Iran-Contra Affair Exposed a Reality of Reagan Administration

1980's Presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter & Richard Nixon Signed Oversized Photograph
President Ronald Reagan autographed this photo along with Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon.

By Jim O’Neal

At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 1987, I was sitting in the Eisenhower Cabin at the Augusta National Golf Club sipping on a Stoli and tonic (there are 10 cabins inside the gates of the course where they play the Masters). It had been a good day, starting with eggs, biscuits and gravy, ham and grits for breakfast and fried chicken for lunch (we took a short break after the front nine).

My playing partner was Charlie Yates, who had played in the first Masters (1934), was Low Amateur five different years, and won the British Amateur Championship in 1938 (he died in 2005 at age 92).

When the 6 p.m. news came on, the big story was the Iran-Contra affair and President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to make a speech from the Oval Office at 8 p.m. I remember commenting that he should just say, “I’m the president and it was my decision due to national security … now who wants to do something about it?” I guess he didn’t … we were having dinner over at the club.

Earlier, on July 7, a 43-year-old ram-rod straight Marine lieutenant colonel had walked into the Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building, raised his right hand for swearing in and proceeded with a performance that would etch his name onto the short list of 20th-century folk heroes. The appearance of Oliver North before the Senate committee charged with investigating the Iran-Contra affair had been anticipated for months … ever since the sensational discovery that the Reagan administration had concocted a bizarre plan to ship American arms to Iran to gain funding for the Contra rebels fighting the Marxist government in Nicaragua.

The plan was a violation of several laws and the trades seemed in direct contradiction of the morally direct philosophy that had been such a large part of Reagan’s appeal. Attorney General Ed Meese and others initially blamed North, an aide on the National Security Council, for directing the operation. But North appeared to be a scapegoat for more powerful Reagan officials, maybe even Reagan himself.

The comparisons to Watergate were tempting and, ultimately, the most commanding comparison came in the central question (again): “What did the president know and when did he know it?” The answer remained unclear despite dozens of people testifying, but that hardly spared Reagan. Either he was a figurehead in a rogue government or an impotent and forgetful leader with a lack of attention to detail.

We spent a long night at the bar with a group of members explaining how the “Iron Mike” golf club testing machine worked, and debating Titleist golf balls versus Wilson Pro Staff.

I think Reagan finally fessed up after blaming his memory … sadly portending things to follow.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Americans Familiar with Getting Over the Gloomy Pessimism

Orson Welles Pair of Scrapbooks Relating to The War of the Worlds
Two scrapbooks with news clips about the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, compiled for Orson Welles by a professional clipping service, realized nearly $4,700 at an April 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The most popular radio show in America in the mid-1930s was NBC’s The Chase and Sanborn Hour. A variety show, it featured the antics of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his sidekick Charlie McCarthy. By 1938, it was so dominant that competing network CBS could not find a sponsor willing to back a show to go against it.

In semi-desperation, the network commissioned Orson Welles, a 23-year-old director who had thrilled theater critics with his unusual staging of Macbeth, set in Haiti with an all-black cast. He agreed to provide CBS each week with a one-hour, commercial-free drama aired directly against Bergen on Sunday nights.

On Oct. 30, 1938, Welles’ Mercury Theater opted to present a radio play based on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. However, at the last minute, the young director decided to exploit the reputation of radio as the medium of truth and offered the play as realistically as possible. They began as if they were presenting an evening of ballroom music and then interrupted the band with a sudden announcement that Martians had landed on a farm near Grover’s Mill, N.J. From there, the story unfolded much as a real crisis might, with radio reporters relaying dispatches from the scene.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have witnessed…,” sobbed Welles’ correspondent as he encountered the invaders. “There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large as a bear and glistens like wet leather… the eyes are black and green like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips.”

In the course of a single hour, Welles’ Martians landed on Earth, constructed deadly ray machines, defeated the American Army, destroyed radio communications and occupied large sections of the country. Remarkably, hundreds of thousands of Americans believed every word of it.

Radio stations were inundated with calls from listeners gripped with fear. Train stations were crowded with families demanding tickets “anywhere.” In New York City, theaters were emptied in panic and in Northern New Jersey – the site of the Martian landing – roads were jammed with people in cars packed with precious belongings, fleeing extraterrestrial annihilation.

When Welles signed off at 9 p.m., police were ready to arrest him, but he had broken no laws and the FCC only issued a mild reprimand.

His program had touched a sense of apocalypse that dominated the lives of many people in the late 1930s. Everywhere they looked, there were signs that things were going deeply awry. The American economy had remained stubbornly stagnant; one-third of the people were “ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished,” in FDR’s own words.

Even nature looked like an enemy. Only a month before, the East Coast had endured a storm of such mammoth proportions that it felt like an invasion, as well. The Hurricane of 1938 caused more damage than the Chicago Fire and more deaths than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Seven hundred people were killed and the homes of more than 63,000 people were destroyed. Forty-foot waves crashed against Long Island, with ocean spray felt as far north as Vermont.

Yet even as people struggled to keep food on the table and their homes on the ground, it was the rumblings of war around the globe that jangled nerves. First, it was Italy seizing Ethiopia, then a civil war in Spain, and the Nazis in Germany making preparations for more war in Europe (again). But this time, most Americans were convinced we would never get involved in these foreign affairs and even had promises of “no American boys in foreign wars” from our leaders.

Twelve years later, after a global war ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs, America would make a fresh start with the glorious 1950s — after all, this is the United States! — and leave all that gloomy pessimism behind us forever.

And so we will again.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Napoleon a Brilliant Administrator, Soldier Who Tried to Unite Europe

A collection of 19 letters signed by Bonaparte and dated between October 1796 and April 1798, during Napoleon’s Italian Campaign, realized $22,705 at a June 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, south of Brussels, on June 18, 1815, marked his final overthrow as Emperor of the French, ending 23 years of European warfare. It was an epic encounter in which 118,000 British, Dutch and Prussian forces prevailed over a French Army of 73,000 hastily assembled by Napoleon.

Born in Ajaccio, on the island of Corsica, to a family of minor Italian nobility, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was commissioned by the French army and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution. In 1796, at age 26, he was appointed to command the Army of Italy, winning a series of impressive victories.

Increasingly convinced of his destiny, by 1800, having staged a coup d’état, he dominated France as he would subsequently dominate Europe. He was as brilliant and tireless an administrator as he was a soldier.

Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte bred a sense of French invincibility.

His most enduring reform was the 1804 introduction of the Napoleonic Code, which is still the basis of French law. He bred a sense of French invincibility, and this made his eventual defeat all the more traumatic for the nation. Of the 450,000 men he led against Russia in 1812, barely 40,000 survived. At Leipzig, Germany, in 1813, outnumbered 3 to 1 by forces from Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden, he suffered another major defeat.

Forced to resign in 1814, Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. He escaped before his final defeat and his imperial ambition ended in the Waterloo mud. In 1815, he was dispatched to Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, where he died six years later.

Famous last words: “I must make all the peoples on Europe one people, and of Paris the Capital of the World.” – Napoleon Bonaparte, 1815, the Battle of Waterloo

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

For a Moment, It Seemed Warfare as We Know it Was in Its Final Days

Bill Mauldin George Bush Desert Storm Editorial Cartoon Original Art Chicago Sun Times 1991
An original 1991 Desert Storm editorial cartoon by Bill Mauldin for the Chicago Sun Times realized $418.25 in a November 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When it comes to naming military campaigns, few compare with “Desert Storm.” Besides its obvious evocations of sand-blown landscapes, the name could also work as the title of a pulp novel or B movie, even a video game. In early 1991, more than two dozen allied nations began an assault on Iraq in an attempt to drive its forces from neighboring Kuwait.

It was a classic military rout.

In just over 40 days of American air attacks, followed by fewer than 100 hours of ground fighting, thousands of high-tech bombs (precision-guided munitions) rained down on Iraqi positions. Enemy troops were driven back to Baghdad and into international humiliation.

For the United States, the war was the first since the debacle in Vietnam, and the American public entered into an anguished debate as President George H.W. Bush had pushed for congressional approval. Who could know if Iraq would become to the ’90s what Vietnam had been to the ’60s and ’70s?

Still, there was no denying these were different times. Among the allies standing with the U.S. against Saddam Hussein’s seizure of oil-rich Kuwaiti sands was the Soviet Union, the first instance since World War II in which Americans and Soviets fought on the same side. It also positioned the allied nations as a quasi-international police force stopping acts of raw aggression.

World War I had advanced combat into the sphere of mechanized warfare. World War II had taken technology even further and made civilians targets. Now, in Iraq, computer technology advanced both the tools and the strategy until it resembled science fiction. Beginning with the launch of a Tomahawk missile from the deck of the USS Wisconsin on Jan. 17, 1991, Baghdad became the site of one of the most devastating air raids in history.

There was now no doubt that warfare had entered a new epoch. With satellites mapping the globe it seemed possible war would soon become as simple as deleting a computer file – scanning a battlefield, identifying a target and systematically destroying it.

It was a clean war, precise and efficient, fought so fast it hardly demanded attention. There were few American losses (148 dead vs. 200,000 Iraqis) and undeniable results … Iraq out of Kuwait. Plus, we could tune in to CNN to get the latest update during an occasional coffee break.

The world was finally coming to its senses and if someone committed an act of aggression, it would only take a few coordinated responses to restore harmony. Finally, we could channel our energy and resources to eliminating disease, world hunger and a thorough cleansing of the air and oceans.

War was such a dumb idea. Why did it take us so long to recognize what a waste it was? The new millennium was impatiently waiting for us to get a fresh start.

Sigh.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Great Britain’s Constitutional Monarchy had a Bloody Beginning

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, 1816, by C. Turner
Oliver Cromwell is often included among lists of the most important Britons of all time.

By Jim O’Neal

During the 1640s, England was plunged into a series of wars that, collectively, became known as the English Civil War. On one side were the Royalists – predominantly the aristocracy who supported King Charles I and his right to rule independently of Parliament.

On the other side were the Parliamentarians – mainly smaller landowners and tradesmen who held puritanical beliefs and disliked Charles’ autocratic rule.

Initially, the Royalists gained the upper hand, but in 1644 the Parliamentarians reorganized their troops under Oliver Cromwell and forced Charles to surrender in 1646. However, the king restarted the war two years later and this Second Civil War – which ended in a Royalist defeat at the Battle of Preston in 1648 – began a chain of events that led to King Charles’ trial for treason and his beheading in 1649.

Cromwell formed a republic called the Commonwealth of England, but he too had trouble with Parliament and imposed a stern puritan authority on both the Scots and Irish. Soon after he died, the country welcomed back Charles I’s exiled son, Charles II, and then his Catholic brother, James II.

However, this did not go well because of favoritism to Catholics, which offended both Anglicans and Protestants. Finally, in 1688, James was deposed by the Glorious Revolution and replaced by Protestant Queen Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange.

In 1689, William and Mary accepted the Bill of Rights, trial by jury, and made the monarchy subject to the law of the land.

Since that time, Great Britain has remained a constitutional monarchy, in which no king or queen can ever defy Parliament, as King Charles I had attempted. Perhaps it is because it is easier to wear a crown if one has a head to place it upon!

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Apollo XI Reminds Us What’s Important, and Why the Stars Beckon

Historic First Photo of Earth from Deep Space Signed by all Twenty-Nine Apollo Astronauts
The historic first photo of Earth from deep space signed by all 29 Apollo astronauts realized $38,837.50 at a June 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Today is a special date.

On the night of July 20, 1969, thousands of people descended upon Central Park in New York and other public venues to bear witness to the greatest technological achievement in the history of mankind. At the long stretch of green known as Sheep Meadow stood three 9-by-12-foot television screens. At precisely 10:56 p.m. EDT, the fuzzy image of a man in a space suit moved down a ladder until the moment his boot struck the fine-grained surface of the moon.

Apollo XI was the amazing coda of the amazing ’60s. The story of the astronauts – Alan Shepard’s simple arc, the dramatic orbit of John Glenn, the tragedy that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – had run parallel with the decade’s other dramas. But the long series of space shots had become routine and many had begun to question the priority of space discovery in a time of so much domestic strife.

Apollo XI changed all that … for a short time.

Newspaper publishers ordered up their “Second Coming” type, as Time magazine described it. This was no mere piece of news; this was history, big enough to challenge some of the best stories in the Bible.

The plan to go to the moon had been hatched in a conference room of the Cold War, after Sputnik embarrassed American science in 1957, and moved into high gear when John F. Kennedy audaciously promised a moon landing in 1961.

Among those at the crowded Apollo XI launch site was the heroic 1920s pilot Charles Lindbergh, now 67, who later wrote to crew member Michael Collins (the one who didn’t walk on the moon): “I believe you will find that it lets you think and sense with greater clarity.”

Apollo 11 Color Photo, Crew-Signed on Mat
An Apollo 11 framed photo signed by Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin realized $10,755 at an October 2009 Heritage auction.

It had only been 41 years since Lindy had conquered the Atlantic Ocean solo, and now mankind had conquered space. But the space program, like other artifacts of the ’60s, gradually evaporated, because no matter where you stood, the ’60s were messy and hard to understand clearly.

Yet from out there, in the dark eternity of the universe, our little home projected a picture of harmony, an essentially beautiful orb, and so utterly still.

Personally, just seeing Earth from space, so tranquil, helps me keep perspective on what is truly important. I do hope we keep reaching for the stars. Eternity is a long time.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

1968 Was a Turbulent Year – But the Nation Survived

The Byrds Sonny and Cher Robert Kennedy Benefit Concert Poster 1968
This benefit concert poster for Robert Kennedy promotes a show in Los Angeles just days before his death.

By Jim O’Neal

Robert Kennedy was boarding a plane for a campaign stop in Indianapolis when he heard the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and when Kennedy arrived, the chief of police informed him the city could not guarantee his protection. Kennedy ignored the warning and went straight to the rally.

He asked an aide, “What should I say?”

When they arrived, the crowd of nearly 1,000 waiting for him was unaware that King had died and they gasped when Kennedy told them. Some, in disbelief, continued to cheer. Others had not heard him. “You can be filled with bitterness, with hatred and a desire for revenge,” he said, speaking in the glare of lights, a black overcoat protecting him from the cold. “Or we can make an effort as MLK did … to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed … with an effort to understand, with compassion and love.”

RFK had the best speechwriters in the business, yet here, he spoke extemporaneously, asking the people to reject division and lawlessness and to pray for “our country.” Then he remembered words from the Greek poet Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

After he was assassinated, an air of the absurd and perverse was moving into a void. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In tweaked establishment sensibilities. On radio, Country Joe and the Fish sang irreverently (“Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box”), and Simon and Garfunkel asked plaintively “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

Campuses were in revolt. The most notable uprisings came with the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Led by absurdist characters like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin – whose Yippie party reportedly planned to slip LSD into the city water system, and seize Nabisco HQ and distribute free Oreos – 10,000 demonstrators came, but 23,000 police and national guards were waiting and many heads were whacked.

By midweek, the convention took on a confrontational tone itself. Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff denounced the “Gestapo tactics” of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s police and Daley, 20 feet away on the floor, cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted an expletive-filled retort. All for the nation to see on national TV.

Yet America endured the rioting and assassinations, the cold-blooded killings, and the absurd, nihilistic campaigns and it all ended with an election … not a revolution. I’m willing to bet we can do it again.

RFK and Aeschylus were both wise men and others will take their place.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

President Nixon’s Resignation Restored Faith in the System

Richard Nixon photograph signing Burger's Supreme Court appointment
A photograph inscribed by Richard Nixon to Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger sold for nearly $6,000 at an April 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In mid-1971, The New York Times began publishing excerpts from a secret Defense Department study, “History of U.S. Decision Making Process on Vietnam Policy.” The study had been leaked to the press by former Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who, joined by his 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter, photocopied its 7,000 pages, snipping off the words “Top Secret” from each page.

Better known to the public as the Pentagon Papers, it became a best-seller in book form. While few could understand the arcane language, they knew what it revealed: The government had been lying to them about both the motives and its conduct in Vietnam. By playing David to the government’s Goliath, Ellsberg became a kind of folk hero to the growing anti-war movement. It seemed the only thing the left and right could agree on was their distrust of their own government.

Still, by 1973, the preoccupation was not the war or the sad economy, but a constitutional crisis that carried the name of a Washington luxury apartment and office … Watergate.

When the break-in at the Watergate offices of the DNC was first revealed in June 1972, Presidential Press Secretary Ron Ziegler described it as a “third-rate burglary,” hardly worth reporters’ attention, except for two at The Washington Post. Over the next two years, as the tentacles of a very complicated story reached higher and higher, the president would try to avoid involvement by throwing subordinates overboard, but the dirty water reached the highest office in the land.

Richard Nixon had an amazing public career, starting with Congress in the late 1940s; his pursuit of Alger Hiss; eight years as Dwight Eisenhower’s VP; his own run for the presidency in 1960; and then the dramatic comeback to the Oval Office in 1968 … only to face an ignominious departure six years later.

Nixon compiled a 28-year run at or near the center of the world’s stage, but on the morning of Aug. 9, 1974, the 37th president of the United States – his eyes red, his voice shaky – addressed his staff in the East Room, imploring them to never “hate those who hate.” Then he and his wife Pat exited the mansion doors, walked on a fresh red carpet and disappeared into the helicopter Army One.

Nixon was a private citizen seated in a California-bound 707 somewhere over Missouri when Vice President Gerald Ford recited the oath of office as the new president. Chief Justice Warren Burger turned to Senate Leader Hugh Scott. “It worked, Hugh,” he said of the system. “Thank God it worked.”

With a swiftness that restored faith in the system, the forced exit of one leader and the entrance of his successor had been carried off smoothly.

P.S. For movie fans, the 1976 film All the President’s Men, with Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Jason Robards, is well worth another viewing.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Bastille Day Reminds Us That Freedom Crucial to a Civilized World

French Carved Ivory Figure Of Louis XVI
This 20½-inch high French carved-ivory figure of Louis XVI from the 19th century realized $19,120 at an October 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

It’s Bastille Day.

On July 14, 1789, an enraged Parisian mob, seeking weapons to defend their city from a rumored royal attack, stormed the crumbling fortress known as the Bastille and murdered its governor and guards. This violent defiance of royal power has become the symbol of the French Revolution, a movement that not only engulfed France, but also reverberated around the world. The ideas articulated in the revolution spelled the end of Europe’s absolute monarchies and inspired their eventual replacement by more democratic governments.

The indecisive French King Louis XVI was hardly the person to confront any crisis, especially one as serious as that facing France in 1789. In the previous century, his great-grandfather, Louis XIV, the Sun King, had established France as an absolute monarchy with all power concentrated in the king’s hands. His palace at Versailles was the most sophisticated court in Europe and a bastion of aristocratic privilege.

In October 1789, events suddenly accelerated when a vast crowd, outraged by a lack of bread in Paris, descended upon Versailles and forcibly removed the royal family to Paris, ransacking the palace for good measure. In what would become an unnerving foretaste of the violence to come, the severed heads of the guards at Versailles were paraded on stakes as Louis and his family were escorted to the capital.

By September, a kind of hysteria gripped the city. A mob stormed the Tuileries, where the royal family was held, slaughtering the Swiss Guards. Louis XVI was put on trial as a traitor and executed on the guillotine in January 1793. Eventually, order was restored by the end of 1795.

Whatever the importance of the French Revolution, it remains the subject of intense historical debate. Its goals of ending repressive monarchy and championing universal rights were confused and often violent. Furthermore, by 1804 Napoleon had effectively swapped one form of absolutism for his own, albeit more effective than any had known since Louis XIV.

Still, it remains a pivotal moment in the belief that freedom should underpin the civilized world … a principle we still embrace with every ounce of energy.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Colonization of Americas Propelled Spain’s Emergence as First Global Superpower

King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella
As King of Aragón and Queen of Castile, Ferdinand and Isabella transformed Spain from separate, confused realms into a unified and powerful nation.

By Jim O’Neal

At midnight on Jan. 2, 1492, Abu Abd Allah, the Muslim Emir of Granada, handed over the keys to his city to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They were the joint rulers of the Christian Spanish states of Aragón and Castile. This single act marked the end of nearly 800 years of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.

It also marked the eclipse of a great civilization renowned for its architectural splendors and rich tradition of scholarship. At the same time, it signaled the birth of a confident, united Spain that would soon divert its energies away from crusading against its Muslim neighbors to instead building an empire in the New World.

Despite an agreement that guaranteed freedom of worship, in 1502 the monarchs decreed that any Muslim over the age of 14 who refused to convert to Christianity had to leave Spain within 11 weeks. This edict, combined with the expulsion of Jews in Granada 10 years earlier, transformed Spain into a much more homogeneous, but highly intolerant state.

Once united, they needed a new target for their compulsive crusading.

Enter Christopher Columbus and his expeditions to the New World. In 1492 – the same year as the fall of Granada – he provided the Spanish an ideal outlet for their ambitions. Their colonization of the Americas propelled Spain’s emergence as the first global superpower.

When one examines the relatively unimportant role they play today as one of the European Union’s “PIIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) – the unflattering acronym for countries with significant fiscal issues – it becomes easier to see how global superpowers can fade into the dustbin of history.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].