Tuesday, October 16, 2018

John Brown Raids Harpers Ferry

John Brown launched his consequential raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on this day in 1859.  The latest in a series of events that jolted the nation in that decade, this dramatic attack helped hastened the Civil War.  

Brown’s four-day episode ended in failure and Brown was executed on December 2.  Before leaving for his hanging, the abolitionist wrote this prophetic statement:  “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

The marine contingent sent to stop him was commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee.  Future Confederate leaders Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart also were there and John Wilkes Booth was at the hanging.  Many books have been written about Brown, the raid, the execution, and the impact of Harpers Ferry.  But a terrific new book by Gene Meyer, Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army, adds another dimension to this vastly important event.

More than thirty years ago I purchased this artifact.  I will leave the credibility of its authenticity up to you, but I enjoy having it on a bookshelf in my library.  Ah, I believe the word “possion” is meant to mean “possession.”

Saturday, October 13, 2018

JFK Returns to McKeesport, Pa.

The first Kennedy-Nixon debate took place not in 1960, but in April 1947 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.  The two young, first-term members of the U.S. House of Representatives were invited by the local congressman to debate each other in his hometown. 

The debate, which focused on the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, took place before a sparse crowd at the Penn-McKee Hotel and received little attention.  After the event, the two World War II veterans went out to dinner and then shared a sleeping compartment on the overnight train back to Washington, D.C.  Although political adversaries, they become friends.

On this day fifteen years later--October 13, 1962--President Kennedy returned to McKeesport campaigning for Democrats in the mid-term elections.  He started his speech at the City Hall by saying, “The first time I came to this city was in 1947, when Mr. Richard Nixon and I engaged in our first debate.  He won that one, and we on to other things.”  Of course, Kennedy defeated him in 1960 and Nixon was currently running for governor of California.

The Penn-McKee Hotel is still standing although it is abandoned and dilapidated, an eyesore in the city of about 19,000 people in Allegheny County.  The city hall is only a few blocks from where the historic, if little reported, debate took place.

The photograph is of President Kennedy with a group of people outside the McKeesport City Hall in  1962. Credit:  Cecil Stoughton.  White House Photographs.  John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston; the photo is in the public domain. 

Friday, October 12, 2018

Khrushchev's Shoe Diplomacy, 1960

Today is the anniversary of an odd, infamous event:  Nikita Khrushchev waving—or perhaps banging— his shoe at the United Nations.  On October 12, 1960, the Soviet premier was addressing the General Assembly in New York.  He was incensed about a delegate’s attack on the emasculation of the Eastern Bloc by the U.S.S.R. 

The image of a bellicose Khrushchev would resurface over the next few years until his fall from power in 1964.  I’m sure that Emily Post would have found his conduct quite boorish.

I’ve been studying Khrushchev recently because of my research on Robert Frost’s cultural exchange tour to Russia in September 1962.  Sent by JFK, Frost met with Khrushchev and seemed to fall under the Soviet leader’s spell.  Frost considered him "a great man" who understood how to use power.  The legendary poet, then eighty-eight and politically na├»ve, talked about the two "democracies”--the United States and Soviet Union--competing with the outcome a sort of may-the-best country-win attitude. 

Upon returning to the United Nations, Frost told journalists that “Khrushchev said that we were too liberal to fight.”   That flippant comment, which may or may not have an accurate report from Frost, caused his estrangement from President Kennedy.

Kennedy, of course, had a significant confrontation with his Soviet counterpart the following month with the tension-filled Cuban Missile Crisis.  The president was largely seen as practicing shrewd but restrained brinksmanship, and yet Khrushchev proved to be a less belligerent, more conventional adversary than assumed.

I haven't confirmed the type and color of the shoe which became the focus of worldwide attention fifty-eight years ago, but I’m assuming it was a black slip-on. 

The photograph here is from the JFK-Khrushchev summit in Vienna in June 1961, which did not go well for President Kennedy.   It is from the U.S. Department of State in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston; unknown copyright.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Happy Birthday, Eleanor Roosevelt

Today is the birthday of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), certainly one of America’s most consequential First Ladies and a significant figure during the FDR years and after.  

Sometimes known as “First Lady of the World,” Eleanor overcame personal heartaches and insecurities to emerge a staunch supporter of human rights, at home and abroad.  Perhaps her greatest contribution was her work at the United Nations, including the drafting of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt held strong views and could be stubborn.  She had an uneasy early  relationship with John F. Kennedy, somewhat related to her dim view of his father but also because of his youth (relative to her), his unwillingness to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy, and her longtime support for the presidential aspirations of Adlai Stevenson.  She once said to JFK in a telegram (1959):  “My dear boy I only say these things for your own good.’’ The relationship latler improved.

When she died President Kennedy said, “One of the great ladies in the history of this country has passed from the scene.  Her loss will be deeply felt by all those who admired her tireless idealism or benefited from her good works and wise counsel.”  He spoke for many Americans.

Photo from the National Archives.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Winston Churchill: An "Eighteenth Century Statesman"

I am very excited about a new addition to my Winston Churchill collection:  A letter from Attorney General Francis Biddle to gossip columnist Walter Winchell.  The premise put forward here is interesting, and it is likely to attract arguments from Churchill supporters and critics—although I think the eighteenth-century reference is a bit harsh.

Biddle was an interesting figure in his own right.  The scion one of Philadelphia’s most prominent families, he embodied a commitment to public service throughout his career. In fact, his obituary in the New York Times in 1968 had “Noblesse Oblige” as a subhead.  Biddle was Oliver Wendell Holmes’s secretary, head of the FDR’s National Labor Relations Board, U.S. Circuit Court judge, attorney general during World War II, and one of the judges at the Nuremberg Trials.  He also served in various prominent non-government positions.

Biddle’s wife, Katherine Garrison Chapin, was a noted poet and was equally interesting.  Her work “Plain-Chant for America,” a paean to democracy, was performed by several orchestras with musical accompaniment.  She also wrote about Sojourner Truth and Charles Lindbergh among other subjects.

Walter Winchell was a one-time popular columnist specializing in sensationalism.  He also became known for his staccato radio performances highlighting the salacious news of the day.  An early anti-Nazi crusader and an FDR admirer, he later turned to promoting Joe McCarthy and his anti-communist attacks.