Lines of thought

Single Oh Seven: Licence to fanwank

SPOILERS AHOY for Spectre, Skyfall, Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and possibly for any of the nineteen other canonical Bond films I decide to chuck in

I have a theory.  I haven’t researched it at all, so there might be plenty of other people who have theorised the same thing.  Or there might be stuff out there refuting it, or confirming it.  But it’s my theory, and I’m going to put it here.

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Daniel Craig’s first two James Bond movies, are pretty openly presented as the first two episodes of a trilogy dealing with the discovery and exploration of the top-secret global criminal superconspiracy, “Quantum”; and the end of Quantum of Solace—in which Bond takes Dominic Greene offscreen to interrogate him, and all we learn of that interrogation is when we cut back to Greene afterward and he screams, “Okay! I’ve told you all you wanted to know about Quantum!”—clearly set the third Daniel Craig film up as Bond’s big final showdown with Quantum and whatever shadowy mastermind was running it.

I’ve assumed it was because Quantum of Solace was so underwhelming (in terms of critical response and general narrative dissatisfaction, though certainly not in terms of box office) that the decision was taken to abandon the Quantum storyline completely in Skyfall.  Narratively, Skyfall stands completely apart from its two predecessors, with no mention of Quantum.  Even the characterisation of Bond has been reversed: not only has the first two films’ “Bond is too young, hotheaded, unpredictable and inexperienced” theme been jettisoned, it’s been replaced by its exact opposite, as Skyfall is centred on Bond being too old and past his prime to carry the physical demands of his job.

So here’s my theory.  I think that when the Bond people reacquired the rights to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and the Blofeld character in 2013, they were so anxious to include them in the next Bond film (particularly given how successful Skyfall was at reintroducing elements that have been missing from the series, such as Q, Miss Moneypenny and even the 1960s Aston Martin), they were so eager to include them that they basically just dusted off the abandoned original storyline for the third Daniel Craig film and changed the name “Quantum” to “Spectre”.

This would explain why Blofeld in Spectre is essentially identical, in modus operandi, to Raoul Silva from Skyfall; because Silva would have been originally conceived of as the evil genius masterminding Quantum.  (Silva’s obsession with Judi Dench’s M fits in well here.  One thing the first three Daniel Craig Bonds did very well—I’ve raved about this many times in the past—was their extended exploration of the relationship between Bond and Dench’s M.  The treatment of the Bond–M relationship in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace makes a lot of sense if the plan had always been to subject it to the same deconstruction it gets in Skyfall even when Skyfall hadn’t been intended to be Skyfall.)

This would also explain why it is that Spectre and Blofeld don’t actually seem to have any sort of evil goal.  They have want to link up the intelligence-gathering networks of Britain, South Africa, Japan, China and five other unnamed countries, and have access to the information produced by those networks, but there’s no explanation as to what they want to do with that network that would be so much more horrible than the fact that modernday governments already have access to that information in the first place.  Mounting terrorist attacks on Mexico City, Frankfurt, Tunisia and Cape Town?  Except that those terrorist attacks were staged as a means to get the Nine Eyes network up and running, and once that goal had been achieved, there wouldn’t have been any reason to keep them going.  To avoid prosecution for Spectre’s sex trafficking and counterfeit African drugs programmes?  They seem to be doing a pretty good job of that already, considering that they apparently have already cornered both those huge markets of global crime and yet still no one is even aware that their organisation exists.

(Really, if Bond had been a bit more cooperative with Ralph Fiennes’s M and told him he’d just discovered a secret global crime syndicate who are masterminding the distribution of counterfeit drugs in Africa, M could have saved everyone a lot of time just by saying, “Don’t worry about it, 007; your wife and I already took care of that.”)

There were parts of Spectre I thought worked well.  I really liked the Dia de los Muertes imagery in the opening shot.  Blofeld’s introduction at the Spectre board meeting in Rome was a really brilliant example of “this is how we take a quintessentially 60s cinematic moment and put it on the screen for a 2015 audience”.  The Bond torture scene was genuinely squeam-inducing.

But it was also a clunky film, and its biggest area of clunkiness was its complete lack of a coherent plot.  If that’s because it’s the product of an abandoned storyline that had already been cannibalised for parts in Skyfall, well, that would explain a lot.

Another area of clunk were elements that seemed to have been included as homages or tips of the hat, but that were just tossed into the background, glided quickly past and never mentioned or focused on. For instance, when Mr. Hinx popped out his opponent’s eyes, I could have sworn that he had steel-tipped thumbnails, which I took as a reference to Jaws’s steel teeth; but his thumbs were only onscreen for a second or two, and weren’t shown again, so I couldn’t check.

Similarly, Bond first finds Madeleine Swann at an ultra-exclusive, ultra-luxurious, secluded mental health clinic perched in isolation on a mountaintop in the Austrian Alps, and that has to be a reference to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, right?  There’s no way that everyone involved in the production of Spectre can have been unaware that that’s a major part of OHMSS, particularly considering that OHMSS is not only one of the “Blofeld trilogy” of Bond films, but is also the only other Bond film that ends with Bond resigning from MI-6 and (literally) driving off to spend the rest of his days with the woman he loves?  And yet Dr. Swann’s milieu gets no special comment or focus; it’s just an exotic background like any of the many others that litter the opening acts of Spectre as they do all Bond films.

I’m a huge fan of ambiguous storytelling, but I didn’t find things like this to be ambiguous so much as I did frustrating.  Because they make you wonder if other parts of the movie are also references to previous films, or if you’re just pattern matching and there’s really nothing there.  For instance, when Bond and Dr. Swann arrive at Blofeld’s layer, and Swann finds that Blofeld has left a dress out for her on her bed in her room; Lisa was pretty sure that was a reference to Dr. No.  Or the fact that Bond’s ultimate defeat of Blofeld involves bringing his helicopter crashing down out of the sky over London—there are enough differences between how that’s realised in Spectre versus in For Your Eyes Only that I think it’s kiiiiiinda a stretch to see the two as related, unless Spectre has already been genuinely peppered with all these other moments and images from the previous films.

Anyway, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

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Common knowledge

Last month I wrote at length about the fact that the Soviet Union and Japan, despite being on opposite sides of the Second World Wars, never went to war with each other during the whole time that Russia was at war with Japan’s ally, Germany, or indeed for some time after.  Indeed, the Soviet Union agreed at the Yalta Conference of 1945 to declare war upon Japan no more than ninety days after the end of the war in Europe; Germany ultimately surrendered on VE Day, 8 May 1945 (9 May in Moscow), and Russia duly declared war on Japan on 9 August.  The Russians immediately launched a massive invasion of Japanese Manchuria, and Japan announced its surrender six days later.

(You and I know Manchuria better from maps, as the big honking chunk of China that separates Beijing from Siberia and Korea.)

Japan, of course, was already doomed to certain defeat by this point, and it was just a matter of how much longer—and how many more Japanese and Allied lives—it was going to take before the admitted that.  But as any Russian on the street can tell you, it was the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria that finally tipped the Japanese leadership over the edge and persuaded them to surrender.  Russians know this, because it’s what their history textbooks and their historical novels and films and documentaries all tell them.

Wait, what?

Yeah, we know different.  Because, of course, 9 August was also the day that the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, having already dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August.  We know that it was the atomic bombings that were the immediate cause of Japanese surrender, and that we can feel smugly superior at the Russians being propagandised into thinking that it was their own contribution that was more important.  We know this, because it’s what our history textbooks and our historical novels and films and documentaries all tell us.

You can see my point here, right?

I’m not saying it was the Soviet declaration of war that really made the Japanese surrender, since I don’t know.  I’ve never gone and researched it, since I’ve always been more interested in the European War than the Pacific (even though one of my grandfathers and at least two of my great-uncles received the Burma Star).  I suspect our version is closer to the truth, because I’m aware of the fact that remembrance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still a really big deal in contemporary Japan, whereas I’m unaware of today’s Japanese paying any special commemoration to the invasion of Manchuria.  But I could also be very easily biased because our version is, of course, the version I grew up with, so I’m going to stay carefully neutral.

But mainly, I just want to point this out because it’s the best illustration I’ve so far encountered of how suspicious we should be of things we know for sure because everyone else knows it for sure too.

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(Another Second World Wars instance of this: the guy on the talk page for Wikipedia’s article on the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre who acidly took issue with The World at War’s description of 10 June as a “summer day”, describing it as a “simple and obvious” error because 10 June is supposedly in the spring. He was, one assumes, entirely unaware that it’s pretty much just in North America where people define the seasons as starting three weeks after the rest of the Northern Hemisphere does.)

World Wars Two

I’ve actually seen American history textbooks whose beginning-of-the-unit timeline says right there in print, “WORLD WAR II: 1941–45”. (The odd thing is that those same textbooks have to acknowledge that the war was already going on in 1940 so that they can teach Lend Lease and the Neutrality Act.) I would imagine there are Russian textbooks that say the same thing.  Most Americans, I think, know that by the time the USA joined, the war between Britain, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union had already been raging for years, but we can still shake our head at the insularity of actually telling children in history class that the war didn’t start until America entered in 1941, when it in fact had begun in 1939.

… Or had it? (Dunh dunh duuuuunh.)

I was a teenager when I learnt that Japan and China went to war with each other in 1937.  The expansion of the Asian war in 1941 to bring America and the British Commonwealth in on China’s side pretty closely parallels the expansion of the European war at the same time, with the Soviet Union and the USA being brought in on Britain’s side.  For China and Japan, 1937–45 represents a period of continuous conflict in the same way that 1939–45 does for Britain, Germany and Occupied Europe.  It bothered me that, though the two conflicts merged into a global World War II in December 1941, the name for the pre-1941 Asian conflict was “the Second Sino-Japanese War”, while the name for the pre-1941 European conflict is “World War II”.  English-language histories of the war would include the Phoney War and the London Blitz, but wouldn’t include the Marco Polo Bridge Incident or the Rape of Nanjing.

For a long time it didn’t seem to be such a big deal.  I would’ve liked the pre-41 European war to have its own name, but after Pearl Harbor, they both merged into a single global war, Axis vs. Allies, right?

… Or did they? (Dunh dunh duuuuuunh.)

Lately I’ve been thinking about how Anglo–Americentric it is to consider the Second World War a unified conflict after 1941.  Even leaving aside that there was no coordination between the European Axis Powers and Japan, we can still look at the three major Allied Powers: Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.  One of the Allied Powers specifically.

After 22 June 1941, the war in Europe was fundamentally a war between Germany and the Soviet Union.  In terms of men and materiel involved, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Western Allies’ participation in the war—the North African and Mediterranean theatres, the strategic bombing campaign, the D-Day campaign—became peripheral, and there’s a real sense in which, in terms of the grand strategic outcome of the war, our central contribution was in how much we could handicap Germany’s war effort in Russia.  If the Wehrmacht had taken Moscow, or had won in Stalingrad and crossed the Volga and rolled into the Caucasus, and had been able to transfer its millions of soldiers back to the West, we can’t reasonably expect that we’d ever have been able to dislodge them from Europe.  Even during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944–January 1945, when the Germans pumped hundreds of thousands of additional troops into the Western Front in their last great push to turn back the British and American advance into Germany and knock the Western Allies out of the war, the total number of German troops fighting in the West was still just a small fraction of the number fighting against the Russians in Poland and East Prussia.  That’s part of why four million of the (very roughly) five million German soldiers killed in the Second World War died on the Eastern Front; it’s part of why four hundred thousand Americans and four hundred fifty thousand Britons were killed during the war, but twenty-seven million Soviet citizens were.

Whereas if we look at the Soviet Union in the Pacific War: Russia shared an extensive land border with Japan (the only one of the Three Powers to do so), by way of Korea, at that time an outright Japanese possession, and Manchuria, a Japanese puppet state since 1931; in Vladivostok, the Russians had a naval and air base within easy strike range of the Japanese Home Islands, far closer than anything the Commonwealth or the United States possessed.  The two countries rubbed up against each other so closely that they were literally athwart each other’s supply lines: Vladivostok thrusts into the Sea of Japan between Japan to the east and Korea and Manchuria to the west, while the Trans-Siberian Railway, Vladivostok’s link to the rest of Russia, actually runs through Manchuria.

And yet the Soviet Union and Japan remained at peace with each other throughout the Pacific War.  Indeed, out of deference to the Soviet–Japanese neutrality pact of 1941, the Russians actually interned British and American airmen who landed in Soviet territory after conducting operations against Japanese targets, just as would happen to belligerent airmen who landed in neutral countries like Switzerland or Spain (though the Russians usually permitted interned Allied airmen to “escape” after a given period).

(Someone’s going to mention that the Soviet Union did ultimately declare war on Japan, on 9 August 1945, three months after Germany surrendered and six days before Japan did the same, finally ending the Second World War.  The Soviet invasion of Manchuria of 1945 is an important event, and in fact I’m mentally drafting a blog post about it as I write this, but it had no effect on the outcome of the war on either continent and is irrelevant to the discussion here.)

Both the Soviet Union and Japan materially hindered their allies by refusing to go to war with each other from 1941 to 1945: peace along the Manchurian–Siberian border meant that Japan was freeing up Soviet troops to fight against Germany, while Russia was allowing Japan to divert all its best troops to the south to fight in China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands.

I just can’t see Europe and the Pacific as separate theatres of a single war when one of those theatres saw the Soviet Union locked in a death struggle in the bloodiest and most destructive war humanity has ever fought, while the other saw them remain at peace with the enemy for the duration.  It’s bad historiography.  It assumes that the Anglo–American experience, as the only two powers to conduct a unified war effort over both hemispheres, is the definitive one.

So I’m going to be calling them the Second World Wars.  Like “Napoleonic Wars”, that seems to me a good umbrella term under which to gather several separate conflicts which were clearly very closely related and overlapped considerably, but which did not share unified causes, participants, outcomes or even date ranges.  We acknowledge the separateness of, say, the Peninsular War, the War of the Fifth Coalition and the War of 1812, while also acknowledging how inextricably interlinked they are; we should be able to acknowledge the same thing about the wars in Europe and the Pacific.

The Second World Wars, then, to me include at least four conflicts: the European war of 1939–45, the Asian–Pacific war of 1937–45, the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 and the Winter War of 1939–40. (Wikipedia’s article on the Napoleonic Wars groups the Anglo–American War of 1812 and the Latin American wars of independence as “subsidiary wars” of the Napoleonic conflicts, and I think that’s an excellent way to describe the Spanish Civil War‘s relationship to the war in Europe.)

And I mean, let’s be honest.  We all already think of the Winter War, or the Battles of Khalkin Gol or the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, as part of “World War II”, the cataclysmic period of global upheaval; they’re just not formally included in the definitions of the war itself.  By redefining the Second World Wars as an era rather than as a single conflict, we accord them a status we already know they should possess.

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Getting to yes

A quick problem solving puzzle from the New York Times.

I got it right.  Click the button to read me talking about how I got there, but don’t do it till you’ve tried the puzzle yourself. Please.

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Reading research

“The problem with research,” I tweeted a few days ago, “is that I’ve got a list of at least fifteen books that I don’t so much want to read as want to have already read, right now.

On reflection, I think that’s one of the two problems with research, but more on that in a moment.

It’s not to say that I don’t want to read these books; I do.  Some of them I think are going to be great reads; others will be a slog but will still be about topics I find fascinating.  (Some will be flat-out disappointing, of course.  I had one of those recently.)  But while I am also reading these books for pleasure, centrally I’m reading them to extract information or get a better understanding of something I want to write about.  Holding off on writing about it is a really frustrating feeling.

(Which makes me feel like I should pipe up and say that I don’t have any intention of finishing my research before I start writing; I’m a strong believer that that’s a horrible way to write.  For one thing, your research should never actually be “finished”.  I start writing when I feel I’m ready to start writing, and my research continues apace while I write.  But when I know there’s a lot still out there for me to get a handle on before I can write what I want to write, well, it’s frustrating.)

The other problem with research is that it’s migratory.  There are three or four different things I want to learn about, and the simple act of researching one of them can make me shift interest to one of the others instead.  Right now, I’m reading about the American Federal period.  But that could well lead to me wanting to shift back in time, as I decide to read about the backgrounds of Federal-era statesmen by reading about Colonial America instead.  Or instead maybe it’ll send me across the Atlantic, and I’ll want to research Napoleonic Europe, which had such an impact on Federalist America via things like the Haitian Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase or the War of 1812.  From Napoleon I could well end up going elsewhere in French history—I’ve been meaning to do some reading about Vichy France, for instance, for a while.

So here’s the reading list.  There are books that are higher priorities on here than others; I thought about organising it on that basis, whittling it down or boldfacing the ones I’m either really excited about or feel a really pressing need to tackle before the others.  But then I realised that those priorities change, and the book that I’m thinking, “Oh, I’ll definitely want to read that one after I finish this one I’m starting now,” could, by the time I finish this new one, suddenly find itself way further down the pile.  So instead, here they are organised very roughly by chronology and geography.

The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America by James Axtell

Pitt the Elder: The Great Commoner by Jeremy Black

Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes: French Diplomacy in the Age of Revolution, 1719–1787 by Orville T. Murphy

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox, 1740–1832 by Stella Tillyard

A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings by Stella Tillyard

America at 1750: A Social Portrait by Richard Hofstadter

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands

William Franklin: Son of a Patriot, Servant of a King by Sheila L. Skemp

Benjamin and William Franklin: Father and Son, Patriot and Loyalist by Sheila L. Skemp

Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes by Christopher Hibbert

John Adams by David McCullough

Mr. Jefferson’s Women by John Kukla

Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African by Olaudah Equiano

A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh by Allan W. Eckert

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America by David O. Stewart

The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger

The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio

Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts

Napoleon: His Wives and Women by Christopher Hibbert

The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes: The True Story of a Forgotten Hero in Wellington’s Army by Mark Urban

The Exploits of Baron de Marbot by Jean-Baptiste de Marbot

Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Kate Hickman

The Courtesan’s Revenge: Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King by Frances Wilson

1812: War with America by Jon Latimer

Warships of the Great Lakes, 1754–1834 by Robert Malcolmson

Don’t Give Up the Ship!: Myths of the War of 1812 by Donald R. Hickey

Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna by David King

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans by John Bailey

Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders and Slaves in the Old South by Michael Tadman

American Slavery: 1619–1877 by Peter Kolchin

Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves by Ira Berlin

The Prince and the Yankee: The Tale of a Country Girl Who Became a Princess by Robert N. White

Damn that’s about twice as many as I expected.  And I stopped before I got to the books I recently picked up about gender roles in the American Civil War, or the aforementioned books about Vichy France, because those are just too far down on my priorities list right now.

Damn.

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NO ONE EXPECTS … nope, sorry, wrong time period

I seem to be embarking on a reading kick about the Spanish Civil War.  Right now I’m reading Antony Beevor’s history of the war; then I’m going to reread For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then I’m probably going to read Homage to Catalonia.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, ever since I first came to it by learning about the Condor Legion during my Red Baron phase as a teenager.  (The Condor Legion was commanded by Red Baron von Richthofen’s cousin, Wolfram.)  I got more fascinated when I got interested in the Peninsular War in high school.  I’ve always thought there was a strong parallel between the Peninsular War as part of the Napoleonic era and the Spanish Civil War as the supposed “dress rehearsal for World War II”.  On one level, both wars were vicious, vindictive fratricidal conflicts between Spaniards for the future of their country, but on another, the mightier European powers who were allied with both sides used the wars as a proxy in which to conduct their struggle for the ideological control of the continent.

One thing I’ve always found striking is the apparent invisibility of the war, at least to my demographic group (which I’m defining, here, as North Americans under the age of forty); as one friend said when I talked to her about this, “I’m honestly not sure I knew there was a Spanish civil war.”  (Or as Lisa said when I said I was reading about the Spanish Civil War, “Ooh, was that during Isabella and Ferdinand?”)

Not necessarily that we should all know the Spanish Civil War because of its geopolitical signficance, because, after all, while it’s a significant event in the leadup to the Second World War, it’s not actually the Second World War itself.  There have been lots of wars and, unless they have an interest in history, most people aren’t going to know very much about very many of them.  Though I do find it odd that most people apparently haven’t even heard of the name of the war, this war in which, after all, twenty-five hundred Americans, twenty-five hundred Britons and between one and two thousand Canadians travelled to Spain so they could fight on the republican side.

No, what surprises me is that the war is so apparently invisible despite the fact that it does have a clearly visible cultural significance to us.  The Spanish Civil War gave us Hemingway’s most famous novel (possibly except for The Old Man and the Sea) and Picasso’s most famous painting, which just got namechecked in last week’s episode of Mad Men.  It gave us the phrase “fifth columnist“.  Of course, Homage to Catalonia doesn’t have the iconic status of 1984 or Animal Farm, but I do think it’s Orwell’s best-known work after those two, and the first new thing that people who get interested in Orwell enough to look up his other work encounter.  The people at Saturday Night Live still consider “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” an iconic enough catchphrase that it got trotted out during SNL’s fortieth-anniversary special a few weeks ago.  Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda might not exactly be household names in the English speaking world (well, actually, Neruda might come very close to being a household name), but they’re not exactly people nobody’s ever heard of, either.

And I don’t know.  Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe everyone has heard of the Spanish Civil War, and has some idea of who the two sides were, and what it’s importance was to the culture wars that were going on in the 1930s between Nazism/fascism on the right wing and communism on the left.  But that’s not the feeling I get, and I just find it odd.

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Credits where credits are due

My first semester at university, when my Writing Through Media instructor (the very drunkest teacher I ever had) introduced the idea of the third meaning, I never thought to ask if it counts if you’re seeing third meanings in the credits.

At the beginning of every episode of Vikings, the first card that pops up reads, “HISTORY and METRO GOLDWYN MAYER present”.  And always I read “HISTORY” as referring not to the TV channel/production company that used to go by the name the History Channel, but rather to history, the last six thousand years of human society and culture.

“HISTORY and METRO GOLDWYN MAYER present VIKINGS” reads to me like, “Metro Goldwyn Mayer is about to put Vikings on your screen, made possible by their actual existence a thousand years ago.”  It’s basically the same as if the title card said, “PARAMOUNT PICTURES and GEOLOGY present A VOLCANIC ERUPTION”.

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One single spot on the globe

“There is nothing which binds one country or one State to another but interest,” George Washington very sensibly said in 1785; and then he admitted that, at that time, the “interest” of the settlers in Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio lay not with the United States, but with Spain: “Without this cement the Western inhabitants can have no predilection for us.”

New Orleans is the focal point of the Mississippi Valley.  It might not look it, but that’s actually a very grand statement; to appreciate it, let’s consider just what “Mississippi Valley” means: the Mississippi Valley is the entire United States between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, except for those parts which have direct access to the shores of either the Great Lakes or the Gulf of Mexico. (The Rio Grande is the only significant river system, other than the Mississippi, that does so.)  It includes parts of four of the original thirteen colonies (Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia) and parts of states that weren’t admitted to the Union until 1890.  It includes the traditional domains of Eastern woodland nations like the Delaware and Iroquois, and of the prairie horse warriors like the Sioux and Comanche.  It includes territory that mapmakers have assigned to France, Britain, Spain, Mexico and independent Texas.  All pointed at the same destination.

A majority of moving water in North America flows through New Orleans just before reaching the sea.  That means that the Crescent City is one of the world’s biggest and most important transport hubs even today, when we have the ability to move people and cargo by air or along interstate highways.  But during the first three generations of American independence, before railroads and for the most part even before steamboats?  Then, the only way for Western farmers to get their product to their Atlantic and European markets—the only way to get the entire produce of America between the Appalachians and the Rockies to where it needed to go—was to float it on flatboats, downstream to New Orleans.

If you’ve got wheat in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that you’re looking to sell, you’re going to float it downriver, and it’s going to arrive at New Orleans.  If you’ve got long-staple cotton in Huntsville, Alabama, you’re going to float it downriver, and it’s going to pass through Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois, and eventually arrive at New Orleans.  If you’ve got beef in Billings, Montana, you’re going to float it downriver, and it’s going to arrive in New Orleans.  If you’re in St. Paul, Minnesota, and you’ve got … I have no idea.  Frozen tears, probably.  If you’re in St. Paul and you’ve got frozen tears, you’re going to float them downstream on a flatboat, and they’re going to arrive in New Orleans.

We can easily see, then, New Orleans’s vital economic importance, but we might not immediately realise that this also made New Orleans the must crucial strategic point in North America.  After all, both New Orleans and the entire, vast Mississippi Valley have been comfortably American (apart from a single, intense period in the 1860s) for over two hundred years.  But for half a century between 1763 and 1815, four different countries  looked to make themselves the dominant power in the Mississippi Valley, and they all chose to do so by trying to fly their flag over New Orleans.

This is what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said that, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy.”  And this was the world James Wilkinson saw when he arrived in Kentucky in the 1780s.  One power, Spain, held the right bank of the Mississippi, while an army of colonists from another, the United States, were quickly filling up the left bank, settling along the shores of the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers.  But it was Spain, not the Americans, who held New Orleans, and that time they held it very securely.  Interest therefore dictated that the American Western settlers would be reasonably drawn toward Spain, not the United States they had left behind on the other side of the Appalachians.

Wilkinson could see that because of that, the borders as they stood in the 1780s were destined to change in very short order.  He decided to work toward seeing to it that Spain would come out on top, because he thought they were the better bet.  But he was far from the only one who figured that the United States was going to come out the loser in the contest for ownership of most of North America.  A major Revolutionary War hero, a state governor, a US senator, a Vice President of the United States, and even a future President: all of them flirted, more or less seriously, with abandoning the United States and establishing the independence of the Transappalachian states, either entirely on their own terms or in conjunction with one of three different European powers.

Those are holders of great offices, and efforts like this continued into the 1790s and early 1800s, long after the Constitution and the federal government had been established and the United States seemed like it would be more than a transitory curiosity.  For so many men like this to have pursued such a goal, on independent occasions, makes it clear that we can’t just dismiss them as traitors to their country, as we could if it were just Wilkinson and his thirty years of Spanish espionage we were worried about.  Something else was at play here.  For these men, their concept of country obviously allowed that the United States simply had no claim on them once they were west of the Appalachians.

So next time I’m going to survey all these other would-be nationbuilders in the Mississippi Valley.

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James Wilkinson and us

As usual, it all comes down to perspective.

We know intellectually that people who lived through history didn’t know what the future held for them, and we probably have no problem grasping that when we talk about moments of great crisis.  We can understand, for instance, that when George Washington led the defeated remnants of the Continental Army into hiding in the woods after the Battle of White Plains, then had them flee across the Hudson River under cover of rain and fog, that a lot of people on both sides probably thought they’d just seen the end of the American rebellion and that British rule would be restored in the colonies shortly.  And we can understand why Joseph Kennedy, ambassador in a London that was being pulverised nightly by an overwhelming German air force while the German army stood in control of all Europe from the Spanish border to the Russian, sent dispatch after dispatch back to Washington telling FDR that Britain was completely finished and Germany already had the war won—even as we smugly snigger at him for how wrong he was.

But as humans, we’re psychologically incapable of stopping ourselves from forgetting that people’s view of the future has always been like this all the time, not just in those instants when all the pieces are thrown up in the air.  It was inevitable, we insist, that once the threat of French colonies in Canada and Louisiana had been removed, once Parliament had determined on extracting revenue from the American colonies, that those colonies would revolt from British rule; but the colonists certainly didn’t think that was a likely or even a realistic outcome until fairly late on in the day.  It was inevitable, we’ve been saying ever since the East Berliners climbed over that wall in December 1989, that we would win the Cold War, that the Eastern Bloc would collapse under their own economic inefficiency.  But we never said that during the Cold War, because we didn’t think it was true.  We thought the Cold War and Communism were going to go on indefinitely; the 1984 Doctor Who story “Fury From the Deep” depicts them as still alive and kicking in 2084.  If anything we thought the Communists probably had the edge on us; you don’t come up with something like the domino theory if you think the natural advantage lies with democracy and the free market.

Of course normally when I talk about this sort of thing, I’m talking about it in relation to alternate history.  But I want to make the point that this is important to consider when looking at real history instead.  I wrote a novel set in Berlin in 1946, under Allied occupation, right after the end of the Second World War.  Read any account of that time and the one thing that comes across very strongly is just how actively uncertain everyone was about what the world would look like in the coming days or months or years.  People were uniquely conscious of how impossible it was to see into the future, both on the personal level (where had their loved ones gone, were they still alive somewhere, would they ever return?) and the geopolitical (was Hitler still alive?  Would the Russians stay in Europe? Would the Americans? Would the Allies demolish all the German cities and leave its people to live as peasant farmers for ever? Would there even be such a thing as Germany ever again?)  It’s really difficult to convey that uncertainty on the page because the reader, of course, already knows the answers to all those questions, and so doesn’t feel the tension over them naturally.

Next time I want to talk about what James Wilkinson can tell us about how Americans saw their republic and its future during its first generation of life.  But before I did that, I thought it was important to establish why and how he can tell us it.  And the answer to that is all about that magical P-word: perspective.

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A real Slim Shady

Last go round I mentioned that this biography I’m reading of James Wilkinson was probably going to prompt some posts here, so I figured maybe the best thing to do would be to start by talking about James Wilkinson.  Because I don’t think he’s particularly well known, and yet he should be.  James Wilkinson’s life reads like a hokey historical novel.  He was a key servant of America during the Revolutionary War, the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, and commander-in-chief of the United States Army for sixteen years—and yet he spent the whole period actively plotting against American interests as the secret agent of a foreign power.

At age twenty, James Wilkinson became the youngest brigadier general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.  He was a hero (by his account, the hero) of the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the war.  After the war he moved to Kentucky to make his fortune in land speculation, where he became the leader of the movement for Kentucky to secede from Virginia and form its own state—and also opposed ratification of the Constitution, as he felt it would interfere with Kentucky statehood.  And then from the 1790s until after the War of 1812 began, he was commander-in-chief of the US Army, responsible for the defence of the Mississippi frontier from the Spanish garrisons that controlled it at St. Louis, Natchez and New Orleans, and then after the Louisiana Purchase, responsible protecting New Orleans from the Spanish armies in Texas and Florida during the war scare of 1806.  It was at the height of that war scare that he became the man who exposed Aaron Burr‘s plot to seize New Orleans and set himself up as Emperor of the western states.

But also.  In 1787 Wilkinson took a little trip down the mighty Mississip’ to New Orleans, where he met with the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, swore allegiance to the Spanish Crown, wrote a seven-thousand word report on the likelihood of Kentucky seceding from the Union and placing itself into the Spanish Empire, and accepted an annual pension from the Spanish government.  For the remaining forty years of his life, James Wilkinson, highest-ranking military officer in the United States, was Spain’s Agent 13.  That was why he led Kentucky to separate statehood but opposed the Constitution, because his aim was to use statehood as a stepping stone to turning Kentucky into a Spanish colony.  While preparing to lead invasions into the Spanish colonies of Texas and Florida in 1806, he knew that the Spanish government possessed copious records in Havana and Madrid that would condemn him to execution for treason.

Nor was Wilkinson’s duplicity limited to his service for Spain.  He exposed Burr’s plot in 1806, but it would appear that he had been Burr’s active co-conspirator in 1804 and 1805, only turning against him once he concluded that the enterprise was likely to fail; indeed, there are some historians who allege that what has gone down in history as Burr’s Conspiracy should more accurately be called Wilkinson’s.  During the Revolutionary War, after he abandoned his first mentor, a certain Benedict Arnold, he became tangled up with the Conway Cabal, a plot by several generals after the Battle of Saratoga to have Washington dismissed from the supreme command and replaced by Horatio Gates.  He eventually died in Mexico City, where he had become a senior advisor to Augustine I, the Spanish Loyalist general who had gone over to the Mexican independence fighters, and then immediately after winning Mexico’s independence from Spain had declared himself Emperor of the new nation.  Theodore Roosevelt declared that “in all our history, there is no more despicable character.”

The really remarkable thing about Wilkinson’s career of treachery is that it doesn’t seem to have been much of a secret.  He was regularly referred to as a “Spanish pensioner”.  When he was second-in-command of the Legion of the United States in the Ohio Valley in the 1790s, his superior, “Mad Anthony” Wayne (after whom Fort Wayne is named), made a point of intercepting merchants coming up the Ohio from Spanish territory to make it harder for him to receive dispatches from the Spanish governor in New Orleans.  Secretary of War Henry Dearborn refused his application to be given the post of surveyor-general of the Northwest Territory because he felt that allowing Wilkinson to roam freely around the Upper Mississippi frontier would make it too easy for him to get in touch with Spanish officials.  The United States’ first four presidents all received letters detailing evidence against him and urging an inquiry, yet they all also chose to confirm him in his command.

I think that’s fascinating, and I think the phenomenon of James Wilkinson sheds some really interesting light on how the Founding Fathers saw the republic they had founded and its prospects for the future.  But that’s for another post.

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