“Demagogue!” “Dangerous Egotist!” – No, This Isn’t About Trump

This person was called a “demagogue” and a “dangerous egotist.”

Let’s get out our Google dictionary to get a good definition of demagogue: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. 

Does that sound like anyone in the US 2016 presidential race?

How about “dangerous egotist?” Do you think that term could be used to describe anyone in this year’s election?

Well, these terms were actually used to disparage a presidential candidate. And they were hurled at that candidate by his challenger.

But the year wasn’t 2016, it was 1912. And the recipient of the slurs wasn’t Donald Trump. No, the person called those two highly charged terms was none other than former president Theodore Roosevelt. Who called him those? President William Howard Taft.

If Donald Trump is being portrayed by in those terms by some people, he seems to be in good company.

Roosevelt hand-picked Taft and coddled him into the White House in 1908 after Teddy’s two terms were up. But during Taft’s presidency, Roosevelt became so angry at Taft’s policies and the perceived notion that Taft was rolling back much that TR had accomplished that he decided to jump back into the race in 1912. After he couldn’t wrestle the Republican nomination away from the incumbent, he opened a third party run for the White House, which famously split the votes and allowed the Democrat Woodrow Wilson to be elected.

The 1912 campaign was brutal. And while Taft made it known his thoughts about TR, Roosevelt also blasted Taft, calling him a “fathead” and a “puzzlewit.” Yeah, I know. Puzzlewit doesn’t really have a nasty ring to us today, but back in the day, it mean “stupid.”

The mud was slinging from both sides.

So when we think that the stupid, fatheaded, egotistic, dangerous, demagogues only came on the scene in 2016, we’d be foolishly mistaken.

We’ve seen all of those people before. And we happened to call them our presidents.

Know Your History: Rockefeller Breaks Up & Gets Richer

In 1912, after decades of pummeling the competition with unfair business practices and intimidation, the oil titan, John D. Rockefeller, sat and listened as a federal court dismantled his empire right in front of his eyes. Buoyed by the Sherman Anti-Trust act of a few years earlier, the government was finally ready to take on the undisputed champion of the Gilded Age. Rockefeller had risen from poverty to build the Standard Oil Company. By age 33, he had crushed the competition, creating an oil trust that cornered the market on 90% of the oil used in the United States.

Standard Oil innovated the market through standardizing the making of kerosene which lit the country. Rockefeller made a product that was assured to be safe, building a brand that the public could trust. He also innovated how oil was transported by building an extensive pipeline which could by-pass his usage of the railroads, insuring him more profit. As electricity eventually overtook the use of kerosene for lighting American cities, Rockefeller then supplied the country with the gasoline to power the horseless carriage. He, along with Carnegie and JP Morgan sat at the head of the Robber Barons table.

But as Teddy Roosevelt’s progressiveness seeped into the consciousness of the nation, Rockefeller’s days as the chairman of the largest monopoly ever created were numbered. When the verdict was reached, Standard Oil had to be broken up into thirty-five different companies. The empire of Rockefeller was finished. The era of the Robber Barons came to an end. Included in those thirty-five new corporations were the well-known oil companies, Exxon, Mobil, and Chevron.

In an ironic twist, however, Rockefeller, who ended up having shares in all thirty-five of those companies, ended up actually making more money. His diversified holdings easily made him the richest man who ever lived, amassing a staggering worth of more than 600 billion dollars in today’s currency – about 10 times that of Bill Gates.

Who knows? Perhaps he would have broken it up sooner if he would have known the windfall awaiting him.

Know Your History: FDR’s Big Mistake

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was well-liked in many circles, revered in others, and generally looked upon in a favorable manner by historians. Of course, there are those on the right who criticize his big government model of the 1930s, which greatly expanded government power and reach – something we can all agree hasn’t been diminished since. The merits and problems of his New Deal approach to bring America out of the Great Depression have been greatly debated. Who can blame FDR for wanting to do something drastic? Americans were hungry. They wanted leadership, they wanted decisiveness, they wanted bread. But Roosevelt’s long reach didn’t come without a cost, and the weariness of his decision-making powers showed clearly in 1937 when he took on the Supreme Court and ended up looking slightly tyrannical.

FDR’s big mistake had its roots in the stalled progress of his New Deal programs. After getting essentially a blank check from Congress during his first year in office, FDR signed into law many far-reaching government agencies which were meant to manage the crisis of the Great Depression and put people back to work. However, by 1935, some of the luster began to wane, and the Supreme Court stepped in and started ruling programs unconstitutional – NiRA, Agricultural Adjustment Act … The reasons for the rulings dealt with issues like states’ rights, separation of powers, and over-reaching federal government authority. FDR did not like his programs to be cast aside, and he was determined to do something about it.

That became his unfortunate mistake. FDR, in a rather bizarre grab of presidential power, announced his idea to expand the Supreme Court by six justices, increasing its number from nine to fifteen. The idea behind the plan stemmed from the fact that their were too many conservative justices on the court for his liking, and if he could increase the number, he would be able to choose the six new ones who would, of course, be more favorably inclined to sustain his programs. This incident became known as FDR’s “court-packing” plan – a failed idea if ever there was one. It was immediately criticized from all corners, making FDR look desperate and power-hungry.

But a few short years later, all would be forgiven as he stepped forward with clearer thinking and decision-making abilities as he guided the United States into World War II.

We all make bad decisions, but the great leaders are able to move on and learn from their mistakes. It’s safe to say that Roosevelt was able to do this.

Ho Chi Minh & Truman: Part I

My new novel coming out in a couple weeks, “The Reach of the Banyan Tree”, is in no small part a by-product of my love for 20th century Vietnamese history. Unlike most Americans who study Vietnam, I became much more fascinated at the 1945 connections between the Americans and the Vietnamese rather than the Vietnam War itself. This led me to write my master’s thesis on the topic of Roosevelt, Truman, and the shifting of US policy toward Indochina at the end of WWII. All of this is clearly connected with the story I created about Charles Carson, the fictional character who helped train the Viet Minh in the summer of 1945 before the Japanese capitulated. It’s a fascinating story – both the real one of the OSS team that came to Indochina and the fictional one that I had a blast creating. The following two posts come from my master’s thesis on the topic. And while it may be thick with references and rather boring academic stuff, I hope my underlying fascination of the time period seeps through. Here is part I:

Another matter of great importance that received only cursory acknowledgment from the Truman administration in the summer of 1945 was the issue of the Viet Minh and its leader for Vietnamese independence, Ho Chi Minh. The stature of Ho Chi Minh and his resolve to overthrow the French loomed large in the subsequent two decades of American Southeast Asian foreign policy, but in 1945, his faction was, to the Americans, nothing more than a curiosity and potential pawn to be used against the Japanese. Ho Chi Minh, known by the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen “The Patriot”), founded the Indochinese Communist Party in the early 1930s. He arrived in southern China by 1940 to work alongside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) guerrilla trainers, who were tasked to help Chiang’s effort in mounting a guerrilla resistance against their common enemy – the Japanese (Duncanson 60). The transformation of the CCP during the war years would not have been lost on Ho. The CCP’s image was strengthened by the United Front, formed with the Nationalists, against the Japanese invaders, demonstrating “the willingness of Communists to subordinate their own interests to national ones” (Gordon 167).  The CCP’s focus on the Japanese also convinced millions of patriot Chinese that it was using its energy on defeating the invading Japanese, when, in fact, the Japanese were the only ones who prevented the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) from completely decimating the Communist movement (Gordon 166). As Gordon states, “The CCP thus made itself appear the embodiment of moderation, reformism, and pragmatism rather than radicalism” (167).  Ho would have been conscious of the CCP’s tactics of cooperation against the Japanese as he initially came into contact with the Americans during this time (Duncanson 60). These contacts later proved useful to him during the Vietnamese drive for independence in 1945.

Ho, more a pragmatist than an ideologue, confused the KMT in some respects as to his true intentions, and eventually ended up in prison. Staffers at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the precursor to the C.I.A. – saw a possible tool for the Allies in Ho Chi Minh and suggested that the U.S. could apply pressure on China to secure his release to support the Allies’ cause (Gardner 44). Ho likewise saw cooperation with the OSS as a possible way to further the cause of Vietnamese independence, but this view was widely disputed between the U.S. intelligence community, which tended to trust Ho, and the diplomatic corps, which did not look favorably upon the enigmatic Viet Minh leader (Gardner 44). The Chinese thought Ho’s popularity “threatened their control” but, after being pressured by the Americans, they released him from prison to head the Vietnam Revolutionary League only after he agreed to follow the lead of the KMT (La Feber 1283).

Tomorrow: The Viet Minh and the Americans in the summer of 1945


My Grandpa, Baseball, & Democrats

My grandpa, whom I never had the privilege of knowing, was a staunch Republican. He ran a modest country store during the Great Depression and war years in Sarver, PA. All summer long he would have the radio on listening to Rowsey Rowswell call the play-by-play for his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates. (I have to lament a little here. My mother talks about all of the baseball cards that she had from the store throughout the 1940s. She admits they must have been thrown away. I shutter to think about it.)

When the country store talk eventually found itself in the political arena, my grandpa would be sure to show his displeasure for Roosevelt, and you have to admit, 12 years of FDR and the Democrats would have given the Republicans plenty to complain about.

By 1946, my grandpa would have plenty more to complain about. The Pirates went 63-91, setting off on 12 years of mostly futile play. After the 1952 season when the Pirates were an unbelievably horrible 40-112, it must have been quite the consolation for him when Ike won the presidency in November, putting the White House back in control for the first time since Hoover handed over the reins to FDR in March of 1932.

But I bet he would have traded the White House for a pennant.

The 1953 Pirates lost 104 games. The 1954 Pirates lost 101. At least he could read about Ike’s golf scores in the paper.

By the end of the 50’s, things were looking up for the Pittsburgh franchise. They had a winning season in 1958, and after stumbling back in 1959, were poised to compete for a pennant in 1960. There was another competition on the horizon, however. Nixon vs. Kennedy for the White House.

My grandfather, the WASP that he was, could not fathom a Catholic in the White House – and the prospect of a catholic Democrat made it all the more sinister.

But baseball took center stage first in the fall of 1960 – and what a fall it was! The Pittsburgh Pirates entering their first World Series in 33 years – a rematch of the 1927 series versus the dreaded New York Yankees.

That was a series for the ages, and my grandpa, who suffered through decades of bad teams, was finally rewarded when Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off, series winning home run in the bottom of the 9th inning at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field to do the impossible – beat the Yankees and win the series.

A month later, fortunes were not as favorable for my grandfather as Kennedy squeaked by Nixon in one of the closest elections of all time.

My grandfather died of a heart attack the next day. My mother says he couldn’t have taken it – having a catholic Democrat in the White House.

But he had satisfaction before he passed on. He saw the Pirates win, and perhaps that was enough.

Essay: A Historical Overview of Vietnam from WWII through the Vietnam War

From time to time, I like to post complete essays of mine which touch upon topics near and dear to my heart. If you know me, you won’t be surprised that this one is about Vietnam. I try to give a broad overview of the historical context which led to the Vietnam War of the 1960s. To do so, one has to start at the broader context of French Indochina and World War II. Then I try to analyze useful historical approaches to this topic. I’d appreciate your feedback.

The legacy of the Vietnam War continues to resonate loudly today especially in the shadows of the war in Iraq. The war of 1963-1975, which so vividly helped to define a generation, had its roots in the post World War II power vacuum caused by the defeat of the Japanese and the collapse of the French colonial infrastructure.  This enabled the United States to take a foothold in Indochina which would have broad consequences in the following decades.  In this short paper, I will give an overview of US involvement in Indochina during the two decades prior to the Vietnam War.  I will then discuss the type of historical theory or approach which may be most useful when researching this topic.

In the early months of 1945, the Allied forces saw the European Theatre coming to a close, but a peaceful ending to the war in the Pacific remained anything but certain.  The death of US president Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945 cast a cloud of doubt over the future status of the European colonial territories of Southeast Asia.   Roosevelt was a harsh critic of European colonialism and had no desire to see the French, in particular, reclaim Indochina after the war (Abouzahr 50). Even the communist led Vietnamese independence group, the Viet Minh, lamented Roosevelt’s death as a blow to the anti-colonial cause (“World News”).  Yet even with Roosevelt’s passing, America was determined to use all forces and tools at their disposal to fight against the Japanese who had imposed their suzerainty over most of the region.

After some initial contacts between the Viet Minh and the Allied forces in southern China, the US sent some officers from the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh headquarters in Tan Trao one hundred miles north of Hanoi (Marr 286).  The OSS officers spent several weeks training Viet Minh forces (Marr 364).  Six days after the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, the Viet Minh received word of Japanese surrender and celebrated with the Americans remaining in camp (Marr 368).    A week later as Ho Chi Minh and his cadres trekked to Hanoi for the first time to fill the void in the political vacuum left because of the Japanese surrender, he was accompanied by some of those OSS officers who even dined with the enigmatic Vietnamese leader in Hanoi (Marr 488).  On September 2, 1945 as Ho Chi Minh delivered Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence, American officers stood with the swelling crowd which nearly seemed like an American endorsement of the ceremony (Marr 538).  However, relations between the Vietnamese and Americans would never seem so close again.  In fact, official US policy at the time was to ignore Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence in favor of supporting the French claim on Indochina (Latham 29).

At the closure of World War II, the Truman administration had very little regard for the small colonial countries of Southeast Asia and did not at all question France’s sovereignty over Indochina (Previdi 146).   Truman was completely in support of France’s desire to reclaim their Indochinese possessions, and he even had US war ships carry French troops back into southern Vietnam within weeks of Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence (Marr 545).

By the end of 1946, Ho Chi Minh realized that coming to peaceful terms with the French over the make-up of Vietnam was impossible, and on December 19, 1946 from a cave on the outskirts of Hanoi, he broadcast the call for a war of resistance against the French.  This war became known as the French-Indochina War.   The US strongly needed France’s support of the Marshall plan in Europe to rebuild the war torn countries and stop the tide of encroaching communism (Abouzahr 49).  While the Marshall plan did not directly support France’s war efforts in Indochina, the billions of dollars they did receive enabled them to free up resources that otherwise would not have been available in their war effort (Abouzahr 50).

The US, however, was not totally content with France’s aims in Indochina.  The US wanted the French to grant Vietnam enough autonomy that would shift public opinion away from Ho Chi Minh (Abouzahr 50).   Some US officials wanted France to be given an ultimatum to either grant Vietnam their sovereignty or risk losing US aid (Abouzahr 51).   The French countered with their ‘Bao Dai solution’ which granted Vietnam independence with former emperor Bao Dai as head of state.  However, in reality, France still called the shots and Bao Dai had little power in his own country (Abouzahr 52).  But this tactic did seem to set up a significant situation which would be played out over the next few years.  Bao Dai’s government was a legitimate alternative to Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam which still operated in exile from the hills of northern Vietnam.  These two governments were locked in a power play which would come to its head at the Geneva Conventions of 1954.  The ‘Bao Dai’ tactic also seemed to placate the Americans who, by the early nineteen fifties, were bankrolling nearly eighty percent of France’s war effort in Indochina (Umetsu 398).

By spring 1954, the long French-Indochina War continued to rage.  France’s will to fight was wavering as French public opinion soured toward the war (Umetsu 400).  The US wanted the French to continue fighting until a military solution was accomplished so that the states of Indochina could become independent and foment indigenous support against the communist cause (Umetsu 401).  As the western powers moved toward an international conference in Geneva to settle the issue of Indochina, Ho Chi Minh’s forces moved against the large French army which had dug itself into the remote valley of Dien Bien Phu in northwestern Vietnam.  Against overwhelming odds, Ho Chi Minh’s forces methodically dissected the valley bringing complete French surrender on May 7, the day before the opening of the Indochina phase of the Geneva Convention (Umetsu 411).  The Vietnamese had their signature victory and the communist forces could no longer be brushed aside.  The Vietnamese came to the bargaining table from a position of strength which eventually shifted US policy and led to the division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel.  The north would be controlled by Ho Chi Minh’s communist government and the south by the French supported and soon to be American backed Republic of Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem.  Elections to re-unify the country were scheduled to take place in 1956.

The reunification elections never took place.  The US believed that the popular anti-colonial figure Ho Chi Minh would easily win the election (Latham 29).  The US decided to invest heavily in ‘nation-building’ in South Vietnam in order to build a strong economy and a legitimate government (Latham 29).  The US spent $1.65 billion dollars in South Vietnam between 1955-1961 yet did little except alienate the South Vietnamese public (Latham 29).  In the north, Ho Chi Minh’s government used land reform as a means of collectivizing the land which resulted in an unpopular land policy which bullied former landowners and allowed no resistance to their policy (Duncansan 51).  However, South Vietnam’s land policy was little better if not worse.   The Saigon government did little to rectify large discrepancies in wealth by allowing families to own up to 100 hectares which was nearly 30 times the maximum allowed under other US-advised land reform programs in Asia (Latham 29).  This meant that poor families with no land remained at the whim of the land owners who often rented land at exorbitant rates.  This is perhaps one reason that the Vietnam communist’s infiltration into the south was so successful later on because peasants had nothing to lose and possibly a lot to gain by supporting the communist cause.

To further exacerbate the widening gap between US policy and the average peasants, the US backed South Vietnamese government set up the Strategic Hamlet Program by relocating peasants in places which Diem called ‘prosperity and density centers’ (Latham 34).  It was really a disastrous move in social engineering.   Many peasants were forced to leave their homes often at gunpoint (Latham 35).  As I have spent many years in Vietnam, I understand clearly the Vietnamaese concept of “que” or “homeland”.  It is the sacred place of their ancestors which gives them their connection to the past.  There is little else which could incite such anger and hatred in a Vietnamese heart than to drive them forcefully from their home.  US planners thought that these strategic villages, complete with a security force and government provided provisions, would help replace traditional family loyalties with loyalties to the state (Latham 34-35).   This was clearly a grave miscalculation. The US nation building plan was a disaster which led a repressive environment (Latham 36).    By 1963, Diem’s government was such a failure that the US supported a coup d’état to overthrow Diem weeks before John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 (Karnow 293-294).   Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson believed that Vietnam’s social engineering would not be possible without US troops on the ground (Latham 37).  Thus, without a complete change in US policy, war with the north seemed inevitable.

I would now like to look briefly at the historical methodology used in some of the literature on this topic.  The first temptation a historian would have when analyzing this era would most likely be to give it a political treatment.  The massive volume of larger than life figures from FDR to Johnson, from Truman to JFK, from Ho Chi Minh to Ngo Dinh Diem, from Charles DeGualle to Vo Nguyen Giap, give the researcher quite a range of characters in which to build a fascinating narrative.  David Marr did it brilliantly in Vietnam 1945 when he captured the post World War II struggles of the fledgling nation of Vietnam (Marr). Stanley Karnow also gave this era a thorough political overview in Vietnam: A History as he weaved stories of US & French policy against the backdrop of the Vietnamese struggle for independence (Karnow).   William Duiker defied some of the conventional wisdom of historical study by putting together the most exhaustive, and authoritative biography of Ho Chi Minh.  Ho Chi Minh is such a striking and overwhelming figure that the biography works on many levels.  His life touched upon so many facets of the entire Indochinese story from the USA to France, from the Soviet Union to China and Vietnam that this biography is thorough and important in scope (Duiker).

Besides the tendency to focus on political history, Marxist theory would be especially helpful when looking at divided Vietnam after the 1954 convention.  Northern Vietnam collectivized society in such a way that it ripped the social fabric in two.  Dennis Duncanson describes this vividly in the article “The Legacy of Ho Chi Minh” in which he describes the gap of economic ideas which Marx and Lenin left to Stalin to define.  Stalin’s ideas eventually led its way to China’s Mao and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh (50).  This economic restructuring affected every facet of Vietnamese life from the 1950s to the 1990s.  It is in this breadth of scope that Marxist theory would be successful in dissecting the communist state apparatus which controlled Vietnam.  Latham does a similar thing defining the societal changes that took place in the south in “Redirecting the Revolution?” He looks at how US policy was implemented on the local level, disrupting the lives of peasants and sending them into the arms of the communists (Latham). On this micro-level, Marxist theory would be helpful in understanding the totality of Vietnamese societal change.

One temptation that I have when looking at this topic is to read into the scenarios and play the ‘what if’ game.  What if FDR didn’t die?  What if Truman decided not to back the French and supported Vietnamese independence in 1945?  What if the French chose a Buddhist instead of Catholic to lead the south?  What if elections in 1956 were allowed to go forward?  There are so many seemingly connected parts to the puzzle that it makes one wonder how the Vietnam War ever really did come about.  As tempting as this game may be, it is most likely not useful to try to find an overriding theme or purpose by trying to directly connect the dots between 1945 Indochina and 1963 South Vietnam.  As Abouzahr reminds us, “Given the complexity of the issue such as the Indochinese Wars, it seems unlikely that a clear pattern of cause and effect can exist” (49).  This is perhaps the clear reminder to all to approach Vietnam with a heavy dose of historicism.  We must describe as accurately as possible what led to the Vietnam War, but we must be careful not to make too much out of the missed chances of diplomacy.

Works Cited

 Abouzahr, Sami. “The Tangled Web.” History Today 54.10 (Oct. 2004): 49-55.

Duiker, William J.  Ho Chi Minh: A Life.  New York: Hyperion, 2001.

Duncanson, Dennis. “The Legacy of Ho Chi Minh.” Asian Affairs 23.1 (Feb 1992): 49-65.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991.

Latham, Michael E. “Redirecting the Revolution? The USA and the Failure of nation-

building in South Vietnam.”  Third World Quarterly 27.1 (Feb 2006): 27-41.

Marr, David G. Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power.  University of California Press.

Berkeley: 1995.

Previdi, Robert. “Vietnam 1945 to 1975: Communism on Display.” Parameters: US Army

War College 33.3 (Sep. 2003): 146.

Umetsu, Hiroyuki. “Australia’s Response to the Indochina Crisis of 1954 amidst the Anglo-

American Confrontation.” Australian Journal of Politics & History 52.3 (Sep. 2006): 398-416.

“World News.” Bao Chi Viet Nam Doc Lap 14 April 1945.

History: Did you know?

Today’s topic: Harry S. Truman.  Here’s a paragraph I wrote about him which emphasizes his inexperience when he assumed the office of the Presidency on April 12, 1945.

Truman had served as Vice President for only a matter of weeks before Roosevelt’s death. His senatorial background gave him limited experience in the realm of foreign affairs, and Roosevelt did not include the new V.P. in important matters of state during the nascent hours of FDR’s fourth term.  In fact, Truman had been excluded from most executive branch conferences on foreign policy, leaving him to gleam his knowledge of world events mostly from reading newspapers and listening to Capitol Hill chatter (Donovan xiv).  When he became president, Truman did not know about the Manhattan Project (Bradley 103), and had not been informed of what Roosevelt had said at the meetings in Tehran and Yalta earlier in the year (Donovan 10).  He entered the Presidency as a neophyte in foreign policy with no experience in the art of negotiating (Donovan 10), and he brought with him a new Secretary of State, James Byrnes, who also had little foreign policy training (Donovan 17).  This lack of experience, coupled with Roosevelt’s confusing and often contradictory foreign policy, presented Truman with great challenges as his administration tried to bring closure to two wars while balancing world peace.