Brooklyn Bridge a Testament to American Ingenuity, Spirit

Photographer Todd Webb’s signed gelatin silver Brooklyn Bridge, NY, 1946, went to auction in October 2014.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1966, the American Society of Civil Engineers started a new honor category, “Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks.” The Bollman Truss Railroad Bridge in Savage, Md., was the first to receive this distinction and it remains the only example of an all-metal bridge design used on a railroad. Eventually, they got around to the Brooklyn Bridge and it was added in 1972 as the 27th project recognized.

There is something appealing about bridges and the Brooklyn Bridge surpasses them all. It was the biggest, most famous in the world and is an enduring testament to American ingenuity and spirit. More than a mile long and connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn by spanning the East River, its enormous granite towers loomed higher than anything ever seen. Higher than any building in New York or any structure on the North American continent, it became “The Thing” every visitor to NYC craved to see and a spectacle that awed tens of millions of immigrants.

Its designer, the brilliant John Augustus Roebling, promised – with characteristic immodesty – a stunning example of great engineering combined with unique artistic visual effects. Roebling had perfected the suspension form, with bridges at Niagara, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and the masterpiece over the East River was to be his crowning project. Tragically, he died in 1869 before the design was complete after a freak accident crushed his toes. The amputation that followed exposed him to tetanus; another vivid example of the hazards associated with non-sterile medical practices combined with the absence of anti-bacterial drugs.

Fortunately, his son, Washington Roebling, possibly the only other person qualified to take over, was available. A Civil War veteran, he was admired for his intelligence, decisiveness and courage … qualities essential to surmounting the many obstacles ahead. His fearless dedication exposed him to all the potential dangers involved, but he too fell victim to a physical ailment that curtailed his involvement. He spent the next 14 years in confinement, watching over the work with a telescope from a window in his house.

Again, fortune prevailed as his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, visited the site several times a day to appraise the progress firsthand. She also handled the press and the project trustees, gradually becoming familiar with every detail and a remarkable asset for her husband. But because he was never seen, rumors were rampant that Washington had lost his mind and that this daring, great project was actually being run by a woman! In fact, when the towers were complete and the long span was safe, the first horse and carriage to cross included Emily Roebling carrying a rooster as a symbol of triumph.

The bridge opened on May 24, 1883, and President Chester Arthur rode in one of the 1,800 vehicles that crossed it, along with 130,000 people. The fireworks celebration that night was the most spectacular ever seen. The only major incident came six days later when a woman fell down some wooden stairs, causing a stampede that resulted in at least 12 deaths. P.T. Barnum tried to get permission to restore confidence in the bridge’s safety, but it would take a year until May 17, 1884, before he led his famous Jumbo and 21 other elephants across the bridge in a grand show of stability.

Initially, the bridge was designed to provide more space for Manhattan by boosting access to nearby Brooklyn. No one had thought about growing cities up instead of expanding out. As the amazing NYC skyline reminds us today, that was soon to change.

Intelligent 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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Harvard-Educated Adams Cracked Down on Non-Citizens, Free Speech

An 1805-dated oil on canvas portrait of John Adams, attributed to William Dunlap, sold for $35,000 at a May 2017 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Barack Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009, he became the eighth president to have graduated from Harvard, which has educated more U.S. presidents than any other university. Yale is second with five, with George W. Bush counting for both Yale and Harvard (where he earned an MBA).

The first of the “Harvard Presidents” goes all the way back to 1796, when John Adams narrowly defeated Thomas Jefferson 71 to 68 in the electoral vote count. It was the only election in history in which a president and a vice president were elected from opposing parties.

However, Jefferson bounced back four years later in a bitter campaign characterized by malicious personal attacks. Alexander Hamilton played a pivotal role in sabotaging President Adams’ attempt to win a second term by publishing a pamphlet that charged Adams was “emotionally unstable, given to impulsive decisions, unable to co-exist with his closest advisers, and was generally unfit to be president.”

When all the votes were counted in 1800, Adams actually ended up third behind both Jefferson and Aaron Burr (who eventually became vice president). John and Abigail Adams took the loss very emotionally and it alienated their relationship with Jefferson for 20-plus years. Adams departed the White House before dawn on Inauguration Day, skipped the entire inauguration ceremony and headed home to Massachusetts. The two men ultimately reconciled near the end of their lives (both died on July 4, 1826).

Adams had been an experienced executive-office politician after serving eight years as vice president for George Washington. However, his four years as president were controversial. It started when the Federalist-dominated Congress passed four bills, collectively called the Alien and Sedition Acts, which President Adams signed into law in 1798. The Naturalization Act made it harder for immigrants to become citizens, and the Alien Friends Act allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens deemed dangerous or from a hostile nation (Alien Enemy Act). And finally, the Sedition Act made it a crime to make false statements that were critical of the federal government.

Collectively, these bills invested President Adams with sweeping authority to deport resident non-citizens he considered dangerous; they criminalized free speech, forbidding anyone to “write, print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writing against the government of the United States … or either House of Congress of the United States … with intent to defame … or bring them into contempt or dispute … or to excite against them or either of them … the hatred of the good people of the United States.”

Editors were arrested and tried for publishing pieces the Adams administration deemed seditious. Editors were not the only targets. Matthew Lyon, a Vermont Congressman, was charged with sedition for a letter he wrote to the Vermont Journal denouncing Adams’ power grab. After he was indicted, tried and convicted, Lyon was sentenced to four months in prison and fined $1,000.

For Vice President Jefferson, the Alien and Sedition Acts were a cause of despair and wonderment. “What person, who remembers the times we have seen, could believe that within such a short time, not only the spirit of liberty, but the common principles of passive obedience would be trampled on and violated.” He suspected that Adams was conspiring to establish monarchy again.

It would not be the last time Americans would sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of national security. More on this later.

Intelligent 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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

While Dewey Focused on Election, Truman Dealt With Soviets

An original copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune’s famously wrong “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” edition from Nov. 3, 1948, sold for $1,493 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1948, Republicans selected New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey (Alice Roosevelt thought he looked like the groom on a wedding cake) to be their presidential candidate. He had lost in 1944 to FDR, but it was the closest anyone had come in four elections. Four years later, Dewey defeated a tough group of competitors that included Minnesota Governor Harold E. Stassen. In fact, Stassen was so close that Dewey challenged him to a debate just before the Oregon Republican primary.

The May 17 Dewey-Stassen debate was the first audio-recorded debate between presidential candidates in U.S. history. The debate centered primarily on the issue of criminalization of the Communist Party of the United States and was broadcast over the radio to the entire country. About 40 million people tuned in and Dewey was thought to be the winner. The real winner may have been voters, since this set a precedent that is still considered important today.

Dewey finally won the Republican nomination on the third ballot on June 24, 1948.

            Thomas E. Dewey

President Harry S. Truman had little interest in the Republicans or their convention since on the same date, June 24, the Russians decided to make a move in post-war Germany by blockading all rail, highway and water traffic in and out of Berlin. It seemed clear that Joseph Stalin was intent on forcing the Allies to withdraw from the partitioned city. Except for air, the Allied sectors were entirely cut off and nothing could come in or out of this critical German hub. About 2.5 million people were facing starvation and Truman was asked bluntly if American forces would remain in Berlin or pull out. In typical Midwest-style candor, Truman answered, “We stay in Berlin. Period.”

Four days later on June 28, while Dewey tried to rally voters to look beyond the crisis, Truman acted by ordering a full-scale airlift to Berlin. He sent to Germany two squadrons of B-29s, the giant planes associated with dropping the two atomic bombs on Japan. However, these particular planes were not equipped to carry atomic weapons, a small detail the Russians were unaware of.

Truman didn’t bother to consult with either the White House staff or any of his numerous political advisors in making the decision. He and Secretary of State General George C. Marshall were convinced that the future of Western Europe hinged on the Berlin issue and that leaving the Russians alone in Berlin could lead to a resumption of war. The numbers were sobering. The Allies had 6,500 soldiers in the city, while the Russians had 18,000. In addition, those 18,000 were backed up by 300,000 more in Germany’s Eastern Zone.

Politicians and newspapers editorialists thought it would be impossible to supply 2.5 million people with food, clothing and other essentials, especially when winter rolled around. However, by the fourth week of the airlift, American and British transports were roaring in by the hundreds each day. More pilots were being trained in Montana, flying blindfolded through extremely narrow mock routes, similar to Berlin routes. The New York Times even wrote in atypical tones, “We were proud of our Air Force during the war. We are prouder of it today.”

The effort was heroic, but it was not enough. So Truman stepped up and increased the number of planes, and 30,000 Berliners volunteered in the building of a new airfield. Voila! By October, the airlift was succeeding and Truman sent yet another 26 C-54 transports into the rotation. This increase helped guarantee supplies for the winter. Realizing their blockade ploy had failed, Stalin blinked and backed down!

“To do more would have been a direct threat to peace. To have done less would have been an abdication of our American honor and traditions,” said General Lucius Clay, the top U.S. official in occupied Germany. The 277,804 flights delivered more than 2.32 million tons of food and supplies, almost one ton for every man, woman and child in Berlin, the third-largest city in the world, behind Chicago and New York. Truman called off his airlift on May 12, 1949 … the same day Allied Powers approved the establishment of a new German Federated Republic, where the German people would rule themselves with their own government in Bonn.

They are once again the brightest country in all of Europe and dominate the E.U.

Note: I never met General Lucius Clay while he served as chairman and CEO of Continental Can Company from 1950-62 … although I received a short note from his office when I became plant manager of Continental’s South Gate, Calif., flexible packing group in 1962 at age 25. (I was told that was a record, but there is no proof.)

Intelligent 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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Best Way to Revamp Income Tax Might Be a Do-Over

A 1917 World Series Program, featuring President Woodrow Wilson on the cover, sold for $4,800 at a May 2017 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1912, after 16 years in the wilderness, Democrats seized control of Congress and the White House, with Woodrow Wilson as their leader. To their disappointment, the new president kept celebrations to a minimum. He delivered a brief inaugural address on March 4, 1913, canceled the inaugural ball, and reviewed the parade with stoic forbearance. This is not a day of triumph, he declared, but a day of dedication. And it was a day to muster the forces of humanity, not the forces of party.

Wilson went on to produce the greatest outpouring of social legislation Americans had ever experienced, during a brief period when the ruling class would use Hamiltonian means of a strong federal government to bring about Jeffersonian ideals of egalitarianism. His presidency would transform the American banking and currency system, create new industrial and farm policies, and expand the protection of America’s natural resources. But the first accomplishment was lowering tariffs and enacting an income tax – reforms aimed directly at middle-class pocketbooks.

Wilson and his associates sincerely believed that the federal government needed to serve as a counterweight to corporate wealth and an aggressive agent to help ordinary citizens. Wilson’s legacy is often cited as a fateful turning point when “do-gooders” harnessed the income tax to both raise revenues to grow government and to redistribute the wealth of Americans in a way they viewed as more fair. Yet at the outset, no one could foresee that war, not social justice, would start an inexorable rise in taxes that would thwart all the moral absolutism dreamed about.

Starting the day after his inauguration, Wilson called Congress into an extraordinary session for a historic assault on the tariff system by delivering his message personally in the first presidential appearance inside the Capitol since the days of President Jefferson. Although he recognized the challenge he faced due to conservative committee barons who dominated Congress, despite being Democrats, Wilson stood with his progressives and intended to use his executive power to the fullest. By September, the Senate actually passed a tariff bill that helped consumers … a historical first.

However, there was the small issue of how to plug the $100 million loss of revenue that was created. And so we now meet the federal income tax, which turned employers into tax collectors. New York’s The Sun summed up the opposition by arguing that income taxes were repugnant except in times of great national emergency and charged “it amounted to taxation of the few for the benefit of the many.” Advocates claimed it was merely a way to tap the “surplus” income of the rich – “over and above the amount necessary for good living.”

On May 8, 1913, the House approved the first income tax that would actually take effect since 1872, when Congress repealed Civil War-era taxes. But the Senate disagreed, with some senators opposing the “confiscation of property under the guise of taxation” and others saying “No honest man can make war upon great fortunes per se.” The war of words continued until a law was passed that affected fewer than 4 percent of Americans, with working-class people virtually excluded. A 1 percent rate on $20,000-$50,000 graduated up to 6 percent on $500,000 and above. There was also a 1 percent flat tax on corporations.

After two years, everyone seemed angry at Wilson for doing either too much or too little. Feeling besieged, he entertained a fantasy of putting on a beard and sneaking out of the White House prison, or putting a sign in front of his office: “Don’t shoot! He’s doing his best.” The reform agenda was mobilizing to act when…

In June, a shot rang out at Sarajevo.

World War I would eventually cost the United States $50 billion and the federal budget grew from $742 million in 1916 to nearly $14 billion in 1918. Excise taxes and tariffs had been providing 90 percent of federal revenue and this was limited. What to do?

Thus started the long story of the U.S. income tax, which at one point grew to 90 percent and has become so complex not even the IRS knows with certainty what lurks on all 50,000 pages of highly technical jargon (or even if 50,000 pages is accurate!). It grows each day … as does the debt that is back in the news.

My recommendation to President Trump is to simply start over, since every effort to reform only adds more pages and complexity. Take a blank piece of paper and write down “Need 18 to 20 percent of GDP to run federal government. Question: What is the best way to get this money and do the least damage in the process?” Answer: Find three smart people to figure it out, then just do it … fast.

Intelligent 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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

France has Seen its Share of Political Vicissitudes

Maximilien Robespierre’s signature was offered at a December 2008 Heritage auction.

“The world’s cemeteries are filled with indispensable men.” – Attributed to Charles de Gaulle (among others)

By Jim O’Neal

When our managers would occasionally identify a particularly valuable individual, I would often borrow this insight and suggest a simple test for people believed to be irreplaceable: “Have them stick a finger in a glass of water and watch the hole it leaves when they take it out.”

No one ever passed the test.

At several points following its revolution in 1789, France has gone through a number of surprising political vicissitudes. When lawyer and politician Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) introduced the guillotine during the “Reign of Terror,” even revolutionary sympathizers soon longed for the earlier authoritarianism, conservatism and piety or devotion to sanity. Even as Robespierre’s power increased, his popularity waned to the point that on July 28, 1794, he was sent to the guillotine with Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, Georges Couthon and 19 others.

Charles X, whose dogmatism brought on the July Revolution of 1830, believed that France’s finances should be reformed, but without overthrowing the monarchy. “It is a time for repair, not demolition.” He spent lavishly and accumulated enormous debts. Critics called him a “weak character with an empty mind.” He was the last of the rulers from the House of Bourbon.

The “Citizen King” Louis Philippe, simple and physically courageous, was an enthusiast for democracy. Upon his accession, he assumed the title King of the French, linking the monarchy to a people rather than a territory. The France of his era (1830-1848) was creative, with its inventions spreading around the world: the stethoscope, braille, the sewing machine. But, in the end, he was forced to abdicate by the French Revolution of 1848.

Napoleon III was elected by a direct popular vote in 1848 and made emperor through a plebiscite. He was the first head of state to hold the title of president and youngest until Emmanuel Macron was elected this year. He remains the longest-serving French head of state (1852-1870) since the Revolution. Napoleon rather foolishly entered the Franco-Prussian War without any allies, was soundly defeated and forced into exile.

Finally, there was Charles de Gaulle, the most successful leader France has had in 200-plus years. Oddly, Philippe Pétain, who led the French government that collaborated with the Nazi’s in WWII, made an official statement for de Gaulle’s obituary that was glowing in admiration. What made it odd was that it appeared in 1916 when de Gaulle was believed to be among the dead at the Battle of Verdun. By the time de Gaulle actually died in 1970, Pétain had been dead for decades and infamous for the dishonorable peace he concluded with Nazi Germany.

France now appears to be at another great crossroads in history. Amid economic stagnation, France must assimilate millions of Muslims descended primarily from North African immigrants. ISIS-affiliated terrorists have slaughtered hundreds through targeted assassinations, nightclub shootings, music hall hostage-taking, and truck hijackings to barrel through crowds. France’s top general recently resigned over a dispute with President Macron.

One almost expects another descendant of Napoleon to appear on a white stallion and rescue Paris … “The City of a Thousand Lights” and my personal favorite city on the planet.

Intelligent 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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Martin Luther Launched a Revolution that Forever Changed Europe, World

In a world without modern communication, it is hard to understand how so many came to hear about Martin Luther and his scruples.

By Jim O’Neal

Five hundred years ago, in the autumn of 1517, an obscure monk and teacher of theology at the University of Wittenberg (Germany), issued a public invitation to a theological debate that would ultimately transform Europe. This was a routine practice in the academic world and a valuable tool for training students.

Deeply concerned by what he saw as corrupt practices in the Catholic Church, Martin Luther (1483-1546) chose one of the most sensitive issues to fully expose his views: the sale of “indulgences” – a popular means by which pious Christians could make financial contributions to the Church in return for the hope of remission of their sins in the afterlife. He was not the first to criticize the practice of indulgences and he did so without much hope that theologians would heed his challenge and, in fact, the debate never took place. Instead, he wrote a series of 95 theses (arguments), which he then circulated within the university. According to some reports, he also nailed them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

The theses were soon widely published, prompting Pope Leo X to first charge Luther with heresy and later excommunicate him from the Church. (The Holy Roman Emperor simply condemned him). He responded by breaking with the Catholic faith, and initiating the Reformation – the rise of churches based on reformed practices and a focus on scriptures rather than priestly authority. Because of these protests against Catholic practices, they became known as Protestant churches.

Reformation ideas then spread quickly by the new technology of printing. Before moveable type and presses, books were handwritten in Latin, the international language of the Church. Printing allowed information to be produced cheaply and quickly. Luther still wrote his theses in Latin, but they were then translated and printed in German, French and English. In 1517, Martin Luther was an unknown academic in search of a cause. Only a few years later, he was the most published author in the history of Christendom.

Much about Luther’s career is utterly improbable. In a world without modern communication, it is hard to understand how so many came to hear about Luther and his scruples. His 95 theses reflected a smoldering anger that raised eyebrows in sophisticated circles, but they also inflamed rebellion across the German countryside in 1524 as peasants took up arms against their harsh conditions. Such revolts were not new, but they claimed to be inspired by Luther, a charge he repudiated. But, his series of passionate pamphlets first piqued the interest of a wide public and then formed a popular movement.

In later life, Luther often looked back in wonder on the extraordinary events that followed his impetuous act of conscience: the Church hierarchy’s attempt to quell his protest, his escalating acts of defiance, his condemnation and excommunication, the public outcry that followed. The facts were plain. Europe, once united under the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, was now irrevocably split into Catholic and Protestant states. The seeds Martin Luther had sown ensured a century of conflict as subjects took up arms against their rulers, kings and princes clashed, and nations attacked nations in the name of religion.

Sound familiar?

Intelligent 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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Labor Secretary Perkins Did Her Part to Make Sure Social Security Endures

A Feb. 27, 1935, memo by President Roosevelt to Francis Perkins regarding Social Security went to auction in December 2008.

By Jim O’Neal

President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt created the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor on Feb. 14, 1903. It was renamed the Department of Commerce in 1913 and various bureaus and agencies specializing in labor were shifted to a new Department of Labor.

Until 1920, women were prohibited from having Cabinet-level positions since they were not allowed to vote. President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke this barrier in 1933 by appointing Francis Perkins as Secretary of Labor. She was instrumental in aligning labor with the New Deal.

The New Deal was a complex integrated plan to provide present relief, future stability and permanent security in the United States. Much of the president’s thinking about security – which would soon come to be called “social security” – rested on a premise that overcompetition in the labor market depressed wages, spread misery rather than income, curtailed the economy and worked special hardship on the elderly.

Roosevelt was determined to find a way to “dispose of surplus workers,” in particular those over the age of 65. The federal government could provide immediate relief to able-bodied workers as the employer of last resort, while returning welfare functions to the states. Unemployment insurance would relieve damage from economic downturns by sustaining workers’ living standards, and removing older workers (permanently) through government paid old-age pensions would create broad economic stability.

The longer-term features of Roosevelt’s grand design were incorporated into a landmark measure whose legacy endured and reshaped the texture of American life: the Social Security Act. No other New Deal measure proved more lastingly consequential or is more emblematic of the very essence of the New Deal. No one was better prepared to thread the needle of the tortuous legislative process than Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins and FDR personally assigned her the task of chairing a Cabinet committee to prepare the legislation for submission to Congress.

Madame Secretary (as she preferred to be called) brought to her task the commonsense practicality of her New England forebearers; compassion of the special milieu from her time at social-work pioneer Jane Addams’ Hull House; and a dose of political expertise gained as a labor lobbyist and industrial commissioner in New York. Perkins had evolved from a romantic Mount Holyoke College graduate, who tried to sell “true love” stories to pulp magazines, into a mature, deadly serious battler for the underprivileged.

She owed her position to a comrade-in-arms relationship with New York Governor Al Smith and FDR in New York reform battles and also the spreading influence of an organized women’s faction in the Democratic Party. She wisely believed that enlightened middle-class reformers could do more for themselves through tough legislation than union organization; and without the distraction of industrial conflict and social disruption.

Meanwhile, the American labor movement, led by the stubborn Samuel Gompers, relied exclusively on protection of labor’s right to organize. Even after his death, his American Federation of Labor (AFL) spurned legislation and continued to bargain piecemeal, union by union, shop by shop … a strategy that collapsed as the depression deepened.

We know how this ended on Jan. 17, 1935, when President Roosevelt unveiled his Social Security program. Today, 61 million people – or one family in four – receive benefits. However, there is no “lockbox” for Social Security and the flow of taxes and benefit payments are co-mingled with all General Obligations; which includes Medicare, military spending, food stamps and foreign aid. Everything is dependent on the federal government’s ability to levy taxes and borrow money to fund the unsustainable debts backed by “the full faith and credit of the United States.”

Some say that when it comes to global sovereign debt, we live in the best house on Bankrupt Street. However, I am willing to bet that FDR’s cherished Social Security program will never be touched. Francis Perkins did a superb job of getting this concept engrained in a special way and she must still be smiling. She liked her work and served for 12 years and one month – almost a record. James “Tama Jim” Wilson holds that distinction, serving as Secretary of Agricultural from 1897 to 1913, the only Cabinet member to serve under four consecutive presidents, counting the one day he served under Woodrow Wilson.

Intelligent 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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

After Napoleon and Nazi Germany, Russia Lives with Paranoia of Conflict

A 1953 Russian propaganda poster showing Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin sold for $2,629 at a July 2016 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953, after ruling the Soviet Union for 25 years and leading the country in its transformation into a major world power. Born Iosif Dzhugashvili in 1878, while in his 30s he took the name “Stalin” meaning “Man of Steel.” After studying at a theological seminary, he read the works of revolutionary socialist Karl Marx, which inspired him to join the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

He was a protégé of Vladimir Lenin and after Lenin’s death, Stalin earned a reputation as one of the most ruthless and brutal dictators in world history (“Ideas are more powerful than guns,” he once said. “We don’t let our people have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”).

After an extended Cold War with the West, the Soviet Union started to unravel when its eighth and final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, assumed control in 1988. He seemed eager to “destroy the apparat” – weaken the Stalinist structure of the Communist Party and the Soviet state. Only then could he take the bold economic steps to revamp a bankrupt system that was crumbling fast.

The West hailed Gorbachev as the tsar liberator, a political magician, or as Time magazine editorialized in January 1990: “The Copernicus, Darwin and Freud of communism all wrapped into one.” A year earlier, he was Time’s “Man of the Decade.” But in early 1990, Lithuania demanded outright independence and a crowd of 200,000 in the capital of Vilnius demonstrated to get the entire Lithuanian territory returned. This was quickly followed by an Azerbaijani Popular Front rally that escalated into a civil war along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, with both sides clamoring for independence.

In August 1991, Latvia and Estonia declared restoration of full independence, followed by the Ukraine on Dec. 1. On Dec. 25, Christmas Day, Gorbachev resigned and the following day the Supreme Soviet voted itself and the Soviet Union out of existence.

I first met current Russian President Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg in 1992 when he was head of the Committee for External Relations, a group in the mayor’s office responsible for promoting international relations and foreign investment. We started shipping Lays potato chips from Warsaw and soon built a Frito-Lay plant near Moscow. I totally underestimated him and thought he was just another thug, a feeling that was reinforced when we started Pizza Hut in Moscow.

According to Henry Kissinger, Putin has always blamed Gorbachev for the dissolution of the Soviet Union due to his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform). “The greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” It has always been a mystery to me why they gave up so much when the United States and others were willing to negotiate a softer landing. I haven’t read Putin’s autobiography, but I suspect the Russians will never be satisfied until there is an east-west buffer zone along the Ukrainian border.

After Napoleon and then Nazi Germany, there is an inherent paranoia that will only be exacerbated if Poland ever joins NATO. As philosopher George Santayana so wisely observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Intelligent 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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Marie Antoinette Swept Away by Conditions that Rocked European Landscape

An oil on canvas of Marie Antoinette, after Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842), realized $10,755 at a November 2010 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

It is hard to ignore the significance of July 14, despite my previous recap of the key events that took place in Paris over 200 years ago when revolutionaries and mutinous troops stormed the Bastille, the royal fortress and prison (with only seven inmates) that symbolized the tyranny of monarchy. It was an event that degenerated into a chaotic bloodbath, but shaped modern nations by exhibiting the power inherent in the will of the common man.

However, I felt a tinge of sympathy for President Donald Trump when I saw pictures of him at dinner last week at the Eiffel Tower (at the Jules Verne restaurant). There is nothing quite so boring as a three-plus-hour dinner at a Michelin-starred French restaurant. I also presume that with President Emmanuel Macron playing host, the kitchen really exaggerated the occasion since he appears to share the classic pomp and monarchical tendencies that got his predecessors in trouble.

This especially includes the last Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, the 14-year-old Austrian princess who had the misfortune of wedding the last King of France, Louis XVI, since they both got their heads chopped off. Their marriage was intended to seal the alliance between longtime enemies Austria and France, following the end of the Seven Years’ War.

Marie Antoinette was born in 1755 in Vienna, Austria, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa, the powerful Habsburg Empress. The teen bride-to-be had been delivered to the French on May 7, 1770, and then escorted to the Palace of Versailles, where she met her husband-to-be, Dauphin Louis-Auguste, a 15-year-old boy with a medical condition that rendered him impotent for several years. Eventually, the couple had four children.

The king lost his head on Jan. 21, 1793. Nine months later, a Revolutionary Tribunal found the queen guilty of treason, sexual promiscuity and a phony charge of having incestuous relations with her son Louis-Charles. The trial lasted two days and the tribunal unanimously condemned her to death. On Oct. 16, 1793, the executioner entered her cell wearing a red hood; he sheared off her hair to ensure a quick, clean cut of the guillotine blade.

He then lopped off her head as a boisterous crowd watched and cheered “Vive la nation!”

The 37-year-old queen has long been wrongly charged of responding “Let them eat cake” when told of starving peasants with no bread to eat. Some credit the phrase to philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau. I doubt she resents this final insult, but it does represent the conditions that fueled the revolution that rocked the European landscape in general.

Intelligent 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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

U.S. Politics Has Rarely Seen a Character Like Aaron Burr

The signatures of Aaron Burr (above) and Alexander Hamilton sold for $2,500 at an April 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

During the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention, there was a heated debate between delegates from southern and northern states over how to count slaves when determining a state’s population for both legislative representation and taxes. Finally, the “Three-Fifths Compromise” was reached, giving southern states one-third more seats in Congress and one-third more electoral votes than if slaves had been excluded.

In the presidential election of 1800, Vice President Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were able to defeat incumbent President John Adams and Charles C. Pinckney due to this single factor. However, under Electoral College rules of the day, it took 36 votes in the House of Representatives to make Jefferson president and Burr vice president. This caused a major rift between the two men. Then the relationship really turned bitter after Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel on July 11, 1804.

Burr was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, but neither reached trial after courts overturned the grand jury indictment. Burr fled to Georgia, but returned to Washington, D.C., to complete his term as vice president and presided over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. The Senate refused to convict Chase and he remains the only Justice of the Supreme Court to be impeached.

This was followed by a bizarre series of events involving Burr that included a suspected conspiracy to recruit a group of volunteers for a military expedition down the Mississippi River, provoke a war with Spain, hoping to split off some western states, and create a new inland empire. The expedition collapsed almost immediately and a co-conspirator of Burr betrayed him by sending alarming messages to President Jefferson. Convinced of Burr’s guilt, Jefferson ordered his arrest and he was taken into custody and treason charges were filed. Burr escaped, but was recaptured and taken to Virginia for trial.

In Richmond, they learned the electrifying news that Burr, former VP of the U.S., had been accused of treason and his trial would be held in their courthouse. The trial of such a prominent person attracted legal officials from a broad area. Chief Justice John Marshall was picked to preside over the trial and Burr’s defense lawyers included Edmund Randolph (U.S. Attorney General under George Washington) and Charles Lee, Attorney General for John Adams. The chief prosecutor was James Monroe’s son-in-law, George Hay.

Notable witnesses included Andrew Jackson, a friend of Burr who thought Jefferson was maligning him and started picking fights with Jefferson’s friends – even challenging star witness General James Wilkerson to a duel. Wilkerson was the co-conspirator who provided the incriminating evidence to Jefferson.

The trial started on May 22, 1807, but despite all the intriguing circumstances, there was a lack of evidence as explicated by Judge Marshall and the jury declared the accused not guilty in September. Most observers conceded that the outcome was inevitable. However, Burr’s political career was finally ended and he left America on a self-imposed exile in Europe (presumably to escape his creditors!).

Intelligent 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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].