...ronald mcdonald has been a mcdonald's mainstay since the 1960s?
McDonald’s probably has one of the most instantly recognisable brands in the world. Since its inception in San Bernardino, California in the 1940s, the fast-food restaurant chain has gained a truly global footprint, with well over 35,000 branches in over 100 different countries. That is pretty impressive.
The Happy Meal, the Big Mac and the McFlurry are just some of the McDonald’s product range. When it comes to advertising the ‘McDonald’s’ brand, the ‘Ronald McDonald’ clown character has been a core feature of its promotional efforts, dating back to the same year that the USSR put the first woman - Valentina Tereshkova - into space. That was 1963! Since Ronald’s debut, the mythical character has had an interesting history. Here are just a few of Ronald’s 'history highlights' ...
1) Ronald McDonald’s early appearances in TV adverts indicated that he was a resident of an imaginary cartoon world known as ‘McDonaldland’, which he shared with the Hamburglar, amongst others. ‘McDonaldland’ landscape cartoons were a regular feature on the walls of McDonald’s restaurants in the 1980s, but these were gradually phased out and often replaced with more sober and corporate style imagery.
2) Ronald McDonald is not the only cartoon mascot for a fast-food burger restaurant chain. Wimpy - who were in direct competition with McDonald’s in North America and Europe in the 1970s and early 1980s - had their very own ‘Mr Wimpy’.
3) Ronald McDonald was a regular visitor to children’s parties across the world in the 1980s and 1990s. Anyone who hosted or visited an event at a McDonald’s restaurant around this time might have been lucky enough to receive a visit from the clown character himself. The author of this article has many such happy memories of Ronald.
While Ronald McDonald remained a pivotal plank of the promotional activities of McDonald’s franchises in the Far East between the late 1990s-2010s, he was far less visible in Western Europe during this time. Indeed, in this geographical area, the chain largely mothballed the character. Ronald did, however, make occasional appearances in Happy Meal toys and promotions from time-to-time. Officially, Ronald McDonald was never retired and he remains a facet of the McDonald’s corporate image to this very day, albeit a less visible one in some areas.
Patrick O'Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
...THAT DONALD TRUMP IS ALMOST, BUT NOT QUITE, THE ‘HEAVIEST’ PRESIDENT IN AMERICAN HISTORY.
Last week, President Donald J. Trump had his annual health check up with physician Dr. Sean Conley. Despite being labeled by Dr. Conley as “...in very good health”, the President had increased his weight by 4 pounds (not quite 2 kilograms) since his last checkup. At 243 pounds, and 6 feet 3 inches, Donald Trump’s BMI index is 30.4. This pushes him into the category of ‘obese’.
Since this is a history blog and not a nutritionist website, the healthiness or otherwise of this information will be left to experts. Having said this, historically-speaking, Trump is a heavy US president. He is, however, not the heaviest. That dubious honor goes to William Howard Taft.
President William Howard Taft
The 5 ft 11 inch 27th president of the United States was well over 350 pounds (nearly 160 kilograms) and had, according to a Forbes article entitled, A History of Fat Presidents, and written by Erik Kain, a BMI of 42.3. Despite the - most likely apocryphal - story of him getting stuck in the bathtub, President Taft was the first President of the United States to be advised by his physicians to go on a diet. With more than a minor penchant for steak, often breakfasting on the delicacy, it should come as no surprise that, even during an era when there was little societal pressure to diet, Taft was thought to be in need of a more ‘restrictive’ daily menu. Incidentally, Taft did die in his bathtub - but one that he had specially installed to accommodate his size. After his death, the media, who had ceaselessly mocked him for the size of his bathtub, became less...mean.
President William Howard Taft's bathtub.
President Taft’s physician, Dr. Nathaniel E. Yorke Davies, hailed from Lanrwst, north Wales, and was the son of the Headmaster at Lanrwst Grammar School. By all accounts, Yorke Davies was something of a nutritionist guru of the age - publishing a number of best-selling books on diet and exercise that captured the imagination of the time. His most popular book was Foods for the Fat: A Treatise on Corpulency. According to a New York Times article, entitled In Struggle With Weight, Taft Used a Modern Diet, the diet as advised by Dr. Yorke Davies, seems to have been such that modern Americans would find much in it that is familiar.
The term ‘obese’ is very much a word belonging to the latter half of the 20th century - it replaced the equally unsettling, ‘corpulence’. According to the previously cited Forbes article, A History of Fat Presidents, the list of ‘Great Presidents’ as adjudged by Arthur Schlesinger Jr, seems to suggest that the corpulence of presidents is actually something of a boon to their historical ‘greatness’. Prior to the election of Donald J. Trump, the most ‘obese’ presidents were (in descending order) Taft, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Zachary Taylor, then Theodore Roosevelt. According to the BMI, President Trump would bump McKinley into fourth place.
Taft enjoyed a ride.
Dr. Elliott L. Watson
...THAT NAGASAKI WAS NOT THE ORIGINAL TARGET OF THE SECOND ATOM BOMB IN JAPAN.
Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki. (US gov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
At 8.15am on August 6th 1945, a B-29 Superfortress from the 393rd Bombardment Squadron called the Enola Gay - named after the mother of its pilot, Paul Tibbets - released a bomb carrying 64kg of uranium 235. After just under 45 seconds of freefall, Little Boy - this was the name of the atom bomb - detonated at 580 metres above the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Close to 80,000 civilians died instantly.
When the Japanese Imperial Army refused to capitulate, a meeting on the US-controlled Pacific island of Guam, including such military luminaries as General Curtis Lemay and Rear-Admiral William R. Purnell, was convened to determine the next move. With no Japanese surrender forthcoming, the ‘next move’ was adjudged to be the dropping of a plutonium-based weapon, codenamed Fat Man (named by Robert Serber of the Manhattan Project after a character in The Maltese Falcon) over the city of Kokura. Kokura, in the south west of Japan was, incidentally, the secondary target had Hiroshima been cloud-covered on the 6th of August. Now it was the primary target.
'Fat Man' being sprayed with plastic on the island of Tinian
At just after 3.45am on the 9th of August, another B-29 Superfortress - this time named Bockscar - took off from the island of Tinian in the Pacific Ocean, loaded with Fat Man, and headed towards the Kokuran military arsenal. After rendezvousing with support planes above Yakushima Island, Bockscar flew onto Kokura. For a good portion of the final months of the war in the Pacific, the USAF had been firebombing the mostly wooden cities of Japan in the hopes of causing such terrible civilian casualties and damage to property that the High Command would be forced into surrender. During the previous day, American bombs had set fire to the nearby city of Yahata. The smoke that continued to billow from the city obscured the primary target of Kakura such that, despite three bombing runs above the target, the Bockscar could find no opening in the cloud cover. As a result, the secondary target was selected. Nagasaki, and not Kokura, would bear the brunt of history’s atomic age.
B-29 Superfortress, Bockscar. (ASAF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Two minutes before any clock in Nagasaki struck 11am, Fat Man fell from Bockscar. 43 seconds later, one gram of matter (from the 6.19kg of plutonium) was converted into heat and radiation 500 metres above the ground. Approximately 40,000 Japanese people died almost immediately. The number of deaths would have been far higher had it not been for the mountainous topography of Nagasaki which helped shield some residents from the blast. As it was, tens of thousands died from leukaemia and other radiation-related illnesses, as well as the fires that raged long after.
Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima(Hiromichi Matsuda (松田 弘道, ?-1969) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Dr Elliott L. Watson
On 4 July 1776, the Thirteen Colonies of British North America withdrew their allegiance to King George III in the Declaration of Independence. The fighting that ensued between the British and the American Patriots was bitter, costly and was considered to be a ‘civil war’ by the British. Hence, no British Army regiment was ever awarded battle honours for their role in the conflict. The American Revolutionary War rumbled on until 25 November 1783, when the final remnants of the British Army were evacuated from Manhattan, New York.
However, while the Declaration of Independence accuses the British King of establishing an “...absolute Tyranny over these States”, you may be surprised to learn that six of the original thirteen colonies of British North America took their names from British monarchs.
Therefore, in a sense, the connection between America and its former monarchy lives on (in name only), some 243 years after independence.
Patrick O'Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
...president Harry s. truman didn't have a middle name.
My name is Elliott L. Watson. My middle initial is L. and it stands for Lowther. The 33rd President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, had a middle initial and it was S. This middle initial stood for...S. Yes, S. By rights, there should be a second full stop (period) after those two S’s because not only do they come at the end of two separate sentences, they are also mandated by the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual to come with their own full stop (period). Confused? Just wait.
When Harry Truman was born he was to be given, like many of us, a middle name. His grandfather on his mother’s side was called Solomon Young; his grandfather on his father’s side was called Anderson Shipp Truman. Young Harry’s parents knew they would name him after one or the other but couldn’t decide immediately after his birth and, as a result, merely wrote his middle initial as ‘S’ on the register until a decision could be made. That decision was never forthcoming. Consequently, the future president went through life with a middle initial but no middle name.
Harry Truman was adamant that his middle initial be followed by a full stop (period), despite it not being short for anything. Whenever he signed his name - from boyhood to manhood - he deliberately and clearly nailed a full stop (period) to the space directly after his middle initial. The only exceptions to this were when he signed his name using a single stroke of the pen. Because of Truman's emphatic punctuation, and for reasons of consistency, the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual decided that all governmental documenting of President Truman’s middle initial must carry the S followed by full stop (period).
What’s in a name? In Harry S. Truman’s case, nothing. Apparently.
Dr. Elliott L. Watson
Serena van der Woodsen - the teenage socialite from New York's 'Upper East Side' - is one of the lead characters from the television series Gossip Girl. In many ways, Serena personifies the ‘NYC dream’: young, wealthy and fashionable. Serena’s surname suggests that her family are of Dutch extraction. Her family supposedly own a New York-based haulage firm that dates back generations, with her father’s side of the family having arrived in America from the Netherlands in the 19th century. Thus, the choice of surname for the ‘Serena’ character was no mere coincidence. Many Dutch migrants made their way to the New World and the Dutch legacies in New York are well established. Moreover, several Caribbean islands are Dutch-speaking, such as Curacao, Aruba and Sint Maarten. In 1664 New York was taken by the English and renamed in honour of the Duke of York (who would go on to become England’s last Catholic King, James II). Prior to this, New York was known as New Amsterdam and was an integral part of the Dutch overseas empire. As a result, many places in New York have names which date back to the Dutch era. Harlem, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Manhattan - all these names are a living legacy of New York’s ‘Dutch’ past.
NYC is well-known for its array of elite, wealthy families with Dutch surnames, a context into which the producers of Gossip Girl undoubtedly tapped when they created the ‘Serena’ character. There have been American Presidents of Dutch lineage, including Martin Van Buren, Warren Harding and both of the Roosevelt’s. Each of these Presidents can trace ancestry back to Dutch migrants who landed in the New World in previous centuries. Whatever the backstory to the Serena Van Der Woodsen character, her inclusion highlights the occasionally overlooked contribution that Dutch settlers made to the development of America and her history.
Please let me know if you have any feedback or comments!
Patrick O'Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
Co-Editor of Versus History
Malcolm X was one of the most enigmatic characters of the twentieth century. For most of his public life, he was a committed member of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm was born in 1925 and died in 1965, just before his 40th birthday. Between 1952 and 1964, Malcolm X was an active and prominent member of the so-called ‘Black Muslims’, serving as the National Spokesman for Elijah Muhammad’s religious and social movement. For a time, he was a close friend of boxing champion and fellow Nation of Islam member Muhammad Ali. This was a successful period for the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X. As Herbert Berg argues:
“From 1955 to 1959, Elijah Muhammad sent Malcolm X to various cities to hold rallies and help establish new temples. Malcolm X helped found numerous new temples and increase membership dramatically. That is not to suggest that Malcolm X was single-handedly responsible for all these temples and converts. However, the growth of the Nation of Islam coincided with his ministry: in 1945 there were but four temples, a decade later there were fifteen, and by 1960 there were fifty” (Herbert Berg, 2009, Elijah Muhammad and Islam)
By the time Malcolm X officially left the Nation of Islam in March 1964, he had less than a year to live before he was to be assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan on 21 February 1965. In that time, Malcolm established a secular political group, the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), as well as a small religious group, Muslim Mosque Incorporated (MMI), while spending much of the final year of his life abroad in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Both of the groups established by Malcolm X after his split from the Nation of Islam folded shortly after his death. In chronological terms, therefore, Malcolm spent the majority of his public life - some twelve years - promoting and advocating for the separatist religious vision of Elijah Muhammad. Given that Malcolm X spent just one year outside the Nation of Islam before his assassination and some twelve years as a leading member of that organisation, it is within the aegis and paradigm of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam that we find many of Malcolm X’s more 'tangible' achievements during his lifetime, rather than the OAAU and/or the MMI.
However, Malcolm X’s energetic contribution to the Civil Rights Movement and his significant impact on the Black American community cannot be accurately gauged by the yardstick of chronology alone. Moreover, Malcolm X's role was not solely limited to popularising the Nation of Islam’s religious creed. Malcolm’s wider intellectual contribution to the black diaspora and the Civil Rights Movement was seismic. The author of Malcolm’s most celebrated biography, Manning Marable, has claimed;
“He keenly felt, and expressed, the varied emotions and frustrations of the black poor and working class. His constant message was black pride, self-respect and an awareness of one’s heritage. At a time when American society stigmatised or excluded people of African descent, Malcolm’s militant advocacy was stunning. He gave millions of younger African Americans newfound confidence. These expressions were the foundation of what in 1966 became Black Power, and Malcolm was its fountainhead.” (Manning Marable, 2011, Malcolm X; A Life of Reinvention)
Intriguingly, Malcolm X was dead before the Black Panthers were established. He was dead before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came into effect. He was also dead before the famous ‘Black Power’ salute at the 1968 Olympic Games took place. However, the legacy and influence of Malcolm X outlived Malcolm X himself, perhaps gaining a posthumous momentum and allure. Much of Malcolm’s philosophy, worldview and influence permeated the many movements, groups and individuals that followed him in the quest for black equality. While Malcolm X himself did not create the ‘Black Power’ phrase and was not alive to witness it become part of the lingua-franca of the Black American community, his role as an architect of the 'Black Power' movement cannot be denied. More recently, Malcolm X's legacy has inspired countless artists, individuals and movements which is a testament to his enduring impact. Musicians from across the world such as Beenie Man, KRS One, Durrty Goodz, Jeezy and Public Enemy have mentioned Malcolm X in their music. In the 1990's, 'Malcolm X' the movie was a 'Spike Lee' epic and the autobiography by Alex Haley continues to flourish in both print and electronic formats. Today, there is a 'Malcolm X' Boulevard and a market bearing his name in Harlem, New York.
The message is therefore loud and clear; Malcolm X continues to inspire and influence people long after his life was abruptly terminated, proving that the chronology of his life alone cannot contain him.
Thanks for reading - feel free to get in touch to discuss!
Patrick O'Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
Co-Editor Versus History
The New Deal: Three lessons on the malleability of significance
Students of history are often charged with determining the significance of events, issues and people. The New Deal offers a wonderful opportunity to delve into the many ways that significance can be determined, assessed, and deployed.
In March 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took control of the White House from Herbert Hoover. FDR was a man born into a wealthy New York family and was as close to an aristocrat as you were likely to come across in interwar America. He held public office almost unceasingly from 1910 (when he became the Senator for New York) until his death in 1945 whilst serving as President. Hoover was a self-made man, beginning his career as an engineer and developing himself into a very successful businessman. He entered public office as the head of the US Food Administration during the First World War, creating a name for himself as a global humanitarian. As Secretary for Commerce during the 1920’s, Hoover was known for his dedication, professionalism and efficiency. A Republican, he served as the 31st President of the United States from 1928 until his humiliating defeat to the Democrat, Roosevelt, in 1932.
Rarely has there been a US presidential election that so starkly illustrated the differences between the modern incarnations of the Republican and Democratic Parties. For the majority of the 1920’s, the central tenets of Republicanism - ‘Rugged Individualism’, a laissez faire approach to economic growth, a fervent (near hysterical) aversion to socialism, and an unwavering belief in the robustness of the American Dream - dominated the economic, social, and political landscape. Three successive Republican presidents, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and then Herbert Hoover, presided over an America that appeared (at least on the surface) to be immune to the normal boom-bust cycles of economic theatre. In fact, in a campaign speech in 1928, Hoover stated that, “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land”. In less than a year, the US stock market crashed and the country entered a period of sustained economic collapse. Roosevelt, a man who, over a decade earlier, had expressed a desire to see Hoover become president, stood against many of the principles upon which Hoover and the Republican establishment - so long the saviours of America after the upheaval of the Great War - had based their policies.
In his campaign, FDR had offered the American people a ‘New Deal’. What this ‘New Deal’ constituted was kept deliberately vague, but it promised something that Hoover and his fellow Republicans (who had naturally borne the brunt of public dissatisfaction over the problems associated with the Great Depression) seemed incapable of demonstrating: action. In his inaugural address on the 4th March 1932, FDR said the following: “This Nation asks for action, and action now”. Whatever the reality of the promises he made and the solutions that he proffered in the build up to the election, the American public bought into them. He beat Hoover in the presidential election of 1932 with 472 Electoral College votes to Hoover’s 59. FDR took around 60% of the popular vote.
The following are three lessons that I have learned through my study of FDR and the New Deal.
The following are three lessons that I have learned through my study of FDR and the New Deal.
The Semantic Lesson: What’s in a name?
FDR and his writers were familiar with, and understood the value of, the post-war print and radio media. Although he was prolific in his campaign movements around the country, personal appearances at rallies would always be restricted by his polio, the size of the US, and the challenges associated with criss-crossing it. The ‘New Deal’ was crafted as a slogan before it ever became a set of principles and policies and it was designed to encapsulate all that Roosevelt offered and all that differentiated him from Hoover and the Republicans.
Economist, social theorist, semanticist and advisor to Roosevelt, Stuart Chase created the modern manifestation of ‘A New Deal’ (although in purely literary terms it belongs to Mark Twain) and essentially offered it to FDR as a piece of semantic perfection that would resonate with the electorate without denoting specific policy stipulations.
Anything ‘New’ meant change and any change meant difference. Any difference meant the opposite of what had come before. The opposite of what had come before could only be better than what had happened, and was continuing to happen in America. In 1932, there were roughly 18 million Americans unemployed (nearly a quarter of those men and women employable). By the end of 1932, most banks were closed or had gone bankrupt. GDP had collapsed to less than half of what it had been before the Wall Street Crash. Whatever it meant in truth, to the electorate it was clear that ‘New’ was a good thing.
The Republicans had spent over a decade reinforcing the truism that an administration’s approach to governance was only successful when that governance was ‘hands off’. Success in all walks of life was due to individual hard work and a steadfast belief in an unregulated private sector. Consequently, when the country went to Hell in a handbasket, the people of America lost faith in those principles of Republicanism which had, for so long, trumpeted self-help over community assistance, as well as government non-intervention. Hoover was labeled (quite incorrectly, in many respects) a ‘do nothing president’, at a time when the people of America were desperate for help. FDR’s New Deal offered that help. In fact, it offered them a ‘deal’ - a partnership. No longer would Americans feel ‘forgotten’ in their time of need. US citizens would no longer feel alone and abandoned because Roosevelt and his administration were ‘in it with them’. Their problems were his problems, and vice versa. Perhaps for the first time in US history, the government du jour would cease to be a remote and unsympathetic entity, it would be an equal partner with, and have an equal investment in, the success and wellbeing of its citizens. One (the government) would be indistinguishable from the other (the citizens). A Deal’s a Deal. Particularly a New one.
The Political Lesson: The difference between success and failure depends upon your vantage point
In the most recent New York Times rankings of ‘Presidential Greatness’ - a poll with a variety of metrics and revisited every four years - Franklin Delano Roosevelt ranks third behind Abraham Lincoln (1st) and George Washington (2nd). Among Democratic, Republican and Independent scholars, his position is unmoved and has remained that way for almost as long as the poll has been going. And yet, and yet...
FDR did not end the problems associated with the Great Depression - he didn’t even come close.
So, how is it that we can judge FDR as worthy of such historical praise, even though it is summarily accepted that the Great Depression evaporated almost as soon World War Two began, rather than because of the impact of the New Deal? The answer (in addition to everything else contained in this post) is simpler than you might imagine: there are always different interpretations of ‘success and failure’. A simple example might be: unemployment during the early days of the Great Depression reached 18 million; by 1939 it was 9 million. A critic would judge 9 million people as an extraordinary number of Americans still unemployed - and thus cite the New Deal as a failure in its ‘primary task’: that of putting people back to work. Others, including FDR himself, would take the same evidence and, using a different vantage point, would turn the same statistic on its head, arguing that the New Deal was able to cut unemployment by 50% in 6 years.
Perhaps another example, should one desire to have another, might be that whereas many countries in Europe began turning to extremist politics for solutions to the economic damage wrought by the worldwide depression - the obvious being the fascist risings in Germany, Italy, and Spain and the tide of communist support pushing into mainstream politics - the United States was never troubled by any such dangers. Even in the UK - the supposed bastion of even-tempered, long suffering souls, Oswald Mosley gained tremendous support for his Hitlerian-style aspirations. Is it fair or right to say that the New Deal was responsible for maintaining America’s resolute adherence to democracy and capitalism? Maybe, maybe not. It depends upon your vantage point.
The Historical Lesson: Precedent is often more important than achievement
As we have just read, the Great Depression and its associated problems still continued, for the most part, unabated until the outbreak of World War Two. If the New Deal did not kill the Depression, then why discuss it at all in terms of achievement?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt won an unprecedented four presidential elections and there is no reason to think that, had he survived, he would not have won a fifth. The 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1951, put restrictions on those looking to hold the office of the presidency, stating that “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice”. This was, without doubt, a response to the tenure of FDR. Though many precedents were set by the 32nd president that were to be followed by others, his four term presidency was not one of them.
Precedent 1: Regulating stock brokers can often be like taking candy from a baby - they may cry, but it’s good for them to understand that overindulgence can lead to problems later.
Prior to the New Deal, regulation of the Stock Market was seen as unnecessary, unwelcome, and dangerous. Consequently, activities that we would consider crimes today (and in truth were crimes that went unpunished then - so called ‘blue sky laws’ were ignored en masse) such as insider trading, manipulating markets, cartels and such, were overlooked and, in fact, often actively encouraged because of the government’s ideological commitment to deregulation. However, after the crash of 1929, many in government (even some Republicans) saw that the stock market required some form of federal control. The Securities Exchange Act of 1934, passed to enforce the Securities Act of 1933, created the Securities and Exchange Commission - more commonly known as the SEC - which was designed specifically to tackle the corruption and lack of transparency of the US Stock Market.
The SEC did much to restore/instill public faith in the way the American stock market would operate and helped to stabilise, in relative terms, Wall Street. However, the achievement of the SEC, bearing in mind its first chief was Joe Kennedy - the wildly successful financial malepractor and prolific breaker of banking laws -, is its existential longevity as well as its value as a precedent that would be followed by governments across the world. The SEC continues to regulate Wall Street to this day and well over half of the world’s countries have their own version.
Precedent 2: Government intervention isn’t always a bad thing
Despite the emergence of the progressive parties and politicians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the American people still remained, until 1933, a people encouraged (if not downright forced) to fend for themselves. The principles of ‘Rugged Individualism’ had dominated North American life for centuries (the products of which were embedded as thoroughly in the political landscape as they were in the physical) but they had recently come to represent the inadequacies of three Republican administrations. As a result, Roosevelt decided early in his presidential campaign that his government needed to look out for the ‘forgotten man’ of America. Hoover once said that “If a man has not made a million by the age of 40, he is not worth much”; FDR, on the other hand, said that government plans must ‘...build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid”.
Roosevelt’s New Deal may very well have failed to rescue the country from the deeper-set problems of the Great Depression, but one thing it did achieve was a general acknowledgement from many within the political establishment, and a keen expectation from many Americans, that government needed to do more to protect its citizens from hardship. It was no longer sufficient for government to create an environment conducive to prosperity, it also needed to provide a safety net for those who were either unable to take advantage of that environment or those who suffered when that environment evaporated. As it did in 1929.
Perhaps the greatest example of the New Deal’s paradigm shift towards the social and economic wellbeing of its citizens can be found in the Social Security Act of 1935. This remarkable piece of legislation introduced federal funding for old age pensions, child welfare, public health, people with disabilities, and unemployment insurance. In this, as well as other New Deal laws, were distilled the essence of the New Deal, and this essence - although not always successful - projected into the future of America. Perhaps ‘Obamacare’ is one of the most recent examples predicated upon the precedent established by the New Deal.
Precedent 3: Presidents must be seen to be doing something
While there is no doubt that Roosevelt was indeed a man of action - his first one hundred days in office were busier in terms of federal and executive action than any that had gone before and possibly after (regardless of President Trump’s assertions) - there is also no doubt that Herbert Hoover worked himself to exhaustion trying to solve the problems of the Depression. However, while there were clear ideological differences between the two men, and these certainly contributed to the outcome of the 1932 election, one of the more immediately recognisable differences (to the detriment of Hoover) was the ‘media savvy’ that one demonstrated and the other catastrophically failed to understand. No matter how hard a president actually works, he must be seen to be working. Hoover never understood the value of appearance - this is why he was labeled the ‘do nothing president’; FDR embraced the media and was, perhaps, the first of the ‘modern’ presidents, inasmuch as he he understood the importance of appearance as well as reality.
Different historians characterise FDR’s relationship with the media using different adjectives: Graham J. White saw in Roosevelt a ‘virtuosity’ in his handling of a press that could not “...cease to admire” him; Leo Rosten, however, believed FDR was more cynical, turning his media charm on and off like a ‘faucet’. None, however, doubt that his relationship with the media was significant in the life of the New Deal. From his 998 press conferences during which crowds of reporters swamped his desk and freely asked their questions - unprecedented in the access they were afforded to the president -, to the famous ‘fireside chats’, whereby the reassuring actions of his government and the optimistic expectations he had of the American people, would be laid out in 31 radio addresses across his four terms, FDR was unlike any other president before him. Even those Americans who were unimpressed by either his policies or the ideology that underpinned them, could not fail to admire the image that he had created for himself through the media - as an energetic and active workman. This cultivated image (warranted or otherwise) is made all the more impressive when we remember that he was confined to a wheelchair for the duration of his presidency. How many photographs have you seen in contemporary newspapers of FDR in his wheelchair? I’ll wager good money that the number is low.
With the advent of television and then social media, the importance of presidential appearance has become almost as important as the work done by the president. There is a strong case to be made that Roosevelt created this Presidency of Appearance.
Dr Elliott L. Watson
Co Editor of Versus History
The War of 1812 is something of a historical anomaly. The very fact that it is named after the year of its commencement is probably a tacit acknowledgement of the lack of enduring traction that it has had in the historical consciousness of its combatants, the British and the Americans. Of these two nations, the War of 1812 has (arguably) had a greater impact and legacy in the United States of America. For Britain, the War of 1812 was, for the most part, an inconvenient sideshow to the primary conflict of the early nineteenth century, the tussle with Napoleonic France. Prior to the convincing British victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the spectre of a potential naval invasion and subsequent conquest by France loomed large in the British national psyche. By the outbreak of the War of 1812 with America, Britain was acutely aware that Napoleon’s ground forces posed a grave threat to the balance of power in continental Europe, even though the prospect of a naval invasion of Britain itself had receded. Therefore, in terms of the British strategic paradigm in 1812, the war with America had to play second fiddle to that with France. It should be remembered that it was ultimately America that declared war on Britain, not the other way around, which is probably revealing in terms of which nation viewed the War of 1812 as most significant at the time.
From the perspective of the newly formed United States of America, Britain’s attempts to regulate its global trade and impress its sailors amounted to an attack on its recently acquired sovereignty and nationhood. HMS Leopard firing on, boarding and subsequently impressing 4 sailors from USS Chesapeake in 1807 could be considered a direct and unabashed attack on America’s small navy and sovereignty. The mantra ‘Free Trade and Sailors Rights’ both fuelled and reflected the sense of grievance felt by some in America towards British actions. In 1812, President Madison authorised the first ever American declaration of war and an invasion of Upper Canada, which had been a British colonial possession since the conclusion of the French and Indian / Seven Years' War in 1763. This invasion marked the first offensive and official action of the War of 1812.
While not intending to be an exhaustive account, here are three key learning points about the War of 1812, which may serve you well the next time you undertake a game of Trivial Pursuit!
1) Many will know and be familiar with the American national anthem, which since 1931 has been entitled the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, written by Francis Scott Key. Some might be surprised to learn that the lyrics of the anthem itself were actually inspired by the intense British naval bombardment of the American Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland in 1814, which took place during the War of 1812. Therefore, the American anthem is actually the story of this British attack on America. Thus, the ‘bombs bursting in air’ were actually fired by the Royal Navy and the fact that in the morning ‘the flag was still there’ is a tribute to American resistance against the overnight shelling of Fort McHenry by the British. Perhaps ironically, a British composer, John Stafford Smith, wrote the melody of the American anthem. Moreover, it was part of a popular British drinking song at the time, with which many a contemporary Londoner would have been familiar in the numerous pubs and taverns of the English capital city.
2) The last time that the American Senate declared war was in 1942, against Romania. However, the War of 1812 is significant because it was the very first time that this had happened in the new nation’s history. Since the War of 1812, the Senate has passed a ‘Declaration of War’ on only ten further occasions in over 206 years. At the start of the War of 1812, the American army numbered only around 5000, relying heavily on the contribution of the state militia to bolster its ranks. Moreover, their Officer Corps lacked vital experience, with many of the revolutionary-era officers having retired. Today, American military personnel are stationed in over 150 countries around the world, highlighting the scope of U.S international involvement. In addition, by 2017 U.S military services boasted nearly 1.3 million trained personnel, with a substantial reserve component in addition to this. Much has changed in the 206 years since the War of 1812!
3) The War of 1812 was the first time that the American homeland was invaded. The White House in Washington D.C was burnt by British troops on 24 August 1814 as a punitive response to American forces burning the British Governor’s residence in York, Ontario. The next major attack to punctuate the consciousness of American’s was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, some 46,357 days later. To conclude the War of 1812, the Treaty of Ghent was signed on 24 December 1814 by British and American representatives. However, whilst the War of 1812 was inconclusive and ended in a draw, there were some significant outcomes. Canada was never to join the United States of America and embrace republicanism; Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of Canada as well as the Queen of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, rather than expanding north following the War of 1812, American expansionism adopted a westward trajectory. By 1840, well over a third of Americans lived to the west of the Appalachian Mountains. Considering that King George III had prohibited settlers in the former Thirteen Colonies from such expansionism in 1763, this represents an important development for the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.’
If you have enjoyed this blog post, you might also fancy checking out the Versus History Podcast on the topic, which can be found here. Thank you very much indeed for reading. If you have any queries, comments, questions or corrections, please do get in touch!
Patrick O'Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
Co-Editor of Versus History
The ‘Tonkin Gulf Resolution’, August 10th, 1964
Our recent Versus History podcast was a fifteen-minute special in which Patrick asked me some quick-fire questions in the allotted time on one of my particular areas of interest. The area of interest that I elected to have questions fired at me upon was American involvement in the Vietnam War.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the Vietnam War. I am very much aware that the term ‘fascinated’ is perhaps wholly inappropriate a verb to employ when discussing an event in which countless numbers of people lost their lives, and one which still carries a present-day legacy of physical and emotional trauma, but it is, to me, the right word to use. It is entirely possible that my fascination was conceived during my early to mid-teens when I would spend school lunchtimes at a friend’s house watching (among a number of movies I wasn’t supposed to watch at such a tender age) the Oliver Stone film, Platoon. The horror of the conflict and the stark and complex differences between the ‘soldiers’ on both sides, as well as the differences between the American soldiers themselves, made for a jarring, unsettling viewing experience.
The more I learned and, later, taught about American involvement in the Vietnam War, the more it became clear to me why it was so, enigmatic. Again, you may think this a terrible choice of adjective to describe an event of such tragedy and horror - and for the most part, you would be correct in your thinking, except that...
Ask yourself this question: When did the Vietnam War begin? Go one further and ask yourself: When did American involvement in Vietnam begin? The enigma that I speak of is bound up in these two questions.
It used to be that wars were a largely formal affair - war was declared, lines were drawn, sides were assembled, and battle commenced. The United States has not issued a formal declaration of war since June 4th 1942, which was against Rumania. Of course, to suggest that the United States has been entirely uninvolved in direct military conflict since 1942 would garner immediate incredulity. However, the fact still stands: the United States Congress (for it is only the legislature which can do so) has declared war ‘only’ eleven times in its history, starting in 1812 against the British, and ending in 1942 against the Rumanians. And therein lies the rub. As historians of conventional wars, we can place our finger on a date in a calendar, or a mark on a timeline and declare with the utmost of confidence, “Here, here is where the war starts!”. With the conflict in Vietnam, we can have no such confidence because we can do no such thing.
US Declaration of War on Rumania, June 4th 1942
All of what we would call modern day Vietnam (as well as many of its surrounding neighbours - often referred to collectively as Indochina) had been colonised and ruled, almost without break, for hundreds of years by various foreign interlocutors - from China, to France, to Japan, back to France, and then - according to most Vietnamese - to the United States. Each subsequent incoming coloniser (for that is how they were most certainly viewed by the vast majority of the people of Vietnam) came into the country immediately upon the heels of the outgoing coloniser. In some cases, the outgoing invader was forced out by the incoming invader. In some cases, the invader was chased out by the Vietnamese themselves. In other cases - one of particular note - the outgoing occupier (a failing France) asked for assistance from someone they hoped would take on some of the burden of ruling Vietnam - the United States.
Since there is no declaration of war to which we can point as the ‘start’ of the war, then the language we employ must shift to accommodate the vagaries of a war without one. The term we generally use in our investigation is ‘involvement’. In many ways this word is a poor substitute for ‘beginning’ or ‘start’ - instead of making things clearer, the new semantic actually makes murkier the already murky water. Ask any Historian to determine the origin of a war, and expect a deep inhalation of breath before they begin. Ask any Historian about the origin of involvement in a war, and you had better tell your husband or wife that you’ll be late home for dinner. The reason? How do you quantify involvement? How do you qualify involvement? By what criteria do you judge involvement? What does involvement even mean? You know what I mean?
Take a deep breath...
Without a declaration of war, at what point would you consider America to be involved in Vietnam? If a president utters public phrases criticising French occupation of Vietnam, does that represent a public investment in the concerns of the country? If a president begins discussing who should rule Vietnam once World War Two is over and the Japanese are defeated, does this constitute American involvement? FDR did both of these things. If American soldiers, including Major Allison Thomas, as part of an OSS (Office of Strategic Services) mission had parachuted into North Vietnam to train Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh guerrillas to help prevent Japanese escape and gather intelligence, would this constitute American involvement in Vietnam? This happened in the dying days of World War Two, under President Truman. In order to guarantee French support in NATO, and to avoid a Cold War power vacuum being created by a French loss in Indochina (who were now fighting the Viet Minh), Truman authorised millions of dollars in financial and military assistance to the French. Would this be considered US military involvement in Vietnam? President Eisenhower gave billions of dollars worth of aid and provided 1500 military advisors to Diem (the leader of South Vietnam) who helped establish the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). He even guaranteed that he would support Diem if he chose not to hold the free elections that had been called for under the Geneva Accords of 1954. Would this be considered involvement? Remember, at this point in time - 1954 - there are no American ‘boots on the ground’. When the French lose at the Battle of Dienbienphu in 1954 and decide to leave Vietnam for good, America already has a financial, military and ideological commitment to the security of South Vietnam. And yet… no war. When JFK, in 1956, gives a speech determining that ‘Vietnam is the place”, is he foreshadowing an increased involvement? When Kennedy becomes the President and increases financial and military assistance, including helicopters and pilot ‘advisers’, authorises the use of Agent Orange and Napalm, increases the number of military ‘advisers’ to 16,000 by 1963, creates the MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam), secretly sends Green Berets, and authorises the Strategic Hamlets Programme, is America involved? Remember, there are still no official US soldiers fighting and there is no Congressionally recognised war. When President Johnson convinces Congress to pass, what was known as, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, authorising presidential discretion in terms of a military response, is America involved? Is it involved at the point at which Operation Rolling Thunder begins, in 1965, bombing the jungles and villages of North Vietnam, dropping more ordinance than was dropped on Europe during the entirety of World War Two in the process? Is it involved when LBJ authorises an escalation of over half a million troops to assist the government of South Vietnam fight against the Vietcong and the Viet Minh? Exhausting, right?
And remember, still no declaration of war by the US Congress.
Thank you for bearing with me. Let me synthesise:
Where does this leave the student of American involvement in Vietnam? It leaves you with an interesting and unique opportunity: you get to choose both the meaning of the word ‘involvement’ and determine the point at which you consider the US to be involved. That’s what is so wonderful about the subject of History: provided you maintain an honest commitment to the evidence, you get to set the parameters of your investigation.
Dr. Elliott L. Watson (@thelibrarian6)
Co- Editor, Versus History