Tag Archives: World War I

This Day in History 12/13: Woodrow Wilson arrives in Paris for the 1919 Peace Conference

On this day, December 13, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris to participate in the final peace talks that will end the War to End All Wars, or World War I.

Unlike his counterparts in Britain and France–who wanted sweet revenge over 4 years of trench warfare–Wilson wanted to re-organize the international order to develop a new society based on peace, cooperation and democracy.  His “Fourteen Points” outlined Wilson’s philosophy of international rights, individual self-determination and a worldwide peacekeeping body that would resolve international conflicts without bloodshed.

The ultimate treaty fell well short of Wilson’s wishes, and would ultimately lead to an even worse conflict two decades later.

Attached is an old documentary about the Paris Peace Conference.  It’s pretty straightforward and it gives a good synopsis of the sides, arguments and politics of postwar Europe.

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Videos for the Classroom: For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots

I’m kicking myself for forgetting this: all this hubbub around the beginning of the school year and I missed the premiere of an important film.

This past September, PBS aired the documentary For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots.  It chronicles the triumphs and struggles of African Americans in combat from the American Revolution to today’s struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.  One of the main themes is the bravery and skill of these soldiers in the face of a double-standard: often, their treatment in the armed forces mirrored their second-class position back on the home front. 

As the country was born, grew and developed, so too did African American soldiers contribute in every step of the way, often thanklessly.  During the Revolution, many Blacks joined both the British and American ranks (though many more joined the British side) in the futile hope of achieving freedom.  That same hope propelled Blacks to contribute with honor in the Civil War.  In the subsequent World Wars, Blacks struggled to maintain dignity and assert their rights as citizens, even with segregated units, white officers, substandard equipment and provisions, and a hostile Jim Crow America upon their return.  Finally, Blacks are represented in massive numbers in today’s military, even as a Black president finally takes office in 2009.

Often, these types of documentaries get tedious, slow, and brutally long.  The US Army, and thanks to the folks at the Social Studies and History Teachers Blog, part of Multimedia Learning LLC, put together a shortened version of the film to be used in classrooms, each segment focusing on a specific area of history.  There are even facilitator guides for high school and college that augment the viewing with questions, project ideas and lesson plans.

Below is the shortened film in 9 segments.  These classroom-ready 3-5 minute chunks are perfect for your classrooms, along with the facilitator guides.  Let us know how you like them.

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A Long-Winded History of Presidential Addresses to Congress

ObamaSpeechThe Presidential address to Congress is the “After School Special” of American politics.

In the course of over two centuries of representative government, the President sometimes summons both houses of Congress to deliver an address that contains a “very special message.”  It usually involves a “national crisis” or an “urgent threat” which “imperils our national character.”  At the same time, the President asks to “stop bipartisan bickering” in order to “find a solution” so that “America can be strong again.”

In the end, we all learned an important lesson (cue the Full House moral music).  Both sides decide to settle their differences.  More often, they wait until the President stops spouting and continue business as usual.  Besides, everyone hated that “Just Say No” episode of Punky Brewster, anyway.

I was thinking about these addresses as I was reading about the hubbub from President Obama’s recent address to Congress concerning health care reform.  You would think that such an address would be effective, considering the exalted office and the rare instance of both houses sitting together.

History has proven otherwise.

Giving speeches to Congress is one of the few tasks of a President that is spelled out specifically in the Constitution.

“He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient;” – United States Constitution, Article 2, Section 3, Clause 1.

The “State of the Union” is the only speech the President has to do by law, and he doesn’t even have to show up.  Notice that the Constitution doesn’t say “give a speech”, but rather “give to the Congress Information…”  Thomas Jefferson thought giving a speech from the “Throne” was too much like the British monarch opening Parliament, so starting in 1801, he wrote his address to be read by clerks.  This practice continued until Woodrow Wilson reverted to speechmaking in 1913.   

Presidential addresses to Congress apart from the “State of the Union” were extremely rare.   According to the clerk’s office of the U.S. House of Representatives, the President has only addressed both houses 61 times in American history.  60 of these speeches were given after 1913.   

The first joint-session address was John Adams’ address of May 16, 1797.  He addressed the legislature about the worsening relations between the United States and Revolutionary France.  Since many of the legislators were pro-French, the address fell on deaf ears.  This would not be the first time.  Between 1797 and 1913 not a single speech was made by a sitting president to a joint session of Congress.  Not even Abraham Lincoln—although the guy was painfully shy, so he gets a pass.

The real maelstrom of hot air begins in 1913 with Woodrow Wilson.  The guy had it all: bookish snobbery, rabid racism, and a dipstick diplomacy that opened up for a second world war.  Oh how he shared his book learning with the world: his 18 speeches before Congress is still a record, and it doesn’t even include his State of the Union addresses.  He touched on everything: tariffs, currency reform, Mexican relations (before WWI, the Mexican Revolution was a big problem.  The 1914 message was probably about Pancho Villa alone.), railroad disputes, and of course, that little problem out there called World War I.

Chief executives have been comparatively mum since old Woody left us in 1921.  The following are some important Presidential speeches since 1913.  You can judge how effective they are.

April 2, 1917 – Woodrow Wilson asks Congress to declare war against Germany.  On December 4th, just for good measure, he sneaks a war declaration against Austria-Hungary into his State of the Union address.  You know, in case Germany felt lonely.

January 8, 1918 – Wilson again, this time at his dipstick best.  Here he outlined his plan for peace in postwar Europe: his famous “Fourteen Points.”  When the final treaty came up a couple years later, the Republican Senate, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, rejected it.  This was probably the last time a Massachusetts senator voted against a Democratic President.

February 7, 1923 – Warren Harding addresses Great Britain’s mounting indebtedness to the United States.  This is unremarkable, except to remind Americans when our money was actually worth something.

December 8, 1941 – Franklin D. Roosevelt asks Congress to declare war on Japan following Pearl Harbor.  This time, Germany decides to jump the gun and declare war on us.  You know, in case Japan felt lonely.

March 1, 1945 – Roosevelt delivers the results of the Yalta Conference, where FDR feebly called Stalin “Uncle Joe,” while Uncle Joe molested his nephews by keeping Eastern Europe for himself.

November 17, 1947 – Harry Truman outlines US aid to postwar Europe.  Postwar Europe responds by purchasing tight-fitting sweaters, smoking filterless cigarettes and developing an anti-American attitude that would make Uncle Joe proud.

March 17, 1948 – In his address about European security, Truman told a packed House chamber: “Uncle Joe took WHAT??!!”

January 5, 1957 – Dwight Eisenhower delivers speech on the state of the Middle East.  He says two words: “Fucked up.”  He then corrects himself, “Sorry.  Fucked up royally.”  Ike makes his tee time at Congressional with time to spare.

May 25, 1961 – in his only non-State of the Union speech, John F. Kennedy addresses a host of “urgent national needs,” such as foreign aid, national defense, civil rights and the space race.  He urges speedy resolution, as he senses he’s “on the clock.”  In fact, he’s just being fellated by a stewardess under the podium.

March 25, 1965 – Lyndon Johnson addresses Congress on the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  Southern legislators put fingers in their ears, pretending not to hear.  An hour with Huey Newton and a ball-peen hammer makes them whistle a different tune—and it ain’t “Dixie.”

June 1, 1972 – Richard Nixon reports on his trip to Europe: “Yep, they still hate us.”  Continues covering up Watergate.

October 8, 1974 – Gerald Ford speaks on the economy, learning the hard way that oil-rich Arab sultans do not accept mood rings as collateral.

April 20, 1977 – Jimmy Carter pleads with America to conserve on energy.  Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda are the only ones who listen.

February 18, 1981 – Ronald Reagan wants to talk about economic recovery, but can’t remember.

April 28, 1981 – Reagan remembers what he wanted to talk about in February, inflation.  His solution involves inflating Moscow with radioactive waste.  Tip O’Neill chuckles politely.

September 11, 1990 – George H. W. Bush addresses Congress and the nation about the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.  Bush can’t stand letting that precious crude go to waste.  September 11 passes insignificantly for another 11 years.

March  6, 1991 – Bush comes back to announce that the war is over: he got his crude back.  Good boy, Schwartzkopf. 

September 22, 1993 – Before both houses of Congress and with the economy in the shitter, Bill Clinton takes a stab at health care reform.  America goes ballistic and elects its first Republican Congress since the Truman years.  Bill sticks to riding the coattails of a surging tech bubble.  He also keeps his stabbing to young interns from now on.

September 20, 2001 – George W. Bush addresses a shocked nation reeling from the horrors of 9/11.  He announces the creation of a “Director of Homeland Security.”  At first, he wasn’t sure what this meant.  After reading up on Heinrich Himmler and the Gestapo, Dick Cheney got the hint.  He then filled in the boss with the details.

September 9, 2009 – Barack Obama takes another stab at health care reform, with an economy in the toilet and Americans disgruntled at his policies.  Sounds a lot like 1993, doesn’t it?

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This Day in History 7/16: The Atomic Bomb and the Constant Search for the Ultimate Weapon

On July 16, 1945, a pack of scientists sat worried in the high desert of New Mexico.  Some of the greatest minds of their generation, they created what they thought was the ultimate super weapon. 

Yet no one was happy about it.

Some feared that this new “atomic bomb” would lead to the destruction of the Earth itself.  Others thought that the atmosphere would ignite, engulfing the planet in a ball of fire.  Still others thought the darn thing was a dud—there was no way a thing that small can cause the amount of destruction they had projected.

Yet once the countdown finished, the genie (or the demon, depending on your point of view) was out of the bottle.

The successful test of the first nuclear weapon at the Trinity test site near Alamogordo, New Mexico changed history.  It was then conceivable that a weapon can be created that was so destructive and so terrifying as to render warfare obsolete.  Yet even after the Cold War, we continue to feel the lasting effects of these weapons—on our budgets, our environment, our foreign policy, and our everyday lives.

The search for the one super weapon, the “ultimate weapon”, has existed since the dawn of man.  In a few decades, perhaps sooner, a weapon will be developed that supersedes the atomic missile.  Let’s hope the US Air Force is building a Death Star, so we can wipe out countries that are a little too fresh.  Until that time comes, here’s a few of the “ultimate weapons” of history:

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chariot—Blitzkrieg was not a German invention (sorry, Adolf).  The chariot was the perfect example of making the best of a bad situation.  The Hyksos invaded Egypt in the 16th Century BCE and brought with them a light cart that provided quick mobility.  The Egyptians took the technology and perfected the first terror weapon in human history.  Gangs of chariots zooming down the field, with archers and spearmen in tow; the Egyptians were the first to utilize speed and overwhelming force in battle.

 

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The Trireme—I knock the film 300 constantly, but here the offense is legitimate.  Xerxes was not defeated because of Gerard Butler and his scantily-clad Spartans, but rather due to an innovation in the Athenian navy.  The trireme was a fast, powerful galley vessel with three rows of rowers and a stout ramming prow.  These vessels not only defeated Xerxes at the straits of Salamis, but also propelled another half-century of Athenian dominance in the Mediterranean, spreading generic gyros and bland tzatziki sauce across an empire.

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“Greek Fire”—I don’t mean the feeling you get when you see Stavros, the hot waiter at that Astoria diner.   Greek Fire was a true wonder weapon, used by the Byzantines for centuries.  Its composition and origins remain clouded in mystery, another plus if you want to spread wanton fear in your enemies.  Greek Fire managed to keep the Islamic armies at bay for centuries, until the Turks basically figured out its nothing more than a crude flamethrower.

 

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The Trebuchet—used by the Chinese and Romans but later perfected in Medieval Europe.  If you needed to breach a wall, or lay siege to a castle, the trebuchet was often your only option.  Part slingshot, part catapult, it was designed to hurl projectiles over long distances at a high arc, similar to a low-altitude bombing.  It was also used in a crude form of biological warfare: sling a rotting, disease cow carcass over the wall and let the fun begin.

 

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                                            The Firearm—the Chinese developed gunpowder around the second century CE, but firecrackers and bottle rockets can only do so much.  The firearm—first the cannon, then the musket—began showing up on European battlefields in the late 14th Century.  Heavily armed knights often had a good laugh at these toys, manned mostly by peasant conscripts or the local militia.  They weren’t laughing for long, not after they noticed the power and range of those weird brass and iron tubes. 

 

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The Rifle—early firearms were no better than blowguns with a gunpowder ignition.  In the 18th Century, German hunters developed a musket with a spiral groove in the barrel to spin the bullet, providing increased speed, power and accuracy.  These hunters settled in America, particularly in Pennsylvania, where their invention found fans in American colonists, frontiersmen, trappers, and the Continental Army.  The rifle was especially useful in hunting game and hunting British officers.  Now that’s not very sporting, is it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Ship of the Line”this was the first true “weapon of mass destruction.”  So called because of their single-file formation, “Ships of the Line” were giant sailing fortresses, often carrying over 100 cannon a piece.  The British navy were masters of this type of vessel, using “ships of the line” as protective convoys for Caribbean trade, in naval warfare with the French, Dutch and Spanish, and as intimidation for compliance (think Revolutionary Boston and New York).  Its high water mark came in 1805, as hundreds of British and French behemoths clashed at the straits of Trafalgar.  The British victory made Horatio Nelson a martyred hero and Trafalgar the name of a London square that drives motorists nuts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Iron Ship—Leave it to a civil war in the United States to render every navy afloat obsolete in a matter of months.  The Confederates, with few ships in their navy, took old wooden ships and slapped iron sheets on its sides, with gun ports on two sides.  Their first, an old Union ship called the USS Merrimack, rechristened the CSS Virginia, terrorized the southern Atlantic coastline.  The federals countered with the USS Monitor, a ship made entirely of iron with a revolving gun turret.  The world watched in awe—metal could indeed float, with terrifying consequences.

 

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The Machine Gun—developed by different inventors at different times, the machine gun came very close to being the “mother of all weapons”, the weapon that would render war obsolete.  American inventors Richard Gatling (in 1862) and Hiram Maxim (1896) developed weapons that fired multiple rounds in succession.  Gatling’s gun required multiple barrels and hand cranking.  Maxim’s model was self-propelled, with a single water-cooled barrel and belts of ammunition to feed into the gun.  Its grand moment came in World War I, when centuries of tactics and strategy, tactics dating back to Napoleon, were cut to ribbons in the spray of machine gun fire.

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                                             The Tank—armored vehicles are not a new concept; horses and other pack animals carried armored plating for centuries.  Yet when merged with automotive technology, heavy artillery and machine guns, you have a mobile killing machine.  The British first introduced the tank in 1917, and subsequent variations have spread destruction across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  It also provided another setting for Donald Sutherland to play a drugged-out weirdo (Kelly’s Heroes.)

 

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The Heavy Bomber—as the machine gun was the poster boy for World War I, the heavy bomber takes the prize for World War II.  If there was one machine responsible for the majority of death and destruction in a single war, this would be it.  German Heinkel He-177s, British Avro Lancasters, American B-17s, B-24s and B-29s laid down more ordinance over Europe than every other European conflict combined.   It’s also responsible for the infamous bombing of Dresden.  Those monsters, how could you bomb all those porcelain figurines?

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                                     The Kalashnikov AK-47 Assault Rifle—another rifle?  Just hear me out.  The Soviets developed this Assault rifle at the tail end of World War II as a standard issue semi-automatic rifle for the Red Army.  It’s rugged, reliable, cheap to make, and easy to maintain.  The perfect weapon for the Communist on a budget, the AK-47 is the most ubiquitous firearm in the world.  In this case, don’t think quality, think quantity: find me a part of the world where you couldn’t get your mitts on an AK for a reasonable price…even a ridiculously low price.  These babies were going for $100 a pop in Sierra Leone not too long ago.

As usual, I probably missed many other candidates for the “ultimate weapon” of its time.  My apologies to the Greek phalanx formation, various Roman siege weapons, the longbow, the Mongol compound bow, the fighter plane, the heavy artillery of World War I (“Big Bertha”, or the “Paris Gun”), submarines, guided missiles, stealth technology and the neutron bomb.  Just to name a few.

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