De Republica Vicit | The Second Punic War

Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.

— Cato the Elder, message to the Roman Senate on numerous occasions —

“Thousands of Roman soldiers lay there, infantry and cavalry scattered everywhere, united in a death which the blind chances of battle or flight had brought upon them. A few, whose wounds had been staunched by the morning frosts, even rose from among the heaps of dead all covered in blood—only to be slaughtered there and then by their enemies. Others were discovered, still alive, but lying there with their knees or hamstrings sliced apart, baring their necks or throats and begging their enemies to drain the rest of their blood. Some were even found with their heads buried in the ground, having dug small pits for themselves and buried their faces in the earth, and then simply smothered themselves to death. The most spectacular sight of all was a Numidian soldier, still alive but lying beneath a dead Roman, with his nose and ears torn to shreds. The Roman had fought to his final breath, and when his hands could no longer hold his weapon, his anger turned to madness, and he died tearing his enemy to pieces with his teeth.”

This was the scene at Cannae in August 216 BC where the Roman Republic suffered the worst defeat in its history at the hands of the Carthaginian warlord Hannibal Barca. The Romans lost at least seventy thousand soldiers of their best-trained armies and one of their commanding generals. Moreover, many of Rome’s allies across the Republic rose up to support the Carthaginians in the hopes of gaining their freedom from the Romans. The morale of the Roman people plummeted. The Battle of Cannae remains one of the greatest examples of total victory on the field in the history of warfare, and strategists have studied it and tried to replicate Hannibal’s success for more than two millennia. And yet it was not the end of the Republic.

“I will use Fire and Steel to Arrest the Destiny of Rome”

Hannibal Barca was born in 247 BC in modern-day Tunisia. His father Hamilcar was a general in the armies of Carthage, the empire which stretched across the North African coast, southern Spain, and the island of Sicily. Carthage had been at war with the Roman Republic for fourteen years, and a year after Hannibal’s birth Hamilcar departed to lead the Carthaginians in the defense of Sicily. Unfortunately for Carthage, they lost the war in 241 andwere forced to pay a heavy indemnity to the Romans. At the age of nine, Hannibal went with his father to Spain, where Carthage planned to expand its empire far from the watchful eyes of the Romans. Hamilcar took the boy to a temple, held him over a roaring fire that burned his feet, and made his son swear that he would always oppose the Romans. As the flames licked his body, Hannibal pledged, “I swear so soon as age will permit…I will use fire and steel to arrest the destiny of Rome.” Satisfied, Hamilcar put his son down and bandaged his wounds.

Hannibal joined the Carthaginian army in Spain at the age of fourteen. When his father died and command passed to his brother-in-law Hasdrubal, Hannibal was one of his senior officers. The Roman historian Livy records that “No sooner had he arrived...the old soldiers fancied they saw Hamilcar in his youth given back to them; the same bright look; the same fire in his eye, the same trick of countenance and features. Never was one and the same spirit more skillful to meet opposition, to obey, or to command.” Hannibal’s hatred of the Romans grew as he fought their allies in Spain and expanded Carthage’s empire across the Iberian Peninsula. He eventually took command of the army in Spain after his brother-in-law Hasdrubal was assassinated. He intended to fulfill the oath he swore as a child and destroy the Romans, but he needed a cassus belli, a cause for war.

The treaty which had ended the First Punic War established a boundary at the Ebro River in northern Spain. The Carthaginians were not permitted to colonize lands or form alliances with cities north of the river, and the Romans would not do the same to the south. As Hannibal’s power in Spain grew, the Romans became nervous and signed an alliance with the city of Saguntum south of the Ebro. This was a clear violation of the treaty, and Hannibal laid siege to Saguntum. This was the start of the Second Punic War.

From the Alps to the Desert

Carthage’s greatest weapons in the field were its North African elephants, who carried men into battle as on horseback. Enemy soldiers often fled before these large beasts, and Hannibal hoped to use them as his main striking force against the Romans. First, though, he had to get into Italy. Elephants could not be transported on warships, so his army of 46,000 infantry and cavalry as well as 38 elephants marched north through southern France and into the Alps. Rome would not be expecting an attack on its northern frontier, Hannibal reasoned. Sadly for the elephants, the harsh conditions in the mountains was too much for them, and very few survived the journey.

After winning two battles against the Romans at the Trebia River and Lake Trasimene in northern Italy in the spring of 216, Hannibal bypassed the city of Rome and invaded southern Italy. He hoped to encourage the Greek city-states which had been subjugated by the Romans a century earlier to rise up, but few did when he arrived. The Romans sent their two consular armies, numbering nearly ninety thousand men, south to confront the Carthaginians. The armies met at Cannae on the “heel” of Italy. The Romans lined up their forces north-to-south in a Greek-style phalanx of three lines, while Hannibal placed his men in a “U” shape with Spanish and Gallic cavalry at the base nearest the Romans and his African infantry and cavalry on the wings further back. When the Romans attacked, the Spaniards and Gauls retreated quickly, drawing the slow but heavily-armored legionaries into a trap. Once the Romans had advanced far enough, Hannibal ordered his cavalry to turn and attack their front while his North African infantry assaulted the flanks. His Numidian cavalry drove away the Roman horsemen and then cut the legionaries off in the rear.

Surrounded, the Romans fought to the death, but fewer than fifteen thousand survived. One of Rome’s two consuls, the leading men in the Republic, was killed on the field and the other barely escaped with his life. When the Senate and people of Rome learned of the disaster at Cannae, there was utter panic in the city. Livy wrote, “Never when the city was in safety was there so great a panic and confusion within the walls of Rome…No other nation surely would not have been overwhelmed by such an accumulation of misfortune.” The people cried out to to gods for help, resorted to human sacrifice, and fled the city for the countryside. But Hannibal failed to take advantage of his stunning success. Many of Rome’s allies in southern Italy had switched sides, and the Republic had lost nearly a quarter of its total military strength. Hannibal could have probably marched on the city of Rome and sacked it, but he chose instead to remain in southern Italy. He believed that Rome would eventually surrender.

Many of the Roman survivors at Cannae fled to the town of Canusium, where their leaders met to discuss what to do. One of the tribunes was Publius Cornelius Scipio, a young man whose father was commanding the Roman defenses in Spain now under attack by Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal. During the council of war, the two other surviving tribunes suggested they escape Italy and offer their services as mercenaries to a Greek king. Scipio was outraged when he learned of this and strode into the middle of the group with his sword drawn. The historian Livy records his words:

“I swear with all the passion in my heart that I will never desert our homeland, or permit any other citizen of Rome to leave her in the lurch. If I willfully break my oath may Jupiter, Greatest and Best, bring me to a shameful death, with my house, my family, and all I possess! Swear the same oath, Caecilius! And the rest of you, swear it too. If anyone refuse, against him this sword is drawn.”

With these words, Scipio rallied his men, and when he returned to Rome he was unanimously elected proconsul and given command of a new army. The war would continue. The Senate appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus dictator with full power over the Republic to defeat the Carthaginians. Fabius worked with Scipio to devise a strategy that has since borne his name whereby the Romans would defeat the Carthaginians without fighting a major battle against Hannibal in southern Italy.

Scipio took his army to Spain in 211 BC—where his father and uncle had recently fallen in battle against Hasdrubal—and he immediately launched a surprise attack on New Carthage, the base of Hannibal’s power in Spain. At the same time, small Roman armies (which taken together outnumbered Hannibal’s) raided towns and villages in southern Italy and slowly weakened Hannibal’s forces. If Hannibal’s main army marched toward them, they would retreat and refuse him battle. To summarize, Rome’s main striking power would be employed against the weak Carthaginian forces in Spain, while small Roman armies would keep Hannibal’s troops in Italy. This was the essence of the Fabian strategy.

Scipio’s campaign in Spain lasted for six years and was a complete success for Rome. As he marched across the peninsula and liberated one town after another, he sent vast amounts of treasure, food, resources, and slaves back to Rome to be distributed equally to the people (making him wildly popular with the masses). Rome’s wealth and power rose with each victory as Carthage slowly faded. In 207 BC Hannibal summoned his brother Hasdrubal to join him in Italy, but Scipio defeated his army at Baecula and killed one-third of the Carthaginians.

Hasdrubal escaped but was then attacked by another Roman force once he had crossed into northern Italy. At the Battle of the Metaurus, Hasdrubal was decisively beaten. His army retreated, and he charged with the rearguard into the Roman lines and was captured and beheaded. Two years later, Scipio won the final battle in Spain at Ilipia and completed his conquest of Carthaginian Spain. He returned to Rome a hero. Hannibal’s army in Italy, now growing weary and hungry from constant Roman raids, was the only Carthaginian force left in Europe. In 205 BC, Scipio was proclaimed consul and sailed for Sicily.

He planned to invade North Africa and lay siege to Carthage itself, but political opposition hindered his efforts. Fabius believed that an attack on the city of Carthage would be disastrous for Rome and hoped that they might surrender without a pitched battle. Scipio raised a force from the Roman garrison at Sicily at his own expense and landed in North Africa with an army of forty thousand men. He quickly destroyed a Carthaginian army at Utica. The constant reversals of fortune for Carthage drove most of its allies in Italy and North Africa back into the arms of the Romans. Scipio opened negotiations with the leaders of Carthage and offered moderate peace terms, and the Carthaginians accepted a truce. However, they almost immediately broke it and recalled Hannibal to North Africa. He arrived with some of his soldiers as a nucleus for his new army and met Scipio’s undefeated Romans at the plains of Zama between Utica and Carthage.

The Battle of Zama in 202 BC was an almost blow-for-blow reenactment of the Battle of Cannae fourteen years earlier. The two sides lined up in standard battle formation, but Scipio had made a slight change to Rome’s deployments. Instead of forming three unbroken lines across the battlefield, each maniple was deployed with a space between it that would be filled by another one from the row behind (much like checkers on a board). This gave them greater maneuverability and allowed the first rank to charge into an enemy line and then bring in the second to exploit weaknesses and break through.

Hannibal moved first, sending in his eighty war elephants and missile troops to rain darts and rocks down on the Romans. The legionaries pulled back to draw the Carthaginians in, but the Roman cavalry on the flanks remained in place—creating a “U” shape on the field. The horsemen then charged the Carthaginian elephants, hacking at their legs and sending them into a panicked frenzy. The beasts threw their riders to the ground and trampled both Roman and Carthaginian alike as they ran amok. The Roman cavalry then turned and drove the Numidian riders in Hannibal’s army away as the main Carthaginian infantry charged. Using their new “checkerboard” lines, the Romans broke the Carthaginian phalanx to pieces. Scipio fought in the line with his men, leaving overall command to one of his subordinates. By midday, the first and second Carthaginian lines had broken and fled, and Hannibal was on the field with his last and strongest soldiers.

Both armies were exhausted, and a brief pause ensued. The two generals met between the armies for single combat, which was inconclusive. Scipio’s horse was hit by a spear thrown by Hannibal, and Hannibal’s shield was splintered by Scipio’s sword. Hannibal then ordered a charge, and the battle resumed. The Carthaginians managed to push the Romans back a few hundred yards, but at that point the Roman cavalry appeared behind Hannibal’s army and attacked. The tables had been turned on the Carthaginian warlord—he was now as surrounded as his enemies had been at Cannae. In all, more than half of Hannibal’s army of forty thousand men were slain at Zama and the rest fell prisoner to the Romans.

“Carthago Delenda Est.”

The Romans imposed a harsh peace on the Carthaginians in 202 BC. Their empire was taken from them and their lands reduced to a small piece of territory around the city. The government was removed and replaced with pro-Roman bureaucrats, and the Roman Senate was given veto power over Carthage’s ability to declare war. The city was also forced to hand over ninety percent of its revenue each month to the Roman treasury. In short, Carthage was bankrupt and could never again challenge Rome’s dominion of the Mediterranean world.

Hannibal Barca escaped the defeat at Zama and became a leading statesman in the new Carthage. He tried to restore some of his city’s former glory, but in 195 BC he was exiled because the Romans suspected he was plotting a new war. He fled to serve in the armies of the Seleucid emperor of Asia Antiochus III. When the Romans invaded Greece and fought the Seleucids, Hannibal served his master faithfully but was unable to stop Rome’s inexorable advance. He learned that the Seleucids were prepared to give him to the Romans as part of a peace treaty, and he took his own life rather than fall into his enemy’s hands.

Publius Cornelius Scipio returned to Rome and received a triumph and the name “Africanus” for his victory. He remained in the Senate as a voice of reason and moderation in the Republic’s dealings with Carthage. However, as Carthage slowly recovered its economic strength, many Romans began to fear their old enemy might rise against them a third time. Whenever he spoke on the floor of the Senate, Marcus Porcius Cato ended every speech (regardless of the topic) with the phrase “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam,” or “Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed.” Scipio opposed Cato’s warmongering, but in the end he was forced into retirement and died in relative obscurity in 187 BC (the same year that Hannibal committed suicide).

The Romans eventually followed Cato’s advice. In 149 BC, Carthage declared war on Numidia, Rome’s ally in modern-day Algeria, without the Senate’s permission. This gave the Romans cause for war, and an army was dispatched under Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, an adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus. The Romans slaughtered a small mercenary force Carthage had paid to fight its war and then laid siege to the city for three years. The half-million Carthaginians defended their city valiantly, but in the end the might of Rome was simply too much. When the city fell, the Romans massacred nine in ten Carthaginians and sold the surviving fifty thousand—mostly women and children—into slavery. They then systematically burned the entire city and turned its lands over to Italian colonists to resettle in the new Roman province of Africa.

The Turning Point: The Wealth of Rome

Before the Second Punic War, the Roman Republic was confined to the Italian peninsula and the islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. The conquests of 216-202 BC, and especially the massive influx of wealth and slaves and their distribution to Roman citizens created a fierce appetite for more glorious victories in new lands. The Second Punic War was the spark that led to two centuries of almost endless warfare in Europe, West Asia and North Africa that saw the Roman Republic spread from Italy across the Mediterranean Sea, swallowing up not just Carthage and its lands in Spain, southern France and North Africa but also the Greek successor kingdoms to Alexander the Great.

More importantly, the Roman people began to embrace not the rule of the Senate and its laws but any general who gave them spoils of war and triumph parades with their attendant gifts of gold and slaves. Scipio Africanus was the first of these men, but he was hardly the last. When he opposed a third war with Carthage, he was cast aside in favor of more aggressive leaders like Cato. When Gaius Marius arose a century later and reformed the legions to give penniless peasants a chance to win glory and wealth if they fought in the army, he was embraced by the Roman mob. His opponent, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, likewise paid spoils of war to the people during his dictatorship. The conflict between Marius and Sulla then set the stage for the downfall of the Roman Republic and its transformation into an empire ruled by one man.

Sulla’s chief lieutenant in his campaigns was Gnaeus Pompey, a champion of the elites and the status quo of oppressing the masses. Marius’ nephew by marriage, Gaius Julius Caesar, opposed Pompey and hoped to win himself the Roman throne. The war between Pompey and Caesar brought about the end of the Republic, the creation of the Roman Empire under Julius Caesar’s adopted grand-nephew Octavian—later Caesar Augustus —and the unification of the Western world under the boots of the Roman legionary.


Securing Foundations | Philip of Macedonia

“My son, ask for thyself another kingdom. The one I leave to you is too small for your ambitions.” - Philip of Macedonia

Maps were spread across the table in front of him, and though he had been pouring over them all night, he had not said a word. His advisors had stopped asking questions as the night wore on. The answers they received into the dark hours were simple, straightforward, and terse. The more questions his advisors asked the more agitated the king’s tone had become. The fire in the hearth was coals. The wine was gone, and the morning light was just starting to break over the horizon.

The King stared at the maps. He knew he had nothing. The kingdom in front of him was a collection of lands with undefined borders defended by farmers and goat-herders. Illyrians crossed the border at their whim, unchallenged and becoming more brazen every day. Years of neglect had decimated his army, rendering their battle tactics and strategies obsolete. His foes saw his country as backwards and primitive, a joke that was brought up at parties and dismissed just as quickly.

He sat back in his chair, took a piece of parchment, and drew a triangle. Then he closed his eyes and remembered seeing that formation when he was a prisoner in Thebes. It had sliced into a line of men, cutting them in half, causing confusion and chaos that was used as an advantage.

At last, either by exhaustion or irritation, one of his advisers spoke. “What must be done? What must we change?”

Philip of Macedonia looked across the table at him. He didn’t blink. “Everything.”

Philip the Man

Philip of Macedonia was born between 385-383 B.C. and was the youngest of three brothers born to the Macedonian King Amyntas III and his wife Eurydice I. At the time of his birth and throughout his early life, Greece was a collection of city-states each with their own government, culture, and ruling parties. Unlike most of the city-states, Macedonia was a monarchy and as a result was seen by its neighbors as backwards, simple, and good for nothing but pastureland and harvesting timber.

Early in his life, Philip was sent as a hostage—an unfortunate practice at the time—to Illyria and then in Thebes. It was in Thebes where he was given extensive military, tactical, and diplomatic training. Part of this training was witnessing the creation and application of the Theban Wedge which was comprised as a tight formation of troops in a triangle that hit an opponent’s line at a direct point, overwhelming them immediately. When Philip returned to Macedonia in 364 BC, he brought with him an education that would become vital for his personal ambition for future expansion.

As the youngest, Philip was not in line to assume the throne. Even when his two older brothers were killed he was instituted as a regent until his brother’s infant son was set to take the throne when he grew up. Through bribery, determination, and threats, he was able to assume the throne in that same year at the age of 23. Upon taking the throne, Philip immediately turned his attention to the impending threats to the north and west of his kingdom. Strengthened by the victory over Philip’s brother, Illyria was organizing its forces to invade while Paeonia took a position to the west with the intent to cut the country into pieces. Mustering as many remaining forces as he could, Philip went first at the Paeonians who represented the weaker of his two enemies. After crushing them decisively, he then turned his attention to Illyria. Attacking with ten thousand infantry and six hundred cavalry, he defeated them in a battle near Monastir. To set an example, Philip ordered his cavalry to pursue the enemy in their retreat, killing seven thousand of them in the process.

With the immediate threats temporarily gone, Philip worked to strengthened alliances with several neighboring city-states by promising tribute, thereby securing specific fronts. This immediate, quasi-peace allowed Philip to pursue larger ambitions while quelling suspicions from his Greek neighbors for the moment. He then shifted his attention to strengthening his internal position and the army. Throughout this period, it is evident that Philip’s goal was not to simply stabilize his kingdom, but to expand it beyond its newly-defined borders into all of Greece and finally, the known world.

Philip the Reformer

Throughout his early campaigns against Illyria and Paeonia, Philip tested new tactics with his beleaguered army which had proven effective. He knew that to defeat the Greek phalanx, he had to devise new strategies and technologies for his new army. In addition, defeating the Persians required a complete redevelopment of military capabilities.

First, he had to solve the logistical problem. He knew his army would be deployed over great distances for long periods of time. Without a new method of resupply and reinforcement, he knew this would not be sustainable. Second, classic military strategy when attacking a city was to lay siege to it. This would slow his advance, required more men, and utilize more resources than he was able to expend. Third, he needed new formations and technologies that would be effective against both the Greeks and the Persians. The Greek phalanx was almost unbeatable and Persian cavalry was known to be nigh unstoppable. Finally, a new type of strategy was needed that would encourage battlefield mobility over traditional infantry tactics.

His first task was to rebuild the army. To accomplish this, he required that one in every ten able- bodied men serve in the army with regular pay and training. This transformed the military from a group of militia, farmers, and goat-herders into a regular army. With the ranks now swelling, Philip then reconstituted the infantry into battalions of four thousand men each. The phalanx itself was also deepened. The men in each phalanx were trained in advanced deployment tactics that utilized the aforementioned Theban Wedge to cut through the enemy lines. With these changes, the new Macedonian phalanx was a selfcontained fighting unit could maneuver independently. This permitted greater flexibility on the battlefield.

With his new army being built, Philip needed to solve the logistics problem. He reduced the number of camp followers which allowed him to devote more resources to his fighting men. Those attendants that did move with the army would act as a logistics corps, responsible for maintaining inventories and equipment for each unit. Oxen were replaced with horses and mules. Soldiers were responsible for carrying their own equipment and supplies. These changes allowed the army to move much faster, thirteen miles per day for infantry and forty miles day for cavalry units. Taken together, these logistical reforms made it possible to achieve strategic surprise.

With his new army and improved logistics, Philip had developed the new tools of war. Chief among these technologies was the invention of the sarisa, a sixteen- to twenty-foot-long pike which was longer than those used by the traditional Greek phalanxes, and the development of siege weapons to end the well-known strategy of blockade and starvation. With the longer pikes, his phalanx could strike the enemy first. With their strategy, his army could wedge into the traditional Greek phalanx, stop the Persian cavalry advance, and envelop the enemy with heavy cavalry on the flank. Within three years, he had forged a new army that was faster than any of his enemies, and new battle tactics that would serve his ambition through the rest of his life.

For the next twenty years, Philip conducted 29 military operations and eleven sieges, capturing 44 cities in all. Through these campaigns he conquered the Greek city-states eventually subjugating them under Macedonian rule. As one city-state after another fell to him, Philip turned his attention to the Spartans saying, "If I win this war, you will be slaves forever", to which the Spartans replied, “If.”

It is important to note that during this time Philip had both failures and successes. What defined him as a great leader was his ability to regroup and attack again after each failure. A prime example of this was the Battle of Chaeronea, where he engaged both the Athenians and the Thebans. Before this battle, Philip had conducted a series of unsuccessful sieges in Perinthus and Byzantium which compromised his influence all over Greece. His victory Battle of Chaeronea reversed this failure as he soundly defeated both armies and completed his conquest.

Once the war was over, Philip constructed the League of Corinth, which brought together most of the city-states under one flag, establishing Macedonian hegemony over all Greece. The agreement within the league was that no military action would be taken against one another save to quell internal rebellions. The League of Corinth created a lasting peace in Greece. With internal and regional issues temporarily resolved, Philip was able to turn his attention to the ultimate prize. He presented his plans to invade the Persian Empire to the League of Corinth shortly after his victory at Chaeronea. After receiving Greek support, he dispatched over ten thousand men to establish a beachhead in Ionia. He was to follow them soon after, but personal matters on the home front were beginning to catch up to him.

Philip the “Family Man”…and His Assassination

By the title alone, I hope you, our audience, deduces that Philip was in fact not a family man, even by ancient standards. His marriages were the result of peace treaties and alliances, most of which he broke anyway. In all, he was married seven times, the most prominent of which was to Olympias, who bore him a son name Alexander, who would be educated by Aristotle and show a fiercer ambition than even his father.

Throughout the course of his early life, Alexander rose in intelligence, prominence, and influence, all of which caused repeated clashes between father and son. These culminated at the wedding between Philip and his final wife, Eurydice, where Philip and Alexander almost came to blows due to comments from Alexander’s uncle regarding who would assume the throne after Philip. Olympias, who was also present and still married to Philip, went into voluntary exile for a short period of time, taking Alexander with her. It was during her exile, that the notoriously jealous Olympias may have actively plotted the assassination of Philip in order to place her son on the throne. Unfortunately for historians, the ultimate motive remains unclear, with some speculating that the assassination was the result of a spurned lover while others – including Alexander himself, insisted it was a Persian plot to discourage Macedonia’s ambition to invade.

In 336 B.C. Phillip entered the theatre in Aegea for the celebration of the marriage of his daughter by Olympias. As the king entered the theater, he was killed by Pausanias, one of his seven bodyguards. Pausanias and his cohorts tried to make their escape before being overtaken and executed. The motives remain unclear; whatever the reason, Philip’s death opened the door for Olympias to pull the political strings she had been sewing for two years. Within a few months, she had Philip’s new wife and infant son murdered, securing Alexander’s claim to the throne and ensuring her place within the royal court.

Turning Point: Securing Foundations

Alexander the Great and his conquering of the known world is well documented and has been the subject of countless books, movies, and historical intrigue. He is singularly credited with the achievement, casting a shadow over all others who directly influenced his ascension and success. Philip of Macedonia is one such case.

Without the immediate action taken by Philip to secure and define the borders of Macedonia, the kingdom would have almost certainly have fallen or been reduced to a minor player within the Greek world. Without the tireless work to reinvent the military, the introduction of new tactics and technologies, and the application of a new ambitious strategy, Alexander would not have held the tactical advantages that lead to many of his victories. Finally, without the whole of Greece under the Macedonian flag, Alexander the Great would have had to spend years subjugating the different city-states before launching his famous campaign against Persia. Sure, there would have been conquest – after all he was his father’s son – but that conquest would have hindered by years of planning, preparation, and internal skirmishes. In summary, without Philip there would not have been the Alexander we read about today.

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Persia Defeated | The Battles of Thermopylae and Salamis

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”

— Poem by Simonides on a tablet at Thermopylae, translated by Steven Pressfield —

A group of boys sit beneath a tree on hard wooden benches around their tutor, a man whose face is lined with many summers. Like most children they fidget, wishing they could be playing in the fields outside the city walls. The tutor waits for silence and then begins to speak. His words draw them in, painting pictures of the sad history of their country as he tells stories of the gods and heroes of old. The man’s voice begins softly but rises like a wave as he warms to his topic and tells of the rise and fall of Greece.

By the dawn of the 5th century BC, the Persian Empire stretched across the known world, from the Hindu Kush in modern-day Afghanistan to the Ionian coast of Turkey. Forged by the mighty King Cyrus the Great, Persia united all peoples of the Near East into a single nation but one which respected many traditions and cultures. The Persians simply demanded that their subjects respect the authority of the king and his governors, pay their taxes, and send soldiers to fight in the army when called upon. To solemnize this pledge, emissaries were sent to the nations of the world to collect earth and water, symbols of the fruits and the lands of their peoples.

Of course, not everyone willingly submitted to Persian rule. On the west coast of modern Turkey, a collection of Greek city-states had cherished their freedom and bristled under the rule of the Persian governors. In 499 BC, these Greeks revolted against King Darius I with the support of Athens, the largest and wealthiest of the city-states in Greece. The revolt was crushed, and the Persians imposed a generous peace settlement on the rebels after executing their leaders. Darius then sent his emissaries into Greece to collect earth and water from its citystates. The Athenians murdered these ambassadors, while the Spartans threw them into a well and told to collect the earth and water themselves. The Greek city-states were now at war with Persia.

The first Persian invasion of Greece failed with their defeat at Marathon in 490 by the Athenians. Darius died four years later, and his son Xerxes I planned to complete his father’s mission and defeat the troublesome Greeks. His army, numbering between one hundred and three hundred thousand soldiers (far smaller than the figure given by the Greek historian Herodotus of over two million) crossed the Hellespont into Greece on two pontoon bridges. The overwhelming power of Persia now evident, many city-states in northern Greece voluntarily sent earth and water to Xerxes’ camp; they would make no trouble.

The Athenians had no intention of submitting to Xerxes; they cherished their democracy and were preparing for war. Their strategos Themistocles, a veteran of Marathon, had become the most influential politician in the city and poured money into the construction of a fleet of ships capable of defeating the Persian navy. The Spartans, though always ready for a fight, initially balked at waging war during the Carneia, a religious festival during which bloodshed was forbidden. In the end, only three hundred Spartans marched north to join the fight, led by their king, Leonidas I. The plan was simple—hold the Persians back at the “hot gates” of Thermopylae 85 miles northwest of Athens long enough for the Athenian fleet to be ready for war and for the Carneia to pass and the rest of Sparta to take up arms. As the Spartan men departed, their wives and mothers handed them their shields with the words, “Come back with this shield or on it.”

Battle at the “Hot Gates”

Thermopylae in 480 BC looked much different than it does to visitors at the battlefield today. The plain stretched about one hundred meters north from high, rocky hills to the Gulf of Malia, and the Persian army would have to march in columns across it to enter Attica and reach Athens and the Peloponnesian city-states beyond. (Today, the battlefield is far larger due to changes in tides and sedimentation.) Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans were joined by between four- and six thousand other Greek hoplites, and they planned to deploy their phalanx from the rocky ground to the sea and force the Persians to channel their enormous army into the pass, thus negating their advantage in numbers. The Greek phalanx was formed by soldiers carrying long spears and wide shields which protected both themselves and the man to their left in an interlocking wall of wood and bronze. As long as the phalanx remained unbroken, Leonidas believed, the Persians could hurl their soldiers at it but would not pass.

Xerxes and his warriors were skilled fighters but had little experience in this kind of terrain. Much of his navy had been sunk in a storm, so he could not get around the Greeks by sea—he had to make a direct, frontal attack. In mid-August 480 BC, the Persians were spotted on the north shore of the Gulf of Malia opposite Thermopylae, and the Greek leaders met together to set out a plan. Some urged retreat, but Leonidas insisted that the battle would be fought at the “hot gates.” When one of his soldiers commented that the barbarian Persians’ arrows would fill the sky and block out the sun, the historian Plutarch wrote that Leonidas replied laconically, “Won’t it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?” Xerxes sent an emissary to the Greek camp and offered peace and friendship, which was refused. He then sent a handwritten message with a second court official ordering Leonidas and the other Greeks to “lay down their arms.” Leonidas famously responded, “Molòn labé,” “come and take them” (words now engraved upon his statue at Thermopylae).

The first wave of Persians who attacked the phalanx was “cut to ribbons,” according to the historian Ctesias, and fewer than ten Greeks were lost. Xerxes stood up from his throne three times as he watched the battle, a clear sign of his displeasure and unbelief that the Greeks could stand against his mighty armies. He then deployed the ten thousand Immortals, the best-trained soldiers in all of Persia, who also failed to break the phalanx. The Greeks fought all day, rotating units out of the line to prevent battle fatigue, and when night fell the ground was still theirs. On the second day, a third assault failed to break the lines because the Greeks—using a common Spartan tactic—appeared to retreat at several points to lure the enemy deeper into the pass and then turned and slaughtered their enemies. At a council of war that afternoon, Xerxes met with his generals and asked them how to break the phalanx. None of them had an answer for their king.

Then, fortune turned against Leonidas and in Xerxes’ favor. A Greek traitor by the name of Ephialtes informed the Persian ruler of a small goat path in the hills above Thermopylae that could bring his troops around to the Greeks’ rear and cut them off. Ephialtes hoped to be rewarded by Xerxes for his betrayal, but history does not record his fate. During the night, the surviving Immortals and other Persian auxiliaries moved quietly up into the hills following Ephialtes and, as dawn approached, hid in the dense brush awaiting orders.

The goat path was being watched by a contingent of Greeks, but they were scattered by Persian arrows. When a runner arrived at the camp that night and informed Leonidas and the other Greek leaders that they had been flanked, Leonidas released his allies from their service. His three hundred Spartans would stay and hold the Persians back as long as they could. At dawn, about two thousand Greeks (nearly one-third of their total strength) took the field while the rest pulled back. They formed up in the open, rather than between the hills and the gulf, and awaited the Persians’ arrival. When Xerxes’ army approached, another five hundred Greeks turned and fled.

Surrounded, the Greeks charged. They fought with spears and, when all had been broken, with their short swords. Two of Xerxes’ sons were killed in this melee. King Leonidas was cut down by a Persian arrow during the attack, and when their leader fell, the Spartans and surviving Greeks took his body with them as they pulled back up a low rise near their camp for a last stand. Rather than waste his soldiers’ lives, Xerxes ordered his archers to fire on the hill, and every last Greek still standing was slain.

The Battle of Thermopylae has conjured many stories, myths and legends in the minds of those who hear of the Spartans’ bravery (many of which we will cover in the discussion section of this podcast). But it was an unquestioned defeat for the Greeks. Xerxes continued his assault on Greece, destroying one city-state after another who refused to surrender earth and water to him. He laid waste to Athens itself in September 480, and much of the city’s public buildings— including the Acropolis—and its historic texts and treasures were burned. Yet the Greeks did not change tactics; the geography of Greece favored the defensive, and the four-mile-wide Isthmus of Corinth connecting the mainland to the Peloponnesian Peninsula beckoned as a last line of defense. The Greeks built a wall across the Isthmus and destroyed every road leading to it and then awaited the Persian assault. But it was not to be.

“Now is the Struggle for all Things”

In the months since the loss of his fleet in a storm, Xerxes had received fresh ships from Lydia and Ionia and was now planning to land troops in the Peloponnese, bypassing the Greek defenses at Corinth. Had he succeeded, Greece probably would have lost the war and, given the fate of Athens, been left in ruins. To do this, he needed first to destroy the Greek fleet, which was in the Straits of Salamis helping the Athenians evacuate their city. The Greeks, led by the Athenian strategos Themistocles, saw an opportunity to draw the Persian fleet in and, hopefully, destroy the enemy and save their homeland.

Exactly how the events which led to the Battle of Salamis unfolded are shrouded in mystery, but history does record that Themistocles sent a servant to Xerxes and tell the king that Themistocles hoped for a Persian victory. The servant then laid his master’s trap—he told the Persians that the Peloponnesian Greeks (whose homelands were still intact) wanted to retreat from Salamis while the Atticans (led by the Athenians) wished to remain at Salamis to help the fleeing survivors from Athens. All Xerxes had to do, the servant insisted, was block the entrance to the Bay of Salamis, and victory would be his. This is the most important military lesson of the Battle of Salamis: that disinformation is often just as important as armed strength on the battlefield.

Xerxes now ordered his fleet to move, but his own command was not unified in his decision to attack; Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, a Greek fighting for Persia, insisted to her master that he need not risk a battle, but she was overruled. The Persian fleet outnumbered the Greeks at least two-to-one, meaning that Xerxes had enough ships to both attack at Salamis and land troops on the Peloponnese, but he chose to risk it all in the naval battle. As the ruins of Athens still smoldered in the distance and his slaves set up a throne on Mount Aigaleo, Xerxes watched Persian triremes row into the bay. As the Persians approached, the Greek hoplites aboard their ships sang a battle hymn:

O sons of the Greeks, go,

Liberate your country, liberate

Your children, your women, the seats of your fathers’ gods,

And the tombs of your forbearers: now is the struggle for all things.

The Greek ships initially backed away to gain time and draw more of the enemy fleet into the narrow bay (as they had done at Thermopylae). There is no complete account of the battle in any historical record, as no one was in a position to see the entire battlefield. Ancient historians instead tell individual stories of what happened at Salamis. Xerxes’ brother Ariabgnes, an admiral in the Persian fleet, was killed early in the fighting on the Greek left flank and his body flung into the sea by Greek hoplites. Queen Artemisia accidentally rammed another Persian ship in an attempt to get away from an enemy, which probably saved her life; Xerxes, watching from his throne on Mount Aigaleo above the bay, is said to have commented, “my men have become women, and my women men.” As the battle turned against the Persians, many of their ships tried to retreat but were ambushed by Greeks from Corinth, who rammed at least a dozen Persian triremes and then landed hoplites on the beaches to finish off the survivors. When a Phoenician crew whose ship had been sunk arrived before Xerxes’ throne to make a report, the captain mocked the sailing abilities of other non-Phoenician Persians. Xerxes, now enraged by his defeat, had the captain and crew beheaded for slandering “more noble men.” He then threatened to massacre the Phoenician people back home for these insults, causing the entire Phoenician contingent of his fleet to withdraw to save themselves and their families.

The Persian fleet was decimated at Salamis, losing more than half its strength and ending the threat of a seaborne invasion of the Peloponnese. Xerxes’ generals, who believed that Persia’s strength was in men and horses and not ships, urged him to attack the wall at Corinth. But Xerxes refused; he though that when word of this defeat reached the Greek city-states to the north who had surrendered to him, they might rise up and destroy his bridges across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe. That would spark a general revolt across the empire and be the end of Persia.

Aftermath: Plataea, the Delian League, and the Downfall of Greece Xerxes left behind a force of ninety thousand well-trained soldiers in Greece before departing for home with the bulk of his army. Led by General Mardonius, this army burned Athens a second time and hoped to draw the Greeks into battle outside the wall at Corinth. However, the victory at Salamis had done as Xerxes had feared, and the city-states rose against their Persian oppressors and rallied to the defense of their land. In August 479 BC, a year after the defeat at Thermopylae, a force of nearly eighty thousand Greeks attacked the Persians at Plataea, utterly destroying what remained of Xerxes’ army in Greece. When Xerxes was assassinated fourteen years later, his dream of a Persian-dominated Greece died with him.

The sense of unity among the Greeks created by a common enemy did not survive the end of the Persian Wars. Over the next half-century, the two great city-states of Athens and Sparta grew to distrust each other. Themistocles urged the Athenians to rebuild their walls and navy instead of relying on Sparta for a protection. For this, he was ostracized by his own people and fled Greece. He found a new career as the Persian governor of Magnesia on the Ionian coast of Turkey in service to King Artaxerxes I, his old nemesis’ son and heir. Ultimately, Athens and Sparta would divide the Greek world between them and fight a 27-year-war that weakened both city-states. Other city-states then arose and were clawed down, and the power of Greece began to wane. As the tutor speaks these words, a boy raises his hand. Turning to the young man, the tutor says, “Yes, Alexander?”

The Turning Point: Loss of Greek Culture

The burning of Athens was a tremendous loss, both to the Greeks at the time and to students of history. It also presaged what could have happened had the Spartans not bought time for the Greeks to rally at Thermopylae or the city-states to come together to win the Battle of Salamis. The Persians did not simply burn the city of Athens; they also murdered many of its citizens and singled out its intellectual and cultural leaders. Given the later importance of Greek thinkers and artisans to Western, and indeed to world, history, the destruction of Greece at Persia’s hands would have meant that the Roman conquests of the Western world would not have been tempered by Greek ideas of logic, reason, and the pursuit of the good life. There would have been no Socrates to give us the foundation of Western education: the pursuit of knowledge by embracing ignorance and asking “why.” There would have been no Plato to propose the idea that the people should be ruled by those in society best able to lead. There would have been no Aristotle, without whom the disciplines of science, philosophy, and politics in the Western world would not exist. In short, our world today would be a very different place.


The Trail of the Past | Turning Points in History

History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.

— Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Book Two —

Welcome back to 15-Minute History! I’m Jon Streeter, and it is a pleasure to be back with you today to walk in history’s footsteps fifteen minutes at a time. This season, Joe and I wanted to share some of history’s great turning points with you and to show how individuals and groups have shaped our lives by their actions. As always, we hope that this labor of love brings you a new appreciation for history and opens your eyes to the amazing stories of the past.

Turning points are events in which the general course of history is altered. The term is often applied to military history where battles like Saratoga, Gettysburg, or Stalingrad shifted the balance of power from one side to the other. In many ways, every time we get out of bed in the morning we are turning history, because history is shaped by each one of us. Historians can identify turning points only in hindsight (unlike cable news anchors, who regularly say that “America is at a crossroads” or such and such an event is a “turning point” in a presidency).

It is important to bear these facts in mind. We can never know how the events which shape our world, our nation, or our own lives may change the direction of our destiny. We may never see how our own actions—positive or negative—will affect other people. Most of the men and women we will be discussing this season did not seek to make dramatic changes in the course of human events (though some did), but by their actions they created our world today. Bear that in mind as you listen this season. You never know if your actions might just be a turning point in your life or the life of someone close to you.

Today, I would like to present you with three short turning points in history. Two of them certainly deserve their own full episode and, hopefully, will be given this honor in a future season; the third is an interesting counterfactual, a “turning point that could have been.” It is important to note that this season will not be a run of alternative histories or speculations about “what if” such and such had happened. As always here on 15-Minute History we stick to the facts, but by exploring each of these selections today and in the full season, and indeed by asking ourselves occasionally what may have happened if history had taken a different turn, we can see the importance of each one of these events and the role they played in shaping our world.

“Like a Ray of Light”

Around the year 1439, a German goldsmith living in Strasbourg hatched a plan to sell holy relics from the Emperor Charlemagne to religious pilgrims visiting the imperial city of Aachen. He found investors from across the Holy Roman Empire to fund his collection of these relics, but each time they asked to be repaid, he claimed he needed a bit more time. Medieval historians record that when he was confronted by an irate Swiss businessman, Johannes Gutenberg insisted he did not have the money but promised that he would share a secret with his colleague, one that had come to him “like a ray of light.” That secret is believed to have been movable type.

The Swiss businessman’s reaction is not recorded, but given that Gutenberg was not sent to debtor’s prison—at least as far as we know—he was likely satisfied. There are, however, many court records which survive from the period that indicate Gutenberg was a bit of a fraudster; he swindled a wealthy tradesman who had paid to be taught how to polish gems, had broken a marriage promise to a Strasbourg maiden named Ennelin, and later in life he was sued by a moneylender from Mainz called Johann Fust for the large sum of sixteen hundred guilders that had paid for his inventions.

By 1450, Gutenberg had completed his first printing press and used it to create copper engravings and a paper copy of a German poem. His first printed book was his most famous: the Gutenberg Bible, of which 180 copies were printed on paper or vellum. However, five years later, Gutenberg was bankrupted by the Fust lawsuit and lost control of his printing press and half of his Bibles. This led to serious competition between the two men, both of whom claimed to have printed the first copies of holy Scripture, with Fust working in his new shop in Strasbourg and Gutenberg now set up in the Bavarian city of Bamberg. Historians differ on who actually invented movable type because these records are sparse and often contradictory.

Whoever invented movable type—whether Gutenberg, Fust, or a Dutch inventor called Laurens Janszoon Coster from Haarlem who is also sometimes credited with the discovery—this new way of disseminating ideas quickly turned the entire course of European history. It allowed Italian Renaissance scholars like Francesco Petrarch to spread their ideas of humanism and begin to loosen the Roman Catholic Church’s vice-like grip on European civil society; it gave revolutionary scientists like Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei a chance to challenge scientific orthodoxy; and it gave voice to religious reformers such as Jan Hus and Martin Luther. Moving forward, the printed word brought about revolutions in the areas of politics, economics, and history but also in medicine, fine arts, and even sports. Until the invention of radio, television and the Internet, the printing press was inarguably the greatest invention in the history of man’s ability to communicate.

“A New Birth of Freedom”

The American Civil War was more than a year old in September 1862. The Union had suffered major reversals in its efforts to capture Richmond earlier in that year, and their hopes that the Confederate rebellion could be crushed quickly were fading. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had invaded the border state of Maryland, and the War Department in Washington was scrambling to confront Lee and hold the state in the Union. On September 13, 1862, two soldiers of the 27th Indiana infantry regiment outside Frederick, MD, found a bundle of cigars lying in a grassy meadow wrapped in some paper. Thrilled at having stumbled on some excellent Southern tobacco, they unwrapped the cigars. Corporal Barton Mitchell, then looked at the paper and realized to his shock that it was a signed order from General Lee to one of his corps commanders containing the entire Confederate plan for the invasion. The soldiers passed the order up the chain of command to General George McClellan, who reportedly announced to his staff, “Here is a paper with which if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home!”

Of course, McClellan did not “whip” General Lee, and the battles of South Mountain and Antietam a few days later were bloodbaths on both sides. The war raged on for another three years. Most historians point to the battles at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863 as the turning points in the conflict, but in fact the war had already turned as a result of the order’s discovery and the resulting battles in Maryland.

The Confederate States of America stood little chance of winning a war against the Union because of the latter’s overwhelming industrial might. This might offend our Southern audience, but the fact is that the South’s only real chance of victory was with help from Great Britain or France. Jefferson Davis’ government had been courting London and Paris since the war’s outbreak, and both countries were debating entering the war to strike a blow at America’s growing might. In Washington, the Lincoln administration was doing its best to keep the Europeans out of the war, and the president knew that the best way to achieve this goal was to shift the entire purpose of the war away from preserving the Union. Abraham Lincoln needed a cause that would both preserve European neutrality and unite his own Northern population, which at that time was growing evermore pessimistic about the chances of victory. That cause was the abolition of slavery.

From the beginning, abolitionists had been lukewarm about the war, believing (correctly) that Lincoln was ambivalent about the evils of slavery and the necessity of abolishing it everywhere in the United States. So when President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, five days after the victory at Antietam, and transformed the war from one of national versus state power to one of freedom for enslaved Africans, they rallied to the cause. Enlistments rose, and the Union Army’s recruitment swelled, reaching over two million by the war’s end. Equally important at the time, now that the war pitched the profreedomNorth against the pro-slavery South, Britain and France refused further Confederate diplomatic efforts to bring them into the war; they could not support a slave power, having already abolished slavery in their own countries.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was finally issued on January 1, 1863, it did not actually free a single slave. The proclamation’s text stated that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” This meant that only slaves living in areas still under Confederate control but who would be liberated by the Union Army in the coming years would be automatically freed. Nevertheless, the Emancipation Proclamation was the true turning point in the American Civil War because it united the North for the first time and ensured that the war would remain an American conflict. More than that, the proclamation is one of the greatest turning points in American history, paving the way for the abolition of slavery everywhere in the United States in the Thirteenth Amendment and ultimately for complete legal equality between white and black Americans with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“No Definite Guarantee of Safety”

The winter of 1931 in New York was one of the warmest on record, which was certainly appreciated by the hundreds of unemployed and homeless workers living on the streets of America’s largest city in the middle of the Great Depression. The night of December 13th was dark, and the streets of New York were slick with recently-fallen rain. Mario Constasino was driving down Fifth Avenue in his mid-sized car between 76th and 77th streets. He was on the right side of the road, running at about thirty miles an hour when suddenly, “a dark figure appeared immediately in front of him.” Constasino hit the brakes but could not avoid a collision, and he struck a short but large man.

Winston Spencer Churchill, a Member of Parliament for Epping and formerly the President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister of Munitions, Secretary of State for Air, Secretary of State for War, Secretary of State for the Colonies, and Chancellor of the Exchequer in His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, had been hit by a car. According to an article Churchill published in The Daily Mail in January 1932, those who witnessed the accident believed he had been killed. Churchill provided a typically-vivid account of the event in the article.

I do not understand why I was not broken like an egg-shell or squashed like a gooseberry. I have seen that the poor policeman who was killed on the Oxford road was hit by a vehicle travelling at very much the same speed and was completely shattered. I certainly must be very tough or very lucky, or both. Meanwhile, I had not lost consciousness for an instant…This mind is in possession of the following conclusion: “I have been run over by a motorcar in America. All those worries about being late are now swept away. They do not matter any more. Here is a real catastrophe. Perhaps it is the end.” The reader will observe from this authentic record that I experienced no emotion of regret or fear. I simply registered facts without, except for a general sense of disaster, the power to moralize upon them.*

Churchill went on to state that he had forgotten that in the United States, cars drive on the right side of the road and that he was unfamiliar with the red lights used on New York City streets that were then almost unseen on British roads. Churchill bore Mr. Constasino no ill will and, later in life, sent him an autographed copy of his book My Life. Mario Constasino, whose real name was Edward Cantasano, was an unemployed mechanic from Yonkers who had probably spent the day in New York looking for work. An exhaustive search of records in 2008 by a video game company which had produced a game about what might have happened had Churchill been killed discovered that Mr. Cantasano had later enlisted in the Army in 1942 and served in the Second World War, and that he had died in 1989 and is buried in Long Island.

One need not delve too deeply into counterfactuals to consider what might have been had Winston Churchill not been present for the decisive years in world history of 1939-45. The outcome of the Second World War may have been the same, but it might have been very different had another man been at the helm of the British state for those years. The lesson in this last story is this—sometimes a turning point in history involves what did not happen as much as what did, in fact, take place.

Trends and Turning Points

History has a weight and a sense of momentum just as much as a car, train or ship. And yet, like any of these vehicles, it can turn on a dime if someone takes the wheel. It need not be a world historical figure or leader of a nation—it can be a simple German swindler, a boy in a log cabin who had lost his beloved mother, or a young man whose parents repeatedly left him in the care of others; it could even be you or I. As we talk about some of the important turning points in history this season on 15-Minute History, I hope you will think about the role you can play in your own history, that of your family, and of your community. Each one of us can turn the wheel of history by our actions.

* Quoted in “My New York Misadventure” by Winston S. Churchill. Retrieved from the International Churchill

Society website,


The Blue Ribband | Crossing the Atlantic

It’s hard to believe that we’ve reached the end of our second season here at Fifteen-Minute History. Before we begin, I want to thank you all for joining us each week since January as we have explored the past fifteen minutes at a time. I hope you have enjoyed listening to these podcasts as much as I have enjoyed writing and recording them! As we close this season out, we thought it would be fun to break from the broad themes of American history and instead share three stories with our audience which follow a common theme—crossing the Atlantic Ocean and traveling to Europe.

John Adams, Winter Crossing, 1778

Two years into the American War of Independence, the Continental Congress dispatched John Adams to France to help secure a treaty with King Louis XVI’s government for military assistance against the British. Adams was hesitant to accept the post; in his diary he wrote, “It was my intention to decline the next election, and return to my practice at the bar…My family was living on my past acquisitions which were very moderate…My children were growing up without my care in their education, and all my emoluments as a member of Congress for four years had not been sufficient to pay a laboring man on my farm.” Of course, as he had done so often in the past, he set aside his personal considerations and fulfilled his duty to the country.

His wife Abigail would remain in Massachusetts with their younger children, but John Quincy would accompany his father aboard the frigate Boston, which departed for France on February 17, 1778. A voyage across the Atlantic was never easy, but a winter crossing was quite perilous because of the strong winds and violent storms (not to mention the threat of British warships). Captain Samuel Tucker explained the many risks to Adams, who insisted on knowing everything he could about the art of sailing, and as they departed American waters the risks quickly became reality. The Adams men were given a small cabin below decks, and John spent much of the voyage suffering from seasickness. His son read to him as he swung in his hammock, practicing his Latin and teaching his father French. When John felt able to go above deck and meet with Captain Tucker, the officer informed him of the ship’s status and sought his advice on any important matters concerning the crew or the voyage. Adams was never shy of offering his opinion on any matter, and both his diary and the surviving account of the voyage written by Captain Tucker are filled with Adams’ comments on the state of the ship (“a beautiful vessel”), the crew (“a detestable use of profanity plagued them”), the food (“wretched and served at the cook’s pleasure only”), and the living conditions (“the reek of burning sea coal and stench of stagnant water below decks were dreadful, contributing to general misery”).

In fair weather, a ship of the late 18th century could cross the Atlantic in three weeks, but in winter it could stretch on up to ten weeks. The Boston made it across in six weeks and four days, and they faced a multitude of dangers along the way. On the second day out from Boston, the ship was pursued by three British frigates, and for two days and nights the crew stood ready for battle before they finally escaped the enemy. Later that night, the Boston’s main mast was struck by lightning, injuring twenty seamen and killing one. Once the storm had passed, Tucker recorded in his log, Adams “resumed lecturing me on every part of my duty to him and to the country.” The most common instruction given by Adams was to improve the general mood aboard ship by regularly cleaning the decks and keeping the men at work and exercised; these suggestions were followed, and within the first week conditions aboard had improved considerably. The weather had cleared once the Boston reached the midpoint of the journey, and Adams commented in his diary, “We see nothing but sky, clouds, and sea and then sea, clouds, and sky.” The ship spotted a British merchantman about a week before they reached France.

Captain Tucker sought Adams’ permission to attack and, when granted, the Boston engaged the enemy. The fighting was fierce, and both John and John Quincy got a firsthand taste of the terrors of naval warfare. John fought alongside the Marines when the enemy ship was boarded, and John Quincy’s cabin was near the ship’s surgery, and he witnessed the gruesome nature of medicine aboard ship. When the Boston finally arrived at Bordeaux on March 30th, John Adams got his first glimpse of the Pyrenees Mountains through the ship’s telescope. He was awestruck as he saw the green sloping hills of southern France with the Spanish mountains to the south. “Europe, thou great theater of arts, science, commerce, war, am I at last permitted to visit thy territories,” he wrote in his diary. Adams and Captain Tucker were entertained aboard a French frigate in the harbor of Bordeaux, and two days later he strode ashore and learned that a treaty had been signed between France and America before he had arrived. Nevertheless, he did his duty and proceeded on to Paris to join Benjamin Franklin at the American consulate, where he would spend the rest of the war. Decades later, Adams would write to his friend and political rival Thomas Jefferson that the voyage from Boston to Bordeaux were a picture of his entire life.

According to Adams’ biographer David McCullough, “The raging seas he had passed through, he seemed to be saying, were like the times they lived in, and he was at the mercy of the times no less than the seas.”

Barbara Tyson Arnt & Margaret Dardis, 1961

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the time of the great ocean liners which crisscrossed the Atlantic and brought immigrants to America and tourists to Europe. Famous ships like the Titanic, Queen Elizabeth I and II, and Queen Mary I and II were home to rich and poor alike, offering luxurious staterooms on deck that matched the finest London or New York hotels or small, cramped steerage cabins in the bowels of the ships. Transatlantic voyages no longer took weeks, and the liners of White Star, Cunard, and other companies competed to gain the Blue Riband, an unofficial award for the fastest crossing from New York to Southampton and back. Most American audiences know the story of the Titanic and thus the broad outlines of how people made the crossing at the turn of the century, but this practice continued long after the “unsinkable” White Star liner crashed into an iceberg and vanished beneath the freezing waters off Newfoundland. During the two world wars, these ocean liners were converted to troop ships, but after 1945 they returned to their passenger roots and brought thousands of refugees from Europe to Ellis Island and a new life in the New World. Their decks were then filled with American tourists eager for adventure in Europe.

One such tourist was Barbara Arnt (nee Tyson), a 23-year-old woman from Sarasota, FL. She departed New York in September 1961 aboard the SS America, a steamer which had been constructed just before the United States entered the Second World War. Barbara later described her experiences aboard the America in an interview with the United States Lines website: I sailed on her in September 1961 from New York to Bremerhaven. It was wonderful, she was so beautiful. I couldn’t get enough of being out on the fantail watching the wake behind the ship. We were in Hurricane Esther and it was pretty scary. I couldn’t believe how far she would list, it was impossible to walk straight. We had to use the ropes to move around with. My doors kept opening and slamming shut when we would change the way we leaned. They had sides they pulled up at the tables and put wet fabric of some type that kept the dishes and glasses from sliding off. I remember some type of belt looking thing that clipped our chairs to the tables so we wouldn’t slide across the floor.

There were some injuries as well. A lot of people were very seasick but I never missed a meal. It was great. I was 21 and thought it was exciting even when we lost some deck furniture over the side. What great memories I have [of] this beautiful lady. Ocean liners were renowned for their all-inclusive facilities, which included dining halls, bars and saloons, exercise rooms, libraries, and even (in the 1960s as the liners approached the end of their service) cinemas. Families often traveled across the Atlantic together, and liners had to have facilities for even the youngest of passengers. Few parents expected to spend their three or four days aboard ship entirely with their children, and many ships had purpose-built playrooms, including the SS America. In an interview with United States Lines, Playroom Associate Margaret Dardis recalled: My recollections of the children are many and clear. Sea-sick parents shoved their bright-eyed kids, who could be anywhere from age 2 to 12, in the door, clapped hand to mouth, and fled. One trip, we put on a play for the parents— the children’s own dictated script for “The Emperor Has No Clothes”, with the lead deciding to wrap himself in one of the ship’s large bath towels, to indicate the lack of clothing. On another trip, I did not put in a moment in the playroom from New York to Southampton but spent every waking moment on the forward crew deck—because we were transporting the US Olympic team. When the children became obstreperous, I used the technique of telling them to make as much noise as they could for one minute by the clock— and then discovered that their voices carried to, and alarmed, people on the tourist deck, just the other side of the portholes. Perhaps the warmest memory is of a five-year-old boy from the Bronx, named Leon, whose mother feared that he would misbehave toward the other children and who did, indeed, jump onto and kick another child’s building made from the Erector set— but who, I discovered, was a brilliant future engineer; he not only made the most complex construction in the booklet that came with the set, but went on to create several new ones of his own, and became the politest, best behaved child imaginable by the time of arrival. If, by some unimaginable coincidence, Leon, you happen be one of those who set eyes on this, please e-mail me! What I learned from you that trip was the foundation on which I built to become a (now-Emeritus) Professor with forty years of teaching.

Of course, as air travel became more popular and less expensive, ocean liners lost their market share in the travel industry, and by the late 1960s most had been sold off or scrapped. Today, very few of the pre-World War Two liners remain in existence, and all are either museums or floating hotels. SS America was sold off several times before she was wrecked off the Canary Islands in 1994. The two most famous postwar liners, Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Mary II are both still afloat, Elizabeth as a hotel in Dubai and Mary still crosses the Atlantic each year bringing passengers back and forth from the Old World to the New.

Jon Streeter, 2018

For most of the last century, tourists heading to Europe needed to go through medical examinations before they departed the United States and on arriving in their destination country. Paperwork giving permission to travel was necessary as well, and travelers often spent days or even weeks in quarantine at their ports of entry waiting for bureaucracies to catch up with travel plans—and this after spending so much time at sea! Fortunately, today one needs only an American passport to travel to any nation within the European Union, and air travel has made the process far quicker (though less comfortable, as even steerage passengers on an ocean liner could stretch their legs). In my many travels to Europe, I have always been thankful to be alive at a time when I can depart Indianapolis in the evening and arrive in London, Paris or Munich the next morning. I thought I would close this podcast with a final story—one of my own.

In the summer of 2018, AET organized a two-week tour of Germany focusing on “The Cost of Freedom” and the Second World War. We were based first in Munich and then Berlin, and our travels took us to many historic and beautiful sites, as well as some sobering reminders of man’s cruelty to man. I have traveled to Germany more times than I can count, and as we prepared to leave in April and May, I was confident that I had everything ready for the trip. Hotels were booked, tours were in place, paperwork was filed, we were all set! At our tour group meetings I stressed the importance of good shoes, proper etiquette when traveling abroad, updating your passport, exchanging dollars for Euros, and getting to the airport on time. I went to bed the night of June 13th nervous (as I always am before a trip) but excited to get going!

Everyone arrived at the Indianapolis airport on time, and we got ourselves organized and into line to check in and get our plane tickets. I stepped to the counter with the first group of students and one of our adult chaperones, presented my passport, and waited to get my ticket. Then, I heard words I never expected: “Sir, your passport is expired.” I was so focused on preparing others for the trip that I never considered looking at my own travel documents! I will confess publicly that I became physically ill, thinking that the trip was ruined. Fortunately, my adult chaperones felt confident enough to proceed without me until I could obtain a new passport (requiring me to drive to Chicago the following day), and I was able to secure a flight and join my group 72 hours after they left the United States. Those two days were a low point in my career as a travel guide, but they taught me the importance of preparation, calm in the face of uncertainty and, above all, prayer support from friends and family.

Had I been John Adams, the ship would have waited for me, as I was the most important member of the crew. If I’d been about to board SS America, I would have had to wait until the ship returned, and our trip would have been over before it began. Thanks to the wonders of international airlines, not to mention cars and modern printing, the trip was salvaged and we had an amazing time in Germany. I tell this story not to frighten prospective travel companions who might wish to join us on a future AET trip but to show how far we have progressed as a society in the area of international travel (and so you may chuckle at my misfortune). For those of you who would like to join AET on a tour some day, you may be assured that my passport and other travel documents are in good order, and I have set myself daily reminders beginning on January 1, 2028, to renew my passport long before our tour group departs that summer!


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Winning but Losing | The Vietnam War

“No event in history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then,

and is misremembered now.”

— Richard Nixon —

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy dispatched American military advisors to South Vietnam. Their mission was to advise the poorly equipped and trained South Vietnamese Army on how to combat the communist regime of Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam. Already victorious over the French years before, communist forces were planning incursions into the south. Kennedy dispatched the advisors to shore up the free world’s defenses in the wake of the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the building of the Berlin Wall, both of which had emboldened communist regimes around the world. Their advance was called the “domino effect” and represented a wide array of actions that were successfully discrediting American influence on the world stage while promoting the principles of communism as an alternative. A line in the sand had to be drawn. This line was Vietnam.

A Step Back – The First Indochina War

Starting in the late 1800’s, French forces occupied and colonized the whole of Indochina, comprising modern day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. After losing Indochina to the Japanese, who sowed an independence movement led by the communist Ho Chi Minh during World War Two, the French began to lose their grip on the colony. After some early losses and a failed negotiation with the French government, Minh and his forces fled to the hills until finally being recognized in 1950 by the Soviet Union and Red China, both of whom would flood Minh’s forces with weapons, supplies, and troops. As a result, French forces began to lose battles, beginning at Route Coloniale 4 that same year and ending with the disastrous defeat of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French then negotiated a cease-fire and peace agreement, granting independence to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, the last of which was split at the 17th parallel between the communists in the north and the Republic of Vietnam in the south.

From 1954 to 1960, minor incursions were conducted in the south in an effort to destabilize the region, all of which were unsuccessful. Western interests continued to align with South Vietnam, and more support was given to not only quell communist incursions, but to elevate the country onto the world stage as a model for the Third World, despite wide-spread corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement by the south. During this time, a resistance group known as the National Liberation Front unified and began to intensify conflicts along and beyond the 17th parallel. Southern forces did not take these attacks seriously at first, deeming them a nuisance more than a threat, but as time passed, the communists become more efficient and deadly, gaining support throughout the south. This group had another name, one that the American GI would come to know very well, the Viet Cong.

1961-1963 – American Advisors

At first, American advisors were just that, advisors. They were tasked with training and tactics, providing the armies of the south with important information and ideas for conducting widespread war and suppressing communist tactics along the 17th parallel and Ho Chi Minh Trail, which at the time was a six-month trek through the mountains undertaken by communist forces to resupply their comrades in the south. As time went on however, the advisory role of American forces changed to a combat role, as violence between the north and south escalated. The CIA embedded special forces units to conduct operations against communist forces in the north and against insurgents in the south.

Chaos ensued on November 2, 1963 when the leader of South Vietnam was overthrown and executed, some say as a result of statements from the US State Department to the generals in the South that the US would neither oppose nor hinder such an operation. By this time, American advisors were embedded throughout the South Vietnamese government and were able to influence battle tactics at almost every level, all while doing their best to steer clear of the political upheavals going on around them.

It was during this period that the mission of American involvement became blurry, not because of planning or lack of competence, but more because the “winning of the hearts and minds” of a population was a new tactic for American armed forces. As a result, the chaos in the South further emboldened the organized, and centrally commanded communist forces in the north. Adding to this, John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd, with Vice President Lyndon Johnson becoming President, and changing the landscape—and mission—of what was then becoming a full-scale war.

1963-1969: Search and Destroy

In August 1964, the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy were reported to be have been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam. These attacks were answered with retaliatory air strikes. Unfortunately, recently declassified documents state that there were no attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin, and that both were invented by the CIA. As a result of these “attacks”, saturation bombing of the North commenced in 1965 with Operation Rolling Thunder. This operation lasted until 1968, by which time we had dropped more tons of bombs than we did on the Axis Powers in the entirety of World War Two.

The American ground war began in March 1965. United States Marines arrived and began fortifying vulnerable military positions. General William Westmoreland, commander of American forces in Vietnam, outlined his three-step plan for winning the war:

  • Phase 1. Commitment of U.S. (and other free world) forces necessary to halt the losing trend by the end of 1965.

  • Phase 2. U.S. and allied forces mount major offensive actions to seize the initiative to destroy guerrilla and organized enemy forces. This phase would end when the enemy had been worn down, thrown on the defensive, and driven back from major populated areas.

  • Phase 3. If the enemy persisted, a period of twelve to eighteen months following Phase 2 would be required for the final destruction of enemy forces remaining in remote base areas.

Despite early statements from the Johnson administration that South Vietnamese forces needed to win the war themselves, the administration supported Westmoreland’s strategy and increased troop levels from 2,000 to over 17,000. This was anticipated by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) who were actively recruiting during this time, gaining between eight hundred thousand to one million fighters from Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. Further support was given to guerrilla forces from these countries and from Soviet Union.

The belief behind Westmoreland’s strategy was that with enough pressure, the resistance would crumble. Unfortunately, with guns, ammunition, and personnel continually resupplying enemy combatants via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this proved incorrect. As the war dragged on, more and more American troops would be sent to Vietnam, most of whom participated in “Search and Destroy” missions. This strategy entailed American troops moving from one location the other in an effort to find the enemy. Once found, they would engage and clear the area. This method was alien to American commanders, who were used to clear lines of engagement, fronts, and other geographic measures to calculate the progress and success of the war. With exceptions like the battles of Ia Drang Valley and Hue City, most engagements were conducted without the benefit of such lines, and as a result, progress was difficult to measure.

Additionally, most of the engagements took place over an area of land that American forces would leave once the conflict had ended. To make matters more confusing, politicians at the White House and the Pentagon often overrode the orders of those in the field when choosing where to deploy American forces and which VC or NVA targets to attack. This ongoing lack of progress combined with the battle tactics of the Viet Cong and NVA such as mines, snipers, and tunnels, measurably demoralized American forces as the war dragged on.

This culminated with the Tet Offensive of 1968, which is still the largest coordinated attack in the history of war. Every American base was hit simultaneously, at almost the same hour. Though it was an utter failure, and Americans withstood the offensive, the Tet Offensive caused significant damage to the perception of the war at home, with Walter Cronkite of CBS—despite having no military experience, information, battlefield intelligence, or any expertise on war whatsoever—saying the war was all but lost. Statements like this, and many others in the American press, emboldened the defeated Viet Cong an NVA soldiers, who despite losing continuously against American forces, became more aggressive, and more precise in killing American GIs.

1969 – 1975: Winning but Losing

As US forces suffered morale issues and the North Vietnamese became more emboldened, support for the war at home dissipated almost completely. The lack of perceived progress, together with politicians’ inability to effectively wage guerrilla war, contributed to Americans’ disillusionment. This, combined with atrocities like the My Lai massacre, pushed protesters into the streets to try to end the war. These protests increased after 1966, lasting right up to the end of the war nine years later. Many of the protests were centered on “bringing the troops home” and ending the conflict overall, but some were infiltrated by hate groups in an effort to protest the existence of America itself. Whatever the reason, this was a turbulent time for American society, as civilians questioned the motives behind the conflict en masse.

In response to the lack of progress, American forces began to withdraw in 1971, two years into Richard Nixon’s presidency. The NVA launched a full-scale invasion of the south in 1972 which quickly overran South Vietnamese positions that American military professionals believed to be impenetrable. US air power responded to these attacks but were not able to stop them. After the success of the Easter Offensive, negotiators returned to the table in 1973 for the Paris Peace Accords, which called for several stipulations by both the communist North and the democratic South, as well as their American allies, who promised a complete withdrawal from Indochina. In a not-so-surprising move, this was the only provision that was ever honored in the agreement, with the communists ignoring their promises and advancing further. By the end of 1973, all American troops had been pulled off the front lines, leaving only advisors and those serving in the South Vietnamese government behind.

With the withdrawal of American personnel, South Vietnamese forces could not operate the mountains of equipment given or left behind by US forces. This put them at a severe disadvantage as the North marched south. In December 1974, communists attacked and overran the city of Phuoc Long. President Gerald Ford begged Congress to resupply the South and help them hold out. Congress refused. The abandonment of the South Vietnamese by the American government and the continuous losses on the battlefield drove the once-proud Army of the Republic of Vietnam to despair, and many units abandoned their positions or surrendered outright. Others however, made last stands against the communists as they watched their country slowly die.

The fall of Saigon came in April 1975, when over one hundred thousand NVA regulars besieged the city and its thirty thousand defenders. The American embassy was abandoned, with the last US Marines leaving in the early hours as civilians broke down the gates in an effort to get on the last few choppers. Many of these people had worked for the Americans and watched as they were left to their fate while their homes burned around them. The last defenders were overrun within a few days, with NVA soldiers walking through the gates of the American embassy at 11:30 AM on April 30th to raise their flag and declare victory.

It is important to note that despite the tactics, lack of perceived progress, and mismanagement of the war itself, American forces never lost a single battle. This may surprise you, our audience, given the eventual outcome of the conflict. In addition, countless South Vietnamese who opposed communist rule fought to the death for the freedom they sought. Many of them had fled from the North after witnessing the communist definition of “freedom,” which translated into rape and mass execution. In this, its important to remember that the American soldier did not lose the war in Vietnam; the American politician did. Through corruption, lies, micromanagement of battle tactics and plans, and overall incompetence were responsible for the eventual loss.


Over fifty thousand American soldiers died in the Vietnam War, with a larger number maimed or psychologically damaged. The loss in Vietnam demoralized the American public. Protestors who had professed concern for American troops spit and urinated on them as they came home. There were no parades. There were no “thank yous.” Many veterans did not acknowledge their service due to being denied employment for doing so. Additionally, many of the troops who came home did so right out of combat zones; they would be in the jungle, in combat, and then ordered to fall back to bases they would be disarmed, sent to an airport and home within 72 hours of being in the bush. Because of the nature of the war and the hatred they experienced when returning home, the first cases of PTSD were recognized.

The war in Vietnam marked a new chapter in American combat and foreign policy. The failure of the American government to manage a conflict, coupled with the lack of measurable objectives have influenced the conflicts that came after. As we look back on this conflict, it is important to understand the context, history, and motivations to gain the right insight about this war, to understand and honor the sacrifices of the American soldier, and hold government officials accountable for their actions.

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One Small Step | The Space Race

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win

— John F. Kennedy, speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, TX, September 12, 1962 —

Since the dawn of time, mankind has looked into the heavens and wondered what was there. The ancients believed the stars controlled man’s destiny; medieval scholars thought the heavenly spheres represented perfection and that God was to be found among them; and astronomers of the Renaissance saw that they were as imperfect as our own planet. Space captured the attention of the American people beginning in the 1930s as radio dramas like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century told stories of adventure on other worlds. The invention of motion pictures and television brought classics of science fiction like Star Trek, Star Wars, and 2001: A Space Odyssey into the homes of millions of Americans.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the exploration of space became what astronaut Frank Borman called “another battle in the Cold War.” But unlike the other contests of those years between the United States and the Soviet Union, it involved science and technology rather than bullets or bombs. In World War Two, the Germans had developed the first self-propelled rockets which they put to devastating use against the cities of Great Britain. After the war, the Soviets began to build rockets of their own. In an effort to “catch up,” the United States government enlisted the aid of former Nazi rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun and Günter Wendt to bring America into the heavens. Yet the Soviets held the advantage in the early years of the “Space Race.”

“A Red Moon”

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite in human history. Sputnik had two purposes: it provided the Soviets with valuable data on the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, and it became a major propaganda victory over the West. In a time of heightening tensions between the two superpowers, some Americans feared that the heavens would belong solely to the communists. Soviet successes multiplied throughout the late 1950s as they launched the first animal into space later in 1957 (a dog named Laika), and returned two more to Earth three years later. The Soviets also landed the first unmanned probe on the moon in 1959. Their greatest—and last—victory in the Space Race came in April 1961 when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. He orbited the Earth for 108 minutes before returning safely home.

The American space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, had already embarked on a program to match Soviet exploration of space. 23 days after Gagarin’s flight, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space aboard the Mercury space capsule Freedom 7. His flight lasted only fifteen minutes but nonetheless showed the world that America was catching up. In February 1962, the first American victory came with John Glenn’s historic flight around the Earth aboard Friendship 7. Glenn orbited three times and returned a national hero; he was elected to the United States Senate, and then in 1998 he became the oldest person to fly in space at the age of 77.

“We Choose to Go to the Moon”

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress about the future of America’s space program. In his speech, the president announced a bold vision to the country: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” NASA officials were stunned—at that point they had not yet sent an astronaut on an orbital flight around Earth, and not even the best scientists in Houston had a clue how to get humans to the moon. Yet Kennedy’s announcement electrified the nation and galvanized both the public and private sectors into the greatest scientific and technological effort in history.

The Soviet Union accepted Kennedy’s challenge of a race from the earth to the moon in 1964. The architect of their space program, Sergey Korolyov, began work on a larger space capsule that could, in theory, take cosmonauts to the moon, and Yuri Gagarin was to have led the team on their voyage. (The Soviet moon program was critically damaged two years later when Korolyov died of unknown causes, but the Soviets continued their orbital flights throughout the mid-1960s.)

The testbed for the American moonshot was NASA’s Gemini capsule. Many of the technologies and procedures used in the later Apollo program were first developed on Gemini, and the rookie astronauts of Gemini became the veterans of Apollo. On Gemini 7, astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell spent fourteen days in space, long enough for a voyage to the moon in December 1965. Neil Armstrong, flying on Gemini 8, was the first pilot to dock his ship with another spacecraft. Both he and his copilot Dave Scott nearly died when a thruster malfunctioned and sent the ship careening off course. Only Armstrong’s cool head brought the ship back under control. On the last flight, Gemini 12, Buzz Aldrin spent five hours in a spacesuit outside his ship performing various tasks, proving that a human could work in a weightless vacuum—provided that the spacecraft was supplied with plenty of a newly-invented product called “velcro.”

Even as NASA was firing astronauts into space on Gemini capsules, an equally important effort was underway on the ground. In order to land astronauts on the moon, NASA had to first design a landing vehicle of some kind. The Grumman Aircraft Engineering company spearheaded the design, delivering the first Lunar Module in 1967. The first unmanned test of this spider-like spacecraft was in January 1968, and Grumman then awaited word for the first manned flight of its creation.

The Apollo program that would eventually take Americans to the moon suffered a tragic setback in January 1967. While performing a routine battery of tests on the Apollo 1 capsule, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire that consumed the Command Module’s cockpit. The disaster nearly derailed the Apollo program, and only Frank Borman’s heartfelt appeal to the Senate’s investigation committee saved it. NASA spent the rest of 1967 fixing the problems revealed by the Apollo 1 fire in preparation for its first flight.

“One Small Step”

In October 1968, the Apollo program finally got off the ground with the flight of Apollo 7 commanded by Wally Schirra. Despite this success, Apollo was still behind schedule for an end-of-the-decade lunar landing, and NASA decided to send the next flight around the moon. In December, Apollo 8 blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, FL, with astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders aboard. Apollo 8 successfully completed ten orbits around the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, and the astronauts marked the occasion by taking the first pictures of an “earthrise” and broadcasting a reading of Genesis 1:1-4 back to Earth. This heartfelt gesture at the close of a very difficult year for the United States and the world thrilled the hearts of millions—and it also sparked a lawsuit from atheist groups offended by the broadcast.

The Apollo 9 and 10 missions focused on testing the Lunar Module in space, and on July 16, 1969, the world watched eagerly as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins hurtled into space aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Four days later, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the Lunar Module “Eagle” while Collins remained aboard the Command Module “Columbia.” The Eagle descended toward the lunar surface, landing safely on the moon at 4:17pm Houston time. Buzz Aldrin then spoke to Mission Control and those listening to the NASA broadcast. He asked them “to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.” He then took communion off the radio as Armstrong looked on. At 8:56pm Houston time, Neil Armstrong opened the “Eagle’s” hatch, climbed down the ladder, and became the first human to walk on the moon; as he stepped off the lander he spoke the immortal words: “That’s one small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind.” The television audience in the United States and approximately 450 million radio listeners heard these words and subsequent broadcasts from the Sea of Tranquility. After two moonwalks,

during which the astronauts placed an American flag and commemorative plaque on the lunar surface and spoke to President Richard Nixon via radio, the “Eagle’s” ascent stage lifted off and docked with Collins on the “Columbia.” Four days later, “Columbia” splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the most famous Americans alive at the time. (Sadly, Michael Collins was largely ignored by both the public and the press.)

“It’s Been a Long Way, but We’re Here”

After the historic flight of Apollo 11, the American people largely lost interest in manned spaceflight; Kennedy’s vision had been fulfilled, and there were other developments on Earth that deserved attention—especially the war in Vietnam. The Apollo 12 flight sent two more astronauts to the moon, as did four other flights. A brief resurgence of public interest in NASA occurred in April 1970 when an onboard malfunction crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft. Astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert were forced into the Lunar Module “Aquarius,” which they used as a lifeboat to survive for four days until splashing down safely in the Command Module “Odyssey.” (Apollo 13 proved that Grumman’s design of the Lunar Module was sound, and Grumman issued a “towing bill” as a gag to North American Rockwell, designer of the Command Module, for $312,421.) And yet NASA was soon hampered by budget cuts from Congress, and the final three Apollo missions were canceled. The last Apollo capsule to fly was the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a joint mission between the Americans and Soviets; it docked with a Soviet Soyuz capsule in July 1975 in what became a symbolic end to the Space Race.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union shifted their focus of space exploration toward space stations after Apollo 11. The Soviets launched the first orbital station Salyut 1 in April 1971, and the United States put up three Skylab stations between 1973 and 1974. Two other space stations were eventually launched: the Russian “Mir” station which orbited from 1986 until 2001, and the International Space Station which was launched in 2000 and can be seen with the naked eye on a clear night on Earth.

The United States also developed a reusable orbital vehicle, the space shuttle, in the 1970s. The first, a test vehicle not meant for flight in outer space, was named the Enterprise after thousands of Star Trek fans petitioned NASA to pay tribute to the fictional starship. Five other shuttles were built by NASA: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor. Two were tragically lost with all hands; the Challenger exploded soon after launch in 1987, and the Columbia broke up while reentering the atmosphere in 2003. The shuttles served as America’s only space vehicles for three decades, and the final flight took place in February 2011. Of course, mankind continues to look to the stars, and NASA plans to move forward with new vehicles and missions to return us to the moon and, perhaps, reach deeper into the void of space toward Mars.

The legacy of the Space Race reaches far beyond the political turmoil of the Cold War. The new technologies developed for the moonshot fueled discoveries in aerospace engineering, electronics, and telecommunications; many devices present in American homes today find their origins in the Space Race. It also spurred a renewed interest in astronomy, mathematics, and engineering that continues today. The thousands of satellites orbiting today were made possible only by the Space Race. In fact, whatever device you’re using to listen to this podcast probably traces its origins to the Space Race. It is important to remember the purpose of NASA and America’s exploration of space, a message encapsulated in the words on the plaque left on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969: “We came in peace for all mankind.”



A More Perfect Union | Civil Rights & the Supreme Court

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

— The Fourteenth Amendment, Section I —

The year was 1865. The Union and Confederate armies were locked in mortal combat around the city of Petersburg in Virginia and in the humid forests of Georgia. The end of the Civil War was near, and the Lincoln Administration was facing the question of how to restore the Union and preserve it against another rebellion. With the passage of the three anti-slavery amendments to the Constitution came the legal framework for equality between the races, and each of the Confederate states would be required to ratify the amendments before they could rejoin the Union. President Lincoln’s message to the American people in his second inaugural address was clear: “With malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Tragically, Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a peaceful and merciful reconstruction of the Southern states died with him on April 15, 1865. Flushed with anger and eager for revenge, the Republican-controlled Congress imposed a military occupation on the South to crush all lingering anti-Unionist sentiments. The eleven years of Reconstruction saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the flight of many freed slaves to the North and their subsequent return as sharecroppers, and the stigma of carpet-bagging politicians and businessmen hoping to make a quick buck on the backs of the rebel states. When Reconstruction ended in 1876 amidst the turmoil of that year’s presidential election, large sections of the South remained unreconstructed.

As federal troops pulled out of the cities and towns of the Old Confederacy as part of the compromise that brought President Hayes to the White House, racist Democrats regained majorities in many Southern legislatures and began to institute policies in their states that would have lasting consequences for racial equality and justice for African-Americans.

“Jim Crow” and the Supreme Court

Southern Democrats wished to return to power by using racial discrimination to mobilize white voters who hated the Freedmen. They approached this goal in two ways: first, the Ku Klux Klan (founded by the former Confederate general Nathaniel Bedford Forrest) would terrorize the Republican minority and the population of freed slaves, preventing them from casting votes even after the Fifteenth Amendment was passed; and second, by enacting laws which separated the races in all public spaces. These were later called “Jim Crow” laws, named for a racist blackface caricature of African-Americans by a white actor named Thomas D. Rice in the years before the Civil War. By 1892, the phrase “Jim Crow” referred to any law which separated whites from blacks in any public area.

The federal government tried on several occasions to break the Jim Crow laws, but with limited success. The Civil Rights Act of 1875, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteed legal equality for all Americans regardless of race, but the Southern states repeatedly cited the Tenth Amendment and state sovereignty as justification for their racist laws. (Before the Civil War, the South had used this same argument to protect slavery within their borders.) In 1890, Louisiana passed a law segregating passengers on trains by race, and both black and white activists of the Citizens’ Committee of New Orleans soon mobilized to challenge this in the courts. One of their leaders, Homer Plessy, bought a ticket on a train departing from New Orleans and sat in a whites-only carriage. He was informed that due to his racial heritage, he would have to move to a “colored-only” car; he refused and was arrested.

Plessy’s case was heard in a Louisiana court, and his lawyer cited the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments as evidence that he had every right to sit in whatever rail car he wished. The court disagreed, and Plessy was convicted of breaking the state’s Separate Car Act. The Louisiana Supreme Court refused to hear the case, and so Plessy’s attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court. Four years later, the case of Plessy v. Ferguson was brought before the highest court in the United States. The defendant was John Howard Ferguson, the judge in Plessy’s original case.

The Supreme Court had a difficult history with regards to racial issues in America. The court has the power of judicial review, which permitted it to rule on the constitutionality of federal, state and local laws. Until the 1850s, the court had used this power sparingly, preferring to allow Congress to decide on important social issues facing the country. In 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney broke with this tradition and authored the most shameful decision in the court’s history: Dred Scott v. Sandford. In this ruling, the Supreme Court upheld a circuit court decision that African-Americans were not citizens of the United States, and that slaveowners had the right to bring their “property” into a free state (in effect making slavery legal across the United States). Thus, much was at stake for the Supreme Court’s reputation as the case of Plessy v. Ferguson came before the bar.

The court heard oral arguments on April 13, 1896, and issued its ruling on May 18th. Justice Henry Brown wrote the majority decision, and six other justices joined. The Court ruled that states could segregate public facilities as long as they provided equal facilities for both races. The lone dissenter in the case was Justice John Harlan (later known as the “Great Dissenter”), and his fiery statement about the Constitution being “color-blind” and labeling the ruling as being on the same level as the hated Dred Scott would eventually lay the groundwork for Plessy’s ultimate reversal.

Now armed with the Supreme Court’s blessing, Southern states increased their legal oppression of black Americans, passing new laws each year which further restricted their rights and freedoms. Anti-miscegenation laws were passed in many states, forbidding whites and nonwhites from marrying one another. Even some federal government agencies adopted segregationist policies. The Federal Housing Administration forced African-Americans into specific neighborhoods in American cities to minimize their impact in congressional elections.

President Woodrow Wilson, a hero to modern progressives, permitted the Civil Service to segregate its workers and signed a law in 1917 to segregate the US Armed Forces. The 350,000 African-Americans who served in the military during the Great War were commanded by white officers, and black soldiers were prohibited by law from commanding white troops under any circumstances. This policy continued during the Second World War, in which only five African-Americans served as officers in an army numbering over sixteen million men. No black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor despite several acts of unimaginable heroism until 1997, 52 years after the war had ended.

The Civil Rights Era

As the world saw the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust in tapes played at Nuremberg and heard stories from returning American soldiers who had liberated the camps, many Americans began to question their country’s racist policies toward their own minority citizens. In 1948, amidst a storm of criticism, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 and desegregated the Armed Forces. The president, a Southerner, believed that merit should determine command, not skin color.

The movement for civil rights would grow in strength during the late 1940s, and as America entered the relatively peaceful and prosperous 1950s, it became clear that it was time for change. In 1954, a class action lawsuit in Topeka, Kansas, evolved into a suit between an African-American welder named Oliver Brown, whose daughter Linda had been denied admittance to an elementary school because she was black, and the Board of Education in Topeka. The lawsuit was filed in federal court, as were others in the states of South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. In each case, district and circuit courts refused to permit integration, and the Supreme Court chose to hear all five cases under the umbrella of Brown v. Board of Education.

Racial tensions were running high in the country as the Supreme Court met to hear the case. Brown’s defense was led by the chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Thurgood Marshall, who was later appointed to the Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson. When the court first heard the case in the spring of 1953, they were unable to come to a decision. The case was re-heard in the fall of that year, but Justice Felix Frankfurter was able to delay a decision yet again in an effort to convince Chief Justice Fred Vinson to rule in favor of Brown. When the chief justice died in September 1953, President Eisenhower used his recess appointment powers to install Earl Warren as the new Chief Justice. (Frankfurter commented that Vinson’s death was conclusive proof of the existence of God.)

Warren, a supporter of desegregation, was able to wrangle the other justices to his side, and on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Oliver Brown in what many observers—and members of the court—have called the greatest moment in the court’s history. Brown v. Board of Education required all states to immediately desegregate their public schools. It was a massive victory for the cause of civil rights and legal equality between the races. However, the court did not provide a mechanism for desegregation, and in a second decision a year later, it ordered schools to comply with Brown “with all deliberate speed.” Brown’s impact was immediate—the civil rights movement was galvanized to push for greater equality. When Rosa Parks defied a segregationist law by sitting on a bus seat reserved for whites and was arrested and abused by racist police officers in Birmingham, Alabama, the demand for implementing Brown’s provisions grew even louder. In November 1960, in the midst of a national election, President Eisenhower took measures into his own hands and sent US marshals into the South to forcibly desegregate public schools. Five marshals escorted Ruby Bridges, who was then only six years old, into her new elementary school as angry mobs of both white and black Americans hurled abuse at the little girl. At last, the Court’s ruling was being enforced.

The Supreme Court’s Legacy

The Civil Rights Era culminated with Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in August 1963 in Washington proclaiming his dream of a color-blind society (echoing Justice Harlan’s dissent in Plessy) and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The dream of legal equality for African-Americans had become a reality at last. Of course, work remains to be done in the area of social equality and putting an end to racism on both sides of this controversial issue.

The American people affirmed the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown as the Civil Rights movement marched onward, and the court continued to issue decisions to break down barriers to legal equality. As the 1960s dawned and waves of progressive change swept across the United States in areas beyond race relations, the court looked back to Brown and began to see itself as an agent of social change. In 1964, the Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut law banning the use of contraceptives in Griswold v. Connecticut, affirming a right to marital privacy as belonging to all Americans. This trend continued and is still seen in major court rulings today. In each case, the court looked back to Brown v. Board of Education in impact litigation decisions and has used its power of judicial review to bring about social change. While some may question the court’s use of its power for progressive ends, it is inarguable that the cause of equality and civil rights for all Americans transformed both the Supreme Court and the country as a whole.



The Grey Ghost | The USS Enterprise

“Fate: Protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise.”

— William Riker, Star Trek: The Next Generation —

No, this podcast is not about Star Trek, so Star Wars fans and science fiction skeptics need not reach for the stop button. The name “Enterprise” is not exclusive to fictional starships or the space shuttle; in fact, nineteen ships of the British Royal Navy and nine of the United States Navy have born the name (spelled either with an S or a Z). Undoubtedly, the most famous USS Enterprise is the World War Two-era aircraft carrier, which fought in more battles in the Pacific War than any other vessel, earned twenty battle stars, and is today the most decorated ship in American naval history. “The Big E,” (first of her many nicknames) was commissioned in May 1938 and attached to the Atlantic fleet for her first year of service. As tensions rose with Japan and the Navy Department realized the importance of aircraft carriers in the Pacific, the Enterprise was transferred to the Pacific Fleet and based first at San Diego and then at Pearl Harbor.

From Pearl Harbor to Midway

The Enterprise was the flagship of Admiral William F. Halsey’s Carrier Division Two in the Pacific. On November 28th, the Navy Department ordered Halsey to deliver a Marine fighter squadron to Wake Island in preparation for a Japanese attack on US bases in the Pacific, and the Enterprise departed Hawaiian waters that evening. Halsey’s other carrier, USS Lexington, was moving a bomber squadron to Midway, and the Saratoga was at San Diego for repairs. All three carriers were thus absent when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, which is one of the reasons why the United States recovered and went on the offensive against Japan so quickly. Halsey learned of the attack while the Enterprise was returning to Hawaii from Wake, and she reached Pearl Harbor on the evening of December 8th. As the crew watched the still-burning wrecks of American warships from the flight deck, Halsey met with Admiral Husband Kimmel and ordered every able-bodied man aboard his flagship to prepare the Enterprise for departure and battle.

Halsey was the most aggressive fleet commander in the Pacific War, and the Enterprise was his primary weapon. While he lacked the ground strength to invade enemy-occupied islands, he was determined to move and strike as quickly and as often as he could, and the Enterprise and her escorts sailed from one Japanese target to another throughout the early months of 1942, bombing enemy islands and sinking enemy supply ships. She also protected troop and supply convoys headed for Samoa and, on February 1st, raided the Marshall Islands in the largest American attack on the Japanese thus far. Enterprise pilots sank three ships, damaged eight more, and destroyed at least sixteen aircraft and numerous ground installations.

By April 1942, both the public and the Roosevelt administration were eager to hit the Japanese Home Islands, and a plan had been drafted by Colonel James Doolittle of the US Army Air Corps to fly sixteen B-25 bombers off a carrier to attack Tokyo. Halsey’s carrier division, now centered around Enterprise and USS Hornet, would be the main naval strike group for the “Doolittle Raid.” The Hornet would carrier the bombers (and thus be unable to launch fighters), while the Enterprise would protect the attack group by flying combat air patrol. The Enterprise left Pearl Harbor on April 8th, met the Hornet coming west from San Diego, and crossed the Pacific heading for Japan. The fleet was sighted by enemy patrol vessels six hundred miles from their targets, and the Hornet launched the bombers while the Enterprise’s fighters attacked the enemy ships. Their job complete, both carriers and their escorts returned to Pearl Harbor on April 25th. The Doolittle Raid was a stunning success, both in the military and propaganda spheres. While Tokyo suffered little damage, the psychological effect of an attack on their capital led the Japanese to pull some of their air defense strength back from the front to defend the city and their emperor.

Only days after their arrival at Pearl Harbor, the Enterprise and the Hornet were steaming south to join the carriers Lexington and Yorktown in the Coral Sea, but the Japanese attacked before the task force could arrive. The Lexington was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and the Enterprise returned to Pearl Harbor in late May. Admiral Halsey was beached because of a skin condition, and command of his task force passed to Admiral Raymond Spruance, who sailed with the Hornet and the Yorktown to defend Midway Island in early June. The initial Japanese attack on the island and the American carriers did little damage, while the first American strike group got lost searching for the Japanese fleet. They found the enemy as the Japanese were rearming their planes and attacked immediately. Three Japanese fleet carriers were sunk, two by dive bombers from the Enterprise, and a fourth had to be abandoned. The American carrier Yorktown was badly damaged and scuttled as well. Midway was the turning point in the Pacific War, and the Enterprise had played a key role in stopping the Japanese onslaught once and for all.

The Solomons and Santa Cruz

By mid-1942, the United States had mobilized its economy for wartime production and was putting new warships to sea every week. The Pacific fleet began to receive small Wasp-class escort carriers, but its three remaining fleet carriers (Enterprise, Saratoga, and Hornet) were still the core of its striking power and thus were deployed in every major engagement going forward. The Enterprise spent a month at Pearl Harbor for crew rest and refitting before joining the fight at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia. The Battle of Guadalcanal, fought on land and sea, was one of the fiercest engagements of the Pacific War.

The Enterprise’s fighter and bomber groups fought countless actions against the enemy and sank the light carrier Ryujo in July 1942. Squadron VF-10 was so effective in aerial combat that it earned the sobriquet “The Grim Reapers.” Enterprise itself took heavy damage in July, but her damage control parties managed to patch her up, and she was able to return once again to Pearl Harbor. Back in the fight in October 1942, the Enterprise fought in the Battle of the Santa Cruz islands, where the Japanese sank the carrier Hornet and severely damaged “Big E.” With the Saratoga out of action temporarily from an enemy torpedo hit, Enterprise was now the only American fleet carrier in the Pacific. She fought through and pushed the Japanese back at Santa Cruz, and her Seabees (Construction Battalion workers) pulled double-duty and worked around the clock to repair as much of the ship’s battle damage as possible before the ship reached an Allied drydock at New Caledonia. The carrier pulled into Nouméa on October 30, 1942, and French yard workers and civilians saw a massive banner fluttering over the flight deck: “Enterprise vs. Japan.”

The Seabees and their French counterparts repaired the Enterprise in record time, earning them the praise of Admiral Halsey, long recovered from his skin condition and now commander of all American naval forces in the South Pacific: “our commander wishes to express to you and the men of the Construction Battalion serving under you his appreciation for the services rendered by you in effecting emergency repairs during action against the enemy. The repairs were completed by these men with speed and efficiency. I hereby commend them for their willingness, zeal, and capability.” These words of high praise were rare from the famously-gruff Halsey, and they inspired the ship’s Seabees to redouble their efforts in the coming battles. For the next six months, the Enterprise was the tip of the spear in America’s fight against Japan. She appeared, struck, and disappeared so often that the Japanese called the ship the “Grey Ghost” and speculated that there had to be at least three identical ships bearing the name Enterprise. As the Guadalcanal campaign wound down, Enterprise fliers destroyed the Japanese battleship Hei, covered American landings on small islands in the Solomons, and engaged enemy surface ships near the Rennell Islands. She was then ordered back to Pearl Harbor in May 1943, where she was presented with the first Presidential Unit Citation ever given to an aircraft carrier. She then steamed for Puget Sound for major repairs and upgrades.

From Washington to the Philippines, and Back Again

The 1943 refit of Enterprise included new anti-aircraft guns, upgraded plane elevators, new workshops for the Seabees, and an “anti-torpedo blister” to protect her hull. She returned to Pearl Harbor in November 1943 and joined Admiral Spruance’s Fifth Fleet. The Enterprise was smaller than the new Essex-class carriers and Iowa-class battleships, but her famous name and fearsome reputation inspired sailors aboard any ship which could see her in the distance. Now serving in the Central Pacific Theater under the overall command of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Enterprise spearheaded the assault on the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, striking enemy shipping and shore installations before the Marines went in to capture the islands. She then joined the attack on the Mariana Islands, hitting Saipan and supporting troops liberating the island of Guam. As the summer of 1944 approached, the crew of the Enterprise knew that their next target would be the Philippines, America’s largest prewar possession and the final goal of the central Pacific offensive.

Admiral Spruance deployed the Fifth Fleet west of the Mariana Islands in the Philippine Sea to screen for enemy defenses as Army and Marine units boarded their transports for the assault on the Philippines. The Enterprise and three other carriers were in the van when the Japanese attacked on June 19, 1944. The Battle of the Philippine Sea was the largest carrier battle in history. Enterprise bombers struck Japanese battleships and cruisers, which burst into flames as bombs and torpedoes found their mark, and her fighters blasted one enemy Zero from the skies after another. The carrier took moderate damage during the battle and returned to Pearl Harbor (as it turned out for the last time during the war). She then returned to the Fifth Fleet in time for the invasion of the Philippines.

During the preliminary moves toward the Philippines, the Enterprise made minor attacks on small Japanese islands and one large raid on Formosa, but her crew husbanded their resources for the battle to come. Before the Americans could land on the many islands of the Philippines, the Japanese Navy would have to be brought to battle one last time and its strength destroyed by the overwhelming might of the Fifth Fleet. The two sides engaged each other in the last major naval battle of the war at Leyte Gulf in late October 1944. This battle produced heroes on both sides and saw some stunning acts of courage on the part of American destroyer captains (most famously Ernest Evans aboard USS Johnston), and it was the Enterprise’s greatest test of the war. The carrier’s pilots sank one Japanese ship after another in the largest naval battle in history, and she suffered two direct hits from enemy kamikaze planes. Fortunately the damage was minor, and she emerged from Leyte Gulf largely unscathed. Her record for the battle stood at three enemy ships sunk and 52 planes shot down, the largest count of any ship in the battle.

With the Japanese now confined largely to land and unable to project power at sea, the Enterprise returned to supporting landing forces and conducting small air strikes on enemy-held islands. She participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima, at one point maintaining a continuous combat air patrol over the island for seven days and eight hours. Whenever she was damaged, the carrier sailed to Ulithi atoll in the Caroline Islands north of Indonesia and then returned to the fight, usually within three or four days. As the Battle of Okinawa heated up, the Enterprise was repeatedly attacked by suicidal kamikaze planes. On May 14, 1945, six days after the war in Europe had ended, a kamikaze Zero fighter crashed into her forward elevator, destroying the mechanism and killing or wounding almost fifty sailors.

Now unable to launch aircraft at full capacity, the Enterprise set sail for Puget Sound, where she was repaired and upgraded for a second time. However, two days before she was scheduled to return to action, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, and the war ended only a few days later. Of America’s five prewar aircraft carriers, only two had survived the war (Enterprise and Saratoga). Both were heroes of the Pacific war, but the Enterprise stood tall above her sister and all other warships of the United States Navy.

The End of “Big E”

For the several months, the Enterprise became what one sailor aboard called “a glorified ocean liner.” She ferried returning veterans home from Pearl Harbor in the weeks after the war’s end and then sailed for the East Coast, where her hangers were filled with bunks. The carrier then crossed the Atlantic three times to retrieve veterans of the European war. She was honored by the British Admiralty in a ceremony at Portsmouth in November 1945, and by early 1946 her labors had ended.

Many World War Two-era ships have been turned into floating museums, but this honor was sadly denied to both veterans of the early Pacific war. Saratoga was sunk in an atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in 1946. She survived the first explosion, but the second sent her to the bottom. Enterprise was spared this ignominious end, but her fate was hardly more glorious. The “Big E,” pride of the US Navy and symbol of American strength in the darkest hours of the war with Japan, was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap. By 1960, only the ship’s bell (which is now at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD), the stern name plate (now in River Vale, NJ), and an anchor at the Washington Navy Yard remained of the great ship.

Of course, the Department of Defense was determined not to allow the name Enterprise pass into history, and in 1958 the Navy christened the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. After 51 years of service, that Enterprise was decommissioned in 2012, and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced at its decommissioning ceremony that the next Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier would also carry the name Enterprise. When it comes to the United States Navy, names carry with them the legends of those ships which came before, and history will surely not forget the name Enterprise.



Standing Athwart History | William F. Buckley, Jr.

“I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

— William F. Buckley, National Review Mission Statement, November 19, 1955 —

As we discussed in last week’s episode, the Great Depression led to a fundamental transformation of one of America’s two political parties and a revolution in the American political order. The Democratic Party under Franklin Roosevelt embraced the concept of a “welfare state” that sought to protect Americans from the ups and downs of market capitalism using the power of government. As has been said before, Fifteen-Minute History takes no position when it comes to political questions, and this must be restated here. Today, in the second series on American political philosophy, we will discuss the man who led the charge to define modern American conservatism, the political opposite to progressive liberalism.

William F. Buckley is not a well-known figure to most Americans today, but his impact is felt everywhere, from the halls of Congress and the White House to talk radio and the Fox News Channel. It was Buckley who saw the need to unite various factions within the conservative movement into a coherent social and political force to, as he put it, “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop.’” Buckley was born in New York City in 1925 and educated in Paris and London.

He came late to the English language, first learning both French and Spanish, and this contributed to both his idiosyncratic accent and vast vocabulary. He attended Yale University, where he learned the art of debate and became a master of argument (a skill he put to great use in his many public and television appearances). In 1951 he joined the Central Intelligence Agency, and he began his writing career that same year. His first book quickly defined his image with the American public.

God and Man at Yale

As a student at Yale, William F. Buckley was concerned that the school was imposing what he called a “collectivist, Keynesian, and secularist ideology” upon its students. Rather than embracing the traditional role of the university and encouraging open dialogue and free thought, Buckley asserted that modern American education was an exercise in forcing students to adopt progressive beliefs regardless of how they had been raised. Having grown up in a conservative Catholic family, Buckley resented how his professors had tried to break down his religious faith and questioned the existence of God rather than encouraging individual intellectual growth by asking questions—as had been common in Western education since the time of Socrates.

God and Man at Yale landed in the American academic world like a bombshell. When it was first published, most intellectuals believed its initial popularity would fade, but it touched a nerve within middle America, especially among parents who listened to their children’s talks around the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables when on holiday from university. They saw how their offspring had drifted away from the traditions of their youth, and God and Man at Yale helped these parents understand why.

Buckley continued to provoke strong reactions in his writings. His second book, McCarthy and His Enemies, defended the controversial Wisconsin senator as he pursued communist infiltrators within the American government during the so-called “Red Scare.” Throughout the 1960s, his books attacked the liberal order and the welfare state, and while they seldom earned favorable reviews from his East Coast peers or the academic world, they sold hundreds of thousands of copies and demonstrated that Buckley’s views were shared by more than just a handful of archaic conservatives in the segregated South and rural West.

National Review

Buckley was not the only conservative intellectual writing in the 1950s. A professor at Michigan State, Russell Kirk, published The Conservative Mind in 1953, in which he outlined the history of American conservatism and traced its modern principles to what he believed were their roots in the American founding. The Conservative Mind provided a detailed, academic description of conservatism, but amidst the storm of criticism it sparked from academia, the message was lost to average Americans, who found Kirk’s emphasis on wordy quotations from long-dead statesmen like Edmund Burke and John Adams difficult to apply to the modern world. There remained a vacuum in American society for conservative opinions, and William F. Buckley was determined to fill it.

National Review “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” These words, written by Buckley in the Mission Statement for National Review magazine in 1955, were the opening volley in the literary movement to define conservatism for average Americans. As founder and editor of the magazine, Buckley brought together a group of contributors to write for him, many of whom disagreed with each other (and with their employer). Buckley looked for men and women who could express the principles of conservatism in clear, unambiguous terms and translate them into applicable precepts for their readers. Some writers, like Russell Kirk and the Catholic intellectual Brent Bozell (Buckley’s brother-in-law), pushed the traditional conservative message of faith and family; libertarians such as Frank Meyer argued for a limited government which acted only under the Constitution; and the anti-Communist Whittaker Chambers translated his experiences with American communism into a warning that, in his opinion, liberals were drifting toward socialism with their policies.

Buckley used his magazine to explain how conservative principles could be put into action in the United States. He also set limits on how one would define an American conservative: “It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens' lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress.” His call back to the principles in the Declaration of Independence meant that, in Buckley’s view, certain people and groups who called themselves “conservative” actually were not. For example, Buckley explicitly denounced anti-Semitism and racism, as well as white supremacists like George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who ran for president four times during Buckley’s lifetime. He also opposed the John Birch Society, a collection of authoritarian rightwingers who supported fascism in their efforts to slow the spread of communism around the world, and he rejected the ultra-libertarian philosophy of Objectivism and its patron saint, Ayn Rand (author of, among other works, Atlas Shrugged).

However, Buckley’s strong stance on the Constitution and its endorsement of states’ rights led to a great deal of controversy during the Civil Rights Era. Buckley and National Review supported segregationists and defended their views as consistent with the Constitution—though the magazine did urge southern states to permit African-Americans to vote without paying poll taxes or taking literacy tests. In 1957, Buckley wrote that whites in the South “had the right to impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to effect a genuine cultural equality between the races.” In effect, he was saying that temporary segregation was beneficial because black

Americans lacked the cultural and educational sophistication of whites. Buckley’s brother-in-law Brent Bozell broke with National Review on this issue, and during the 1960s the magazine softened its tone on civil rights as white supremacists brutalized African-Americans who were seeking equality. Buckley admitted later in life that he wished he had been more sympathetic to the civil rights movement, and he encouraged his readers to write to Congress in support of the creation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday. Nevertheless, he still remains a controversial figure when it comes to questions of race in America.

National Review has endorsed many presidential candidates since its founding, always the “most rightward viable candidate” (what is now known as the “Buckley Rule”). Most famously, National Review supported Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona in his challenge to President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, which Goldwater lost in a landslide. Many at the magazine were drawn to the actor Ronald Reagan, who gave a televised speech in support of Goldwater during the campaign, and Reagan (a National Review subscriber) soon came to embody the conservative philosophy it espoused. When Reagan challenged Gerald Ford in 1976, Buckley and National Review supported his insurgency, and they were overjoyed four years later when Reagan was elected president. The Reagan years saw National Review reach its peak in subscribers and influence. It supported much of Reagan’s agenda, was regularly cited in the president’s speeches, and its contributors often came to the White House for both policy briefings and public events. In the years since 1988, National Review has continued to promote traditional conservative positions, criticizing Bill Clinton’s welfare programs, supporting George W. Bush’s War on Terror and tax cuts, and opposing Barack Obama’s national healthcare plans. The magazine opposed Donald Trump in 2016, endorsing Senator Ted Cruz in the Republican primary, and it continues to hold President Trump’s feet to the fire whenever his actions stray from traditional conservative ideology.

Firing Line

William F. Buckley’s conservative voice earned him occasional spots on television throughout the 1950s and early 1960s as a commentator on world events. His relaxed posture, elegant accent and overpowering vocabulary were very popular with news consumers, and by 1966 he was a regular on CBS and NBC’s nightly news programs. In 1968, ABC hired Buckley to offer commentary on that year’s national conventions for the two political parties. As Buckley’s foil, ABC chose Gore Vidal, the controversial author and liberal intellectual. Buckley had once commented that he would never share a stage with Vidal, whose open homosexuality and liberal politics offended Buckley, but the two met and discussed the conventions in a (mostly) civilized manner. However, during an exchange on the violence of the Chicago police during the Democratic convention on August 28, 1968, Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” Visibly angered, Buckley lost his usual calm demeanor. He rose from his chair several inches and retorted, “Now listen, you (beep), stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your (beep) face, and you’ll stay plastered.” Vidal had told his friends he hoped to anger Buckley on national television and thus disgrace him before his conservative fans, and he had gotten his wish. Historians point to this moment, which saw a massive audience reaction both for and against Buckley, as the beginning of modern political debate shows on television. Buckley was ashamed of his actions, but his feud with Vidal continued, and the two men traded barbs in print and interviews for the rest of their lives.

In 1966, Buckley began to host his own TV talk show called Firing Line. Broadcast first on a local New York television station and then nationally on PBS, Firing Line ran for 34 seasons with more than fifteen hundred episodes in all. The show typically brought liberal academics or politicians on to debate Buckley, who always remained calm—he had learned his lesson with Vidal. When he did jab his opponents, he was always polite, for example when he asked his liberal friend Mark Green during their 100th appearance together on the show, “Tell me, Mark, have you learned anything yet?” Firing Line occasionally had non-political figures on to discuss American culture or current events. Two of the most memorable shows featured the boxing champion Muhammad Ali discussing black nationalism and the poet Alan Ginsburg giving his views on hippie and drug culture. Firing Line also hosted formal debates between presidential candidates moderated by Buckley, as well as political or cultural debates in which Buckley always led the affirmative team. Firing Line showed America that its political and intellectual leaders could engage in civil debate with the other side rather than shouting talking points at each other.

As cable television grew in popularity in the 1980s and Firing Line began to compete with CNN’s Crossfire, its ratings began to decline. When the Fox News Channel debuted in 1996, America found newer, louder voices for conservative talk on television from the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Buckley and his producer Warren Steibel ultimately canceled Firing Line in December 1999, ending the longest-running television series with a single host in history. Nineteen years later, as the Trump era brought new rancor to political debate in America, PBS revived Firing Line with a new host, the Republican activist Margaret Hoover (great-granddaughter of President Herbert Hoover), and the show has maintained its founder’s format and characteristic of civilized debate.

Miles Gone By

In addition to his political works, William F. Buckley also published a series of spy novels featuring the fictional CIA agent Blackford Oakes. Drawing on his experiences with the CIA in the 1950s, he wrote eleven novels and a companion reader from 1976 to 2005. Buckley also wrote other fictional works as well as an autobiography, Miles Gone By, published in 2004. Buckley grew wary of the conservative movement’s embrace of nation-building and domestic spying in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and The American Conservative magazine wrote that “at the end of his life, Buckley believed that the movement he had made had destroyed itself by supporting the war in Iraq.” (Of course, Buckley’s criticism of Republican orthodoxy was nothing new—he had broken with the party in the 1990s by writing a book advocating for an end to the drug war and the legalization of marijuana.)

In March 2000, as the year’s presidential campaign was heating up, Buckley published an article in Cigar Aficionado titled “Politics—The Demagogues are Running.” In it he criticized several candidates for appealing not to political ideology to earn votes but rather giving the people whatever they wanted, regardless of the benefit to the country. He blasted Bill Bradley for his borderline-socialist policies (the New Jersey senator was running to the left of Al Gore in the Democratic primary) and Republican Steve Forbes for trying to buy the nomination from George W. Bush. Interestingly, he also shared his thoughts on a man who was considering running on the Reform Party ticket: “What about the aspirant who has a private vision to offer to the public and has the means, personal or contrived, to finance a campaign? In some cases, the vision isn't merely a program to be adopted. It is a program that includes the visionary's serving as President. Look for the narcissist. The most obvious target in today's lineup is, of course, Donald Trump. When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America. But whatever the depths of self-enchantment, the demagogue has to say something. So what does Trump say? That he is a successful businessman and that that is what America needs in the Oval Office. There is some plausibility in this, though not much. The greatest deeds of American Presidents—midwifing the new republic; freeing the slaves; harnessing the energies and vision needed to win the Cold War—had little to do with a bottom line. So what else can Trump offer us?”

On February 27, 2008, William F. Buckley was found dead in his study. He had died of a heart attack while suffering from emphysema and diabetes. His wife Patricia had predeceased him, and he was survived by his son Christopher. Tributes to his leadership of the conservative movement poured out across the airwaves, and a man who had shaped his country’s intellectual climate for half a century was laid to rest in a simple plot of earth in Sharon, CT, next to his wife.