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So said the New York Times about the big news on this day in 1934: that Adolph Hitler had consolidated his control over Germany.

On this day in 1920, Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Oddly, School House Rock’s story of women’s suffrage, which is perfectly accurate in every other detail, neglects to mention that the critical vote hinged on Harry Burn’s decision to listen to his mama.

By late summer 1920, thirty-five of the thirty-six states required for ratification had passed the Amendment. Pro- and anti-suffrage activists, wearing yellow and red roses respectively, descended upon Nashville, Tennessee, where the state legislature appeared to be deadlocked on the issue. On August 18, a preliminary roll call yielded a 48-48 tie. Then, after a second roll call also ended in a stalemate, the 24-year-old Burn, proudly wearing a red rose pinned to his lapel, changed his vote. An infuriated mob descended upon Burn, who reportedly escaped out of window and then hid in the State Capitol’s attic.

Burn later explained that upon hearing that he would vote against suffrage, his elderly mother had sent him a telegram asking him to change his mind. And like any good son, he eventually agreed. What most people don’t know is that Burn, as he cast his deciding vote, shouted “Lucretia!”

On this day in history, the Japanese government surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II. And while there’s much to be said about the event, ideally by someone who has something of interest to say (Silbey? Are you out there somewhere?), I found this snippet from the Times‘s coverage interesting:

The President’s final announcement was to decree holidays tomorrow and Thursday for all Federal workers, who, he said, were the “hardest working and perhaps the least appreciated” by the public of all who had helped to wage the war.

We’ve been involved in either one or two wars for what, six years now? And it’s hard to imagine President Obama singling out federal employees, other than those in the armed forces, for their efforts during this time of crisis. And yes, I know, WWII made very different demands on the country. But still, things have changed, right? Although, perhaps not in every way, as the Times article also goes out of its way to call the nation’s capital dull: “usually bored Washington”. Heh.

Oh, then there was this alarming passage, which also brought me up short:

If the note had not come today the President was ready though reluctant to give the order that would have spread throughout Japan the hideous death and destruction that are the toll of the atomic bomb.

What catches my eye there is the implied menace: that Truman stood ready to drop more atomic bombs on Japanese cities (I presume) had he not received the note of surrender on this day in 1945. Was the author just being dramatic? Was he serving as a propaganda arm of the U.S. government, laying the groundwork for years of Cold War bluster? Or was that generally understood as the situation at the time?

On this day in 1965, violence raged in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles (contemporary coverage here and a more detailed tdih here). A few points about the newsreel above: First, the voiceover uses both “riot” and “insurrection” to describe the mayhem. The difference in moral valence between the two is pretty clear, so I was somewhat surprised to hear the word “insurrection” used at all.

Second, in other spots the narration remains more complicated than I would have expected: for instance, when, around the 40 second mark, we hear that “the looters…stole everything from liquor to playpens.” Maybe I’m off base, but I think looters who steal playpens sound reasonably sympathetic — as looters go, I mean. Of course they become a lot less sympathetic, it seems, in the next paragraph of the script, when it turns out that they’re shooting from rooftops at firefighters. Don’t mess with first responders, looters, if you want our sympathy!

Third, the score is all kinds of over-the-top awesome, sort of like Bernard Herrmann gone mad (there’s another Watts video, with even groovier music, here). Fourth, around the 1:20 mark, we hear about Martin Luther King, who’s portrayed as a kind of moderate Civil Rights superman, capable of quelling urban unrest using only the power of his soothing words. Of course, assuming that’s a quote from King, a source from just a few years later suggests those words could have been read in many ways. Fifth, boy those cops around the 2:00 mark are white.


When I teach my seminar on monuments, museums, and memorials, I typically cover the Enola Gay controversy. But one of the challenges I face is getting my students to look “beneath the mushroom cloud” (borrowing a phrase from John Dower). So, given that it’s the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima (see here for contemporary coverage), I thought I’d mention that I once juxtaposed Barefoot Gen with the bombing scene from Above and Beyond as a way of accomplishing this goal. This approach has its share of problems, unfortunately, and since I’ll be teaching the course again in the fall, I’d be eager to hear other ideas.

By the way, Barefoot Gen is fascinating for a variety of reasons, almost certainly worth the time for its treatment of class, the role of bureaucracy in Japanese culture, and popular misgivings about the war, not to mention its brutal depiction of Hiroshima’s destruction. It’s not just a one-trick pony, in other words. Above and Beyond, on the other hand, is probably best avoided. No doubt I’m wrong on both counts, though, and will soon hear about it. I eagerly await your replies.

[Editor’s Note: When Jacob Remes isn’t using his superpowers to fight crime, he toils as a PhD candidate in history at Duke University, where he’s writing a dissertation about the Salem Fire and the Halifax explosion. You can find more information here. And if you’d like to write a TDIH, please let me know.]

The workers at Korn Leather Company in Salem, Mass., made embossed patent leather by coating leather with a solution made of scrap celluloid film, alcohol, and amyl-acetate, and then applying steam heat. On this day in 1914, at about 1:30 in the afternoon, something went terribly wrong, and—perhaps not surprisingly given the flammable nature of the work—the whole rickety structure caught fire. Half an hour later, the fire had spread to fifteen more buildings, forcing 300 workers to flee. By 7:00 that evening, the fire crossed into the Point, a tightly packed neighborhood of three- and four-story tenements, filled with the immigrants who worked at Salem’s leather factories and the enormous Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company.

The Salem Evening News reported:

The rush of the flames through the Point district was the wildest of the conflagration, the flames leaping from house to house with incredible rapidity. Police officers and citizens went from house to house in the district when it was seen that it must fall a prey to the flames, warning the occupants to get out and get out as quickly as possible. Soon the streets were thronged with men, women and children, carrying in their arms all they could of their belongings, while wagons, push carts and now and then an automobile were pressed into service in the removal of goods.

The fire burned through the night, and by the time the fire reached the Naumkeag cotton mill, it was too hot; although the factory was equipped with modern devices to stop fires, it burned down, leaving 3,000 people without jobs. All told, the fire destroyed 3,150 houses and 50 factories and left 18,380 individuals homeless, jobless, or both. Of these people, nearly half were French-Canadian, the group that dominated the Point. “St. Joseph’s structure is not only destroyed, but the whole parish has been scattered to the winds,” the Salem Evening News wrote that week of the neighborhood’s French-Canadian parish. Many camped for weeks at nearby Forest River Park, under the watchful eye and armed authority of the National Guard.

Fires were endemic to 19th-century industrial cities. Just in the 35 years preceding the Salem Fire, Chicago (1871), Boston (1872), Seattle (1889), St. John’s, Nfld. (1892), Hull and Ottawa (1900), Jacksonville, Fla. (1901), Toronto (1904), Baltimore (1904), and San Francisco (1906), and Chelsea, Mass. (1908), among others, all suffered major conflagrations. But changes in building and firefighting meant that in the twentieth century, large-scale urban fires declined drastically. Automobiles required clear roadways, so the flammable material that used to often sit in streets, blocking fire engines and spreading fires, was gradually removed. Progressive building codes—like one proposed and rejected in Salem in 1910 that would have required noncombustible roofs—and ever-more professionalized fire-fighting helped too. If the Salem Fire was not the last of its kind, it was among the last. That at most six people died in Salem is testament to the strides made in preventing, containing and fighting fires, even when fire departments could not ultimately save property. In 1951, the National Fire Protection Association published a list of major conflagrations in the first half of the twentieth century. After 1914, only one urban fire came close to Salem’s in the number of buildings burned or the estimated dollar amount of damages: a fire in Astoria, Oregon, in 1922 that destroyed 30 city blocks and caused $10 million in damages.

Yet the decline of industrial conflagrations did not, of course, spell the end to urban disasters. Three and a half years after the Salem Fire, a ship explosion destroyed about a quarter of Halifax, N.S., killing around 2,000 people. The Halifax Explosion was an accident, but it heralded the urban destructions of the 20th century. All sides of the Second World War unleashed massive, unprecedented on cities. Geographer Ken Hewitt estimates that strategic bombing destroyed 39% of Germany’s total urban area and an astounding 50% of Japan’s. Neither these statistics nor the equally startling numbers of dead and bombed out (60,595 dead and 750,000 homeless in the U.K., 550,000 and 7,500,000, respectively in Germany, and 500,000 and 8,300,000 in Japan) adequately convey the destruction of families, communities, and institutions that came with these urban destructions. Twentieth century wars, their technology and ideology created a special brand of horror, which made their urban destructions starkly different from the industrial fires of the 19th century. When urban civilians became common targets, cities were made military symbols. It is not for nothing that terrorists have twice targeted the World Trade Center, a symbol of American urban might and culture.

If urban destruction in the 19th century was largely a result of industrial accidents and the destructions of the 20th century were from war, the 21st century may be a period of meteorological and seismological disasters. While there remains scientific disagreement about the effect of climate change on the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, there is mounting evidence that global warming has contributed to a greater proportion of storms being particularly bad. Global warming also contributes to other meteorological disasters, like floods, heat-waves, and droughts. Moreover, the chronic effects of global warming, especially coastal erosion, means that cities are less able to withstand extreme storms and floods. This means that cities will be more susceptible to destruction stemming from events that global warming will not increase, like tsunamis. There is some evidence, too, that even on land seismological disasters will likely become worse this century, since urbanization—especially the growth of shanties and slums in global megacities—leads to more death and destruction when earthquakes strike. As always, the social effects of these “natural” disasters are felt most by the poor, both globally and within developed countries.

Churchill in 1940

On this day in 1940, Winston Churchill stepped to the Speaker’s Box in the House of Commons and–his premiership still only weeks old–began telling the House of Commons of the defeat and deliverance of Dunkirk. It was 3:40 pm in the afternoon.

In both 1914 and 1940, Germany’s assault into France and Belgium had met with enormous initial success, penetrating deep into France and sending the defenders back in disarray. In 1940, unlike 1914, there was no saving battle, no resilient resistance at the Marne to save the French capital and throw back the oncoming Germans. Instead, in 1940, the German scythe struck all the way to the English Channel, cutting the defensive lines in half. The commander of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940, Lord Gort, did what British army commanders had done since time immemorial when threatened with military disaster: he headed for a saltwater port. In this case, it was Dunkirk, but it might as well have been Corunna, or Yorktown. The British believed that they might take off 30-50,000 soldiers before the Germans closed in, but to their surprise and delight, by early June, they had managed to pull off more than 338,000. This was nearly the entirety of the BEF and thousands of French soldiers as well. Dunkirk has become a legend, for the small ships who carried men from the beaches to the larger vessels off shore, to the desperate fight of the rearguard, to the strange two-day German pause in attacks. On June 4th, Churchill rose in the House to explain what had happened. It was to be one more in a series of spectacular speeches that the PM would give that year, speeches which have bequeathed to the English-speaking world a set of resonant phrases.

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g21931.jpgOn this day in 1942, the USS Yorktown limped back into Pearl Harbor after the Battle of the Coral Sea. The aircraft carrier had been heavily damaged in the encounter, still a better result than that of her fellow carrier, the USS Lexington, which had been sent to the bottom. Coral Sea had been a tactical defeat for the United States–the sunken Japanese light carrier Shoho hardly an even trade for the massive Lexington–but a strategic defeat for the Japanese. The planned Japanese invasion of Port Moresby, on the southern coast of Papua New Guinea, had been called off, and the two fleet carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku had been damaged enough that they would not be available for the next month’s planned attack on Midway.

The question was whether the Yorktown would be. Things did not look good on the day she slowly eased into Pearl Harbor, an oil slick trailing behind her. She moved through a navy base still shattered by the Japanese attack of 7 December 1941 and sailors gathered on her stern to salute the USS Arizona as they passed the sunken battleship’s infrastructure, still rising above the water. Read the rest of this entry »

On this day sixty-five years ago, American forces broke out of the Anzio beachhead and began the long process of pushing the Germans out of Italy.  In American military history, the invasion is known as a poorly executed near disaster.  In my family’s history, it is remembered as the moment when my father came to terms with the role of  chance in an individual’s life.

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On this day in history, Second Lieutenant Daniel K. Inouye, a Japanese-American from Hawaii, led his platoon into action near San Terenzo, Italy.scr_20005191a_hr.jpg Inouye, a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, had left his medical studies to enlist in 1943, rising to the rank of Sergeant and then getting a battlefield commission to Second Lieutenant. The war in Europe would end within the month, but the Germans were still defending their remnant of Italy fiercely. That day…but let Inouye describe the action:

We jumped off at first light. E Company’s objective was Colle Musatello, a high and heavily defended ridge. All three rifle platoons were to be deployed, two moving up in a frontal attack, with my platoon skirting the left flank and coming in from the side. Whichever platoon reached the heights first was to secure them against counterattack.

Off to the right I could hear the crackle of rifle fire as the 1st and 2nd platoons closed in on the German perimeter. For us, though, it went like a training exercise. Everything worked. What little opposition we met, we outflanked or pinned down until someone could get close enough to finish them off with a grenade. We wiped out a patrol and a mortar observation post without really slowing down. As a result we reached the main line of resistance long before the frontal assault force. We were right under the German guns, 40 yards from their bunkers. We had a choice of either continuing to move up or of getting out altogether.

We moved, and almost at once three machine guns opened up on us, pinning us down. I pulled a grenade from my belt and got up. Somebody punched me in the side, although there wasn’t a soul near me, and I half fell backward. Then I counted off three seconds as I ran toward the nearest machine gun. I threw the grenade and it cleared the log bunker, exploding in a shower of dirt. When the gun crew staggered erect, I cut them down. My men were coming up now, and I waved them toward the other two emplacements.

“My God, Dan,” someone yelled in my ear, “you’re bleeding! Get down and I’ll get an aid man.” I looked down to where my right hand was clutching my stomach. Blood oozed between my fingers. I thought, “That was no punch, you dummy. You took a slug in the gut.”

I wanted to keep moving. We were pinned down again and, unless we did something quickly they’d pick us off one at a time. I lurched up the hill again, and lobbed two grenades into the second emplacement before the gunners saw me. Then I fell to my knees. Somehow they wouldn’t lock and I couldn’t stand. I had to pull myself forward with one hand.

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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. Four ATF agents and two Davidians died in the shootout. The Davidians then shot and killed three of their own.

The FBI responded to the murder of their fellow federal officers with hundreds of agents, tanks, helicopters, searchlights, and stereo speakers intended to blast the Davidians out of the compound with unbearably loud music. After fifty-one days of tense negotiations, Attorney General Janet Reno, convinced that the Davidians were abusing the children in the fort, decided to force them out. Armored tanks poked holes in the compound walls and began pumping in tear gas. Several hours later, the fortress exploded in flames. At least 80 adults and children died in the ensuing inferno, which was broadcast live on television.

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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 displayed “the contradictions within society and within the individual context of a dialectical unity,” could consider him or herself a soldier in the Great Class War Against Mystification. Like Susan Sontag, I find his definition of realism—socialist, critical or otherwise—unnecessarily reductive and his dismissiveness of non-realist works short-sighted (if not out-right anti-intellectual).

In 1906, the same year Lukács received his Ph.D., was born the man whose work depicted “an idiot’s vegetative existence.” That Samuel Beckett’s novels, plays and poetry trafficked in “human degradation” was reason enough for condemnation: unlike realists novels, which were capable of creating dialectical conversations between singular narratives and the social totality of history, modernist novels wallowed in the singularity of their narrators:

Lack of objectivity in the description of the outer world finds its complement in the reduction of reality to a nightmare. Beckett’s Molloy is perhaps the ne plus ultra of this development. (152)

If an author grounds that nightmare in “the Aristotelian concept of man as zoon politikon” (151); that is, if an author provides a reference against which the consequences of the actions of social animals can be judged: only then can reader or critic differentiate between the concrete potentialities (what happens) and the abstract potentialities (what the character thought could have happened). Authors who refuse to declare what happened—who mess in the pseudo-realization of abstract potentiality—create readers who will never know from dialectical. They will not be social animals critically examining the societal structuring of their lives through the power of realist narratives; they will be unwitting dupes forever mired in the pathological subjectivity of Molloy, forever sucking pebbles. Their lives, such that they are, will be spent in the Grand Hotel Abyss, which Lukács describes as

a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered. (qtd. 22)

Needless to say, I disagree.

I’ll close on an historical odditiy: not only was Lukács born on April 13th, so too was the French psychoanalyst and psychoanalytic theorist, Jacques Lacan. It’s as if the day conspired to give birth to the thought of Louis Althusser (which, as you can probably guess, is one part Lukácian, one part Lacanian and three cans of crazy).


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.

I do like the suggestion that what’s most important in the book is

its realization of the fluidity of American lives, the perception being Tom Buchanan’s wistful drifting here and there, “wherever people played polo and were rich together,” in Wolfsheim’s sentimental longings for the old Metropole, in Nick Carroway’s wry feeling that Tom and Daisy were two old friends I scarcely knew at all,” in Gatsby’s whole career.

And, as that retrospective goes on to note, its peculiar voice—sometimes so staccato, sometimes so lyrical, only false when it’s trying to be funny (the sequence of the party guests with the fishy names).

I remember one intepretive note that I think interesting: three times (what I tell you three times is true) and at critical moments Fitzgerald/Carraway calls the reader’s attention to breast imagery: once to call attention to Jordan’s sexualized self-presentation:

I looked at Miss Baker wondering what it was she “got done.” I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet.

—once to illustrate the brutal damage done Myrtle Wilson by the automobile—well, I was going to say “accident” but that’s not right, is it?

Michaelis and this man reached her first but when they had torn open her shirtwaist still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.

—and once—as every schoolboy knows—to describe primeval unspoiled America.

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes–a fresh, green breast of the new world.

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

On the other hand I am not a literary type, so what do I know?

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 charismatic appeal by sabotaging his speeches,” in the words of a U.S. Senate report. They plotted to spray his broadcast studio with hallucinogens; to douse his cigars with psychedelic drugs; and to dust his shoes with thallium salts, which would destroy his image as “The Beard.” Soon the CIA decided that these assaults on Castro’s image were inadequate, and moved on to actual assassination plots. After the first few schemes failed, agency officials thought of calling in some men who despised Castro as much as they did — and had considerable experience with killing people.

Castro had chased the mafia out of Havana in 1959 along with the other capitalists. As a result, some of America’s most notorious criminals were pleased to cooperate with their government in disposing of Cuba’s comandante. The CIA viewed Sam Giancana, the mob boss of Chicago, and Santo Trafficante, the mafia chieftain of Miami and formerly of Cuba, as “businessmen with interests in Cuba who saw the elimination of Castro as the first essential step to the recovery of their investments.” The attorney general saw them as two of the most dangerous men in the country and put them on his ten most-wanted list. In one of many ironies, the FBI was hunting them down while the CIA was hiring them to commit crimes.

At the meeting 47 years ago today, the CIA agents gave Roselli poison pills to drop in Castro’s drinks. When that scheme failed, they came up with more creative options. CIA scientists customized a diving suit for Castro by dusting it with a skin-destroying fungus and contaminating its breathing tubes with the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. They also developed an exploding seashell to be placed in Castro’s favorite scuba-diving bay. On November 22, 1963, as President John Kennedy was waving at the crowds in Dallas, one of his CIA operatives was delivering a hypodermic needle concealed in a ballpoint pen to a Cuban in Paris. The CIA planned for the Cuban to fill the pen with poison and stab Castro with it.

As I discuss in my new book, the Castro plots provide great source material for conspiracy theories about the assassination of John Kennedy. It’s easy – though not necessarily correct – to spin off theories about tales of betrayal, revenge, and retribution involving characters like Giancana, Roselli, and the target of the plots himself. Everyone has a favorite theory. For his part, Lyndon Johnson believed that “Kennedy was trying to get to Castro, but Castro got to him first.”

The plots were thoroughly documented in the 1975 report of Frank Church’s Senate Select Committee to Investigate Intelligence Activities, Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders (a misleading title, as the plots are not alleged but proven in the report itself). The report is essential reading for anyone interested in the secret foreign policy of this period, with its tales of undercover agents, with their unworkable James Bond devices, venturing into Johnny Roselli’s underworld.

The plots did not end well for Giancana or Roselli. Giancana was gunned down in his kitchen just days before he was to testify to the Church Committee in 1975. Roselli gave a colorful accounting of his many exploits to the committee, but did not show up when they recalled him for more testimony. His dismembered body was later found floating in an oil drum off the coast of Miami.  But Fidel managed to outwit them all, and reminded us yesterday that he is not dead yet.

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.”

What had Brandeis done? He had, of course, stood for laborers’ rights numerous times, but principally he had written Other People’s Money: and How the Bankers Use It (hint: not well).

In it he included his earlier Harper’s Weekly article, “A Curse of Bigness”, where he argued that banks had made excessively large securities issues.

Size, we are told, is not a crime. But size may, at least, become noxious by reason of the means through which it was attained or the uses to which it is put.

Brandeis proposed limiting the uses of securities. “[W]e shall, by such legislation, remove a potent factor in financial concentration. Decentralization will begin.”

In other parts of the book, Brandeis goes on to challenge the conventional stereotype of the banker as conservative—on the contrary, he noted their “financial recklessness”—and he argued that Americans had systematically been “confusing the functions of banker and business man.” He argued for a system of smaller, more local banks.

I’ve been thinking of this lately, as our old friend urbino (who, alas, doesn’t come around here no more) has beaten almost every major pundit to the punch in arguing that if banks have grown too big to fail, then perhaps they ought to be stopped from supersizing themselves. (urbino: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.)

*You didn’t think I would stoop to calling this post “Size matters”, did you?

On this day in 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered.

I’ve revisited it a few times over the years, and I always have different reactions, but they usually include

1. Where’s my goddamn moon shuttle?
2. “Bell.” Heh. “Pan-Am.” <snif>
3. We really are, as a culture, poorer for not having the Soviets as staple villains. (Not that you can’t muff that, too.)

My favorite recycling of 2001 is of course Wall-E. But I really wanted to point you to my favorite critical reading of 2001, by Michael Bérubé—part 1 and part 2. If you haven’t read it, please do.

And when you do, let me know: do you think the silence of the movie’s final chapter covers the “unmentionable” or “what goes without saying”?

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 question, from 1914 onward, had been how to get an attack across No Man’s Land, from one trench system to another, and then hold it, all without losing too many casualties in the process. The years 1916-1917 were experimental, as all the armies tried a variety of ways to mount assaults. Some were unsuccessful: the German gas attack at Ypres in 1915 momentarily opened a gap in the British line, but the German troops were mostly held by a combination of dogged Canadian defenders and the difficulties of moving up into their own gas. Some were successful: in 1917, the British mounted successful assaults at Messines Ridge and Cambrai, broke through German lines using, for the former, carefully organized artillery bombardments and “bite and hold” tactics and, for the latter, using mass ranks of armored vehicles, “tanks.” Some were disasters: at the Somme and Verdun in 1916, and Passchendaele in 1917, British and German assaults had turned in cauldrons that boiled hundreds of thousands alive. This mixture of successes, failures, and catastrophes had killed millions and stretched the war out without result.

By 1918, the Germans thought that they had figured out a way to do it. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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