AUGUST   2020


Friday, September 03, 2010


I am surprised that nobody in Nebraska got shot during the winter of 1890-91. In fact, a few people may have; it just probably never made the papers. On Tuesday November 4, 1890, the Republicans and Democrats spilt seven seats in the state senate and forty-six seats in the house. But every other seat, eighteen in the senate and fifty-four in the house, went to a third party, the so called “hogs in the parlor”, the People’s Independent Party. And the presence of that third party set the entire state on fire.
This alliance of destitute farmers as the Independent Pary was the political response to decades of corruption and corporate influence peddling, and a drought not equaled until the dust bowl of the 1930's. According to one Republican observer the hayseeds envisioned the world as a combination of a Victor Hugo plot and a Baptist revival meeting. And indeed, when the Nebraska legislature convened in joint session in January of 1891 things went from melodramatic to down right absurd.
To begin with, the new speaker of the House, farmer Sam Elder, decided he was going to bypass the acting President of the Senate, Republican George Meiklejohn, who was also the lieutenant-governor, and preside over both houses of the legislature by himself. His plans for a grand investigation of election fraud and a remaking of state government were derailed when Meiklejohn grabbed the gavel off the podium refused to return it. There was a shoving, grasping cat fight for the precious totem, which Meiklejohn eventually won. From this point the business of government in Nebraska got very noisy and ground to a halt, all over the issue of the certification of the new governor.
As these things were normally counted, the clear loser had been the Republican candidate L.D. Richards, who received just 68,878 votes. The Democrat, James Boyd, received 71,331 votes, and was, according to county election officials, the winner. But Speaker Elder was certain the actually winner had been John Powers, of the People’s Independent Party. Officially Powers had received 70,187 votes, making him second by a mere 1,144 votes. But Elder believed with good reason there had been 2,000 fraudulent votes cast for Boyd in Douglas County, centered on Omaha, and Elder was pushing for an immediate investigation.
Neither side dared to adjourn. Elder presided from the podium, calling on speakers and announcing votes, while Meiklejohn sat at the clerk’s desk, doing the same, but for other people. Nobody got anything done because nobody could hear anybody else. Sometime after midnight, Elder ordered the doors locked and told the sergeant-at-arms to admit no one without a written pass - from him. Meanwhile, the presumed victor, Boyd, requested an immediate hearing before the state supreme court to require Speaker Elder to immediately certify his election as governor.
Boyd (above) asked for a writ of mandamus (“…a court order that requires another court, government official, public body, corporation or individual to perform a certain act”). His attorney argued his case before three judges of the Nebraska state Supreme Court, and a hearing room crowded with armed angry spectators. After the hearing it was expected that the judges would retire to consider the arguments.
Instead the justices held an immediate huddle and Chief Justice Cobb announced that the weighty issues of freedom and public order and good government were irrelevant. The court had decided that certifying election results was simply a clerical duty and not a matter of choice. Cobb signed the writ of mandamus on the spot. The spectators were so stunned they were frozen. And that was probably the only reason why none of freshly disenfranchised voters in the room started shooting.
The sheriff of Lincoln County, surrounded by deputies, smashed down the locked doors of the state legislature, charged to the front of the chamber and forcefully handed the writ to Speaker Elder. And to everyone’s surprise, Speaker Elder did as the law required. John Boyd was officially declared the official governor of the state of Nebraska. “Thus”, said Judge Bayard Paine forty-five years later, “tragedy was averted in Nebraska statecraft.” Instead, tragedy was converted into low comedy.
The outgoing governor, Republican John Thayer, was the most hated man in Nebraska, the man whose behavior over the past year had been most responsible for the defeat of the Republican Party in the past election. And he now refused to surrender his office, saying he would “hold on to the chair, the seat, and the office of Governor until the cows come home.” While the legislature bickered downstairs, Thayer barricaded himself in the governor’s offices. He called up a company of State militia and local police to stand guard. Having finally taken the oath, Boyd moved into other offices in the state house and dispatched the Lincoln County sheriff (again) to take procession of the executive suites. But this time the sheriff ran up against a militia and the local cops, who refused to surrender. Fist fights broke out.
 On January 10th it finally occurred to the Captain Rhody, in command of Thayer’s little army of 25 men, that he was out on a limb on by himself. Rhody announced to Thayer that “I saluted you for the last time.” He did, and then marched his little army back to their barracks. Abandoned, Thayer surrendered the offices, and Boyd moved in. But Thayer was far from ready to give up.
He hired his own attorney and on January 13th 1891, appealed to the state Supreme Court. His argument was inventive; John Boyd was not qualified to be governor because he was not an American citizen because he had not been born in America. And that made John Thayer the original “birther”.
Indeed Boyd had been born in Ireland in 1834. His family had emigrated to America when he was 14. His father had begun the naturalization paperwork in 1849 but events, both personal and political, had intervened. In 1856 the Boyd family had moved to Nebraska territory and had become involved in business and local politics. And then the Civil War and broken out.
The Boyd family were still residents in 1867 when Nebraska was admitted to the union. But Boyd’s father had never completed the naturalization paperwork. Ergo, argued ex-Governor Thayer, John Boyd was not qualified to be governor of Nebraska. And on May 5th, 1891 the State Supreme Court agreed with him. Boyd was out and ex-governor Thayer was Governor again. The Nebraska governor's office was beginning to resemble a game of musical chairs.
What Thayer had done was a desperate power grab and doomed to failure, if for no other reason than it assured that any Irish Republicans in Nebraska were not likely to vote Republican again in the near future.
More immediatly, Boyd appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their decision was announced by Chief Justice Fuller: “Manifestly the nationality of the inhabitants of territory acquired by conquest or cession becomes that of the government under whose dominion they pass…The judgment of the supreme court of Nebraska is reversed…” It was that troublesome old 14th Amendment again, this time upheld in an 8 to one decision, issued on January 2nd, 1892. Boyd resumed his office on February 3rd of 1892.
But, since the Governor of Nebraska served just a two year term, the antics of Governor Thayer and his political allies had cut Boyd’s term in half. And that is the kind of political victory that only makes sense when figured by the quarterly profit and loss statements of a corporation. And that kind of corporate influence left the citizens of Nebraska up the creek without a paddle for yet another generation.
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Wednesday, September 01, 2010


I believe the decision by the United States Post Office to leap into the 20th century of mail delivery was taken with all the alacrity and planning you would expect from the second oldest and most entrenched bureaucracy in the U.S. government. On May 6, eighteen years into the new century (and 15 years after the Wright Brother's first flight), U.S. Army pilot Major Reuben Fleet was summoned into the office of Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker. There Baker informed the Fleet that, together with the U.S. Postmaster General, he had decided that Major Fleet was to be responsible for setting up the first Air Mail Service between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. Further, the stunned Major was informed that the first plane of the new service would take off from Washington, D.C. at 11:00 a.m. on May 15th, just nine days hence.
Major Fleet was flabbergasted. This is the first he had heard of such an idea. He pointed out to the Secretary that the best plane in the Army’s inventory was the JN-4D, known as the Jenny, which was so underpowered that if you tried to turn the plane without first dipping her nose, the plane would stall.

Worse, the Jenny was a two seat trainer, capable of barely 65 miles an hour and had a range of less than 90 miles. In other words, a Jenny couldn’t reach Philadelphia non-stop from either New York or Washington. The Secretary explained that whatever the difficulties were, they had to be overcome because - and this was the kicker - the Postmaster General, Albert S. Burleson, had already issued the press release. As any military officer in Washington can explain, once the press release has gone out, you are comitted to the policy.
Major Fleet (whose personal motto was, "Nothing Short of Right Is Right") immediately called the Curtiss Aeroplane Corporation on Long Island and ordered the emergency conversion of twelve Jenny’s - replacing the front seat controls with storage for mail bags, changing the 90 hp engine with a 150 hp one, and adding fuel tanks to increase the range. Curtiss promised to deliver the planes to Belmont Park airfield on May the 13th.
But as Fleet overcame each obstacle it seemed two more popped up. Originally he wanted to start the Washington flights out of College Park, Maryland, nine miles north of the capital (and thus saving nine miles on the first or the last leg). But the Post Office insisted on using Potomac Park, on the Tidal basin, (top of the above photo), right next to the middle of Washington, and ringed by huge trees. The Department of the Interior was insistent that not a branch of those magnificent trees be broken. Fleet then asked for six of the most experienced pilots in America to fly the routes.
He got four; plus two political "ringers". The two ringers were Lieutenants James Edgerton and George Leroy Boyle. Both men had just graduated from flight school in Texas (well, almost), and so far their solo flying experience consisted of one cross country flight of 15 miles. In Texas. In fact they had just crossed the country by train in order to get the Washington in time for the first flight. It seems they had received their travel orders before Major Fleet had received his.
On the other hand, Edgerton was the son of a Post Office purchasing agent and Boyle was engaged to marry the only daughter of Interstate Commerce Commissioner Charles McChord (holding the bag). That made both young men poltically if not avionically qualified for staring roles in the Air Mail drama. Major Fleet knew enough about the way Washington worked that he did not argue with their selection. So, after leaving instructions for the surreptitious removal of one particularly pernicious tree at the edge of Potomac Park, Fleet left Washington by train with what he judged were his best five pilots, headed to Long Island to pick up the planes. Fleet left his sixth pilot, Lt. Boyle, in Washington to entertain the lovely Miss McChord, and presumably, Comissioner McChord as well. Frankly, after having read the young man's record, and having met him, that was the assignment for which Major Fleet figured Lt. Boyle was best qualified.
At the aerodrome inside the Belmont Park race track Major Fleet found his modified Jennys had been delivered as promised – but still in their crates. The mechanics and pilots spent the next two days desperately throwing the required six planes together. Two newly assembled Jennys were flown to Philadelphia. Two more planes were ready to go from Belmont. And early on the fifteenth, Fleet, exhausted and bone weary, flew the last plane assembled (Number 38262) from Philadelphia to Washington, landing at Potomac Park at 10:35 a.m., with barely twenty-five minutes to spare before the 11:00 a.m. takeoff deadline, as per the previously released press release.
The First Lady and President Woodrow Wilson, his hand still wrapped in a bandage, arrived. The previous day Wilson had rested his hand on a cannon barrel still hot from having fired a salute. Franklyn Roosevelt, the under-Secretary of the Navy, arrived, as did the Postmaster General and the Secretary of the War. The makeshift airfield was filled with brass and political heavyweights. But where was Lieutenant Boyle? Fleet had just about decided to take the flight himself when a voice from the crowd boomed out confidently, “Never fear, because Boyle is here.”
Forward stepped the cocky young Lieutenant George Leroy Boyle (left), looking like a young Jay Leno, and followed by the lovely Margaret McChord, carrying a dozen roses she had gotten from somewhere. Boyle bravely tolerated the distribution of commemorative watches and nobly posed for offical handshakes. Then , ignoring the photographers, Major Fleet attempted to coach Boyle on how to follow the railroad tracks north from Union Station. By now the photos of the Lieutenant give the impression of a man prone to motion sickness who has just realized that he has volunteered to be abandoned on a life raft in the middle of hurricane. As he struggled to keep Boyles' attention, Major Fleet was interrupted by a wail of sirens. A mail truck, carrying 140 pounds of First class (24 cent) Air Mail in four bags had arrived.
The photographers were momentarily distracted, getting pictures of the bags being loaded into the Jenny. The noise and excitement did not help Boyles' concentration, and eventually Major Fleet simply taped the road map to the now almost catatonic Boyle’s leg. Boyle was now starting to resemble a hunter on his way to meet a firing squad of well armed pigeons.
There were more photos taken as Boyle climbed aboard the unfamiliar airplane and set the switches to start the engine. A sergeant windmill-ed the propeller three times to pull fuel into the cylinders. Lt. Boyle yelled, “Contact!”, and the sergeant pushed the propeller through again, hard. The engine coughed and died. Twice more Boyle and the sergeant tried to start the engine. But the motor stubbornly refused to engage.
The President was getting annoyed. The crowd was starting to giggle. Boyle was beginning to look as if he might pass out in the cockpit. Finally a sergeant thought to look in the gas tank. It was bone dry. Fleet had been lucky to arrive that morning before he ran out of gas. And no one, admidst all the whoopla, not even the exhausted Fleet, had thought to refuel the plane.
Fuel was borrowed from some planes in the nearby U.S. Naval Yard field (which raises the question why the army was not using their air field) and, 45 minutes late, Lt. Boyle turned his wings into the wind and roared down the open lawn. The crowd held its breath as he just cleared the trees at the end of the makeshift runway, by all of three feet. The U.S. Army was in the Air Mail business; sort of.
Meanwhile the flight from Belmont Park had gotten off on time, and arrived at Philadelphia two hours later. But after waiting for Boyle in Philly for almost an hour, the New York bound Jenny took off without any mail and headed north. When it arrived on Long Island everyone there was so excited they forgot to ask where the mail was. But eventually somebody thought to ask "What happened to Lt. Boyle?" The answer to that question arrived an hour later.
After finally getting into the air, Boyle came to the depressing realization that he could not read a map to save his life, even one taped to his own thigh. He mistakenly followed a branch line of railroad tracks for 20 miles to the southeast from Washington, the approximate opposite direction from New York City. By the time Lt. Boyle had realized his error, he had almost run out of gas. On crash landing near Waldorf, Maryland, the chastized Lt. Boyle flipped his Jenny onto her top.
Boyles’ mailbags were eventually delivered to Philadelphia the next day by another pilot. And thankfully, in a swell of patriotism, the wartime press corps chose to bury the lead of the story. The failure to refuel the plane, and Boyles inability to read a map, went unmentioned. And that should have been the end of that. But the Postmaster General was not inclined to let the story or Lt. Boyle fade into the crowded grey pages of history. Instead the Postmaster General urged Major Fleet to give Boyle another chance.
Which is why, on May 17th, Lt. Boyle took off from Washington, again. This time he was following another (more qualified) pilot, who guided the wandering pathfinder due north out of the national capital and up the four track wide main railroad line toward Philadelphia. Boyle faifully followed the guide plane for fifty miles. But eventually the guide plane turned back. And that was when, finally alone in the air, headed in the right direction, somehow, someway, the dashing but incompetent Lt. Boyle managed to get turned around yet again. All he had to do was not turn. And yet he did. And evidently, he did so almost immediatly. This time Boyle ended up flying for three hours and fifteen minutes the wrong way - due south. Not only could he not read a map, he couldn't read a compass. Eventually he set his ship down succesfully, safely, landing on Cape Charles, on the very Southeastern tip of Virginia, barely avoiding an excursion out over the open Atlantic only because he ran out of fuel first.
Determined not to fail this time, and having missed the Atlantic ocean by a hair's breath and a pint of petrol, Boyle bought gasoline out of his own pocket, got directions from a farmer, took off again and this time actually made it to Philadelphia; well, close to Philadelphia. He crash landed on the Philadelphia Country Club golf course, sheering both wings off his Jenny and bending the landing gear.
When the Postmaster General Burleson asked that Boyle be given a third chance, Major Fleet replied, “The conclusion has been reached that the best interests of the service require that Lieutenant Boyle be relieved from this duty.” And so he was. But it would appear that Lt. Boyd was such an incompetent pilot that he somehow managed to cause the man who replaced him to suffer five forced landings over the next three months. Whatever affliction Lt. Boyle was suffering from, it was catching.
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Sunday, August 29, 2010


I am certain the attack was a total surprise in every way possible. In the south, the Russians came across the mountains and desserts of Mongolia, a path that seemed impossible because they could not be supplied through that line. What the Soviets did was something new, a method the U.S. would repeat in 1989 in Iraq. And as in Iraq the supply problems were over-come by airdrops. Soviet parachute troops captured Japanese airfields far behind the front lines and food and fuel were then flown in, turning them into supply depots for the advancing ground troops. The Soviets were clearly driving toward the city of Changchun, where they would meet the equally successful advance of the Soviet armies from the Far Eastern Front. Those pincers would together isolate the entire Japanese Manchurian Army. And there was nothing the Japanese troops could do to stop them.
For the first time the Japanese Army faced a ground campaign against a mechanized army, with troops hardened by four years of vicious warfare with Nazi Germany. If in 1941 the German soldier was the best in the world, by 1945 it may well have been the Soviet soldier for this type of warfare. In the invasion of Manchuria there were one and a half million of them, pouring into Japanese territory: eighty divisions, five thousand tanks, including 3,700 T-34’s, acknowledged as the greatest tank of the Second World War. The Japanese had never had any tank or anti-tank gun to counter the T-34. And there were almost 4,000 first line Soviet aircraft filing the skies. The Japanese had just 50 , 5 year old zeros left in Manchuria.
The Soviet offensive was violent and smart and merciless, which perfectly matched the personality of its planner and commander, Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky:, the man who had saved Moscow in 1941, and who had actually directed the Stalingrad counter offensive, and who had been planning this invasion since late 1944. He called the operation “August Storm”, and perhaps as a homage to Vaslevsky, American General Schwarzkopf called his 1989 similar operation “Dessert Storm”.
The one million Japanese troops in Manchuria and Korea were not prepared for what hit them. The best troops in the Kwantung Army had already been transferred to the Pacific and Burma meat grinders. They were now either dead or isolated and starving on bypassed islands or jungle outposts. Instead the Kwantung Army now contained a high percentage of new recruits. The units spent their time in drill and chasing guerrillas. The Imperial Staff was convinced that any Russian offensive could not be launched before October. So, they ignored warnings from the local commanders in Manchuria. And when the Soviet tanks sliced through the stunned Japanese border entrenchments on the morning of August 9th, there was nothing behind them to slow their advance.
In just 24 days the Red Army would capture all of Manchuria, make amphibious landings in northern Korea and capture Sakhalin Island and the Kuril islands, then part of Northern Japan. But a large part of this appallingly bad news was withheld from the "Big Six" by staff officers lower down the command chain, in part because they feared their superiors would become defeatist, in part to save their own necks, but mostly because the Japanese communications network had been damaged so badly by the Soviet blitzkrieg that the Japanese military staffs did not know a lot of the bad news themselves
The Japanese commander in Manchuria, General Otozo Yamada, was missing for the first 18 hours of the battle, unable to get back to his headquarters. But the battle developed just as Yamada had warned the supreme command that it would; disastrously.
On August 9th at about 10:30 in the morning Prime Minister Suzuli told the "Big Six" that the Emperor agreed with him; the war must be ended as quickly as possible now that Russia had joined the conflict. The Foreign Minister said he could not accept the American position given in the Potsdam Proclamation, because it would require the removal of the Emperor. (Again, no one in Japan had yet told the Americans that this was the primary sticking point.) Terms to be offered the Americans were still that, one, Japan would disarm herself, two, accept no occupation, and three, that Japan would conduct any war crimes trials of Japanese soldiers, and four, again, the Emperor must remain untouched.
It was all clearly fantasy, and the "Big Six" spent their time this morning arguing these points to be negotiated after the next great bloodbath. They argued until word arrived of the nuclear attack on Nagasaki: so much for the theory that the U. S. had only one bomb. There were now another 70,000 dead (with another 70,000 to follow within days). Still, when the "Big Six" ended their meeting they were still tied, three for continuing the war until Japan could score a "blood victory" against the Americans, and three for immediate surrender.
In fact the U.S. had enough plutonium for several more bombs. The assembly of nuclear weapons was not yet industrialized, but it soon would be. Manhattan Project Commander General Leslie Groves reported to the War Depart that another plutonium bomb would be ready for operations on the 17th or 18th of August and at least seven bombs would be available in time for the invasion of Kyushu, scheduled for September, now just a month away.
The plan was to use the bombs against the island's defenders, to "clear the ground" for American combat troops. But even assuming this worked, and ignoring the likelihood of massive radiation deaths amongst the American invaders, what would have been the cost of such a risky operation?
There were more than one and a half million American soldiers were poised for that invasion. American intelligence services now estimated there were an equal number of Japanese soldiers waiting on Kyushu for the American invasion.
It was assumed during the Second World War that any amphibious invader must have a three to one advantage to ensure victory. Given America's weapon and technical advantages, with one to one numbers, an American victory was still likely. But the casualty rate would probably have been close to the rate on Iwo Jima, where it had been one American for every two Japanese dead; or 1.5 million Japanese dead and wounded, and 750,000 American dead and wounded. Civilian casualties would probably have more than doubled the Japanese numbers. So, the American conquest of the southern half of Kyushu seemed assured., but at levels of death not seen before, even in the bloody Pacific.
That night, the Big Six met again, still tied at three-three. But this time the Emperor in person actually cast his vote, something never done before. The vote was three for continuing the war and four for peace. It would be peace. The next day Mr. Max Grassli, charge d’Affaires for Switzerland, sent to James Byrnes, the U.S Secretary of State, the following cable:.
“I have the honor to inform you that the Japanese Minister to Switzerland, upon instructions received from his Government, has requested the Swiss Political Department to advise the Government of the United States of America of the following:
"...The Japanese Government are ready to accept the terms enumerated in the joint declaration which was issued at Potsdam…with the understanding that the said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler. The Japanese Government sincerely hope that this understanding is warranted and desire keenly that an explicit indication to that effect will be speedily forthcoming….In transmitting the above message the Japanese Minister added that his Government begs the Government of the United States to forward its answer through the intermediary of Switzerland….”   Honestly, it was far past time.
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