Category Archives: History

These Are the Locals Who Get The Story of Charlottesville Right

Last Saturday evening, Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas held a press conference about the events that day that unfolded under his watch “We love our city,” he said in conclusion. “Let us heal. This is not our story. Outsiders do not tell our story.”

I was born and raised in Charlottesville. I attended and graduated from its public schools; I still live in the city and call it home. After a weekend in which the national media descended upon our downtown and broadcast the unfolding story with the nuance of a parade of elephants, Thomas’s sentiment was welcome. Aside from being heartbroken and outraged, I was tired. Tired of talking heads calling our town Charlotte, of “The South” appearing in print as some strange monolithic mystery region somewhere below Philadelphia, of factual errors confusing the city with adjacent poor and rural counties, of accusing fingers pointed without question at the police and the local government, of former UVA students who spent all of four years here weighing in as if experts, of a lack of context, a lack of understanding of the city as a specific place with a specific history at a specific moment in time.

Read more…

A Look Back at the 1939 Pro-Nazi Rally at Madison Square Garden and the Protesters Who Organized Against It

In late February 1939, roughly 22,000 people gathered at New York City’s Madison Square Garden for a rally, which included a 50-member drum and bugle corps and a color guard of more than 60 flags.

The event, which had been proposed the year before and—after much hand-wringing and debate—had been given the green light by NYC mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, drew scores of protesters and at least one thousand police officers which promised to turn the Garden into an “a fortress impregnable to anti-Nazis.”

What type of gathering would draw this much scrutiny and opposition? A pro-Nazi rally organized by the German American Bund, which festooned MSG’s interior with both American flags, swastika-bearing banners, and a thirty-plus foot high painting of George Washington. Also included were signs that read “Wake Up American. Smash Jewish Communism” and “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian Americans.”

The 1930s were a boon period for American supporters of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. A depressed work force coupled with little chance of upward mobility and an economy not yet on the rebound led to a majority that was fearful of their place in the world, and Hitler’s rhetoric added fuel to an already lit population.

In 1933, deputy fuhrer Rudolf Hess ordered Heinz Spanknobel, a German immigrant, to form Friends of New Germany, a group based in NYC, with the goal of spreading National Socialism throughout the United States. Though Spanknobel was eventually forced to leave the country—he had failed to register as a foreign agent—and his organization collapsed, the German American Bund, or Amerika-Deutscher Volksbund, emerged in the vacuum and coalesced FONG and the other American-based groups that supported the Reich.

According to historian Warren Grover, the German American Bund was “the largest and best-financed Nazi group operating in America,” financing youth summer camps and family retreats in states like New Jersey, Wisconsin, and California (among others) and espousing concepts of pan-Germanism and a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

A New York City mounted policeman outside Madison Square Garden during a pro-Nazi rally is shown attempting to take an American flag away from one of the demonstrators on Feb. 20, 1939. (AP Photo)

By the time of the rally at Madison Square Garden, the German American Bund had as many as 25,000 members nationwide. At that time, holding an event at the Garden and filling the cavernous space gave any group an air of legitimacy, and that’s what the leaders of the German-American Bund sought. “The Pro-American Rally” was scheduled to take place on George Washington’s birthday—the group considered the president to be the “first fascist“—and though NYC mayor La Guardia considered shutting down the event, he agreed to let the Bund proceed, arguing:

Our government provides for free speech, and in this city that right will be respected. It would be a strange kind of free speech that permits free speech for those we agree with.

LaGuardia then departed the city on what was described as a “western trip“. His constituents, though, certainly did not agree with the mayor’s rationale:

From 2/6/1939 New York Times.

Inside the Garden, the thousands who had gathered heard dozens of speeches denouncing “International Jewry,” while at least 100,000 protesters organized by the Socialist Workers Party—equipped with anti-Nazi posters and banners that read “Give me a gas mask, I can’t stand the smell of the Nazis“—picketed, held back from storming the Garden by police mounted on horseback. One protester named Isidore Greenbaum did manage to slip into the Garden and rushed the stage at one point, only to be badly beaten by “Bund storm troopers” who “ripped [his clothing] to shreds.”

According to Felix Morrow of the Socialist Appeal, the turnout was diverse and the protest unifying:

Among those who pressed against the horses, fighting for every inch of ground, were Spanish and Latin American workers, aching to strike the blow at fascism which had failed to strike down Franco; Negroes standing up against the racial myths of the Nazis and their 100% American allies; German American workers seeking to avenge their brothers under the heel of Hitler; Italian anti-fascists singing “Bandera Rossa;” groups of Jewish boys and men, coming together from their neighborhoods, to strike a blow against pogroms everywhere; Irish Republicans conscious of the struggle for the freedom of all peoples if Ireland is to be free; veterans of the World War; office workers, girls and boys, joining the roughly-clad workers in shouting and fighting; workers of every trade and neighborhood of the city.

Mounted police form a solid line outside Madison Square Garden on Feb. 20, 1939. To prevent any clash between bundsmen and counter-demonstraters, police surrounded the area with a force of 1,500. (AP Photo/Murray Becker)

The Pro-American Rally was the Bund’s final hurrah; its leader was convicted for tax evasion and embezzlement and the group dissolved after the United States entered World War II, but it never really disappeared. The recent violence in Charlottesville is a reminder that hate and fear don’t need many openings to cross from the shadows and into the mainstream. Once there, it is difficult to unroot.

The Hippies Who Hated the Summer of Love

Kate Daloz | Longreads | August 2017 | 11 minutes (2700 words)

The posters began to appear around the city just after New Year’s, 1967. “A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-in…Bring food to share, bring flowers, beads, costumes, feathers, cymbal flags.” On Saturday, January 14, a crowd of young people began to form on the open fields of Golden Gate Park. Throughout the day, local bands — not yet famous — took turns on the stage: The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company. Poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder led Hindu chants to the bouncing rhythm of finger cymbals. Timothy Leary addressed the crowd, urging them for the first time ever to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Owsley Stanley, the rogue chemist credited with manufacturing the period’s highest-quality LSD, donated 75 turkeys for sandwiches — the bread was sprinkled lightly with crushed White Lightning acid. At one point, a skydiver descended gently into the crowd, borne by a white parachute.

Read more…

Whose Fault Was Dunkirk?

Lynne Olson | Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War | Random House | April 2017 | 15 minutes (3,983 words) 

Below is an excerpt from Last Hope Island, by Lynne Olson. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

In all the history of war, I have never known such mismanagement.

Winston Churchill arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d’Orsay on the afternoon of May 16 and saw “utter dejection written on every face” of the officials with whom he met. In the gardens outside, clouds of smoke billowed up from bonfires stoked by official documents that government workers were heaping on the flames.

The French military leaders summarized for Churchill the disastrous news of the previous four days: the German breakthrough at the Meuse and the onrush of tanks and troops “at unheard-of speed” toward the northern French towns of Amiens and Arras. When Churchill asked about plans for a counterattack by reserve forces, General Gamelin shrugged and shook his head. “There are none,” he said. Churchill was speechless: no reserves and no counterattack? How could that be? Gamelin’s terse response, Churchill wrote later, was “one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”

The British prime minister’s shock and confusion, his failure to grasp the speed and immensity of the German onslaught, were no different from the dazed reactions of French and British officers and troops in the field. Years later, General Alan Brooke would write dismissively, “Although there were plenty of Frenchmen ready to die for their country, their leaders had completely failed to prepare and organize them to resist the blitzkrieg.” Brooke didn’t mention that he and his fellow British commanders were as guilty as their French counterparts in that regard—a point repeatedly made by General Bernard Law Montgomery, a subordinate of Brooke’s in France. In his diary of the campaign, Montgomery, who commanded a British division in the battle, was scathingly critical of General John Gort, the British Expeditionary Force commander. Later Montgomery would write, “We had only ourselves to blame for the disasters which early overtook us in the field when fighting began in 1940.”

Trained for static defensive warfare, the Allied military simply did not know how to react when the blitzkrieg—“this inhuman monster which had already flattened half of Europe,” in the words of an American observer—burst upon them. Coordination and communication between the French and British armies broke down almost immediately; within a few days, most phone and supply lines had been cut, and the Allied command system had virtually ceased to function. The only way army commanders could communicate was through personal visits.

While French and British units functioned without information or orders, their tanks and aircraft were running out of fuel and ammunition. An RAF pilot called the situation “a complete and utter shambles”; a British Army officer wrote in his diary, “This is like some ridiculous nightmare.” Back in London, Churchill told one of his secretaries, “In all the history of war, I have never known such mismanagement.” Read more…

The Brief Career and Self-Imposed Exile of Jutta Hipp, Jazz Pianist

Aaron Gilbreath | This Is: Essays on Jazz | Outpost19 | August 2017 | 21 minutes (5,900 words)

In 1960, four years after the venerable Blue Note Records signed pianist Jutta Hipp to their label, she stopped performing music entirely. Back in her native Germany, Hipp’s swinging, percussive style had earned her the title of Europe’s First Lady of Jazz. When she’d moved to New York in 1955, she started working at a garment factory in Queens to supplement her recording and performing income. She played clubs around the City. She toured. Then, with six albums to her name and no official explanation, she quit. She never performed publicly again, and she told so few people about her life in music that most of her factory coworkers and friends only discovered it from her obituary. For the next forty-one years, Jutta patched garments for a living, painted, drew and took photos for pleasure, all while royalties accrued on Blue Note’s books.

Read more…

Billy Bragg: Skiffle Songs Are Railroad Songs

Musicians Billy Bragg and Joe Henry

I tagged along with a friend to see Joe Henry and Billy Bragg’s “Shine a Light” tour. I knew nothing about the project in advance but “Don’t Try This at Home” remains one of my favorite albums. I was so happy to see Bragg and his battered guitar on stage in a small Seattle theater.

“Shine a Light” is all railroad songs. From the stage Henry and Bragg told stories of the adventures they had recording the album and I thought, “Oh, what a great book this would make!” Bragg’s love for music and the messy tapestry that is America was so apparent. And it’s a steady companion to his leftist politics, his passion for the working man and woman.

There is a book; of course there is, it’s called Roots, Radicals and Rockers How Skiffle Changed the World.  The Paris Review talked with Billy Bragg about the book, skiffle, the history of music, and duck jokes. Really.

I would occasionally have conversations with people like John Peel that led me to realize that skiffle had a huge effect on these people—Morrison, McCartney. Perhaps bigger than the effect punk had on me. The significant thing about the skiffle generation is that they’re our first teenagers. Our first generation to define themselves through their own culture. Previously, there were adults and there were children. Adults listened to crooners, children listened to novelty records, there was no intermediate space until Bill Haley and Lonnie Donegan came along in ’55. And that’s just a year after food rationing ends in the UK. I think it’s significant that this happens when the skiffle kids are twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old. John Lennon is fourteen when rationing ends. He’s had his entire childhood without being able to go into a sweet shop to buy whatever he wants. There’s that pent-up desire to escape having to wear hand-me-downs—because clothing was rationed as well—to get away from the rubble of the war, to make the future happen. And for that generation, the guitar was a symbol of the future arriving. The members of that generation were trying to escape their drab world, their past, by taking up the guitar and playing American roots music—which is paradoxically the opposite of what folk fans were doing in the U.S. In the U.S., they were trying to hark back. Groups like the New Lost City Ramblers were looking to reconnect with the past. The British kids were trying to escape the past as quickly as they could and the guitar offered them the best means to do that.

Read the story

How to Get Away with Spying for the Enemy

Sarah Laskow | Topic | July 2017 | 14 minutes (3,700 words)

This story is co-funded by Longreads Members and published in collaboration with Topic, which publishes an original story, every other week. Sign up for Topic’s newsletter now. Sarah Laskow’s story is part of Topic’s State of the Union issue.

Ronald Rewald and Richard Craig Smith did not appear to have much in common. The founder of an investment firm in Hawai’i, Rewald lived like a Master of the Universe, traveling the world in expensive cars, staying in expensive hotels and throwing expensive parties. Smith, by contrast, lived in Utah, with a wife and four children. A former case officer in intelligence with the United States Army, he had resigned from his job at the start of the 1980s to spend more time with his family. He sought to make a new life for himself as an entrepreneur;  when VHS tapes were still cutting-edge, he began a service to make video diaries and testimonials for families to pass down from one generation to the next.

What brought Rewald and Smith together was espionage. In the early 1980s, legal troubles tangled the two men in a similar narrative of spying and betrayal. First charged in August 1983 in state court with two counts of theft, Rewald was eventually indicted, a year later, on 100 counts of fraud, tax evasion, perjury and other federal crimes. In April 1984, Smith was accused of much more serious offenses—conspiracy, espionage, and transmission of secret material, charges that, were he convicted, could lead to a death sentence. The two men were represented the same lawyer, the bombastic Brent Carruth, and they had the same defense for their alleged crimes: The CIA made me them do it.

Rewald and Smith’s assertions sometimes seemed preposterous, as if lifted from a convoluted spy novel. The cartoonish stories they told involved fake names, fear of assassination, and envelopes full of cash. (They certainly seemed fictional to government prosecutors, who dismissed the tales as fabrications.) But in the Reagan era, as now, the news was full of undisclosed meetings and clandestine plots to swing elections. Americans were being inundated with reports about the secrets of the intelligence community: the Watergate revelations about the CIA’s domestic surveillance, the assassination attempts on foreign leaders, and the Iran-Contra scandal, for starters.

Suddenly, anything seemed possible.

On paper, the government’s success in Smith’s case was all but assured. Americans have little tolerance for disloyalty. There have been more than 110 Americans arrested on espionage charges since the 1950s and those who didn’t defect before they were sentenced to years, sometimes decades, in prison.

But though Rewald and Smith’s stories sounded wild, their juries weren’t entirely willing to trust the veracity of the government’s narrative, either. In the end, one of the two men would be sent to jail, the other set free. Read more…

Percy Ross Wants to Give You Money!

Jacqui Shine | Longreads | July 201723 minutes (5,700 words) 

Percy Ross was a trash-bag tycoon, a serial entrepreneur who had made millions in plastics in the 1960s and relished spending it. But in 1977 he staged an astonishing reinvention. Ross would become a philanthropist — and not just any philanthropist, but one for people like him: a “blue-collar millionaire,” as he put it. He’d give money away the way he’d gotten it, in bills small and large, and always when it was needed the most. He’d portion out his millions in cash, in checks, accompanied by the satisfying clink of a silver dollar. Percy Ross would become, as the newspapers called him, “America’s Rich Uncle.”

Ross always said — boasted, really — that he’d made and lost two fortunes. It was his third business that stuck, the one in plastics. Ross had been a fur auctioneer in the 1930s — he met the woman who eventually became his wife at a craps table in Las Vegas while in the company of Clark Gable — and an organizer of farm-equipment auctions. In 1958, the story went, Ross borrowed $30,000 to invest in a failing plastics company. He knew nothing about the industry, and within five years he’d filed for bankruptcy — but with hard work, the help of his family, and a little innovation, he eventually turned the company around. Poly-Tech, as he renamed it, made plastic garbage bags. He liked to tell people he sold Poly-Tech for $8 million on the same day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon: July 20, 1969.

The story of the trash-bag turnaround was part of Percy Ross’s pitch-perfect rags-to-riches tale. Born in 1916 in Laurium, Michigan, a small town on the state’s copper-rich Upper Peninsula, Ross was the son of immigrants, desperately poor Jews from Russia and present-day Latvia. His father was a junk dealer who worked constantly, and so did his three sons. By the age of 6, Percy had begun making weekly rounds through the neighborhood with a wagon of farm eggs his father had bought for 12 cents a dozen, which he then sold to neighbors at a 3-cent markup. He sold magazines. He started his own business rebuilding car batteries. He would have shined shoes at the country club if they hadn’t rejected him for being too poor and too Jewish.

Read more…

The Re-Kazakhification of Kazakhstan, On Horseback

In the summer issue of VQR, Will Boast has a fascinating piece on kokpar, a traditional Kazakh sport in which in two teams of men on horseback “compete over a headless, freshly slaughtered goat, wrestling control back and forth in an attempt to score by flinging it into the opponent’s goal.” At the end of the game, the goat is dinner.

While many young Kazakhs would rather watch soccer than kokpar, the state is committed to promoting all things Kazakh after years of Soviet control that saw ethnic Kazakhs become a minority in their own country.

Despite these gestures toward a more global profile, Kazakhstan remains, for many, a huge blank on the map somewhere between Russia and China, essentially a hinterland. (During my visit, one young Kazakh educated in the US briskly summarized the typical Western conception of his country as, “Oil, dictator, Borat.”) In part to remedy its global anonymity, Kazakhstan is in the middle of a quixotic identity-building project, an attempt not only to define itself to the world but to reclaim and remake the past, and thus reckon with the realities of self-determination. After coming dangerously close to disappearing into history, ethnic Kazakhs are once again a majority, today making up about 65 percent of the nation’s population, with ethnic Russians at about 25 percent (the total population is just under 18 million, in a country larger than all of western Europe). A nationwide program of Kazakhification has gradually taken hold—replacing Russian with Kazakh as the language of business and politics, rewriting Soviet-era schoolbooks to include an honest account of Stalin’s brutal policies, and emphasizing the pre-tsarist history of the khanates.

The pre-Russian period has also been employed to provide the foundation of Kazakh cultural identity in the new century. The signifiers of a nomadic past are everywhere, often commodified and romanticized: placards in Almaty’s airport that showcase eagle hunting; documentaries on yurt living on state-run Kazakh TV; yurt-themed restaurants; and, of course, countless totems of the beloved horse—in snacks made of dried mare’s milk, in horse-themed techno on the radio, and in miniature riding crops given away as party favors, to name just a few examples.

Read the story

The Word Is ‘Nemesis’: The Fight to Integrate the National Spelling Bee

Cynthia R. Greenlee | Longreads | June 2017 | 2,900 words ( 12 minutes)

In 1962, teenager George F. Jackson wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy with an appeal: “I am a thirteen-year-old colored boy and I like to spell. Do you think you could help me and get the Lynchburg bee opened to all children?”

The long road to the National Spelling Bee has always begun with local contests, often sponsored by a local newspaper. Nine publications, organized by the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal, banded together in 1925 to create the first National Bee in Washington, D.C.

Decades later, George Jackson was protesting the policies of the local newspaper that sponsored the Lynchburg, Virginia contest, which excluded black students from participating in the official local competition — the necessary step that might send a lucky, word-loving Lynchburg child to nationals. There was more at stake than a coveted all-expenses-paid trip to the capital, an expensive set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and a $1,000 cash prize. For local and national civil rights activists, keeping black children from the spoils of spelling fame was an extension of Jim Crow educational policies that should have ended, in theory, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

While the Warren Court decided in 1954 that “separate but equal” would no longer be the law of the land, there were still “Negro” schools and white schools educating children across the South less than a decade later. A patchwork of local responses met the desegregation orders that followed the Supreme Court ruling, including deliberate foot-dragging, some real confusion about how to undo what years of white supremacy had wrought in the nation’s schools, and full-throated defiance to educational equity.

Read more…