Sunday, September 22, 2019

Some Notes on U.S. Presidential Elections and Foreign Interference


The Wall Street Journal reported on September 20 that Donald J. Trump, president of these United States, recently called the president of Ukraine to ask him for a criminal investigation into Hunter Biden. Mr. Biden has business ties to Ukraine and, more importantly, is the son of former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden, currently a leading Democratic candidate for president. DJT allegedly threatened to withhold American military aid from Ukraine (which has in recent years had a spot of bother with Russia) unless he got what he wanted. It is not the first time Mr. Trump solicited foreign aid in a presidential election. Should he win re-election and make good his threat to seek a third term*, it won’t be the last.

Such solicitations remain rare in American political history. French minister to the U.S. Pierre Adet did attempt to swing the 1796 presidential election in favor of the Francophile Thomas Jefferson, but did so without Jefferson’s approval and without success. The Confederate States of America would surely have welcomed the election of Democrat George McClellan to the presidency in 1864, but, so far as I know, the CSA spent no resources to ensure Lincoln’s electoral defeat. Nearer our own time, Ronald Reagan’s campaign allegedly offered covert military aid to Iran in return for its retaining American hostages until after the 1980 election. A 1993 Congressional investigation into the so-called “October Surprise” conspiracy found no persuasive evidence.

Does history repeat itself? Sure hope so.
Prior our present Reign of Error, only one U.S. presidential candidate deliberately sought foreign assistance with his election bid: Richard Nixon. (Surprise!) In 1968 Nixon believed that a successful peace accord between North and South Vietnam would help the incumbent party’s candidate, Hubert Humphrey, win the presidency. Through intermediary Anna Chennault, he persuaded the president of South Vietnam to withdraw from peace talks with the North, implying that the RVN government would get a better deal from him than from the Democrats. Instead they got seven more years of war while Nixon got the White House. That Richard Nixon’s presidency ended poorly should hearten those critics of President Trump who hope that history, in this case, will keep repeating itself.

DJT deserves some back-handed credit, I suppose, for revealing the weakness of the safeguards against foreign electoral interference in the U.S. Constitution. The framers of that document did worry that “foreign powers” might seek “to gain an improper ascenden[cy] in our councils…by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union” (Federalist 68). They provided against such interference through the emoluments clause, making it illegal for federal office-holders to receive remuneration or patronage from other sovereigns; through the restriction of the presidency to “natural-born” citizens; and through the institution of the Electoral College, whose members’ good judgment would prevent a foreign potentate’s stooge from winning election. All of these protections proved useless against the Man from Mar-a-Lago. The emergence of political parties turned the Electoral College into a rubber stamp; fanatical primary voters and vote-suppressing state legislatures now play a vastly larger role in choosing presidents. Jus soli electoral qualifications have proven no guarantee of loyalty to the United States, as the hundreds of thousands of American-born men who fought for the Confederacy demonstrated. The emoluments clause hasn’t stopped DJT from raking in money - probably millions of dollars - from foreign governments making use of his real estate. Another clause of the Constitution, identifying bribery as a “high crime and misdemeanor,” hasn’t stopped President Trump from soliciting a bribe, in this case valuable political campaign services, from a foreign government, in this case Ukraine. That clause also identifies bribery as grounds for impeachment, which has proven a clumsy and ineffectual instrument of presidential removal, except in the case of…Richard Nixon. What an odd coincidence.   


* The Constitution currently prohibits twice-elected presidents from seeking another term, but as we’ve noted Mister Trump and his followers have little but contempt for that document.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Mix Tape

Cat Stevens, 1976. Wikimedia Commons
At the end of our first year in college, several of my dorm mates put together that most typical of late-'80s youth artifacts, a mix tape. Each student in our dorm entry contributed one favorite song. I suspect most of us left out guilty or geeky pleasures in favor of something more reflective of our preferred identity. I kept and periodically listen to my copy, and offer here the playlist, for anyone interested in what privileged college freshmen liked to listen to thirty years ago:

1) The Unforgettable Fire - U2
2) Father and Son - Cat Stevens
3) Higher Ground - The Feelies
4) The Bitch Is Back - Elton John
5) In the Winter - Dusty Springfield
6) La Femme Accident - OMD
7) Unexpected Song - Bernadette Peters
8) Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word - Elton John
9) Blue Sky - Allman Brothers Band
10) In the Name of Love - U2
11) On the Road to Find Out - Cat Stevens
12) Black Dog - Led Zeppelin
13) Laura - Billy Joel
14) Runaway - Del Shannon
15) I Get a Kick Outta You - Nancy Sinatra
16) The Powers That Be - Roger Walters
17) Imagine - John Lennon
18) Three Little Birds - Bob Marley*
19) Knights in White Satin - Moody Blues
20) Love the One You're With - Stephen Stills
21) Angels Don't Cry - The Psychedelic Furs
22) I Fought the Law - The Clash
23) Uptown Girl - Billy Joel
24) Songbird - Fleetwood Mac
25) Eyes of the Girl - Wang Chung**
26) Redemption Songs - Bob Marley
27) Rocky Raccoon - The Beatles
28) Suicide Machine - The Germs
29) Bamboleo - Gipsy Kings***
30) Sweet Home Alabama - Lynard Skynard
31) Wonderful Tonight - Eric Clapton

Some agreeable stuff here, but on the whole I find our collective taste rather sedate and old-fashioned. The playlist includes a fair number of show tunes and 1970s popular music, plus a little U2 and a handful of '80s obscuranta, but very little popular music from the decade during which we all attended high school. A historical analogue would be a playlist created by college freshmen in 1969 that included Rogers and Hammerstein tunes, some Fabian and Buddy Holly numbers, a few early '60s folk songs, and nothing by the Beatles or the Who or the Rolling Stones. I have long considered my generation a conservative one, and artifacts like these do not challenge that view.


* As required by law.
** If you liked Wang Chung, you were an insufferable geek. This song was my choice.
*** Probably the best thing on the tape.

Friday, June 28, 2019

To Crush Your Enemies and See Them Driven Before You


Signed one hundred years ago today, the Treaty of Versailles contributed more to the outbreak of World War Two than any other event not named "Adolf Hitler." Meeting amidst the splendors of Louis XIV's palace with representatives of the German state, the victorious Allies kicked their Great War adversaries in the teeth, hard. Germany lost most of its armed forces and twenty-five percent of its territory, and took on a reparations bill of 130 billion marks (about 400 billion dollars in modern currency), a sum so great that it fueled the hyperinflation that ruined the Weimar Republic. Germans also had to accept responsibility for World War One, declaring themselves the sole guilty party and Britain and France spotless victims. The German commissioners had no choice but to accept this humiliating treaty: thousands of their countrymen were dying from Britain's blockade, which the Royal Navy continued after the Armistice to keep Germany on its knees. The British and French planned to keep the German nation in that posture for years to come.

Joseph Finnemore, Signing of the Treaty of Versailles (Public Domain, 1919)
As important as the onerous terms of the Versailles treaty was the Allies' decision to conclude it with a united Germany. The victors of World War One had broken up the other two empires in the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire), but left the German polity of 1871 intact. A.J.P. Taylor drew attention to this peculiarity of the post-1918 peace settlement in Origins of the Second World War (1962). He did not need to explain why the German exception proved a fateful one. When a violent nationalist regime took power in Berlin in the 1930s, and began looking for vengeance, a united Germany's population and resources ensured that it would be able to take revenge on its former conquerors.

Also worth noting: the statesmen at Versailles and the other post-WWI treaty conferences may have thought themselves makers of a lasting peace, but hundreds of thousands of more obscure men still had guns in their hands and wounded pride in their hearts. The guns fell silent in France and Italy but continued their deadly work elsewhere. Germany surrendered, but the reactionary freikorps kept killing in Bavaria and the Baltics, gunning down socialists and Latvian nationalists. Fighting continued on the old Eastern Front for years, until the Bolsheviks triumphed over the counter-revolutionary armies who opposed them. By then over a million people had died, not including those who succumbed to famine in southern Russia and Ukraine. Turkish nationalists did not accept the Allies' colonization of the Ottoman Empire. Under Kemal Ataturk they defeated a Greek army sent to colonize western Anatolia, forced Britain and France out of Istanbul, and created a united Turkish ethnostate. At the southern end of the Ottoman domain, the Saud family cancelled the political victory of Britain's clients, the Hashemites, seizing the Hejaz in 1924-25 and establishing the independent Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Domination and humiliation make poor foundations for peace, particularly if those doing the dominating and humiliating are themselves exhausted by years of war. (See Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End [2016].)

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Birthed in a Shanghai Brothel: The Abdication Crisis and the Creation of Eire


Monarchy's most attractive and most ludicrous feature is its resting of national well-being on the reproductive dynamics of a single family. Walter Bagehot considered this one of hereditary government’s strengths: making family affairs into affairs of state gave every person in the realm, even the most apolitical or disenfranchised, an empathetic connection with the government. On the other hand, marriage and childbearing raise strong and divisive emotions, and predicating a nation’s stability on how those experiences affect one particular clan can prove, shall we say, misguided. The death of childless monarchs led to recurrent political crises and succession wars in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. The marital and extramarital foibles of George IV and Edward VII produced their own upheavals in early modern Britain.

Instability in one country can create political opportunity in another, especially when the other is a colony or dependency of the first. The leaders of the Irish Free State, the uncomfortably-dependent dominion which governed most of Ireland after 1921, found in the controversial marriage plans of a British monarch a unique constitutional opportunity. After winning the national elections of 1932, Eamon de Valera and his Fianna Fail party began whittling away at the Free State’s constitutional dependence on London. Unlike their predecessors in Cumann na nGaedheal, de Valera and his partisans embraced confrontation rather than negotiation. Over Britain’s protests they eliminated the hated oath of allegiance to King George, demoted the governor-general to a figurehead, and refused to pay Ireland’s remaining land annuities, for which Westminster retaliated with costly tariffs on Irish imports. The Irish parliament stopped short of declaring independence because the members knew Ireland lacked the military manpower to enforce such a declaration if Britain objected. Instead, de Valera (“Dev” to his friends) and his colleagues waited for a British political crisis that would distract Westminster and let the Irish peacefully assume more sovereignty.

The crisis and the opportunity came in 1936. The cause was both bewildering (to non-English observers) and perplexing (to Parliament). George V, sovereign of Great Britain and its dominions since 1910, died. His successor Edward VIII announced his intention to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. Simpson’s attractiveness to the Prince of Wales proved hard for his social circle to explain. Some gossips attributed it to her American libertinage, and to dark sexual arts Mrs. Simpson had learned in East Asia, perhaps even in a house of ill repute.* More likely Edward enjoyed the company of a mature adult with her own opinions, one not trained since birth to simper and swoon in the presence of royalty. It didn't hurt that both Wallis and the prince shared similar political opinions: both were deep-dyed racists and Nazi sympathizers, and a common interest in eugenics and fascism surely enlivened their conversations if not their physical intimacies. The heart, at any rate, wants what it wants, and King Ned wanted to marry the woman he had chosen, political consequences be damned.

Really, they all deserved each other.
Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin informed the king that the decision would damn him indeed: his English subjects would not tolerate a sovereign who openly defied the canons of the Church of England. Edward’s regnal duties included the governorship of the C of E, and Anglicans could not marry divorcees unless their new spouses were also widowed. (Wallis wasn’t). While working-class Britons supported the king, as they generally did in the modern era, middle and upper-class Englishmen, along with the Tories in Parliament, unitedly opposed his spousal choice. Baldwin told Edward his government would resign if he went ahead with his unacceptable marriage. Rather than back down or create a political crisis, Edward quit the throne.

No-one was brave enough to tell Dev what "Shanghai Squeeze" meant.

Ireland entered into the abdication controversy via the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty and the 1931 Statute of Westminster. The former made the Free State a dominion within the British Empire, with the same status as white settler societies like Canada. The latter required the consent of all the dominions’ legislatures to approve a change in the royal succession. De Valera had already accelerated the king’s abdication by declaring Catholic Ireland would never accept a divorcee as its queen. When Edward stepped down, Dev and the Irish parliament made it clear they would only accept a new monarch on their own highly restrictive conditions. New laws removed all remaining powers exercised by the king and his officers within Ireland, retaining the monarch only as a ceremonial “organ” of foreign policy. Westminster could perhaps have found a way to block the new legislation, but since the Free State had combined the king's marginalization with its recognition of his kingship, blocking the new Irish laws would essentially have annulled Ireland's approval of the Abdication and called Edward's successor George VI's legitimacy into question. Preoccupied and outmaneuvered, Baldwin and his Cabinet let Fianna Fail's legislative declaration of independence stand. The following year, a new Irish constitution made the monarch's restricted status permanent, and (not coincidentally) changed the country's name to "Eire."

Irish independence remained incomplete, albeit by design. Schools in Ireland remained under the control of a supernational body, the Catholic Church. The 1937 constitution guaranteed preferential treatment of that Church by the state. Indeed, De Valera sent the new constitution to the Vatican for its blessing, a courtesy he extended to Westminster only grudgingly. Even after Ireland proclaimed itself a republic in 1949, its government continued to give the Catholic episcopate a veto on social-welfare policy. Essentially, the Irish state exchanged its political dependence on London for greater moral and social dependence on Rome. An appropriate consequence, perhaps, of an act of political separatism predicated on the abdication of a king who offended the English Establishment's own prudishness. Birth your independent state in a brothel, even a hypothetical one, and you will wind up consigning it to a nunnery.


Sources: A.J.P. Taylor, English History, 1914-1945 (Oxford UP, 2001), 398-402; Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms, 661-663; Cathal Brennan, "The Abdication of Edward VIII and Irish Independence," The Irish Story, 4 March 2011; Joanna Scutts, "Wallis Simpson Was No Bold Forerunner," The New Republic, 6 March 2018.
  



* Allegedly these included the use of kegel exercises to stimulate her partner’s genitals during intercourse, a practice that contemporaries labeled “the Shanghai Squeeze” (after the location of the alleged brothel) or “the Baltimore Grip.”

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Cardinal's Sammarinese Humiliation


Pity the general whose sole claim to fame is the conquest of a tiny or un-resisting nation. Few today recall which German commanders seized Luxembourg in the First World War, or Denmark in the Second. I doubt their exploits bring them much praise in Valhalla, even from fellow militarists and Nazis.

San Marino, present day (via Wikimedia Commons)
Pity still more the military commander who tried to conquer a tiny principality and failed. So doleful a figure was Cardinal Giulio Alberoni, who in the late 1730s decided that the continued independence of San Marino - a microscopic, land-locked republic in northern Italy - affronted the neighboring Papal States. In October 1739 Alberoni and a small force of archers and gunmen took San Marino by siege. They then gathered the conquered nation's leaders at its central church to swear loyalty to the Pope. Instead, the patricians of the 600-year-old republic swore a loyalty oath to San Marino and liberty. The cardinal was not amused. Arrests and confiscations ensued. Once Pope Clement learned of the Sammarinese preference for political self-determination, however, he decided to forego the expense of continued riot control and restored the republic's independence, on 5 February 1740. Alberoni's humiliation became complete.

As they vilified the cardinal, the partisans of San Marino also sought to elevate heroes of their brief struggle for independence. They found one in Antonio Belzoppi, a local leader who during the invasion raced down Mount Titano to seek reinforcements. Cardinal Alberoni sent three men after Belzoppi, with orders to terminate the fugitive. The assassins tracked their quarry to Venice, and chased him by gondola up the Grand Canal. Antonio at last confronted his pursuers and, the story goes, killed all three of them with his stiletto. He also took out the soldiers' gondolier. At the end of the fight Belzoppi fell or was pushed into the canal. As he could not swim - not much opportunity to learn, high on a mountain - this seemed like curtains for Our Hero. But wait! San Marino's patron, Saint Marinus himself, at this moment intervened and taught Belzoppi to swim, a skill he retained just long enough to make it ashore.  

Belzoppi became a national hero. One of his descendants became San Marino's captain-general in the nineteenth century, and hosted Garibaldi during the First War of the Risorgimiento. I regret to say, however, that (as far as I know) the Republic has not erected any monuments to the hapless gondolier whom Belzoppi murdered during the Venice fight. Killing nameless bystanders, and keeping them nameless, would appear to form an essential part of every country's national project.


Source: John Sack, Report from Practically Nowhere (Harper & Brothers, 1959), 128-130.