Don't Know Much

It is NOT Presidents Day. Or President’s Day. Or Even Presidents’ Day.

(Earlier post updated 2/13/2024)

We are past Abraham Lincoln’s actual birthday–February 12– and we are heading towards a three-day holiday.

So What Day Is it After All?

Okay. We all do it. It is 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.

I wrote My Project About Presidents in 3rd Grade when I was 9. Even then I was asking questions about history and presidents

I wrote My Project About Presidents in 3rd Grade when I was 9. Even then I was asking questions about history and presidents

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.

But we cannot discuss Washington, Lincoln, the presidency, or much of United States history without discussing the role that slavery played in the foundation and establishment of the republic.

READ MY ARTICLE in Social Education: “The American Contradiction: Conceived in Liberty, Born in Shackles”

George Washington’s role as an enslaver is fully explored in my book IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.

There is a wealth of information about the First President at his home Mount Vernon.

Washington’s Tomb — Mt. Vernon (Photo credit Kenneth C. Davis 2010)

 

And 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.

 

The Hidden History of America At War (paperback)

 

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition

Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion paperback-April 15, 2014)

 

 

In the Shadow of Liberty

As we move toward Black History Month, and teaching an accurate version of American History is under assault, the nation must honestly confront the role that enslavement played in the nation’s founding and development. In the Shadow of Liberty tells that story.

Did you know that many of America’s Founding Fathers—who fought for liberty and justice for all—were slave owners?

Through the powerful stories of five enslaved people who were “owned” by four of our greatest presidents, this book helps set the record straight about the role slavery played in the founding of America. These dramatic narratives explore our country’s great tragedy—that a nation “conceived in liberty” was also born in shackles.

  • BILLY LEE, who became George Washington’s valet and fought in the American Revolution alongside him.
  • ONA JUDGE, who escaped from Washington’s Philadelphia household—only to be tracked down by the president’s men.
  • ISAAC GRANGER, who survived the devastation of Yorktown before returning to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
  • PAUL JENNINGS, who was present at the burning of James Madison’s White House during the War of 1812.
  • ALFRED JACKSON, who was born into slavery at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, survived the Civil War, and lived at the plantation into the 20th century.

Read more about the book .

AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK 

 

Posted on January 28, 2024 Comment Share:

Who Started the “War on Christmas?”

"in the interest of labor and morality"

“In the interest of labor and morality” (1895: Image Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print)

(12.05.2023 revision of a post first published 12.11.2o13. But it never gets old.)

Fortunately, the so-called “War on Christmas” seems to have disappeared this year.

Proclaiming a secular assault on the religious significance of the holiday has been a seasonal tradition, just like the Macy’s Parade with Santa Claus.  Claiming that “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” was a betrayal of Christian America 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 — was 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” were part of the conspiracy to “ruin Christmas.”

But in fact, most religious displays are not banned in America. 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 1643, Parliament banned Christmas celebrations.

“The Puritans sought to turn Christmas into a fast day, with an act of Parliament in 1643 declaring that it should be observed ‘with the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.’ Two years later, the Directory of Public Worship was unequivocal that feasts such as Christmas had no warrant in scripture.”

–Bruce Gordon, “The Grinch That Didn’t Steal Christmas”

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.

America's Hidden History, includes tales of "Forgotten Founders"

America’s Hidden History, includes tales of “Forgotten Founders”

Don't Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Don’t Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Don't Know Much about the Bible

Don’t Know Much About® Martin Van Buren

“I must go into the Presidential chair  the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding states, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the states where it exists.”

–Inaugural Address, March 4, 1837

(Post of 12/5/2016; reposted 12/5/2023)

Martin Van Buren Eighth U.S. President Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

 

OK –Literally.

Martin Van Buren, the eighth President of the United States, was born on December 5, 1782 in Kinderhook, New York, making him the first American president born a U.S. citizen. Van Buren was also known as “Old Kinderhook, or “OK,” the origin of that American expression.

Van Buren was also the first New Yorker elected President. He  was a crafty political power broker who mastered the art of “machine politics” and helped bring New York into Andrew Jackson’s column in 1828. He became Jackson’s Secretary of State and later his vice president. He won the presidential election of 1836. But his presidency was tainted by the Panic of 1837, a deep economic depression that lasted seven years. He was defeated in  1840 by William Henry Harrison of the Whig Party.

Fast Facts:

Van Buren was the first president not of English descent. Growing up in a Dutch-speaking household, he was also the only president who spoke English as a second language.

•As a young attorney, he became the protege of Aaron Burr. Due to a passing resemblance and their political and professional connections, it was rumored that he was Burr’s son, gossip thoroughly dismissed by historians.

•Elected Governor of New York in November 1828, Van Buren took the office on January 1, 1829 but resigned on March 12, 1829 to become secretary of state, making him the shortest tenured governor in New York history.

•During Van Buren’s administration, the removal of native Americans from the Southeast accelerated including the removal of the Cherokee on the “Trail of Tears.”

•The Congressional “gag rule” was passed during his presidency; the rule forbid any discussion of petitions relating to slavery, including banning slavery in Washington, D.C, as mentioned in Van Buren’s inaugural address above.

•Failing to win the Democratic nomination in 1844, Van Buren became the first president to run on a third party ticket when he joined the Free Soil Party as its candidate in 1848.

You can read more about his life at the Martin Van Buren Historical Site (National Parks Service) and at the Library of Congress.

And read more about Van Buren and his administration in Don’t Know Much About® the American Presidents 

Two for Thanksgiving: Real First Pilgrims & Holiday’s History

On the holiday calendar, when we leave Veterans Day behind, we round towards Thanksgiving — perhaps America’s most beloved, widely shared, and mythologized celebration.

But this reminds me of the fact that Abraham Lincoln’s first Thanksgiving proclamation came 160 years ago in 1863. It came in the midst of the Civil War in the same month Lincoln offered the Gettysburg Address. It must have felt like there was little to celebrate– or to be grateful for.

Like the Macy’s parade, this is my Thanksgiving tradition. I post two articles about the holiday with some “Hidden History” that appeared on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.

So here’s something to read–either before or after the feast.

The first, from 2008, is called “A French Connection” and tells the story of the real first Pilgrims in America. They were French. In Florida. Fifty years before the Mayflower sailed. It did not end with a happy meal. In fact, it ended in a religious massacre.

Illustration by Nathalie Lété in the New York Times

TO commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’s shores, a June date would be far more appropriate, accompanied perhaps by coq au vin and a nice Bordeaux. After all, the first European arrivals seeking religious freedom in the “New World” were French. And they beat their English counterparts by 50 years. That French settlers bested the Mayflower Pilgrims may surprise Americans raised on our foundational myth, but the record is clear.

The complete story can be found in America’s Hidden History.

America's Hidden History, includes tales of "Forgotten Founders"

America’s Hidden History, includes tales of “Forgotten Founders”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second is “How the Civil War Created Thanksgiving” (2014) and tells the story of the Union League providing Thanksgiving dinners to Union troops.

Of all the bedtime-story versions of American history we teach, the tidy Thanksgiving pageant may be the one stuffed with the heaviest serving of myth. This iconic tale is the main course in our nation’s foundation legend, complete with cardboard cutouts of bow-carrying Native American cherubs and pint-size Pilgrims in black hats with buckles. And legend it largely is.

In fact, what had been a New England seasonal holiday became more of a “national” celebration only during the Civil War, with Lincoln’s proclamation calling for “a day of thanksgiving” in 1863.

Enjoy them both.

Don’t Know Much About® History: Anniversary Edition

Don't Know Much About the Civil War (Harper paperback, Random House Audio)

Don’t Know Much About the Civil War (Harper paperback, Random House Audio)

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

11-11-11: Don’t Know Much About Veterans Day-The Forgotten Meaning

“The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

This is a revised version of a post originally written for Veterans Day in 2011. The meaning still applies. In 2023, November 11 falls on a Saturday and the holiday is observed on Friday November 10.

Taken at 10:58 a.m., on Nov. 11, 1918, just before the Armistice went into effect; men of the 353rd Infantry, near a church, at Stenay, Meuse, wait for the end of hostilities. (SC034981)

Taken at 10:58 a.m., on Nov. 11, 1918, just before the Armistice went into effect; men of the 353rd Infantry, near a church, at Stenay, Meuse, wait for the end of hostilities. (SC034981)

On Veterans Day, a reminder of what the day once meant and what it should still mean.

That was the moment at which World War I –then called THE GREAT WAR– largely came to end in 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

One of the most tragically senseless and destructive periods in all history came to a close in Western Europe with the Armistice –or end of hostilities between Germany and the Allied nations — that began at that moment. Some 20 million people had died in the fighting that raged for more than four years since August 1914. The formal end of the war came with the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. 

Today, it is important to recognize the role of that treaty and the war in the rise of some of the most murderous dictators in history. That history is told in my new book, Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy.

Besides the war casualties, an estimated 100 million people died during the war of the Spanish flu, a worldwide pandemic that was completely linked to the war and had an impact on its outcome. That is the subject of my recent book, More Deadly Than War:The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War.  

The date of November 11th became a national holiday of remembrance in many of the victorious allied nations –a day to commemorate the loss of so many lives in the war. And in the United States, President Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. A few years later, in 1926, Congress passed a resolution calling on the President to observe each November 11th as a day of remembrance:

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and

Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and

Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.

Of course, the hopes that “the war to end all wars” would bring peace were short-lived. By 1939, Europe was again at war and what was once called “the Great War” would become World War I.  With the end of World War II, there was a movement in America to rename Armistice Day and create a holiday that recognized the veterans of all of America’s conflicts. President Eisenhower signed that law in 1954. (In 1971, Veterans Day began to be marked as a Monday holiday on the third Monday in November,  but in 1978, the holiday was returned to the traditional November 11th date).

Today, Veterans Day honors the duty, sacrifice and service of America’s millions of veterans of all wars, unlike Memorial Day, which specifically honors those who died fighting in America’s wars. In 2022, according to the Census Bureau, there were 16.2 million veterans in the United States. (Source: US Census Bureau)

We should remember and celebrate all those men and women. But lost in that worthy goal is the forgotten meaning of this day in history –the meaning which Congress gave to Armistice Day in 1926:

to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations …

inviting the people of the United States to observe the day … with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.

The Library of Congress offers an extensive Veterans History Project.

Read more about World War I and all of America’s conflicts in Don’t Know Much About History and Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents.

I discuss the role of Americans in battle in more than 240 years of American history in THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah (Hachette Books and Random House Audio).

MORE DEADLY THAN WAR: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War was published in May 2018. Strongman was published in 2020.

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion paperback-April 15, 2014)

When Robin Hood Was Blacklisted

(Originally posted in 2022; updated September 25, 2023)

“The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack.”

American Library Association “Freedom to Read” Statement, first issued on June 25, 1953.

More than two years into a sharp rise in book challenges across the United States, restrictions are increasingly targeting public libraries, where they could affect not only the children’s section but also the books available to everyone in a community. New York Times, September 21, 2023

Banned Books Week 2023 is marked from October 1-7.

This post offers a brief overview of book banning in America.

 

Robin Hood was a Commie.

That, at least, is what an Indiana state textbook commissioner thought back in 1953. This official called for schools to ban books mentioning Robin Hood for the simple reason that Robin and his Merry Men robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Their antics reeked suspiciously of godless Socialism.

It is easy to laugh off this overlooked history as an amusing bit of trivia. Except the Hoosier state assault on Robin Hood was part of a larger nationwide effort to ban books and suppress intellectual freedom. It was led by Senator Joseph McCarthy during the anti-Communist “witch hunts.” It targeted books, writers, and libraries both at home and around the world. And it holds pointed lessons about safeguarding democracy from the forces threatening it today.

After the 1947 blacklisting of the “Hollywood Ten” screenwriters by the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC), Senator McCarthy emerged as the face and unrelenting voice of a crusade against Communist influences in America. In 1950, McCarthy claimed to possess an extensive list of Communists who worked in the State Department. Launching his war on alleged Communist infiltrators as chairman of a Senate committee on government operations, McCarthy was abetted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. To be labeled a Communist was an accusation from which there was no escape. Claims of innocence or invoking the Fifth Amendment were tantamount to confession.

Set against the Korean War begun in 1950, and with the convictions of Alger Hiss that year for perjury over espionage and the Rosenbergs in 1951 for atomic spying, America’s fear of Communism spread like wildfire. Gaining an army of rabid followers, McCarthy’s crusade to root out subversives widened to focus intently on libraries, which were pressured to purge their collections of works by Marx. By 1952, the New York Times described a pervasive wave of educational book censorship in America. Around the country, self-appointed local committees— “volunteer educational dictators” in the words of one librarian—were coercing librarians to remove books considered “un-American,” the Times found.

This anti-Communist juggernaut was not only steam-rolling domestic libraries. McCarthy sent it on a road trip. In April 1953, McCarthy’s underlings, attorney Roy Cohn and associate David Schine, were dispatched to Europe. Part of their mission was to scrutinize U.S. Information Service libraries, created to provide war-ravaged countries with American books. McCarthy claimed that these collections held thousands of works by Communists. Targeting suspect authors, just as Hollywood had been purged of “Red” screenwriters, Cohn and Schine succeeded in intimidating foreign service officials. No fires were set, but titles by Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, and Howard Fast, among others, were pulled from the shelves.

Inaugurated in January 1953, President Eisenhower was hesitant to challenge McCarthy. But he discreetly fired back. He told a Dartmouth commencement audience in June of that year:

Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency.”

–President Eisenhower, “Remarks at the Dartmouth College Commencement”

Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s defense of reading was less than full-throated. Ultimately, his State Dept. folded to McCarthy’s men.

“Only reckless men, under these conditions, could choose to take steps offensive to McCarthy since the President and the Secretary [of State John Foster Dulles] have rarely backed up their subordinates whom McCarthy has singled out for attack.”

The New Republic June 29, 1953

But America’s librarians were not about to be silenced. Despite the stale caricature of an old lady in a bun shushing the patrons, many librarians spoke out, daringly, given the nation’s fearful mood and threats to their jobs. Responding to this mounting pressure, the American Library Association (ALA), in concert with the American Association of Publishers, issued on June 25, 1953 a “Freedom to Read” statement –since revised several times—that begins, “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack.”

Unfortunately, the ALA was right then—and now. Ike’s “book burners” are back—or perhaps it is more accurate to say they never left. Across America, a concerted effort to purge school and public libraries of “offensive” literature has found new vigor and a louder voice. There is a long history of attempts to rid libraries of books considered objectionable—it is the reason the ALA launched its annual Banned Books Week forty years ago to highlight local challenges to books. But these perennial community-level attempts to challenge books deemed “subversive” or “indecent” have reached a new level of intensity.

Currently, in America’s riven political ecosystem, the hyper-charged urge to purge has been fused with anger over vaccinations and mask mandates and the assault on teaching any American history that doesn’t fit a suitably patriotic mold. In such states as Florida, Texas, and Virginia, the backlash has grown intense and been wrapped in the pretense of giving parents “control” over their children’s education. The bullseye has moved from Robin Hood, The Communist Manifesto, and The Catcher in the Rye to a new set of targets. Many of the books now under fire deal with race, slavery, gender issues, and of course, sexuality.

Raising the fever pitch are books exploring gay relationships and gender identity. In November 2021, a Virginia school board member was quoted in press reports as saying, “I think we should throw those books in a fire.”In February, a Tennessee pastor went further, leading a book burning that saw Harry Potter and Twilight consigned to the flames—both among the usual suspects in recent book bans and challenges.

We’ve seen these flames before. In fiction, they raged in Ray Bradbury’s dystopic Fahrenheit 451 in which “firemen” burn outlawed books. Bradbury’s 1953 novel was written in large part as a reaction to the ongoing purges under McCarthy and his followers.

But these flames have also roared more frighteningly in fact. Book burnings are actually older than books, dating to ancient times in Greece and China. After Gutenberg’s printing revolution, the Vatican created the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a catalog of banned books, some of which were burned, sometimes along with their authors—like Giordano Bruno in 1600.

Most notoriously in pre-World War II Germany, some 25,000 “un-German” books were consigned to Nazi bonfires in May 1933. Targeted by Hitler’s loyal disciples were works by German Jews and Marx, Freud, and Einstein. Books by German novelists Thomas Mann and Eric Maria Remarque—author of the World War I classic All Quiet on the Western Front— went into the flames along with such American writers as Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and Helen Keller.

Book Burning May 10, 1933 Image courtesy US Holocaust Memorial Museum https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/book-burning

 

Can it happen here? It has.

Nearly a century before the Nazi book burnings, a concerted effort to flood the slaveholding states with abolitionist literature was met with fire. In the summer of 1835, an angry mob raided a Charleston, South Carolina post office and consigned thousands of abolitionist pamphlets to a bonfire. The book burning was topped off with an effigy of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison being set ablaze. Garrison was lucky. Tragically, abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy was not. Two years later, a mob intent on burning anti-slavery literature in Alton, Illinois murdered Lovejoy as he tried to defend his presses. A century later, in 1939, California growers burned Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath.

Scrubbing the nation’s public square of “offensive” materials and torching books—despite the protections in the Bill of Rights—are as American as apple pie, lynch mobs, burning crosses, and now, tiki torches.

But there’s something new in the equation. The latest wave of book suppression is not simply about “subversion” or “dirty words.” Scratch the surface of recent book bans and it is clear that the assault on free expression cannot be separated from the larger Orwellian effort to sanitize American history, delegitimize literature by gay writers and people of color, and undermine democracy.

This revitalized onslaught carries the distinct whiff of white, Christian nationalism. This is the racial, cultural, and political ideology that once reared its head as nineteenth-century Nativism, the reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, and the America Firsters of the 1930s.

Claiming that the United States is a “Christian nation,” this strand of anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic American DNA is older than the nation itself. Time has not diminished its power. Now adding “globalists” to their enemies list, white Christian nationalism has been tied to the Charlottesville rioters who chanted “You will not replace us” and the January 6 insurrection by experts who study the movement.

America has no monopoly on this historically powerful faction. A form of white Christian nationalism, with its claims of racial superiority, certainly fed Hitler’s rise in Germany.

And that is why this revived wave of book suppression is a piece of a much larger development. The reason that Maus, a Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel-memoir about the Holocaust, was ostensibly pulled from schools in Tennessee was for some of its language and a discreet cartoon illustration of the author’s mother—an Auschwitz survivor—naked in the bathtub where she had committed suicide. But its critics apparently sought a kinder, gentler discussion of the Holocaust, although any attempts to soften that history tiptoe dangerously toward denialism. This is how history goes down 1984’s “Memory Hole.”

It is more than a little ironic that this onslaught of suppression comes as many on the Right decry the so-called “cancel culture” of the Left. Claiming their right to free speech is under attack, modern-day “book burners” crush that freedom under their boot heels as they attempt to distort or erase history and silence unwelcome voices. When such voices and ideas are deemed a threat and suppressed by the government, religious authorities, or a political party, we teeter on the thin ice of authoritarianism. The ice cracks when a fictional character is attacked—whether it is Homer Simpson, Huckleberry Finn, or Robin Hood. All three have come under fire over the years.

Banning books, legislating against “divisive concepts” in history class, and purging diversity all come straight from the playbook of the Strongman. He knows the power of the pen. Books make us think. Literature cultivates the free mind. Writers are truth-tellers. In 1917, Soviet leader Lenin ordered a “Decree on Press” threatening closure of publications critical of the Bolsheviks. Authoritarians know the danger posed by truth. And they are more than willing to use sword and flame to cut it down.

The question is what can we do about it?

“The antidote to authoritarianism is not some form of American authoritarianism,” Cooper Union librarian David K. Berninghausen told the Times in 1952. “The antidote is free inquiry.”

When Robin Hood was threatened by a textbook commissioner in 1953, some Indiana State University students fought back. Five of them gathered chicken feathers, dyed them green, and spread them across campus. Their protest caught on at other colleges, including UCLA, where two hundred students dressed up as Sherwood Forest’s Merry Men for a Green Feather drop. A clever, well-aimed protest, the Green Feather movement broke no windows or legs. Robin Hood was spared.

But those more innocent days are gone. In the internet age, the lines are more sharply drawn, sides set in stone, and the stakes much higher.

That is why dumping some green feathers or wearing an “I READ BANNED BOOKS” t-shirt will not be enough for this moment. If we care, we must take to heart Ike’s advice and “read every book.” We must firmly resolve to read. But buying and reading Maus or Toni Morrison’s Beloved are only the first steps.

We have to make sure that others can read these books. We must be audacious in support of free libraries and vigorously support all teachers who want to encourage students to read, debate, and think for themselves. And we must vigilantly push back on politicians and schoolboards purging libraries of uncomfortable truths. A few loud voices dominating a schoolboard or town hall meeting do not a majority make. To allow a noisy minority to dictate what we read and teach is skating on that thin ice of totalitarian loyalty oaths typical of a Mussolini or Stalin.

On this final note, history is clear. When you have succeeded in marking a writer as “degenerate” or “immoral”—as the Nazis did—you have moved towards dehumanizing them. It is a few short perilous steps from censorship to suppression to a conflagration far worse. In Berlin, on the spot where Nazis threw books into a bonfire, there is a plaque citing German playwright Heinrich Heine’s 1820 words, which read in part: “Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”

The road to Hell is lit by burning books.

UPDATE:  “A Fast-Growing Network of Conservative Groups Is Fueling a Surge in Book Bans”  (New York Times, December 12, 2022)

UPDATE: “Virginia Legal Action Threatens the Freedom to Read” (National Coalition Against Censorship)

“This legal action could profoundly limit the availability of books in the Commonwealth of Virginia. No book has been banned for obscenity in the United States in more than 50 years. Prohibiting the sale of books is a form of censorship that cannot be tolerated under the First Amendment.”

I am also linking to this article from American Libraries, a publication of the American Library Association; “Same Fight, New Tactics,” which offers tips for meeting challenges to books in libraries.

Here are some key organizations leading the fight against book bans and other forms of censorship:

National Coalition Against Censorship

PEN America “Book Bans”

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Labor Day 2023

To most Americans, the first Monday in September means a three-day weekend and the last hurrah of summer, a final outing at the shore before school begins, a family picnic. The federal Labor Day was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland during his second term in 1894.

With the enormous stresses placed on working people with the Covid pandemic and the changes in our working habits, lives have been altered with no end in sight. Work –labor– in America has been transformed.

“Americans worked less last year on average, but that was because mass layoffs in the spring meant fewer people were working at all. Among those who kept their jobs, there was little change in the amount of time spent working in a given day — about seven and a half hours in 2020, the same as in 2019.”

–“The Pandemic Changed How We Spend Our Time” New York Times (July 27, 2021)

And as Nobel Prize-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote in August 2021:

“And workers are, it seems, willing to pay a price to avoid going back to the way things were. This may, by the way, be especially true for older workers, some of whom seem to have dropped out of the labor force.”

–“Workers Don’t Want Their Old Jobs on the Old Terms”

But as workers have begun on a grassroots level to organize unions at such places REI, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Amazon warehouses, and a LA topless bar, and Hollywood writers have gone on strike, Labor suddenly has muscle. And for the first time in many years, Labor has a friend in the White House.

“The administration’s show of support comes as unprecedented worker organizing — from strike authorizations to work stoppages — hit multiple industries this year, including, transportation, entertainment, hospitality and healthcare.

Workers calling for higher wages, better working conditions and job security, especially since the end of the pandemic, have been increasingly willing to walk out on the job as employers face a greater need for workers.

The Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations Labor Action Tracker logged 424 work stoppages — which includes 417 strikes and seven lockouts — involving approximately 224,000 workers in 2022.”

–Source ABC News, August 28, 2023

As we rethink work and life, it is a most fitting moment to consider how we labor and the history of Labor Day. The holiday was born at the end of the nineteenth century, in a time when work was no picnic. As America was moving from farms to factories in the Industrial Age, there was a long, violent, often-deadly struggle for fundamental workers’ rights, a struggle that in many ways was America’s “other civil war.” (From “The Blood and Sweat Behind Labor Day”)

 

“Glassworks. Midnight. Location: Indiana.” From a series of photographs of child labor at glass and bottle factories in the United States by Lewis W. Hine, for the National Child Labor Committee, New York.

The first American Labor Day is dated to a parade organized by unions in New York City on September 5, 1882, as a celebration of “the strength and spirit of the American worker.” They wanted among, other things, an end to child labor.

In 1861, Lincoln told Congress:

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation.

Today, in postindustrial America, Abraham Lincoln’s words ring empty. Labor is far from “superior to capital.” Working people and unions have borne the brunt of the great changes in the globalized economy.

But the facts are clear: In the current “gig economy,” the loss of union jobs and the recent failures of labor to organize workers is one key reason for the decline of America’s middle class.

Read the full history of Labor Day in this essay: “The Blood and Sweat Behind Labor Day” (2011)

 

The Month That Changed The World: July 16-August 15, 1945

[Originally posted in 2020 to mark the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II and the transformation of the modern world; Revised July 10-Sept. 2, 2023]

From the “Trinity” Test to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Japan’s Surrender:

The Month That Changed the World

The atomic bomb cloud over Hiroshima Source: National Archives https://catalog.archives.gov/id/542192

The July 21, 2023 release of Oppenheimer, the critically acclaimed film by director Christopher Nolan about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who led the development of the atomic bomb, has brought renewed attention in this chapter of American and world History. The successful test of the bomb in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945 set in motion a series of world-changing events in the final weeks of World War II.

The following timeline summarizes the momentous landmarks that helped make the modern world between July 16 and August 15, 1945.

On August 6, 1945, the New York Times asked:

“What is this terrible new weapon?”

(New York Times, August 6, 1945: “First Atomic Bomb Dropped on Japan”)

The story followed the announcement made that day by President Harry S. Truman:

“SIXTEEN HOURS AGO an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British ‘Grand Slam’ which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.”

August 6, 1945

President Harry S. Truman (Photo: Truman Library)

President Harry S. Truman
(Photo: Truman Library)

(“Statement by the President Announcing the Use of the A-Bomb at Hiroshima”: Truman Library and Museum)

The use of the first atomic bomb followed the successful test detonation –the goal of the wartime Manhattan Project — and the beginning of a series of events that reshaped the world in the final weeks of World War II.

•July 16, 1945 the first atomic device, nicknamed “the Gadget,” is detonated in the “Trinity” test at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Read this account of the test in National Geographic.

New York Times reporter Dennis Overbye visited the site in 2021. His report “Touring Trinity, the Birthplace of Nuclear Dread”:

“The detonation created a crater eight feet deep, a half-mile wide and lined with glassy pebbles called trinitite: sand that had been swept up in the fireball, vaporized and then fell back down in molten radioactive droplets.

By many accounts, J. Robert Oppenheimer uttered a passage he recalled from the Hindu epic Bhagavad Gita:

“Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

The Trinity test, 15 seconds after detonation. Photo courtesy of David Wargowski Source: National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Read more about the test in “The First Light of Trinity” by Alex Wellerstein in The New Yorker.

One of Robert Oppenheimer’s biographers, Kai Bird, has also written “Oppenheimer, Nullified and Vindicated,” also in The New Yorker.

UPDATE July 18, 2023 “The Real History Behind Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer'” (Smithsonian)

“Oppenheimer provides an opportunity to revisit this charismatic, contradictory man and reconsider how previous attempts to tell his story have succeeded—and failed—at fathoming one of the 20th century’s most fascinating public figures.”

July 20, 2023:

“Trinity Nuclear Test’s Fallout Reached 46 States, Canada, and Mexico, Study Finds”

“A new study, released on Thursday ahead of submission to a scientific journal for peer review, shows that the cloud and its fallout went farther than anyone in the Manhattan Project had imagined in 1945. Using state-of-the-art modeling software and recently uncovered historical weather data, the study’s authors say that radioactive fallout from the Trinity test reached 46 states, Canada and Mexico within 10 days of detonation.”

“Trinity Nuclear Test’s Fallout Reached 46 States, Canada, and Mexico, Study Finds,” New York Times (July 20, 2023)

Over the next weeks, the world would be transformed, with the arrival of the Atomic Age, Japan’s surrender, the end of World War II, the charter of the United Nations, and the beginning of the Cold War.

The development, testing, and use of atomic bombs is documented by the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.

L to R: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Harry S. Truman, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin in the garden of Cecilienhof Palace before meeting for the Potsdam Conference in Potsdam, Germany. National Archives Identifier 198958

•July 17 In Potsdam, near Berlin in defeated Germany, President Harry S. Truman comes face to face with the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Truman had taken office upon the death of President Roosevelt on April 12, 1945 without knowledge of the Manhattan Project or the atomic bomb’s existence. Having been told about the potential weapon, Truman is informed of the successful “Trinity” test while meeting Soviet Strongman Stalin with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the European postwar conference.

 

Harry S. Truman and Joseph Stalin at Potsdam (Public Domain: President Harry S. Truman Library and Museum)

“I told Stalin that I am no diplomat but usually said yes or no to questions after hearing all the argument.”

In his diary, Truman adds: “He said he had and that he had some more questions to present. I told him to fire away. He did and it is dynamite—but I have some dynamite too which I’m not exploding now. . . . I can deal with Stalin. He is honest—but smart as hell.” (National Archives)

Read about Stalin’s rise to power in  Strongman

Following the New Mexico test success, the components of the atomic bomb are loaded onto the USS Indianapolis in San Francisco for transport to an airbase on Tinian Island in the Pacific. Many of the crew of nearly 1,200 men have no idea what the ship is carrying.

•July 19 In the United States, Congress approves the Bretton Woods agreement, an international pact designed to avoid postwar financial crises like those that followed World War I. The agreement creates the International Money Fund and what later becomes the World Bank.

The Japanese cities of Choshi, Hitachi, Fukui and Okazaki are struck by 600 B-29 Superfortress bombers dropping some 4,000 tons of bombs — the largest employment of the bomber to date.

The USS Indianapolis reaches Pearl Harbor in the first leg of its voyage to deliver the atomic bomb components.

https://catalog.archives.gov/id/515009

• July 21 “A senior US Army Air Force intelligence officer in the Pacific distributed a report declaring: ‘The entire population of Japan is a proper Military Target . . . THERE ARE NO CIVILIANS IN JAPAN.’” Richard B. Frank via World War II Museum.

Truman and Churchill at Potsdam
https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/photograph-records/63-1455-39

In Potsdam, Truman and Churchill privately agree to use the atomic bomb if Japan does not surrender. Read about Truman’s decision from the National Park Service Harry S. Truman National Historic Site. 

July 22 In what is described as the last surface battle of World War II, the U.S. Navy sinks Japanese supply ships in the “Battle of Sagami Bay” (“Tokyo Bay”). Naval bombardments of the Japanese mainland continue, along with B-29 bombing raids striking Japanese cities.

In China, the American Far East Air Force attacks Japanese troops, airfields, and shipping near Shanghai.

July 23 In Potsdam, Secretary of War Henry Stimson receives atomic bomb target list. In order of choice they are: Hiroshima, Kokura, and Niigata. He also receives an estimate of atomic bomb availability: “Little Boy” should be ready for use on Aug. 6, second “Fat Man-type” by Aug. 24. There are plans for a total of seven bombs available by December.

•July 24 Truman informs Stalin of a “new weapon of unusual destructive force.”

“In which I tell Stalin we expect to drop the most powerful explosive ever made on the Japanese. He smiled and said he appreciated my telling him–but he did not know what I was talking about–the Atomic Bomb! HST”

–Truman Library and Museum

Truman’s note on back of photograph from Potsdam Conference describing his conversation with Stalin about the atomic bomb. Source: Truman Museum https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/photograph-records/63-1456-46a

The Hidden History of America At War (paperback)

But Stalin already knows about the atomic bomb because of a network of spies inside the Manhattan Project. The Soviet push to capture Berlin in April and May 1945 was motivated in part by Stalin wanting to capture German scientists working on a Nazi atomic bomb and tons of uranium held in a Berlin lab. This episode is recounted in the “Berlin Stories” chapter of my book The Hidden History of America at War.

July 25  Truman writes in his diary that he has made the decision to use “the most destructive bomb in the history of the world… I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children.”

Sources: Truman Library and Museum National Security Archive, George Washington University

• July 26 British general election returns are announced; Prime Minister Winston Churchill is defeated and replaced by Clement Attlee.

“The landslide victory comes as a major shock to the Conservatives following Mr Churchill’s hugely successful term as Britain’s war-time coalition leader, during which he mobilised and inspired courage in an entire nation.” —BBC

U.S. Propaganda poster (Source National Archives https://catalog.archives.gov/id/513563)

At the Potsdam Conference, the Potsdam Declaration demands an “Unconditional surrender” by Japan. Issued by Great Britain, China, and the U.S., it threatens:

“The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”

The USS Indianapolis reaches Tinian that day.

USS Indianapolis 10 July 1945, after final overhaul and repair of combat damage. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives (Naval History and Heritage Command https://usnhistory.navylive.dodlive.mil/2017/08/24/lest-we-forget-uss-indianapolis-and-her-sailors/)

“Indianapolis departed San Francisco on 16 July 1945, foregoing her post-repair shakedown period. Touching at Pearl Harbor on 19 July, she raced on unescorted and reached Tinian on 26 July, covering some 5,000 miles from San Francisco in only ten days.”

After delivering the atomic bomb components, the ship departs for Guam and the Philippines.

July 27 American B-29 SuperFortress bombers drop 600,000 leaflets over eleven Japanese cities warning that they are targets of bombings.

“But, unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America’s humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives.” –from a “LeMay Leaflet,” named for General Curtis LeMay, architect of the Pacific bombing campaign. Image Courtesy Alex Wellerstein via Atomic Heritage Foundation)

In England, Winston Churchill has a final meeting with his joint chiefs of staff.

July 28 In New York City, an Army B-25 bomber on a routine mission flies into the Empire State Building –then the world’s tallest skyscraper. Three crew members and eleven people in the building are killed.

“B-25 Mitchell bomber smashed beyond recognition into Empire State Building. This is a picture of the wreckage-strewn 79th floor where the bomber tore a 18-foot hole in wall. Propeller is embedded in the wall at the left.” Source: New York Daily News

“I was at the file cabinet and all of a sudden the building felt like it was just going to topple over,” [office worker Gloria] Pall said. “It threw me across the room, and I landed against the wall. People were screaming and looking at each other. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know if it was a bomb or what happened. It was terrifying.” Source: National Public Radio

In Potsdam, newly-elected Prime Minister Clement Attlee of the Labour Party arrives to rejoin the talks which are nearly concluded. Attlee led post-war UK until 1951.

“As Prime Minister, he enlarged and improved social services and the public sector in post-war Britain, creating the National Health Service and nationalising major industries and public utilities. Attlee’s government also presided over the decolonisation of India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon and Jordan, and saw the creation of the state of Israel upon Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine.” Official UK Biography of Attlee.

•July 29 The Japanese government rejects the Potsdam Declaration surrender demand.

Just after midnight, the Indianapolis is struck by a Japanese torpedo.

July 30 Torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, the Indianapolis sinks in twelve minutes. Between 800 and 900 of the crew of nearly 1,200 are plunged into the shark-infested waters.

“What followed was an ordeal of hell on earth for those who survived the sinking. For a whole host of reasons, many related to the secrecy of her atom bomb mission, the rest of the Navy did not know that Indianapolis was missing.”

— Sam Cox (Rear Adm., USN, Ret.), “Lest We Forget: USS Indianapolis and her sailors” (inactive link)

–Read “The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis” via the National Archives including a film clip from the classic scene in Jaws in which Captain Quint describes the sinking of the ship and the shark attacks that followed.

•July 31 The assembly of the atomic bomb, code named “Little Boy,” is completed. The final arming of the bomb will be done in-flight.

In Potsdam, Truman is notified of the bomb being ready. He writes a message that concludes:

“Release when ready, but not sooner than August 2. HST”

According to the Truman Library:

The actual reply that President Truman wrote on July 31, 1945 (Photo taken by Dawn Wilson at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library)

“No known written record exists in which Harry Truman explicitly ordered the use of atomic weapons against Japan. The closest thing to such a document is this handwritten order, addressed to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, in which Truman authorized the release of a public statement about the use of the bomb. It was written on July 31, 1945 while Truman was attending the Potsdam Conference in Germany. In effect, this served as final authorization for the employment of the atomic bomb, though the expression ‘release when ready’ refers to the public statement.”

Source: Truman Library

August 1 The atomic bomb is ready and flight orders are prepared. But weather delays the mission. Of four potential target cities, Hiroshima is chosen as the primary target.

In Potsdam that day, the Big Three wrap up their meetings and discuss plans for the  trials of war criminals that later become known as the Nuremberg Trials.

Read my 2021 post on the Nuremberg Trials.

In the Pacific, hundreds of survivors from the Indianapolis desperately try to stay afloat in the shark-infested waters.

“In that clear water you could see the sharks circling. Then every now and then, like lightning, one would come straight up and take a sailor and take him straight down.” – Survivor of the Indianapolis sinking to the BBC.

•August 2 

The Big Three at the end of the Potsdam Conference: Front row (Left to Right) Prime Minister Attlee, President Truman, Generalissimo Stalin. Source: Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

Shortly after midnight, the Potsdam Conference concludes with a joint communique. It includes reference to the United Nations, whose organization and charter had been completed on June 26 at a conference in San Francisco.

Truman speaks of a future Washington meeting with the Soviet leader, but he and Stalin never meet again.

What was clear was that the Conference had solidified the Soviet Union’s domination over much of Eastern Europe, including the eastern half of a divided Germany. Admiral William D. Leahy, Truman’s Chief of Staff, later wrote:

“The Soviet Union emerged at this time as the unquestioned all-powerful influence in Europe….”

The U.S. Navy is still unaware that the Indianapolis has gone down. More than 800 men went into the water and the survivors are spotted by a reconnaissance plane four days after the sinking.

“Marks’s crew dropped rubber rafts and supplies as they witnessed continuing shark attacks. Disregarding orders not to land at sea, the pilot touched down and began taxiing to pick up survivors.

As darkness set in, and as Marks waited for rescue vessels, he pulled men from the water into his aircraft. When the plane’s fuselage was at maximum capacity, survivors were tied to the wings with parachute cord. The pilot and his crew rescued a total of 56 men. Once signaled, a total of seven Navy ships converged on the site and rescued the remaining men. Only 317 sailors survived.” –National Archives, “The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis”

Indianapolis’ survivors en route to a hospital following their rescue, early August 1945. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command

“Looking for a scapegoat, the US Navy placed responsibility for the disaster on Captain McVay, who was among the few who managed to survive. For years he received hate mail, and in 1968 he took his own life. The surviving crew, including Cox, campaigned for decades to have their captain exonerated – which he was, more than 50 years after the sinking.” —USS Indianapolis Sinking,” BBC

The commander of the Indianapolis,  Charles B. McVay III, was the only World War II U.S. Navy captain to be court-martialed for the sinking of his ship. McVay died by suicide in 1968. In 2001, he was exonerated by an act of Congress.

•August 4 Colonel Paul Tibbets briefs the men of the 509th Composite Group -the weapon delivery arm of the Manhattan Project. Tibbets is the commander of the unit. His men do not know the nature of the bomb they will carry.

•August 5 The bombing mission is confirmed and Colonel Paul Tibbets announces he will pilot the plane which he names “Enola Gay,” after his mother.

Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., Pilot of the Enola Gay, the Plane that Dropped the Atomic Bomb August 6, 1945 (National Archives https://catalog.archives.gov/id/535737)

•August 6 At 0245 local time on Tinian,

Enola Gay begins takeoff roll. [Pilot] Colonel Paul Tibbets says to co-pilot Robet Lewis, ‘Let’s go.’ He pushes all of the throttles forward. The overloaded Enola Gay lifts slowly into the night sky, using all of the more than two miles of runway.”

Atomic Heritage Foundation, minute-by-minute timeline of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. 

0730:

“Tibbets announces to the crew: ‘We are carrying the world’s first atomic bomb.’ He pressurizes the Enola Gay and begins an ascent to 32,700 feet. The crew puts on their parachutes and flak suits.”

0912: Control of the Enola Gay is handed over to the bombardier, Thomas Ferebee, as the bomb run begins. A Radio Hiroshima operator reports that three planes have been spotted.

0914 (0814 Hiroshima time): Tibbets tells his crew, “On glasses.”

–Atomic Heritage Foundation Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombing Timeline

8:15 AM (Hiroshima local time) The first atomic bomb is detonated over Hiroshima.

“In less than one second, the fireball had expanded to 900 feet. The blast wave shattered windows for a distance of ten miles and was felt as far away as 37 miles. Over two-thirds of Hiroshima’s buildings were demolished. The hundreds of fires, ignited by the thermal pulse, combined to produce a firestorm that had incinerated everything within about 4.4 miles of ground zero.”

Source: Hiroshima

The atomic bomb cloud over Hiroshima Source: National Archives https://catalog.archives.gov/id/542192

and Nagasaki Remembered.

“In the street, the first thing he saw was a squad of soldiers who had been burrowing into the hillside opposite, making one of the thousands of dugouts in which the Japanese apparently intended to resist invasion, hill by hill, life for life; the soldiers were coming out of the hole, where they should have been safe, and blood was running from their heads, chests, and backs. They were silent and dazed.

Under what seemed to be a local dust cloud, the day grew darker and darker.”

–John Hersey, “Hiroshima,” New Yorker (August 24, 1946)

In Hiroshima, the estimated death toll reaches eighty thousand people killed instantly; as many as 90 percent of the city’s nurses and doctors also die instantly. By 1950, as many as 200,000 die as a result of long-term effects of radiation.

“Historians say General Groves understood the radiation issue as early as 1943 but kept it so compartmentalized that it was poorly known by top American officials, including Harry S. Truman. At the time he authorized the Hiroshima bombing, President Truman, scholars say, knew almost nothing of the bomb’s radiation effects.”

Read: “The Black Reporter Who Exposed a Lie about the Atomic Bomb” New York Times

In his official announcement, President Truman said,

It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.

Aftermath of atomic bomb-November 1945  (Image: US Dept. of Energy”

Read Don’t Know Much About Hiroshima for more details about the bombing and its aftermath.

•August 7 A report to the Japanese Imperial Army General Staff reads:

“The whole city of Hiroshima was destroyed instantly by a single bomb.”  (Atomic Heritage Foundation)

On Guam, the decision to use a second device is made and the mission date set for August 10, then moved to August 9 over weather concerns.

Fat Man being lowered and checked on transport dolly for airfield trip Image Source: Heritage Foundation https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/little-boy-and-fat-man

•August 8 Fulfilling a pledge Stalin had made earlier at the Yalta conference, the Soviet Union declares war on Japan and invades Manchuria the next day, sending more than one million troops into Japanese-held territory.

The Japanese military leadership was still divided over the surrender demand, with some leading generals vowing to fight to the death. A coup against Emperor Hirohito began to be planned by members of the Japanese military.

A plutonium bomb code named “Fat Man” is prepared on Tinian. It will be carried by a B-29 called “Bockscar.” The primary target is the city of Kokura, home to a large munitions plant.

The crew of the B-29 called “Bockscar” taken after the Nagasaki bombing (Image: U.S. Air Force)

•August 9

0347: Bockscar, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney, lifts off from Tinian Island. The target of choice is Kokura Arsenal.

Clouds and smoke from nearby fires obscure Kokura, so “Fat Man” is dropped over the secondary target, the city of Nagasaki, with a population estimated at 263,000, a city that was home to two Mitsubishi military plants. It is also the site of a prisoner of war camp.

“Nagasaki was a city on the west coast of Kyushu on picturesque Nagasaki Bay. It was famous as the setting for Puccini’s beautiful opera Madame Butterfly. It was also home to two huge Mitsubishi war plants on the Urakami River. This complex was the primary target, but because the city was built in hilly, almost mountainous terrain, it was a much more difficult target than Hiroshima…

Atomic Bomb Cloud over Nagasaki Image Courtesy Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembered http://www.hiroshima-remembered.com/history/nagasaki/image3.html

Image: “Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembered”

Fat Man exploded at 1,840 feet above Nagasaki and approximately 500 feet south of the Mitsubishi Steel and Armament Works with an estimated force of 22,000 tons of TNT.

Unlike Hiroshima, there was no firestorm at Nagasaki. Despite this, the blast was more destructive to the immediate area, due to the topography and the greater power of Fat Man.”

Hiroshima & Nagasaki Remembered

The death toll in Nagasaki also reaches 80,000 by the end of 1945. Read a full account of this mission in “Nagasaki: The Last Bomb” by  Alex Wellerstein (New Yorker, August 7, 2015)

The National Archives “Unwritten Record” blog also offers resources on the atomic bombings.

Read this piece from Scientific America (August 6, 2023) about the American plan to study the effects of the atomic bombs

“On November 26, 1946, President Harry Truman authorized the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council to establish the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) ‘to undertake long range, continuing study of the biological and medical effects of the atomic bomb on man.'”– “Hiroshima’s Anniversary Marks An Injustice Done to Blast Survivors.

•August 10 After Nagasaki is bombed, Truman orders no more strikes without his authorization. Another plutonium core for a third weapon is prepared for shipment.

September 24, 1945, 6 weeks after  Nagasaki was destroyed by the world’s second atomic bomb attack. Photo by Cpl. Lynn P. Walker, Jr. (USMC) National Archives FILE #: 127-N-136176

Although an unofficial surrender message was sent by a Japanese news agency, the Japanese cabinet was divided and no decision was made. The Emperor would not surrender his sovereignty.

•August 11 The U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes rejects any conditional surrender and states that the Emperor and Japan’s government will be subject to the Allied Powers and declares that any future Japanese government must reflect the will of the people.

Soviet troops invade South Sakhalin island, Japanese-held territory.

•August 12-13 Soviet troops advance into the Korean peninsula.

Emperor Hirohito agrees to accept the terms of Secretary Byrnes’s note and orders the suspension of military activity. He records a surrender announcement. Military officers began to plot against Hirohito in a coup known as the “Kyujo incident.”

•August 13 The bombing of Japan, including firebombing, resumes with more than 1,000 B-29s taking part.

 

Residential section of Tokyo after the March 1945 air raids. (Wikimedia commons http://www.kmine.sakura.ne.jp/kusyu/kuusyu.html/

Japanese officers continue to seek allies in their planned coup against the Imperial government.

•August 14 (August 15 in Japan):  The military coup fails and several plotters commit suicide.

In an extraordinary address recorded earlier, the Emperor of Japan is heard on the radio for the first time and accepts the provisions of the Potsdam Declaration, agreeing to the unconditional surrender. 

Read: “The Emperor’s Speech” by Max Fisher (The Atlantic, August 15, 2012)

At a White House conference, according to United Press International, Truman says:

“This is the day when Fascist and police governments cease to exist in the world. This is the day for democracy.”

-Source: “Japan Surrenders Unconditionally, World At Peace” UPI archives

“Japan surrendered unconditionally tonight, bringing peace to the world after the bloodiest conflict mankind has known.” (UPI Archives)

Truman announces Japan’s surrender to reporters in Oval Office.
Credit: Rowe, Abbie National Park Service Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.

 

Across America and England, jubilant crowds fill the streets once more for an unofficial V-J (Victory over Japan) Day, as they had three months earlier on VE Day, May 8,1945, after Germany’s surrender ended the war in Europe.

A video clip of Truman’s August 14 announcement from C-Span.

V-J Day Times Square August 14, 1945 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c19650

•September 2, 1945 A formal surrender ceremony is performed in Tokyo Bay and that date is also referred to as V-J Day.

Formal surrender aboard USS Missouri Sept. 2. 1945 https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/us-navy-ships/battleships/missouri-bb-63/USA-C-2719.html

Almost since the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, critics have second-guessed Truman’s decision and motives. A generation of historians and commentators have defended or repudiated the need for unleashing the atomic weapon. Admiral William D. Leahy, who was with Truman at Potsdam, later wrote in a memoir:

Once it had been tested, President Truman faced the decision as to whether to use it. He did not like the idea, but he was persuaded that it would shorten the war against Japan and save American lives. It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.

–William D. Leahy, I Was There (1950)

On the same day, in colonial French Indochina, Ho Chi Minh –who had been supported by the American OSS in its fight against Japan– declared Vietnam’s independence from France. On the occasion, Ho Chi Minh cited Thomas Jefferson:

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

-Source: Council on Foreign Relations

In  China, however, the Japanese surrender ended the wartime alliance between the Communists and Nationalists. The Chinese civil war began anew, with the US supporting Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Stalin’s USSR backing Mao Zedong’s Communists.

Read about Mao’s rise to power in Strongman: The Rise of Five Dictators and the Fall of Democracy.

Many historians contend that preventing death and casualties in an invasion of Japan was only a partial explanation for the use of the two atomic bombs. The United States was already wary of Stalin and his designs on Japan’s wartime territory. They argue that the use of the two devices was meant to end the war quickly to prevent Stalin from capturing territory held by Japan. It may have also been a signal to Stalin and the Soviet Union that the United States possessed these weapons and was willing to use them.

In other words, the dropping of the atomic bombs became the first volley in the Cold War.

READ about the debate in this Smithsonian article.

In 1952, Albert Einstein –whose 1939 letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt had set the Manhattan Project in motion — wrote a brief essay published by a Japanese magazine Kaizo in which he stated:

I was well aware of the dreadful danger for all mankind, if these experiments would succeed. But the probability that the Germans might work on that very problem with good chance of success prompted me to take that step. I did not see any other way out, although I always was a convinced pacifist. To kill in war time, it seems to me, is in no ways better than common murder.

He concluded:

Gandhi, the greatest political genius of our time has shown the way, and has demonstrated the sacrifices man is willing to bring if only he has found the right way. His work for the liberation of India is a living example that man’s will, sustained by an indomitable conviction is stronger than apparently invincible material power.

–Source Hiroshima & Nagasaki Remembered

You can read more about Hiroshima and the dropping of the atomic bombs in Don’t Know Much About History and more about President Truman in Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents and in The Hidden History of America At War. Read more about Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin in STRONGMAN published on October 6, 2020.

 

Don't Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Don't Know Much About® the American Presidents (Hyperion paperback-April 15, 2014)

Why Labor Day? Check out this Ted-Ed animated video

“Why do Americans and Canadians Celebrate Labor Day?”

This Ted-Ed animated video explains the history of the holiday is a few years old. But it still matters today. (Reposted from 9/1/2014)

You can also view it on YouTube:

 




You can read more about the history and meaning of Labor Day in this piece I wrote for CNN a few years ago:

“The Blood and Sweat Behind Labor Day”

Read more about the period of labor unrest in Don’t Know Much About® History.

Don't Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

Don’t Know Much About History (Revised, Expanded and Updated Edition)

 

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