Class Notes

It is interesting that during the Great Depression, while liberal capitalism was seeming to fail, that America never developed a strong Fascist or Communist party.  In the nations of Russia and Germany, Communism and Fascism were moving their nations out of the Depression faster than the United States.  Stalin’s three five-year plans had industrialized practically from nothing overnight, while Hitler had cut Germany’s unemployment rate in half.  America never really was tempted by these movements.  FDR’s New Deal half-heartily flirted with socialism, but never really accepted the movement.  There was something clearly different about America.  What is interesting now is that after both the Communists and the Fascists have failed, America is now starting to flirt with both.

Class Notes

Before the Civil War, the northern economy was rapidly industrializing.  Do not think of the North as industrialized during the war, they were still primarily agricultural, but were moving closer to industrialization.  The difference was the South was not industrializing at all.  The South was becoming extremely wealthy, but they put all their wealth back into slavery and their land.  Southerners may have been wealthy, but they were cash poor.  With no liquid money, there was nothing to invest in new technologies and industry.  Not to mention there was no motivation to with the amount of money they made from cotton. 

Missile Attacks

If anyone was hoping for a calmer more peaceful decade, then surely by now they are disappointed. With just a few days into 2020, the major news story already is a drone strike and death of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Instantly political sides were drawn as Trump supporters praised the president’s actions as a strike against terrorism and protection for American lives. Trump detractors criticized the decision as dangerous. Presidential contenders have all denounced the president, calling him basically a war monger and a murderer. As always, I am not here to comment on the president’s decision. There is enough of that already. But historically speaking, the president’s actions are far from new. We have seen presidents strike Middle Eastern targets as far back as there have been Middle Eastern issues. You can claim he had ulterior motives, the same as previous presidents, but you can’t claim his attack is out of the ordinary.

Though most modern presidents have used missile strikes, I want to focus on two, President Clinton and President Reagan, both of whom made similar decisions. When Reagan took over in 1981, one of the principal “bad guys” was Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Similar to Iran today, Libya in the 1970s and 1980s was a principal supporter of terrorism. They were outspokenly anti-Israel and supported terrorist groups in Palestine and Syria. Like Iran, they were also actively trying to start a nuclear program.

The 1980s saw an uptick in Islamic terrorism when 239 marines were killed in a bombing in Lebanon in 1983. 1985 saw bombings in Vienna and Rome airports, the high-jacking of a TWA plane and an Italian cruise ship, both with American deaths. Finally, in 1986 American service men were killed and injured in a disco bombing in Berlin. Libya had ties to them all. After the disco bombing, Reagan ordered Operation El Dorado Canyon, which were air strikes against Libya hoping to kill Gaddafi. Unfortunately, Gaddafi was warned of the strikes and escaped before the bombs fell on his compound, sparing his life. The bombing did very little to curtail Libya’s support of terrorism as they continued throughout the 1980s. The United Nations condemned the attack, but Americans overwhelmingly supported Reagan’s actions, strengthening his popularity.

Two presidents later President Clinton launched his own Middle Eastern attacks. The first time was in June of 1993 when Clinton hit sites in Iraq. Supposedly the attack was in response to an assassination attempt against former President H.W. Bush while he was visiting Kuwait. Saddam Hussein was seen as a leading sponsor of terrorism and, like Iran, was supporting terrorism around the globe. The missiles hit the building where the assassination was planned but did little to curtail Saddam Hussein’s support of terrorism. The show of force did help Clinton’s poll numbers, which had dropped in recent months.

Clinton’s second strike came in August of 1999 and targeted a then little-known terrorist origination known as Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda had recently attacked American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Clinton’s response was a missile attack against Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. The attacks killed 24 but missed Osama bin Laden. This attack has more in common with Trump’s recent attack as it was seen more skeptically. Clinton was in the midst of his own impeachment issues and many saw it as an attempt to divert the nation’s attention. The catch phrase of the day was “the tail wagging the dog.” Clinton had taken a hit with the Black Hawk Down incident and was hoping this show of force would help his image. In the end the attacks on Al Qaeda did little to stop their growth as we all found out on 9/11.

Trump’s latest missile attack has some differences and some similarities. Iran is a supporter of terrorism, both in Iraq and Syria, and Soleimani was behind much of the violence. As with Reagan and Clinton, Soleimani and Iran can be tied to several key attacks. Last May they supported the terrorist group that attacked Saudi oil fields. In June two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman and a U.S. Navy drone was shot down. In July they captured a British oil tanker. In September they once again supported a terrorist group that attacked Saudi oil fields. In December rockets killed U.S. service men in Kirkuk. Finally, in December they attacked the American embassy in Iraq. Also, all the while, they continued to work towards nuclear weapons. Yes, during the escalation the president and Iran carried on a verbal battle which seemed childish considering the consequences, but the list of terrorist activities is not unlike the list from Libya or Iraq.

The key difference between all these attacks seems to be that Trump was the only one to hit his target. Another difference is that outside of the bin Laden attack, the other attacks occurred in the target’s own nation. Soleimani was not in Iran, but Iraq. What we cannot know is the retaliation. Libya, Iraq, and Al Qaeda all vowed retaliation for the bombing. None of the previous presidents stopped the terrorists and we did see more mass destruction, though we can never know if attacks were a response or would have been carried out anyway. Iran did launch missiles at American bases in Iraq, but there were no casualties. Maybe that will be enough for the Iranians to save face. Only time will tell. They do not want to look weak, but are they willing to escalate?

The other major difference is the American response to the attacks. Clinton took some flack, but most of the attacks by American presidents, including Bush and Obama, have been met with positive reviews. Obama was even praised by both parties for taking out Bin Laden. With Trump, as expected, the attacks have come swiftly and brutally. All the major candidates trying to secure the Democratic ticket have condemned Trump. Historically speaking, maybe what Trump has done is no different from past presidents. Maybe it’s we who are different and more cynical.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.


I am excited to have have another guest columnists write for Historically. He has some to add to my last Christmas post

Thanks to James Finck for his delightful column, “Historically Christmas II”. As he implies, there is much more to the story. We have largely forgotten how much of our Christmas customs we owe to immigrants. Washington Irving drew his sketches from his observations of Dutch communities along the Hudson. German political refugee Charles Follen introduced the Christmas tree to Puritan Boston in 1835, the same year he was fired from Harvard for his abolitionist activities. Their guest, British traveler Harriet Martineau, spread the word with an article in a popular women’s magazine.

A Missouri German from that era reported that his frontiersman neighbor was unclear on the month, much less the date of Christmas. The Texas legislature was in session on December 25, 1861, preparing war against the United States. Texas German William Trenckmann related how his parents managed to improvise a Christmas tree in 1863 despite the privations of the Civil War, and the astonishment it evoked with their enslaved black neighbors who had never seen anything like it before. The digitized newspapers on the Portal of Texas History reveal just how foreign the custom was. There were only two mentions of Christmas trees in the 1840s, just four in the 1850s, and only ten in the 1860s, nearly all from literature or reports from afar, compared to nearly five hundred in the 1870s.

Meanwhile in Yankee land, immigrant cartoonist Thomas Nast created the visual image of Santa Claus distributing presents to Union soldiers. In a second image, he shows Santa driving reindeer before his sleigh and climbing into the chimney, on the periphery of a double scene of a soldier’s wife praying with her children at home while her husband in the field reads her letter. Harper’s Weekly ran his images of Santa annually until 1886. But only in 1889 did President Benjamin Harrison erect the first White House Christmas tree.

Much more than the English wassailers begging/demanding gifts and libations, the Hispanic posadas reflect the Christian spirit of Christmas, Mary and Joseph going door to door seeking refuge. They and the Christ Child are seeking refuge still, in the form of “the least of these” (Matthew 25) on our Southwestern border.

Walter Kamphoefner is a professor of History at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Historical Christmas II

Christmas is the time of year when everyone seems a little happier and are a little nicer to each other. It is when we look forward to spending time with family and friends enjoying all of our favorite Christmas traditions. Yet, historically speaking, this was not always the case. Especially in America, we did not celebrate Christmas until the 1820s with the publication of a couple of important novels.

What was originally called the Feast of the Nativity reached England in the sixth century and began being called Christmas. Don’t think of it as the same holiday as we celebrate today. It was more a drunken party similar to Mardi Gras or Halloween than Christmas. It was gangs of poor going door-to-door demanding gifts. Think of some early Christmas carols. In “Here We Come A-Wassaling” there is the line, “We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door; but we are neighbours’ children, whom you have seen before.” In “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” we sing about going house to house basically demanding food. 

This debauchery at Christmas played a part in America’s founding. The radical religious sect known as the Puritans wanted to rid the Church of England of all things Catholic, including the pagan practices that had crept into the Church. One of those practices was Christmas. There is no mention of Christmas in the Bible and no set date for the birth of Jesus. The Catholic Church had set Christmas during the winter solstice to help convert the Germanic tribes by claiming their religious feasts. The practice of Christmas was one of many doctrinally differences that led the Puritans to the New World to set up their “City on the Hill.” With Puritanism being one of the most influential institutions in American culture, Christmas was not practiced in the colonies. During and after the Revolutionary War, many British practices, including Christmas, were seen as taboo. In fact, Christmas does not become an official American holiday until 1870.

Christmas as we know it comes in the 1820s because of two important works of fiction (reading really does change the world). America’s first great author was Washington Irving. We had many writers at that point, but they mimicked British writing. Irving was the first to write something uniquely American. In 1819 he wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent that includes some of his most famous stories such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”. The one entitled “Christmas” showed an English squire inviting peasants into his home for Christmas. Irving believed Christmas should be a peaceful time where all classes could live in harmony. In his story he invented ancient customs such as family members returning from far away “once more to assemble about the paternal hearth, that rallying-place of affections.”

The second book, of course, was The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This 1843 novel, even more than Irving, shaped our current idea of Christmas. The message of charity and good will to all struck a chord in America. I don’t have room to discuss this here, but childhood had only recently become a thing. Before, children were just small adults. Now with childhood, parents had a day to lavish their children with gifts without appearing to spoil then. 

Reading these stories, Americans came to assume this is how Christmas was supposed to be. Christmas quickly became seen as a family holiday, with peace towards all firmly part of the Christmas celebrations. 

Being my last article of the year, I want to give a quick thanks to everyone who makes Historically Speaking possible. A huge thank you to my wife Melissa Finck and Dr. JC Casey who edit all my stories. I could not do this without them. I now have a student assistant who does all the distribution. So, thank you Chris Wilson. Thank you to the editors who run these stories. Lastly, thank you to all the readers, especially those who have sent me positive feedback. I put a great deal of time into these stories and it makes it worth it knowing so many of you enjoy them. 

I hope this season does bring you the happiness that Ebenezer Scrooge and Irving’s English squire found in their lives. From my family to yours, we wish you a Merry Christmas. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.


As surprising as this may sound, presidents behaving badly is not new. President Trump is just the latest. Politicians have been skirting the law since the creation of politicians. This in no way condones bad behavior, yet if every conversation of every president was investigated, I believe we would be shocked at what we learned.
Trump’s Ukraine conversation in some ways is not unlike when President Obama was overheard telling the Russian President that he could be more flexible with missile defense after his reelection. Obama’s conversation was not illegal, but may walk a moral line. As for Trump, Congress will have to determine if the President’s conversation is an impeachable offense, but what may end up hurting Trump even more is a possible coverup of a complaint.

We have seen before where the cove up is worse than the crime for presidents. Richard Nixon had no part in the Watergate burglary, his crime was the cover up after the fact. With this same president, we also saw his downfall come because of a whistleblower, who went by the code name Deep Throat. Nixon and Deep Throat are responsible for the most famous presidential takedown, but they are not the only one. The 1912 election saw the take-down of President Howard W. Taft by whistleblower Louis Gavis.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt decided not to run for his own second term and instead handpicked his successor. Taft was completely qualified for the office and Roosevelt liked his progressive ideology, but even more he liked Taft’s lack of personality that would not outshine Roosevelt himself. Roosevelt might be stepping down, but he did not intend to give up control. It turned out that Taft would be his own man, to the frustration of Roosevelt, and one issue in particular forced Roosevelt to return from his African safari to block Taft’s nomination for a second term. This incident became known as the Ballinger-Pinchot Affair.

When Taft took over the White House, one of his appointment changes was replacing James Garfield, son of the late president, as Secretary of the Interior with Richard Ballinger. Roosevelt and his friend Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service, were upset with the appointment. They feared Ballinger would not follow through with the conservation policies they had enacted. The two men were right to fear Ballinger. Once in office, he opened up federal land for commercial use.

Louis Gavis ran the Portland field office of the U.S. Forest Service. He came to suspect Ballinger was illegally selling rich coal lands in Alaska to private companies. He brought his suspicions to Pinchot, who suggested Gavis present his findings to President Taft. When Taft questioned Ballinger, he responded with a 730-page defense of his practices. Taft only took a week to investigate the charges, including reading Ballinger’s response, and cleared Ballinger of all charges. Taft followed up his investigation by firing Gavis for insubordination.

In retaliation Gavis went to Collier’s Magazine and gave his account. The story was so sensational that Congress called a hearing to look into the matter. Though Ballinger would be cleared by the hearing, the investigation turned up other improprieties. It proved that Taft was trying to protect Ballinger by firing Gavis. The investigation showed that a letter Taft circulated, claiming he wrote it before the firing of Gavis, was actually written after the fact and was written by Ballinger’s attorney.

Finally, during the trial Gifford Pinchot testified against Ballinger. When the trial was over, he too was removed from his position by the Taft Administration. Roosevelt was so incensed that it was one of the reasons he decided to challenge Taft for the Republican ticket in 1912. When Taft was successful in retaining the Republican nomination, Roosevelt and the progressive members of his party broke away to form the Bull Moose Party. With the Republicans split, the Democrats were able to elect their candidate for only the second time in fifty-six years.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

Class Notes

The reason the loss of life in the Civil War was so high was because military tactics had not changed since the Napoleonic Wars, yet technology had greatly advanced.  The Civil War generals studied Napoleon at West Point.  The problem is we went from muskets to rifles that allowed accuracy for a much further distance.  Napoleon had the advantage by charging the enemy, but in the Civil War a frontal charge got everyone killed. 

Today is my last day of teaching classes before finals, I will pick back up with Class Notes in January.