On February 21, 1972, President Richard Nixon arrived in China in what may be the most important presidential trip in history. His eventual meeting with Mao Zedong and the Communist party leadership of China changed modern history. The full story is told in Strongman.
STRONGMAN: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy published on October 6, 2020
A pitch-perfect balance of nuanced reflection and dire warning.”
STRONGMAN tells the story of the rise to power of five of the most deadly dictators of the 20th century — Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Saddam Hussein.
A review in Booklist says, “Davis does not sugarcoat his material, inviting long thoughts with his assertion that this is a decidedly human story that points to real people as evidence that evil exists in this troubled world.”
In addition to telling how these men took unlimited power, brought one-party rule to their nations, and were responsible for the deaths of millions of people, the book offers a brief history of Democracy and discusses the present threat to democratic institutions around the world.
In a time when Democracy is under assault across the globe, it is more important than ever to understand how a Strongman takes power and how quickly democracy can vanish –even as millions cheer its death.
ADVANCE PRAISE FOR STRONGMAN
“I found myself engrossed in it from beginning to end. I could not help admiring Davis’s ability to explain complex ideas in readable prose that never once discounted the intelligence of young readers. It is very much a book for our time.”
—Sam Wineburg, Margaret Jacks Professor of Education & History, Stanford University, author of Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone).
“Strongman is a book that is both deeply researched and deeply felt, both an alarming warning and a galvanizing call to action, both daunting and necessary to read and discuss.”
—Cynthia Levinson, author of Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws That Affect Us Today
“A wake-up call to democracies like ours: we are not immune to despots . . . Strongman demonstrates that democracy is not permanent, unless it is collectively upheld. This book shakes that immortality narrative.”
—Jessica Ellison, President of the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies; Teacher Education Specialist, Minnesota Historical Society
Rarely does a history book take such an unflinching look at our common future, where the very presence of democracy is less than certain; even rarer is a history book in which the author’s moral convictions incite young readers to civic engagement; rarest of all, a history book as urgent, as impassioned, and as timely as Kenneth C. Davis’ Strongman.
—Eugene Yelchin, author of the Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose.
NEWS of STRONGMAN – This book is a selection of the Junior Library Guild.
(Post revised 2/19/2021)
On this date- February 19, 1942 – a different kind of infamy
Franklin D. Roosevelt famously told Americans when he was inaugurated in 1933:
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
But on February 19, 1942 –a little more than two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor— President Roosevelt allowed America’s fear to provoke him into an action regarded among his worst mistakes. He issued Executive Order 9066.
It declared certain areas to be “exclusion zones” from which the military could remove anyone for security reasons. It provided the legal groundwork for the eventual relocation of approximately 120,000 people to a variety of detention centers —“internment camps” — around the country, the largest forced relocation in American history. Nearly two-thirds of them were American citizens.
The attitude of many Americans at the time was expressed in a Los Angeles Times editorial of the period:
“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched… So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere… notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American…” (Source: Impounded, p. 53)
On March 23, 1942, the United States government began taking away the liberty of more than one hundred thousand people–the Japanese Americans viewed as a threat after Pearl Harbor. On that date, the U.S. Army began removing people of Japanese descent from Los Angeles. (Smaller numbers of Americans of German and Italian descent were also detained.)offers an excellent overview of the order and its impact.
(Earlier post updated 2/12/2021)
So What Day Is it After All?
Okay. We all do it. It’s printed on calendars and posted in bank windows. We mistakenly call the third Monday in February Presidents Day, in part because of all those commercials in which George Washington swings his legendary ax and “Rail-splitter” Abe Lincoln hoists his ax to chop down prices on everything from mattresses and linens to SUVs.
But, this February holiday is officially still George Washington’s Birthday –federally speaking that is.
The official designation of the federal holiday observed on the third Monday of February was, and still is, Washington’s Birthday.
But Washington’s Birthday has become widely known as Presidents Day (or President’s Day, or Presidents’ Day). The popular usage and confusion resulted from the merging of what had been two widely celebrated Presidential birthdays in February —Lincoln’s on February 12th, which was never a federal holiday– and Washington’s on February 22, which was.
Created under the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, which gave us three-day weekend Monday holidays, the federal holiday on the third Monday in February is technically still Washington’s Birthday. But here’s the rub: the holiday can never land on Washington’s true birthday because the latest date it can fall is February 21, as it did in 2011.
There is a wealth of information about the First President at his home Mount Vernon.
Read More About the creation of the Presidency, Washington, his life and administration in DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT® THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS. Washington’s role in the American Revolution is highlighted Chapter One of THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR.
And George Washington’s role as a slaveowner is fully explored in IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.
(Updated post: January 29, 2021)
America’s Poet, Robert Frost, died on January 29, 1963, in Boston. After his death, an unsigned editorial in the The New York Times, entitled “Ending in Wisdom,” noted:
Robert Frost was more than America’s best-known poet. He was a national figure, almost an institution, a man who went up and down the land saying his poems wherever, it sometimes seemed, two or three Americans were gathered together. He spoke in the language of the common man.
This is a brief video tribute to Robert Frost. (Originally published August 2009; video edited and created by Colin Davis. One correction: I no longer have a home in Vermont mentioned in the video, but have not lost my admiration for Robert Frost.)
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world
–Robert Frost’s epitaph
One of my favorite places in Vermont is the Frost grave-site in the cemetery of the First Church in Old Bennington -just down the street from the Bennington Monument. This video was recorded there.
Apples, birches, hayfields and stone walls; simple features like these make up the landscape of four-time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Frost’s poetry. Known as a poet of New England, Frost (1874-1963) spent much of his life working and wandering the woods and farmland of Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. As a young man, he dropped out of Dartmouth and then Harvard, then drifted from job to job: teacher, newspaper editor, cobbler. His poetry career took off during a three-year trip to England with his wife Elinor where Ezra Pound aided the young poet. Frost’s language is plain and straightforward, his lines inspired by the laconic speech of his Yankee neighbors.
But while poems like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” are accessible enough to make Frost a grammar-school favorite, his poetry is contemplative and sometimes dark—concerned with themes like growing old and facing death. One brilliant example is this poem about a young boy sawing wood, Out, out–
The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
The first poet invited to speak at a Presidential inaugural, Frost told the new President:
Be more Irish than Harvard. Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan Age. Don’t be afraid of power.
Robert Frost died on January 29, 1963. He had written his own epitaph, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world,” etched on his headstone in a church cemetery in Bennington, VT.
This material is adapted from Don’t Know Much About Literature written in collaboration with Jenny Davis.
As the world prepares to mark “International Holocaust Remembrance Day” on January 27, it is a reminder that the date marks the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps by Soviet forces. And that is another grim reminder of what the Nuremberg Trials were about.
The Nuremberg Trials — A Don’t Know Much About® Audiominute
75 years ago on November 20, 1945, in the aftermath of World War II, the first trials of Nazi war criminals began. This military tribunal, the Nuremberg Trials, as they came to be known, was convened by the four victorious Allies—Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
Listen to this audiominute.
That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.
What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. We will show them to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power.
-United States Prosecutor Robert Jackson, Opening Statement (11/22/1945)
This is a timeline of the Nuremberg Trials from the Robert H. Jackson Center.
These resources on the Nuremberg Trials are from the Library of Congress.
(Originally posted on 1/24/2013; revised 1/24/2021)
You may have been assigned to read Ethan Frome in high school. Or you have read or seen the grand dramas of New York Society, House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence. That’s how you know the name Edith Wharton.
Born in New York City, January 24, 1862: Edith Newbold Jones, who achieved fame as Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 (for The Age of Innocence).
But the other lesser-known aspect of Wharton’s life is her experience in France during World War I, where she founded hospitals and refugee centers for women and children.
Romance, scandal and ruin among New York socialites—long before this was the stuff of People, and “Gossip Girl,” it was the subject matter for Edith Wharton’s most famous works. In such novels as The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), Wharton painted detailed, acid portraits of high society life. In doing so, she created heartbreaking conflicts beneath the façade of wealth and manners. Again and again, characters like Newland Archer and Lily Bart were forced to choose between conforming to social expectations and pursuing true love and happiness. Her most famous work set outside the realm of high-tone New York was Ethan Frome (1911), set in wintry, rural Massachusetts.
Wharton had spent years in Europe as a child and teenager. But she moved to France in 1910 while war in Europe was on the horizon and her marriage to socialite Teddy Wharton deteriorated.
Once the war broke out, she also wrote urging the United States to join the war. Then she saw the hardship caused as the fighting that tore across Europe starting in August 1914 created masses of refugees.
American novelist Edith Wharton set up workshops for women all over Paris, making clothes for hospitals as well as lingerie for a fashionable clientele. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for refugees and tuberculosis sufferers and ran a rescue committee for the children of Flanders, whose towns were bombarded by the Germans. Her friend and fellow author Henry James called her the “great generalissima”.
Source: Radio France International: “Edith Wharton-The American novelist who joined France’s WWI effort”
She started in her neighborhood with sewing workshops that eventually employed more than 800 women, opened hostels for tuberculosis patients and refugee children, hosted benefit concerts, sent dispatches from the war front.
In the first year of her work, her Children of Flanders Rescue Committee could record:
Refugees assisted: 9,229
Meals served: 235,000
Refugees for whom employment has been found: 3,400
Garments distributed: 48,333
For her wartime work, in 1916 Wharton was awarded France’s highest decoration – a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.
Think you know your Wharton? Try this quick quiz–
TRUE or FALSE (Quiz adapted from Don’t Know Much About® Literature, written with Jenny Davis. Answers below)
1. Edith Wharton wrote about wealthy New Yorkers to escape the poverty of her own upbringing.
2. Though Edith Wharton was unhappily married, she could not get divorced because it was socially unacceptable.
3. In addition to her fiction, Wharton published several books on interior decorating and landscaping.
The Mount is Wharton’s restored home in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.
The Edith Wharton Collection of manuscripts, correspondence and photographs is housed at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
1. FALSE. Wharton was born to wealthy New Yorkers, and summered in Newport, Rhode Island. She grew up traveling through Europe, and was educated by private tutors. After an official debut into society, she married a rich banker twelve years her senior.
2. FALSE. She divorced Teddy Wharton in 1913.
3. TRUE. Her first book was The Decoration of Houses, establishing her fame as a writer. She also wrote about Italian landscaping and architecture in Italian Villas and Their Gardens, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish.
[Repost; originally posted 7/26/2013]
Today (January 22, 2021), Lloyd Austin III, a retired general, was confirmed by the Senate as defense secretary, becoming the the first Black Pentagon chief.
This historic landmark is a reminder that on July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an Executive Order that ended official discrimination in the United States military.
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.
Coming in an election year, it was a daring move by Truman, who still needed the support of southern segregationists. It was also a controversial decision that led to the forced retirement of the Secretary of the Army when he refused to desegregate the Army.
As historical documents go, “Executive Order 9981” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Emancipation Proclamation” or “New Deal.” But when President Harry S. Truman issued this Executive Order, he helped transform the country. This order began the gradual official process of desegregating America’s armed forces, which was a groundbreaking step for the American civil rights movement.
It is worth noting that many of the arguments made at the time against integration of the armed services — unit cohesion, morale of the troops, discipline in the ranks– were also made about the question of homosexuals serving in the military, a policy effectively ended when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was overturned in 2011.
In a Defense Department history of the integration of the Armed Forces, Brigadier General James Collins Jr. wrote in 1980:
The integration of the armed forces was a momentous event in our military and national history…. The experiences in World War II and the postwar pressures generated by the civil rights movement compelled all the services –Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps — to reexamine their traditional practices of segregation. While there were differences in the ways that the services moved toward integration, all were subject to the same demands, fears, and prejudices and had the same need to use their resources in a more rational and economical way. All of them reached the same conclusion: traditional attitudes toward minorities must give way to democratic concepts of civil rights.
Here is the text of the Executive Order 9981 (Source: Harry S. Truman Library and Museum; dated July 26, 1948)
(First published in January 2020; re-posted 1/15/2021)
Marking the federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, many people will read or hear his most famous speech, the “I have a dream” speech delivered in Washington, D.C. in August 1963.
Nearly five years after the celebrated 1963 rally, and just days before his death, Dr. King delivered his final Sunday sermon at National Cathedral on March 31, 1968. King’s words that day may not have the familiar ring of “I have a dream.”
Preparing to lead the “Poor People’s Campaign” into Washington later that spring, he addressed three central issues.
He spoke first about racial equality, the glimmers of progress that had been made in five years, and the promises still to be kept. Then he turned to poverty, hunger and inadequate housing in what he called “the richest nation in the world.” This was, after all, going to be the “Poor People’s Campaign.” King knew that economic injustice could be colorblind.
But there was a third piece of Dr. King’s vision. On that day in 1968, as the war in Vietnam raged and American opposition to that war mounted, Dr. King said,
“Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution.”
Guided by Thoreau, Gandhi and his own Christianity, King’s belief in nonviolence and the use of civil disobedience were central to his movement’s push for racial justice. But his unflinching opposition to the war in Vietnam tends to be shunted to the sidelines when discussing King’s legacy. Certainly when he first voiced his opposition to the war, his was not a popular stance. Accused of taking the “Commie” line, Dr. King acknowledged that his antiwar views were hurting the movement and his organization.
“There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular,” he told the thousands who packed the Cathedral. “… I believe today that there is a need for all people of goodwill to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘We ain’t goin’ study war no more.’”
Source: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute (Retrieved September 2, 2013)
Ironically, King’s “other speech” was overshadowed. Later that evening, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced to a national television audience that he was withdrawing from the presidential race. The weight of the war and the growing opposition to it had combined to force Johnson from his quest for another term. And a few days later, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis.
Those who wish to remember Dr. King’s impact and ideas must recall more than a gauzy, feel-good rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” It is mere lip service to trumpet King’s “Dream” without acknowledging the other piece of his call to conscience:
“Simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed.”
(Source: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute Retrieved September 2, 2013)
I am reposting this from November. First came the scenes of thugs in Washington, D.C. vandalizing a church and beating passersby.
Then came Wednesday January 6, 2021 – a new day of infamy.
It was just one failure in a dizzying list that day — and during the weeks leading up to it — that resulted in the first occupation of the United States Capitol since British troops set the building ablaze during the War of 1812. But the death and destruction this time was caused by Americans, rallying behind the inflammatory language of an American president, who refused to accept the will of more than 81 million other Americans who had voted him out of office.
These events only bring Hitler’s Brownshirts and the events of November 1938 into sharper focus. We can’t say “never again” and not mean it.
On November 9th and 10th in 1938, an outburst of anti-Semitic violence swept across Hitler’s Germany.
An audio lesson on “Kristallnacht.”
Read more about Hitler’s Germany in Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy
(Revision of post first published 12.11.2o13. But it never gets old.)
It’s that time of year. Cue the lights, decorations, music.… and the “War on Christmas.”
Proclaiming a secular assault on the religious significance of the holiday has become a seasonal tradition, just like the Macy’s Parade with Santa Claus. Saying “Merry Christmas” has been a staple of conservative talk show hosts for years and part of America’s political culture wars..
The basic premise: Christmas is under attack by Grinchy atheists and secular humanists who want to remove any vestige of Christianity from the public space. Any criticism of public displays devoted to religious symbols –mangers, crosses, stars — is seen by these folks as part of a wider attack on “Christian values” in America. Mass market retailers who substituted “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” are part of the conspiracy to “ruin Christmas.”
But in fact, most religious displays are not banned. Courts simply direct that one religion cannot be favored over another under the Constitutional protections of the First Amendment. Christmas displays are generally permitted as long as menorahs, Kwanzaa displays, and other seasonal symbols are also allowed.
In other words, the “War on Christmas” is pretty much a phony war. But where did this all start?
The first laws against Christmas celebrations and festivities in America came during the 1600s –from the same wonderful folks who brought you the Salem Witch Trials — the Puritans. (By the way, H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as the fear that “somewhere someone may be happy.”)
“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”
–From the records of the General Court,
Massachusetts Bay Colony
May 11, 1659
The Founding Fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were not a festive bunch. To them, Christmas was a debauched, wasteful festival that threatened their core religious beliefs. They understood that most of the trappings of Christmas –like holly and mistletoe– were vestiges of ancient pagan rituals. More importantly, they thought Christmas — the mass of Christ– was too “popish,” by which they meant Roman Catholic. These are the people who banned Catholic priests from Boston under penalty of death.
This sensibility actually began over the way in which Christmas was celebrated in England. Oliver Cromwell, a strict Puritan who took over England in 1645, believed it was his mission to cleanse the country of the sort of seasonal moral decay that Protestant writer Philip Stubbes described in the 1500s:
‘More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides … What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used … to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.’
In 1644, Parliament banned Christmas celebrations. Attending mass was forbidden. Under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, mince pies, holly and other popular customs fell victim to the Puritan mission to remove all merrymaking during the Christmas period. To Puritans, the celebration of the Lord’s birth should be day of fasting and prayer.
In England, the Puritan War on Christmas lasted until 1660. In Massachusetts, the ban remained in place until 1687.
So if the conservative broadcasters and religious folk really want a traditional, American Christian Christmas, the solution is simple — don’t have any fun.
Read my article on religion in America, “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance” (Smithsonian)
And read more about the Puritans in Don’t Know Much About® History and America’s Hidden History. The history behind Christmas is also told in Don’t Know Much About® The Bible.