Archive for May, 2011

Throughout the three-plus months of the Constitutional Convention, the delegates disagreed about a bunch of stuff.  It had started almost immediately with a debate over semantics.  Was the government national or federal?  Both words were nuanced depending on which ears heard them, and the delegates argued for (and against) each.  And that was the very beginning.  The delegates argued over slavery.  They argued over the number of executives (can you imagine two Presidents?!?).  They debated checks and balances.  They debated the judiciary.  And at the end, when the Constitution had been written and submitted for approval, it was back to semantics and language.

But one of the things on which nearly all the delegates agreed was the issue of democracy.  And they were mostly against it.


Yep.  Much like innovation (which we discussed last year when talking about the Convention), well, I’ll let Catherine Bowen explain.  She writes, “…to members of the Federal Convention the word democracy carried another meaning than it does today.  Democracy signified anarchy; demos was not the people but the mob.  When Paterson of New Jersey said ‘the democratic spirit beats high,’ it was meant in derogation, not in praise.  Again and again we meet these phrases:  if aristocracy was ‘baleful’ and ‘baneful,’ unchecked democracy was equally to be shunned.”

But the delegates knew from whence they came, and unchecked aristocracy led to, if I may call it such, “tyranny of the few.”  The just-ended War of Independence had been fought over this issue.  Virginia’s George Mason, a wealthy landowner much like his neighbor George Washington, spoke for many when he said, “We ought to attend to the rights of every class of the people . . . provide no less carefully for the . . . happiensess of the lowest than of the highest orders of citizens.”

There had to be balance.

So I suppose that it only made sense to the delegates that there be a divided legislature, on the order of their British counterparts.  And on May 31, 1787, they made it official.  The Committee of the Whole voted in favor of Edmund Randolph’s Resolve 3:  “That the national legislature ought to consist of two branches.”

Of the existing state legislatures, only Pennsylvania and Georgia had one-chambered legislatures.  And the greatly-respected Dr. Benjamin Franklin (representing Pennsylvania at the Convention) was a staunch advocate of a one-chamber house (he would be so until the day he died).  So when the votes were tallied, James Madison noted that the measure passed “without debate or dissent, except that of Pennsylvania, given probably out of complaisance of Docr. Franklin.”

Of course, there would still be a bundle of debate concerning terms of service, checks on the legislative branch, and most importantly, the issue of representation.  But one of the foundational elements of our system was settled on this day…the bi-cameral legislature.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia

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As the end of May loomed in 1942, the vaunted Imperial Japanese Navy was bending all of its thought, and much of its military power, toward the small central Pacific atoll of Midway.  Island AF (as they called it) was important to the Japanese, not so much because of what it offered (an airfield, some decent fishing, and not much else), but because of what else it offered.

A chance to wipe out the remnants of the United States Navy.

Admiral Yamamota knew without a doubt that the only way to defeat the Americans was to convince them to cease hostilities before their superior war machine could become fully engaged.  So that meant sneak attacks and ruses.

The sneak attack had been pretty successful at Pearl Harbor the previous December.  The ruse?  Well, that was still to play out.  A Japanese attack force had left for the Aleutian Islands off Alaska’s coast.  The hope was that the remaining US Fleet would make for Alaska.  En route, they would be intercepted by a much larger, much more powerful Japanese fleet…and destroyed.

Pearl Harbor would be largely unguarded, all of Hawaii threatened, and the United States’ presence in the Pacific would be over.  That was the plan.

The problem was that the US Navy knew way too much about the Japanese plans.  Enough of the Japanese Navy’s coding system had been broken to see the light on the Japanese operations, so as May ended and the Japanese were focused on Midway, the US was focused there as well.

Of course, the Japanese had no clue that the US knew their secrets, so they continued to play their games, attempting to confuse their enemy.

As night fell on May 30, 1942, the Japanese launched a diversionary attack at, of all places, Diego Suarez…on the northern tip of Madagascar.

Yep…Madagascar, that big island off the southeast coast of Africa.  I bet some of you had no idea that Madagascar was involved in the Second World War.  Well, you’re not alone.  For most of my life, I didn’t know it, either.

But we come by our ignorance honestly, because relatively speaking, it wasn’t much of an attack.  A couple of midget submarines (like the ones used so unsuccessfully at Pearl Harbor) were launched and entered the harbor, where they managed to sink the tanker HMS British Loyalty and seriously damage the HMS Ramillies (shown above), a WWI-era battleship.

The Japanese hoped that this minor operation (along with another like it at Sydney, Australia), coupled with the larger forces steaming toward not-yet-a-state Alaska, would give the US Navy further pause and maybe divide their forces a little more.

The US Navy wasn’t buying it.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Midway

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The German advance through France and the Low Countries in May of 1940 was, without question, one of the more remarkable operations of the Second World War.  Yeah, the wrong side (at least from my perspective) planned it, prepared it, and executed it.  And the right side (at least from my perspective) had no answer, relying on static fortifications and a real lack of will to fight.  But still, from a military standpoint, we have to be impressed by how well the Wehrmacht carried it off…it was brilliant.

Within weeks, German Panzers had pinned their French and English opponents against the English Channel, their choices reduced to either surrender or slaughter.  They were out-gunned, out-manned, and out-planned.  It was over.

Well, for the port city of Calais, it was over.  On May 26, 1940, Brigadier Claude Nicholson and his few remaining holdouts gave up the fight.  They had been been holed up in a 16th-century citadel for the better part of four days, subjected to relentless artillery fire and bombing.  When the Germans finally gained the bridges to the citadel, Nicholson knew the battle was lost and gave it up.

If there was any remaining delusion that the French and British Expeditionary Forces could stop the German advance, it vanished at this point.  The call went out from Dunkirk to Number 10 Downing Street that desperate help was needed.  And, of course, we know that it arrived just 15 or 20 miles to the north and west at another port city.


The bravery and tenacity of Nicholson and his men at the citadel in Calais should not be understated, but to credit their holdout with permitting the evacuation is to push reality.

They certainly did their part, but the evacuation should mostly be credited to Adolf Hitler, who, two days before, ordered his Panzers to halt.

Recommended Reading: Lightning War

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It’s a gloomy morning here…well, not so gloomy when the lightning serves to brighten things up a bit.  I have a day off, and we’re heading to South Dakota to visit my grandma, who turned 97 in March (the day the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan).  We plan to visit with her for an hour or two this afternoon, then rinse and repeat tomorrow morning before heading back…just a quick there-and-back-again.

Today we make for the body of water between the islands of Java and Sumatra in the Philippines.  We have visited this area before during times of war and we’ll be back again.  But if you had in the Sunda Strait on May 20, 1883, things wouldn’t have looked as they do now.  At that time Krakatoa, Indonesia was comprised of 3 small islands – Krakatoa, Verlaten, and Lang – with Krakatoa being, by far, the largest of the three.  If you visit the area today, the three islands are still there, but two-thirds of Krakatoa is gone.  And that’s because in August of 1883, the island blew itself apart in one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history.  But that’s old news to you all as we’ve discussed it in this forum.

On this day in 1883, the sleeping giant woke up when Perbuatan, the northermost volcanic cone – and one of three cones on the island – began venting steam.  To be sure, there had been hints and portents that this day would arrive.  Earthquakes and rumblings had been giving warning to locals for years that the volcano was stirring.  But this was was the first real volcanic activity.  And as we know, it would not be the last until those cataclysmic days in August.

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It’s a brief one tonight, and since I enjoy hiking, let’s keep it in that genre.

Every year that we go to Estes Park, I try to do at least one hike.  Last year it was the Estes Cone, which wasn’t terribly tough until the last .7 mile, when we climbed almost 1,000′.  The year before it was Deer Mountain.  The next time we go (whenever that is) I plan to attempt Chasm Lake, which I did with my older brother about 15 years ago.

Now, to be sure, these are tough hikes for the uninitiated and for the out-of-shape, but for others, they’re not much of a challenge.  I fall in the middle…a decent hiker, but not very hard-core at all.  And I look at Colorado’s “Fourteeners” as the pinnacle of my hiking endeavors, realizing that 14,000′ is just halfway to the top of Mount Everest.

On May 16,1975, Junko Tabei scrambled her way to the top of the world’s most inaccessible place, scaling Mount Everest and becoming the first woman to do so.  She was one of a 15-member all-woman team that set out to conquer this most famous of the Himalayan mountains, following the same path taken by Hillary and Norgay in the 1950s.

As fun as climbing is for me, I know how difficult it can be.  My climbs (well, let’s be honest, they’re just “hikes”) don’t much go over 12,000′, are always done in fair weather, and are always done in a day.  But even then, I struggle some with the altitude and less oxygen.  So it’s really hard for me to comprehend the ordeal that Tabei (and men and women like her) must face when challenging Everest, much less write anything that sounds all that good.

So I think I’ll just tip my walking cap to Junko and shake my head in wonder.

I would love to stand atop Mount Everest…but I could never even begin to make the ascent.

Recommended Reading:  Into Thin Air

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On May 9, 1996, I flew on an airplane for the first time.  I’ve never made a secret about not liking the whole flying thing, but it was either fly or drive to Seattle.  And from Cedar Rapids, Iowa (where I lived at the time), that would have been quite a road trip.  So I took it as my “bravery test” and gutted it out.  The plane (a Boeing 727 – the largest that the airport would support) took off that Thursday morning in a thunderstorm, so the bumps and stumbles as we climbed to altitude had me clutching the armrests just a bit tighter than they probably were used to.

The flight itself was fascinating.  At 35,000 feet (or however high we were), I was afforded a specatular view.  The pilot was kind of cool, too, coming on the intercom at intervals to tell us where we were.  As we flew west and the skies cleared, I could see Interstate 80 right below…and I could even make out some cars and trucks.  Eventually, we got to the mountains, which were super-neat.  All in all, it was a pretty good experience, marred only by a bit of an allergy thing (that I seem to get every May) that clogged my nose and sinuses.

I landed in Seattle and met my brother and sister-in-law at the gate thinking that flying was a pretty capital thing…until Sunday, the day I was supposed to fly back.

I got up a bit early and went out to read the local paper, and splashed on the front page was the crash of Valujet Flight 592 on May 11, 1996.  The flight, scheduled to go from Miami to Atlanta, crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone on board.

It turned out that the plane itself (a McDonnell-Douglas DC-9) was not to blame, but rather the cargo itself.  I don’t remember the details, but it had something to do with a fire that broke out in the cargo hold.  It was enough to bring the plane down into the Everglades, killing more than 100 people, along with the Valujet name and reputation.

Needless to say, my fraidy-cat genes were awakened, and I boarded the plane in Seattle with the same fear and trepidation that I had in Cedar Rapids just days before.  The crash of Flight 592, though it happened on the far side of the country from where I was, still affected me.  I don’t think there’s ever a time I board a plane that I don’t think back to that Sunday morning newspaper.

Flying would be great if it wasn’t for the whole gravity thing…

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The world has changed since I wrote that piece on Joseph Goebbels just a couple of days ago.  In fact, I was just finishing that article when our son called and told us to turn on the news.  And of course, we heard what you all now know.  The most wanted man in the United States, Osama Bin Laden, was not only found, but was confronted by special forces and ultimately killed.  I’m sure that, like the events of September 11, 2001, many will remember what they were doing on the evening of May 1, 2011, when they heard that America’s #1 enemy had finally received justice for his crimes.

So far, this evening hasn’t provided any news that approaches that level, but it can’t be like that every day.  So let’s head back a couple of hundred years and spend a moment on a bit of news.  In May of 1789, America was young enough to still be in the hospital awaiting release.  President Washington had just taken the oath of office, the country’s flag had but eleven stars, and people were arguing about the Constitution.  In fact, the debate over the Constitution had been continuous and often contentious in the eighteen months since its approval in Philadelphia.

One of the biggest issues involved the rights of the people.  Many believed the Constitution didn’t say enough about them, and there was fear that, over time, the new government would begin taking power away from the people.  Others believed that the government only had the power to act on the powers it was expressly granted in the Constitution, and all other powers were, by extension, granted to either the States or the people directly.  But what was supremely clear was that the Constitution’s lack of a set of enumerated rights caused great concern for a great many people.  It had weighed heavily at the Constitutional Convention, to the point that a commitment to address it in the future was necessary to allow the document’s passage.  It had weighed heavily in several of the State conventions.  And it was one of the reasons North Carolina and Rhode Island still held out against statehood.

And now those in favor of a weak government were using the call for a “Bill of Rights” as a springboard to try to gut the federal government’s power.  Amendments were being proposed in Congress that would limit the power to tax, to make treaties, and regulate commerce.  In essence, what was being put forward was a return to an “Articles of Confederation”-style of government, which would have mortally wounded the Constitution.  James Madison, who initially opposed a Bill of Rights, came to see that it was necessary, not only as a way to keep his promise and end a lot of debate, but also to thwart an Antifederalist agenda to gut the document he (and others) had worked so hard to create and defend.

And so on May 4, 1789, he stood up in Congress and announced that, once more important getting-the-government-off-the-ground matters had been addressed, work would begin on a bill of rights.  Madison said, “If we can make the Constitution better in the opinion of those who are opposed to it, without weakening its frame, or abridging its usefulness in the judgment of those who are attached to it, we act the part of wise and liberal men to make such alterations as shall produce that effect.”  And James Madison didn’t have to look very far to find good suggestions for consideration, as the States (when debating ratification of the Constitution) had come up with hundreds of ideas.

Actual work on these enumerated “rights of the people” would not begin until August, and the process would be lengthy.  But in the end, the Bill of Rights we know today are vitally important (and often-debated).  As I wrote some time ago, they are ”Thou Shalt Nots” by which our government must abide.

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Happy May Day!!  It’s hard to believe we’re already beginning 2011’s fifth month.  For Today’s History Lesson, this year has been really out-of-sorts as compared to years past.  Pieces have been few and far between.  Where most months would see 15 to 20+ articles, the last 3 months have seen 10 or fewer.  A heavy workload at the office, slow progression through Madison’s biography, and maybe even a bit of burnout have all combined to create something of a writing drought.  But May is here and the big project at work is nearing completion.  I finished the year-long slog through Madison’s bio, and “refreshed” myself with a bit of fiction, so hopefully things can get back on track.

Joseph Goebbels’ tenure as Chancellor of Germany was incredibly short, easily measured in hours.  The world around him was crumbling in more than one sense.  Literally, the incredible rain of bombs, bullets, and artillery pieces were turning the heart of Berlin (and much of the rest of Germany) to dust.  Figuratively, the last vestiges of the Third Reich and its National Socialist platform were being blown to smithereens.  His boss, Adolf Hitler, was now mostly ashes outside the Chancellery, having committed suicide with his new wife.

But still, in the flickering light of May 1, 1945, Germany’s new Chancellor was able to conduct business, though there were just a couple of tasks to complete.  First, there was ordering General Krebs to take a message to Russian General Vasily Chuikov informing him that Hitler was dead and requesting a ceasefire.  That probably wouldn’t have taken too terribly long since the Russians were, at this point, just down the street.

And second, there was settling his own disposition and that of his family.  He had decided to follow Hitler’s example and commit suicide.  His wife had decided to do the same.  But their children?  The parents reasoned that, as survivors of the parents, the kids would be subject to all sorts of terrible things.  So Frau Goebbels, with help from Hitler’s doctor, injected the children with morphine as they slept and then crushed cyanide capsules in their mouths.

And then husband and wife took care of their last act.  It gets a little fuzzy here since, in the confusion of battle (and the remaining Germans attempting to escape), the true account has been lost.  But the best evidence points to Joseph Goebbels shooting himself while his wife took cyanide, duplicating the deaths of Hitler and Eva Braun.  An attempt to burn their bodies was made, but poorly executed, and they were identified within days.

But of course, the next day would see (and hear) the gunfire end at 3:00pm.  For the Allies (and the Russians in particular) however, the biggest prizes had escaped the hangman’s noose.

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