Tag Archives: History

American Sphinx

Colin Dickey | Longreads | August 2017 | 14 minutes | 3380 words

We had come to a place muted of light. Every day felt like a potential backsliding, the news unrelenting, as though the nation had finally given up pushing back against its own savagery — and every day felt like the held breath before the fall. I thought increasingly of Stefan Lux, a Jewish journalist from Slovakia: Aghast at the rise of anti-Semitism during the 1930s, and at the inability of Europe’s bureaucratic governments to respond, Lux walked into the General Assembly of the League of Nations and, before the gathered diplomats, fatally shot himself. His last words were “C’est le dernier coup.” This is the final blow. It was only July 3, 1936; the blows would keep coming long after Lux’s death.

The center was not holding; there hadn’t been any center for decades. It was a country of bankrupt politicians, of killings by police so commonplace they barely made the news. It was a country in which families were routinely broken up by early morning immigration raids, where men abducted for traffic violations and women arrested for misdemeanors were sent off to countries they hadn’t known for decades. It was a nation where young white men found solace drifting through rage and irony, and felt alive only by terrorizing others. It was not a country in open revolution, but more and more its people felt revolution would at least be the exhalation they’d been waiting for. It was a country waiting for the final blow.

Whatever rough beast Yeats had seen had already slouched its way out of the desert, laying waste to everything that fell under its pitiless, blank gaze. The body of a lion and the head of a man, the indignant desert birds circling around its slow thighs, it has laid waste to the veneer of civility and decorum that had once been papered over the country.

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America’s First Addiction Epidemic

Christopher Finan| Drunks: An American History | Beacon Press | June 2017 | 28 minutes (7,526 words) 

The following is an excerpt from Drunks, by Christopher Finan. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

The men full of strong drink have trodden in the fireplaces.

In spring of 1799, Handsome Lake, a Native American, joined members of his hunting party in making the long journey from western Pennsylvania to their home in New York. Handsome Lake was a member of the Seneca Nation, one of the six nations in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). He had once been renowned for his fighting skill. But the Iroquois had been stripped of almost all their lands after the American Revolution. Now fifty years old, Handsome Lake, too, was a shadow of what he had been. He would later say that heavy drinking had reduced him to “but yellow skin and dried bones.” After stopping in Pittsburgh to trade furs for several barrels of whiskey, the hunters lashed their canoes together and began to paddle up the Allegheny River. Only those in the outer canoes had to work. The rest of the party drank whiskey, yelling and singing “like demented people,” Handsome Lake said. The good times didn’t stop after they picked up their wives and children, who had accompanied them on the hunting trip and were waiting at a rendezvous. Everyone looked forward to being home in Cornplanter’s Town, named for its Seneca Leader.

The joy of their homecoming did not last long. There was enough whiskey to keep the men drunk for several weeks. Handsome Lake described the horror of that time:

Now that the party is home the men revel in strong drink and are very quarrelsome. Because of this the families become frightened and move away for safety. So from many places in the bushlands camp fires send up their smoke.

Now the drunken men run yelling through the village and there is no one there except the drunken men. Now they are beastlike and run about without clothing and all have weapons to injure those whom they meet.

Now there are no doors in the houses for they have all been kicked off. So, also, there are no fires in the village and have not been for many days. Now the men full of strong drink have trodden in the fireplaces. They alone track there and there are no fires and their footprints are in all the fireplaces.

Now the Dogs yelp and cry in all the houses for they are hungry.

Henry Simmons, one of three Quakers who had recently come to the village and had been contracted by the US War Department to “civilize” the Indians, said that some natives died. “One old Woman perrished out of doors in the night season with a bottle at her side,” he wrote. In a community meeting later, Simmons denounced “the great Evil of Strong Drink.” But the Indians did not need much persuading. After several days of deliberation, a council of Seneca elders announced that they were banning whiskey from the village. Read more…

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.

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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.

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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…

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…

Norma McCorvey Versus Jane Roe

Norma McCorvey | I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v Wade, and Freedom of Choice Harper Collins, 1994 | 19 minutes | 4,650 words

 

When journalist Andy Meisner met Norma McCorvey to work on her memoir, “she was cashing checks at the 7-Eleven” and living with her partner Connie Gonzalez in Dallas. The New York Times visited McCorvey before the book’s publication in the summer of 1994, and McCorvey showed the reporter the steel door they’d had installed after their house was shot at in 1989 — as well as her dream keeper, a closet full of prized coats, and a collection of clowns she had purchased for Gonzalez. “Once people read I Am Roe, I think they’ll understand where I’m coming from,” she told the Times. “I’m a simple woman with a ninth-grade education who wants women not to be harassed or condemned.”

A year later, McCorvey publicly converted to born-again Christianity — and later, to Roman Catholicism — and she would spent the next twenty years of her life campaigning furiously against the pro-choice movement and the abortion she never received. “Roe has been her life, but it’s no longer much of a living,” wrote Vanity Fair in 2013.

McCorvey died in Dallas of heart failure at the age of 69 on February 18, 2017. In her review of I Am Roe, Susan Cheever writes: Norma McCorvey is an angry shadow from the dark side of the American dream…That Jane Roe and Norma McCorvey are the same person is just another example of the randomness and absurdity of a politics marked by an unbridgeable gulf between myth and reality.”  I Am Roe is currently out of print, and this excerpt is courtesy of Harper Collins.

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What It Takes to Remove a President Who Can’t Do the Job

The “Goldwater Rule” is a gentleman’s agreement between members of the American Psychiatric Association which “prohibits psychiatrists from offering opinions on someone they have not personally evaluated.” It was put in place during the 1964 candidacy of Barry Goldwater after Fact magazine surveyed more than twelve thousand mental-health professionals and found that nearly half of those who responded said the candidate was mentally unfit of office. Read more…

Where Were You the First Time You Realized the Government Wasn’t Always On the Ball?

Pacific Standard writer Kate Wheeling and editor Max Ufberg wrangled a comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating oral history of the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, California, that galvanized environmental activism, ultimately leading to the creation of a slew of federal environmental regulations and agencies. The whole read is great—Wheeling and Ufberg pulled in everyone from local activists to oil company lawyers to journalists—but one section on cleanup tactics stands out as both interesting and quaint.

Bottoms: The way they cleaned it up was they brought in straw. Bales and bales of straw.

Hazard: They didn’t have the oil response teams that they have now. We were totally unprepared for it. You know, what were we going to do?

Relis: I thought these oil companies and the federal government had sort of a game plan, but this was a joke. They were throwing straw down on the beach to lap up the oil with pitchforks and hiring people off the street! I mean, this was funky.

Bottoms: And they’d throw the straw out into the harbor too, and they’d take pitchforks and get convicts down there in little barges and lift the straw out of the ocean and drive the straw up the coast to a dump.

Relis: That was kind of eye-opening — that big companies and big government can be so incompetent.

It’s true, kids! Barely more than 40 years ago, government and corporations were assumed to be generally competent and responsible. The times, how they change.

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A History of American Protest Music: When Nina Simone Sang What Everyone Was Thinking

Nina Simone

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2017 | 10 minutes (2,329 words)

 

On June 12, 1963, in the early morning after president John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights address, activist Medgar Evers was shot in the back as he stood in the driveway of his Mississippi home. He was returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers and officials, and carried an armload of T-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go.” Evers was taken to a local hospital, where he died less than an hour after being admitted.

On September 15, 1963, four girls were killed when white supremacists planted more than a dozen sticks of dynamite beneath the side steps of the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The children were preparing for a sermon titled “A Love That Forgives.” According to one witness, their bodies flew across the basement “like rag dolls.” Read more…