaders at the White House.

 

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Hard hats on a table after Nixon’s meeting with union groups

 

The often-forgotten event is frequently buried in the narrative of this period of American history as a time of liberal protests. However the Hard Hat Riot reminds us that there was considerable conservative opposition to these developments from people like these blue-collar New York workers. The 1960s and 1970s were not purely a story of liberal students finding a voice and successfully protesting for change. The the so-called ‘forgotten American’ – the blue collar, white, working class man – also played his part in the popular politics of the day. If we see this full picture of American public opinion, the rise of Reagan and the New Right becomes less surprising and instead we can see the long-term roots of the conservative tide, dissatisfied with the changes of the Great Society era.

May 7th 1954: Battle of Dien Bien Phu ends

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Viet Minh plant their flag on a captured French position

 

On this day in 1954, the decisive battle of the First Indochina War at Dien Bien Phu ended with a resounding victory for the Viet Minh. The war was fought between the colonial French powers and a group of Vietnamese soldiers led by communist Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese forces had been battling the colonial French since the aftermath of World War Two, with each side being funded by the opposing camps of the Cold War – the Vietnamese from China and France from the United States. The town of Dien Bien Phu lies near the Vietnamese/Laotian border and was a French stronghold for much of the war until it was besieged by Viet Minh communists. The communists were led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, who encircled the town with 40,000 men and heavy artillery. After a fifty-seven day siege, the French defense crumbled and the Viet Minh were victorious.

 

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French troops in the trenches

 

The decisive battle essentially ended the war, which led to the Geneva Conference to negotiate peace. The Conference, which was attended by most of the major world powers, resulted in the division of Vietnam along the 17th Parallel. It was this division which kept tensions alive between the communist North and US-backed South, which ended in war between the two and heavy US involvement to support the South. In 1975, after the US had retreated, the Southern capital of Saigon fell to the communists and the nation was once again united.

 

“The Viets are everywhere. The situation is very grave. The combat is confused and goes on all about. I feel the end is approaching, but we will fight to the finish
– Christian de Castries, French commander at Dien Bien Phu, in the last hours of the siege

60 years ago today

 

May 3rd 1855: Walker departs for Nicaragua

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William Walker (1824 – 1860)

 

On this day in 1855 the American adventurer William Walker, with an entourage of around sixty men, left to conquer Nicaragua. Walker is well known for these ‘filibustering’ missions where private armies tried to claim Latin American countries for themselves and establish colonies. Prior to the Nicaragua expedition, the Tennessean travelled to Mexico with the intention of creating an American colony there. To attract supporters, Walker expounded the principles of Manifest Destiny – that American has a divine duty to expand across the continent – and appealed to those keen on the expansion of slavery. Walker’s mission to Mexico was ultimately unsuccessful and when he returned was put on trial for his illegal war but the sympathetic Southern jury took just eight minutes to acquit him. Spurred by this, Walker set his sights on Nicaragua, which was in the midst of a civil war; the Democratic government gave Walker permission to come support them. Upon arrival, the Walker group joined with local and foreign groups, boosting their numbers and allowing them to defeat the other side. Walker then took personal control of Nicaragua, declaring himself President in 1856; his government was formally recognised by US President Franklin Pierce. He then began enacting his vision of a colony, reinstating slavery, making English the official language and reorganising Nicaragua’s entire financial system. He faced military challenges from surrounding countries, including Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which feared conquest and succeeded in forcing Walker to flee. Before they fled, Walker’s generals had the ancient capital of Granada burned, where they left the words ‘Here was Granada’. Walker died soon after, in 1860, when he was executed by Honduran authorities.

 

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Map of Walker’s operation in Nicaragua (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Walker_Nicaragua_map.JPG)

The filibustering missions of antebellum America played a key role in the world to civil war. If one agrees with the basic assumption that the American Civil War was primarily fought over the expansion of slavery, you can see how these attempts by Southern adventurers to expand slavery south into Latin America would have alarmed the anti-slavery North. Southerners felt that the institution that was so integral to their economy and way of life was under threat, and in danger of becoming increasingly isolated in the Southern states; a ‘peculiar institution’ which would soon die out. They thus fought to expand slavery into the Western territories and even into Central America. At the same time that William Walker was seizing control of Nicaragua, a bloody civil war was taking place on the border of Missouri and the Kansas territory, as settlers fought amongst themselves over whether Kansas would ultimately be a slave or a free state. To Northerners, the filibustering missions represented another ploy by the Southern Slave Power who conspired to spread their evil institution throughout the American continent.

April 29th 1945: Hitler marries Eva Braun

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Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun

 

On this day in 1945, as Germany’s defeat in the Second World War became imminent, Adolf Hitler married his lover Eva Braun; the two committed suicide the next day. Hitler’s National Socialist Party, more commonly referred to as Nazis, came to power in 1933 with Hitler as Chancellor. He immediately set about consolidating his power and establishing a dictatorship in Germany, making himself Führer. An ardent nationalist, Hitler targeted groups he considered a threat to Germany, including Jews, communists, gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled. His regime committed atrocities on an unprecedented scale; the Holocaust saw the deaths of six million Jews and World War Two, which Hitler’s aggressive foreign policy precipitated, was the most destructive war in history. Hitler’s relationship with Eva Braun predated his rise to power, but they never married as Hitler feared it would damage his image. Their relationship was thus kept quiet, but was nonetheless apparently affectionate. Hitler was one of the greatest monsters history has ever seen but he was still a human, and Eva Braun has therefore been an object of fascination since the extent of their relationship was realised after the war.

 

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Exterior of the Führerbunker in Berlin, where the wedding and following suicide took place (source: http://www.ww2incolor.com/german_leadership/FB2.html)

 

At the end of the war, as the Allied forces moved on Berlin and defeat seemed all but certain, Hitler (along with some of his advisers and Braun herself) relocated to the Führerbunker. In the early hours of the morning on April 29th 1945 the pair got married in a small civil ceremony in the bunker, the culmination of a relationship that had lasted over ten years. The newlyweds hosted a modest wedding breakfast, attended by the bunker’s fellow residents such as Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and promptly made their wills. The next day, April 30th 1945, the couple committed suicide together, with Braun ingesting a cyanide capsule and Hitler shooting himself. In one fell swoop their love affair was over, as was Hitler’s brutal dictatorship and the war that had plagued Europe since 1939.

 

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Newspapers herald the news of the Führer’s death

 

“From our first meeting I swore to follow you anywhere even unto death. I live only for your love”
– Eva Braun in a letter to Hitler, after the July 1944 attempt on his life

April 25th 1945: Elbe Day

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East meets West at the Elbe

 

On this day in 1945, during the Second World War, Soviet and American troops met at the River Elbe in Germany – the day is now known as Elbe Day. The event was a momentous show of unity of the Allied Powers as the war drew to a close while the Allies advanced towards Berlin. The first contact was between an American delegation led by First Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue of the 3rd Battalion, 273rd Infantry, 69th Infantry Division, who took his men across the river and were greeted by Russian Lt Col Alexander Gardiev, Commander of the 175th Rifle Regiment of the 58th Guards Division, 34th Corps. The two groups agreed on a formal handshake to be photographed the next day.

 

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Official, staged, picture commemorating the meeting on the Elbe. 2nd Lieutenant William Robertson (US) and Lt. Alexander Sylvashko (USSR) shake hands

 

Each side commended the other, with Moscow holding a gun salute and US General Omar Bradley praising the Soviet success in pushing the Germans back from Russia. A few days after the Elbe meeting, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler committed suicide and Germany soon surrendered – the war was finally over.

 

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Two soldiers pose during Elbe Day

 

“We meet in true and victorious comradeship and with inflexible resolve to fulfil our purpose and our duty. Let all march forward upon the foe.”
– British Prime Minister Winston Churchill

“This is not the hour of final victory in Europe, but the hour draws near, the hour for which all the American people, all the British people and all the Soviet people have toiled and prayed so long.”
– US President Harry Truman

“Our task and our duty are to complete the destruction of the enemy to force him to lay down his arms and surrender unconditionally. The Red Army will fulfill to the end this task and this duty to our people and to all freedom-loving peoples.”
– Soviet leader Joseph Stalin

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British newspapers celebrated the news of the end of the war in Europe – May 8th 1945

 

Elbe Day became a powerful symbol of unity between the East and the West as post-war relations between the former allies soured and descended into Cold War. Those who opposed the conflict between the communist and capitalist blocs (led by the Soviet Union and United States respectively), used this event as a reminder that both sides are just human, and do have the capacity to co-exist peacefully. If the ‘spirit of the Elbe’ persisted, the 1950s and 60s need not have been characterised by constant fear of nuclear annihilation by an ideological opponent, and perhaps even the bloodshed of proxy wars like Korea and Vietnam could have been avoided. Like the German and British troops playing football together on No Man’s Land on Christmas Day during World War One, Elbe Day is a potent reminder that humanity is inclined towards peace; what unites us is more powerful than what divides us.

April 12th 1861: Firing on Fort Sumter

 

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The attack on Fort Sumter, April 12th 1861 (source: http://www.civilwar.org/photos/galleries/fort-sumter/battle-of-fort-sumter.html)

 

On this day in 1861, the American Civil War began when the first shots were fired upon Fort Sumter. Several Southern states had already seceded from the United States when this conflict occurred. The Southern slaveholding states had long been at odds with the anti-slavery agenda of the North, but secession was immediately preciptated by the election of anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860.

 

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Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)

 

Fort Sumter was a Union base in South Carolina, which was the first state to secede and thus its government demanded Union forces leave their state. The moment the siege became a battle and the fort was fired upon by Confederate forces, it seemed clear to all that civil war had begun. No one was killed in the conflict, perhaps a false omen that the civil war which became the bloodiest in American history would not be a costly one. The Union forces at the fort eventually surrendered, thus making it a victory for the Confederates. In the aftermath of the struggle each side called for troops and war soon broke out in full force. The American Civil War saw the defeat of the Southern secessionists and the end of slavery – the ‘peculiar institution’ – in the United States.

 

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Commemorative stamp marking the centenary of the Battle of Fort Sumter

 

I recently – for my university module on the origins of the Civil War – wrote an essay about ‘the start of the war’. It was an interesting exercise as it gave me the opportunity to look beyond the traditional start date of April 12th 1861. My paper focused on the ‘Bleeding Kansas’ struggle of 1856 when pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers rushed to claim Kansas for themselves which resulted in violence. However this was but one event on the long road to civil war, and some historians would point even further back to other points where war was inevitable. Some argue that at the nation’s founding, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution contained such fundamental hypocrises over the slavery issue, conflict over the institution was bound to happen. The Declaration proclaimed all men are created equal while the Constitution claimed slaves as being worth 3/5 of a human being. This so-called ‘fundamentalist’ work is very interesting to read but personally I believe war was not inevitable until Fort Sumter.  The contradictions of 1776 and the years after, and the repeated conflicts like over Texas annexation, Bleeding Kansas, and the Wilmot Proviso all contributed to the war that began in 1861; but antebellum American history is no grand teleological narrative of the road to civil war. The American Civil War only began where there were no other options – the Confederacy had used military force on Union soldiers and there was no other recourse but total war.

April 2nd 1982: Argentina invades the Falkland Islands

Hi everyone, sorry there was no post yesterday! I had two coursework essays to hand in today so just didn’t have the time. Anyway, here’s the post for today

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British soldiers during the invasion

On this day in 1982,  Argentine forces landed on the Falkland Islands and occupied the area, which marked the beginning of the Falklands War. The war was the product of long tensions over who possessed the islands, with Argentina claiming ownership and Britain seeing the islands as British territory. Argentine forces landed on the islands and fought the British Royal Marines at Government House, leading to British surrender and thus Argentina seizing control of the Falklands. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded by sending a naval task force to attack the Argentinians. The conflict killed 649 Argentinians, 255 Britons and three Falkland Islanders, even though it only lasted 74 days. The war ended with Argentine surrender on 14th June, thus returning the islands to Britain.

 

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Argentinian forces sink the British HMS Sheffield

The Falklands War was one of the many events that brewed discontent in Britain under Thatcher. Many considered the war unnecessary, and criticised her decision to sink the Argentine ship the ‘Belgrano’ after they retaliated with an attack on the British HMS Sheffield. Too many people were dying over some seemingly insignificant islands. The discontent in Britain at this time is excellently portrayed in the film ‘This is England’ which follows a young boy who lost his father in the way and gets taken in by a gang of white supremacist skinheads. Definitely worth a watch!

 

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Newsweek headline of 19th April 1982

 

 

March 28th 1854: Britain and France declare war on Russia

 

On this day in 1854 in a pivotal moment of the Crimean War, Britain and France declared war on Russia. This conflict originated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars when Europe tried to rebuild and ensure future stability. One of the concerns was the crumbling Ottoman-Turkish empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The Russians planned to carve up the European part of Turkey, but Turkey objected and eventually declared war. The war was also prompted by debates over the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, which was under Ottoman control. Britain and France, each with their own interests in the preservation of the Ottoman regime, also joined the war when Russian troops failed to withdraw from the Russo-Turkish border. The allies decided to land in the Crimea to assault the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in order to gain the Black Sea.

 

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Lithograph by William Simpson showing the conditions of sick and wounded during Crimean War. Florence Nightingale became famous for her nursing work during this war (source: Wikipedia)

 

The siege took far longer than expected, and made Crimea the primary front of the war. The Crimean war was characterised by poor military leadership on both sides and a failure to adapt tactics to modern weaponry. The Battle of Balaclava in October saw the infamous British ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a frontal assault against Russian artillery. Eventually Sevastopol fell, the Russians were defeated, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in March 1856.

 

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Map of the Black Sea area during the Crimean War (source: http://www.emersonkent.com/map_archive/crimean_war_1853.htm; credit: University of Texas at Austin. From Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912)

 

 

On the 160th anniversary of this event, the Crimean War has never seen so significant. Once considered an oddity, a blip, the war no-one remembers from history class, now it is all anyone can talk about. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which until recently was an autonomous region of Ukraine, has sparked international tensions reminiscent of the Cold War era. The United Nations has recently declared illegal the vote Crimea took in favour of joining Russia, fuelling claims that the election results are suspicious, especially as Russia had troops stationed in the area. Russia has received international condemnation for the action, with many states claiming they have violated international law by invading a sovereign state. The G8 leaders have become the G7, suspending the summit which was planned to take place in Russia and shunning their once peer. The whole situation carries disturbing memories of the Cold War, with the Western and Eastern blocs watching each other warily as each expands their sphere of influence. The Crimea crisis is still developing, and it is a prime example of when understanding of the history is key to understanding the present.

March 19th 1945: Hitler’s ‘Nero Decree’

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Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945)

On this day in 1945, Chancellor of Germany Adolf Hitler issued his ‘Demolitions on Reich Territory Decree’. This action came towards the end of World War Two as the Allied forces led by the Soviet Union, United States and United Kingdom, made further advances into Germany. One of the last actions of his dictatorship, this decree called for the destruction of German infrastructure in order to impede the Allied advance; Hitler intended for the enemy to find only ‘scorched earth’. Due to Hitler’s readiness to sacrifice Germany in order to put up obstacles for the Allies, this action was compared to the infamous Roman Emperor Nero who supposedly orchestrated the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD.

 

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Emperor Nero (37 – 68)

Some have suggested Hitler intended for the German population to be destroyed as punishment for losing the war, and to ensure there would be no Germany after National Socialism. The decree was, luckily for Germany, not implemented by his disillusioned subordinates. Hitler was unable to enforce it, as he was soon confined to his bunker and killed himself just 42 days after issuing the Nero Decree. It was the last act of a desperate man, and shows his willingness to destroy the Germany he supposedly loved. The comparison to a Roman emperor is interesting. Rome has typically been invoked as a hallmark of civilisation, and empires throughout history have liked to compare themselves to the ancients. The British Empire, modern America, and dictatorial regimes like Nazi Germany have all made comparisons to Rome. However, it is unlikely Hitler would have been pleased with being likened to one of the most infamous and megalomaniacal emperors.