Friday, April 20, 2012

FDR Unaware of Danger

The end of WWII and beginning of the Cold War are not clearly defined. It became clear to American military intelligence during the war that the Soviet Union could not be trusted. While Stalin was making promises, he was already planning to break them. As Stalin was signing various treaties and documents, he was already planning to violate them. Worse, decrypted KGB communications revealed a network of Soviet intelligences agents planted - as "moles" - inside the U.S. government.

Communist spies working for Stalin held positions which allowed them access to confidential information, and positions which gave them some measure of influence in decision-making. American army intelligence, however, kept much of this secret. To communicate it to upper-level members of FDR's administration would be to risk further security leaks: the KGB would discover that the Americans had broken their codes.

Eventually, non-military branches of the government learned independently of the security breaches. Whittaker Chambers, a former Soviet agent, revealed information about the spy network to a member of FDR's administration. Historian Ann Coulter writes:

A friend of Chambers had arranged a private audience with President Roosevelt's assistant secretary of state, Adolf Berle. After dinner at Berle's home, Chambers spent several hours detailing the Communist espionage network of which he had been a part. He gave Berle the names of at least two dozen Soviet spies, working for the Roosevelt administration. Among them was Alger Hiss, a top State Department official, as well as his brother Donald Hiss. Berle urgently reported to President Roosevelt what Chambers had said, including the warning about Hiss. The president laughed.

Roosevelt either didn't believe that the Soviets could do this, or he felt that any Communist infiltration was slight and benign and not worth worrying. Perhaps he thought Stalin wouldn't do it. Historians have long debated the extent to which Stalin was able to deceive Roosevelt. FDR was certainly aware that Stalin was deceptive, but was Roosevelt aware of the full extent of Stalin's willingness to mislead?

As it turns out, Alger Hiss was indeed a Soviet agent, sending secret information to Moscow, and receiving payment from the KGB. During Roosevelt's administration,

no action was ever taken against Hiss. To the contrary, Roosevelt promoted Hiss to the position of trusted aide who would go on to advise him at Yalta. Chambers's shocking and detailed reckoning of Soviet agents in high government positions eventually made its way to William C. Bullitt, former ambassador to Russia and confidant of the president. Alarmed, Bullitt brought the news to Roosevelt's attention. He, too, was laughed off.

Finally, after FDR's death in 1945, Hiss was convicted, confessed, and sent to prison.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Saving Tombstone

The "Wild West" earned its name - a shortage of women, children, and old people set up a social dynamic which could only lead to trouble. Add in a shortage of law enforcement officers, and a plethora of opportunities to steal cattle, gold, and silver - the west needed to be tamed. The men who did it earned their places in American memory as heroes.

Among those who made the west safe for settlers, and who stopped the rampant criminal behavior, were Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and his friends. Historian William Weir writes:

Say "O.K. Corral" and the same picture pops into the minds of millions of people. It's a cold, blustery day in the high desert town of Tombstone, Arizona. Three tall, broad-shouldered men who long frock coats do not hide their holstered six-guns slowly walk down the dusty street. With them is a skinny man with a shotgun. Waiting for them are four grubby men in cowboy outfits. They, too, have holstered six-guns.

Images, however, do not always make for accurate history. At least four major motion pictures and a TV series have been made about Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. None of them are totally accurate, and some of them have bent the story so far from the actual facts that they count as fiction.

Accurate history doesn't always make for good movies. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral lasted, in fact, only thirty seconds. It's difficult to make a movie about an event that short, so Hollywood has stretch the fight out to ten or twenty minutes in most movies, and changed the outcome. In real life, Old Man Clanton was not at the gunfight, having died previously. One movie version adds Johnny "Ringo" Ireland to the gunfight - but in actuality, he wasn't there.

But an accurate history of Wyatt Earp's activities is still fascinating, and justifies his status as an important figure in civilizing the west.:

The head of the frock-coated crew, U.S. Marshall Wyatt Earp, leading his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, and their friend, Doc Holliday, tells the cowboys to throw up their hands. Instead, the cowboys draw their guns, and both sides begin shooting. When the smoke clears, the evil Clanton-McLaury Gang, which had been terrorizing Tombstone, is kaput, and the lawmen led by Wyatt Earp have established law and order.

The build-up had been a series of incidents, involved the stealing of horses or ponies from the army and the robbery of a stage coach. But the Hollywood image needs more correction:

In reality, Wyatt Earp was wearing a mackinaw instead of a frock coat, he carried his revolver in a coat pocket instead of a holster.

A 'mackinaw' is "a short coat or jacket made of a thick, heavy woolen cloth, typically with a plaid design," according to one dictionary. They are usually red and black, and often worn for hunting.

Wyatt Earp was once a city policeman in Wichita, Kansas, from April 1875, until ... a year later. Later, he became number two man in the four-man police force of Dodge City, Kansas. At the time of the gunfight of the O.K. Corral, he was merely a citizen deputized temporarily by his brother Virgil, Tombstone's city marshal, and the nominal leader of his group.

Wyatt Earp had wanted to leave law enforcement entirely, but conditions in Tombstone were so bad that his brother gave him the temporary status as long as needed. Record-keeping in those times and places was often spotty, so some gaps in Earp's career exist.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Hamilton Revisited

Alexander Hamilton authored a number of those newspaper articles which we now call 'The Federalist Papers' - although many of them were originally published anonymously. Together with James Madison and John Jay, they made the case for the new constitution then under consideration in 1787 and 1788.

The papers address many different questions; one major issue was the relationship of the central government to the individuals states. It was important to convince readers that the states would retain much of their own authority, and not be made slaves to the federal government:

The administration of private justice between the citizens of the same State, the supervision of agriculture and of other concerns of a similar nature, all those things, in short, which are proper to be provided for by local legislation, can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction. It is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the powers with which they are connected; because the attempt to exercise those powers would be as troublesome as it would be nugatory; and the possession of them, for that reason, would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, or to the splendor of the national government.

Sadly, at certain points in American history, the central government has done exactly that: transgressed its proper boundaries, and meddled in the internal affairs of local government. Such activity essentially overrides the free votes of local citizens, and oppresses them under the dictates of a distant authority. Reflecting on Hamilton's words, in 1960, Senator Barry Goldwater wrote:

Hamilton was wrong in his prediction as to what men would do, but quite right in foreseeing the consequences of their foolhardiness. Federal intervention in agriculture has, indeed, proved "troublesome." Disregard of the Constitution in this field has brought about the inevitable loss of personal freedom; and it has created economic chaos. Unmanageable surpluses, an immense tax burden, high consumer prices, vexatious controls - I doubt if the folly of ignoring the principle of limited government has ever been more convincingly demonstrated.

There is no doubt that the United States, like any other nation, needs diligent and skillful farmers. They and their farmland are essential to the nation's survival and health. But it is possible to have a surplus of farmers.

Doing something about it means - and there can be no equivocation here - prompt and final termination of the farm-subsidy program. The only way to persuade farmers to enter other fields of endeavor is to stop paying inefficient farmers for produce that cannot be sold at free-market prices.

Agriculture is perhaps one of the clearest cases for both free markets and local control. When centralized governments, instead of local ones, attempt to regulate or manage agriculture, the result is invariably bad, as we see not only in the history of the United States, but also, for example, in the Soviet Union. When markets are regulated, farms produce either too much, or too little, or inefficiently, or produce the wrong crop altogether.