On this day in 1993, the FBI assaulted the fortress of an apocalyptic Adventist sect near Waco, Texas, and a fire broke out that killed at least 80 children and adults. Two years later, an American militia sympathizer exacted what he saw as revenge by bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City and killing 168 people, including children in the day care center.
The Waco confrontation had been building for months. The leader of the cult inside the fortress, David Koresh, was preparing for the end times by stockpiling illegal weapons, which were delivered by UPS trucks. One day, a package broke open, and the UPS driver called the feds. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms planned a raid on the compound in February, but word leaked out to Koresh’s followers, known as the Branch Davidians. When the ATF charged the fortress, the Davidians met them with a hail of gunfire….
On this day in history, two men—one of whom would say that the other’s life work represented “the utmost human degradation[:] an idiot’s vegetative existence”—were born. In 1885, the author of that statement, Marxist literary critic Georg Lukács, dewombed in Budapest. Often cited as the founder of Western (or philosophical) Marxism, Lukács can be considered the grandfather of the armchair academic activists who fought the radical fight from tenured positions at illustrious institutions. I only half-kid here: his claim in The Historical Novel (1937) that the role of the literary critic was to examine “the relation between ideology (in the sense of Weltanschauung) and artistic creation” (147) allowed otherwise sedentary scholars to label as revolutionary action an exegesis on Dickensian realism. Anyone whose work analyzed critical or socialist realism, i.e. literature which…
This day in 1925 was publication day for The Great Gatsby, whose author F. Scott Fitzgerald—amazingly, hopefully, ridiculously, immediately—cabled Maxwell Perkins to ask if there were any news yet of how the book was going over. The news when it came was good, but not good enough for Fitzgerald, who mourned that of the happy reviewers “not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.”
And that appears still to be true. Whatever the book is about it obviously isn’t about how well America treats arriviste strivers. But is it about the myth of the classless society? Certainly, but not in the boring way that Dreiser’s books are about that.
On this day in 1962, two CIA officers met in New York with Las Vegas mobster Johnny Roselli to discuss plans for assassinating Fidel Castro. Roselli, an illegal immigrant from Italy who had worked for Al Capone in Chicago in the 1920s, shaken down producers in Hollywood in the 1940s, and skimmed the profits from casinos in Las Vegas and Havana in the 1950s, promised the CIA that he could find someone in Cuba who would be willing to kill Castro for the right price. The April 1962 conspiracy involved poison pills, which distinguishes it from the other CIA plots against Castro using poisoned cigars, bombs, exploding seashells, deadly fungi, LSD spray, mafia hit men, depilatory dust, and poison-filled syringes disguised as ballpoint pens.
The plots against Castro began in August 1960, during the Eisenhower administration, when some CIA officials decided to try to “undermine Castro’s…
Forty-one years ago today, James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King, Jr. dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. To memorialize this grim anniversary, LIFE has released a gallery of photographs taken at the Lorraine on April 4, 1968 and the following day. For some reason, the second and ninth pictures (of the Lorraine’s sign and of the contents of Dr. King’s briefcase) hit me the hardest. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of that Americana and American history (the images of the blood-soaked balcony and of Dr. King’s friends and colleagues from the SCLC mourning his loss) that’s so affecting. I honestly don’t know.
On this day in 1916, the Senate Judiciary Committee postponed decision on Woodrow Wilson’s nomination of Louis D. Brandeis to the Supreme Court of the United States so it could wrangle further over whether he had “the temperament” to be a Justice. Anti-Semites.
Or perhaps they were more than anti-Semitic. Maybe the real problem was that Brandeis, as Senator Thomas Walsh (Democrat of Montana) said, “has exposed the iniquities of men in high places in our financial system. He has not stood in awe of the majesty of wealth.”
On this week in history, the German Army launched its last-ditch 1918 offensive, aimed at breaking the Entente lines in northwestern France and marching to Paris. The offensive was something of a throw of the dice, an attempt by the German High Command to try and win the war before the full flood of American soldiers crashed across the Atlantic. It nearly worked.
Otto Dix, Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas (1924)
The Western Front in WWI had been a largely static war since the freewheeling days of 1914. In this, it resembled less battles and battlefields than sieges and fortifications. The trench system that stretched from Switzerland to the English Channel meant that the traditional methods of open warfare–flanking maneuvers, for example–had become essentially impossible. What was left were frontal assaults, with all the expected sanguinary implications. The central tactical…
On or around this day in history, Mount Vesuvius last erupted in 1944, having the terminally bad manners to interrupt the progress of World War II, destroy several Italian villages, and inspire a wedding proposal.
The volcano is, of course, most famous for its eruption in AD 79, which destroyed the Roman town of Pompeii, an event recorded by Pliny the Younger. But it has erupted periodically since then, with the eruptions coming more frequently in the modern era. The 65 years since the 1944 eruption is the longest time in three hundred years that Mount Vesuvius has gone without an eruption.
The 1944 eruption ranked a 3 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, one below the AD 79 eruption. It came as Allied forces were fighting their way up the Italian boot, having landed at Salerno, just to the south, in late 1943. (more…)
On this day in 1926, Congressman Victor Berger (Socialist-Wisconsin) met Calvin Coolidge at the White House to ask the president’s support for a pardon of Eugene Debs, the Socialist leader and frequent presidential candidate who spent more than two years in federal prison for a speech of June 1918, whose “probable effect will be to prevent recruiting.”1 Coolidge reportedly displayed “sympathetic interest”—his predecessor Harding had commuted Debs’s sentence to time served.
When reporting on Berger’s meeting, the New York Timessaid Berger was trying to restore Debs’s citizenship, tout court; while it was apparently commonplace to refer to Debs having lost his citizenship as a result of the conviction, Nick Salvatore explains it was not so, though he might have lost his right to vote.
In September of 1926, Debs’s brother Theodore helped him to register to vote, so he could assert…
On this day in 1971, a group of activists broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania and stole about a thousand government documents with a mysterious notation, “COINTELPRO.” The public revelation of these documents ranks with the Pentagon Papers as one of the most significant exposés of government secrets in U.S. history.
The burglars, who have never been identified, entered the two-person office in Media as much of the nation was huddled around television sets to watch the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight. The activists did not fully understand the documents they found, but they quickly decided that the public had the right to see them.
About two weeks later, two prominent antiwar lawmakers and reporters at major newspapers received copies of the files in plain brown envelopes. Most of the recipients accepted the FBI’s judgment that the files were “secret”: the…
It’s always useful to remember how low expectations were for Abraham Lincoln when he took office. Even his ostensible allies sometimes described him as a rube, a hayseed out of his depth in troubled times. As for his political enemies, the editors at Harper’s Weekly*, a publication that had shilled for Stephen Douglas during the 1860 campaign, printed the above cartoon (click here for a larger image) on this day in 1861. Less than a week before Lincoln’s inauguration, the artist, John McLenan, depicted the president-elect, apparently drunk, joking with cronies as a funeral procession for the Constitution and Union passed by in the background.
* The editors at Harper’s maintained a Unionist stance throughout the war. And by the end of the conflict, the publication had become aggressively pro-Lincoln.
On that day in history, the Japanese submarine I-17 surfaced off the West Coast of the United States and fired a brace of shells at the Elwood Oil Refinery complex in southern California. The attack came after dusk on February 23rd, just as the nation was settling into their couches to listen to a fireside chat by FDR. Despite claims otherwise, this was the first foreign attack on the continental United States since the war of 1812.*
The shelling had no appreciable military effect, with none of the shells getting terribly near the refinery itself but instead blowing holes in nearby farm land. What it did provoke, however, was an intensive hunt for the submarine by American forces and a continuing wave of scares on the West Coast over the next few years, including one three days later, when reports of Japanese aircraft over Los Angeles sparked several barrages of anti-aircraft fire …
On this day in history, the United States took actions that symbolize the contradictions of the Pacific War, at home and abroad. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which effected the internment of ethnic Japanese (Issei) and Japanese-Americans (Nisei) living in the western United States. Three years later, in 1945, forces of the 4th Assault Corps put two divisions on the black sands of Iwo Jima. In a sense, these linked days were, in their own particular way, indicative of the beginning and the end of the Pacific War. The internments–perhaps the most shameful act of Roosevelt’s Presidency–highlight the confusion, fear, and chaos of the immediate months after Pearl Harbor. Iwo Jima, at the other end, demonstrated the bloody grinding that the war had become by 1945.
The attack on Pearl Harbor had thrown the United States into war…
On this day in 1968, guerrilla forces in South Vietnam mounted a massive offensive against both American forces and the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN). Timed for the Vietnamese holiday of Tet, the attack caught the defenders unready and shocked an American public that had been assured by both its military and President Lyndon B. Johnson that the U.S. was winning in Vietnam. The result of Tet was a military disaster for the Vietcong attackers but a political victory for the communist effort in South Vietnam. The fallout from Tet brought down a President, as LBJ would drop his reelection effort in 1968, and it essentially doomed the American effort in Vietnam. Tet became mythologized as the embodiment of the violence and futility of Vietnam, never more so than in Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket.
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This blog is a blog about history, Yiddishkeit, and the Muppets, neither exclusively nor necessarily in that order. And as William Gibson said about this very blog (no, really), “History can save your ass.” Yiddishkeit and the Muppets are just extras.
is the associate director of the Cornell in Washington program and a senior lecturer at Cornell University. He teaches courses on European history, modern military history, guerrilla war, and the role of popular will in waging war.
is an associate professor of history at UC Davis. He is the author of A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans, which won the Abbott Lowell Cummings Prize in 2004, and his new book, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, will be published by Harvard University Press in fall 2012.
is a professor of history at UC Davis. She is the author of Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (Oxford, 2009); Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley (North Carolina, 2002); and Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI (North Carolina, 1996).