Monday, October 31, 2011

Ben Franklin on immigrants ...

Despite its reputation as a melting pot of the world’s people and cultures, America often feels threatened, in the past and today, when large groups of immigrants, speaking languages other than English and not appearing to assimilate quickly enough into American life, arrive on its land. Even in the mid-1700s, Benjamin Franklin was concerned when a new group of immigrants – the Germans – began populating Pennsylvania. H.W. Brands, author of The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, quotes this most famous and legendary founding father:  “Few of their children in the country learn English; they import many books from Germany. ... The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages, and in some places only German. They begin of late to make all their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our courts, where the German business so increases that there is continual need of interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our legislators what the other half say.”

Monday, October 24, 2011

Stalin's fear of wristwatches ...

As World War II ended, each of the major victorious powers -- the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain -- pushed hard for its share of the spoils of war and to determine its place in a new world order. Many decisions were made at the Potsdam Conference in Germany in the summer of 1945. Participants were U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who had recently entered the presidency following the death of Franklin Roosevelt in May; Soviet Union Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin; British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill; and then Churchill's successor, new Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who stepped into the role after Churchill's party lost its leadership role following British elections.

Generally, the U.S. and Britain feared Soviet expansionism and worked to control Stalin's efforts to install communism where it hadn't existed prior to the war. But Stalin feared something else, as noted in Charles L. Mee Jr.'s book Meeting at Potsdam (Pax Americana Series), originally published in 1975. "(Stalin) perceived a new and vital danger:  millions of Russian soldiers had seen foreign lands, foreign wealth, foreign freedom. Thousands and thousands had traded everything they had with British and American soldieres for -- wristwatches. Wristwatches, gold plated, silver plated, with seventeen-jewel movements: what unimaginable wealth they represented, and every single British and American soldier seemed to have one, and treat it casually, as though it were a mere convenience." As a result, Stalin "did indeed fear that the Russian people would be infected by contact with the West, its wristwatches and its ideas."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Perceptions rule ...

Perceptions have always played a large role in human events. A great example comes from the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the perception of a worldwide oil shortage led to a panic that was soon replaced by the perception of an oil glut, despite only a small difference in an important measure of the real supply of oil.

In short, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 severely reduced oil exports from that country, leaving the world with an 88-day supply of oil. World oil markets responded with great alarm and oil prices shot up from about $18 a barrel to about $34 a barrel. But in 1983, oil prices fell when the world's 93-day supply was perceived as a glut on the market.

"A margin of just five days made the psychological difference between panic and composure in the West," wrote David Lamb of this situation in his 1987 (updated in 2011) book The Arabs.

Monday, October 17, 2011

When slavery wasn't the issue, so they said ...

Slavery, which was at the core of the North-South split leading to the Civil War, was strangely dismissd as a cause of the war by both sides as hostilities began in 1861. Historian James McPherson wrote in his comprehensive 1988 Civil War history, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, that Abraham Lincoln himself, speaking to Congress in a special session that year, said that he had "no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the states where it exists."

Both the North and the South had their reasons for avoiding the issue. McPherson wrote further:  "A concern for northern unity underlay this decision to keep a low profile on the slavery issue. Lincoln had won less than half of the popular vote in the Union states (including the border states) in 1860. Some of those who had voted for him, as well as all who had voted for his opponents, would have refused to countenance an antislavery war in 1861. By the same token, an explicit avowal that the defense of slavery was a primary Confederate war aim might have proven more divisive than unifying in the South. Both sides, therefore, shoved slavery under the rug and they concentrrated their energies on mobilizing eager citizen soldiers and devising strategies to use them."

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Jefferson wrote because others needed elsewhere ...

In his book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, historian Joseph J. Ellis takes us to Phildelphia in summer 1776, when "the writing of the Declaration of Independence did not seem nearly so important as other priorities," such as each state's own constitution. But after Virginia's Richard Henry Lee introduced to Congress a resolution establishing the American colonies to be "free and independent states," a five-member committee -- including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson -- was appointed to draft a document that could implement the Lee proposal. Jefferson's writing skills were recognized, but that reputation was not prime in determining which of them would draft the document. "Jefferson was asked to draft the Declaration of Independence ... in great part because the other eligible authors had more important things to do," writes Ellis.